Battling One-Size-Fits-All

We’ve all been there.

It’s the annual or semi-annual professional day for staff, and you are dreading it.  What will I have to sit through this year?

We know it’s the wrong thing to do, to have the entire staff go through the same “training,” yet inevitably it happens.  What we know is that sustained, job-embedded professional events work.  We know that working with colleagues whose opinions we trust and feedback we value has lasting effect on our practice as teachers and leaders.

The problem lies in the design.  Why just one day?  Why make it “destination” PD, like we’ve arrived at this time of the year and it follows that we should have one day for “training?”

We’ve just completed ours, so these thoughts are fresh in my mind, and I am trying to think about what I’ll do differently going forward.

These days are not without merit, I should say, in that various groups that don’t often get to plan together can.  For example, world language teachers from various levels can gather together to discuss their program, and we can arrange the day to include FedEx type events.

But what if we could do this whole system much differently?  What if we could do it so that days like this are days where we spend time celebrating the work we’ve been doing all year as professionals?  If we embrace the PLC idea and model, can we use days like this to share the findings and work that we’ve spent the past year creating and researching?

Today, I was in charge of planning the day for the district, and I attempted to do that in a small way.  I asked several of the staff to share things they were “experts” in.  Here’s the list of choices that staff had:

Each staff member that was not involved in a curriculum project could choose three sessions to attend in the morning, and they had the option for the afternoon of these two sessions:

The Holy Grail of Teaching

Regardless of where you turn, the topic of education and educational reform seems tobe there. People from all walks of life are typically not shy about sharing their feelings on this subject. Ideas range from class size, standardized testing, ability grouping, the number of computers in the classroom, homework and the home environment, just to name a few. Research has shown, however, that teacher effectiveness has, by far, the most powerful influence upon students and student learning.In this workshop, we will explore the very powerful effects that a teacher has upon his/her students. We will take a close look at some of the research compiled that clearly delineates what has the most dramatic influence upon student achievement.

Learn Like Our Students Do

Background:  Have you ever seen a kid taking a technology class or reading a manual for a new gadget?  Of course not.  They learn as kids these days do: on their own, “playing”, and if needed, asking a buddy for advice. When it comes to technology or learning how to use new tools, they generally don’t need an “expert” or a workshop to attend.

Most adults are a little different. We have always had a consultant (“expert”) come in or have an administrator lead a session for staff on an initiative, program, or curriculum. Adults listen, hopefully engage, and it is hoped that the skill is applied for student learning.  Does it work?  Sometimes.

As we have for the past three years, we are call it “Learn Like Our Students” day. Staff otherwise unassigned to the previously listed activities form themselves into groups of two or more of their choosing. At the conclusion of the day they will complete an outcomes review.

Educators often say that there is never enough time to learn or improve skills, ideas, or instructional strategies.  Here is an opportunity for over two hours to teach yourselves something new, improve a skill, or gain new knowledge in a collaborative way.

While I cannot take credit for either of the two session titles or content (one was my predecessor’s idea, and the other my colleagues’), I feel both begin to drive our staff towards the type of day I would envision for them going forward.

What Blue Zones Can Tell us About Ourselves.

Yesterday began the first of our Spring TED Series and a group of teachers from our district and a neighboring district got together to watch Dan Buettner’s TEDxTC talk about his work with the Blue Zones.  Blue Zones are defined as:

a region of the world where people commonly live active lives past the age of 100 years. Scientists and demographers have classified these longevity hot-spots by having common healthy traits and life practices that result in higher-than-normal longevity. The name Blue zone seems to be first employed in a scientific article by a team of demographers working on centenarians in Sardinia in 2004.

and are the topic of Buettner’s work with Quest Network and National Geographic.

While not the stuff of our usual TED talks, which focus more on education and related issues, this talk immediately resonated with the group. Our discussion of Buettner’s description of the three Blue Zones he profiled in the talk brought out some uniquely personal insights from many of the members.  Several of the group shared insight into how the characteristics found in the communities in the Blue Zones are so foreign to our lives here in the United States.

Prior to the talk, we spoke about factors such as genetics, geography, exercise, diet, and lifestyle as the prevailing elements that contribute to longevity, and we argued about which one played the most prominent role.  Following the video, we spoke mainly about how our lifestyles were in such stark contrast to the communities in Sardinia, Italy, Okinawa, and Lorma Linda, California.  How we live our lives, and who we choose to live our lives with have such profound affects on how long our lives last.  Yes, genetics are a factor, but there are other elements that these communities all share.  Garr Reynolds created a succinct graphic to depict the points that Buettner distilled in the talk.

Interestingly, some members of the group had recently screened Race to Nowhere, and were able to draw some stark contrasts between the lives of our children today and the lives of the members of the communities in the Blue Zones.   I have not seen the film, but their concern was rooted in the fact that we have essentially eliminated much of the Blue Zone ideals for our children when we place such pressure on them to succeed.

On a personal level, having watched this talk several times now, I expressed to the group that what most impressed me was a section of the talk in which Buettner talked about the term “ikigai” (生き甲斐 literally: life + value, be worth while–the reason you wake up in the morning) in Okinawa.  One of the surveys given to members of these communities by the research team asked each of them what their ikigai was and, Buettner stated, none of them hesitated.  They all knew exactly what their purpose was in life.

Do I?  I’ve asked myself several times since the first time I watched this, and I’m put off by my hesitancy.  I know my reason for waking up is to help make my family’s life the most beautiful it can possibly be, but I wonder if it changes as you move through life?  Also, throughout the talk, the term “plant-based diet” was uttered countless times, and in looking at my own life, I could do much better there.

Poulain M.; Pes G.M., Grasland C., Carru C., Ferucci L., Baggio G., Franceschi C., Deiana L. (2004). “Identification of a Geographic Area Characterized by Extreme Longevity in the Sardinia Island: the AKEA study”. Experimental Gerontology, 39 39 (9): 1423–1429. doi:10.1016/j.exger.2004.06.016PMID 15489066.

Opening the Doors to Discussion

I’ve opened up all of my workshops to students this spring.

Its something I’ve been pushing this around for a while now, nearly three years, but have yet to take the step to actually do it.  Here it is.

These are in-district workshops for teachers, mainly, but the addition of students just makes sense now. We are all learners here, and we’ll all need each other going forward.

Here’s the first one that I’ve advertised:

Making Reading Viral

“When we read a good book, the first thing we do is talk about it to our friends, and then we end up giving it to them and they read it, and so on and so forth. I mean, look at Twilight.”

This is a loose paraphrasing of a line from a conversation that occurred last Monday among the middle school teachers in my district. The purpose of the meeting? An all-hands on deck chat about summer reading.

It’s almost Sisyphean. Every year I spend a good deal of time hemming and hawing over whether or not it’s worth doing and whether or not we are doing it right. I’ve come to realize that whether you assign it or not, you will always anger 50% of the school community.

With that realization comes some clarity. If we know that no one will be completely happy, we can focus on doing what we think is right.

The first step in that process is always to ask the staff. Yvette McNeal, our middle school principal, and I got everyone together in the media center during their lunch last Monday to gauge their feeling on summer reading. What should it look like? Should we be assessing? What was the point of it anyway?

The feedback was fantastic from all directions. Teachers discussing their issues with the summer reading from their own children’s school; their concern with the students who read too early in the summer as well as those who read the night before; their feeling that reading, reading anything, was extremely important for kids to do over the two months they are gone.

That last statement is where we began. Let’s ask them to read something. Anything.

And then let’s go back to the beginning of this post and look at the meaning behind that quote: reading is, and always be, a social endeavor. It’s driven by what we share, and a book’s life is determined by how many people buzz about it.

So this is what we decided to do:

  • Require reading, but give complete freedom in choosing what it consists of.
  • Show the community that we are passionate advocates of reading by doing it ourselves.
  • Making the act of reading and sharing publicly visible.
  • Making any “work” the students do in regards to the book an act that will promote what they read to the community.

The first premise we started with is that of course we care about the reading students will do for us and with us, but we really care about the reading they will do in twenty or thirty years. We need to start them thinking about reading as a lifelong endeavor (thanks to Maria Clayton for that one). We will require them to read something over the summer in grades 5-8, but that something is up to them. Our media specialist is fast at work right now building suggested book and magazine lists for each grade level, but students have complete freedom to read anything else they want to.

We then began thinking about how we can show the community that this matters to us in visible ways. Taking a page from the work Ryan Bretag has been doing with his I.D.E.A., we began thinking about how books are shared. That’s where the quote came in. If we read something we love, the first thing we do is run and tell someone “Oh my god, you have to read this book–when I’m finished.” That’s what we want. We want viral reading. We saw it with Hunger Games. We saw it with Twilight, and before that with Harry Potter.

We built a school-wide reading site (sorry for not linking yet–we’re not ready for prime time) where teachers, students, and administrators are going to be featuring one title from each grade level list as the “buzz book,” a title that we will all read as a grade level. That “buzz book” will become the centerpiece of weekly blog posts by teachers, students, and administrators throughout the summer. Alongside that, we’ll also be featuring “staff picks” and “student picks” in the sidebars of the blog so that the community can lean on one another for recommendations. There was also talk of a rating system for the titles as they are read.

Lastly, the dreaded summer reading assignment that awaits each student when they return to school. Rather than have them slog through an essay on a book they may or may not have liked, we decided to use their assignment as another recommendation engine. Students will create book advertisements, book trailers, and flyers for the books or magazines they read over the summer. Each of these will be placed strategically throughout the school, space permitting, and used as part of regular book displays by our media specialists. Additionally, we’ll be collecting data from the students in September to see what the hottest 5th/6th/7th/8th grade title was, and then promoting that as well.

It’s the First Big Plan, and I am excited to see where it takes us.

“That” Student.

Have I become “that” student?

It’s been a long time since I sat in a graduate class of any kind.  I’ve dabbled in various situations, thought long and hard about various programs to enter, but as for sitting in a traditional classroom setting as a serious student, it’s been nearly ten years. For two weeks this summer, I’ll be part of a Teaching American History Grant through the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions, at Princeton University in July.  Surrounded by other history junkies, I am wondering what the experience will bring.

So much has changed in the way of how I learn now: it’s much more immediate, more on-demand and free-form, that I am wondering how I’ll fare in the structure of the Seminar.  Each day consists of a three-hour lecture in the morning followed by lunch and a discussion session in the afternoon.  Pretty standard university stuff, but can I do it like that anymore?  Have I become the type of student that can’t handle that format?  Will I be “that” student you hear about in diatribes in the Chronicle about today’s students lack of focus?  Will I be the guy that causes the professor to ban laptops?

Holy cow.  I hope not.

The reading list is heavy, and it reminds me of the type of reading graduate students are asked to do in order to contribute to the learning community at that level.  However, the reaction of my colleagues and I to the reading immediately reminded me that things have changed.  Our initial idea was to create a schedule of the readings so we could pace ourselves, but then we stated that we needed to share our information so that we could enter the two-weeks with as much of a perspective on the readings as time would allow.  Luckily, the seminar has set up an internal social network called mydolley where each of us can post our work.  We set up a group page where we could easily outline the readings, including our major ideas about them.  As for taking notes and backchanneling during the seminar itself, we are exploring if we should use something like etherpad rather than Google Docs, or todaysmeet rather than twitter.

Already, you can see I will be that student, won’t I?