Mar 01

What is Your Educational DNA?

It’s a phrase I use a lot when I talk about SLA, “It’s in my DNA.” The ideas that form the backbone of SLA are the ideas that hold most dear about what I believe school can be. Much of the work I have done over the years has been developing a language for what I believed, refining the beliefs and figuring out how to make those beliefs easy to put into practice for teacher and students.

I’ve spent a lot of time tracing what’s formed that DNA. Certainly, being Sid and Janice Lehmann’s kid, being raised with a deep sense of social and educational justice, was a big part of it. I remember when I was in high school, and in my highly tracked high school, I had to choose between taking the Honors or the AP classes. My dad said to me, “Take the honors classes, because that’ll be the material the teacher *wants* to teach, the AP classes will be the material the teacher has to teach.” I remember my mother talking about the incredible projects she would have her students do in her classrooms. She never talked about how well they did on tests. She talked about the artist reports they did when her sixth graders came in dressed as the artists they researched, and projects such as that. It’s moments like that that resonated deeply when I went into my own classroom and thought about what and how I wanted to be teaching.

And I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, because more and more, I’m coming to the realization that having a core set of beliefs about teaching and learning that is radically different from “traditional school” is rarer than I’d like to admit. Most people weren’t lucky enough to come from parents who thought deeply about pedagogy. I did, and I hope that the work I’ve done in my career has honored the privilege I had in having parents like Sid and Janice.

And it makes me wonder how often we create the space for┬áteachers and administrators to┬áspend the time tracing why they came to the profession believing what they believe about teaching and learning, and tracing their evolution as teachers. Certainly, there isn’t much time given inside the traditional professional development calendar for such work. And I think we should.

At the heart of teaching is the idea that we should be intentional about what happens in our classrooms. To do that requires understanding how we got to that moment with our kids ourselves.

And in that vein – I ask… what is your Educational DNA? Why and how do you believe what you now believe about teaching and learning?

Aug 24

American History — American Story

Matt Baird teachers SLA-ers 11th grade American History. He and I sat down this summer to think about how he could re-frame American History so that we could create an even more direct sense of urgency on why American history can be such a powerful field of study for high school students. Both of us believe that we teach history so that kids can make sense of the world they live in, and therefore, be more informed and active and engaged citizens of that world. That’s not exactly a revolutionary concept, and there are many, many social studies teachers who share that view.

So if that is one of the primary underlying tenets for teaching the class, the question becomes how do you structure the class to engender that sense of urgency? We tossed around this idea, with the idea that the 11th grade theme at SLA is “Change” —

What if we started an American History class with an analysis of the present day? What if we asked students to examine present day society through several intersecting lenses such as the political lens, the demographic lens, the economic lens and the geo-political lens. Kids could start the year reading commentary on the world we live in now from a variety perspectives. That opening unit could serve as frame to now examine our history. Then, as the class dove into our country’s history, there would be a deep context for always examining the events of the past through the lens of questioning how that has shaped the nation we are today. I could even imagine a culminating unit where students had to look forward with a vision of where we are going from here and how and why.

I think – I hope – a class with this frame would deeply communicate the idea of active history for students, and it would solve the classic problem of the American History class that treats American History as stopping sometime between World War II and the Civil Rights Movement. And most importantly, I think the class could – done right – center on the students themselves. A class like this is not about the dusty dates of history, but about their lives – our lives – our country today, seen through the lens of time.

Thoughts?

Aug 09

Maybe We Could Just Get Better

With the start of the new school, educators around the country – especially those in schools and districts that have been labeled as failing – are learning about the new initiatives that their schools will be undertaking this school year. Many of these initiatives will be mandated – top-down – from an administrator at the school, district or state level. And many of these initiatives will be a sharp turn away from the practices of the past year.

And these new initiatives will be enacted in the name of closing the achievement gap, addressing some data-driven problem that has been identified, or somehow finding some magic bullet to raise test scores.

And many teachers go through this process year after year after year.

And it makes me ask a simple question – what if some of the problems of our school is that we never let people get good at any one thing?

This is not to say that schools should look at challenges and problems they face and address them.

This is not to say that educators should not strive to learn new ideas and new practices.

But when do we let teachers get good at stuff too?

Schools need to grow along healthy pathways. So do the teachers and students than inhabit them. When we commit to a pedagogical plan or a new structure or system, and we say, “Barring epic failure, we’re going to work on this strategy for a few years,” we honor the fact that people can learn and get better at their craft.

There are many pedagogical approaches to education. I have a favorite that I am passionate about – inquiry-based education. I have been lucky enough to work with a group of teachers and students who have dedicated themselves to getting better at that craft. And as a community, we very much have gotten better. I am also lucky enough to have been afforded the space and time to get better. I remember the first year SLA took the PSSAs and our math scores were lower than we expected them to be. I was terrified that my regional superintendent, Marilyn Perez, was going to tell me that we had to abandon our inquiry-driven math plan. I called her with the scores – we had done the calculations by hand from state score sheets, so we had the data before the district had calculated the school-wide results – and she said to me, “Now you have your baseline, and knowing SLA, you and your teachers are already thinking about how to get better at what you do.”

She held us accountable for our performance and listened to our plan on how we were going to get better at what we did… not change pedagogy or approach, but evolve and get better. To this day, if Marilyn were to call and say, “I need a favor…” the answer would be unequivocally yes, because she was willing to work with SLA to give us time to grow along a healthy path that allowed us to evolve, rather than shift gears.

We need to create more spaces for schools to define school-wide structural and pedagogical approaches to education, and then we need to give schools time and space to grow and get better at their craft as a community. In too many schools and districts, September represents a time where teachers and students have to throw out last year’s “Best Practice” in favor of the latest and greatest idea to come out of a policy office somewhere.

Perhaps we are a time where we can admit that our best practices are the ones that we actually get the time to practice.