Sunday, August 17, 2014

"I Wanna Get Better" - #LeadershipDay14

Who wants to get better? Are any of you running over to the line designated for those who want to get worse? Probably not, there's nobody standing there. Scott McLeod's #LeadershipDay14 is an admirable, and inspirational collection of blog posts from educational leaders from around the world. (Click on the Leadership Day 2014 badge for more information) I was racking my brains trying to come up with a topic and theme that wasn't already part of this outstanding project. Then, while doing pull-ups at the gym, this Bleachers song comes over the loudspeakers, "I Wanna Get Better".

Jack Antonoff's lyrics are referring to our personal psyches as we face adversity or tragedy. However, the chorus "I wanna get better" grabbed my attention as I framed it in an educational sense. Everyone wants to get better. Learning, regardless of age or status, makes us better.

What if each of us got a little better every day? 

What if each of us helped someone else get a little better every day?

How can we formulate a plan for self-improvement? Books are a good place to start. Here are three books that have helped many educators get better.

  1. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success Psychologist Carol Dweck's research reminds us that our abilities are not fixed, getting better can be accomplished through effort and dedication.
  2. Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us  Daniel Pink's book identifies three key factors of motivation; autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Intrinsic rewards have proven their value in getting better.
  3. The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People How do successful people get better? Stephen Covey's research identifies the daily habits of people who have succeeded at getting better.

The mechanisms and technologies are available to anyone wanting to make a commitment to getting better. Administrators, teachers, and students can improve schools and learning by acknowledging the human condition of wanting to get better, and also creating conditions that celebrate a culture of learning and growth.

What is your PoA (plan of action) for getting better?

What is your plan for helping others get better?

photo credit (2): Leslie Abram via photopin cc

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Learning Without Boundaries

As the U.S. government works towards resolving issues near our borders, I was recently reminded that learning, and the hope that it offers, knows no boundaries. This week, our family traveled to Punta Cana, Dominican Republic to enjoy the lavish lifestyle of an all-inclusive resort. Little did I realize that one of our most memorable vacation experiences would take place during an excursion that included a visit to a small, one-room school house in rural Higuey.

Our guide extraordinaire, Angel Espinal, thoroughly explained the struggles the D.R. government was having in trying to make the Dominican schools more responsive and accommodating to an evolving economy. Angel taught himself four languages, including English, in order to become more viable in the burgeoning Dominican tourism industry. An outstanding instructor, Angel's experience, knowledge, and sense of humor served him well as a tour-guide. We learned so much during our day with the humorous storyteller.

One of the first stops during our Outback Safari was a visit to Higuey School. It was there we met Professor Silverio Zorilla Mercedes and a few of his students. Professor Zorilla is the Principal, Teacher, and Head Schoolmaster for Higuey Schools. His English was as limited as my Spanish, but Angel and the our kids assisted with interpretation. Dominican students are off from school from mid-June to mid-August. However, students that fall below 70% mastery in their core subjects (Math, Science, Geography, and History) are required to attend summer school. Students frequently stop by the school to help the teacher prepare the classroom, read books, and write in their journals.

Dominican students start attending kindergarten at age five. A high-school diploma is considered a distinguished achievement that can be earned after completing 12th grade. Students of all grade levels attend the one-room school, although enrollment declines with age as some teens get pulled away to support subsistence farming and family-run businesses. Professor Zorilla practices differentiation through necessity as he has three daily classes of nearly 40 students, ages 5 through 18. On the surface, it seems like an impossible teaching task. However, the students have classroom jobs and take responsibility each other's learning. Alan November would wholeheartedly approve of this classroom organization.

One goal of the government is to institute a full-day school schedule (8:00 - 5:30) that provides breakfast, a mid-day snack, and dinner for the students. Part of the rationale behind this is to allow parents to work full-time without having to take away time to prepare meals. Unfortunately, at this time, students attend school in one of three shifts, morning, mid-day, and late afternoon. This is due to lack of facilities, lack of qualified teachers, and a lack of resources. There is a $10 departure tax that is charged to every tourist. The bulk of this money is being put towards schools and infrastructure. Electricity and drinkable water are in short supply, but ironically nearly everyone we saw had a cell phone, including several students we met. Did the SAMR model cross my mind? You bet it did!

The Dominican people that we met had a strong appreciation for learning. Agricultural strategies and hand-made craftsmanship have been passed down through generations. However, as their economy evolves, there is a growing understanding of the value of skills learned in schools. The fifth grade students we met were writing in workbooks more appropriate for first or second graders because that was all that was available. With commendable insight, these students recognized that their school-based efforts will create opportunities in their future. They help each other learn because they know their futures depend on being skilled and educated.

Angel was emphatic with respects to his role in educating tourists about life in the Dominican outback. He is a true ambassador for authentic Dominican culture. In particular, he is proud of his children and the success they are experiencing as a result of their commitment to a school-based education. His oldest daughter is entering law school this fall. During our family excursion, we became instant friends and supporters of Angel and Professor Zorilla. We have exchanged contact information, exchanged compliments via email messages, and we have promised to stay connected in the name of learning.

Our plan of action moving forward is to request donations for school supplies and uniforms for the students. It costs fifty U.S. dollars per student for their uniforms. The students we met requested books, notebooks, maps, and pencils. We are going to help Professor Zorilla obtain at least one computer and an Internet connection for his classroom. Our hope is to establish a consistent connection where Dominican and American students can share information and perspective while becoming partners in learning. My follow up posts will include information to get actively involved, as well as, progress reports sharing our adventures into the outback of globally connected learning.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Changing Schools, Is Teacher Cognition Slowing the Process?

There is little doubt that technology and the Internet is dramatically changing life in our homes and workplaces. But what about our schools? There seems to be plenty of evidence suggesting that the factory model typifying the 20th century classroom is alive and well in our 21st century schools. Why are schools not keeping pace with the technology changes impacting other facets of our lives?

Are teachers impeding real and dramatic change in our schools?

Are teachers, by virtue of having successfully played the game of education, perpetuating practices that are obsolete in a socially networked world? A few weeks ago, Tom Whitby called this phenomenon "time-capsule teaching". Jesse Martin, and others, have referenced "teacher cognition" as a reason for change resistance. Most teachers from my generation have navigated and thrived in the factory classroom model. There is little interest in changing what doesn't feel broken. If it worked for us, should it not work for all students regardless of setting?

I have opened several recent conference presentations crowing about my nearly fifty years experience in a school setting as student and teacher. A lifetime of moderate success in a school setting must translate to some form of professional influence and effectiveness, shouldn't it? True, after many years, I have an intuitive feeling of how an effective classroom operates. I recognize when "flow" is occurring, and how to frequently, and informally assess student learning.

Our intuition and experience may becoming more hindrance than asset. The sage on the stage directing rows of compliant students is an ideal from an age long past. This revelation is not to cast blame. Rather, it's acknowledging the difficulty in reversing years, and in most cases, decades of school experience. 

My wife Natalie, an outstanding 2nd grade teacher with more than 20 years experience, frequently uses materials, strategies, and plans that she grew up with. We discuss the need to shake things up to make the learning more relevant and authentic for her students. These conversations have raised awareness for both of us. She is bringing more innovation, authenticity, and wider perspective to her classroom, while I am becoming more aware of the barriers that keep teachers from taking more risk in their practice. Among these are one-size fits all standards, arbitrary professional evaluation, and lack of parent understanding or support.

Without interest, incentive, and support, it there any wonder why schools are not keeping pace with the dramatic change impacting our daily lives? Some successful teachers are enjoying change by adopting a learner-first mentality. They are connecting with other educators to immerse themselves in relevant, authentic, self-determined learning. The conversations and experiences that grow from these connections are helping teachers re-frame their thinking about the school's role in education and learning. Not an easy task, these educators are changing their mindset and their teacher cognition

Is socially networked learning the key to creating timely, meaningful change in our schools?

Related Reading

Resistance to Change - Dangerously Irrelevant, Scott McLeod

The Changing Role of the Teacher - TeachThought, Grant Wiggins

Do We Let School Get in the Way of Learning - The Principal of Change, George Couros

Does Tech Hold Back Educators - My Island View, Tom Whitby

Teacher Cognition - Aplinglink, Geoff Jordan

Photo: creative commons licensed (BY-SA) flickr photo by ronwalf: