RE-TYING THE TEACHING KNOT – The Learning Lesson Series

bowline-001


“Today, you will learn to tie a bowline knot,” I say. Then quickly add, “Mastery for the lesson I am teaching is you tying the knot three times without assistance. My goal is to have everyone achieve mastery, and for at least 10 of you to tie the knot behind your back with your eyes closed.”

I pause while the 100 teachers in the room absorb the learning goals for my lesson—100-percent mastery, 10-percent exceeds, and none fail. Knowing full well that not a single one of them consistently achieves such results with their teaching. Then say, “Let’s get started.”

I proceed to provide information about the bowline. How the working end of the rope and a fixed loop comprise the knot. That, during the making of the knot, a portion of the loop may pass around or through an object, such as a pole or person. How pulling the non-loop part of the line tightens the knot. The knot, when tight, will not slip or come loose.

The tightness, non-slipping is why sailors use a bowline to raise and lower the sails of their ships. Forest rangers use it to rescue people who have fallen off a cliff onto a ledge. Firefighters use it help people get out of burning buildings. Soldiers rely on the knot to repel down fortress walls. And aviators use it for tying down light aircraft.

“Okay, eyes on me,” I say. “Watch as I tie a bowline knot.” Facing the class, using both hands, I tie a bowline with a three-foot piece of rope. All the while, holding the rope, with knot and loop visible for all to see. Done, I say, “Now, you tie a bowline knot using your piece of rope.”

I stand at the front of the room, holding the rope with the knot and loop as teachers attempt to tie the knot. As seconds pass, groans fill the room. Soon, groans turn to pleas for help. Not budging from the front of the room, I wait a few minutes then say, “Who correctly tied the knot?”

Six teachers proudly present their knots. A quick check determines that four are correct. On a nearby whiteboard, I write four out of 100. Four percent is woefully short of my goal—all correctly tying the knot.

bowline-003“Okay, let’s try this again,” I say. “Please follow along. Hold one end of your rope between the thumb and index finger of your left hand.” Standing in front of the room, I hold up my rope—its end between the thumb and index finger of my left hand. “Now, with your right hand, make a small loop in the rope,” I say as I make a loop. “Now take the end of the rope in your left hand. Put it through the loop, around the rope, and back into the loop. Pull it tight.” I model each step.

Holding up my rope, with knot and loop, I ask, “Who has a correct knot?” Hands rise. I count them—33. After checking the knots, I write 31-percent on the board, 31 out of 100 correct. My goal attainment remains far away.

“One more time,” I say. “Here is a strategy for tying the knot. Watch me as I teach the strategy.” Holding up the rope, I make a loop. Holding the loop with my right thumb and index finger, I say, “This is a rabbit hole.” Holding the far end of the rope with my left thumb and index finger, I shake the end while saying, “This is the rabbit.”

“Now, watch carefully,” I say. “The rabbit comes out of the hole.” As I say this, I bring the end of the rope up through the loop. “It goes around the tree,” I say as I bring the end of the rope over the lower portion of the rope. “Now the rabbit goes back into the hole,” I say as I pull the rope taunt to form a bowline knot.

“Let’s do this together, one step at a time, using the strategy,” I say. I model each step of the strategy—the hole, the rabbit, out of the hole, around the tree, and back in the hole. At each step, I rotate around the room, checking to see if teachers correctly do each step. When not, I provide instruction.

Steps complete, I ask, “Who correctly tied the knot?” This time, most hands go up. A quick check indicates 92-percent with a correct knot. My goal near, I push on.

bowline-002“Now, please tie it again. This time by yourself, without my help,” I say. Each time a teacher holds up her knot, I review its correctness then, if correct I say, “Again.” The first teacher to tie the knot correctly three times, I match with one the eight teachers who has yet to succeed, saying, “Show her how you tie the knot.” I do the same with the second, third and so on until eight pairs of teachers are tying knots together.

Once more I ask, “Who has a correct knot?” All teachers eagerly hold their ropes high. I say, “Please check each other’s work for correctness.” The report out, all teachers with correct knots, means one goal achieved, now for the other.

“Volunteers, please come forward,” I say. Eleven teachers rush to the front of the room. I pull one aside, give her a stopwatch, and ask that she keep time. I line the remaining ten teachers facing the large group of teachers, then say, “With your eyes closed, tie the bowline knot behind your back—ready, set, GO!”

Tick, tick, tick…five seconds pass, tick, tick, tick, and then ten. Tick, tick at the 13-second mark, one teacher holds up her knot. One more second passes, another teacher holds up her knot. Then another, another, and another…at the 27-second mark the last of the 10 teachers holds up her knot. Quick inspection, all knots correct. Behind their backs, with eyes closed—second goal achieved.

When the teachers are back in their seats, and the applause subsides, I ask, “What did you learn today?” An animated exchange ensues. During which no teacher, not one, mentions learning to tie a bowline knot. Not even the ten who tie knots with eyes closed.

The exchange is about how students learn differently and at various rates. That insufficient instruction–as my first teaching shows–does work for some students. However, if the goal is for most students to achieve, and some to exceed mastery then instruction must be well designed and delivered. It must establish the relevance of the lesson, consider the learning styles of students, teach strategies that aid learning, scaffold learning-tasks, guide practice, rotate-and-check learning, harness peer power… and more.

Every time I teach this lesson, and I often do, a similar pattern emerges. As teachers learn to tie the bowline knot, their instructional practices start slipping and sliding. They question their instruction and its effect on their students’ learning. They want for all their students what they experience during the lesson. So they untie, and retie their instruction to enable that to happen. Teachers who persevere in this way, make previously unattainable learning goals attainable for themselves and their students. They have a knot that holds true.

Mark 


Note: This is the 17th post in the Learning Lessons series. Please click the subscribe button on the right side of the blog page to be notified of future posts.

I BELIEVE, DO YOU? – The Shift Paradigm Series

Untitled.002


I am on my own. You are on your own. When it comes to helping students learn, every teacher, in every classroom throughout the world, is on her or his own. The vast machine-like system of education, in which we are cogs, is incapable of connecting with each of us and connecting us to each other.

If you teach, you know the disconnection about which I write. It is readily apparent in the way the system of education ignores data about its performance. How the system discounts the findings of its own research. And in its benign enablement of approaches, activities, and books that do not connect to each other to form a common practice.

The disconnection is especially apparent in the system’s blatant disregard of the practical knowledge of teachers. Think about how leaders eagerly commit to new educational programs but do not adequately prepare you to integrate the programs into daily practice. Think about the many times you tap into your personal learning network for information and ideas that the system does not provide you. And think about how you, like every other teacher, have no voice, no support, and no choice to improve the system. You are on your own. You must use what you have, to do what you can to help students learn.

In response to these circumstances, many teachers, perhaps you are one construct a personal schema of practice to guide their instruction. Each of these schemas reflects one teacher’s beliefs and knowledge about learning. Like the teacher who creates it, some schemas are simple—lessons from a book, rows of desks, direct instruction, drill and practice, and homework. Others are more sophisticated and involve research proven practices, pedagogies, assessments, and technologies. None of the schema, simple or sophisticated, that teachers create reflects knowledge shared with the system or its teachers. All are symptomatic of disconnection between teachers and the system to which they adhere.

That these disconnections exist should not be surprising. After all, the system makes no effort to foster, among teachers, a common professional language, workable understanding of good educational practices, software tools for high quality instruction, or processes for collaboration among teachers. Hence, the limited reach of a teacher’s schema within and across the system of education.

What if circumstances changed so that you, and other teachers, would no longer be on your own?

If that happens, I want to believe you and most other teachers will embrace the research about high quality instruction. You will use that research to understand the conditions necessary for easily delivering high quality instruction, all the time, to all students. That you will quickly identify the practices—feedback, formative evaluation, prior-knowledge, self-reporting, and so on—that make such conditions possible. Employ those practices with requisite frequency, fidelity, and scale to significantly improve the learning and achievement of all your students. Moreover, I want to believe that over time, as results roll in, you and your colleagues will form a consensus that makes the conditions and practices commonplace at widespread scale.

At scale, you and your fellow teachers will no longer be on your own. You will have a common language with which to talk with each other about instruction. You will share an understanding of good practice. Other teachers and the system, will hear your voice. They will provide the support that you need when you need it. Delivering high-quality instruction, all the time, will no longer be a challenge. You and other teachers who teach well will no longer be threats to other teachers or the system.

Sounds good does it not? Do you believe what I believe? If so, then, here is how you might change the circumstances so that the beliefs can become realities.

Start small. Seek out teachers who believe what you and I believe. Do not waste time on non-believers. Let them keep doing what they have been doing. When you succeed, they will convert to your way of thinking.

Next, form a cluster of believers. Arrange for them to meet. Share respective schemas. Select a few promising approaches or practices. Ask each teacher to replicate, in her or his classroom instruction, one promising approach, or practice. Meet again to debrief about their experiences. Refine the approaches and practices. Replicate them again and replicate some others. Repeat the process weekly. After several repetitions, you will see four things.

One, the approaches and practices that teachers replicate and refine, will get better with each replication and refinement. As will the instruction of the teachers doing the replicating and refining. Two, after a few weeks the cluster of teachers will develop a shared schema that will have a common language, understanding of good instructional practice, and feedback process for informing the cluster, and its teachers. Three, a need will emerge or new technologies that (a) make it easy for teachers to design, deliver, and refine their lessons, and (b) help them create and sustain schemas with other teachers.

Four, instruction will return to its rightful place as the hub around which the system of education turns. As you and other teachers share, replicate and refine approaches and practices you will become aware that high quality lessons—not content, standards, or tests—are the spokes that connect you to each other and to the system. You experience how high quality lessons enable all students to learn what you teach and perform well. When they do, schools, districts, and states perform well too.

The four things playing out in your cluster also play out in other clusters. As they do, clusters connect with other clusters. They share schemas. A body of shared practice emerges that forces the system to self-organize. When this happens, connections replace disconnections. You and all other teachers are cogs no more.

I believe. Do you?

Mark


Note: This is the seventh post in the Shift Paradigm series. Please click the subscribe button on the right side of the blog page to be notified of future posts.

TEACHING PROBLEMS (And How to Solve Them) – The Shift Paradigm Series


coexist.001If you teach, you know isolation. It seeks you out at school. You cannot elude it.

Look at your school’s schedule. See how it allocates most of your time to students and precious little for teachers. Think about the meetings you attend, professional development you receive, and technology you use. See that they ignore the everyday realities you face. Do not help you teach better. Isolate you.

Think about the school building in which you work. See that its classrooms are isolation chambers for teachers. See that there are no places in the building for you to work collaboratively with other teachers. That the places where you most often encounter teachers are the lunchroom and bathroom. Neither place is suited for collaboration. Neither are places you want to spend much time.

The isolation you experience at school results from the paradigm to which the field of education adheres. Its beliefs, goals, practices, processes, tools, and values drive what happens at school. They affect the work you do there and how you do it. To see why isolation seeks you out, you must understand the paradigm.

The paradigm that guides the field of education assigns great value to standardized school days, unidirectional meetings, institutional not personal development, and classroom-only buildings. It commits students to age groups, teachers to levels and subjects, and both to buildings and classrooms. A teacher teaches a set of students in a classroom. There she is singularly responsible for how and what students learn. Every other teacher, each in a classroom, is singularly responsible for her or his students’ learning and performance on achievement tests and other academic measures.

The design and organization of your school—schedule, meetings, professional development, technology, and building—reflect the responsibility that teachers have for student learning. It supports them meeting that responsibility but prevents them from working collaboratively with other teachers. And, if they try to work together, they encounter difficulties. It makes you and other teachers co-exist. Co-existence is the source of your isolation.

Teachers who co-exist do their core work alone, all the time, never together. For instance, when one designs a complete lesson—pedagogical approach, strategy, materials, and rubric—other teachers do not benefit from her efforts. Similarly, when a teacher delivers instruction, she cannot share what she learns from her delivery with others. Such duplication of efforts and disconnection of core work is why your workload is so high. It is why you have neither time nor energy to teach well. It is why teachers burnout. Why the field of education cannot reform itself. And why you feel so isolated.

This is the teaching problem. To solve it you must stop co-existing with teachers and start co-evolving with them. This involves establishing mutual goals, fostering a common professional language, and developing a shared commitment to specific educational practices for doing core-work. It requires that you reciprocally engage with goals using the practices to which you are committed.

When feedback guides your efforts, over time, formal processes for conducting core work emerge. The processes refine themselves using ongoing feedback. Refinements give rise to efficiencies. Collaboration increases. Duplicative efforts go away. The quality of your instruction increases. You workload diminishes. More students learn more and better than ever before. And you never ever feel isolated.

The changes in the school are visible. Times, processes, and spaces for teachers to co-evolve replace isolation. Meetings and professional development, once the bane of your existence are essential to you and other teachers as you pursue shared goals. The common language you use makes for easy and joyful work. As evidenced by you benefiting when a teacher learns or creates something, and vice versa.

Sounds wonderful. Yes, co-evolving, done well, is wonderful. Teachers teach better. Students learn more. Schools improve. And isolation goes away.

Achieving co-evolution via normal approaches, at the scale of a school or beyond, is challenging. Getting to co-evolution—establishing goals, fostering common language, committing to specific practices, and using feedback—places great demands on the interpersonal skills of teachers. Leaving the relative comfort of co-existence for the promise of co-evolution creates turbulence. Navigating it requires much time and stamina. Few groups of teachers have capacity for doing this work.

Technology is the best hope for teachers wanting to co-evolve. Not the technology that you now use. It mostly complicates things. The best hope for co-evolution is a new genre of technology transforms interpersonal processes into technological ones.

This type of technology emerges naturally when teachers work reciprocally to achieve shared goals. The feedback that informs their core work causes processes to emerge. The processes, and subsequent feedback, make obvious the technological tools that teachers need. Processes previously handled interpersonally (e.g. feedback) become software enabled. When the design and delivery of high quality instruction is software enabled, designs and delivery become better and both continuously improve. Over time, the tools come to comprise a ToolKit for teachers.

A set of pilot schools, equipped with a prototype ToolKit, report about quick shifts from co-existence to co-evolution. Their design better lessons, deliver higher quality instruction, experience lower workloads, and re-teach lessons less often. Not surprisingly, students in the schools are more engaged in their learning and performing better on achievement tests. Moreover, meetings at the schools are more productive, professional development there is more meaningful, and collaboration, not isolation is the norm.

As a teacher, you know that, as Ken Blanchard says, “None of us is as smart as all of us.” You also know how difficult it is to be smart together while co-existing. What you may not know, but should know, is that paradigms serve their adherents. You and I can create a new paradigm for education. And that doing so with our fellow teachers requires that we co-evolve. It is time we demand the tools to help make this happen. Let’s end the isolation.

Mark


Note: This is the sixth post in the Shift Paradigm series. Please click the subscribe button on the right side of the blog page to be notified of future posts.

WHEN LESSONS ADD UP STUDENTS ENGAGE (And Teachers Teach Better) – The Shift Paradigm Series



lesson.001Imagine yourself in classroom. Where you are observing a teacher and her students. You watch the lesson that she is teaching. Scan the room. Look at the students. See the behavior of each student that corresponds to what is happening in the lesson.

Are students engaging? Do they do what they are supposed to do? In five minutes, see what is happening in the lesson. Scan the room. What is each student doing? Are they on task? Repeat every five minutes until the bell ends the class period.

As you watch, a pattern emerges of the students’ engagement with the lesson. Most likely the pattern is like this. The class begins with attendance, announcements, and other business. Then the lesson starts. A majority of students, but not all, engage with the lesson. As the lesson continues, fewer students engage. Over time, less than half are engaging. At some point, as engagement dwindles, the teacher attempts to re-engage students by raising her voice. Perhaps she says, “Pay attention, this content will be on the test.” Or maybe she calls on a student, one, not engaging with the lesson, who is distracting a student near him. Student engagement keeps dissipating. As the period winds down, students and the teacher idly pass time until a bell signals class period done.

Hold on to the pattern. We will come back to it in a moment. In the meantime, think about how What Teachers Teach dominates the current educational discourse, and has for over a decade.

What Teachers Teach drives the standards that guide the curriculum that in turn determines what students are supposed to learn. Further, it drives the efforts to measure student, and sometimes, teacher, performance against the standards and curriculum and is the basis for the standardized tests that are the primary measure of performance. Some of the discourse about what teachers should teach occurs at the federal and state levels, a little of it happens in the private sector, but most takes place locally. Regardless of where the discourse occurs, you saw the end result of it in the lesson you observed.

Now, return to the pattern that you saw in the classroom. As you do, think about the field’s longstanding discourse. Were content, standards, and tests present in the lesson?

YES they were. However, their presence in the lesson, as the dissipating engagement of students made apparent, had little effect on student learning and the teaching of the teacher. The minimal effect is due to a disconnect that exists between the high levels of learning and teaching that the field seeks, its discourse about how to get both, and what actually happens when students engage with the lessons that they are supposed to learn.

Learning, as you saw, is about minutes and moments. When students engage minute-by-minute with a lesson they learn what the teacher is teaching. If, over time, students’ engagement with a lesson declines steadily, then their learning declines too. So if greater learning the Field of Education’s penultimate goal, then student engagement is an essential indicator whether progress toward attaining the field’s goal is occurring. The quality of a lesson asserts a direct and powerful effect on students’ engagement. The volume of a teacher’s voice and having items on a test do not.

To better understand the relationship between learning, engagement, and lessons, think about the lesson you saw in the classroom. Was it complete? Was its quality high? For instance, did it have sufficient structure to engage all students from beginning to end? Did it help all students understand why what they were learning mattered? Did the lesson connect to the lesson from the previous day? Set the stage for the lesson tomorrow? Was an instructional approach (e.g. direct teaching, cooperative learning) readily apparent? Did it employ instructional strategies (e.g. guided practice, rotate and check)? The answer to each question is NO.

If all students are going to learn at high levels, and perform well on standardized tests, then the answer we must seek is YES. Getting there requires that all lessons be complete, high quality—all the time. Here is why.

A complete, high quality lesson solves the engagement problem. A sizeable sequence of complete, high quality lessons solves the learning problem. Solving the learning problem across several classrooms makes standards attainable and achievement gains possible for a school. Attaining standards and achieving gains in multiple schools makes attainment and gains possible for a district.

Such attainments and gains at widespread scale necessitate that we take up the challenge of designing and building high-quality lessons. There are two routes we can take. One route is obvious, but little travelled. The other is little considered and under construction. Let’s start with the obvious route.

To understand the obvious route please consider a question that I often ask teachers—over 2500 of them during the past 15 years. How long does it take you to design and build a complete, high-quality lesson? A lesson that you are confident will engage every student for an entire class period. One that you are certain each student will master, and necessitates no re-teaching on your part.

Typically, the answers I get range from 1 hour to one day. Teachers quickly adjust their answer, when I say a complete lesson may include a PowerPoint or equivalent presentation, a video, connections to curriculum standards, and, of course, the dreaded lesson plan.

They adjust their answers, again, when I mention the requisite worksheets, handouts, and rubrics. And upon hearing visuals, manipulative, and graphic organizers they adjust yet again. Adjustments finished, they say that to design and build one complete, high-quality lesson for one class period, will take them one day to one week.

Next, I ask, “And how many ready-to-go, complete, sure-to-engage and produce-mastery-of-each student, high-quality lessons do you have?” Whatever response the question elicits, I welcome with a gentle smile, supportive nod, and receptive ear. Ten to 30 lessons, most teachers report. A few teachers offer up that they deliberately use one such lesson during semi-annual observations. Most talk about how they keeping their high quality lessons safe and frequently back them up.

Finally, I ask, “When and where do you design and build high quality lessons?” Teachers tell me how each day the have a 60-minute period for planning and preparation, 25 minutes for lunch, and barely enough time to go to the bathroom. That they must design and build lessons during evenings, weekends, holiday breaks, and summers—while raising families, taking classes, and living their lives.

Let’s do some calculating. First, a typical teacher teaches at least 180 days per year. She teaches four lessons per day. So that teacher needs, at least, 720 complete, high quality lessons per year.

Second, a typical teacher needs at least one day to design and build a lesson. Let’s assume she can use her one-hour of daily planning time to do so. And that maybe, just maybe, she can make one lesson per week. She will, working every week with no breaks, she will make the lessons she needs in 13 years and 10 months.

Third, if a typical teacher spends a five-day week building lessons, nothing else. Does so for 52 weeks (no vacations or holidays). Annually she will make 260 lessons. So in 2 years and 9 months she will have the 720 lessons she needs.

The calculations shed light on the challenges that await travellers who take obvious route. Hopefully the other route is better.

The little considered route involves creating the conditions necessary for all students to engage in their learning all the time. The presence of certain practices makes such conditions possible. The conditions emerge school wide when multiple teachers teach, share, compare, and refine lessons containing the practices.

Technology, in the form of a toolkit, enables teachers to design, build, deliver, share, and refine complete and high quality lessons based on specific Common Core Standards or Provincial Expectations.  Building one lesson takes a teacher 30-minutes. With the toolkit, doing so involves her clicking through a series of screens, accessing libraries, inserting elements, and attaching resources. Doing these steps automatically aligns the lesson to an appropriate standard. When the steps are done, a teacher, with one click, produces a handout, lesson plan, rubric, and homework assignment. Another click produces a PowerPoint-like presentation she can use with a classroom of students. Yet another click initiates a feedback process that improves the quality of the lesson and its delivery.

Independent researchers, using a controlled match methodology, found significant increases in student engagement and instructional quality at schools using a prototype of the toolkit. The increases came within 60 days of the first use of the toolkit. Moreover, its continual use led to sustained levels of high engagement and high quality instruction. Not surprisingly, these outcomes are prompting numerous conversations about next steps for the toolkit approach.

If you are a teacher, you know the impact that high quality lessons have on student engagement, learning, and achievement. Also, you know why so few teachers travel the obvious route to such lessons. For you, a toolkit is an exciting and much welcomed possibility. Hang on! Help is on the way.

Mark


Note: This is the fifth post in the Shift Paradigm series. Please click the subscribe button on the right side of the blog page to be notified of future posts.

COURAGE TO ACT – The Learning Lesson Series

Fly and woman.001


Near a stream that runs by the temple, a woman sits on a putuan. Back straight, legs folded, arms loose, hands barely touching, and a slight smile on her face, she seems at home with the rugged surroundings of the northern mountains. A ray of afternoon sun, sneaking past a cloud, shines on her weathered, but gentle face and short-cropped hair. Both eyes twinkle ever so slightly as it does.

Across from the woman, a man, back slouched and legs crumpled, also sits on a putuan. Uncomfortable, he fidgets. Warm, he wipes his brow to prevent sweat from smearing the Ray Bans he wears as protection from the sun. He has a notebook in one hand, a pen in the other.

“Really, really,” says the man. “You’ve been doing this for the past 34 years?”

The man, a freelance reporter, is researching an article about women and monastic life. He and the woman have been talking for over two hours. Information about the rituals, routines, and roles of the temple fill the pages of his notebook.

“Yes,” she says. “Here, with great intentionality, I live my life as it is, with all of its beauty, hardship, joy and sorrow.”

Earlier, when a pesky fly lands on her unclothed arm and she gently brushes it aside, the man takes notice. “So you do not harm any sentient beings, correct?” he says.

The man takes copious notes as the woman describes living harmoniously with the birds, fish, other wildlife, and plants that populate the area around the temple. Nodding knowingly, he captures her comments about the vegan diet on which she subsists. Smiling he records that human waste replenishes fields and forests. As she tells about filtering the water she uses for cooking, drinking and bathing so as to not kill organisms, he looks up, with astonishment.

As he does, the fly, again, lands on the woman’s arm. Only to fly away, when once again, ever so softly, she brushes it aside. The man, again, notices the careful and loving way she treats the pesky fly. So, when the fly lands on his arm, he does likewise.

The additional questions he asks are about temple life—early morning gongs followed by prayers, daily chores, meditation, sutras, interactions among practitioners, love, romance, and so on. Each question, the woman answers clearly, concisely, completely, and with care. Never does she rush. She takes every one in stride. The man impatiently fidgets and sweats as she does.

The fly, flies around the man’s head. Goes up and down the contours of his body. Having done this it then, once again, lands on the woman’s arm. Swiftly and decisively she smacks it dead…right there on her arm. Carefully she picks it off her flesh. Then casts it onto a big, lush clump of grass.

Startled, the man falls off the putuan on which he is indelicately perched. Unable to contain himself, he says, “You killed the fly!” Then goes off on a rant about the fly being a sentient being. Next, he furiously makes some notes. The woman sits quietly as he does all this. When composed, the man asks, “How could you do that? What were you thinking?” The woman, back straight, legs folded, arms loose, hands barely touching, eyes on the man, says, “I did the fly a favor.”

Okay, what is the lesson of this story? There are many. The interactions of the woman, man, and fly are rich with meaning.

Certainly one lesson pertains to the cycle of life. How everything and everyone is interconnected, each dependent on all others. In this case, the woman helps the reporter get his story. He, in turn, spotlights her and life within and outside the temple. The fly helps both by offering itself up in a way that illustrates the woman’s intentionality and provides the man with must-read-fodder that countless people will read.

There is also a lesson about contrast. How the woman lives intentionally—observing the beauty, joy, pain, and sorrow around her. Seeking to be whole, she is harmonious and deliberate. In contrast, the fly appears devoid of purpose. Monotonous and empty, it wanders aimlessly. The reporter, uncomfortable and fidgeting, is out of his element. He gets the basics but does not truly understand the woman and the fly.

That the fly lands twice, is brushed away twice, but swatted upon landing a third time points to a lesson about persistence. On first encounter the pesky fly appears purposeless. But when the fly perseverates, the woman notes its persistence. Some might say it speaks to her. The woman watches, waits, and then acts as if it does.

Stepping back, I see the story is a poignant parable about the peskiness of life—the painful things that we keep hidden, want to avoid, and oftentimes enable. When we ignore these things, their peskiness persists and bugs us wherever we are, whatever we do, and whomever we are with. They demand that we address them.

The woman has come to understand this on many levels. So when the time for dealing with the pesky fly arrives, she acts. Her action, a result of deep insight and intense contemplation, requires great courage on her part because it is out of character for her. But she is confident that killing the fly, although counterintuitive to the reporter, is the best thing for it, him, and her. The compassion and decisiveness she brings to the act, does them all a favor.

Mark


Note: This is the 13th post in the Learning Lessons series. Please click the subscribe button on the right side of the blog page to be notified of future posts.

SKY POND – The Sacred Places Series

Since the earliest times, people have ascribed sacred significance to certain places. Such places—whether human made or naturally occurring—typically inspire awe, and often invoke devotion and respect. Not surprisingly many of these places are revered and well known. There are some places, however, that are less known, even hidden. They await discovery. Here I pay homage to a place that has sacred meaning for me.

IMG_1209


In Rocky Mountain National Park, eight miles from the turn-off at Colorado Highway 36, Glacier Gorge Trailhead sits by Bear Lake Road, 9240 feet above sea level. As far as trailheads go, this one is quite spiffy. Its paved parking lot, four solar toilets, and double water fountains welcome our arrival. At the lot’s highest end, near the toilets, is big topographical map with a bright yellow you-are-here-arrow. In the shadow of the map stand, we lace up our boots, smear sunblock on nose, face, and neck, and don our daypacks. Sacred place here we come.

The first section of the trail is down hill. This deception of ease deludes me not. I know that our destination lies amidst the ragged peaks that loom in the distance. So every downward step taken now will later require me taking ten or more steps up. I let worries about the path ahead, and the everyday troubles that came with me subside accepting the beams of the warm sunlight and caresses of the gentle breeze. Each step and every breath the trees and trail, rocks and birds offer their hospitality. A cotton-ball cloud punctuates my every glance at the blue sky above.

Soon, where the nearby stream rushes downward, the trail turns upward. My pace slows and breathing deepens. Sweat and sore muscles push concerns about work and family out of mind. Step by step, breath after breath I slowly ascend the trail. Chipmunks crossing the path mock my sweat-soaked ascent with their sprightliness. Climbing—step, breath, another step, and another breath—the z-shaped trail pulls me up the mountainside.

A mile in, a thunderous roar ahead wakes me from my step-breath drudgery. The wondrous sound pulls me to the cool spray of Alberta Falls. Crashing 30-feet down a small gorge, the falls energizes Glacier Creek and provides me brief comfort.

Onward—step, breath, the trails pulls me upward. On my one side, rocks and pine trees, on my other, a breathtakingly beautiful panorama. It is 50-miles deep and at least that wide, glorious evidence of our magnanimous creator. As the sky gets nearer, trees become sparse, and air gets scarce, in the distance, Loch Vale rests at the base of 13,153-foot Taylor Peak, its glacier kissing the Loch’s shoreline. To the south stands 12,668-foot Thatchtop Mountain accompanied by 12,829-foot Sharkstooth on the southwest. The trail pulls me along is the Loch’s lengthy shoreline. A trout darts to and fro in the crystal clear water, searching for its next meal. As I come around to the north side of the lake, 13,208-foot Powell Peak reveals itself towards the south.

At the far end of the Loch, a fallen tree marks the end of the trail. Here by the water, where mountain meets reflection, is the perfect place for a much-needed lunch break. As I chew on some trail mix, two chipmunks, a marmot, and a camp-jay-robber lustily look at my bag of nuts, chocolates, and raisins. Apparently this is their perfect lunch spot too.

Leaving the Loch, path replaces trail. It leads up a solid granite base with a steep grade that severely tests my balance and strength. A bit later, a stretch—213 feet gain in 0.15 miles—makes me beg God for air. Around Timberline Falls, I ascend beastlike on all fours. The reward for my efforts is the incredibly beautiful Lake of Glass, with its spectacular views of the Sharkstooth, Taylor Peak, and Powell Peak.

Skirting around the west side of the lake, the path becomes more rugged. The final leg of my journey will be the toughest so far. I am tired, hungry, yet strangely elated. My destination awaits—Sky Pond. At 10,900 above sea level, Sky Pond occupies a cirque basin with sheer cliff walls on three sides. Its fourth side offers a spectacular view of the Loch and beyond.

skypond.001I do not come here often. But when I do, I do not come alone. A question comes with me. Here, at Sky Pond, I explore the inner contours of my soul. Answers to my most difficult questions live here. This is a sacred space for me.

As I settle in, near the water, facing the cliff walls, the gentle Breeze sweeps refreshingly over me. Its second sweep drawing forth these questions—What am I to do with my life? Have I completed what I’m supposed to accomplish? Can I retire now?

The Moon, faintly visible above the cliff wall, hears the questions then grins at me. I know that grin. It sent me on many a boyhood adventure, spurred me on to athletic glory, and taught me to serve the troubled and disaffected. The message of the Moon’s grin, “Mark E. you are not done.” The Breeze, with another sweep, messages, “No, not yet Mark Edward. Many need what only you can bring.” The Moon and Breeze, as if family members say, “Be not afraid…we are with you.” Directly above Sky Pond, the North Star who has been watching the exchange winks at me. A wink that I know to mean, “My dear Mark, you have many more mountains yet to climb. See with your heart and not with your eyes.”

Grateful for the teaching provided me, I pay heartfelt homage to Sky Pond and its occupants. As I stand to leave, looking around at the cliffs and Loch, feeling the Breeze, seeing the Grin, and being kicked by the Wink, I understand that while this place is sacred, an equally sacred place is within me.

Mark


Note: This is the first post in the Sacred Places series. Please click the subscribe button on the right side of the blog page to be notified of future posts.

MY LEARNING SWITCH IS ON – The Heartland Series

In the deep recesses of my mind, tucked away in a well-protected crevasse is Heartland. Memories of my boyhood reside there. It is a place where a boy’s picturesque view of his world makes time stand still. I do not often go there, but when I do a warm memory always welcomes me. Let’s go there now. A memory of my boyhood is waiting for us. 

Nap time.001


Naptime is my least favorite part of school. Reading, writing, recess, arithmetic, art, and science—I like them more than naptime. Naptime, I dread.

Last August, on the first day of first grade, I dutifully reported to school. Everything Miss O’Connor told Mom I would need—I have. Crayons, in a middling box—not the big one that has a hundred colors and a built-in sharpener, check. A three-ring binder notebook with five dividers, check. Mom and Dad will see the notebook when they come to conferences. Pencils, a pair of scissors, and a small container of Elmer’s glue, check, check, and check. And, of course, I have the requisite three-foot by five-foot occasional rug to lie on during naptime, check.

Since the beginning of the year, I joyfully use each item as I learn the lessons of the day. During arithmetic I use pencil and paper. So far I learned to do simple addition and subtraction problems, then to count by 2s, 5s, and 10s, and most recently 2- and 3-dimensional geometric shapes. Worksheets from each of those lessons I keep in the arithmetic section of the notebook. Also in the notebook, in the writing section, are samples showing I can differentiate between words, sentences, and paragraphs, and am able to write complete sentences using subjects and verbs, basic capitalization, and punctuation. Elsewhere in the notebook are sections containing samples work I did in reading, science, and art.

No day passes that I do not use the supplies Mom bought me…even the rug. After lunch and recess, my fellow first graders and I go to our assigned places at the edges of the classroom. There I unfurl my rug and assume the position. It is in the back corner, next to Miss O’Connor’s desk. Lying on my back, eyes closed, I nap. Well, I sort of nap. Most days Alan, a better napper than me, quickly zones out. His rhythmic breathing I hear. Then soon after I hear the breathing of Julie and my friend, Cindy. With a head is full of thoughts, there is no sleeping for me.

I think about all the things I would rather do than nap. Give me a book to read. Provide me a piece of paper upon which to write or a picture to draw. I imagine eliminating naptime and make recess longer so that once, just once, we can finish our game. My learning switch is on. I want to calculate, draw, play, and experiment. Let me do anything but lay here listening to my classmates sleep.

Today, uncomfortably prone, hands and arms along my sides, on a rug that affords no cushion, I think, “Enough with naptime.” Trying my best to breathe rhythmically, albeit a bit heavy on exhales, a modicum of courage surfaces from somewhere deep within me. A scheme comes with it, as does an action. Slowly, ever so slowly—with no other part of my body moving at all—the lid of my left eye opens. Darkness gives way to light. Blurriness says, “Hello.”

One blink, another, and then another…focus finally catches up. Straight ahead, I see the square tiles on the ceiling. Slowly, ever so slowly my eye turns sideways. I see the window, then the bulletin board, desk…and then, yikes, I see Miss O’Connor.

Startled, I gasp for air. She smiles, puts index finger to lips, and winks. With every ounce of strength that my lean and lanky body can muster, I wink back and then slowly roll over. As I roll, I think, “She understands, thank God she truly understands.” Then I, for the first time, realize that teaching me is challenging and understand that Miss O’Connor needs her naptime more than I need mine. Letting her rest, I recommence my rhythmical breathing while watching thoughts race through my brain.

Many memories in my Heartland are of the teachers who shape my life. From lots of them, I learn how to do the things—addition, subtraction, subjects, verbs, and so on—that I must do in order to live productively. From some, I learn how to learn, and that learning brings meaning to one’s life. Only a few teachers teach me about teaching. Of them, Miss O’Connor teaches me an important lesson about meeting a student’s unique qualities with the flexibility and empathy so as to keep youthful passions ablaze. Miss O’Connor knew that I, with my racing mind did not fit into the naptime routine and did not try to turn off my learning switch so I would.

Going deeper, I understand that teaching is about giving. I know that students are unique and that the love and care a teacher gives makes a world of difference for them. I know all too well that some students, like me, are high energy, have active minds, and insatiable appetites for learning. We can be a teacher’s greatest joy and biggest challenge.

That is why teaching is also about getting. Getting quiet time to reflect and recharge, when and wherever possible. Getting the encouragement and support to be a difference-maker for students. However, the best that a teacher can get is acknowledgment from a student of the positive impact the teacher has had on his life. I am sadly remiss for not acknowledging the grade one teacher who, by leaving my learning switch on, kept my youthful passions undimmed. So, Miss O’Connor, wherever you are, please accept this heartfelt and long overdue, “Thank-you.”

Mark


Note: This is the twelfth post in the Heartland Series. Please click the subscribe button on the right side of the blog page to be notified of future posts.

LIFE IS LIKE A BOX OF CHOCOLATES – The Learning Lessons Series

chocolates.001


Look at the students in your classroom. Some have faces with beaming smiles. Others have faces with oozing pimples, festering frowns, or haunting hollowness. Each face tells a deep and personal story about its wearer. Each reflects a mind that comes to your classroom to learn the lesson of the day but must multitask on issues and concerns of other days and places.

Each face, story, and reflection is a reminder that a classroom of students is like a box of chocolates. “You never know what you are going to get,” as Forrest Gump so aptly says. Outwardly, the chocolates may look the same, but inside they vary and are diverse. Sometimes the box has a map with brief descriptors for each piece. Some pieces delight more than others. Some are eaten early and often, others later, and a few never.

At this point in the school year your students no longer appear similar. You are well into discovering what resides under the chocolate-like façade. You savor each student like you savor a chocolate in an assortment, taking the time and making the effort to discover its uniqueness. When you see a beaming smile, you appreciate it; a festering frown or haunting look, you understand.

Sometimes savoring the uniqueness of a student can cause apprehension. Perhaps, there are troublesome descriptors about a student in files and reports. Possibly prior experiences with a student may be cause for concern. It could be anecdotes from students or colleagues send up red flags. Other times savoring involves a student with special challenges that make learning difficult, accommodations necessary, and instruction tedious. Whatever and whenever apprehensions arise, pause to reflect:Maxwell quote

“Sounds good,” you say. “But what about the ones who aren’t successful. What do I do?”

Begin by recognizing that homework, test scores, and discussions about who is and is not gifted do not matter. What matters to a student is what we must understand and act upon. Understanding what matters is the foundation on which to build powerful instruction, high levels of learning, performance goals, and curricular standards that are accessible for all students, even the ones about which you are apprehensive. Quite likely, many such students lack the requisite skills for being successful. They need you, or someone like you, to help them through the challenge. This means meeting students where they are—inattentive, hyperactive, dyslexic, blind, deaf, abused, hungry, and on and on. This also means being in tune with the social-emotional needs of your students

“How to make this happen?” you ask.

On the foundation of understanding, convene a team. Connect with teachers who share your apprehensions. Engage school counselors. Consult school and district specialists. Ask your principal to allocate time for you to collaborate and support each other. Over time, patterns emerge. They reveal the squeezing of round-peg students into the square academic holes of an educational paradigm incapable of serving them.

Here, you must make a choice. Either keep pushing students into holes they will never fit, or start creating holes that fit them. Creating holes that fit students, involves teaching—that is what teachers do. Teach students how to cope, self-regulate, and resolve challenges and do so as subjects, much like their English, Mathematics, and Science counterparts, with scheduled classes and qualified teachers. In this way, safe places take shape where students can learn, grow, change, and fit in. Where their emotional, mental, and physical needs are paramount.

A good friend of mine, teaches The Zones of Self-Regulation to groups of her students. They discuss emotions and learn calm breathing techniques. Afterwards, she uses the Zones as a class check in. A student who is blue is bored or sad. Green signifies a student is calm and ready to learn. Yellow, the student is agitated and red, ready to fight or flee, not learn. My friend gives her greatest attention to students in the non-green zones. Sometimes she uses the zones to monitor a student throughout the day, intervening if the student falls out of the green zone.

“Okay, I get it,” you say. “But I am worn out.”

Of course you are exhausted. Teaching the students you have, the way you do, takes all your time and energy but fails to meet the educational needs of your students and you. You are in an all-in but going no-where situation that creates debilitating dissonance. Hit the pause button. Reflect, engage in self-care, clear out the clutter, and regroup. Remember that when in an airplane that is in trouble put on your oxygen mask before helping others.

“So what to do?” you say.

Start where you are, even if it is a lonely, solitary place. Work on yourself. Draw strength from your conviction. Do what you can with what you have to help your students. Grow from there. Seek feedback about your efforts. Make refinements, corrections, innovations, and experiments. Keep moving forward. As you do, teachers will be attracted to you because they understand the difference you are making. When teachers show up and want to join your team, tell them that empathy drives your interactions with students. Then say, “The students I have, are the ones I want to have. I understand that students who require the most love, often ask for it in the most unloving ways.”

Mark


Note: This is the tenth post in the Learning Lessons series. Please click the subscribe button on the right side of the blog page to be notified of future posts.

CONNECT THE DOTS – The Learning Lessons Series

 

school visit.001


One piece of information is a data point. A line connects two data points. A trend is a line with several data points. A pattern emerges when data points on a trend line accumulate.

As I briskly walk up the covered sidewalk to the public school building where my dear friend teaches, I give no thought to points, lines, trends, and patterns. Rather, my heart is full of excitement about a day watching elementary school teachers teach. I love spending time with teachers in classrooms. I do so as often as possible, but that is never enough.

A nice-to-be-with-you-again hug from my friend greets me at the door. Walking to a nearby conference room, we furiously catch each other up about our lives since my last visit here three years ago. She tells about her recent masters degree, presentation at ISTE, and her second baby, a boy. We arrive at the room before I can ask about her teaching and the school.

“Welcome Mark,” says the principal. After thanks-for-having-me, a cup of tea, and chitchat about her never-ending funding struggles, the principal lays out my day ahead. A morning of classroom observations, lunch with teachers, additional observations in the afternoon, ending with a weekly faculty meeting led by the principal.

First stop, kindergarten. Having been to the school often, I know the teacher and the route to her room. As I approach it,17 tiny people and a flustered aide, trying her best to remain calm, huddle together outside the classroom. Pushing past them, I go inside the room. There, I see a paint-splattered wall, an apparently tossed chair, clothing strewn across the room, and a half-naked boy cowering under a flipped-over table. “You’ll be okay,” says the teacher. “Help is on the way.” I have my doubts—data point.

Help arrives and things settle down. My next stop is a 6th grade classroom. There, the teacher greets me then quickly tells about today’s lesson Finding the Volume of Prisms in which she employs a cooperative learning approach. She starts teaching by presenting students with an overview of the lesson, its outcome, and rationale. Students receive leadership tasks, break into groups, and get to work. The teacher rotates from group to group. Then joining me at the side of the room, she quietly offers up insights—gifted, bilingual, ADHD, and so on—about her students. Nodding toward a girl, hood up over her head, the teacher says, “She has anxiety and obsessive issues dating back to earlier grades.” Then calls my attention to the lacerations on the girl’s arms as “worrisome signs of self-harm, and a possible risk of suicide”. The teacher is acutely aware of this, and other possibilities, in her classroom. Two data points, I wonder, “Does a line connect them?”

During lunch in the teachers’ lounge, I eavesdrop on conversations, while munching on my peanut butter, honey, and banana sandwich. The one about the Cavaliers-Celtics game last night is more smack talk than conversation. Another one is about teaching O-sounds. Around the lounge conversations bounce from Valentines Day to a sale at L.L. Beans and Weight Watchers’ new program. At a table in the corner of the lounge, a barely audible conversation is underway about a 4th grade student recently put into a group home due to parental abuse. Two teachers talk about the problems she has with peers and completing classwork. Three data points, same line, I ask, “Might this be a trend?”

Stomach full of food and head full of data points, I go to the 1st grade classroom. Arriving early, the teacher tells me about the lesson I will observe. Then she briefs me about her students. My ears perk up when she mentions a girl who startles at the sound of the bell and other loud noises. A recent immigrant from war-torn Syria, a non-English speaker, these noises can cause her to sob uncontrollably. “Hopefully, not today,” the teacher says. Four data points that connect. I ask myself, “What’s happening at this school?”

Next stop, the 5th grade classroom. Upon arriving the teacher quickly explains that he is in the midst of a problem-based lesson about the poaching of rhinoceros in the grasslands of Africa. In passing, the teacher warns that one student, if here today, may act out, could distract others, and possibly harm himself. Five points, I wonder, “Is this a trend?”

Returning to the main office, the principal is ready to go the faculty meeting. As we walk down the hall toward the conference room, I say, “How’d your day go”? Not missing a step she recounts a day full of behavior related incidents… an autistic student having a melt down… an ADHD student who is in time out for hitting several students…a boy not taking his antidepressants, and more. Nodding my head, trying to listen intently but struggling to walk fast enough to keep up with the principal, I conclude, “There’s definitely a trend here.”

Later, in the quiet of my home, I reflect on the data points from the school. Each point represents a challenge for a teacher. The best-designed lessons and most thoughtful instructional approaches are no match for an anxious, compulsive, depressive, suicidal, or over or under-medicated student.

I want to believe that children do well if they can. For the children who cannot do well, like it or not, we are their early warning system. The alarm that a child’s presenting behavior—inattention, laziness, moodiness, and disengagement—sets off is an  invitation for us to understand the behavior’s underlying cause and, in so doing, connect more deeply with the child. When each of us accepts the invitation, we meet the data points, lines, trends, and patterns of children’s behaviors with our corresponding points of empathy, lines of kindness, and patterns of understanding. In these intersections reside the lessons, skills, and knowledge for surviving school—and life. Let’s meet our children there.

Mark


Note: This is the ninth post in the Learning Lessons series. Please click the follow button on the right side of the blog page to be notified of future posts.

MY LIFE IS MY MESSAGE – The Learning Lessons Series


Gandhi.001I have long dreamt of a time when all students learn at high levels and every teacher is empowered to help her students do so. I dedicate my life to making this dream a reality. It is the basis of this blog and my twitter handle— @shiftparadigm.

When the dream becomes elusive and doubts arise, I grow weary and lack strength to push-on. In those darks moments, righteous souls from earlier eras—who stood true against overwhelming odds, met daunting challenges, and moved humanity forward—provide the youthful vigor I need to push on. They are the people Bob Dylan challenges us to become.Forever 1You know about whom I write. Their names—Adams, Mandela, Rousseau, Sweitzer, King, Mother Teresa, and so on—are on the honor roll of human history. All stood upright and courageous in the face of overwhelming odds to fight oppression, inequity, and ignorance. Only the educated are ever truly free was their common bond.

On the honor roll, a gold star is next to the name Mohandas Gandhi. It is there because in my absolute darkest moments, when the winds of changes shift, his is the story to which I turn. His life inspires and energizes me as does no other.

To a world rife with war and hatred, Gandhi brought a non-violent alternative. Its application helped nearly a quarter of the world’s population shuck the shackles of oppression and ignorance. Not surprisingly, at the height of Gandhi’s efforts—an era before the Internet, satellites, cell-phones, and televisions—people around the globe waited with baited breath to read the latest news from India. Every major newspaper from London to New York, San Francisco to Tokyo and Paris sent journalists to India to report about the civil disobedience of the Indians led by their gentle prophet, Gandhi.

There is a story, I do not know if it is true, about one such reporter. His assignment, interview Gandhi, then report back as soon as possible. Day after day—train stations, market places, along the highways and byways of India—he tirelessly pursues Gandhi. Week after week, mile after mile, to no avail.

Then one day, finally, face-to-face with the Mahatma stands the reporter. “I’ve travelled tens of thousands of miles to meet you,” he says to Gandhi. “The readers of my newspaper want to know what’s happening here in India.” Gandhi looks at the weary, sweat stained man standing before him. Feeling uncomfortable in the pregnant moment, the reporter says, “What message do you want to send them?” Solemn, still, and looking in the eyes of the reporter, Gandhi, says, “My life is my message.” With that, he turns and walks away, leaving the reporter with his long sought after story.

Invariably this story about Gandhi gives me strength to push on. It is a steadfast reminder that my actions speak louder than words. And that sometimes, as in the cases of Adams, Gandhi, Mandela, Rousseau, and others, actions speak volumes.

Gandhi’s lesson to me is that you need not question who I am, what I stand for, or what I am made of…all are visible in the way I live. Servitude, humility, and sacrifice, the themes of Gandhi’s life are as readily apparent today as they were at the time of his death. Each of us, birth to death, in our own way, walks a challenging path. Along that path, the challenges we encounter change.

Going deeper, looking back at my path, I see that in my youth, talk of “my life as a message” challenged me to dream. The messages of my students and colleagues’ lives showed me an educational system failing most of them and countless others. A system that works for all students and teachers—a shifted paradigm—was the audacious dream I dared to dream. Brazenly, I thought time is on my side and there is plenty enough to attain the dream.

Now, on the backend of life, with my biological clock ticking, unrealized dream, and the field of education as screwed-up as ever, I am, yet again, considering giving up. Enough, I could say. Like other people my age, I am entitled to retire. Forget about writing books, posting blogs, giving speeches, and leading workshops. Kick back, smell the roses, relax. Let other brings the dream to fruition by creating the necessary organizations, designing the requisite software, engaging disaffected teachers, and raising money.

So here I sit, pondering whether to push on. Wondering how would Adams handle this situation? What sacrifices would Schweitzer and Mother Theresa make? What ideas would Rousseau pen to paper? What steps would King take? How much would Mandela endure? What would Gandhi do? No doubt, each of these great souls was tempted many times to give up. If they were here with me now, I am certain they would admonish me to adapt to shifting winds, pick up the pace, joyfully purge complacency, and go deeper. Despair, doubt, and age—they surely would say—are no match for desire. Push on!

I am conflicted as to what to do next, an uncomfortable place for me. The dream of an educational system that works well for all students and teachers burns strongly in my heart. Its inevitable realization is likely happening sooner with than without me. Here, between the dream and its realization, is where I will write the message of my life.Forever 2

Mark


Note: This is the eighth post in the Learning Lessons series. Please click the follow button on the right side of the blog page to be notified of future posts.