What is it they say about politicians?
"They will say anything to get elected."
Well, it is that time of year when many educators will be tempted to say anything to get their classes and campuses to listen. We are going to make a lot of promises over the next few weeks, make some big shows of what we intend to do, but I want to caution you:
It is not in the big things that we make the most impact, but in how all the small things will add up.
I am not against the big things- they have their place. But what too often happens in the world and in education is we make a promise or put on a big show on day one, but after that we never do anything like that again. The big thing becomes a sort of island in the midst of an ocean of the small things, and it does not connect with people. Here is an example.
I am a huge proponent of student voice, as anyone who reads this blog knows. A big thing for that would be to host a student panel where I got ideas on how to shape instruction and develop class environment and design. I would tell the students they get to have a hand in how they are educated. I tell them their voice matters.
Then from day two on, all their suggestions and ideas are ignored.
That's a big, glaring example. For most of us, it is more like we do some fun team building games on day one, and then never do them again.
If you want to go big, you have to maintain the small in the day to day. I believe there are two ways in which the big things can and do work in education- be they at the classroom, campus or district level.
Each year, our district has a Kickoff- some districts call it Convocation. It sets the vision for the year ahead by celebrating accomplishments from the past year and outstanding students and teachers. It works when that vision then becomes a driving force for the year. One of the best examples was our Kickoff two years ago when the district unveiled it's You Matter campaign. The very next day, our district-wide professional development was all about teacher choice of six sessions that were led by district employees. Both were big events, but they had an impact because they set up all the small things. Our district employee page still posts pictures of staff members that have been nominated for the You Matter Hall of fame. We have You Matter extended sessions of popular classes offered at the beginning of the year. We have You Matter post-its that can be shared with staff and students.
All these small things started with a big thing, but they have been maintained.
If you go big to start things off, you better make sure to engage in the small things from then on out. Because if you lay out a vision and do not keep to it, the people (students and teachers alike) will wander from the focus. There is significant research to the effect that a big assembly does not have much long term impact if there is no follow-up in the day to day.
Ten year old me sat in front of the television watching a bunch of people standing on a wall, waving flags and celebrating. Then they started tearing the Berlin Wall down. I had little understanding of the Cold War beyond James Bond movies and Rocky IV, but I knew this was significant and real, and not just because Tom Brokaw told me it was. Twenty plus years later, as a US History teacher, I read a book about the Cold War. That wall coming down was a big thing that was made possible by all the small things leading up to it. Pockets of protests, years of negotiations, and a few accidental little coincidences and mistakes and a people were set free.
Sometimes we start our year with a promise- do you work and there will be a prize at the end. I find the Culmination big thing to be more beneficial because there is a build of expectancy. In my class, we make coffee cup goals on day one, and at the end of the semester we have a coffee/hot chocolate day to celebrate progress towards those goals. Its a big event that students look forward to and we build towards throughout the semester. But if I do not remind the students of their goals, or set the expectation before them and hold to those daily small things, then the big event has little meaning.
The Big Small Things
Over the summer, I have really begun to evaluate the importance of follow through. If I make a promise, I need to keep it. At the end of last school year, I said I was going to write a book over the summer. I have, but it's not done. Yet. It's close, and I plan to finish draft one in the next week or so, but I will finish it.
Have you ever been promised something by a teacher or student or administrator and it did not happen? It didn't feel good, did it? Now remember that our students hear our promises and our "Big Things" loud and clear on day one. We cannot be like those stereotypical politicians who will say anything to get elected. We must be diligent in all the small things that make our commitments to students and fellow educators come about.
I spent the last week at an Advancing Educational Leadership certification course. As a part of this week, we were tasked with developing a vision statement. This is more than a motto, which I've talked about in this blog- http://didacticchad.weebly.com/home/the-motto-of-teaching
A vision statement should be succinct, but also descriptive. It needs to be powerful and compelling.
And it it needs to mean something, so that it is not a phrase you craft and forget. Here is what I came up with:
The three main points align with my approach to education, but also my own personal morality. For more details, let's start with innovate.
I must admit, my daughter Kenna has gotten me addicted to Minecraft. Since it's summer, I've got some time. I've been building a hotel, I plan to build a pirate ship. Kenna asked me, "Can you do that?" I responded "We will find out!"
I learn by doing- usually by doing it my way. It's trial and error, but I love to create. I do it on Minecraft, I do it in my classroom design, and I try it in my instruction all the time. But it is not just doing new things for the sake of new- it's creating to make it better, to teach more students. My goal in innovation is to inspire my students to innovate- to think about different ways to approach problems. I value the kind of thinking and the courage it takes to innovate, so it leads off the value statement. But without a sort of boundary, innovation can go wrong.
There are actually two ways I approach Integrity. One, the most obvious, is moral. I want to honor and respect others, and I believe that teaching students to find their own moral compass- and follow it- is about integrity. I need to be an example of integrity to my students, to model honesty and loyalty and follow-through.
The second approach to integrity related to how I develop my craft as an educator. It is not just about my students, it is about how I can share my ideas and innovations with my fellow educators. In order to do that, I must honestly reflect on the data I collect in my class. I must dutifully and honestly evaluate what works- and what doesn't. All in pursuit of developing my craft.
I have always been fascinated by the idea of identity- how it is developed, grows, and evolves. When I Innovate with Integrity, I develop my identity as a teacher, and my class's identity. A teacher needs to know who they are, what they stand for. It's what a vision statement is all about. But as I innovate in my class with integrity, I am providing my students with tools to develop THEIR identity. They find how the content connects with their life, how it informs their actions. How it becomes a part of who they are.
See, as much as education is about equations and poets and dates and skills, it's about growing into the person we are to become. As a teacher, I want to create an environment where students can safely explore identity, with integrity and innovation.
What is your vision?
Below is the final assignment I had to write for my final grad school course (YAY!). I felt it was a good blog post as well, so I am sharing it here.
In Sir Ken Robinson’s TED Talk from 2006 (https://www.ted.com/talks/ken_robinson_says_schools_kill_creativity#t-550265),
he argues that schools kill creativity. He develops a powerful (and humorous) image of how in education we focus on developing student’s mind, “and slightly to one side” as Sir Ken puts it. He then develops a mental image of a college professor- what he argues our education system thinks is the end goal- who is detached from their body. He says they view bodies as simply a means of transportation for their head. These walking heads are incredibly knowledgeable about their content of choice, but lack creativity, they can regurgitate, but cannot create. They have figured out how to game the system, move up the hierarchy, but have- in my opinion- lost their own voice.
And I see the same behaviors in our students.
I have seen brilliant students struggle to order a pizza, or communicate an idea that would seem common sense to others. But they get perfect scores on AP tests and SATs. They will make excellent researchers and professors, but will they be creators, innovators, good neighbors, or strong parents? Is that even the responsibility of the public education system?
I believe it is.
I believe there are five practices and policies that we need to explore to educate the whole child and at the same time, address student fears of failure, not fitting in and of making mistakes.
I believe it starts with teachers developing relationships with students that goes beyond content- teachers must make an effort to know the whole child in order to educate them. Connecting at the door with a “hello,” making an effort to learn and explore their personal interests, providing them opportunities to share about their life experiences helps you get a better picture of the child you are seeking to educate.
The next step is Student Voice- allowing students to ask the questions, not just answer them, then develop their own way to understand curriculum.
The third practice is making relevant connections- students have been asking for years “When will I use this in real life?” If they have been asking it for years, why haven’t we come up with an answer yet? We teach what we teach because we love the content (hopefully). We need to remember that we had to fall in love with it at some point, and try to find out how to help our students have their own experience, from their perspective, that leads to at least an appreciation of the content.
The fourth practice is empowering students through hands on learning. There is a growing trend toward Maker Spaces and Genius Hour programs where students take their learning from all content areas and apply it to real world, and relevant needs.
Finally, I believe that students need to be allowed greater choice in their learning and how they are assessed. Tests ask for regurgitation, papers and projects allow for student to express the learning from their perspective. And their perspective is important. If we are going to allow students to express their thoughts, we cannot crush those ideas because they do not align with our own. Unfortunately, I have seen teachers do this.
I want to look more in depth at two of these practices, Student Voice and empowerment. I believe they go hand-in-hand, and easily build upon each other. Both consider a child’s unique perspective and abilities, and allow a child to experiment and grow to overcome fears by playing to their strengths.
Student Voice may be the easiest to implement, and the scariest, because for teachers it means letting go of some control over the classroom. Basic student voice is getting students to answer questions, and from my own experience in class utilizing Student Voice, the best way to do that is let them ask the questions. I start my classes with student led discussion- students ask the questions that review the previous day’s content or connect with a relevant current event. Students will respond more readily and often more deeply when a peer is leading the discussion. Once they start talking, I want them to learn to be respectful- not talk to long, not talk over others, and ultimately to develop an appreciation for other viewpoints and each other. In doing this, we address those fears of failure, not fitting in and making mistakes. It is easier to correct a mistake in discussion than on an assessment.
Student empowerment is actually, in my opinion, the final step in Student Voice. I want to see students take action on their learning and their ideas. This could manifest in a number of ways, from Genius Hour or Maker Space projects in math and science, to political action taken during a government course, or even students teaching a full lesson to their peers. I have had students design their perfect classroom and present it to teachers and administrators. I have also had my students teach a full 50 minute class from bell work to closure. Most recently, my students developed proposals to present to school and/or government officials about changes they would like to see. Some are actually taking their findings to those who can implement the changes!
I chose these two practices because they also address and encompass the other three. I have spent the last year developing these practices in my classroom and plan to continue to develop and improve on the ideas next year. Someday, as a campus administrator, I hope to engage my teachers’ voices and empower them in the same way I have my students. In this, I want to lead a campus culture of educating the whole child, so that they make a greater impact on the whole world.
And thus endeth the 2016-2017 school year.
Last night, our seniors walked the stage in celebration of completing degree requirements. Adorned in purple robes, filled with hope and expectancy, they turned their tassels and walked out into the real world. It was a beautiful moment.
While backstage lining up, I noticed one of my Student Council members, Natalie, kind of zoned out. She caught my eye, smiled and said, "I'm having a moment of deep reflection."
I'm taking her cue, and having "moment of deep reflection" about this school year. I want to look at the highs and lows of the year, in chronological order.
I set up my coffeehouse classroom, and had an open house at our You Matter district conference. Then I get a chance to share the concept with a few teachers on my own campus. They like the smell.
I begin requesting a wi-fi boost for my room because, well, it's like dial-up in the nineties down there.
Students come to class. They love the room, but some are skeptical. I think they assumed it was a prank to lull them into a false sense of security, then BAM! Rows of desks out of no where. They set goals, written on Starbucks cups that will be brought back at the end of the semester. They sign other goals on the poster boards on the back wall. They like the smell, too.
I introduce two unique concepts to my classes. All classes do Coffee Talks- student led discussions about current events related to the content we are learning. It's a shaky start, but by the end of the month, great things are happening. The second initiative is "Perfect World Projects" in sociology. Students choose a group, and start developing their culture based on concepts we learned in class. They can migrate if they feel they are not a good fit with their group.
The world is great. Students have really bought into the classroom concept. No one is sleeping in class despite the dim lighting. Coffee talks are great, but we have already discussed dress code twice in our Debate class. I've had some district administrators visit to see the design and concepts. I am introduced to the idea of student voice, and begin researching. I get to join our district's Dream Team- a sort of think-tank for innovation.
No wi-fi yet.
Debate team gets busy planning a tournament to host while competing in tournaments. My weekends disappear.
I am in love with student voice. I am seeing the power and potential for empowerment that is inherent in letting students talk and dream of solutions.
Students love the room be the culture we are creating together. They are bringing friends by before school and between classes. My goal of engaging my students at a 90% rate is accomplished. Students LOVE learning when they have control. I start to really believe that for teachers content is secondary- how students handle the content they find online is our primary responsibility.
But my students still have very little wi-fi to find that content, I create the hashtag #wififorchad in the suggestion of a fellow teacher. Other teachers wonder why I complain because it means students rarely have their phones out.
At a district Social Emotional Learning meeting, my campus is discussing our Anti-Bullying campaign. One teacher suggests it should be a district initiative, we pass it on to one of the district admins, who suggests I present it to the whole meeting. A big new undertaking starts at the district level.
Classes are rocking. Freshmen & Sophomores are often taking the lead in classes, even though they are with Juniors and Seniors. We begin a sociology project to design the perfect classroom. Students build models and design curriculum. They will present to teachers and administrators.
I start getting ready to take the practice test I have to pass to take my principal certification.
It it is not fun.
We take class field trips to the cafeteria to get wi-fi.
We have a coffee day to celebrate goal accomplishment it progress. It's a powerful moment.
Students present WILD classroom concepts. I learn sometimes limitations on projects are good. Other times, no limits nets awesome ideas.
I say goodbye to my sociology classes.
I pass that pre-certification test and sign up for my actual test.
I feel I am being pushy with the wifi, so I give it a rest.
Anti-bullying planning goes really well, we start to identify possible programs and Dude.BeNice takes the lead.
New classes start, we set goals. I sort psychology students into houses for group work based on a personality quiz. Students deny they are Freuds, I respond by saying that subconsciously, they really are.
I go to to take my principal test. The system crashes. I call to reschedule. The system crashes. I finally get rescheduled. I quickly take the test, in case it crashes. It doesn't, and I pass.
Take that ETS.
We host our debate tournament. That was a LOT of work. Learned a lot.
I apply for my first assistant principal job.
Psychology houses were a terrible idea.
Ok, they were a good idea that I executed horribly.
My debate kids have gotten so comfortable with coffee talk that they are like a family. A family that argues ALL. THE. TIME. We do positive coffee talks where you have to say nice things about each other. All classes start doing this in some way.
We take a psychology field trip to local schools for a child development research paper. Kids actually enjoy doing research when they see it's relevance.
I interview for the AP position. I don't get it. I get great feedback, but it's still a tough loss to take.
Senioritis strikes my Psychology classes. I try to work in ways to keep students connected.
Wifi boosts start showing up all over campus! I feel I have some small part to play in this, but I play it cool.
It is is tough to keep students interested in work in my psychology classes. This is the worst case of senioritis I have seen. Kids are still engaged, but I'm losing ground.
Debate students finish required content, so we start doing TED Talks. Begin exploring other "passion project" ideas.
My group in Dream Team has focused on student empowerment and develop the concept of an ambassador program with student developed community projects. The night we present, my group looks at me and says, " You present." We get held back by the superintendent and told to get this going for next year.
I apply for a couple more AP positions.
Still no AP job. Still hurts some.
Students in Debate class prepare presentations on school or community improvement ideas because THEY requested a chance to practice presentations they might give to the city council or school board.
THEY. ARE. AWESOME.
Psychology students get to abnormal psychology and engagement goes way up. I constantly warn them to not self diagnose. Or diagnose each other. Or family members. Or me.
So they get to diagnose Batman villains. Win for all.
My application to present about classroom design and student voice at Region 12 in Waco gets accepted. I begin writing a book on my CREATE Culture concept.
I say goodbye to my debate team seniors that started the program with me four years ago. It is bittersweet because they are so important to the identity of our team. And they are amazing people who I respect greatly. But they have such promising futures.
I also step down as a Student Council sponsor.
A little ethernet cord dangles from my ceiling. Still no wifi. I'm just laughing about it now.
And learning humility.
As the year ends, I see a lot of successes in my room. I have grown as an educator and learned more about dealing with adversity than I was expecting. In all, I think this has been my best year in the classroom. Yet I end the year struggling with some unexpected disappointments. I had hoped to be an administrator next year, but that looks to not be the case. So I am refocusing on how to improve upon my teaching and educational culture.
I choose to always seek growth and improvement. I still want to be an administrator, but I also look at the ways that I will be able to impact students next year, in my class, my debate team, and the two district teams I serve with.
It is always about the students.
Thus endeth my "moment of deep reflection. "
There is more to life than education.
Chances are, you read that one of three ways. One, you screamed "Life is EDUCATION!!!" and stopped reading. Two, you said "Totally true! " and listed off all the ways you take a break from talking teaching. If you are like me, you took option three- you stopped and realized how much you talk about education with family, friends, students, random people on the street....
A recurring scene in my home is that I go on and on about school, educational culture, and plans for how to further my educational and teaching journey and my wife listens patiently (usually), then reminds me there is more to life than just education.
She's a teacher, too, and she has often caught on that I get lost in my calling. I think about how to improve my craft and how to innovate all the time, but often forget that there is, in fact, more to life than education.
So, I am issuing a challenge. This summer, take pictures and share experiences via social media with the hashtag #morethanedu. I am not saying stop posting edu topics or even stop thinking about and reflecting on your craft- but make sure to take the time to recognize that there is more than educational theory and creation. Take a hike, ride a bike, go swimming with the family, start a new hobby- and share it with your fellow educational bloggers and on Twitter and Instagram.
More importantly, do not neglect the actual people in your life that you care about.
I am issuing this challenge because my wife called me out. But I am also issuing this challenge because I believe a well-rounded life makes us better educators because we see more than textbooks and classroom design and pedagogy. It helps us find relevance and relationship with the world around us.
It keeps us grounded.
And if you return next fall with more energy and excitement- thank #morethanedu.
And my wife Kristin (@krisknitsing).
As the year comes to a close, I reflected back on a lot of me talking about the power of student voice in the CREATE Culture. What I noticed was a lot of me, and not a lot of students. So, without further ado, here are some Student Voices explaining how my class impacted them, and why student voice is so important to education.
How do you eat an elephant?
One bite at a time.
Sure, its an old joke, but it can be very applicable for how to initiate change in education. I'm not a "one bite at a time" kind of change person, but I realize that not everyone works that way. Change for some is invigorating and exciting. For others, it means buying stock in Tums and lots of deep breathing.
Yet, there are many educators who want to initiate change, but just do not know where to start. I had a conversation with another teacher that really demonstrates that. These words inspired this blog: "I love your room, but I don't know where to start. There is so much there!"
Truth be told, I have been thinking about how to explain the small steps someone can take to CREATE their classroom without eating the whole elephant at once. So if you want some ways to change your classroom environment, but are intimidated by complete change and redesign, this ones for you!
Flexible lighting might be the cheapest and quickest adjustment a teacher can make. Simply get a few lamps and place them around the room. Depending on your school's rules, Christmas lights also do a good job of offering light variety. Darker rooms actually help increase focus and discussion, as students are not as easily distracted and feel less exposed by the stark white florescent bulbs. But if you need full lights, a flip of the switch can accomplish that.
Flexible seating is our next stop. This is a buzzword in education, but it has real value. We often see couches thrown out as an option- and they are- but they are costly. Sure, you can find them cheap at garage sales, but you can accomplish flexible seating without them. Arranging desks or tables so students can make eye contact with each other has shown to be a powerful tool for increases engagement and collaboration. Setting the room up in a way that allows for free movement for those kinesthetic learners is good as well. If you have budget and access, there are numerous seating options such as bean bags, fidget stools, and exercise balls. Yes, there can be a distractability factor, but there is also the consideration of student comfort. For those who say that flexible seating won't work in a STEM classes, I suggest you take a look at some of the great things a teacher in my district is doing in her middle school math class. Follow @stephanieryon for some great ideas!
Classrooms can have a ...unique...odor. So, an easy fix is to take control and provide stimulating and refreshing scents. For most of my year, I have used coffee scents, but recently I have begun using nature scents like rain and forests. These are more clean and invigorating scents, which are needed as the spring wears on. It may seem simple, but if a room smells good, it can helps students to relax and feel comfortable.
I have an added incentive. There is a weightroom right across the hall.
Depending on your classes, you may have need of a lot of supplies. Be creative with how and where you store your supplies. I was inspired to have these supply stations by two sources. One, Starbucks uses a similar design to the tower in the left of the picture for storing some of their coffees and merchandise. But I also observed a video of our floral design teacher Sheridan Clinkscales utilizing centralized stations for students to retrieve supplies from. I saw this as a great time saving and personal responsibility opportunity for the class. I built the tower, and my mom built the colored pencil holder from a Pinterest board she saw using pallets. (She's a big supporter.) Even if you do not have a lot of supplies, you may always have students needing paper or pens, and this helps to meet their needs.
School walls are BORING. So when looking to dress them up, you could use motivational posters or educational ABC posters....or you could let the students design. I have always displayed student work products, but this year I had a really ugly cinderblock wall and not enough student work to display on it. So I got some black poster board and butcher paper and made a goal wall. Students can write their goals and keep an eye on it as the year progresses, they can monitor progress. Meet your goal? Sign and date and write a new one. The wall is highly visible, so it is easy to monitor for inappropriate phrases, and it lets students literally leave their mark on the room.
It is at the heart of the CREATE Classroom, but Student Voice is often the hardest for the reluctant teacher to initiate. It is letting students have more control, it is risking chaos, it is unpredictable. There are time constraints and content to cover. What if there is a tangent?
Valid questions, but I counter with this. What if it increases student understanding and thus success? Start small- you don't have to spend more than a couple minutes in class letting a student ask a question of the class. Indulge in a little tangent, then try to steer it back to content. Ask students what they want to learn- and how they want to learn it. Let students design a lesson, then teach their peers for five minutes.
Let them talk.
I want to leave you with a challenge. You do not have to make your class a coffeehouse, or spend 10-15 minutes a day letting students lead. But the challenge is this:
Try something. One thing, one element.
Let's see what that can CREATE.
CREATE means Collaborative, Reflective, Empowering, Active, Timely Environment.
I think I am reflective to a fault.
Lately, I have been giving a lot of thought to the people and things that have made an impact on my life, and shaped me to be who I am. It started with preparing to interview for administrator jobs, and thinking through questions about my beliefs and practices. I was also informed that the building I went to high school in was being closed down, the students moved to a different facility. Then, I learned that one of my high school teachers was about to retire, and I began thinking about him and other teachers that gave pieces of their own philosophy and practice to create the mosaic of education that I have become. The reason I feel I am reflective to a fault is that once that ball starts rolling, it doesn't stop. Even when I need to sleep.
There are places I'll remember
All my life, though some have changed
Some forever, not for better
Some have gone and some remain
All these places have their moments
With lovers and friends I still can recall
Some are dead and some are living
In my life, I've loved them all
Though I know I'll never lose affection
For people and things that went before
I know I'll often stop and think about them
So I began to think about the people and things, and then the song above- "In My Life" by the Beatles- floated back into my life. I have liked the song since I was a teenager, but as an adult it comes with a different perspective. As a high school student, I looked at the song as a a hope of what was coming- meeting new people who would impact me and hold a special place in my life. Now, I am at a point where I am looking back on those people and places, and reflecting on how they have shaped me.
- Mr. Reynolds- the retiring teacher- who always gave us projects because- "They are never going to sit you down in the real world on a Tuesday and give you a test." Now, I teach- and don't give tests, I strive to give real world applications.
-That nameless girl a friend of mine and I evangelized on campus at A&M for about half an hour. A week later, I ran into her on campus and avoided her because I didn't have time (in my mind). I learned that I should never try to teach or share an opinion with someone unless I cared about them- it was hypocritical of me, and a disservice to them.
-Bob Mayfield, who taught me the time to check in on someone who was grieving was about six weeks after the loss, because the calls and visits and attention stops then, and people really begin to feel the grief. That's when they need it.
-The patch of ground I sat on at the back of my family's 90 acres to watch the first cool front of the fall roll in. I found peace there, and in that memory still.
-The image of my friends Morgan and Michael running to the stairs of my apartment in college the day my dad died- dropping everything to be there when I needed them.
-Mr. Nims, my English III AP teacher who taught me that failure is the best way to realize the importance of creatively learning. By giving me a failing grade on the first day of class for not going deep enough in analysis.
-The moment in my wedding when Kristin surprised me with a song she had pre-recorded. I cried. I still have not forgiven her.
-Disc Golf with my college best friend Dusty Stoddard at Research Park. And all the times the water had a magnetic pull that defied science. The power of relationships and honesty and a good angle of hold on a disc.
- Getting to baptize both my children- one in a church, one in Adamson Lagoon Pool.
-The two mountain tops I have stood on- the peak in Rocky Mountain National Park outside Estes Park that I was the first to the top of, and last down, but did not have to work for. And Handies Peak- 14,048 feet high that I DID have to work for.
-Glenn Shock, the pastor I worked for who challenged me to write my own curriculum. He had no idea what he would start, and now I see the power of writing so much clearer.
- Before my dad died, he told me how proud he was of who I was becoming. I cherish that.
-My mom's strength and resilience- and presence- that inspire me.
In my life, these people and places and events have shaped me. These are moments that some of them probably remember- and some probably do not. Some are dead and some are living. Some were intentional moments, some just happened.
As a teacher, I think of the countless moments I spend with students. How many are intentional? How many just happen?
How many of those moments will a former student someday look back on and say "Lehrmann made a difference in that moment, he helped shape me"?
The truth is, we never know what moment will become an "In My Life" moment for our families, friends, and students.
So make the most of them all.
I was watching an interview with Neil deGrasse Tyson on CBS Sunday morning, and at the close, he spoke of his role in the universe. He closed with this quote:
Neil deGrasse Tyson just defined for us how to be educators in the 21st century: recognize we all have questions and curiosities, then meet the people in those places of inquiry.
That phrase- a "Servant of those curiosities" came crashing in on me. Those words have stuck with me throughout the day, and as I reflected on them, I found an identity.
I strive to be a "Servant of Curiosities."
I strive to create a learner-centered environment in my classroom every day. Yes, I have content to cover and standards to meet, but I have to see my role as more than just a dispensary of facts. Our students cry out that they want to have relevant topics, things they will "use in the real world." They do not necessarily use the education buzzwords, but they want to know why they need to know the stuff we teach. It thus becomes our role as educators to find their curiosity, and be a servant of it. In order to do that, we must listen to their questions and requests. We need to hear our students to serve their curiosities.
I believe there are five questions that our students are asking that we need to really engage with to serve their curiosities. Three are coming from a very conscious level: What is that? How does it work? When does it apply? We will look at those three first.
What is That?
This is the most basic. If a student looks at content and asks what it is, curiosity is beginning. Often, the student is not asking this about the thing we have defined as the most important part of the lesson. In a lesson I did on Lincoln Douglas debate, I was trying to get them to understand it was a philosophical debate more than a policy or action debate. In the midst, I mentioned some values used and said that Lincoln Douglas is about asking questions like "is there an unselfish good deed?" A student latched onto that phrase and I had a choice: engage that curiosity and veer off course of MY plan, or put that question off until later- if we had time. I chose to engage, and what happened was a robust discussion- and debate- over the question of unselfish good deeds. Did my students eventually get the content they needed to? Yes, but they got it with a sudden understanding of how relevant it was to them because I answered their "what is that?"
How Does It Work?
Once students know what it is, they want to know how it works. That discussion about good deeds turned into a question of how a good deed could be unselfish- and what values a person could hold that would make them even care if a good deed was done for selfish or unselfish motives. They talked of truth, morality, justice, equality- all Lincoln Douglas values I intended to teach anyway- as how motivation to do good worked. In the process, I took chances to interject how that argument or this argument would work in an actual debate.
When Does It Apply?
As I was serving the curiosity of my students by letting them have this informal debate, they began to see the need for organized strategy in debate. I explained that while people will never sit down to a formal Lincoln Douglas debate outside of a competition, the value of organized and researched debate was a critical skill for any communication. Sometimes, in order to identify how content is relevant, we need to find the thing they are curious about in our lesson- even if it seems inconsequential at first- and work to build a bridge from that curiosity to the standard we need to meet.
The unconscious questions are driving these spoken questions. Students will verbally ask the What, How and When, but behind them are these two questions that are key to a student's personal growth. They are definitely in the back of the mind of the students I serve in high school, and you can see them in they way they connect or disconnect with the content. Those questions are: Why do I believe what I believe? and Who am I?
Why Do I Believe What I Believe?
I teach teens who are in the midst of making up their minds about why they should go to college, why they should vote and why they should vote that way, why they should or should not believe in religion, and perhaps most importantly- why do they believe they will be successful- or a failure- in life?
Students are asking the surface questions of What, How and When because they want to know how to determine what they believe about the world around them. And their role in it. This question begins to get to what deGrasse Tyson was saying about Cosmic Curiosities. Students want to know where they fit in the grand scheme of things, but they express these questions by questioning why the content we find so important should be important to them. In short, we need to help students find out how to think for themselves instead of just giving them the right answer. This is not answered by standardized tests or more rigor- it is answered by letting the students seek their curiosities and guiding them through their discoveries about them.
Who Am I?
Every student is asking this of us, their friends, parents, and the community around them. They cannot answer that until they know why they believe what they believe- until they know how to think for themselves. Who Am I? is evident in the What is that? because they want to know what they think about that thing. In the How does it work? portion, the student wants to know if it is worth their time to figure out how it works. In the When does it apply?, students are asking if they are the kind of person who will use this after the test. Will it impact them?
Neil deGrasse Tyson answers his Who am I? by saying he is a "Servant of Curiosities." He seeks to answer the questions that others have about the universe that helps them understand what it is, how it works, when it applies to them, why they believe what they believe about it, and who they are in relation to this thing.
He is an educator.
We do this every day. We definitely do not deal in as atmospherically lofty curiosities, but we do deal with equally important curiosities that shape our individual students. We are either feeding their curiosity, or starving it out in the name of "getting through the content." The truth is, sometimes we need to stop and feed the curiosity of students to get them to the point of understanding the content.
I believe every student wants to learn, they just do not all know how to get from their curiosities to the facts and activities in our lesson plans. Let us be servants of curiosities that dive into the interests of our students as we meet them where they are.
Here is the segment from CBS This Morning
In 2014, at the end of my first year of teaching at College Station High School, I penned this blog- http://amidoingthisrightteachers.blogspot.com/2014/04/it-takes-team.html
In it, I talk about the power of the department around me, the admin team, and my fellow UIL coaches. It was about a 3A high school units second year of existence, with just under 1,200 students and no senior class. I was teaching US History.
It is now 2017, three years after I wrote that, and much has changed. We are 5A, well over 1,800 students, and we've graduated two classes. I now teach Debate, Psychology, and Sociology.
And how I define team is very different. For one, there are more teachers, new admins, and for me, a new location. I've moved from the 3rd floor to the zero level, as I call it the "hole in the bottom of the school." I love my room, but I am no longer surrounded by my department. Or many teachers at all. There are four of us on that hall, two split time in a room, one is around the corner, then there is me. No one teaches my classes on my level, so I've got no level team.
While I am still very much a part of the team of CSHS, it has become harder to be in the midst of a team of teachers. At least physically. See, I have found that my team is redefined in a number of ways.
First, I have a team via Twitter. Our district Twitter chat #CSISDchat "meets" Tuesdays at 8 for encouragement and idea sharing- it has powerfully affected how I teach and lead on my campus.
Second, because my administrators saw potential in me, I was given the chance to be a part of the District's first ever Teacher Leader Academy. We (three other CSHS teachers and I) developed a risk taking opportunity centered around peer coaching and developed the idea with other teachers around the district. Again, encouragement and idea sharing. This year, my involvement in TLA opened the door for me to be on the Dream Team, an innovation think-tank of sorts for our district. More growth made available.
Finally, the most important new members of my team.
Yes, one of the most powerful teams I have found is my class full of students. I've learned to listen to their voice, their ideas, and how they want to learn. It's challenged me to create a new way to run a classroom, to design it, and to share content. When teachers (and admins) put together teams, we MUST consider the students.
In 2014, I discovered the power of a team at CSHS. Since that time, I've expanded and altered that team, just as our school has grown. My role on the team has changed, and my concept of what a team is has moved beyond the walls of my school to my district and beyond. And it is no longer just teachers and admins- it's students, too.
Much has changed since 2014, but this remains true:
Back then, I saw greatness in our students. I wish I knew then what I know now- there is power in their voice and in their dreams. What greater things could have happened if I'd listened more to students then?
I am now working to finish grad school, then hopefully attain a job in administration. It may be next year or years from now, but what I have learned in my four years at CSHS and in CSISD is that it takes a team- teachers, admins, students and community.
A team is more than the peers around you, and without them, we are never as excellent as we could be with them.
May I never take my team for granted.
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.