You Never Know All the Good You Do

There is a general dictum that says, “Teachers only plan a lesson to the point where they think they won’t get surprised.” As a former middle school and now college teacher, I have gotten to the point in my career where I don’t often get surprised by my students’ answers (or lack thereof). Wednesday night’s class was different.

Wednesday’s class focused on the goals, resources, and orientations that teachers bring to their instruction. To provide us all with a common “text,” we explored Elizabeth Green’s wonderful description of Deborah Ball, the celebrated math educator. My students were quick to infer the content and pedagogic resources Ball had, the goals that she set for her instruction, and her orientations towards her students, subject, and teaching.

As a quick summary, Ball has a tremendous amount of conceptual mathematic knowledge and a honed pedagogy of questioning. I might even argue that she makes questioning an art form; with questions, Ball is a master at eliciting exactly what she needs to know from students. Her goals are to help students through the curriculum but, more importantly, to help them conceptually understand math, becoming mathematicians through their creation and use of proofs and conjectures. Finally, her teaching is oriented towards students’ construction of math, believing that her students are mathematicians, and that teaching is a complex, serious, important endeavor.

After my students laid these pieces out on the board, we began a discussion about which was the most important, or driving, aspect of Ball’s overall teaching. Which of these three aspects made Ball “special”?

One student offered, “Well, it’s her resources!”

I have to admit, I was a little surprised. My students are smart… really smart. Authors who have studied Ball’s teaching often argue that what make her special, what gives her the driving force to be the teacher she is, is her orientation. Without her orientation, she never would have selected such goals and she wouldn’t use her resources as effectively as she does.

“Yeah, definitely the resources,” chimed another student.

Ugh. Ok, why weren’t they thinking at all about the orientation? I had to ask.

“Well,” said a third student, “her orientation towards teaching is great but it’s not special. We all believe those same things.” Other heads nodded in agreement.

“So, you’re saying that it was the extra time she spent thinking about math conceptually, with support from university faculty, that made the difference?” I asked, in not so many words. Of course! The class moved on with the conversation…

It has taken me 24 hours to realize that that moment was a disguised affirmation. At the time I thought my students had made a great argument for what professional development should look like. Rather than talking about high-stakes testing, confidence intervals, and “bubble kids,” build teachers’ conceptual and pedagogic resources seems to be a much more effective way to professionally develop those who already love to learn. 

But this interaction was also an affirmation of the work that my colleagues and I have been doing. My students attend a college that teaches through high-impact practices at all levels, has Arts and Sciences faculty that think that students should be taught to “do” their disciplines rather than simply drink from “the fountain of knowledge,” and an Education Department faculty that encourages students to think with these orientations in every class. Unfortunately, all of us have to take it on faith that our little part in this process will eventually lead to our hoped-for outcomes. I got a chance to witness, just for a moment, confirmation that what we do has made a difference. 

In the Teacher Preparation world, Deborah Ball is held up as a shining example, probably rightfully so, of a great educator. But what so many authors would contend made her special (her orientation) didn’t resonate with my students, not because they didn’t think that it was important but because it was commonplace in their image of education. They wanted more time to think conceptually, as Ball had taken. They could do it, given the resources.

Surely, this is not the last conversation that I will have with my students about their orientations; it is still yet to be seen if those orientations are manifested in their day-to-day teaching. But, even with these unknowns, it’s evident to me that all of the little and big efforts my colleagues and I have put into building these orientations are paying off in the quality of our future teachers. To my colleagues I say, “Keep going. You never know all the good you do!”

A New Deal: Thoughts on Our Anti-High Stakes Agenda

Throughout the country, but in New York in particular, a lot of education talk has been focused around three things: (1) high-stakes tests for K-12 students (unfortunately aligned to the Common Core State Standards), (2) high-stakes tests for pre-service teachers designed in coordination with and assessed by Pearson… very interesting, and (3) current teacher compensation plans. To this last point, New York teachers have been without a contract for years; a tentative agreement is in the works as I write.

Looking across all of this activity, it is clear that there is an issue of trust between “Education” and “Society.” I put these two groups in quotes because I actually don’t believe that there is actually that wide of a gap… many parents think that their children’s teachers are great and many teachers feel respected by their students and the community. On the national stage, however, these groups are at odds. The use of high-stakes tests indicate that “Society” does not trust teachers when they say that their students are ready to be productive members of society. The inability for regular contract agreements indicates that teachers don’t feel appropriately valued by “Society” and that “Society” may be questioning “Education’s” worth.

The good news is that it looks as if things might be turning around. Contracts are being negotiated and voices are finally crying out of the harmful effects of high-stakes testing. What Education needs to think about now is, “What’s next?” We have a great opportunity now to re-define our social contract with Society. Society wants to know the value Education intends to provide to the common good and how Education intends to monitor and regulate that value. This is hopeful! This is good news!

While I certainly don’t have all (if any) of the answers, below are some thoughts for a New Deal that Education can make with Society:

1. The value of good education is based upon active citizenship. Citizenship (action civics, to be more specific) requires citizens to (1) have strong content knowledge, (2) have skills by which to collaborate with diverse other citizens, and (3) have the ethical values to work for the good of the whole. It does no good for our students (your children) to be able to fill-in the right Scantron bubble… it matters if they can use that knowledge for their own benefit and ours. We want intelligent, versatile, ethical citizens; Education can provide that. With these knowledge, skills, and dispositions, we can feel confident that our students can provide for themselves, their families, and Society.

2. The value in teaching is based upon facilitating constructivist learning. There is little factual information that anyone with an internet-enabled device can’t find in today’s world. The value of teaching is not in our lectures; it is in our ability to create constructivist learning environments for our students. These environments may look different depending on age, grade, subject, etc. but they all require students to think and act. To be sure, this can be scary. Sometimes students don’t think and act the way we expect (or want them to). The value of teaching is to guide students through these experiences (good and bad) so that they can gain the most benefit from them.

3. The value of the Education profession lies in its connections with Society. If any New Deal is to be struck, it must rely on constant connections with Society, including business. Education can use and learn from all aspects of community assets and can adjust to the growing needs and various directions of the world. The Education profession can be flexible. What the Education profession needs from Society is a conversation rather than legislative mandates and big-business monies. Educators pledge their lives to working hard for and with students. Connections with Society are integral to that work. What is also integral is the ability to make ethical, professional decisions regarding that work without the influences of those who have not pledged their lives to such work.

We are all concerned for the students/children of this country. Maybe it is time to strike a New Deal, regain trust and respect amongst all parties, and get back to focusing on meaningful learning.

Summer Education

Now that summer vacation is upon us, students across the United States will have time to have fun, catch up on some sleep, and do the things that they find most interesting. It is also a time when children (at least the younger ones) get to spend more time with their parents, other family members, and friendly adults; a time when they get to spend time in the real world, learning from experiences that occur outside the confines of school. This is how we all learned before school began. Indeed, parents, family, and friends are our first (and potentially best) teachers!

If the opportunity is taken, the summertime can be a truly educative experience for children. As the internationally acclaimed educator Pasi Sahlberg suggests, one of the things that supports the best educated countries in the world is strong cultural support for education. Indeed, he is specifically talking about Finland, where there is a socialist system that actively attempts to support the learning and health of all children; however, there are some lessons that we can use here in the United States as well.

In 1975, a scholar named Dan Lorite wrote about a concept he called the “apprenticeship of observation.” This concept refers to the idea that many teachers teach the way that they were taught as students, not necessary how they were trained to teach in their teacher preparation courses. Much to the chagrin of teacher educators, there are powerful connections between the past and what people do in their everyday lives, even when solid evidence suggests a different approach is much more effective.

Here, I’d like to draw a connection: the lessons that children explicitly and implicitly learn from their parents, family, and friends can often direct the way they approach learning throughout their lives, regardless of the quality education that they may receive. These lessons are not all academic either. The perseverance, grit, and determination to figure things out is just as important to future success as is the “book learning” so often the focus of formal schooling. This means that teachers can’t educate children all on their own; they need the support of the community to continue their work when the school day and year are over.

So, what can parents do to help their children succeed in the future? Surely, parents can send their children to camps, summer schools, and educational programs. These activities can be fun while also opening their worlds to new possibilities. However, I would also suggest that children need to be apprenticed to what life-long learning looks like by trusted adults in their everyday lives. Parents might try:

1. To read with and/or near their children. Literacy, if it is to become developed throughout ones life, can’t end at the end of the school year. Many schools provide summer reading lists that support the curriculum. These are important for students to complete. However, it might be more important for children to see their parents reading too. Taking an hour of the evening to read together as a family (with the tv off) could help to show children that this is something important at all ages.

2. Learning with their children. By involving children in the day-to-day work of life, they can get the sense of how to function in the “real world.” Importantly, the real world often forces us to think on our feet, look things up, and figure things out. Instead of simply doing this by themselves, parents should encourage their children to help them figure out problems with them. For example, if a trip needs to be planned, ask the children to help you research places to stay on the internet and map the course to get there. Not only will activities such as this help them to think more critically (e.g., not all of the comments/recommendations on hotel websites are from actual customers) but it will help them to become better problem solvers.

3. Gaming with their children. More and more, children play online games as a way to connect with others. They are also learning some important social skills (both positive and negative) regardless of the type of games they are playing. The way that children talk to each other through messaging and voice software during these games are largely secret, hidden from adult view. Playing gaming with and against children will enable parents to see how their children interact over the internet and might spark some good discussions about what it means to be a good digital citizen.

These are but a few ideas but they might begin to help all of our children become more effect 21st Century learners and thinkers. Regardless of the new technologies and activities out there today, we learn the most from watching what people we respect do. Parents are an incredibly important part of this equation; children are apprenticed to what it means to be an adult by their actions. This summer, let’s commit to working together as a society to support youths’ learning both inside and outside of the classroom.

Learning Through Lesson Planning

The dreaded lesson plan. I don’t know of a single teacher who likes to write them. They seem quite inauthentic, really. Educational and psychological theorists tell us that we should begin our lesson plans “with the end in mind;” What do we really want our students to learn during this lesson? Often, however, we begin with the question, “What standards do we have to meet?” It is this latter question that illustrates why lesson planning is so hated. Despite some of our best efforts to create meaningful learning experience for students, we teachers often think about what our students “need to know and be able to do” rather than our own professional connections to the material. What got me thinking about this disconnect was a quote by Richardson (2001, p. 35) in Hatch’s (2002) Doing Qualitative Research in Education Settings. Richardson explains, “I write because I want to find something out. I write in order to learn something that I did not know before I wrote it” (p. 212). When is the last time you wrote a lesson plan and learned something for yourself?

I’ve decided to try an experiment this semester, one involving a lot of reading and some reflection. I’ve decided to take one of my classes and completely redesign it, learning new material, new more-constructivist instructional strategies, and new technologies. What I’ve discovered so far is that I can’t write in the lesson plan format at first. The whole format is too procedural for me and doesn’t let me work through some of the conceptual, theoretical, or practical details the way that I would normally think about writing a paper, journal, or other more prosy piece. This discovery actually came as a shock to me because, as a former middle school teacher with multiple preps, I think I’m really good at creating lesson plans.

The more I’ve thought about this whole process, though, the more I think that lesson planning might be more like creating a PowerPoint. A PowerPoint may not be powerful or have a point without the creator first working through all of the details and pathways behind the major concepts. Watching a PowerPoint presentation without an argument is like reading a social studies textbook… a whole lot of facts that are quickly forgotten for more important, meaningful information.

So, here’s what I’m trying and I challenge you to do the same:

1. Select a class for which you have a particular passion.
2. Instead of getting right to your lesson plans, write/journal/draw/score an argument for each lesson you will teach.
3. Once you have your argument down, create an activity that enable your students to make their own argument.
4. NOW, write your lesson plan.
5. After you teach, add two more sections to your creation in Step #2:
a. What did you learn from your students?
b. Your conclusions about the topic under study.

This is going to take a lot of work. I’m just getting started and I’ve caught myself trying to skip some steps. However, this process just seems right to me… it feels more real and intellectually stimulating. I’ll let you know how my semester goes. If you try it, I’d love to hear what you find!

community, “getting there,” and schools

A few weeks ago, Kareem Abdul Jabbar gave a speech following the unveiling of a statue in his honor.  To be honest, I’m not exactly sure why I started listening. I have a great respect for the game of basketball but I’ve never really gotten into following it.  Jabbar said something, though, that made me pay attention pretty quickly; “No one gets to this point of greatness without working with other great players.”  There is no doubt that he is one of the greats… even I know that. But there is something in this statement that I think we can translate from the court to our conception of education. Indeed, Jabbar believes that his education continued through his work, learning from the other greats that he played with.

In civics education, especially action civics, students are often asked to think and write about the community. Within the four walls of the classroom, students might learn about a community issue through Internet research, guest speakers, and information that they bring with them to class (e.g., community surveys). As a unit, students build their civic knowledge, skills, and dispositions, preparing them for future actions they might take as adult citizens. Jabbar pushes us to think about shifting our thinking from about to with. What might action civics look like if students were made responsible for part of a larger civic initiative rather than devising the whole project themselves? What would that do to/for the students, the teacher, and the community partner?

I’m not convinced that such a model is scalable or appropriate for all students and/or all ages but I think it is interesting enough to think about. If civic preparation is like sports, where you actually have to practice and get your reps in if you want to be good, then maybe it is important to get a couple reps in with community members who are doing work with real responsibilities and consequences for the community. These community members might not be any “greater” than the classroom teacher but, as Jabbar’s comments suggest, it was in working with greats that he became great. Such various and alternate interactions might be important for our students to become great citizens.

So, what might this look like? I’d suggest that teachers, especially action civics teachers, take some time to get back out into the community, making connections with content-relevant community organizers, business leaders, and public servants. Learning their craft and the spin that their work puts on curricular content might inform (in an authentic way) the ways we approach action civics instruction. Then, with time, trust, and expertise, it might be worth experimenting with giving students real community responsibilities (e.g., doing a survey analysis of attitudes surrounding an issue important to the local government and presenting recommendations to elected officials as part of their strategic plan). Working with the “greats” and practicing civics for the community might be more educative than thinking about them and/or practicing alone.


You are not an activist!

As the semester comes to a close, my students and I have been having increasingly deep discussions about what terms like activism, grassroots advocacy, and civics mean. This past week, focused specifically on the term epistemic closer (the idea that individuals may close ourselves off in our “ways of knowing”) to explain why some (many?) people are not able to be “open,” as Preskill and Brookfield (2008) describe in Learning as a Way of Leading. My students were quick to make practical linkages to the recent elections and to broader social, political, and economic concerns that the United States is facing. However, when we got to the question, “So, what can we do today to remedy our own epistemic closures?” it was interesting that my students’ only responses were about how we could connect with others in person; you could hear crickets chirp when I asked about our online activity.

That discussion reminded me about once again of the disconnect between our epistemology of citizenship and of the digital world. What a disconnect! Despite excellent research describing the civic skills youth learn by playing online games (e.g., Ito et al.’s (2009) work), youth I have spoken to suggest that the circles they find themselves in online rarely expose them to thoughtful conversations about the world and their connection to it. Even more difficult, though, is how to expand those networks, as my freshmen students pointed out this week.

Beyond the question of expanding students’ interactions online as well as developing those online citizenship skills, we need to also explore the ramifications of epistemic closer for building (or not building) students’ capacity to be effective citizens… digital or otherwise. To this end, one of my students sent this video as a way of explaining the problem.

Moving forward, we need to work with youth to develop an understanding of the best ways for them to break the epistemic closer bubble. They might:

  • Begin following political leaders on both sides of the aisle.
  • Add two different media outlets to their Twitter feed.
  • Link to local arts councils that explore culturally diverse programming
  • Link their RSS feeds to international news organizations.

These certainly aren’t cure-alls. However, without meeting people online with divergent views, participatory civics will only be “that injustice over there,” without any real connection. Before we ask students to “do,” they have to “know” and “feel.” Only then, can these three be iterative processes.