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.

Mar 04

The Wisdom of the Room

This is related to EduCon, but it’s also just about pedagogy.

I was sitting in a session at SXSWedu where a panel of educators were talking about how they had achieved a new initiative for their school. It was an hour-long session, and really, after about ten or fifteen minutes, it was clear what they had done — it was cool — but after that, the panel quickly got into the weeds about some very specific details about their implementation. I was sitting next to a friend, and we were quietly challenging each other about how this idea could work in our schools. And I realized that what I wanted was the chance to sit and talk about that idea with a few folks around me – in short, I wanted a more “EduCon-y” session.

I wanted this group to challenge the folks in the room to think about how the idea would work in their worlds. I wanted to be able to consider the stumbling blocks to the idea. I wanted to be able to collaborate.

This isn’t to say that there isn’t ever a place for panel discussions – there is. If you follow my twitter stream, you’ll know that I was in seventh heaven watching Randi Weingarten, Peter Cunningham and Valerie Strauss debate assessment and accountability. But when you have an idea about how to make schools better, letting people have the discussion and debate and engage fully in the idea will greatly enhance the probability that those ideas will stay with the folks in the room… and even better… you greatly increase the probability that some really novel ways to think about the idea will come out.

When it comes to playing with ideas, we need to remember that the wisdom of the room is something that needs to be respected. And when it comes to our classrooms, we need to remember that honoring the wisdom of the room also — and importantly — is a powerful way to ensure that students will more willingly engage in the idea itself.

Feb 25

Teach Kids Before Subjects

Ask any teacher what they teach, and you’ll get the typical responses:

“I teach science.”

“I teach 3rd grade.”

“I teach English.”

Words matter. And when we give those answers, we miss a chance to humanize our classroom every time.

We should always remember that we teach kids. And that matters. Say the first set of answers out loud and then say the next set out loud.

“I teach kids science.”

“I teach 3rd graders.”

“I teach kids English.”

If we around going to create more student-centered schools, then we need to start by actually mentioning the students when we talk about our classes and our profession. Before we expect everyone to be able to do it, perhaps we should actually say it first.

And what is important about this is that it does not suggest that the things we teach the kids are unimportant. Science is important. English is important. 3rd grade is important. But they aren’t necessarily important in their abstraction. They have to be important to the kids we teach. It is in the intersection of the kids we teach and the subjects we teach that meaning and learning happen.

What could happen if teachers started using this language? Could it start us at doing a better job of seeing the kids in front of us as people, not just as students of a subject? Could it remind us that it isn’t enough to love our content, but that we have to love the kids we teach too? Could this be the first step we all agree to take in building human – more humane – schools?

In the end, our kids should never be the implied object of their own education, and we can start changing that with the very language we use to describe what we do.