Dear #PLN, you changed me

Dear #PLN,

We have been hanging out together for over 3 years now. There are some things I thought you should know.
At first you overwhelmed me and it was awkward. I was not sure what to say and you had so much to say. I watched and listened to figure you out.
I remember thinking: “How do you express yourself like that?! WOW!”
I remember thinking: “I am going to have to get up pretty early to read ALL THOSE important ideas!”
And for a time I did.
I was amazed and bewitched…there was so much going on…all this time elapsed and I hadn’t know about you! #sadness
I was overwhelmed and amazed by how much you knew, how much you thought…how intensely and deeply you cared.
I fell for your range of interests, your openness to the unknown, and your drive to keep moving.
OK. I more than fell for you.

Beyond infatuation, your presence impacted my learning, my heart, and my perspective on life. I don’t mean in a trite and superficial way. I mean in a deep profound way. You changed me. 

Tweet by tweet, you invited me to trade in my cynicism for hope. Like poker chips in a game you’ve invested way too much in, I didn’t want to give my chips up. “They are all I have!” I thought, but somehow you convinced me. So all in I went, gave away every last chip and traded in on bold, loud and glorious hope.

You shared your learning, your thoughts, and your dreams out in the open. You made me understand through example how I could be strong and vulnerable, at the same time. You helped me discover that when I put myself out there, no matter how scary or uncomfortable it feels, real connection happens. Regardless of distance, nationality or subject matter, we are all in “this” together.

You made me ravenous to learn, to keep up, and to know what you knew. But not in a competitive or measurable way. Not in a way to be like just like you. You let me know I could find my way, on my own, in my own time. You said: “you are capable and sure, don’t doubt yourself, just go.” You left tracks of your thinking for me to use as clues so I didn’t get lost. You left space beside your tracks for me to make my own way, my own path. You expanded my thought horizons beyond my imagination; you showed me glimpses of what was out there and beyond. You made me want to make my own path there. You let me want it for myself.

You allowed me the space and time to discover I love to write, to think, and to create. You said: “go ahead take a risk, try something new, I’ll wait for you, I’ll encourage you, I’ll celebrate with you.”

But the biggest gift you gave me, which simultaneously breaks my heart and glues the pieces back together, is you made me want to start all over again.  You made me wish more than anything, that I could start my career, my learning journey, all over again…but with you.

Love,

me

Infidelity and intentional vagueness

Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.

                                                                                                                Antoine de Saint-Exupery

                                                                                                                                 

I have to confess I have never been faithful. Ever. Over 25 years and I never adopted one planning, teaching schema or framework with 100% fidelity. Moreover I have never taught a course or unit again, in the same order, in the same way. Lastly, I am vague with instructions. Intentionally.

It didn’t start this way. As I began teaching, I saw senior teachers with course binders which they would open and say: “here is today’s lesson.”  I thought: when I have binders like that I will be a great teacher! I also saw examples of elaborately detailed unit plans (many prepared by teachers I never met in person). I thought: when I get going, I am going to make units plans like those and then I will be the teacher I need to be! Lastly, I made sure I knew how to give clear and detailed instructions. I knew exactly when to say “Get your microscopes out!” to avoid confusion. I knew how to organize the bodies of 30 teenage bodies with military precision.

The closer I got to each of these goals, the more uncertain I became they would get me where I wanted to go with my teaching practice. For a long while, I felt guilty about all of this! I thought I was somehow deficient as a teacher in my unwillingness to give in to one planning model or teaching philosophy, in being “unable” to follow the same plan twice and in choosing to give ambiguous instructions.

Making Something My Own is the Making Sense Part

UBD? POGIL? Inquiry? PBL? UDL? So many frameworks and so little time. I wish I could say I had a form to end all others, I wish I could say I had THE recipe. Over time, I realized it wasn’t the form I did or did not use or the framework, I did or did not use.
What mattered was the schema I built, in my brain. And please don’t get me wrong, I thinking planning frameworks and teaching paradigms are both valuable and useful. Planning frameworks (such as UBD) and paradigms have informed me. The act of following someone else’s instructions to the letter on how to design a unit or course did inform and me; it was in the time and effort of churning through to make sense of it in my own brain in conjunction with observations and reflections. The work, the thoughts, the mental lifting which happened within the neurons helped to guide my teaching practice. Over time I have become comfortable with my “always hybrid” approach and the continuous development of my practice.

Planning is Important but Adapting the Plan is More Important

I used to think plans were a script to create in advance to ensure my lessons would be perfect. Now I know plans are not as important as what they become and what they allow for. The act of planning was not to create a script to follow, like actors do on a stage, but to create conditions in which students could write their own lines. The plan is important and valuable but how the plan is liberated and given a life of its own is more meaningful than the plan itself. Lastly, I came to understand that plans would look different each and every time they came to life. I came to understand that responding and adapting to students at a particular time was about teaching students instead of a teaching a course.

Vague Instructions Leave Something to the Imagination: Ambiguity is Good

I used to think good instructions were those when students did exactly what my words said. Now I know good instructions are those enabling students to figure out what they need to do to address their learning.  When I got good at giving detailed instructions, students became really good at following the details but this did not necessarily impact what was going on in their brains. Just because I could get students to do what I instructed them to do did not mean learning was going on.
When I was filling in all the details, students were unused to ambiguity and reading between the lines for themselves. My so called “good instructions” made students rely on me more and propagated the “let’s play school” mindset. Instructions are not about getting kids to do what I say (compliance), instructions are about inviting, invoking and awakening.  I would much rather a student sit an activity out and then later decide for themselves to take part. I realized I wanted structures and strategies to help students move to the deep end of their learning (and did not want strategies that relied on highly prescriptive instructions) rather than strategies and structures that kept them in the shallow end where it was easy for me to “watch them.”

***

How about you? What are you faithful to? How do your plans come to life? How do you see and use instructions?

Assessment in a time of abundance

push

“Never push a loyal person to the point where they no longer care”

I clearly remember a staff meeting from my first year of teaching. The discussion was “lates.” Our principal suggested the “have a quiz at the start of class” strategy to hold kids accountable. This was brilliant! We had curriculum to deliver or push at our students and a fixed amount of time in which to push said curriculum at them. We needed kids in their seats. Period.

Just in case curriculum delivered via push

When I began teaching content was bound by textbooks and the notes I gave in class. It was a time of information scarcity with limited opportunities to expose students to the knowledge pieces they might need in the future. As such, we relied on practices to push students to where the just in case curriculum could be delivered to them. Assessment was used to push students to the just in case curriculum. Assessment was used to determine the success of pushing the just in case curriculum at students. Assessment allowed students (and the system) to demonstrate the successful acquirement of the just in case curriculum and readiness for further investment of the limited resources. In a time of scarcity, procurement of limited resources was a requirement for further investment. Standardized common assessments allowed us to quickly determine who should move on to the next level of investment.

Scarcity shaped our present day assessment tools

Quizzes held students accountable to the knowledge pieces they might need for the test. Tests held them accountable to the just in case pieces they might need for the final exam. And so on.
In a time of scarcity it was not wise to invest in understanding or synthesizing until students indicated (through our assessment tools) mastery of the just in case curriculum (that would not be available to them later).
Fill in the blank worksheets, non-original assigned work, work with time penalty, all created in a time when the itty-bitty knowledge pieces might prove useful in the future.

Reconsider assessment tools designed for just in case and scarcity

Almost 30 years later the textbook and my notes are now the least relevant sources on content. The abundance of information is mind-boggling to say the least. My students show up with encyclopedias in their pockets, experts at their fingertips and the potential of networks waiting to be tapped.

Yet…the assessment landscape of middle and high schools remains unchanged.

The majority of the assessment tools used in high school today were designed to measure mastery of a just in case curriculum pushed at students. Homework asking students to answer already answered questions, in order to copy a line of thinking already thought. Quizzes designed to hold students accountable to a predetermined pathway of just in case content acquisition. Final exams designed to measure the amount of just in case curriculum in the student’s mind (all be it only temporarily), to determine whether they should move to the next level of the pyramid scheme.

Do these tools meet the needs of our students in this time of abundance?

Just in time and pull

In a time of abundance students need skills to pull the knowledge pieces just in time. Projects solving real and authentic problems create the pull and in turn students pull as needed. Students create the need to knows, the just in time schema, through the problems and puzzles they are trying to solve.

Problems, real and authentic need to pull students in. Students need to pull information and knowledge just in time to solve problems and create answers. Students need to be made responsible (rather than held accountable) with the skills, the opportunities, the know-how to pull the information they need, when they need it. Students need to do the pulling.

Holding students accountable to something no longer valuable devalues the system

The steps of mitosis, organelles of a cell, states of matter, dates of the world wars still matter. They do, of course they do. But they matter in context. In context of solving a worthy problem, in struggling with a dilemma, in writing a piece to understand ourselves, in creating a movie, etc.

But knowledge pieces lying in an extracted heap and pushed at students. Valueless. Completely valueless.
Pushing these knowledge pieces is no longer the why of school.

Instead of wondering how we can hold students accountable, shouldn’t we be wondering how we can make them responsible for finding and solving worthy problems?
Instead of designing assessments to validate our ability to push curriculum at our students shouldn’t we be wondering how to help student assess what pieces of content they need?
Instead of trapping students in a quagmire of knowledge pieces shouldn’t we be providing them with the skills to find and access the knowledge pieces when they need to find them in context?

Our challenge in this time of abundance is to create an environment that pulls students in. Not one that pushes them out.

Will you define the work? Will the work define you?

balance

Shared on Flickr by Helen ST

“There is no such thing as work-life balance. Everything worth fighting for unbalances your life.” 
― Alain de Botton

In my first year teaching I was completely and utterly consumed by work. I loved the work and fell deeply in love with it that first year; I loved the intensity, the creativity and the connections with kids I found…but the work owned me. Over the years my love has not waned, but I have had to define the balance between being owned by the work and owning the work. Over the years I have watched, both from a far and up close, as others have struggled mightily with this subtle yet significant difference. Some have lost and some have won.

Where is the tipping point between being owned and owning?
Where is the point of no return for losing yourself to the work?
Where in the work are you sustained and renewed?

I am no expert at balance. For me it has been an ongoing process of reflection, readjustment and re-calibration and is part of the work itself.

Insights that have emerged for me, as I defined the work are offered below:

1. Define your own balance.
My balance is getting a bit out of balance. I love big messy and impossible projects. This is where my passion for the work lies and is sustained. I know these projects are what keep the “fire in my belly” alive. When I do not dream big and set far-off goals I disengage from the work. This is my balance. I have had to search out and create such projects.
Many have given advice on balance, schedules and some have raised eyebrows at my work routines. I like to get up early to write and do school work. I like to work with kids outside of school on big projects. For me, these projects are my source of joy and connection.
However, there are seasons to my work and at times I have had to step away (for family, my husband’s work demands, etc.). For me stepping away has made the work even sweeter upon returning. Like a speed limit, there were times in life I had to slow down. And then there were times I saw it safe to speed up.

2. Know what you sacrifice.
Dinner with the family? Sleep? A dentist appointment? Hold up for yourself item by item the specific activities and chores you are not doing when you choose to extend the work beyond the work day. Are these vital and important or are you ready to let go of these? For me I know what I will let go of and know for example that I will not let go of family dinner and time after dinner to hangout.

3. Eat steak before sizzle.
In all aspects of life it is easy to get caught up in the excitement and hype of any project. How novel! How fun! This is the sizzle. But to survive, to grow, to build you will need to eat steak. To find the steak you will need to find where the essence of your work lies. For me the essence of my work has been the connections with my students. I use these as my compass. Projects, initiatives, activities that prevent or destroy these are ones I avoid. Sometimes this will feel counter intuitive. I have kept this definition up front and center as I make the many micro decisions every day.

4. Hold no expectation of others.
This is where I still struggle. I can hold expectations for myself and work towards those. I know I cannot impose my expectations on others, students or co-workers; they have to do this for themselves. If I do this unconsciously, then when I end up disappointed, this is my problem to own and deal with, not theirs.

5. Say yes to what you love.
This morning I choose to say yes to writing as I know this activity feeds me and produces a mental calm for the week ahead. Just as I know that making time to have significant conversations with people I work with, whether students or adults, have over the years, feed my soul. I know making time for student requests for extra help and putting these before meetings or committee work has served to keep me rooted in the work I love.

6. Find your way to let go.
There will be many things to let go off; bad days, disagreements and disappointments. How you let go and shake these off will flavour the days and years ahead. Look behind and see the rocks are you still dragging. Is it the work of today or the rocks of yesterday that are dragging you under? For me, letting go is a process I need to honour, it takes time and deep reflection to let go. I need to give myself the mental opportunity to work through these tricky spots so I can do the work unencumbered tomorrow.

7. Hold on to what you can’t replace.
Early on in my teaching career I decided very consciously I would hold on to what I couldn’t replace and nothing else. I watched teachers get bent out of shape over lost pencils, scissors, bobbins etc. I cannot replace if lost, my love of teaching; I decided to fight every day to hold onto that. I cannot replace student confidence, curiosity, and trust, if lost. I would fight for those.
Pencils, stapler, broken glassware no big deal!

8. Act from love.
There is a sweet spot somewhere in your heart where the work does not feel like work. Here, the work comes from you without effort, without thought. You must find this spot and work to go there as much and as often as possible. This is the work you are called to do; this is your work and no one else’s. This is where you own the work.

9. Embrace the zany.
Some days are going to be those that make you wonder why you choose this work anyway. You will feel as a donkey must, struggling up the last part of a steep escarpment with an over heavy load. You will think: “I cannot.”
It is on these days that you must search to embrace and celebrate, the silly, the zany, and the things that tickle your funny bone. These gifts of lightness will save you from forgetting the joy of your work.

10. Lift your head.
As the work gets heavy we tend to drop out heads and see all that is still not done, all the challenges we face. It is in these moments I remember to lift my head and look out…way out…to the farthest horizon to see the big picture again and anew. Ah right…this is the bigger purpose of my work.

____________________________________

What do we want for our children?

Education A

Education B

Products end up in garbage

Products have a function and purpose

Focused on finding answers

Invitation to ask questions

Solve problems that have already been solved

Find problems that have not been solved

Curiosity sacrificed

Curiosity celebrated and protected

Teacher as expert

Student becoming expert

Conformity

Individuality

Obedience valued

Collaboration valued

Bound by books

Created by networks

Homogeneous outcomes

Heterogeneous goals

Results over process

Process over results

Imitate

Iterate

Carrots and sticks used

Responsibility nurtured

Prescribed

Responsive

Just in case learning

Just in time learning

Taxonomies

Folksonomies

Top down

Flat

Orderly for efficiency

Organized for learning

Filtered out

Filtered forward

Defined by scarcity 

Created in abundance

Dependency

Interconnectedness

Written word dominates

Communication emphasized

Knowledge nailed down

Knowledge as changing

Formal

Authentic

Defined and restrictive

Open and inviting

Identity reactive

Identity preemptive

Mastery

Specialized

One size fits all

Discordant

Learning to comply

Learning to learn

Sorts and filters

Low barrier and universal

Siloed and separate

Radical transparency