The Value of Reinventing the Wheel

Yesterday I was having lunch with two colleagues in the middle of a summer grant day to work on our US history curriculum. A student came by after athletic practice and asked us what we were doing at school. When we told her we were planning the course, she looked concerned and said something to the effect of – “You don’t know what you’re doing yet with school a few weeks away?” We assured her we were just trying to make the course better and she seemed okay with that.

I was struck by a few things – how little our students know about how we operate, how uncomfortable I felt by her comment and how quickly I felt the need to reassure her that we did know what we were doing.

We are planning some new twists this year – students will be blogging, they will be connecting with other students around the country, maybe even abroad – but much of our work involved discussing essential questions, topics, resources and activities, remembering what we liked and did not about past years, and trying to figure how to do what we really want to do with what we perceive as very limited time. In other words, we went over a lot of familiar ground.

Did last year’s course work well? I think so. Will this year’s course be better? I hope so. Will some lessons work better than last year? Yes. Will some be less successful than last year? Again – yes. I used to think that the balance sheet of individual lessons mattered most, but now I realize that the whole needs to be greater than the sum of the parts.

What will make this year successful is the passion and investment of the teachers. It is those conversations about the curriculum reflecting our own learning that matter. We have to keep tweaking, not to make the curriculum better (although we do believe we are doing that) but to keep ourselves fully engaged as learners. On any given day, the difference made by using one resource or another is likely negligible. What matters is that the teacher is energized.

We don’t need to tell the students our revelations as the gospel, but rather to model the process by which we continue to learn and grow. Let’s pull back the curtain this year, sharing not just the product of our work but also the path taken.

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Focus on Learning: from wading to diving

An afternoon at the pool with my boys has me rewriting this post. I watched them jump off the diving board repeatedly, getting a little more creative as the afternoon wore on. At the beginning of the summer, swimming a few feet was an accomplishment. Now they are jumping with confidence into deep water. They watched other kids, listened to the rules for safety and then took a leap. When two years ago, my one child would not venture under water no matter what his camp counselors did, I concluded that he was like me and just did not like the water. I was completely wrong. He loves the water – he was just not ready two years ago to take the plunge. He couldn’t learn to swim until he was ready and willing.

I have spent my career worrying too much about my teaching and not enough about my students’ learning. The reason is simple – I have control over what I am teaching but actually very little control over what my students are learning. But without the learning, teaching is meaningless.

This year I am making a mental shift – I am going to focus on what my students are learning and not what I am teaching. I will probably spend more time working than ever before measuring, assessing, adjusting in reaction to my students. If I expect them to commit to me and my class, I need to commit to them, not just as a group but as individuals as well. I need to figure out where they are and what they love to do.

We take for granted that the system of grades and report cards will keep students in line doing what they need to do. We plan courses thinking about having enough assessments to be able to formulate what we believe to be a fair grade in the end. There is often an assumption that students will work harder for graded work than ungraded work. This may be true in terms of homework, I believe, but not classwork. Students do need to prioritize their time at home, and they would be foolish under the current system to not study for a test in order to complete an ungraded reading assignment for my class. I am not sure what I think this means about homework – that’s whole different blog post.

It is during class that we truly have an opportunity to encourage kids to take risks and to evaluate what they are really learning. Careful observation gives insight into how students operate. A conversation with a student yields far more accurate results about how much he or she is taking in than any form of written assessment that is submitted. Writing is important, and clear writing is an indication of clear thinking, but conversations are opportunities to process, test out ideas, and receive immediate feedback.

So, this year I am committing myself to those conversations and observations. It means allowing time for students to work and time for them to debrief. It means working the room while students are engaged in an activity. It means blogging with my students. It means keeping my radar up to pick up signals, but also being careful not to jump to conclusions. It means that I will be assessing all the time, learning along with my students, and being open to shifting direction as needed to address something that I see. It means taking time to talk to my students to learn who they are, what they are passionate about and what they struggle with. It means never assuming that just because they are not there yet that they won’t get there. My own children needed the instructions and the modeling as well as the motivation and courage to dive.

I hope to create an atmosphere in my classroom that puts kids at ease, earns their trust and encourages them to dive into history. I’m planning to create an informal space in my room, with a rug and a few bean bag chairs. My dream classroom would have students with their own computers, working in a setting where they are comfortable. I know very few people who are most comfortable at a desk with a hard chair. At the same time, I am conditioned to fear chaos from such an informal setting. That’s why I’m getting into the pool at the shallow end, one step at a time. Although I hope to take a lesson from my six year old boys and not wait too long to jump off the diving board.