A MAJOR FEAST: Giving, Getting and Taking – 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.

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On this Sunday morning in 1960, the parsonage of the Methodist Church of Corydon, Iowa is bustling with Christmas activity. There is a dinner to fix, 9:00 AM service to attend, presents to open, and a feast to consume. Dad, Mom, Pamela, and I are each doing our part.

As Pamela and I do our part, Major, my 175-pound, apricot colored mastiff watches us set the dinner table. Put a hand-carved nativity scene mid-table, atop a white tablecloth. Arrange four place settings, each with two forks, china plate, knife (blade toward the plate), two spoons, water goblet, and wine glass. Then add a rolled, bright red napkin exclamation point to each.

Then, in the kitchen, Major watches Mom prepare dinner. She is trying to have every dish ready, or nearly ready, before church, so after church finishing touches will make dinner ready for serving. On the stove, tomato soup simmers in a pot. Peeled potatoes boil in an 8-quart stockpot. Broth for gravy sits in a 2-quart saucepan. And green bean casserole bakes in the oven. With each stir that Mom gives a pot, the drool hanging from Major’s jowls lengthens.

Major’s eyes widen as Mom looks in the refrigerator at the salad bowl containing an apple, raisin, and whipped cream concoction. Then at the smaller bowls holding homemade pickles—cucumber, pepper, and melon. And a plate of neatly aligned deviled eggs, lightly sprinkled with paprika.

When Mom places three loaves of uncut, freshly baked bread—white, cinnamon swirl, and mixed-grain—on a wood platter on the counter, Major fidgets. When she places a big slab of butter on a dish next to the bread, drool streams from both sides of Major’s jowls.

Nearby on the counter are two jars of jam (one rhubarb-strawberry, the other cherry), a jar of crabapple jelly, and one of peach preserves. Beside them are a cherry pie, apple pie, and a platter of homemade cookies, assorted bars, fudge, and two types of divinity. An 8-pound smoked ham sits in a pan on the other side of the counter. When Major see it, splat! His drool hits the floor.

Table set and meal as ready as can be, we head to church. Dad drives. Mom sits beside him, fiddling with her hair. Pamela and I in the backseat, dreaming of what awaits us after church. Major at home.

At the church, Dad, stands in the narthex, greeting parishioners. Mom, Pamela, and I stand beside him. I hear Dad thank the Milners for the eggs they gave our family. Tell Mrs. Gargin how much we appreciate her cinnamon bread. I see Dad embrace Dr. Gramel for giving us a ham.

My ears perk up when Mom gives Francine a hug of thanks for the gift of dill pickles and strawberry-rhubarb jam and inquires about her niece, and my pal, Julie. Next, a thanks for a bushel of apples, follows a thanks for bread and fresh milk, and a thanks for a cherry pie.

On it goes as Dad walks down the aisle to the altar. A nod here, a wink there, acknowledge the generosity of particular parishioner. While during the sermon, Dad, shares God’s word, I look around. People smile, some laugh, and a few cry—as they receive Dad’s gift.

Riding home, warmness pervades the car that has yet to warm up. We speak no words. Giving and getting occupy my thoughts.

Once home, the warmness of the car carries Pamela and me into the living room. There a Christmas tree (a gift) stands guard over a pile packages. Pamela and I sit on the floor, Dad on the couch. Dutifully waiting for Mom to join us, we listen to her bang and clang, open and close, in the kitchen putting the finishing touches on dinner.

Mom’s ear-piercingly-loud “OH NO!” shatters our reverie. We dash to the kitchen. There, Mom stands over Major. Lying on his bed in the kitchen corner, a ham-bone is by his side. Belly swollen, breathing labored, the source of Major’s misery is the 8-pound ham that is now inside him.

A memory about a Christmas long ago waits my arrival at Heartland. It reminds me that a gift’s true value resides not in the item, but in the spirit in which it is given. That personal labor adds value to a gift. As does giving a gift freely with no expectation. That a gift’s value increases when the getter partakes of it joyfully and the giver expresses thanks genuinely. How value grows exponentially when the warmth that a gift generates in the hearts of the receiver and giver warms the hearts people around both.

As for Major, well, miserable Major teaches me a lesson about taking. That some people take because of lust or greed, others take to fulfill what they lack or need. Sometimes, as is the case with Major, people take because of alienation. Regardless of reason, taking breaks trust. Mom leaving the ham on the countertop is an act of trust. Major eating it, broke the trust. I will think twice before doing so again. As this trip to Heartland reminds me, there is a place at the table, part to play, and gifts to receive for every member of our family except Major. Having none, he takes the ham.

Over the years, I have come to see Christmas not as an event but a way of living. That generous gifts of belonging, supporting, and love are what generate the warmth that knows no time or season. Nurturing faith, hope, charity in myself nurtures the same in others. Doing what I can, where I am, with what I have is always my greatest gift.

That day, as I sit at the dinner table, the events of the morning sit with me. I think of each bite as a gift, every morsel the fruit of someone’s labor. How the abundance before me, is, even with no ham, nonetheless major feast. A moan from the kitchen reminds me that I have what I need, no need to take more.

Mark

PS. In the year ahead, I will give freely of my gifts and express gratitude for my abundance.


Note: This is the 26nd post in the Heartland Series. Please click the subscribe button on the right side of the blog page to be notified of future posts.

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RE-TYING THE TEACHING KNOT – The Learning Lesson Series

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“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

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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.

LET GO, SET YOURSELF FREE – The Learning Lessons Series

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“Mark, is it ever appropriate to take a crutch away from a cripple?” Roshi asks. I am in morning dokusan with him. It is day two of a seven-day period of intensive meditation that, in this Zen monastery, we call sesshin. My immediate thought upon hearing the question is, “Oh sh#t”. So I hesitate. When my mouth does open to respond, Roshi rings the bell. We bow. I return to the meditation hall.

There, I bow to my mat. Next, I position myself on the zafu that sits on the mat. When comfortable, I resume my practice—watching breath…in, out. If thoughts arise, there is only in and out. For the remainder of the day, there is just in, out. As I sit, walk, work, eat, and sleep I strive to do my practice.

Periodically, “take away a cripple’s crutch” invades the peaceful space that my practice creates for me. The invader disrupts my breathing. Hardens the mat. Makes my back and knees ache more than normal. Peace gives way to thoughts about who is the cripple? What is a crutch? How could its removal ever be appropriate?

If I try to ignore the question, it persists. When I yield to it and seek its answer, the question iterates itself. Only when I acknowledge the question, let it float by, and make no attachment to it, does the peace of breathing in, out return.

On the morning of day three, I report to dokusan. There, bows done, seated before him, Roshi asks, “Mark, is it ever appropriate to take a crutch away from a cripple?” I hesitate. Then, with my mouth ready to open, ring-ring-ring goes Roshi’s little bell. We bow. I return to my mat and zafu. Where, yet again, I breathe in and out and do battle with the question about crutch.

Days 4 and five go much the same as did days 2 and 3. There is morning dokusan—bows, the question, a quick bell, and bows—then more in and out as I sit, walk, work, eat, and sleep. On day six, I awake ready. Sesshin ends tomorrow. Today, in dokusan, I will answer the question. When, the time arrives, alas there is no dokusan. Dejected, I sit on the zafu that sits on the mat and breathe in, out. If the crutch question surfaces I try my best to acknowledge, but not attach to it.

Morning passes to afternoon, and afternoon passes to evening. As they pass, I sit incredibly still, breath coming in and out. The question about the crutch is a distance presence in my mind. Suddenly, on my shoulder a gentle tap pulls me back. Report to dokusan!

Roshi and I bow to each other. I sit before him. He asks, ““So Mark, is it ever appropriate to take a crutch away from a cripple?” I say, “Yes.” He nods approvingly, but seems to want more. So I say, “When doing so helps the cripple walk.” Again, he nods. Sitting perfectly still, I look at him as he looks at me. Both sets of eyes become one. Then none. Time stops. In this vast quiet place, Roshi’s gentle, barely audible voice says, “Mark, how long? How long must you hold on?”

With those words, every failure, indignity, disappointment, loss, and insecurity of my life sweeps over me. The dreams that died painful deaths, relationships that fell apart, and botched up ventures, they all are here now. I am a cripple. These are my crutches. My attachment to them, and the pain and suffering they represent, is a feeble attempt to avoid new pain and additional suffering.

“Let go, Mark. Let go of your crutches!” Roshi says. “Time to move on. You have contributions to make.” At that moment I see how my attachments to the past, the crutches that I lean on to avoid pain, are keeping me out of the game of life. Getting off the sidelines, into the game, necessitates that I walk without crutches. I ache to join in, quit watching, to play again.

As the crutches—people, drama, power, and pain—fall away, tears flow freely. Emotions overwhelm me. I feel alive. I see the crutches for what they are, understand how I lean on them, and call each by its true name. Each, as I do, goes away. When all are gone, I breathe in and out effortlessly.

Stepping back, there are four things to know about crutches. There are times when crutches are necessary. For instance, when a crutch enables a man with incurable paralysis to be upright and mobile or a child with a disability to learn. Also, there are times when we need a temporary crutch, as in the case of a sprained ankle or death of a friend. When injury heals and pain subsides, the need for a crutch ends. Sometimes, when crutches are no longer necessary or needed, but still used, they limit growth or healing. Lastly, people, needs, and crutches must match. When they do not, new pains result or existing pains deflect elsewhere, perhaps surfacing as an addiction or other disorder. In these ways, crutches that do not fit, or are no longer needed, slow us down.

This lesson, while about crutches, is also about my skillful teacher. Who, when, I, on my own, could not detach from my crutches showed me where to look but not what to see. He asked the question, but did not provide the answer. He forced me to face myself, confront the things that I let hold me back, and in this uncomfortable place to find my way forward. When I looked where he pointed me, I saw that I relied on the crutches, hated the sideline, and was ready to walk on to the field. Moreover, my true practice is more than breathing in and out, it is doing so while dealing with the pain and suffering of my life.

I invite you to take up the question that my beloved Roshi would not let me ignore—Is it ever appropriate to take a crutch away from a cripple? Go where the question takes you. Engage with the cripple that you find there. Look deeply at the crutches that keep the cripple there. What you see, will set you free.

Mark 


Note: This is the 14th 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.

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.

Connecting Conferences and Classrooms

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Do education-related organizations and the conferences they host work for you? Or do you work for them? Do they even work for education?

Tens of thousands of education-related organizations exist worldwide. Most fit into two general categories—professional associations and advocacy groups. Professional associations are comprised of people who take on similar tasks. Advocacy groups seek to influence public opinion or policy. Nearly every educational role or issue has an association or advocacy group. If you perform education-related work then you probably belong to at least one.

Associations and advocacy groups typically have a goal to benefit their members (you!). Their documents—by-laws, mission statements, job descriptions—that set forth their purpose, design, and governance reflect that goal. They guide the work of the organization. Staffing and activities, for example, should advance their purpose and directly benefit you.

What benefits do you realize from the education-related organizations to which you belong? The conferences you attend?

I asked this of several teachers and principals, educators on the front line of learning. To a person, they consistently reported two benefits: a great annual conference or convention (often in a fun location) and an informative magazine, newsletter, or web site. A few respondents, those serving on the board of an association or group, reported additional benefits of paid travel, networking opportunities, and speaking engagements.

One specific and crucial benefit the educators did not report was getting genuine help resolving the front-line challenges that they face every day in classrooms and schools. When I probed, they said that their top challenge is how might they—with limited time, energy, expertise, and funds—facilitate high levels of learning among all their students all the time. Since they did not report front-line challenges being taken up by an association or advocacy group to which they belong, it is not surprising that no public report has been made about such organizations significantly affecting the overall educational system (except, perhaps, in peripheral or indirect ways). After further probing, all said their organizations should accept some responsibility for helping members’ resolve school house challenges in ways that add up to overall improvements in instructional quality and learning outcomes.

The comments that educators did (and did not) provide suggest two scenarios worth pondering. One is a possibility that even though an organization may aspire to benefit all its members, an individual member might not, for a variety of reasons, actually accrue advantages beyond the aforementioned “benefits.” In this scenario, aspiration, and benefit, back-line and front-line, organization and member are misaligned.

Another possibility is more disconcerting. What if the organizations—which in the name of their members collectively generate and spend hundreds of millions of dollars, convene thousands of events, send countless communiqués, and advocate endlessly for educational issues—are, individually and collectively, incapable of genuinely helping members resolve front-line challenges? Ironically, both scenarios lead to the same place; questions whether belonging to an association or advocacy group will benefit a member in meeting such challenges.

What might those questions mean for you?

Not much, for example, if modern, digital technologies flatten your association or advocacy group and bring you and it together for the purpose of meeting those challenges. Membership and staff share operational control of the organization, generate, and process feedback about the work you perform, and prioritize the challenges taken up. You and your organization are co-evolving. So when your circumstances change, the organization adapts—and vice versa. For instance, if revenues go down, members step up by recruiting new members and raising additional funds. And if a new front-line challenge surfaces, then the organization adapts to meet it.

Sharing control and responding do not happen spontaneously. They result from members and organization sharing a professional understanding about the work they perform. This is only possible when relevant, digital technologies are a distinct and intentional part of the design and operation of the organization. When that is the case, the what, why, and how an organization accomplishes things and addresses the frontline needs of its members is quite different from the what, why, and how most organizations do things. Within these differences resides the identity of the boss. And the boss determines what you get from your association, advocacy group, or conference.

Mark


 Note: This is the fourth post in the Shift Paradigm series—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.