Educational Insights, Victories, struggles, Parables and questions
Two co-workers each drove a beat up, 1996 blue Dodge Neon. Day after day, they would stand together looking out the window at their cars and complain. "Ugh, the paint is chipped." "It just does not accelerate like is should." "I've been missing the left front hubcap for years."
Finally, one turned to the other and said, "We need to stop complaining, and make a change. It is time for something different!" They agreed that tomorrow, they would be driving something different.
As the two pulled up the next day, one was driving a brand new Corvette. The other was driving a green 1996 Dodge Neon. The coworker in the Neon said, "When you said different, you really meant it!"
The Corvette driver looked over the green Neon and said, "Why just go for different, when you can go for better?"
While reading Chapter 1 of Innovators Mindset, I was struck by the idea George Couros shares near the close:
I must say, while I love the concept of growth mindset and continual improvement, I feel we must take caution to not just engage in change for change's sake. Why replace an old car with the same model but a different color when you can upgrade? In education, why make a change if the change is only superficial. Below are some things I think we need to keep in mind when seeking "different" so that we do more than change, we innovate and improve.
When I set out to redesign my classroom this year, at first, I simply focused on the aesthetic. Flexible seating, new lighting, coffee smells. But I soon realized that I was trading a blue neon for a green Neon unless I changed the fundamental culture of my class. So I kept the aesthetic change, and also re-evaluated and redesigned my instruction. The flexible seating is just a color shift if it is not accompanied by flexible and student led instruction. I am reading lots of articles about classroom redesign, specifically the coffee house style. But often, it is just about the seats, not about the instruction. My classroom looks like a coffeehouse, and my instruction- and the student facilitated instruction, looks like a book study group that meets at our local coffee house. The two are connected.
Innovative thinking ties the atmosphere of the room to learning that occurs there.
We all want our students to speak up in class. A difference would be taking a plan to call on each student once a week. An innovation would be to give the students the floor everyday. Student facilitated discussion has proven to be POWERFUL in my classes. Students get the first 10-15 (or 20) minutes of class to cover current events related to the content, or to review the content, with one student facilitating. Students are more readily engaged because they are talking to a peer. I simply monitor and record student contributions.
Innovative thinking lets students develop their voice by giving them a chance to use it freely.
Group assignments. Love them or hate them, they can be great tools for student assessment. Difference thinking either lets students pick their group, or assigns it. Either change may be great for your class, but true collaboration comes when students are not just working together on group projects, they are working together to learn the material in instruction. When students are challenging each other's contributions, giving reflections and critiques on comments and work, then collaboration moves beyond "group work" into "group learning." I have long used peer feedback as a way to increase collaboration in my debate classes, but now I am moving it into my Sociology and Psychology classes. When groups present, questions and suggestions are EXPECTED from the rest of the class. And that is just the beginning. That student facilitated discussion- that doubles as collaboration. Students working together to understand and push each other forward.
Innovative thinking works to create a collaborative environment in instruction, not just work products.
So, the question is- do you want different, or do you want innovation?
Taking the challenge that George Couros extended to us, I am going to design my dream school, department by department.
This is a DREAM. I realize that the realistic possibilities for full scale implementation are limited here, but the concepts are hopefully thought provoking.
Forgive the rudimentary design/photo editing, please!
Items in italics are from student suggestions.
Imagine each room designed with the decor of the country (or countries) where the language is spoken. Down to the texture of the walls, an immersive experience of culture. Imagine learning in a Spanish Hacienda, an Italian villa, or a Chinese temple setting. Each step into a classroom is like walking into a different land.
Going for grandiosity and easily accessible supply of books- then adding comfort. Twenty foot ceilings with wall to wall book shelves everywhere. Lots of natural light, think Ivy League libraries or even Hogwarts. But then, comfort. Instead of rows of tables and chairs, couches, floor pillows, bean bags, hammocks, and in the center, a small stage for presentations and acting out all the Shakespeare.
Lots of variety here. Imagine a geography class with interactive zones to discuss climate, a wide variety of cultural artifacts, one-to-one student computers for utilizing Google Maps. Ground floor with access to an open area to actually go and observe.
Sociology/Psychology classes that are in the middle of the school with all glass windows surrounding them, enabling observation of the school environment.
History classes need artifacts, but they also need space. Like Geography, open to the outdoors, allowing for recreations of key events- I have seen and used role play as a powerful review and teaching tool. For the artifacts, an open share with libraries, and/or lots of replicas because students getting to touch history has power.
Similar design for both. I imagine a setting like a cooking show in the round. Students are all around with workstations in a circle, rowed like stadium seating. They are raised above the instructor, who is in the center and demonstrates experiments and equations. The work they do with their hands are amplified onto a "jumbo tron" that students can look up to and see the detail and precision of they work being done.
Now for the earth sciences/environmental sciences- a learning environment not unlike a biome/greenhouse. Outdoor class space, opportunities to explore nature and the real world applications are right there. Literally.
Imagine an open air mall setting. Each class is designed to resemble the actual working environment of the students are preparing for. Culinary that looks like a restaurant, shop that looks like a woodshop, an automotive area that looks like a garage, a working flower shop. Perhaps have a section that can be open to the public to sell the arrangements and rooftop gardens. Business and accounting classes that mimic the feel of the work place- in a positive way.
Athletics/PE/ Fine Arts
Facilities that meet the specific need for each sport/activity, and no need to share the space because each class has its own room and space uniquely theirs.
Special Education (totally picked my wife's brain here- she is a Special Education teacher)
Special sensory classes for students with heightened sensory perception. Unique space for people with audio and visual impairments to perform daily tasks. Access to unique tools for each students unique needs. Like the CTE classes, some real-world scenarios for the Life Skills students to be able to practice skills they will need for independence- including a vocational skills room with a mock grocery store for life and educational development. Unique zones for specific types of therapy: pet, speech, music, occupational, physical.
I have learned from my own comparatively modest classroom redesign that these largely aesthetic changes are nothing without a unique teacher's hand and heart. So, the most important component of my dream school would be the staff that puts students first, takes risks, and would soon develop a vision that far out reaches what was once their dream school.
And of course, the likelihood of this being even remotely possible is low, but there are some ideas here that can still be incorporated on a much smaller scale.
Now, I really want to learn some better photo editing skills.
"Why am I here?"
Educators, let's be honest. On any given day, we are in a room for an hour with twenty to forty people asking this question. They question why the content is relevant, they question why they need us to teach them this stuff that is readily available on Google. They question in an age of technology available anywhere, why they have to be here, in a room that most often feels sterile and cold despite the educators best efforts to give cinderblock life.
Educators, let's be honest. By day 100 (or maybe day two) we too are asking:
"Why am I here?"
I love teaching. I am in year four right now, and it is the best yet. I teach at a great school, with innovative administrators, and a great number of teachers who follow that lead. But that question still lingers for many teachers. They are questioning why they stick with a profession that is underpaid, undervalued, and dangerously close (in the students minds at least) to being replaced by a machine.
So, I started asking myself "Why am I here?" in a different way over the summer. Not in the negative "I could be doing something else" way, in the "How can I do this better?" way.
I recognized an important fact, that yes, our students can get a great deal of the content we share with them from the internet. So really, content is not why I am here.
Yep. Content is secondary, maybe even tertiary.
I am here primarily to help students learn HOW to deal with the content they learn. Google gives them information, not how to interact, interpret, analyze, formulate, and eloquently communicate that learning. I teach because I want to help students find a voice that communicates clearly, respectfully, and with new perspectives that challenge the status quo.
And I want them to do it with morality.
The above quote from Theodore Roosevelt has resonated with me for some time. I am not- nor do I think Roosevelt is- advocating that I teach a student a specific brand of morality other than perhaps the Golden Rule. "Treat others as you would want to be treated." I teach debate, psychology and sociology. My content is well known by my students. They possibly know more about sub-cultures and counter cultures than I do, because movements like Black Lives Matter are on the news all the time They know about politics (sort of) because it is an election year. But they often do not know how to communicate their feelings in a respectful, organized way. Because the people they see on TV, and on social media do not know how to communicate that way. Because Google doesn't teach us how to handle the information, just how to get it.
Enter the educator.
My classes start each day with student facilitated instruction. Students bring a topic of their choosing, current events for debate, review of content from the day before in the ologies. They communicate, they debate, they agree- and I observe, interject, and let them find their voice.
It is beautiful.
I am able to model, and let students model good communication, and even good vision casting. I am able to see students explore the world around them, and learn how to handle that information overload in a way that contains the morality of concern for others, and collaboration with their peers to learn.
I do not teach them what to think, but I must guide them as they learn HOW to think. To do this, I must build something with my students. Something stronger than content and perhaps even stronger than the "how."
If helping students learn how to handle information is primary, and content is tertiary, it is here that my secondary (and really, it is tied with the primary, honestly) purpose grows.
Educators are mentors, role-models, examples. We are to be a voice of compassion, understanding, and support. But we cannot do it the same way we have always done it. The world has changed, and so must we.
So we must help students own their learning. This is how I am trying that challenge. Now-
Why are you here?
We all want to know when something we have attempted is a success, right? We dream, we toil, we invest, we strive- but we often do not get an explicit confirmation.
But sometimes we do.
Today, my class was discussing agents of socialization, and after two periods of sociology, I thought I knew where the conversation was heading. We would talk about how Kindergarten socializes us to share, keep our hands to ourselves, and "put your hands behind your back and a bubble in your mouth." We would then quickly transition to talk about how school introduces us to peer groups, another agent of socialization, then move on.
But I said something- I cannot remember what- and the students suddenly started talking about my room, the Didactic Cafe. By the time I had to stop the discussion, there were tears in my eyes. Everything I had set out to do in June was being mentioned by my students as to why my class had socialized them to be better students. Some things I had never mentioned to them, some things I had never anticipated could happen. Here are a few things that came up- paraphrased:
-"I don't talk in other classes, because (I get embarrassed). But the low lights make me feel safe to share."
-"Your room smells like coffee, which is so much better than other rooms that smell like leftover lunch."
-" The room is so inviting- it is not like the other rooms that are stark and boring." ( No offense, guys!)
-"I can be stressed out, but I walk into your room and I can instantly feel myself calm down."
-"I'm a hyper person, so it is hard for me to focus. But I can in here, and then when I go to my next class, I focus better." (Did not anticipate that one- AT ALL!!!)
And it was not just the physical design that had connected with them:
-"When we get a right answer, you get so excited and praise us so much."
-"When we get it wrong, you don't put us down, you shift the conversation so we get to the right answer."
-"You let us talk, and we build relationships."
-"I don't think we would be friends in any other class, but in here we are really becoming friends."
-"I feel safe to share things with this class."
I wish I had recorded it. One, because there will be days I need that encouragement! But two, because I want other teachers to hear how much IMPACT classroom culture can have on a student's social emotional learning, and their learning in general. And there is no better way to share that impact, than with student voice.
It was a great day.
After some colleagues observed my class, one sent me a link to a video called "I'm 17." Its a TED Talk (see below) given by a 17 year old. In it, the teen shares that it is difficult for students to feel heard by adults, but that is not how it should be.
I showed the video to my students today, and we engaged in a class long Coffee Talk. What I heard was interesting
-Students like having hard conversations via text because it allows more time to think out responses than a face-to-face does.
-Students do not feel heard by our campus leaders sometimes. And we have some great leaders.
-Students want to share their opinions with adults, but feel they are not heard.
-We say things to end conversations with students when we feel trapped, things like "I'm the adult." This hurts them. And they know what we are doing.
After letting them talk, I challenged them to not let our failings as adults stop them. I shared that sometimes our leaders may not respond because of the timing. Have a problem with the seating arrangements at the football game? Don't elaborately argue it right then and there. Set up a time to talk later. I suggested students develop a lesson for parents on the things we say that really hurts them and leads them to feel unheard. We are in the beginning stages of talking about designing classrooms and instruction (that unit comes next six weeks, but I want it to be big), and I want to invite teachers to observe their presentations and comment.
And maybe implement.
The most important thing I learned today was that yes, students have a voice. And we need to listen.
They might teach us a thing or two if we let them.
"Dad, look what I made!"
If you are a parent, especially with young kids, you've heard that phrase, and probably put the object the sentence is referring to on your refrigerator. Even if it was...less than gallery quality. There is something creative in the mind of a child, and there is something in the heart of the parent that wants to celebrate our child's creativity.
But something happens as our kids get older. As we get older.
We stop being creative.
It's fewer abstract images, and more rigid structures. Our children cease thinking of creative solutions to problems because they begin to see that reality will only allow so much. And while it is good that our children begin to distinguish between fantasy and reality, it is not so good that they begin to confuse creativity with time wasting, and thus difficulty with impossibility.
I do not know what it is that makes us stop creating, but I am making educated guess that is has to do with society's rigid definitions and expectations regarding success. And it starts with education.
Students are told very early on that there is a certain way to do things. When I was in elementary, even then I balked at the idea that even though I got the right answer to an equation, I lost points or got it wrong because I did not follow the correct formula for finding the sum. It just rang wrong with me.
It still does.
We assume that in order for our students to demonstrate learning, it must look like X. A certain percentage on a test, a certain something in an essay, a rubric well followed. I have students ask that question all the time- "What is the rubric?"
And do not get me wrong, we need to measure our students' progress, and we need to have systems in place to do that. But if you listen, our students are not asking about a rubric in the sense we think, they are asking, "Tell me what you want me to do so I can produce the thing that you want me to." The focus is on what we as teachers want, not on what students are producing. What if they asked this instead:
"What do you want me to create?"
Now, if you will permit me, I want to back up a bit, and discuss my coffeehouse classroom project. See, it came out of a discussion about creativity. At least, that is how I heard it. A discussion about what environment is best for students to learn in, and a conclusion to that discussion that classrooms as we typically envision were not that place.
See, I had learned that classrooms needed desks, and rigid assessments, and that all things needed to be certain way. I did not learn this from my superiors- who I see now have been trying to to find ways to challenge this notion since our school opened. No, I learned it from a society that believes education looks a certain way. To use an education term, our anticipatory set is that school looks a certain way. From the furniture, to the way the lesson is delivered, to the way it is assessed.
Following this discussion, I adopted the mindset of "What do you want me to create?" I designed a classroom with flexible seating, adjusted lighting, coffee smells, and a general different feel from a regular classroom- which you can see more about here. But I soon realized that if I stopped with look and feel, what had I really changed? Yes, aesthetic is important, but as a launching pad. So, I developed more creativity and student led activities into the instruction, which you can read more about here and here.
Imagine if we as teachers re-adopted that creative mindset from when we were kids.
The design is my creativity- but the lessons, the instruction? Students are now tasked with making that their own creativity. The Coffee Talk piece in particular, along with my Sociology classes' Perfect World Project (blog to come), are letting students create things, tangible and intangible, that allow them to own their learning. Even if it is not "gallery work," progress is praised. There is a complete shift in the way I teach my students this year, and how they are reacting to it.
Some administrators from my district came this week and observed my Debate 1 class. It has freshmen through seniors, some students who want to join the team, some who just like to argue. The administrators left in awe of the students' respect and maturity in the Coffee Talk discussion, which was over homosexual rights. I explained that things like this had not been possible last year, and confirmed that yes, the class design played a part. What I did not say, because it had not occurred to me, was that I had given this year's class a sort of freedom to "create" their thoughts that I had not last year. Students developed a bond much quicker this year, and as such, they are working together more. In other classes, I have posed the question of "What can I as a teacher and us as a class do better?" The response has been that asked for more interaction with each other over the materials.
All this brings me back to my beginning. When a child makes something, they show pride in it, and honor when we as parents put it on the fridge. In the 21st century classroom, I think I am developing a way to encourage and celebrate creativity- and it is more than just a classroom design. It is a classroom culture. I have called this project Coffeehouse Concept from its inception, but from now it, it is my CREATE project.
Those administrators made the comment that they would love to see the type of class my students had just shown them in other content areas, I believe that the CREATE model is the way. I plan to elaborate more in future posts, but here, I just wanted to lay out the philosophy. As I close, I want to leave you with the meaning of CREATE:
Collaborative- students work together, even in discussions.
Reflective- students evaluate their own work, with prompting from peers.
Empowering- students are allowed to dream, and if the product is not "gallery quality", progress is praised
Active- students are mentally and/or physically engaged.
Timely- current events are used to increase the relevance and impact for students.
Education- not just what the teacher gives, but how the students lead their own learning.
There are some ideas that sound good on paper, but when you actually implement them, they kinda fall to pieces.
This is NOT one of those.
When my coffeehouse class idea was born, it was largely about aesthetics. But I quickly recognized if I was going to do this, it was going to have to be more. A culture shift, if you will. If it was just comfy couches and mood lighting, my students would respond with "Why so many notes?" just like they always had.
No, this needed to be fundamental in change. EVERYTHING I had done was up for discussion and potential change. It had to be, because I wanted to make an impact on my students' education.
Pretty early on, I identified Bell Work as something that needed to be addressed. I do not like it. It is bland, and it is boring, but it is necessary to kick start our students' thinking. But if it is bland and boring- does it even fulfill its purpose?
I thought it did not, so I looked to what my students had most enjoyed and benefited from in my classes past. It always came back to discussion. Discussion allows for students to verbalize thoughts, to bounce ideas off each other, and to address each other's ideas. It can often lead to depths unplanned, or rabbit-trails unseen, but neither of those are bad, in my opinion. Or they do not have to be.
So, I began thinking about OPENING class with discussion. We could talk current events in my debate class, we could talk over what the lesson from the day before had been about. I was already loving the idea because it meant student engagement, but then I had THE idea.
What if students led the discussions?
That's right, what if I turned my classroom over to a 14-18 year old to talk about whatever current event or aspect of the previous days lesson they wanted, and let them come up with questions for their peers. And I decided to start my class, the foundation of the day, by doing this.
Except, it works.
My Debate 1 and my stacked Debate 1,3, and Independent Study classes could teach a master course on it. My Sociology classes have been a bit more hit or miss, but the core of the idea is sound. Even when the discussion is pure review based, we usually have at least one student make a new connection, or interpret the topic in a fresh way. They have been respectful, if occasionally intense (yeah, that's the debate classes there). The truth is, is it not better to let students have the hard conversations when we as teachers are there to guide and safeguard them?
So, how does it work?
Each day, as I close class, I try to remember to ask for a Coffee Talk volunteer. (I don't always, by the way. I need to work on that.) For the debate classes, I ask them to choose a current event to discuss, and that way the class has time to research their opinions, if they choose. For Sociology, they mostly stick to the content of the day, but sometimes they do take the discussion in new directions. A talk about folkways, mores and laws went in some creative and fun directions the other day. The students who facilitate are asked to prepare a 30 second intro, setting up the discussion, and to prepare 5-6 questions to guide the discussion. Facilitating students get a major grade for their part, which encourages them to take it seriously. All students must contribute at least 10 days each Six Weeks for a daily grade, basically 10 points a day. They must also offer a contribution that has some depth or manner of pushing the conversation forward to get credit.
I got them to do it by modeling the process for a couple days before handing it off to them. This was a great way to ease them into it.
Okay, so I know my math and science friends are thinking, "That's great, but how could I do this?" How about having a student develop a problem or an equation, and then walk the class through the manner of solving it. It pushes learning for the facilitator and the participants, and even if the leading student messes up, it is a teachable moment. I can see students standing by the markerboard or Smart Board, writing utensil in hand, trying to challenge their peers to "Figure it out!"
I love this process. I do not know if there is any other instructional technique I have used that has more potential to impact my students' learning than this. They OWN their own instruction. They are proud of their discussion.
And they things they can think of when we let them run with their ideas?
I teach Psychology, Sociology, Communication Applications and Debate at College Station High School, as well as coach the debate team and co-sponsor Student Council. I am an aspiring administrator.