Saturday, July 30, 2011

"What if we mutiny?"

That was the question a graduate fellow asked me when a workshop we were doing in class took an unexpected turn. The fellows had been working in small groups to identify important information read in one of the course textbooks. Each group was assigned a different chapter, and they were preparing to share with their peers what they had gotten from their reading. When preparation time was up, however, I changed things up. Instead of having them share with the whole group, I asked that they stay in their small groups and develop a rubric for evaluating collegial sharing.

My request disrupted the anticipated flow of events - do assigned reading, plan in expert groups, and share with whole group. As I have said before, effective teaching is a lot like storytelling. And I wanted to shake up this "story" (lesson) in an effort to make it more memorable. I also knew the larger plot of this particular "story" and that it involved several opportunities to share these chapters, while incorporating more readings in future lessons.

It was not a surprise to me when the fellow asked, "What if we mutiny?" This is a group that is highly motivated and wants to know as much as they can about facilitating learning environments. The fellow's peers had important information that was expected to be shared with the group and that ought to happen now in the typical chain of classroom events.

When the fellow asked, "What if we mutiny?" I responded with something like, "I would love that!" But there was no mutiny and I went ahead with my own storyline anyway. The following day, I thought more about the exchange and decided that a mutiny fit well with the next lessons' theme - responsibility. So, I replaced a learning workshop dedicated to reading groups with time for a mutiny (what Daniel Pink has called "20% time").
The day arrived and I explained that for the next workshop how they spent the time was up to them. I reminded them of the goal of this particular journey (collaborating in development of effective learning environments) and then said, "I'll be in the brig." For the next forty minutes, the fellows took responsibility for their learning. They organized their time. They monitored their progress. And they negotiated their needs. As they worked, I took notes on their collegial efforts that I could use to evaluate their progress on this project.

At the end of the time, I broke free of the brig just before the fellows began a second round of sharing. I affirmed their efforts and said that I was pretty sure there would be another chance to mutiny during the next class. A fellow asked, "What if we mutiny now?" I smiled.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Will this "reform" really improve education?

This is a letter to the editor that I am considering sending to papers in Michigan. Your feedback would be appreciated.


Dear Editor:

I am tired of reading how the new tenure legislation recently signed by Michigan's Governor Rick Snyder "makes it easier to fire bad teachers." A more accurate description would be that the law potentially makes it easier to fire ANY teacher since what is meant by "bad teaching" is not well-defined. Consequently, the protection of effective, experienced teachers has been severely compromised by this new law, and it will have a detrimental effect on education in Michigan.

The argument is that the old tenure law protected bad teachers. Here we have the false assumption that led to the flawed logic behind this supposed "reform" effort. Originally, tenure protected teachers, all teachers, from being removed without justification. This did not prevent bad teachers from being removed; it just meant administrators had to be diligent in documenting abuse.

Were there bad teachers who gamed the system and made it difficult for administrators to remove them? Certainly, but that is the nature of a system meant to protect teachers and predicated on their presumed innocent. Closing loopholes that bad teachers used to game the system would be a reasonable response. What the new law seems to do instead is react in a way that goes beyond the problem of bad teachers.

The new tenure law certainly makes it easier for administrators to get rid of bad teachers. It also makes it easier to get rid of the experienced teacher who is high on the pay scale. It also makes it easier to get rid of the teacher committed to using promising practices that an administrator does not agree with. It also makes it easier to get rid of the teacher who holds kids accountable for their actions even though it ruffles the feathers of the kids' parents.

If you trust administrators, then there is nothing to worry about. I talk to a lot of teachers, however, who are concerned. They say they will hesitate to volunteer to teach in a high-needs classroom because their evaluation may depend on these students' test score. They describe how they will be more reluctant to address bad behavior because student and parent evaluation may play a role in determining their effectiveness. They explain that they will no longer take risks on new techniques and technologies because there seems to be little room for error. This does not sound like educational reform to me.

Whether or not these issues come to pass (the evaluation piece is still up in the air), the reality is that teachers feel attacked by such overreaching measures as the new tenure law. The message appears to be that teachers now have to take the education of their students seriously - as if they didn't before. Under such circumstances, the likelihood of educational innovation seems small.

Friday, July 15, 2011

What's the story?

Hogwart's Express?
I am a huge fan of J. K. Rowling's work. She is a fantastic writer who has introduced a new generation to the magic of reading through her Harry Potter series. My guess is that she was also an excellent teacher. While I have never seen her teach in a classroom, I believe effective teachers are essentially storytellers.

First, there is Ms. Rowling's phenomenal ability at writing backstory. This is the part of the narrative that provides background supporting a better understanding of story. She flawlessly weaves this information throughout her writing. It is akin to what effective teachers do when they help learners to activate schema during a lesson - providing a firm foundation on which to construct new ideas. The ability to make connections is fundamental to teaching and learning.

Could this hat do more than sort?
Foreshadowing is the literary device used by authors to provide readers a subtle peek at future plot points. Again, here Ms. Rowling is a master. Once I was aware that her books included clues about the upcoming story, I began reading (and rereading) the text even more deeply. Imagine teaching a lesson that has learners engaged with every moment because it has purpose - they don't want to miss something important that they can use in later learning. I see this as being related to Cambourne's ideas of engagement and immersion.

Another thing I like about the Harry Potter series is that there doesn't seem to be any wasted effort. The story always moved forward. And while there were times that we were introduced to characters, settings, or events that seemed superfluous, they almost always ended up playing an important part in the resolution of the story. This reminds me of what I have read so far in Mike Schmoker's book, Focus. In order to be effective, teaching needs to maintain momentum toward a clear set of manageable goals.

This car plays a part in several books
Certainly, storytelling is not the only simile that can apply to effective teaching. It just seems fitting to explore it the day the second part of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is released in US theaters. Maybe I'll write my "teaching is like kayaking" post after my next trip to the UP. It is the rationale supporting the simile that is most important - that is where we find the characteristics of effective teaching.

(If you want more evidence of Ms. Rowling as an effective teacher, then consider her 2008 graduation speech at Harvard and her characterization of effective teachers in her writing.)

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Do you trust yourself?

I went golfing today with a friend, and as you can see by the scorecard (generated by Golfshot GPS), we played horribly. Now 45, or bogey golf, is not a bad score for me but we played a scramble format which means this score was a result of our best shots throughout the round. Let's just say we have played better. 

What does this have to do with the Virtual Conference's Prompt? I know that part of my problem today was that I was not trusting myself as a golfer. On almost every shot, I hit harder or softer than I knew I needed to because I was over thinking based on the previous shot.  This is a poor way to play golf. And after reading Golf and the Spirit, I know that these lessons can translate to other aspects of my life, like teaching. So my answer to, "What is at the center of my classroom?" is two-fold: reflection and trust.

In Golf and the Spirit, M. Scott Peck writes:
Forgive yourself each and every bad shot - as long as you have learned what it had to teach you - and then get on with it, free and unencumbered. (p. 266)
As a golfer and a teacher, I spend a great deal of time analyzing my practice, but I struggle with the letting go of mistakes part. This past year I created the following qualitative graph to remind me of my issue.
Personal reflection certainly improves my professional growth but there is a point  where it seems like more reflection actually causes me to go backwards professionally. The extra reflection sucks my time and my confidence. I was convinced that I needed to find that reflective sweet spot and then stop.

Fortunately, I shared this visual metaphor with one of my teachers in training, who asked, "Does that mean I get to a point where I never get better?" To which she quickly responded, "I don't think that's true." (Have I mentioned how great our teaching candidates are at GVSU?) Instead, we thought about how adjusting the graph from a quadratic to a cubic might make better sense.
The idea is that when I find myself questioning my ability as a teacher, I need to be aware of this, accept it as part of my nature, and then adjust by letting go, moving on, and trusting myself (the Yoga Story strikes again). Essentially, I want to identify what I am doing instinctually well and make it intentional.

I have been thinking about this a lot this week because I am putting the finishing touches on a new course that begins next Tuesday. While I worked hard with my colleagues to design this course (see the Understanding by Design plan here), I am now second guessing myself and thinking about ways to do things differently. I almost skipped golf this morning to put even more work into the course. Lucky for me I trusted my instincts instead.

If reflection and trust are at the center of my classroom, then it must begin with me (Jason was right!). My learners will look to me as a model whether we are talking about doing mathematics or teaching. Therefore, it is important to demonstrate a reflective practice that is built on trust - trust of my learners and trust of myself.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Who's doing the work?

I am in the process of planning a course for GVSU's experimental program involving W. K. Kellogg Foundation - Woodrow Wilson Michigan Teaching Fellows. The course is called Facilitating Learning EnvironmentsOne of the assigned texts is Harry Wong's The First Days of School.

I received a signed copy of this book from my mother early in my teaching career and read it over a summer. I still remember the impact the following passage had on my career:
But have you ever noticed what happens at 3 o'clock when the students leave? "Yea, yea, yea!" Why are they so full of energy? Because they have been sitting in school all day doing nothing while the teacher is doing all the work.
The person who does the work is the only one doing any learning! (page 205)
One way I related to this passage was my habit of taking students' pencils when they encountered a problem. There, I admitted it. I was a serial pencil grabber. A student would raise his or her hand and say, "I don't get it." Like a trained dog, I would grab the pencil, do the work, and ask if they got it now. After the obligatory nod by the student, I would walk away feeling like I was the best teacher in the world. Actually, I was psuedoteaching but I was unaware of it until I began to reflect on who was doing the work.

I vowed that I would never grab another pencil. When circling the classroom, I would have my hands in my pockets or clasped behind my back in order to resist the urge to do the students' work for them. I got better at guiding them through problems using questions.

Last year, I shared this story with a pair of teacher assistants after observing them grab students' pencils. They made a good point that these students were completely lost and required a demonstration not merely guidance. (The gradual release of responsibility strikes again.) We discussed how this might look.

The demonstration would start with the teacher saying, "Watch what I do, listen to what I say, and keep a record of it so we can talk about it later." Next, the teacher would model solving the problem, using his or her own pencil, being sure to think aloud while working through the process. Once the problem was solved, the teacher would ask the learner for a recount of the process. This could serve as an assessment - did the learner attend to the important details of the process? If the learner was ready, the teacher would ask the learner to apply the process to another problem as the teacher now served as a guide. If all went well, the teacher would move on taking the work done during the demonstration. After all, it was the teacher's not the learner's work.

I appreciated that these teacher assistants were able to question my "wisdom" (and authority) regarding this issue. It reminds me that I have a lot to learn from my learners - as long as I am willing to let them do the work.