Teaching in 2014: More than what meets the eye

I work harder than ever and yet the appearance is that I am hardly working much of the time. Student-centered and inquiry-based curriculum can be viewed skeptically as a way for teachers to do less work. I have heard the concerns. I would argue that when those approaches to learning are done well, teachers do more work. I am still the resident expert in my discipline in the room, but my expertise manifests itself differently than in a more traditional stand and deliver model. There have always been students who have known more about certain topics than I do; now I defer to them and learn from them. Technology has made more things possible, but it has never been the time saver I remember it being billed as. In fact, it is quite the opposite.

Yesterday I paid careful attention to what I was doing throughout the day. Before school I had two conversations with students about their projects, one discussing the thesis and the other talking about shifting from an essay to a presentation. The official school day began with a team meeting where all teachers of Modern World history discussed the curriculum and planned out the next phases of the course, balancing our desire to provide a common experience for the students in the different sections with the specific needs of each section. Then, my first class of the day was a US history class where students had their final in-class work day on a long-term project about US foreign policy. This is where my work might not be obvious to an observer. I checked in with the students to see how they were doing, but it was my knowledge of each student and how he or she works that helped me decide when and whether to interrupt their work for a conversation. The challenge of the job here is differentiation – providing the level of support needed for each student to succeed, but not overstepping to the point of inserting myself into the project. My second class of the day involved learning the historical context for Arab Spring in Egypt, and it began with  students reading articles about Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarek. I had prepared for class by finding and selecting the articles, but reread them as the students read them  as a refresher. I anticipated the key points I thought students should pick up on and prepared to add them to the student discussion if necessary. Once we began discussing, I acted as scribe taking notes with my LiveScribe pen to document the conversation and archive it for future student use. I wrote questions on the board that students still had about the rulers, and they chose questions to investigate for next class. My third class of the day involved students doing a short reading about the moderate phase of the French Revolution. Given the complexity of the events, I led the students in the creation of a chronology on the board and provided more background as needed to explain the events. After that I assigned students to social classes and asked them to tweet the events of the revolution from their assigned role. I let them get started and then checked in with each group pushing them to include substance and perspective in their tweets. In each of my three classes, I had to make a series of decisions balancing when to step in and provide guidance or explanation.

Preparation for class used to mean planning for a discrete lesson. I did the reading I assigned (usually from a textbook) plus some more background reading. I devised an activity. That was it. When I gave students feedback it was on work they submitted for a grade, more often than not a test or a quiz but sometimes an essay. Make no mistake. This was a lot of work to do on a daily basis. Yet, it was a workload that promised to diminish as my knowledge base and lesson plan collection grew.

Now, I find that preparation for an individual class is less important than my overall professional work. There are still classes that I plan individually. But, increasingly the time I spend learning is what translates into the curriculum. Whereas I used to read magazines and journals monthly or quarterly, each day I spend time browsing Zite and Twitter for relevant articles and blog posts about both  teaching methods and content. I have a much richer set of resources, but it takes time to cull them.  The effort I have invested to develop a presence on Twitter and a PLN have enabled me to set up Skyping sessions with authors and with other classes, including a class in Beirut for my Modern Middle East class. As I have let students choose to learn about topics of interest to them, I have spent more of my time learning about things I might not have chosen on my own. With the creation of electronic document sharing, drafting and revising are now the norm, not the exception. So, I am spending more time consulting with students on process. I used to write the homework on the board. Now, I have a syllabus on a Google Doc that allows me to keep a living syllabus – updating it daily with a class summary, class notes, and relevant links. Often these links include pictures of the board or pencasts of notes that I need to download then upload to the document. This provides an amazing record of the class, but what I call “workflow” now takes me about an hour each day.

None of this is to complain. I love my work. It is more meaningful than ever. I just wanted to clarify my thoughts about the changing work of a teacher. As I finish this, I realize that my PLN is mainly who reads my blog, and so this will likely reach the people who already know this. Still, it felt good to process and others may have insights in how we can help parents, administrators, even students understand what we actually do. I realize that I have only addressed the academic part of the job here. There is another whole extracurricular, co-curricular side as well.



Openness and Transparency: Sharing EduCon, Living EduCon

I am on the agenda for this afternoon’s faculty meeting. I am tasked with sharing my EduCon experience with my colleagues. This is unexpectedly challenging for me. I want to share my passion and my takeaways from the weekend, but I find it hard to put together into a coherent narrative. I respect my colleagues’ time, so I do not want my presentation to be a disorganized mess. How are all of the different conversations, threads, and thoughts sparked by the weekend supposed to come together to make sense to anyone who was not there to fill in the gaps? 

This internal conversation I am having echoes an external one I just had with a student. He is working on a research project for our foreign policy unit in US history. He is planning to do a class presentation for his product. He started out wondering which countries he would not be allowed to travel to and the reasons why? Then he began investigating countries for which there are State Department warnings against travel. Other questions emerged – which countries does the US recognize? Just how many countries are there in the world? How many different countries can a person claim in terms of participation in sports? What do other countries tell their citizens about traveling to the US? We were having a really good discussion about these related but distinct topics. Then he said he did not know how he could pull all this together for his presentation. My advice was to get his ideas down on paper and then work on pulling it together later. I feared he would lose some of the interesting, thought-provoking information he had found. The advice may have been sound, but it did not address the central concern.

What if he does not pull everything together in a neat package? Is it okay if his gift to the class is to make them think about things they have not considered? Are the disparate, related but not necessarily connected pieces enough? I am faced with the same dilemma for this afternoon’s faculty meeting. I will explain the conversation aspect of the conference. I can share some of the sessions that were most powerful for me. I can end with some tips, tricks, and food for thought that I took home with me. This plan is similar to an approach I suggested to my student.

I am considering having my colleagues spend a few minutes browsing the schedule of conversations to get a sense of what I did not choose. No doubt those sessions would appeal to many of them (in fact, many interested me). But, I also know that there are those for whom none of this appeals. My enthusiasm for a session about authentic student voice and choice might not be infectious. I imagine that some teachers will be puzzled by my proposal for an elective where the content and assessments are determined by the consensus of the class. Others will see design thinking as partly something they already do and partly something they have no desire to do. 

The potential pushback, or perhaps even worse, indifference, makes me nervous. Will my colleagues be polite but underwhelmed by what they see as buzzwords and fads when I talk about genuine student choice, engagement and empowerment, the power of wonder, design thinking and empathy? Part of me would prefer to fly under the radar using my classroom as a private lab for testing out my ideas. Then, the other part recalls the theme of the panel discussion about openness and transparency in education. My work needs to be transparent, so that all can see what I am doing in my classroom. But that is not enough. It also needs to be open, so that others can question and challenge my thinking. Loosely quoting the words of EduCon’s host and organizer, Chris Lehmann, “Even the smartest person in the room is never smarter than the room.” Now that I think about it, that could be the underlying principle for student presentations next week. The deep learning will come from the conversations afterwards, not the presentations.