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.

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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.

LESS IS MORE FOR TEACHERS (and Better for Students!) – The Shift Paradigm Series

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Conjure an image of a school. Visualize yourself entering a classroom. Students and a teacher are there. What do you see the teacher doing?

Chances are, the teacher you see is not resting, reflecting — or even preparing a lesson. Despite the relative importance such tasks play in the design, delivery, and improvement of high-quality instruction — teachers rarely have time to do those tasks at school. So the teacher you see is likely delivering instruction, managing students, assessing performance, or organizing resources — including technology. As you watch the teacher, it becomes painfully apparent that she has too much to do, too many students with whom to do it, too little time to get everything done, too many interruptions, and too many regulations demanding that she do even more. Further, you almost certainly see her doing several tasks at once.

Now conjure a classroom at a different school. See a teacher there calmly moving amongst students sitting in groups of four. Each student is engaging with other students in the group and each has a laptop computer, iPad, or smart phone to do their work. When the teacher stops at one group, she and her students have a lively exchange. When she stops at another group, again, a lively exchange ensues. After an exchange with yet another group, the teacher, acting on feedback from the groups, uses her iPad to send a message to each student in the class. Upon receipt, each student reviews the message and acts accordingly.

After the teacher’s last stop, she sits with us. The student she brings with her describes the unit-ending, problem-based lesson that is underway, pointing out that the lesson counts for 40 percent of the unit grade. We learn that this level of focus is important because the students and teacher share a goal of every student mastering every lesson and passing every exam. Attaining the goal accounts for 10 percent of each student’s final grade for the course and is a major part of the quarterly evaluation of the teacher.

The teacher tells us that she and her colleagues teach the lesson every year, refining it each time. They came up with the initial design for it five years ago using a software toolkit that teachers share with students, parents, and administrators. Teachers use the toolkit to design, deliver, assess, and refine all their lessons. Students, parents, and administrators use the toolkit for their unique purposes and needs. Everyone uses it to provide feedback about the current lesson. Thanks to the toolkit’s capacity for enabling, processing, and reporting feedback, the lesson and all other lessons improve with each delivery regardless of the teacher or user. The performances of students, teachers, administrators, and parents improve each time they interact with a lesson. The student and teacher are quite confident that all students will master the current lesson and subsequently pass the exam.

Two schools, two classrooms, two teachers: similar yet very different. How? Let us find out.

One difference is quite visible at the first school. Multi-tasking is the norm for teachers there. When in this mode, the cognitive load of teachers at the first school increase considerably as the efforts they expend to do everything that they must do. For students to learn what they must learn in this context, short-term processing capacity of the teachers’ and students’ minds are pushed to the limit and the reserve strength of their bodies is depleted. This everyday high-load reality is the dirty little secret every teacher at the school knows but dares not acknowledge or talk about.

Instead of confronting their secret openly, teachers at the school individually struggle to keep in check their respective cognitive loads. When load-weary, they sometimes do routine tasks in autopilot mode. Other times, they cut corners, inadequately prepare for class, or deliver instruction that is incomplete. Regardless of how they lighten their loads, each time they compromise student learning and generate more load for themselves later; but they somehow need to stay afloat. Yet, each teacher knows she is working as hard as she can. Predictably, the school reports no annual gains in achievement.

At the second school a key difference is visible too. There, everyone—students, parents, teachers, and administrators—shares responsibility for learning and teaching. Each has a clearly defined role and specific, measurable goals for learning and teaching. Their common language and understanding of instruction defines their work. Feedback guides the work they do and how they do it. Assessment of individual and collective performance informs what they do next. They rarely are overloaded, multi-task seldom, and year-over-year the school reports significant gains in student achievement. Everything adds up.

Teachers working at schools like the first inevitably figure out that the coping strategies they each construct actually do not lighten their respective loads. They come to understand that no effort to improve learning at the level of a classroom or beyond will possibly succeed unless the high-load challenge that teachers face is solved. Multi-tasking and maxed out, none of them can do more or perform better. So any improvement effort that heightens their load just makes what it seeks to improve worse.

For teachers in these schools the educational paradigm to which they adhere is the source of their load. The paradigm assigns each of them exclusive pedagogical responsibility for student learning. Their devotion to meeting that responsibility inevitably dooms them to careers of unattainable goals and high-load misery.

Six years ago, teachers at the second school chose to confront the dirty little secret. They began dispersing control for learning and teaching across all stakeholders, including students and parents. In short order, new and genuine commitments to roles, goals, practices, and processes, and tools were in place. Their toolkit makes the core educational work—teaching and learning—of the school powerful yet doable. They are a self-organizing school. Not surprisingly, school-wide performance is at an all time high and so is morale.

Improving education requires permanently liberating teachers from the painful and exhausting effects of their loads. Conjure all you want about fixing the prevailing educational paradigm; loads will not abate.

The time for a new paradigm is here. With stakeholders sharing responsibility for learning and teaching and having technological tools designed to enable, drive, and support their efforts, teachers can be more effective and energized. Teachers at the second school give us a glimpse of the new paradigm’s potential. Let us expose the dirty secret and change the conversation, and change the work of teachers, students, parents, and administrators so that all students can learn and be successful.

Mark


Note: This is the fourth 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.

DEAR KEVIN – The Learning Lessons Series

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Dear Kevin,

Much time has passed and many miles have been travelled since the occasion of your high school graduation. I still fondly recall you beaming with pride as you walked across the stage to receive your diploma and shake hands with superintendent MacDonald. Oh the relief you must have felt, diploma in hand and goal achieved. Afterwards, what a good reason you had for celebrating with your parents, family, and friends.

In route to becoming the Class of 1980, my heart was warmed each time you and your classmates overcame a challenge. The private victories that propelled each of you toward commencement were well known to me, as were the defeats. That is why I, a first time school counselor with his first graduating class, was so elated when every member of your class graduated on time.

I vividly remember the first time you came to my office. It was early September of your ninth grade year—1976. Your teachers and classmates had mentioned you—a gentle, friendly, tall, and somewhat effeminate boy—to me as someone to keep an eye on. So that day, when you crossed my office door, I was ready (sort of). You had just failed an Algebra 1 exam. With tears flowing, you said, “Mr. Weston, I try, I really do.” I listened, provided comfort, and helped you regroup. The few Kleenex I had—I was not ready—went fast.

Soon, my office became your frequent destination. To each visit, you brought tears and I provided a friendly ear, reassuring words, and Kleenex (by the case). When you failed tests, tears flowed. Bullied or teased, tears flowed. Every visit had a “Mr. Weston, I try, I really do.” I listened, nodded, and doled out Kleenex

Your life changed, when, late in the first semester of your sophomore year, the humiliating incident in the locker room occurred. Legal action was swiftly taken and protections provided. But listening, nodding, and reassurances I knew would no longer suffice. The damage from the incident would linger and had to be dealt with. That is why during one of the many meetings that your parents, you, and I were having, I proposed referring you for psychological services and home study. For the first time, an “I don’t fit in here” accompanied your all too familiar, “I try, I really do.” Your parents and I agreed with both statements.

Well Kevin, you know the story. From that point on, you did more than try. With the help of psychological services, you came to terms with the incident. Soon after, when we formed a team to look at your academic and social functioning, your cooperation led to several breakthrough insights—dyslexia, poor emotional regulation, limited coping strategies, and inadequate adaptation skills for academic subjects. The team determined you to be bright and capable but lacking certain skills. Armed with those insights, the home study that I thought could be a waste of time, turned out to be a godsend. Accommodations were made, necessary skills mastered, course content learned, and exams passed. The following Fall, when school began, academic successes soon followed.

From then on, your visits to my office became more about strategies, tactics, and problem solving. Favorable progress reports replaced tears; portfolio items with passing grades replaced Kleenex. Your action-plan and the accommodations it made possible for you to really try to fit in—somewhat but enough.

Yes Kevin, your path to graduation had more challenges than the paths taken by your classmates. Your path had more lessons to learn. That is why, as you walked across the stage to get your diploma, the sense of accomplishment, relief, and celebration you felt were so sweet. Your classmates and teacher who honored your accomplish with a heartfelt applause would have benefited from some Kleenex, but the only Kleenex I had were soaking up the tears of admiration flowing down my cheeks.

Kevin, I am proud beyond words of what you did. This letter is testament to that fact. However, as you will now read, it is but part of the story.

Your life changes changed my life. Watching you encounter and overcome your challenges, made me aware of how difficult school can be for students. After seeing your difficulties, everywhere I looked were students struggling to overcome equally daunting challenges. Most of them, unlike you, do not succeed. I did what I could, but it was not enough. My conclusion? The educational system we have only works well for some students and teachers. Moreover, the system is impervious to change. So attempts to make the system work for more students and teachers will inevitably find friction, frustration, and failure.

This understanding has been my constant companion and source of passion since our time together. I carried it with me to nearly every state capitol, Washington DC, three-dozen countries, two technology companies, and several universities. As I did, every day I woke up thinking about you and other students for whom the educational system does not work. I spent my days working to create an education system in which all teachers are empowered and all students are educated well. Each night, before I go to sleep I reflect on what I did that day to make this dream come true.

Kevin, when I needed a teacher, you were mine. You taught me that trying, really trying might help a student survive, but if the student does not fit the system of which he is a part, then his path will be a tearful one. Kevin, I pledge to keep working to create a system that fits all students and works for all teachers. As I do, memories of you are in my heart.

With respect and gratitude,

Mark


Note: This is the 11th 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.

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

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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.

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.

Had Enough? Occupy A Classroom, Change Education

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Occupy Wall Street’s non-violent attempts to change the private sector suggest that similar tactics can be applied to America’s public K-12 education system.

This is an intriguing possibility given that nationwide just two of three students graduate school on time. Further, of those who do graduate on time, approximately one in 10 needs pullout remedial help, another one in 10 requires special accommodations, and yet another one in 10 is under-challenged. These numbers reveal an educational system that works poorly for half the school-age population. For urban areas, the numbers are worse.

Since the 1950s, getting from a system that educates some students well (let’s call it “A”) to one that educates all students well (“B”) has been the preferred outcome of countless reform efforts. During this time, while attempt after attempt worked in an occasional classroom or school, wide-scale achievement of B was elusive. Now, however, B is achievable.

Two sets of circumstances show this to be the case. The first involves tight school budgets and teachers perpetually overloaded by bureaucratic policies, inadequate resources, public derision, and jam-packed classrooms. The second includes how schools are organized and education delivered, not teachers per se, not supporting the work necessary to get to B. Certainly, such circumstances are dire. They also generate hope.

An educational system that doesn’t work for most children and youth when budgets are maxed out and teachers are overloaded is a perfect target for the non-violent approaches Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King used to break the chains of colonialism and bigotry in their respective times and countries. Gandhi led millions of Indians to self-rule by showcasing the precarious situation of their British overlords. His simple non-violent actions made the precariousness clear. When Gandhi’s compatriots followed suit, Indian self-rule occurred soon after. Similarly, King realized that civil-rights advocates, by occupying, sitting-in, and striking could callout discrimination and bigotry thus advancing the dream of equality.

Our educational state is analogous to colonial India and pre-civil rights America in that those most disaffected by the current system are now a majority. Imagine how quickly a shift from A to B would be made if, the millions of children and youth nationwide who are eligible to attend school, but currently do not, systematically and intentionally occupied the very classrooms to which they are legally entitled. Moreover, imagine if they joined forces with their remediated, accommodated, and under-challenged peers and overloaded and underappreciated teachers. The neat-rowed classrooms they’d occupy would be shown to have neither sufficient space nor teaching capacity for educating them all.

Further, the sudden influx of students would skew the attendance-based formulas that allocate taxpayer dollars for schools, putting cities and states at financial risk. The non-violent occupiers, all possessing a legal right to an education, would leave the educational system no choice but to reconfigure itself to better serve all students. Such a paradigm shift would be comparable to those brought about by Gandhi and King.

The numbers of lives being wasted should be reason enough to set course immediately for B. Concerns about classrooms being occupied and cities and states going bankrupt should spawn urgency for getting there. The underserved majority will lead the way.

Mark


Note: This is my third post in the Shift Paradigm category, dedicated to providing fresh perspectives on longstanding issues in the field of education. Please click the follow button on the right side of the blog page to be notified of future posts.

MARK EDWARD CHARTS HIS COURSE – The Heartland Series

In the deep recesses of my mind, tucked 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.

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“Hold my hand,” Mom says. As we start descending the steep stairway to the musty basement of the Methodist Church. Holding my hand, a plate of fresh baked cornbread balancing on her other hand, Mom deftly navigates each step despite wearing her highest heels. Her floral dress celebrates the peony blooms that punctuate our little town on this sunny day in June.

It is a first Friday. Women’s Circle meets this day each month. Mom, by virtue of marriage to the church’s pastor, must attend.

“Hurry up. We mustn’t be late!” Mom says as we reach the last step. Scooting down the hallway, fellowship hall in sight, she reminds me of the unspoken, but strictly enforced rule about meetings of the church ladies. They wait until Mom arrives. A rule, that with ten minutes to spare, we do not invoke this morning.

At precisely eleven o-clock, Mildred, the chief church lady stands. She says, “Bow your heads, let’s pray.” She then proceeds to lay a blessing for everybody and everything on the 37 women and 9 children present. Prayer done, the ladies line up for lunch. Bertha, with blue hair and a gingham dress to match, begins gathering us children together.

Now, I may be only five-years old and have yet to experience many meetings, but I do have eyes. As I look around, the mannerisms of the ladies—a whisper here, a chat there, a few hugs, and some teary eyes—reveal that this is not a meeting in the usual sense of the word. Rather, it is a much-needed respite from the day-to-day toils of the small town life. Each weekday morning their husbands head off to work. They remain home, caring for children and family, preparing meals, tending gardens, and minding the house. Some make clothes and quilts. A few work jobs outside the home like the men do.

You need not be an adult to see the Circle’s highly evolved nature. What began, as a bible study group—with periodic projects—is now a convenient place for women to support each other, exchange gossip, and break bread. The real business of the circle is women making other women’s business their business.

Children, like me, are a big part of the women’s business and a reason they need support. To enable women with young children to attend meetings, older women volunteer to care for the children. This day, Bertha is up. In a room near the Fellowship Hall, Bertha enthusiastically teaches us about Zacchaeus, how to play Button-Button, and sing Jacob’s Ladder. We, like our mothers and their compatriots, have a grand time.

Or so I thought.

Later, during dinner, Mom tells Dad about a comment that a woman at the meeting had made to her. Then she tells how another woman had made a similar comment at the meeting last month, as had yet another woman at the meeting before that one. The thrice repeated-comments pertain to me, “I’m so sorry about Mark Edward” (Dad and I have the same name so that is what the church ladies call me). With furrowed brow, Dad says, “Come to think of it, several people have said that to me too.”

Unable to discern the comments’ meaning, to bed I go. Leaving Dad and Mom to solve the problem. Next morning, sitting at the kitchen table, digging through a bowl of cheerios, I wonder why everyone is sorry.

My wondering stops suddenly when Dad rushes in. Just back from the café on the square where he shared coffee with some men, Dad says, “Mystery solved.” Then tells Mom, Pamela, and I that people feel sorry for he and Mom, and do so because they believe I am slow for my age…emotionally, socially, physically, and intellectually inept.

Mom smiles. Dad laughs. Both talk about how my height—taller than boys two years older than me—might lead people who see me with older, same height boys to conclude I am slow and clumsy.

Mom, being my mom, knows there is nothing slow about me. The gleam in her eyes says she looks forward to the many accomplishments of her big boy and to future encounters with the church ladies. The makings of a poignant sermon are percolating in Dad’s head.

As for me, in my Heartland, and in my long journey of joy and adversity, my family knows me best. Slow or tall, their unconditional love lights the path and charts the course for Mark Edward, and that feels perfect.

Mark Edward


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

The Time Is Now: Learning Doesn’t Wait

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“Mark, got a moment?” says Rick over the phone. Quickly adding, “There’s something personal I want to talk about.”

Rick is a work acquaintance. His something is son Paul, a year eight student. Rick holds a report card showing Paul failed first term Algebra. Paul is an intelligent boy, capable of learning Algebra, who has previously done well in school. Paul’s future—acceptance at a good college, scholarships, good jobs, and more—hinges on him mastering Algebra and doing so this year.

Treading carefully, I say, “Tonight, over dinner, ask Paul when he first knew he was failing Algebra?”

The following morning, Rick reports about Paul being in trouble on day 6. I suggest he ask Paul when the Algebra teacher knew he was off track? Bright and early, Rick calls to tell me Paul’s teacher knew on day 15.

What is wrong here? On day six Paul knows he is lost. His teacher realizes this on day 15. Paul’s parents find out on day 53. A week later, day 60, all will meet to attempt solving Paul’s problem.

When is the optimal time to help Paul? Clearly the best time to intervene is between days six and seven (or before). But, for a variety of reasons, Paul’s needs are recognized and attended to far too late.

Imagine that feedback on Paul’s learning, or lack thereof is real-time. Further, imagine that the feedback generated about Paul informs and guides the instruction and support Paul receives…real-time, not weeks later. What would that look like?

On day six, when Paul turns in his Algebra coursework via the classroom web-portal, a bubble window on the screen says, “What grade do you give the work you are submitting?” Paul’s one-click response—“I give my work a D-grade”—creates an actionable data-point.

Paul’s mouse click triggers an alert to his teacher, who then takes appropriate action. Perhaps offering Paul personalized tutoring or web-based materials—text, simulation, manipulative, or video—to use at home to help him master the lesson with which he is struggling. His teacher alerts Paul’s parents to the situation, additional tutoring, and suggests they online the materials with Paul.

Now imagine that the principal of Paul’s school monitors her teachers and pupils’ work via a digital dashboard. She too receives an alert when Paul gives himself a ‘D’ and when his teacher offer assistance to Paul and his parents. It is likely the principal receives alerts that Paul’s classmates in Algebra (and other courses) are having similar difficulties. Seeing a trend and pattern, the principals convenes an impromptu meet of teachers to review and refine their instruction.

Before school starts on day seven, Paul goes to the Algebra classroom. His teacher gives him a problem to solve, which Paul does. That afternoon, in class, Paul moves forward with Algebra.

The speedy resolution of Paul’s Algebra problem stands in contrast to what he experienced. He, his parents, and educators are active participants in the resolution. Technology supports, enhances, engages, and guides the emergent work each does. Paul’s real-time feedback triggers a chain of events—self-report grading, formative assessment, and differentiated instruction—that drives continuous improvement of instruction Paul and his classmates at school receive. One click, many benefits.

Nearly all students can learn most lessons, just not at the same rate or manner. Sometimes, a student, as was the case with Paul, gets off track. When that happens, it is essential that the amount of off-track time be minimized. To do this efficiently requires stakeholders—students, teachers, parents, and principals—be tightly coupled with each other, research proven practices, and curricular content.

Technology enables such coupling. Feedback is the means by which stakeholders communicate. It is time we learn this lesson.

Mark


 Note: This is my first post in the Shift Paradigm category, dedicated to providing fresh perspectives on longstanding issues in the field of education. Please click the follow button on the right side of the blog page to be notified of future posts.

Flip The Switch for Professional Learning

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Ask a teacher about professional learning, she will tell you exactly what she needs and why she needs it. You will then hear how she expects to learn through the same robust, relevant, and collaborative approaches that she uses everyday with her students. Ask the same of other teachers you will get similar responses.

Well, most of the time. That was not the case yesterday. When I asked a teacher friend about her professional learning she blindsided me with an account of her nightmare  the previous night.

The nightmare begins with a teacher standing in darkness, no light, not one iota. She extends her arms forward, nothing there; reaches up, nothing, reaches behind, a wall greets her hands.

As she touches the wall, a bell rings. A disembodied voice booms, “Please proceed to the other side of the room.” The teacher cries out, “What am I doing here? Why go to the other side? How far is it?” No answers meet her questions.

Cautiously she takes a step forward. Then takes another step. Halfway through the third step, her right knee hits a big, firm object. Using her hands, she determines the object to be waist high, horizontal, a few feet wide, and somewhat smooth. She crawls over it. Then stands, takes two steps…whack! Her left shin rams a hard, object approximately 18 inches high, feeling her way around it, she continues moving forward, step after tedious step. Memories of the night maneuvers she endured at scout camp percolate in her mind.

Fifteen minutes later, the teacher bangs into the wall on the other side of the room. Instantly a light comes on. Breathing hard and sweat drenched from the objects she overcame, she is angry as hell about the bumps, bruises, and humiliation she endured. Through eyes, adjusting to the painful brightness of the room, she views the trail just traversed—over a couch, around a coffee table, into and around a pillar, by a floor lamp, and the wall, the blessed wall.

The booming voice says, “What took you so long?” She pauses, and then says, “If I’d known where I was, what I was supposed to do, and why it mattered that I do it…I would have gotten here quicker and with less damage…and I wish I had known where the light switch was.”

I often hear teachers speak figuratively of being in the dark about things happening in their school or district. However, a nightmare is a first for me. Nonetheless, I am not surprised when my friend has a ready answer as to what the nightmare means .

After taking a deep breath, my friend describes how poorly designed PL puts teachers in the dark by giving them no choice of learning opportunities or instructional approaches. Moreover, it saddles them with expectations unrelated to their daily work with students. Then she painstakingly explains how the darkness of PL sessions and other school activities—like the disembodied voice above—often evokes feelings of humiliation, pain, inadequacy, and anxiety within teachers when not performing to expectation. Those feelings, left unaddressed personally or professionally, can contribute to sleep, health, and mental disorders…and ultimately burnout and turnover.

Professional learning should be dreamlike, not nightmarish. Making it more self-directed (aka teacher agency) enables teachers to switch-on their learning, develop capacity to see pathways for growth, and identify and overcome obstacles. When this is the case, teachers hold themselves accountable. The booming voice asking, “What took you so long?” goes away. As do the educational equivalents of couches, coffee tables, and walls.

Teachers know what they need. Let them flip the switch for their professional learning. Make the nightmares go away.

Mark