This Change Stuff Makes Sense But What Do I Do on Monday?

… A Couple of Steps Closer to How…

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Welcome back.  I’m writing this under the assumption that you’ve read Part One.  While I hadn’t intended to create a multi-part post, I realized that Cam, in his sharing, had done so for me.  I’d encourage you to read Cam’s essay.  It’s an eloquent sharing of what our search is all about. In his analysis of the ways in which he is applying Dr. Ryan’s 5 Questions Ryan’s 5 Questions to his thinking and explorations, Cam led into another question which I’m paraphrasing here…

 

What would learning look like if we acted on both our knowledge and our beliefs about it?

While not exactly Mueller-like in the level of detail he offers about how schools and learning might look, Cam shares some very concrete examples of things that he has done to close the gap between what we know and what we are currently doing in most schools.

Cam begins his reflection with some observations about the dissonance between how both kids and adults seem to learn best and what happens in schools as they are traditionally organized and configured.

And so the “guitar story”

…my 6-year-old starts guitar lessons today. He is very excited: he told me so at 5:00 am.  When my partner and I began looking for teachers we had lots of criteria.  My number one criteria is that there be no “curriculum” – how many amazing musicians never got beyond formal, conservatory based lessons and fail to see themselves as musicians later in life. I would argue far more than see themselves as musicians.  This kind of approach to learning music does little to foster lifelong learning; it’s an exercise in resiliency: if you last you get to the good stuff; if not, you stop playing.  My only measure of success for my son learning guitar will be if he still loves it on the other end.  Like Springsteen writes about his first guitar experience in ​Born to Run​, if my son quits because it’s hard, and loves it all the same, that’s success for now.  One day, who knows?

A key difference that came to mind this morning is relevant here: Contrast this to my experience of dropping him off at the bus today: you’d be hard pressed to find a more somber looking group of kids at 8 o’clock in the morning than those being transported to school.  It was a bright, sunny, relatively warm Wednesday morning and every kid in every window looked…well, not excited to be there, or, I extrapolate, not excited about where they’re headed.

“I wonder why…we’d start with schools.”

I wonder why learning organizations of any kind would turn to schools for examples of best practice before looking to the myriad examples of lifelong learning in the community.  There is a wealth of evidence of learning in what education terms ​extracurricular​, and I’m inclined to think that deeper, more life altering individual development happens here.

If one was to consult the vast opportunities for non-credentialed, adult learning that people turn to cultivate passions outside of their working day one begins to see a disconnect in learning practice from what one sees in schools.  In fact, if one looks to all the learning that children and youth do outside of school one would find similar examples.

Why, as a parent, would I scrutinize the quality of learning for my son’s guitar lessons, while blindly sending him off on the sad-bus for school?

…Maybe the better way, the more organic way, for me anyway, is to say it this way: “Would I want my children to learn this way…?” If the answer is no, then I hope there is a very quick, “Wait, what?”,followed by an “I wonder why…?” to follow.  Why are we profering learning in our schools, in our Alt. program, that we would not support for our own children?  Especially when we see a more effective alternative in their extracurriculars.

 “Couldn’t we at least…” work towards a learning organization.  A place that acknowledges the challenges our students arrive with. Couldn’t we at least strive to be something better? We are hardly scraping the surface of what we can do.  Couldn’t we at least try? “Learn like no one is watching.”  Couldn’t we strive to learn this way….Couldn’t we at least stop being afraid that our existence is contingent on being rigid.  Our existence is contingent on being awesome for students asking for all kinds of different awesome questions.  We can strive for that, can’t we?  [Ron Edmunds said it this way: “…we can, wherever and whenever we choose, successfully teach all of the children whose schooling is of interest to us.  We already know more than we need to do that.  Whether or not we do it must finally depend on how we feel about the fact we haven’t so far.”

We’ve had lots of conversations about why, when people know in their hearts that school could be something better, do we continue to “do school” as we’ve known and experienced it?   When we talk about why there is such a gap between what we know and what we do, we inevitably come to face to face with our fears.  We are inundated with “what if” questions… almost all of them are about the consequences of failure.  The list of these fears is as long as the number of people on our staff… each has their own version, their own fear(s).

These fears drive us to ask “how” questions: How will I manage giving kids choices? How will I grade them? What if they choose to do something that we don’t usually cover?  What if they screw up the state test? Etc., etc. etc.

Here’s how Cam took steps. He describes this in his response to Ryan’s “How Can I Help?” question.  He offers two experiences as something he shared with colleagues to help them see what learning might look like.

But did I ever tell you about the time (last week!) a student presented to a room full of people she invited – her family, her friends, her teachers?  The presentation was inspired by Change School; when John Clements dropped into a Coaching Session and told us about ​Back to the Future​.  I paired this concept with an idea Patrick shared with me months ago, and suggested this to a student–a brilliant young woman who writes like no one’s business–I said: “Imagine you 5 years from now.  The aspirational you.  Present about her. Then have her come back to you now and show you how to get there.”  Something like that anyway.  Her presentation was the most beautiful piece of performance art I’ve witnessed as a teacher. Stunning.  Brilliant. Poignant. That’s how I help.  I try alongside my students, as learners together. And bear witness to the trying.  And make the learning and trying visible. [italics mine]

Cam’s second experience is a bit more “beyond the walls” and responds to the question, “Couldn’t we at least…?”

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This is Jacob.  One day in February he and 24 students from the Alternate Program joined me at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) – a partnership a year in the making – for a Pre-Apprenticeship training opportunity. The experience was open to anyone. Experience was unnecessary. Jacob had no experience.  He was frustrated at the outset: the instruction did not make sense to him (it was the minimum viable instruction), and he was sitting at a plywood circuit, with a circuit diagram and did not know where to start.  I checked-in: he voiced his frustration.  I suggested he ask a question and gave him some space.  Jacob worked for 4.5 hours; struggling, seeing others around him complete the circuit and move on, seeing success, not necessarily in himself.   At the end of the day, this hardened learner who revealed nothing of his emotional rollercoaster all day, stepped up to the circuit testing lab.  Everyone in the room was packing up, cleaning up, waiting at the door for taxis.  Jacob was hauling his completed circuit to the testing lab.  The instructor, George, noticed him and met him at the lab. He checked the circuit, explained what he was looking for.  Jacob revealed nothing of what was going on in his head.  George moved out of the way to give Jacob space to flip the switch.  What does learning look like? This is what learning looks like. That smirk you see, magnify it by 100 times; when that light literally and metaphorically turned on.  Jacob could not contain himself. This is what learning looks like.

“What truly matters?”What matters is that we are all inherently learners.

Somehow the machine of learning, the industrial approach to learning begins to whittle at our organic need to thrive in wonder.  I suspect the moment that we began, as a species, questioning the purpose of learning and hooking other aspirations to the purpose is the moment learning got more complicated than it needed to.  The moment that aptitude was measured, skills were evaluated, retention was challenged, comparisons were leveled, people were segmented, was the moment that we stepped away from ​learning​towards education. This is a new idea for my thinking, but it matters.

My son is sitting beside me playing with a Rubik’s Cube.  He is nothing short of enraptured by the puzzle.  He turns it, and considers.  He sits it down and twists and contorts himself and his perspective trying to see the inner logic of the toy.  This all began because he walked in on his Mom watching a video about a Rubik’s Cube savant.  He knew his sister had one. We found it.  He’s been consumed with the puzzle ever since.  He’s literally waiting for some insight without reservation.  This morning he asked if he could watch an expert video to get some ideas. He only asked once; he got sidetracked by his own discovery.

What truly matters is we didn’t invent learning.  It is not a discovery.  It is ​the​ discovery.  That we are a being that can ask questions, and look for answers, and, if we’re lucky, never really find the answers we seek. Instead, we discover more questions. [Italics, bold mine] ​

Try this on for size… 

Imagine your school, your classroom if you decided to address how you might reduce the levels of stress, anxiety, and depression for your students. Explore this with Ryan’s Five Question approach and think about sharing that with us.  Here you go…

There’s growing evidence that schools are contributing to rising levels of student stress, anxiety, and depression. Wait! What?… 

I wonder why… we grade kids in school?

I wonder if… it would be better not to grade kids (or teachers)?

Couldn’t we at least try… to reduce the use of grades as measures of learning?

How could I help… my school, my students, my colleagues adjust to such a change?

What really matters to me? In my school? In my classroom?

Be well.

Title: What’s Change Really Like… A Tale from Our Canadian Neighbors

As usual, I’ll begin this piece with a bit of context…

As many of you know I’ve been spending time working on my learning… mainly learning about learning.  As a part of this process I’ve become more of an active participant in the Modern Learners Community.  One fascinating aspect of this engagement has been the opportunity to participate in the Modern Learners’ Change School professional learning experience.

Change School is a virtual, cohort-based learning experience in which participants engage with the Modern Learners team and one another in an exploration of, and support for, the process of reimagining school in their districts.

One of the unanticipated benefits of the experience, and one I can’t stress strongly enough, has been the opportunity to meet, listen to, and learn from some wonderfully talented and committed educators from around the globe (participants In Cohort 7 are working throughout the US, Canada, Africa, Asia, Australia and New Zealand).  This cohort (the 7thand latest) was attended primarily by new participants but also by a number of participants from earlier cohorts who returned to deepen their earlier experience, complete explorations which had been left incomplete due to the pressures of their jobs, and continue their access to the team’s support of their change school efforts, etc.

The experience was as intense as it was enjoyable (and, yes, I’d recommend joining the Modern Learners Community and a Change School cohort if at all possible).  Through weekly online “cohort meetings” supplemented by weekly scheduled group or individual coaching sessions, and the participants’ responses to team offered “provocations”, I came to know a number exceptional educators and began what I can honestly term deep, engaging connections.

In today’s post and the one that will follow, I’d like to share with you pieces of an exchange which occurred between me and a Cohort 7 educator, Cam Jones. Cam was recently assigned to an administrative role in one of his district’s alternate high schools in Canada.  But why would I suggest that you visit a bit here with Cam?  Because Cam, more and better than anyone with whom I’ve spoken in recent months, has managed to capture in his “conversation” with both me and himself the logistical and internal challenges involved in changing school.

In the first of this two-parter I’ll share Cam’s response to a question I had shared with him about applying the 5 Key Questions referred to by Dr. James Ryan in his 2016 commencement address to the graduates of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education.

Note: In the introduction to his address, Ryan captured what I would consider to be the essence of good leadership and a seriously underutilized skill… the asking of good questions.  Ryan shared with the graduates that, as graduates of Harvard, people would expect them to have answers.  He suggested, however, that their success would depend less on giving answers and more on the quality of the questions they asked.  He offered 5 and a bonus question.

Here, once again, are Ryan’s Five Questions

  1. Wait …What?– (asking a clarifying question) – understand an issue before advocating for it – at root of all understanding
  2. I wonder (why/if)– at the heart of all curiosity
  3. Couldn’t we at least?—getting past disagreements – beginning of all progress
  4. How can I help?– relationship builder and alternative to “savior complex” – how we help matters as much as that we helped – at the base of all good relationships
  5. What truly matters?– gets you to the heart of life

Bonus question:  Did you get what you wanted out of life?

Cam’s writing speaks for itself.   With Cam’s permission, I’m sharing here pieces of what he wrote.  I trust you’ll find his words and his self-reflection as eloquent and moving as I have.

I begin with Cam’s response to Ryan’s questions in the context of his work at his and other alternate high schools in the district (there are six).

“How else I wonder can we do things?”

“I’ve wondered why we do things the way we do, often.  It comes down to this: in working with students marginalized by the system in a variety of ways, our program relies on a tool for learning that I don’t see the benefit of.  Further, the method of delivery is counterintuitive: we work with the most visibly disengaged students using the least engaging way of learning I can imagine–independent, read and write. So, why…why do we do that?  I think the answer falls to pressing concerns. Many, if not all, of our students are non-attenders before they arrive at our site… Our students are well behind on credits relative to their age because of disruptions to their education. They often return to our setting with deficits/gaps in their learning, executive function, and social/emotional well-being. The Alternate Program provides an alternative to the system: we exist to serve the student where they are now, first.

And this is the rub: I think the pressing concern for our programs is student well-being; it is our operational and aspirational focus. I think our “wonder why” is that we’ve never wondered why. Maybe we haven’t had to. Maybe we haven’t wanted to. And over time we’ve become comfortable with our rationale for our approach, or our not needing to provide a rationale.  Instead of talking about learning, we talk about the trauma our students arrive with, and manage daily, and glaze over the learning part of our responsibility with credit accumulation. If they’re earning, they’re learning. “

Couldn’t we at least…

“Couldn’t we at least…” come back to learning.  I think we are. I think the contemporary vision for the Alternate Program is coming back to learning.  In part out of necessity. Our student demographic doesn’t fit our narrative as it might have years ago.  In the past our structures were hard and fast, at least as the narrative recalls them. These structures are eroding and allowing different structures to surface.  Moreover, supports that were not part of the Alts are now front and centre. We’re coming back to learning.”

How can I help?

“How can I help?”  I’m learning how to help.  I’m asking questions. At times I’m letting my impatience, my frustration be known.  At other times, I’m letting my passion get ahead of me, and letting my disappointment with how we do things be visible.  In the meantime, I’ve found other ways, better ways in my mind, of doing things. I am modeling an approach where my expertise is learning, and the curriculum is a background to the collaborative work I do with students.  I’m turning my attention to awareness of my blind spots: students who engage in collaboration are thriving in my classroom; students that aren’t engaged: well, I’m working on that too.  It’s a little tougher.

In the meantime, I’m designing what I am calling alternate experiences beyond the walls of the school, with community partners, and using these examples as means to open the discussion about what learning can look like.  And I’m constantly checking myself against the idea of being a learner with the students, alongside the students, and fighting the instinct to “educate” in the ways I was “educated”.

What truly matters?

“Because, after all, “What truly matters?” in my work in the Alts (Alternate Schools) and elsewhere is that I’m striving towards a way of doing things that aligns with my beliefs, about learning, about life, about a vision for school, and how we support the students who have rejected the system and said “I’m not jumping through your hoops.”

“And did you get what you wanted out of life, even so?” 

“And did you get what you wanted out of life, even so?”  It’s funny: I ended up an English teacher, again, begrudgingly.  This was not the path I thought I’d take to the Alts. I just knew I wanted to get to the Alts.  The timing was imperfect, the context not ideal.  And yet in returning to the classroom I’ve had this amazing opportunity to be a better teacher.  I’m not sure ashamed is the right word, but I certainly wasn’t proud of my teaching experience, in hindsight.

This year I’ve moved closer to a version of myself as teacher that I’m proud of.  It’s a work in progress, but I’m energized by it.  And as someone who wants to challenge how we do things, and be part of the answer and change going forward, I can’t think of a better place to start from.”

Being the change on the ground, rather than seeing the change from on high are two very different perspectives. The ground game has more work and more risk; but when it works there’s nothing more beautiful to watch.”

When you think about changing what happens to/for kids in school, what do you wonder? How would you answer “What matters?” Does what happens in your school/district include intentional actions to support your response to the “what matters” question?

Requiem for a Dying Story

 

testing Joe Brown Stop Educating

I want to try to connect some dots.

How would you answer the question, “What is the purpose of education?”  Would your answer be different depending on your country of residence? Would the purpose change if the context changed?

How did I get so philosophical? Well, I was reading a post by one of my favorite bloggers, Jan Resseger.  Jan begins her blogs with this quote:

“That all citizens will be given an equal start through a sound education is one of the most basic, promised rights of our democracy. Our chronic refusal as a nation to guarantee that right for all children…. is rooted in a kind of moral blindness, or at least a failure of moral imagination…. It is a failure which threatens our future as a nation of citizens called to a common purpose… tied to one another by a common bond.”

—Senator Paul Wellstone — March 31, 2000

Jan’s page banner reflects her clarity of purpose.  She writes to highlight instances where we continue to fall short of Senator Wellstone’s commitment to “…an equal right through a sound education…”. She writes to hold such instances up to the light of day. She writes to challenge us to refuse to accept the continued failure to make this right equally available to all children, regardless of race, income or zip code.

As I was reading her most  recent post in which Jan explores the purpose and impact of the recent teacher strikes, I wandered into a reflection on the notion of my first dot, clarity of purpose.  I can’t “blame” Jan exclusively for this reflection.  I’ve been participating in a virtual learning community, Modern Learners, for the past year or so.  Recently, I expanded that participation to join a cohort-based learning experience called Change School.  This experience brings together educators from around the world in weekly discussions and largely self-directed learning experiences designed to encourage and support a change away from our focus on “schooling” to one in which student and adult learning is center.

Both Jan and the Modern Learners team place a great value on the development of commonly understood meaning.  Hence my focus on purpose and what we mean by it.  Want to see how far we are from such common understanding?  Define what you mean by learning?  Better still, ask a couple of friends/colleagues to join you.  Can you recall something you’ve learned recently?  How did you go about it?

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Credit – Whoops, another senior moment

Now spend a minute or two (or ten) and write down the purpose of education.  Is it an enlightened citizenry? Is it good citizens? Is it literate adults?   Is it caring, kind graduates? Whatever you picked, try now to define what that is.  What is “an enlightened citizenry”? What’s “a good citizen”? What does literate look like?  What is “caring”, “kind”?

In my time teaching, many of us informally and quite privately determined “our” purpose and tried to make that a reality. I changed my purpose more than once in the years I taught. Based on my observations (we never actually talked about it), so did many of my friends.  I’m tempted to thrash this into insignificance but you get the idea.

What we mostly accepted as our public and dominate purpose was to keep on doing school… to do a bit better what others had done before us.  In 20 plus years as a classroom teacher, I never had the opportunity to participate in a discussion of why we were doing what we were doing.  So my second dot…We just did what was always done.

If you recognize this as somewhat accurate, imagine now for a bit how the general public (parents, community members, politicians, etc.) see the purpose of school.  What do you think might be the major factors in how such folks reach their conclusion/definition? I suspect a fair number of these factors are a result of looking in the rearview mirror… at how they remember school, what worked for them, what the economy needed at the time, etc… a form of “marching backwards into the future”.

Continuing a growing trend,  while the majority of community members see their schools in a positive light, this same majority has accepted the notion that our schools are largely failing – i.e., not doing things as well as they remembered.  Paradoxically enough, this same majority (with the help of Grover Norquist and the Freedom Caucus) has also accepted the notion that all forms of taxation are bad… money given to the government is wasted and, therefore, money given to school is a waste… and the result?  Oakland, Los Angeles, West Virginia, the charter school and voucher movement, etc.

As I have written elsewhere, we are in a time of a story that is dying.  The story of school as the path to prosperity and security is foundering, if not already dead! A purpose for school that is based on this story, regardless of how efficient it might seem, can no longer be used as the driving force for school change.  My third dot…Doing schooling better is a terrible purpose.

What? But wait… am I  saying that we shouldn’t be sending our kids to school? No. Am I saying we should have lots of empty school buildings crumbling in disrepair while kids wander aimlessly through the community or sit comatose in front of their electronic devices? No.

What I am saying is that we need to spend some serious time looking at and deciding exactly what the purpose of our schools must be in the context of our current time… not the context that existed in the 1890’s when the current curriculum for our schools was developed. What I’m asking is that next time a district begins the seemingly never-ending process of strategic plan development, why not begin with a discussion of the purpose of school?  Why not begin with why kids should attend school? Couldn’t we at least begin with a discussion about what learning is? What we are doing to enhance the possibility of learning?  Maybe even expolore what are we doing that actually gets in the way?

Richardson conditions

This one’s easy… all presenters should be so considerate

Years ago, I encountered a book edited by Art Costa, If Minds Mattered.  The contributors asked the question, “If minds really mattered, would school like it does?”  Taking license with that notion, I wonder why we organize our schools and student learning the way we do? I wonder what our schools would look like if learningreally mattered?   Would we group our kids by age? Would we judge them and their teachers by a once a year, large-scale assessment?  Would we continue to use grades as the measure of learning?

fwbrfu4vduqvib4hrqifegSo, for now, a final dot.  What matters to us?  What would happen if we decided that a drop of student engagement from almost 80% in 3rdgrade to something less than 45% by 11thgrade mattered to us? Could we ask kids in our school if this is their experience and why?

What would happen if we recognized that the growth in student anxiety, depression, and suicide is growing dramatically as kids move through school?  Could we look at policies and practices we have in our schools that might contribute to this? What would happen if the way we and kids learn is dramatically different from how we do school?  Could we look at increasing student agency, increasing the control they have over their learning… the how when and with whom part?

What would happen if you asked two “I wonder what would happen if..?” questions?
What would happen if you asked two “Could we at least try…?” questions?

What would happen if we committed to creating a space where such questions were encouraged and valued?

Be well

 

 

Where’s Sancho Panza When We Need Him?…maybe he’s us.

screen-shot-2017-02-19-at-2-23-02-pmI was reading an article in The Atlantic this morning in which the author described the failure of the Republican party to reject the President’s strategy of using a national emergency as the means to circumvent the Congressional refusal to support his long standing promise of a border wall. The author described this as a “moment of extreme national cowardice.”

I was unsettled by my reaction. Is it possible that in my own field of interest/passion our failure to respond to signs of a system of education that is not adjusting to the changing needs of its students or to the increasing levels of emotional distress experienced by them is, in fact also a moment of national cowardice… cowardice not by our national legislators but cowardice by us, as educators?

 

I don’t mean the kind of self-serving cowardice that we have been witnessing by federal lawmakers. I mean a kind of cowardice which is less public and less intentional. I mean a kind of cowardice which is driven by fear of change, fear of losing what we have, fear of the consequences of acknowledging that we have spent far too long trying to do the wrong thing better, fear that in preserving our comfort with what is, we have avoided doing what should be, fear of acknowledging that the ways in which we have organized our schools and our focus on schooling have stifled, not encouraged learning.

screen-shot-2016-04-09-at-4-07-32-pmMost of us who taught or who teach now have had a minimum of 16 years as students to learn how school works.  While we may/may not have learned everything that was taught, we most certainly learned “schooling”. We learned that “stuff” was organized into discrete content areas, that each of these content areas was taught in fixed blocks of time, that we learned mostly in age-based cohorts, that teachers taught, that tests measured learning, etc. Perhaps most insidiously we learned that compliance was/is more highly valued than questioning.

And so I’m suggesting that we find ourselves confronted with a challenge of courage.  When we recognize that the system we have been a part of, the system that we have largely internalized is not meeting the needs of the very people it was charged with serving, what do we do?  Many of us seek others who have reached similar conclusions.  We seek communities of support.  Far too frequently we have to leave our schools/districts to find such kindred spirits.   We find safe harbors for our thoughts and feel secure in the knowledge that we are not nuts.

But what if being in a safe place is not enough?  What if the impact of our commitment to “schooling” is far more damaging than the parents and community members realize or understand?  Let me offer a possible analogy to this situation. Assuming we have a significant problem with boarder security, it’s safe to say that a comprehensive response to that issue has eluded us.  Not surprisingly, it’s a complex issue.  And so we develop a response which is more understandable… a wall.  Continuing… Let’s assume that we have a problem with what kids are learning/not learning in our schools.  It, too, is a complex situation.  We develop solutions… better standards and large scale assessments. They prove to be our “wall”.

Recently, a member of a virtual community of educators to which I belong, suggested that she would find it hard to believe that I would be anything but gracious in my responses to other members of the community.  I’ll dispel that “myth” with my next few sentences.  We are living at the tail end of a story that is dying. The “story” that told us that if we went to school, did well there, got good grades, went to college and graduated, we would have a good job and a secure future for our families and for our retirement… That story is dead!  Ask any parent of a recent graduate who is drowning in huge debt and depending on the “gig” economy for a job. “Schooling” isn’t working for far too many kids.  We are presiding over and working in a system that is no longer working.

Not all of us are community organizers or political activists.  Not all of us see the world in the same way or, perhaps, with the same sense of urgency.  But what if those of us who do don’t challenge it? If we really believe that a significant part of our calling is to help kids learn who they are and how they can be in the world, is there a place for “moments of cowardice”? What would happen if we added our voices to those of striking teachers… our voices about the need not only to raise teacher recognition and compensation, but also the need to revisit the purpose of education? What would happen if we added our voices to encourage an inclusion of such a discussion in the development of the Green New Deal?

What if watching the dismantling of a system of public education in the name of choice and free enterprise, if watching the largest publishing companies profit from student data and the continued sale of both the large-scale assessments and the test prep materials designed around them, if failing to examine how the policies and practices in our own or local schools is contributing to the dramatic rise in student mental health issues is actually an act of national cowardice?

Just asking.

Time of Fear – A real time drama

thinker-28741_1280Coming soon … Creating space in a time of fear… in the face of powerlessness.

I should never indicate the topic that I’ll address in the next post.  It’s almost a guarantee that something will happen that catches my attention and “demands” that I share my thoughts, reaction, emotional connection.

This time, the world intruded via an event that has captured national attention… the confrontation of native America veteran and a high school student from Kentucky which took place during the past week in Washington at the Lincoln Memorial. What an incredible lesson about life in the time of social media.   After seeing videos of what was labeled as a confrontation, after reading the written statement/response by the student involved, after seeing an interview with the Native American elder, after reading a recent account on CNN (updated at 4:46 am!) which added information about another group involved in the event (the Hebrew Israelites), after being offered links to various YouTube clips and viral videos, and after having had the opportunity to participate in an incredibly thoughtful and sensitive exchange among members of the Modern Learners Community, I haven’t a clue what really happened.

I’m not sure that matters. While what actually happened may be of critical importance to those directly involved… the student, his classmates, their parents, the elder, participants of the Indigenous Peoples’ rally, the African American Members of the Hebrew Israelites, the teacher chaperones, the school leaders, etc. … to me this is now a historical event and I find myself trying to focus on the how and why of the event, on what we could be doing as educators to help our young people respond with greater understanding, with greater empathy and without resorting the violence as a solution, whether that violence be physical or verbal.

How and why do such events occur? I return to what has become a recurrent theme in my thinking. It’s an observation that I haven’t heard shared on major news outlets.  It’s an observation about our sense of separation… our separation from one another, our separation from our institutions (and the consequent lack of faith in their effectiveness). It’s an observation about what happens when people feel exploited and forgotten.  In some ways, it touches directly on the theme that I had promised to explore.  It’s an observation about fear and powerlessness and the behaviors which seem to accompany these conditions.

It’s the behaviors that accompany fear and powerlessness that I want to explore.

Let’s move this back to school and our continued resistance to calls for change.  Will Richardson (what’s a blog post from me without at least one reference to Will?) noted recently in his writing that teachers and educational leaders often express a sense of powerlessness in response to his inquiries about why there remains such a gap between educator beliefs about learning and the practices we see in our schools.

When I was traveling and visiting schools throughout the country I heard the same responses. In interviews with teachers I learned more. Many of those interviewed looked outside of the school for explanations and, frequently to assign blame… blaming the state, the district office, kids these days, social media, etc. They often named those they perceived to be “the enemy”…  state bureaucrats, the principal, the superintendent, the board of education, etc.  But beyond these behaviors were others, less obvious… feelings of exploitation, under appreciation, fear.

And so the origins and lessons of the DC event are not so dissimilar to those we are experiencing in our schools.  When people feel separated, frustrated, isolated, exploited, under appreciated they lose hope in traditional institutions.  These are not conditions in which innovation, creativity, and commitment thrive.

How often have you heard conversations in which the sense of separation and the accompanying sense of powerless are used to justify a refusal to see what’s in front of us or to remember that it’s our responsibility as educators to find and create the space so those around us can feel the sense of safety that comes from connectedness rather than separation? How often have we blamed the state’s bureaucrats for mandated testing issues while continuing to use grading practices that stifle student initiative, learning or creativity?  How often have we blamed declining engagement levels on our students or ignored the messages students are sending by woeful attendance patterns? How often have we created cultures in which separation and isolation are more pervasive than collaboration or the development or nurturing of caring, supportive relationships.  What have we done intentionally to create spaces where thoughtful reflection and empathy are the rule?

What would happen if…?

  • What would happen if we identified one issue in our schools that might reduce the sense of separation/isolation among teachers, among students?
  • What would happen if we engaged our school community in the development of a response to address the separation/isolation issue we identify?
  • What would happen if we wrote a personal piece to our staff and school community about our beliefs about learning? About how kids learn best?
  • What would happen if we devoted a sacred amount of time each day to improving our relationships with our staff?

Couldn’t we at least try one of these? 

Wrapping it up…

The Modern Learners Community has been engaged in a deep, thoughtful and sometimes emotional exchange of responses to the following prompt, “I’m curious about how you, the people in our Modern Learners Community, react and respond to the recent Convington Catholic event or others like it?  I’m also curious to know what you might need to build your capacity as it relates to leading your communities through these discussions.”

— Melissa Emler, Team Member – Modern Learners Community

I’d like to end this piece with a response from one of the participants in the Modern Learners Community

…It also made me think about this course, and clarify more what I value the most…and what I believe the world needs desperately right now…and they are all qualities of the heart: people who can compassionately listen, non-violently communicate, play, create, feel empathy, develop emotional intelligence, reflect deeply, love themselves and each other.

Susannah Azzaro, Modern Learners Community

Thank you. Be well.

A Time to Choose

Ace Ladder Aug 14 - 2

FarSide Gallery – Gary Larson

Note:  I want to thank Will Richardson for inspiring this essay. He introduced a recent blog post, “2019 – A Time to Choose” with a challenging question:

“What are you going to do to change the experience your students have in school to reflect more compellingly what you believe is the right thing to be doing for kids and learning?”

Will’s piece is, indeed, challenging and, as usual, is a great read.  But I believe that, at this time in our history, we are called to ask Will’s question on a deeper, broader level – i.e., what are we doing to reflect compellingly what we believe is the right thing? 

Since the beginning of this blog a couple of years ago I’ve written a lot about leadership.  I began believing pretty firmly and comfortably that leadership could be defined as the capacity to build followership. As a result of several soul-grabbing experiences during the past six months I’m going to expand on that notion

If you’ve been following my reflections you know that I believe strongly in what Simon Senek  calls ”Circles of Safety”– places where people feel safe to express thoughts, challenge long-held truths, and take the risks involved in change. Senek suggests that these circles of safety are built on deep and caring relationships. They’re built on trust.

Putting my faith in the possibility that your continued connection to my reflection is based on that notion of trust, I’m going to test it. I’m going to test it on several levels.

I use Medium as a curating site to find writing that interests and engages me. Each piece published in Medium contains a brief description as well as an approximate reading time. So borrowing from both of Mediums approaches, here’s a brief description, “How the age of separation has threatened (and continues to threaten) the future of our kids and our country.”  And now the real test of trust… this essay and related tasks are going to consume at least 30 minutes of your time (and probably at least one or two adult beverages).

First, as context, I’m going to ask you to view a video clip prior to considering continuing with this essay (think blended learning).  I’m going to continue with a departure from my narrow focus on education. I’m going to share some observations that have found a voice as a result of the learning experiences I mentioned above. They’re impacting me deeply. They extend well beyond the field of education but on some levels they cannot be separated from it. I’ll leave it to you to decide the value of my observations and the connections you might see. I encourage you to share your reaction.

The clip is one I’ve referenced previously. It is the commencement address by the Dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education given by Dr. James Ryan in 2016.  In it, he suggests 5 powerful questions that graduates should incorporate into their lives. Even if you’ve viewed it previously, I urge you to invest another 21 minutes to see what stays with you this time.

Welcome back… I hope.

In his writing, Charles Eisenstein describes what he calls the “Age of Separation”.  He describes it as a time in which we are increasingly separate from one another, a time in which we have become increasingly separate from our institutions, a time when we have become increasingly separate from our own planet.  Can you identify examples of each of these?

In addition to his description of our time, Eisenstein also describes us as living in a time of “interbeing”… a time when we are “being” between stories… a time when the stories with which many of us grew up are no longer valid… a time when the promise of the American Dream seems false and out of reach for an increasing number of people.  Umair Haque describes our time as one of increasing exploitation. In his detailed descriptions of a rich country in which increasing numbers of people are only one pay check away from serious financial trouble (government shut down stories, anyone?), in which people have to go online to beg for money to deal with health issues for which they are uninsured (or insufficiently insured), in which the producers of goods/workers have wages which have been stagnant for decades while wealth continues to grow at staggering levels for the richest among us, Haque substitutes the word “exploitation for Eisenstein’s “separation”.

I make the following connections.  It is not hard to extend the notion of separation to schools and schooling.  A friend once described schools as 30 classrooms connected by a common parking lot.  In my visits to schools throughput the country over the past 15 years, I have seen school after school in which separation dominates… kids separate from teachers, teachers separation from leadership, kids separate from one another. In many of these schools, teachers in adjacent classroom have no idea what is happening next door. Teachers work in isolation with little or no understanding, commitment, acceptance (pick your noun) of a common direction, vision, purpose (with the possible common commitment to have their kids achieve arbitrarily determined cut-scores on state assessments).

Haque, using a different measure (exploitation), has no trouble finding examples.  He suggests that, as a country we have progressed from the wealthy exploiting human resources (during the era of slavery and pre-union factory work) to the exploitation of natural resources (industrial pollution, strip mining, unregulated fisheries) to the final phase, the exploitation of one another.  Using education as an example, I don’t have to look too hard to see examples of student exploitation (sale of personal data, treatment of students and schools as “profit centers”, growth of charter management companies, so-called “portfolio” policies that see “free market” alternatives to public schools as valid approaches to “improvement”).

In accepting and, often, encouraging separation (Google “rugged individualism”) we have minimized the value of commonly held beliefs (my beliefs are just as good as your beliefs regardless of their basis in reality). We have, in an age of separation and exploitation, determined human value by the level of acquisition and, conversely, have limited the value of others based on the same criteria.

Perhaps words like separation or exploitation seem too harsh.  I want to raise the issue that regardless of which words we choose, there is a high likelihood that we, as a country with all of our institutions, have drifted off course – have lost sight of true north.  How far off course we have drifted may require more exploration; however, off course remains off course.  Are we separate from one another?  Does that separation seem to be accelerating?  Do we see examples of exploitation, not only of adults but also of children? If so, what do we do?

And so the reason for the Ryan clip.  What do we do?  We act as leaders.  We ask questions? Here’s a quick review of Dr. Ryan’s 5 questions:

  • Wait …What?– (asking a clarifying question) – understand an issue before advocating for it – at root of all understanding
  • I wonder (why/if)– at the heart of all curiosity
  • Couldn’t we at least?—getting past disagreements – beginning of all progress
  • How can I help?– relationship builder and alternative to “savior complex” – how we help matters as much as that we helped – at the base of all good relationships
  • What truly matters?– gets you to the heart of life

I mentioned at the beginning of this essay that I had modified my definition of leadership.  Part of the reason for that modification was the attempt to answer the questions that I’m raising here.  My revised thinking doesn’t alter the notion of developing followership.  What it does do is add another piece.  It is this… leaders create space where change can occur.  They build,  and build on, trust.  They build on the circles of safety they created.  They create spaces where separation doesn’t thrive.

If the direction of this essay strikes a responsive chord, how can you create spaces where separation and the effects of isolation are discussed and actions to eliminate them are valued and intentional?  As a start why not discuss this essay with one colleague? Maybe several. Why not take each of Ryan’s questions and develop a personal response?

Coming soon … Creating space in a time of fear… in the face of powerlessness.

We’ve Met the Enemy and He is All of Us (Take 2) – Why All Ed Reform Fails

This is a post about leadership.  Not the mechanics of leadership but the need for leadership… real leadership.  Not the kind of leadership that marshals support for doing the wrong things better. No, the kind of leadership that has the courage to confront the need for doing the right thing.  We are not doing  the right thing with education and we haven’t been for a while now.  We been doing the wrong thing and we’ve been allowing the wrong people to tell what to do.

I’m going to share a picture. My picture is not optimistic.  You can decide whether or not that picture matches your own sense of our future.  My picture is one where our system of public education is under assault and where it is  not responding well to the challenges facing it. My picture is about our continued backwards march into the future.  It’s a picture summed up by Danny DiVito’s character in the film “Other People’s Money “.  DiVito is speaking to his audience of disgruntled employees whose factory, unresponsive to changing markets, is about to be taken over by a larger company. They are proud of what they produce but startled into silence when he tells them, “I’ll bet the last manufacturer of buggy whips made their best damn buggy whip on the day they closed.”

My post is about leadership because we are faced with the buggy whip dilemma. We have remained unresponsive to market needs and conditions.

That’s no surprise. Who knew we were supposed to?  We can’t be blamed for not responding to something we didn’t know we were supposed to respond to.  But we know it now.  And we continue to act as if we don’t.  More important than market needs and conditions, we remain deaf to the messages being sent to us by the consumers of our work… the kids. We remain deaf to the declining engagement levels of our kids in schools… a decline which has less than 50% of our kids reporting that they are disengaged in school by 11thgrade.  We remain deaf to record levels of reported stress, anxiety, depression and teen suicides.  Sure we may read about such statistics and express our concern about the impact of “screen time”, the negative effects of technology, and the almost unbelievable levels of school violence.  But rarely do we look at “our own house” to see what school practices, policies, procedures, etc. might be significant contributors to these trends.

We continue to prepare our students according to a story which is dying, if not already dead.  What story is dead?  It’s the story of the American Dream that deals with education. There are stories of other aspects of the Dream that many would also consider dead but I’ll leave those stories to other chroniclers of our history.

Context for A Dying Story –

Most of us have grown up within a story that shared with us a life plan which included the following admonitions:

  • Go to school
  • Work hard
  • Get good grades
  • Do well on the SAT/ACT’s
  • Get into a good college
  • Graduate
  • Get a good job
  • Be secure for life

If this story is still accurate why is it that the largest job growth segment in our society is now the so-called “gig-economy” – the economy based on the growth of independent contract workers – workers, moving on demand,  from “gig” to “gig”? Workers without pension.  Workers without job security. Workers whose productivity has grown while their wages have remained stagnant. Workers, if college grads, with significant piles of student debt.

A  recent study  completed by LinkedIn  (U.S. Emerging Job Report… Forbes, December 13, 2018) lists “The Top Five In-Demand Skills” (Biggest Skills Gap).  The report listed:

  1. Oral Communications
  2. People Management
  3. Social Media
  4. Development Tools
  5. Business Management

Are we seeing many learning experiences for kids in our public school system intentionally designed to grow these skills?  No, you say… but some of these are college level skills. Well, here’s some additional context about college.

It comes via another story which also appeared today, also in Forbes, which asks the question, “Will Half Of All Colleges Really Close In The Next Decade?”. The author of the quote is Clayton Christiensen, best-known for his work in disruptive innovation.  In an earlier, more measured description of the situation, Christiensen suggested that there are a host of colleges and universities that are struggling financially.  Of these the bottom 25% will disappear or merge with in the next 10-15 years (article written 5 years ago).

And here’s how we’ve responded.  Take a couple of minutes and look at the two clips I’ve included here.  The first parallels the findings reported in a recent Gallup survey which looked at the engagement of levels of students as they moved through school.  The engagement levels dropped from roughly 80% in grade 3 to about 40% in grade 11.  Those of us working in schools or who have children in schools don’t need to see these numbers to know he drop off is significant.  I’ve heard lots of explanations about this phenomenon, “Kids just don’t seem to care.” or ”They’re not interested in learning.” or  “They just want to play on the Smart Phones.”  or “Kids just aren’t as responsible any more.” or  “Our absentee rate is a real problem.”  or “It’s the damned state tests. School’s no fun for them anymore.”

What I haven’t heard much of is “I wonder what we’re doing to promote this loss of engagement.”  or “What adult behaviors discourage curiosity?” or…

Take a look at “The Power of Questions” 

This next clip is entitled “I Just Sued The School System”. It’s a bit (!) more hyperbolic.  It’s produced by Ted Dintersmith, author of What School Could Be. Hyperbole aside, can you find some truths? While I’m not a great fan of Dintersmith’s solutions, it’s hard to argue with what he saw as he visited 200 schools in 50 states, observing instruction, interviewing kids and educators. This clip dramatizes his findings.

Here is a comment offered by a teacher in response to seeing the clip.

Comment from “I Just Sued the School System!!!”

My 5th grade teacher and I had a debate on the school system and he said “I have my opinion but I’ll be more then happy of you could change my mind”, I then ask to used YouTube for a video and he said yes, so I turned on the smartboard, hooked up the computer, and played this video. By the end of it he was in tears and said ” Well then congratulations Kiley, you’ve changed my mind, maybe one day you’ll change the system yourself”, he was my favorite teacher, still is.

Unspoken in the comment shared above, is the message, “Maybe one day you’ll change the system yourself.” (italics mine).  The implication is clear… Maybe you’ll change the system. I can’t. I can’t try. I won’t. I won’t try.

This is where leadership fits…

This is a critical moment in a series of critical moments.  Some have described the events of the past 18-24 months as a battle for the soul of our nation. While not every one might agree with that assessment, it’s hard not to recognize these times as different than anything most of us have experienced.

But what if there is another battle going on?  And what if that battle touches each of us who has committed to working as educators.  It’s a battle for the soul of our kids. And what if, consistent with our history of identifying problems inaccurately, we have identified the problem as which schools our kids can/should attend (charters, academies, “regular” public schools), which schools we should fund (public, private, charters, on-line) and how should we fund schools (vouchers, educational savings accounts, local taxation)? What if these are good questions if the issue were actuallywhich schools should our kids attend? What if the real question is not whichschool but whyschool? What if the real question to be addressed is what is the purpose of education today in 2019? Is it the same as it was when schools were originally configured and curricula were original organized (1890’s)?

And so leadership…

What if leadership can no longer be focused on “school” leadership? What if leadership is about creating emotionally safe places where we and our teacher colleagues can explore the differences between schooling and learning? What if leadership is exploring for ourselves the extent to which the story of school and schooling is no longer valid? What if leadership is challenging our fellow educators, members of our school communities, members of the boards of education to explore the possibility that the old story of school is dead? What if leadership is helping people unlearn their old story beliefs about schools and schooling – that learning that matters takes place in a school, that school is defined as a building, that that adults impart knowledge to students?

What? But wait!  Am I saying that leadership means that we have to explore with teachers that their role (the role they grew up experiencing as students and the role they have tried to perfect as educators) has to change and may require a very different set of skills? That we have to align the experiences that our kids have with a new purpose… a purpose beyond preparation for testing hurdles and credit accumulation? A purpose that is no longer the mastery of content defined over a century ago?   A purpose that doesn’t designate schools as the only place where meaningful learning can take place?

This is a time for New Year’s Resolutions.  Thinking of my teaching or my district, I always found these relatively meaningless in January.  I made my new year’s resolutions in the summer in preparation for beginning my new year.  But what if we used the time right now to make one resolution about creating a safe space for kids and teachers in our classroom, school, or district to take risks about learning? What is we used the time right now to explore what policies, practices, procedures we have that might contribute to student stress, anxiety, and depression? What if you filled in the blank with the commitment to explore the conflict between what you believe about student learning and the practices in your classroom, school, or district?

Maybe you could complete the following, “Couldn’t I at least….?