So my own hypocrisy smacked me in the face today. Hard. And I have to come clean if I’m to have a prayer of working through the existential crisis that’s unfolded in the last 24 hours.
I thought that one of my core beliefs centered around equity : all students deserve access to opportunity.
But when push came to shove for me last night, I failed as a human for what I tell myself was a trade-off as a mother. I chose to advocate for separation instead of for equity in hopes of sheltering my child from exposure to what I perceived as a possibly harmful environment. Maybe my child felt better in the short term, but what have I taught him for the long haul?
Everybody struggles. I’m struggling with this. I’m looking at my own background, remembering my roots and considering how they shape my current reactions. The daughter of a truck driver, I grew up with a father who freely embraced the f-bomb as every part of speech (and in just about every sentence). Sidesplittingly funny with strong views on everything from politics to the Yankees, his language always threw me. Language was at the heart of my discomfort in both of these situations–listening to my father and the potential for that kind of language to surround my son for four nights. I’m all design thinking and empathy in school, but I didn’t honor that here.
But what if…it didn’t look like that?
What if my son had the opportunity to build bridges instead of be sheltered? What if he learned some empathy himself? Might there have been long-lasting positive effects?
When does fighting for equity outweigh concerns as a parent?
While I would be proud to present my spirit animal as the wise owl, the shrewd wolf, or the majestic eagle, I share a far more ridiculous reality: SQUIRREL! No, really. It’s SQUIRREL! It’s my inspiration junkie self finally coming to terms with the beauty of this animal in its abrupt pivots, its nimble movements over unstable terrain, its rapid adjustments and keen senses. Squirrels are adorable bundles of explosive energy and it’s difficult to predict where they’ll go next. I’m down with that, and it took a trip to SXSWEdu and a chance meeting of a fellow SQUIRREL! for me to identify and embrace this fact. I understand its significance and importance in my life, and now I have an answer when someone asks that most revealing of questions as a conversation opener.
All this erratic squirrel energy demands balance, and that prompts me to reflect on reflection. I’ve pondered the place of reflection in the new educational landscape, and part of my struggle remains the time it takes to sufficiently reflect. Who has time for reflection when you could be DOING something?! Then my mind goes all John Dewey on me and I remember my wits:
“We do not learn from experience. We learn from reflecting on experience.”
He’s looking all Uncle Sam with a pointy finger in my mind, but okay. I believe this. Reflection is important. And our students do not have a firm grasp on what it means to reflect. (Honestly, they’re more SQUIRREL! than I am.) While co-teaching our Exploring Education class, Pat LaClair and I found ourselves mired in attempts to help students reflect. We failed. Often. We started by asking thought-provoking questions. We shared examples. We asked what our students thought about their experiences and then we asked WHY? Why did they feel this way? While we eventually made some progress from relatively shallow answers to more in-depth thought, I was left with two observations:
1. reflection is absolutely imperative to deeper learning.
2. we need to vary our approach.
How might we do that? Some moments of inspiration hit hard last week while I was in a workshop at SXSWEdu led by Dan Ryder and Amy Burvall. The two have created an incredible collection of activities in Intention: Critical Creativity in the Classroom that promise to develop metaphorical thinkers, and I believe that this is one way forward with reflection. In a world of SQUIRREL! type thinkers, these activities are quick, fun, and genuinely compel students to reflect and think deeply. With Legos. And Oreos. Check out our exercise in representing a social issue with Oreo:
That toilet? Come on! Brilliant. We had two minutes and an Oreo. Take a second (SQUIRREL time) and consider the kind of thinking one has to engage in to bring to life this simple creation. It’s metaphorical, right? And metacognitive. It’s creative, and it’s deeper than even a thought-provoking question might elicit. While I believe that written reflection is integral to learning, we need additional formative opportunities to help students move toward deeper reflection. With short activities such as these (heavily weighted with fun), students can begin to develop the kind of mindset that deep reflection requires.
Dan and Amy: thank you for pulling together an amazing collection of “reflection recipes.” It’s perfect for this SQUIRREL! and I know it’s going to be spot-on for those in my class…now what was that about design thinking, deeper learning, and wait, SQUIRREL!
I should have taken a few years off after college and done some traveling, exploring, and growing up,
but instead, I landed my first teaching job.
I thought that getting a job was the next logical step in the whole new world of adulting, so I took the first offer that came to me. I was to be one of four teachers on a freshmen “team” teaching high needs students and providing the wraparound support they needed. These students hated school, weren’t accustomed to success, and just wanted to get through the day. Fresh off my student teaching experience with college-bound juniors and a short gig teaching motivated ski-racers, I was sorely unprepared for this first real gig.
In short, they ate me alive. But let me back up a minute and tell you a couple of things about myself: first, I’m 5’2″ (on a good day–maybe with my clogs on), have the nasally voice of a prepubescent teen, and have a pixie-like face. I blend easily with a crew of high school students. But at 22, I didn’t want to blend. I wanted to differentiate myself from my students, because I thought that teachers had to be separate if they were to be respected, and how could one teach in a class without some semblance of a line between teacher and student?
So I trucked myself to Barbara Moss (I’m dating myself, and also admitting my poor fashion sense…I’ve improved, I swear) and bought as many dresses as my meager salary would allow, bought my first of many pairs of clogs, and refreshed my make-up supply (minimal is an ample description). I wore my long, blonde hair in a tight bun at the base of my neck and tried to act professionally, which at the time meant following the lessons of my mentors and establishing strict ground rules with my students.
I wasn’t fooling anyone. Those students knew that I was in over my head, and much to my surprise, many of them tolerated it. They endured my vocabulary lists, listened to me “go over” the readings from the homework they didn’t do, and failed test after test that I gave them. In our team meetings (teachers, not students–we hadn’t figured that out yet), I defended my grading policies of creating a system that rewarded only the hardest worker (read: student who completes all required tasks) and penalized those who didn’t. I asserted that I had high expectations.
Really, I didn’t have a clue about education, learning, or what those students needed. So hung up on my own need to establish authority, I failed to see my greatest strength–I was only seven years older than my students. I could relate to them in ways that my mentors could not. I could leverage the small gap in our age to help them learn. The adversity they dealt with in their everyday lives (broken families, homelessness, drug issues, teen pregnancy, etc.) couldn’t hold a candle to what I was trying to teach them about literature, and I missed the boat. I wasn’t even in the same sea.
To those students, I want to say I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.
It took a while for me to loosen up in the classroom, but I did begin to get a clue the following year. Assigned another challenging group of sophomores, I started to let down my guard ever so slightly. I took the time to talk with each student; I showed films that took me out of my comfort zone but engaged them; I started a mountain bike club to share one of my passions.
Through these small risks, I built relationships.
It wasn’t until years later that I realized the importance of doing so, but I did see improvements each time I invested in them.
Adversity is a teacher in and of itself. The situations that new teachers face–isolation, unmotivated students, cluelessness about school culture–seem to be the norm. How I wish I could go back to those days and help those students in my classes–help them see that their opinions matter, that there is more to life than homework (but reading a good book is one of life’s pleasures), that they could learn to be better communicators without writing the standard five-paragraph essay multiple times in a semester. I wish I could go back to my former self and give permission to lighten up. But I can’t. What I can do, however, is do right by the students I have the good fortune to teach now. I invest in relationships with them. I blur the line between us–recognizing that it’s not sacrificing respect but building it. I take risks in an attempt to reach them, to challenge their thinking, and to lead them to new learning. I get it now. I’m pretty sure.
Are games really a viable option for assessing student learning?
The social studies department recently invited me to a meeting to deliberate this question. Lively discussion ensued about how one might really assess learning by asking students to create a game. Among the comments were these:
There is already a great game out there about trade. Maybe we should just have them play Catan (formerly Settlers of Catan).
How much time is this going to take? A test will only take part of the period.
I don’t know how it will look. What do I tell students if they ask me questions about how to design a game? I’m not sure I know how to do that.
And finally: we agreed to try this. Let’s do it and see how it goes.
I understand the fear. It is disquieting to ask students to do something that you don’t necessarily feel comfortable with yourself. But. BUT. Sometimes that’s exactly what you have to do, and you agree to figure it out together. (See Innovator’s Mindset: risk taking.) Here’s the thing: games are a second (or first?) language for our students. They speak game fluently. They know health; they know roles; they know many things about games you’ve never heard of. The most important thing you need to know as teachers?
Students love games, and they can and will take your content and turn it into a game if you give them the time and some guidance.
“I get it,” one teacher said to me when I walked into his room later that week to find groups in deep and eager conversation about their game design. He looked at his room full of engaged–no, empowered–students, looked at me, and said, “I see what you’ve been trying to do.” I’ve been working to help teachers take games seriously over the past couple of years, and it’s a goal often lost in the proficiency/personalized learning shuffle. The real work has been in showing teachers that games aren’t something in addition to the changes they are making to implement Act 77; they ARE the change. Just one piece, but one that deserves attention, because
games and game-like learning are excellent vehicles for meaningful content delivery and assessment.
Take the social studies proficiency that was the focus for this unit: P.I. 9 (Economics): I can analyze how economic globalization and the expanding use of scarce resources have contributed to conflict and cooperation within and among countries. Perfect platform for a game, right? Yes, Klaus Teuber already created something awesome, but let’s see what the students can do with this.
While some students modeled their games after board games we know and love, some embraced their creativity and truly went rogue. One group created a game where Heaven and Hell were the ultimate end–dictated by choices and currency exchange, often connected to churches. (Interesting social commentary, too.) Another group created a game based on settlements and trade routes whose success is dictated by not only the resources accrued but also by luck and happenstance. While I reminded students of the importance of starting any good game with the ultimate learning goal, I also asked that they elect one member of their group to be the “fun police” (originated and coined beautifully by the Institute of Play). They had a great time creating game mechanics that left players “dead” or headed back to start because of plague or other catastrophes.
Sure, the games look good. But are they good?
What are students really learning through game design?
Let’s talk about the proficiency first. I took a stroll around the room of game designers and asked them to tell me how their game would teach players about scarcity, trade, conflict and cooperation. Yes, there were blank stares. But when I prodded a bit further, every student was able to explain in vivid detail how their game play addressed exactly those concepts. Whether it was the act of trading resources of varying value, losing valuables to thievery during the New Age and gaining advantages as the culture shifted, or dictating card values based on resources, the students were able to explain how players would engage with the content.
A quick google form to garner feedback and reflection post-game creation also allowed students to reflect on the proficiency:
That content holds a place in students’ overall education, but in my mind,
the true power of game creation is in the focus on transferable skills.
Here’s what two students had to say about how game design helped them practice communication skills:
And problem solving:
Is it worth the time commitment?
If you want students to delve into deeper learning, you have to provide the time and space for them to do so. While you may not know how long it will take, or how it might look as things unfold, or if you’ll have the answers students seek, I implore you to
give yourself permission for things to get messy
for there are tangible rewards on the other side. Take the risk. Cannonball.
Institute of Play’s Game Design pack : in-depth game design guide brilliantly designed & executed
Imagine this: as an educator, you are awarded a $100,000 grant which allows you to take time out of the classroom to research and implement a transformational idea. You can use the funds to travel to innovative schools, to attend conferences to further your learning, to hire consultants to work with your school, or any other activity that might help you in your venture. With the help of your administration and a steering committee, you work to transform your school into a place that best serves the needs of students.
Sound like a dream? It is, but it’s available to Vermont educators through the graciousness of the Rowland Foundation, which seeks to usher forth the work of innovative educators, and in turn to truly transform Vermont schools.
Recognizing that this is the exception, Rowland fellows are able to experience all of Couros’ elements to look for in today’s classrooms. A few to note:
Time for reflection:
This is the ultimate gift of the Rowland Foundation. Time to reflect on why education is the way it is, how change happens, and the true meaning of innovation is something most educators only have time for if they disregard the more pressing issue of planning classroom lessons. During the sabbatical, fellows meet five times per year and engage in reflective protocols; they blog about their experiences, successes, and insights, and they have deep discussions with others who are engaged in similar work. Wouldn’t it be incredible if we somehow built into our systems the opportunity for every teacher to take a sabbatical every few years? How might that change our schools?
The Rowland foundation literally trusts teachers every year to make choices about what to do with $100,000 no questions asked. This can be overwhelming at first. There is a sense of guilt that comes with many years of explaining where each penny of your budget is headed. But, once a Rowland fellow can let go of that guilt, the level of creativity and innovation that is possible increases exponentially. One experience leads to another; questions begin to unfold; learning about one new idea leads to a desire to know about ten more new ideas. This is another level of overwhelming that requires working through but at each turn the learning ascends drastically. While there are moments of paralyzed wonder, the ability to respond to a curiosity and have the freedom to do it in whatever way you choose is extremely liberating and leads to deep learning, creativity and ultimately innovation.
Problem finders/ solvers:
The Rowland fellowship stresses that we are engaging in an inquiry process. Unlike most learning experiences, there really is no expectation for a final or finished product. There is no paper, no formal presentation or defense. The fact that there is no expected outcome is again, liberating. It allows for experimentation, revision, or major pivots if that makes sense. In general, learning experiences have an expected outcome. But with inquiry, learning changes our thinking along the way and what made sense at the start doesn’t always make sense in the end. Learning experiences where the process is more important than the product allow for real problem solving to occur.
Opportunities for Innovation:
Because of the focus on inquiry, Rowland fellows are free to experiment. This is key to innovation, as sometimes those experiments fail. However, fellows are able to incorporate these lessons and move forward with a better plan. They are free to imagine possibilities and make progress with other stakeholders in their schools. They function as models of innovative thinking and often inspire their colleagues to follow suit.
Trust is paramount in order for any of these eight elements to work
–whether it be in a classroom with students or with professional development. Innovation happens by embracing the fact that failures happen but can ultimately be overcome with solid relationship foundations. Vermont owes thanks to the Rowland Foundation for supporting innovative teachers with the ambition and drive to transform its schools.
Frith, Caleb. Think. Digital image. Unsplash. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Mar. 2017.
Street, Jamie. “Sparklers after Sunset, by Jamie Street | Unsplash.” Back to Unsplash. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Mar. 2017.
Tietsworth, Justin. “Lead The Way, by Justin Tietsworth | Unsplash.” Back to Unsplash. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Mar. 2017.
ISTE has established itself as the go-to place for all things tech-related, and its guidance on leveraging technology for learning is as robust as its many other resources. It outlines fourteen different elements that are critical to success with tech integration–two of which our school does well:
Equitable Access and Empowered Leaders
Equitable Access: All students, teachers, staff and school leaders have robust and reliable connectivity and access to current and emerging technologies and digital resources.
As part of our Lancer One program, every student in our school is issued an iPad. Indeed, one of the original goals of the Lancer One program was equity: all learners were to have equal access to technology. In a rural school district, where diversity comes in the form of socio-economic separation, the importance of this belief cannot be overstated. We wanted our students to be able to access learning opportunities anytime and anywhere, and having devices in hand was imperative. With a supportive community who were able to recognize a budget surplus as an opportunity, we were able to make it happen, and with a lot of work on infrastructure, we were able to build the internal supports to uphold it.
Empowered Leaders: Stakeholders at every level are empowered to be leaders in effecting change.
I appreciate how ISTE recognizes that “leaders” can be any stakeholders. This is why I think we succeed in this element. Our teachers are empowered through a culture of opportunity and celebration–that is, we encourage teachers to share their successes and we celebrate them. (Check out #LamoilleLearns for a few examples!) Our students lead the way in groups like YATST, Environmental Club, and A World of Difference–effecting change in the realm of technology and beyond.
While every school has bright spots, there are also some that could use some shining. I think Implementation Planning is ours. ISTE describes this as, “All stakeholders follow a systematic plan aligned with a shared vision for school effectiveness and student learning through the infusion of information and communication technology (ICT) and digital learning resources.” We have some incredibly bright spots–teachers who are lighting it up daily with innovative use of technology to meet the needs of our learners–but there need to be more. As George Couros so often reminds us, it’s about relationships, and building those with reluctant teachers is a step in the right direction. As the tech integrationist, I’ve started with that and have continued to encourage those who risk. It’s about helping teachers keep what’s working and update what’s not–without judgement.
One of the things I noticed in ISTE’s Lead & Transform Diagnostic Tool was the number of times they referenced some kind of incentive for teachers. While I spend most of my time trying to bribe teachers with lunch in order to show them a tool, this survey started me thinking more seriously about compensation. Food is great; badges are better, but money? Now you’re talking. Maybe that’s where the magic incentive lies, and perhaps it’s where more school districts should begin planning their PD budgets. If funds were budgeted to compensate teachers for taking the time to learn these new tools on their own, perhaps more teachers would do it.
Or, what if we banded together (speaking for smaller school districts) and offered up a partnership with some of the big leagues to host PD? Beekmantown School District had great success with their recent Explore EDU event that paired classroom visits with panel discussions. While traveling to far off places for conferences isn’t always possible, perhaps we ought to start considering bringing more to us.
Big ideas…thanks to ISTE for providing the inspiration to begin dreaming about a school that meets all of the essential elements!