Monday, April 27, 2015

We Need to Teach Hard Things

Students need to be able to recognize this in the media.
As I watch racist media coverage float out of Baltimore...

On the heels of talking about creating safe spaces for LGBTQ youth last night on #caedchat...

There are a lot of things that we - the adults in this world - have effed up pretty good. There are a lot of problems - heavy, difficult problems around race, class, gender, culture, and numerous other things - that we are leaving for the next generation to solve.

Given this, I believe we as educators have a moral imperative to have hard conversations, to raise awareness, to increase knowledge around race, class, gender, culture, and any other areas where systems of oppression and inequality exist with our students. (And yes - there are many adults who are scared to talk about these things.)

We must start developing our students’ critical lenses for viewing society. For consuming media that is all around them. For creating media that challenges assumptions and stereotypes.

So they can make the world a better place in the areas we have failed.

“But this makes some students uncomfortable.”

GOOD. I remember my initial grapplings with my extreme privilege in this world. I was uncomfortable with my whiteness. This wasn’t something I had chosen. For me, that discomfort with my privilege was an important first step towards starting to come to terms with my privileged place in the world.

As we kicked off this school year with a three week unit on Ferguson, I watched some students be uncomfortable with the death of an unarmed young black man. (The most uncomfortable group? White males.)

Students need this discomfort! Critical lenses don’t just appear out of the blue, especially for the privileged members of our society. All students need the time to talk and learn about systems of oppression in our country. They need to be exposed to the hard conversations. Students need the language to talk about this.

Some things are more important than the curriculum your state/district/school tells you to teach. This, I believe, is the most important of those things.

Friday, April 24, 2015

#youredustory, Week 16: We Can Do Better Than Rigor and Engagement

Prompt: What does rigor and engagement look like in the classroom?

Ooh. Two words I really don't like. Let's do this!

Let's start with engagement. And to be clear - I don't want kids bored in my class. At all.


If you ask me to make a choice between students being engaged and students being curious, I'll choose curiosity any day. Kids can be engaged by a silly costume. Or a dynamic lecture. Are these bad things? No. But if done all the time... I don't want my students paying attention in class to see what weird thing I'll do next. Because with engagement, the teacher is far too often the focus.

Curiosity, to me, is king. When kids are curious, I can get completely out of the way. When curiosity strikes, questions iterate on questions and students really drive and own their own learning. Kids pay attention to what question they want an answer to, not to what I'm doing.

And rigor. That's a tough word. I'll leave the arguments about rigor - and its etymology - to others. I'll repeat something I heard Dean Shareski say on Techlandia a couple months ago: do we want school to be hard for kids all the time? How brutal would your day be, how much would you dislike school, if it was difficult all the time?

To answer the prompt though. Challenge and curiosity - which I'm happier to talk about - sound loud in my classroom. Challenge and curiosity sound like kids talking and doing and disagreeing. Challenge and curiosity involve choice over what is learned and how that learning is demonstrated.

Appropriate challenge and curiosity should drive education - not rigor and engagement.


More information on #youredustory can be found here. Consider joining in the fun!

Thursday, April 16, 2015

#youredustory, Week 15: End of the Year Difficulties for Students

Prompt: Spring can be a tough time for teachers (with a stretch until spring break and then after it before summer). How do you help morale on campus as tiredness sets in and the kids get squirrely?

I think that there are a lot of ways to support students as the year winds down. Though it is true - kids get squirrely - it is also true that kids get stressed out.

As the semester winds down, more and more students get concerned with their grades. This isn’t pressure that I’m applying - I regularly tell kids that grades are dumb and they should focus on learning and enjoying school. That’s a tough message for them to digest though, with outside pressure from friends and parents to ‘do well’.

Because of these pressures, this is a time of year that kids can start to break down.
Autumn Screaming by Melissa Segal from flickr

By this point in the year, you’ve spent a lot of time and energy getting to know your students. This is a time of year when this knowledge of your kids, when the relationships that you’ve developed, can pay dividends.

In this chunk of the year, you should know what your students’ baseline is: what they are like from day to day. You also should then know what days they are off. That’s where leveraging those relationships, that knowledge of your students, comes in.

As a high school teacher, when these pressures become more magnified, it becomes vitally important to listen and hear and see how kids are doing and what they are saying and thinking - or NOT doing and saying and thinking. And more importantly, it becomes vital to act when things aren’t as they normally are.

This might be a conversation with a kid during a prep period. It might be a small group conversation. It might even be a day where you ditch your curriculum and you go outside and have a conversation with all the kids in your class about what they’re stressing about and what you and they need to do to move forward and have a successful end to the year.

It’s this stance of knowing your kids and being willing to put the time and energy into them as some of them start to break down that to me is vitally important this time of year.

One of the best days of class I had last year involved ditching the curriculum for the day and going down to the football field. Kids had come into class that week stressed out, but that day seemed especially bad. We lay on the field and took some deep breaths. We talked about what the kids were stressed about. We troubleshot the most vital steps for kids to take that week and subsequent weekend to feel like they made some progress.

Kids felt heard. Their struggles were acknowledged. And they left class feeling like they could tackle the work that needed doing.

I would make that choice to ditch the curriculum again in a heartbeat.

In the end, education is still all about relationships. But we already knew this.


More information on #youredustory can be found here. Consider joining in the fun!

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

#youredustory, Week 14: Describe Your Ideal Conference

Prompt: Describe your ideal conference: What is covered? Who is present?

edcamp35, April 2014
This ideal conference for me has evolved a lot over the years. It will continue to evolve. Also, this is entirely a selfish post - this is the conference I want. It may not serve the needs of other folks, though I hope that wouldn't be the case.

There are a couple mandatory items for this conference. It has to be free. It isn't going to have sponsors. And you're going to have to apply to come. Not in an elitist way, but in a "you're going to have to submit your best unit and a panel will look it over to make sure it's up to par" kind of way. As you might be able to guess, there aren't going to be tool-based or lecture sessions at this conference.

I want this conference to bring together a group of educators that are already seamlessly integrating technology. Or are doing it thoughtfully and well. It will be cross-age level and cross-content area. I'd love to have administrators and tech coaches there as well, but the experience - as you will read - is going to focus on doing our jobs in the classroom better.

(Just a word: I don't think technology should always be used. I don't think using tech is a prerequisite to being a great teacher. I do, however, know that tech allows for student choice in a way that is hard to do without technology. This isn't an edtech conference, but I'd expect that a lot of teachers pushing on the boundaries of what can happen in a classroom would be involved. It's my belief that it is tough to push on those boundaries without integrating technology. Back to the conference...)

The first day of the conference would be focused around unit sharing. Small groups of cross-age level and subject teachers would lay out a unit they teach, from start to finish. What are the hooks? Activities along the way? Assessments? These unit plans would be laid out for all in the small group to see.

Each member of the small group would have a chance to share their unit. No formal presentations or anything like that, but a google doc or class website page that contains all this information. After each shareout, members of the small group would have time ask the sharing teacher questions to completely understand what and why they did what they did within a unit.

At the end of the first day, during the second half of the pre-dinner evening gathering (code for happy hour) teachers would be asked to share to the whole group the neatest/most innovative/idea they are left pondering that evening.

Then, everyone goes to dinner together and the conversations continue.

Day two is hardcore workshop time with like-subject and age teachers. First, these small groups share out a very abbreviated version of what they shared yesterday to make sure that folks get to see their same subject colleagues' best. Then, it's on.

The goal is to go in and create a teachable unit on day two that incorporates your collective ideas, but also ideas stolen from the cross-grade conversations the day before. In theory, given the caliber of folks in the room, these should be some mind-blowingly cool units.

At the end of day two, everyone gathers again and shares out the units that they created. Ideas cross-pollinated across groups would be highlighted. Public unit plans are shared out so all conference attendees can take a look at them and apply them in their specific context later.

Attendees leave energized and ready to implement new ideas or tweaks on what they are doing from across subject area and grade level groups in their classroom. They also leave with a unit in the bag, outlined and essentially ready to teach.

Would this conference ever happen? Probably not. But I'd love to get about sixty amazing teachers in a room with a format like this and see what we could create!


More information on #youredustory can be found here. Consider joining in the fun!

Friday, April 3, 2015

#youredustory, Week 13: PLNs and Echo Chambers

Prompt: The world of connected educators can be an echo chamber at times, how WILL you grow the conversation so that we bring more people and perspectives along the journey?

I’m going to Andrew Thomasson this prompt for #youredustory and disagree with the premise of the prompt. Andrew pushed back - very eloquently - on a couple of the prompts so far. Let the Thomasson channeling begin…

My people: edcamp organizers at #cue14, photo by me
Before I start, by no means am I implying that a group of connected educators needs to be an echo chamber. If you're not following people who think differently about education than you do, by all means start doing that. Divergent voices are absolutely necessary for progress to be made in education, for progress to be made in your classroom or at your site.

As I engage with more and more groups of edufriends, many of whom seem to be a single person at their school really pushing hard on making school different and better for our students, I know that these educators' PLNs provide a place of support and comfort for them.
Weird look or snarky comment from a staff member? No worries. Get called in to talk to your principal or superintendent? Hey, we've been there. Let's troubleshoot this together. Got an angry email from a parent because you're doing school differently? Because your class isn't what they experienced in school? Yup. We're that shoulder to cry on.
I think that those like-minded people are incredibly crucial for support. For the 'No, you're not crazy' talk. For the ‘No, you’re doing what’s right - keep fighting the good fight’ talk. You NEED like-minded people if you're going to survive while trying to make change in education.

You need some cheerleaders.

You need people who see education the way you do. People who have fought similar battles. People who know and see the value of doing it another way.

Some days, you need a room full of them. (Or at least a Voxer group of them.)

Some days, you need an echo chamber.


More information on #youredustory can be found here. Consider joining in the fun!