Sunday, June 28, 2015

Learning By Doing


I have spent the last two weeks dwelling in lofty ideas. I attended a TEDx event, read educational books and blogs, had lively conversations about ideas with teacher friends and debriefed with my own children about their academic year. It was great! Relaxing, engaging and really fun.

Tomorrow, I have to go to work. Not the "lofty idea" type of work, either. The "all day, it is really hot, helping kids be successful and supporting other teachers" type of work that is Summer Spark. This is my second year running Summer Spark. I learned a great deal and had a wonderful time last summer. Reflecting on last summer's successes and challenges has been a fun endeavor which was heavily peppered with lofty ideas.

Lofty ideas typically inspire change, and so some of the things we did last summer needed to be altered or removed and replaced with something new. This, of course, meant work - evaluating last year, synthesizing new ideas, adapting them to meet our needs. It was time consuming, but fun - the kind of thinking that is rewarding and challenging at the same time.  The kind of thinking that starts with "what if."

Thinking and implementing are different, however. Some of the new ideas were easy to adopt. Others, too expensive. Tackling the road blocks was frustrating at times, but still a "lofty idea" kind of project.

Tomorrow, however, those lofty ideas have to make room for real, live people. For kids who will show up excited and ready or glum and tired - mostly likely a little of each. For parents who might have anxiety about leaving their kids with us all day and need a little extra support and time. For teachers who have to get used to new students and new surroundings. For bus drivers who might show up early or late.

Throughout the drama and excitement that tomorrow (not to mention the next five weeks) will offer, I will hold on to my lofty ideas. The difference is, I will be learning by doing. The interactions with students, parents and teachers, the phone calls and emails, the field trips, the snack buying, the recess monitoring and all the other active tasks I will perform will be different from the last two weeks of thinking leisurely. But if I can hold on to my lofty ideas and allow them to inform my actions, I have the opportunity to learn even more. By doing, I will discover what works, what doesn't, who needs what, how I can best support them and what I can do to make the summer fun, safe, engaging and purposeful for others. Plus, with some luck and intentional planning, I can continue to engage in lofty ideas with teachers, bus drivers, parents and mostly with students.

I think it is going to be a great summer. After all, the best way to learn anything is by doing.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Adapt, Migrate or Perish

I had a biology teacher in high school named Ms. Zak. She was tall, strict and austere. I remember being a little afraid of her. If she disapproved of what you said, she would say, "Oh, really?" in a way the conveyed disbelief not only in the answer, but in the thinking behind it.

She knew how to keep a class in line, but she also knew her stuff. I learned a lot from Ms. Zak, most of which I still remember (although, I never was able to locate the heart in the crayfish dissection. "Maybe it didn't have one," I said to Ms. Zak. "Oh, really?," she replied.)

Ms. Zak had a large sign on her wall above the chalkboard that said ADP. And she would often remind us that ADP applied not only in nature, but in her classroom. Adapt. Migrate. Perish. She would point it out in nature all the time. If a student was unprepared for class, she would point to the sign and say, "You must adapt to our guidelines, migrate out of this class or you shall perish."

In the end, most of us in the class chose adaptation over migration (she was the only biology teacher after all) and the very idea of perishing was beyond the comprehension of most of us (what would our parents say?).

Adaptation, it turns out, was pretty fun. Once we adapted to the norms of Ms. Zak's class, we learned a great deal and had a lot of fun. In fact, I looked up Ms. Zak on RateMyTeacher.com and she gets some pretty stellar reviews (although there are clearly some reviews by students who chose not to adapt).

I have been thinking a great deal about adaptation lately. Education is at a critical juncture and must adapt to our changing world. This is not a terribly bold statement, it is more of a fact. A recent Edutopia blog post by Matt Levinson provides a concise and clear explanation of why.

Some schools are boldly embracing the idea of adaption and actively seeking ways to address the changes in our culture, the pace of information and the evolving learner. This is a hard thing to do. It requires critical self-evaluation and a willingness to be vulnerable. There are risks involved in adaptation. What if the new approach fails?

But I believe that the risks are greater for those who do not adapt. Ms. Zak knew it 25 years ago. If we are unwilling to adapt, the alternatives are grim. Students could migrate to other schools and our institutions as we know them could perish.

The lesson from Ms. Zak (and many others) is that adaptation can be fun. There is excitement and possibility embedded in adaptation. When learning evolves in new and innovative ways, the outcome is amazing. After all, "it is not the strongest or the most intelligent who will survive, but those who can best manage change." - Charles Darwin via Ms. Zak.


Sunday, June 14, 2015

Making Time for Reflection

The last two months of school have been grueling. There were assessments to be finished, activities to be planned, trips to be taken, graduations to be rehearsed and meetings to be attended. On top of that, there were unexpected crises to be managed - like when the bus driver got lost on the way home from our trip or when the computer we needed for that one project crashed.

Another factor in all the mayhem were all the good-byes. Watching all my students graduate or leave is always hard. This year, I had to add our Head of School (who is also a very dear friend) to the list of "graduates." Both of my children graduated this year and are transitioning to new schools, which means saying good by to all of the teachers, bus drivers, administrators and secretaries we love.

All of the excitement and change happened in the blink of an eye. It seems like just last week we were returning from Spring Break and now, all of a sudden, it is over. How does that happen?

These last two days, I've had some time to reflect on the past two months, both at a TEDx Event at the George School and also at my pool. But in the moments listed above, I rarely found time and space to reflect on the change, the problems, the solutions, the feelings or the thinking - unless I was stuck in traffic. How does that happen?

Reflection matters and I have been thinking about it a great deal lately. This spring I have been reading #EdJourney by Grant Lichtman. This brilliant and engaging book has opened my eyes to a host of things that should matter in education, helped me to rethink and re-imagine some of my priorities and affirmed much of my thinking as an educator. (I promise to blog more about it as the summer wears on).

Lichtman's book itself IS a reflection of his journey to schools across the country and the idea of reflection comes up all over the book. He even devotes an entire chapter to the idea. In it, we learn about the importance of reflection and the impact it has on creativity, empathy, curiosity, student engagement, mental health and even design. Lichtman shows how some schools make time for reflection, but clearly indicates that this is a growth opportunity for schools and a way to add value to the organization on the whole (pg 167).

At the TEDx event yesterday, several students presented. Among them were two who reflected on the lessons learned in their high school careers. On student said he had learned about trust, humility and passion. It was clear as he spoke that he had internalized these ideals and would be able to access them throughout his entire life. Another student spoke of adoption the "nomadic mindset" wherein we learn to be resilient in the face of instability and show compassion toward others. Clearly, these students had reflected on their learning in deep and meaningful ways.

How can we achieve this same level of reflection for all students? As humans, we seek to create meaning, but as teachers we often don't allow the time or opportunity to create meaning for ourselves or for our students. There are ways and if schools are to be relevant in our ever-changing world, we need to identify them, utilize them, and share them with others, so that all students (and teachers) can have the time and opportunity to reflect and grow.

What if:

  • all students blogged to help them think about their thinking and learning? Blogging gives voice and helps to synthesize ideas. Instead of it being a project, shouldn't it be practice?
  • students had more opportunities to tell groups of people what is important? At yesterday's TEDx event and last week at 8th grade graduation, students had the chance to stand up and state what was important to them. The depth of their thinking, the moments and ideas they shared that were meaningful for them and the clarity in their communication was amazing - not just for the audience, but for the speakers themselves.
  • students and teachers had longer breaks in the day to go outside, talk, think and be?
  • we allowed students to doodle while they learned and create visual representations of what they are thinking?
  • we allowed students to guide discussions consistently?
Having spent the last two months with few opportunities to reflect upon the many things I was learning, experiences I was having and the ideas that were percolating in my head was a poor choice on my part. It sent a message to myself and my students that if you have time in the car or the grocery store line to reflect and think, you've done just fine. Spending the last two days with little to do besides reflect highlights for me the importance of creating time, developing the skills and communicating the importance of reflection - both in the classrooms and on an institutional level.

It comes down to sustainability and relevance. In order for learners (those who are students and the adults charged to guide them) to keep up with the rapid pace of information and change, we must be able to create meaning for ourselves. In the creation of meaning, we are sustaining our selves and the institutions we represent - ensuring that as individuals and organizations we can continue to move forward. Likewise, as reflectors of ideas and experiences, we develop the skills to remain relevant as the ideas and experiences change.

How will you make time for reflection?