Leaving a legacy

Leaving a legacy

In one of my posts from earlier this fall, I wrote about the work we have been doing to set a vision for teaching and learning at Fishers Elementary School. You can check out that post (Setting a vision) if you’d like to know more about the work we’re doing. With our process, one of the things we want to think about is how do we make sure that whatever the vision is, it becomes ingrained as part of what we do. In the book Thrive, Grant Lichtman talks about the importance of both “short-term goals of this generation of students and the longer-horizon challenges that will face those yet to attend.” Lichtman goes on to discuss the value of building a mission and vision that will last long beyond the time that I’m here as the principal.

That’s a heavy idea to think about. I’m a first-year principal. I still feel like I’m just getting my feet wet, and now I’m being challenged to think about what learning will look like here at FES when I’m no longer here? In fact, in the book Lichtman talks about identifying aiming points that reflect the best version of our school in 10 to 20 years.

The reality is that in the world we are living in, change is inevitable, and the change cycle in most parts of the world just keeps moving faster. But change in schools seems to be on a different time scale. There are classrooms that you walk into today that feel and act much like the classroom I was in as an elementary student in the 1980s. We still have a structure to our day that is much the same (arrive, go to class, related arts, lunch, recess, back to class, head home). We are still grouping kids primarily by age, no matter what their variability may be in preparedness for the subjects we’re teaching. (In previous posts I’ve talked about this variability, probably most clearly in this blog: ‘What is the “average” student? Part II’) And for the most part, we still expect students to attend school from kindergarten to 12th grade, and much of what we are doing during that time is to then prepare students to go to college (with little attention paid to students who might not want/need to attend college for the future they have chosen).

So, what are some of the guiding lights that I believe will help to show where we’re trying to go? Three things stand out to me, in no particular order…

  • Integrated Subject Matter – For years in education, we have been putting subjects into their little buckets. There’s math time, there’s reading time, there’s writing time, not to mention all the other subject areas that we learn in school. But the thing is, they all go together. When was the last time you did math just to do math? Yesterday I had to do some math to figure out percentages so that I had data for a meeting I was preparing. That data then went into a report I created, and later talked about while presenting. At FES, we will create integrated learning opportunities for students so that they see that reading, writing, math, and all other forms of learning act in service of one another. We will research models of integrated learning that are working in other schools to create a system that will work for FES.
  • Cross Grade-Level Collaboration – The only times in my life where the majority of the people that I worked with were all the same age as me was during my time as a student in the K-12 classroom. In the real world, I have had colleagues who were older than me, younger than me, and some who were the same age as me. Depending on the context of my career, there are times where I walk into the room as one of the experts on a topic, others where I may be knowledgeable but still have more to learn, and other times still where I am the novice learner. I think that schools, especially elementary schools, could do a better job of differentiating learning for students by working across grade levels. If there is a first-grade student who is capable of working on the same math that a third-grade teacher is teaching, why do we keep them in the first-grade classroom? And if the second-grade class has been doing a lot of research on rocks and minerals, why can’t they share that knowledge with the fourth-grade class that’s about to embark on a unit in geology. Here at FES, we will create the conditions that allow students to learn from one another and with one another, even if they are not in the same class or grade.
  • High-quality project-based learning – Several years ago, while teaching 6th-grade social studies, it was a couple of weeks before winter break and we had reached our unit on Ancient Rome. We had just done a relatively traditional unit on Ancient Greece, and I was not excited to try to do things the same way. I began looking at the materials I had available for our unit, and I noticed that there was information on lots of interesting topics – clothing, games, architecture, food, and so much more. I decided that we were going to do things differently. I spent a day doing a quick introductory activity to the period and geography that we were going to be studying, and then I set them free. Students were challenged to pick whatever topic they were interested in, do some research on it, and then come up with some way to share what they had learned with others. I fully expected at the end that I would end up with a whole bunch of posters with information, or students creating power points, but that’s not what happened. One student asked if she could create a picture book about her topic. Another student wanted to take class time to teach students the popular game that kids played during the time. Another student built a working, scaled-down model of a Roman aqueduct. Another student designed and made an outfit similar to what a child from Ancient Rome might wear. And when we got to the end of the unit and I gave the unit test, average scores were higher than most tests I gave that year. (Reflection: I probably didn’t need to do the test to assess the learning of my students, but in the time I was working, we still had a traditional report card and I needed grades in the grade book – that’s a whole different issue and conversation) At FES, we will create conditions where high-quality project-based learning is the norm when we talk about what learning will look like at Fishers Elementary School.

Along with these guiding lights, we are currently gathering data in the form of a survey from our school community, both teachers and students, to help identify what it is that we value about FES, as well as what might make us even more valuable to our community. These guiding lights will help us to continue to revamp our mission and vision for learning. In the coming months I look forward to working with a team of stakeholders to analyze the responses we have received, finalize our mission, and then begin the task of identifying the strengths we already have as well as the learning we will need to do to continue to grow.

The Dots on the Line

bayesian-2889576_1280The bell curve. It’s a standard part of the old-school mindset of the Industrial Age of Education. For years, this bell curve concept represented where our students fall. The high point on the curve is seen as “average” and anyone to the left of that point was “below average.” Our goal as educators was to push students over the top of the hill so that they might move into the “above average” category. I’ve written about the concepts of average in a two-part series previously (see Part I here, and Part II here). While there have definitely been some shifts in education, there are times that schools still operate in an industrial age model.

Brief History of TechnologyThe problem with this is that our world has moved beyond the Industrial Age. Much of my lifetime, we have lived in the information age. For those of you who have been around for a while (like me), think about all the things that have come into existence in your life – from the birth of the cordless phone, to the original cell phone to the smartphone, iPad, Google, Facebook, Twitter, Netflix, Apple Pay, Zoom, Grubhub, Uber – this list could go on! The information age has been all about flattening the ability to gather information. Teachers and librarians used to be seen as the keepers of all knowledge. Today, our students can take out their smartphone or iPad (which both have more computing power than the rocket that took Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Mike Collins to the moon) and find any content they need to know.

A few weeks ago I was at our annual administrative retreat (this title makes it sound way fancier than it really was – this year we met in the cafeteria at the high school) and had an awesome session through Zoom (one of those tools I mentioned above!) titled “The Future of Learning, Today” with Jon Landis. Jon currently serves as the National Development Executive for Apple Inc. In his past, he spent time as a teacher, administrator, and assistant professor. There was so much goodness in his presentation. I wish there were a way to share this entire presentation, but I can’t find a way to do that anywhere. If you ever see an opportunity to view this presentation, you should absolutely go for it!

Jon talked about how at Apple they are now beginning to think of the world in a new way – no longer are we in the information age, but we have now shifted into “The People Age.” Historically educators grouped their students and created bell curves, but in the people age, we have to begin looking at the individual dots on the curve, not the curve as a whole. So what does that mean for education? Jon talked about 4 main concepts that affect learning in the people age.

  • Connected
  • Collaborative
  • Creative
  • Personal

Let me expand on each of these ideas:

Connected – In the modern-day learning can happen ANYWHERE! Anytime a student wants to know more, they can pull out their device and “search it up” (as my 8-year-old likes to say). Our job as educators is to help provide equitable access to quality content, anytime, anywhere. This means students no longer need to know it all. Rather they need to have the skills to understand if the resource they are using is providing meaningful and accurate information on the topic they are researching. Since we aren’t the keepers of the knowledge any more, the content isn’t what they seek from us, rather it’s the tools to know if the content is valid.

Collaborative – Our students love to share what they are learning – this is why the share portion of the workshop model is such an important part of the learning process. But another advantage is that when students share, they form relationships, and when they form relationships, they are able to build a stronger understanding and contribute to the world.  Look for ways for students to share their learning in authentic ways and beyond their own classroom walls. I feel my learning has grown and solidified since starting my blog because it forces me to process my learning in a way that I can share with others. How might your students be able to share their learning – could you start a class blog? Share on a class Twitter or Instagram page? Or maybe even on a YouTube channel? Or maybe it’s your students who could manage the blog, social media, or YouTube channel? Could you try to connect with experts in the areas our students are learning about so that students can share their thinking? I don’t know too many people who can choose to ignore an email from a cute elementary student!

Creative – This is where the true agency for our learners comes in! As teachers, we might pick an instructional goal for our students, but then we allow students to be creative in how they show their learning. Some students may choose to write an essay or create a poster, others might create something else. I’ve seen picture books that students created to share their knowledge of the water cycle. I had a student who built a model of a Roman Aqueduct to share what he had learned about Roman architecture. Other students might choose to create a digital presentation or a news broadcast. The choices that students could make are endless – your assessment is on the learning outcomes you are seeking, which means that your assessment tool can be used to assess anything that your students might create.

Personal – This allows students to make choices in their learning pathways. Ultimately we want to help our students develop a desire to learn about the things that are important or interesting to them. This means that no longer is the teacher the keeper of knowledge, rather the teacher may be the curator of a variety of tools and resources that students can choose between to make it to their ultimate outcome. One year as a social studies teacher we were learning about Ancient Rome. Our learning outcome was that students needed to have an understanding of the various aspects of Roman society. I did a brief introductory activity on Ancient Rome, and then let the students do research. They had our textbook, some videos I found, a variety of magazines and books I was able to find in our library, and a list of websites I shared with them. Students were able to pick one of the aspects of Roman society that they were curious about, and then dig in. Not only did a student create a Roman aqueduct, but I also had students who designed and then made their own Roman-style clothing, I had a student who taught others how to play a game that Roman children played, and so much more. The students in my class were able to design their own learning path for this unit, and they learned more about Rome as a whole than if I had taught a unit on Rome in a more traditional style. And my assessment? One basic rubric that involved general knowledge of Roman culture and tied back to our original learning target. My only regret – I didn’t teach like this all the time!

At the close of his presentation, Jon asked us 3 questions to reflect on:

  1. What is your vision for the future?
  2. How is your technology helping you get there?
  3. What if we lean into the realities of remote learning?

No longer do we live in the Industrial Age of education. No longer are we driven by the bell curve. No longer should our thinking be focused on trying to get our students over the top of the curve. In the People Age of education, we need to look at every child in our class and remember that they are a dot on the curve. We meet them where they are. We move them as far as we can while they are in our class. We provide the content, but more importantly, the tools they need to solve problems they are curious about. We help them to define their own learning path within the constraints of our learning outcomes. Because ultimately, not all things work for all learners.

The Intersection of the Soviet Union and COVID-19

IMG_3941This is me when I was in junior high. I know… Great haircut, right?

When I was in seventh grade, I had a teacher named Mr. Courtney. He was my social studies teacher and was truly one of the more interesting teachers that I had in my middle school years. The recent developments with COVID-19 have me reflecting on one of the long-term projects that we did while in Mr. Courtney’s class that year. You see, I was in seventh grade during the 1991-1992 school year. If you don’t remember the time, this is the year of the fall of the Soviet Union.

As a child of the 80s, I remember living through a somewhat constant level of… Fear? (That doesn’t feel like quite the right word now, but I’m not sure what works better). Also, there was some incredible music and hair! Anyway, there was this awareness of the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union. Who knew when things could erupt into a real war? But during the late 80s and early 90s there started to be some changes in the structure of the Soviet Union. Things really came to a head in 1991. This isn’t a history lesson, so I’m not going to go into the details of what I recall from the time.

Mr. Courtney, in a moment of great wisdom, made a decision to pivot with some of our learning. I’m sure that the fall of the Soviet Union was not on his curriculum guide for that year, but world history was. He knew that we were living through a moment of history. As an assignment during that school year, Mr. Courtney had us begin a journaling activity. We were asked to take newspaper clippings from the daily news about what was happening in the Soviet Union, as well as how it might be affecting the rest of the world. Then we were asked to write a journal response each day.

It’s got me thinking about what’s happening right now. All of us are living through a moment of history. What an authentic learning experience to bring into what we’re already doing. (And please understand, I’m trying to be really cautious not to use the phrase “opportunity” because this is a scary time for us all, and that word sounds kind of icky to me given the context of what’s happening around us. Sometimes authentic learning isn’t the topic that we’d ideally choose, and yet we go with it.)

In a team meeting with the fourth-grade teachers at my school, we began talking about an authentic writing assignment of a pandemic journal. Students can write about their lived experiences of this time around COVID-19. Students could share what they’ve learned about the virus. And to go with it, we talked about using resources on newsela as a way to read about COVID-19, viruses, and so much more of what is happening in the world. Here are just a few ideas I had around teaching during this period of COVID-19:

  • Create an informational brochure about viruses. Include ways to avoid spreading the virus, information on how long the virus can live, etc.
  • Have your students write a persuasive letter convincing their neighbors of why they shouldn’t be playing together with their friends right now.
  • Have your students learn about how a disease can spread through some of the amazing graphics from the New York Times here (or any of the other great graphics out there).
  • Have your students record a video showing what they are doing in their own homes to help keep things clean and prevent any potential spread of the virus within their own homes.
  • Have students use Wakelet, or something like that, to curate a list of news items that they find interesting relating to the world around them.

These are just a few ideas that come to mind in the short amount of time I spent thinking about it, but I’m certain that the chances for learning are endless. Here’s the thing, we sometimes get caught in what our curriculum guide says that we “need” to cover. At least here in Indiana, we know that we won’t be giving any standardized tests this year. While I’m not suggesting that we should throw out the curriculum guide completely, we can think critically about our standards and how we might be able to meet the learning goals of our students with a meaningful and relevant learning experience right now.

I still think about the assignment that Mr. Courtney gave us when I was in seventh grade, not because I want to reflect on the fall of the Soviet Union. Rather, I think of it when I want to talk about a model of what it means to be authentic and relevant for our students. I think about it when we contemplate how to be responsive to the world around us.

What things have you done with your class as a result of what is happening in our world now? Have you adjusted your plans? Created learning opportunities for your students that relate to what is happening in the world around us all? Share with us in the comments below a little about what you have tried, or are planning to try.