Monday, June 15, 2020

Wrecking the ant mound: My remarks to this year's graduates

My remarks last week to our Depot Campus graduates:

What a time we are living in! I certainly haven’t seen anything like this! And what a time to graduate from high school. You’re graduating online! When I was in high school, there wasn’t even an internet yet, and there weren’t any pandemics. Though there were certainly some protests and even riots. It’s a crazy time. And so much has happened that it can become very discouraging. We’re all socially isolated. We may be lonely. We’re all anxious about everything that’s going on. We may feel threatened or afraid. And it’s easy to get discouraged. Maybe you feel like that. Maybe you even feel hopeless about your future. I hope not, because it’s never hopeless. This is a time of tremendous disruption and upheaval. It’s a time of tremendous change. And that means it’s a time of hope. When I was in my admin prep program, a classmate made an analogy about change. He said when you wreck an ant mound, it doesn’t go away. It rebuilds itself in a new way. And that’s what happens any time there is a big disruption. Something new is built. And that’s where we are now. The ant mound is getting disrupted. And something new is going to be built. And you can help build it. Or at the very least, you get to experience it. And I’m convinced it will be better. I’m convinced that it will be better because I think this is the time where young people and people who have been held back for too long will take the lead. And whether you take the lead or not, you will have the chance to take advantage of the change. Look for the opportunities that will arise as this new ant mound is built. Old ways are passing away. New ways are coming. Keep your eyes and minds open. No one can predict what all the changes will be, but there is hope for a world with less racism and more justice and equality. There is hope for a world with more compassion and less consumerism--more focus on the things that are really important, like community and family, whatever that means to you. So don’t give up. These are hard times, and for some of you, it may seem like it’s always been hard times. But I’m here to tell you times change. And part of what determines that is you. No one is coming to save you. No one is coming to ride up on a horse and scoop you up and carry you off into the sunset. You are on your own horse. You need to do the work to be able to be part of this new thing that’s being built. You are one of the ants. Things are tough right now. And I have a feeling they are not going to get easier very soon. But at the same time, these are exciting times. They are times of change. So think about who and what you are and who and who and what you want to be, because everything, right now, is up in the air. And finally, realize that all of this uncertainty is OK, because really the only thing that is ever certain… is change. And if you can get comfortable with uncertainty and change, you will have a superpower. So lean into all of this change. The philosopher Alan Watts said, “The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance.” Join the dance of the ants rebuilding the mound. I wish you all the best as you move to the next stage of your journey!

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Three things I'm learning as an educator in the pandemic

Since the quarantine began, I've had this nagging feeling that this is our chance to break free--that the jailer just unlocked our cells and all we have to do is walk out. And I've been trying to figure out where that feeling is coming from. Now I think I know. It's coming from at least three directions:

1) The system is broken

Something about our modern system clearly isn't working. We were obviously not prepared for this thing, though we had been warned for years of the likelihood of a pandemic. And despite our insane level of prosperity and technological advancement, we clearly cannot take care of our most physically and economically vulnerable.

As an educator, this comes home with a vengeance as I realize I cannot support my most vulnerable students at this time. It's hard enough when I have them in-person, but now that they are home, it's impossible. Not that I don't try. In some cases I talk to them every day, but I cannot control their home environments, and I cannot be there to keep them on task and encourage them, and these kids need tremendous help focusing and staying motivated and just completing academic tasks others find easy.

As an educator, I have always believed all it would take is the right new idea and we could reach all of our students. In the past, I thought it might be inquiry-based education, the flipped classroom, the mastery-based approach, or project-based learning. And while some of these approaches have helped, none of them have solved the problem.

And this lockdown has brought this all into focus. The problem doesn't stem from the classroom and it can't be solved in the classroom, and certainly not over a Zoom call. It's a much larger problem that has to do with poverty and lack of family and community supports and systemic injustices and years of being part of a machine that doesn't care about people.

The system is broken, or at least, it doesn't work for us. It burns us as fuel. It's no wonder that the powers that be are so desperate for us to open up and get back to work. The system is like a car running on fumes right now, and it's desperate. And don't get me wrong, I want to us to open up also--I want to get back to teaching and leading face-to-face, back to the trail, the gym, visit new breweries, and I want people to be able to open up their businesses and support themselves and their families. But the machine doesn't care about us. And it's not just the threat of the virus it doesn't care about.

2) Work is broken

Sitting here every day at my home workstation, looking out at my yard and gardens, I've been thinking a lot about work. I've been thinking about how much I work, and why. And as I watch friends on Facebook getting into new and old hobbies, baking bread, brewing, gardening, I have to wonder: Are we doing it wrong?

My old architectural drafting teacher was frustrated when we said we had to work. He thought we should spend time outside of school honing our skills.

"Why do you need to work?," he asked.

"Because we need to pay for our cars," we replied.

"And why do you need cars?," he asked.

"We need them to get to work," we replied.

To which he just raised his hands, palm up, and shrugged.

What if we only have to work so much because we work so much?

What if, for example, everyone started growing their own food and building their own stuff, learning to sew and cook and make art and brew and bake and all of these half-forgotten skills that used to keep us all alive? And what if that made it so that we didn't need so much money? And what if that made it so that we didn't have to work so much?

Christopher Ryan, author of Sex at Dawn, tells the story of three natives of Tierra del Fuego. They  were brought to England by Captain Fitzroy of the HMS Beagle to learn the ways civilization, in hopes they would serve as missionaries to their own people. But when they were returned to their homeland, they just reverted to their old way of life--a primitive, hunter-gatherer lifestyle. The good Captain offered to bring one of them back to England, but the tribesman declined, saying he hadn't "the least wish to return to England," because he was "happy and contented" with "plenty fruits," "plenty fish," and "plenty birdies."

Jared Diamond, author of the book, Guns, Germ's and Steel, tells a similar story of a Kalahari bushman was asked why his tribe hadn't switched from their hunter-gatherer lifestyle to agriculture. He replied, "Why should we, when there are so many mongongo nuts in the world?"

This may seem like pie-in-the-sky hippie fantasy, especially to Americans like me brought up steeped in the protestant work ethic, but as cartoonist and writer Tim Kreider humorously points out, "It was the puritans who perverted work into a virtue, evidently forgetting that god meant it as a punishment."

We live in an age of abundance, and here we are all running around all the time in fight-or-flight mode trying to survive.

And here we are as educators pushing all of our students onto the treadmill of high school-college-work-more work-retirement-death, I have to wonder if this is the right thing to be teaching them. Actually, I know it's not.

And maybe, if we changed the way we work, we'd have more time for other people and for building the communities and connections we've lost over the years.

3) Our communities are broken

One of the best books I've listened to in recent years is Lost Connections by Johann Hari. Hari argues that the reason we are seeing more depression and anxiety in today's society is that we have lost our connections--to each other, our communities, meaningful work, and nature.

The lockdown has made this even clearer to me. I think we are on the verge of a major epidemic of mental illness stemming from this thing. We are hypersocial creatures, and I'm afraid that Zoom calls just don't cut it. I feel it myself, the need for human contact, and I hear it from my students. It's the most common thing they talk about when asked about the challenges they are facing in lockdown--they want to see their friends.

And the lockdown is exacerbating inequities that are due to differences in family and community support. Family and social support are protective factors against adverse childhood experiences, and we have lots of students who have high ACE scores and little to no protective factors. And for many, the main protective factor they did have, community support through the school, has been largely removed.

These kids need school. They need in-person school. And they need it badly, and soon. As someone who once said, "If there is hope for education, it's online," I now officially have to admit that this is not true. I used to believe that technology could be the great equalizer, and I think it still plays a role in that, but it's not enough. This giant distance-learning experiment has proved that to me. At least with current technology and the current state of our society, our most vulnerable kids need in-person instruction.

And for me, this could be the biggest lesson of all: That schools have become essential as community supports in a world that has lost most of its community supports. And this new role of schools needs to be our new priority as we move forward next fall, next year, and into the next decade.

Monday, August 19, 2019

Hitting the restart button at the start of the school year

There are so many things weighing us all down these days. Our brains are overloaded with negativity. For me, I need to refocus as I head into the new school year... and focus on the kids. That's what this is all about, and that's what gets me back on track and back into a positive mindset. And one of the cool things about the summer vacation is that it's like we get to hit the restart button every year for us and our students.

But that doesn't mean it will always be the best start it could be. In a recent issue of the Marshall Memo, Kim Marshall writes:

"In this article in AMLE Magazine, teacher/consultant/author Rick Wormeli bemoans the fact that students’ eager and receptive frame of mind at the beginning of each school year is often deflated by the endless succession of going-over-the-rules, filling out forms, and stale getting-to-know-you activities. “Students grow increasingly disillusioned,” says Wormeli. “We’ve missed a golden opportunity for them to dive into the subject material with neurons firing on all thrusters. It’s probably the most significant time of the year to hardwire students’ minds to embrace our subjects, and we don’t want to miss it.”

He recommends mixing mandatory stuff with lively activities, so students learn something new about your subject every day."

I love his idea of making sure we grab their interest at the start of school, but I would add a couple of other goals to my list of the three things I want my students to take away from the first few days of school:

  1. Piqued interest - As Wormeli recommends, I want to hit the ground running the first day with high-interest, challenging and content-rich activities. Earlier this summer, as I was planning this year's Science Project Block I asked myself, "What are the most interesting topics in biology that can be tackled with a simple hands-on approach?" I want to make sure the first day they are diving right into that.
  2. Success - When I ask myself what these kids need most, the answer is confidence. The students I work with are all in dire need of a feeling of competence and success. This is true for all of us. When we feel successful at something, we will not only be interested in it, we will tend to become more successful at it. And the opposite is also true, which is why school failure is a downward spiral.
  3. An expectation of hard work - At the same time, I want them to be in the zone of proximal development--not overwhelmed, but challenged. Expectations are key, so I also want them to expect to work hard every day.
So what does this mean for the first day/first few days? It means I need to provide learning activities that are:
  1. Inherently interesting.
  2. Easy enough to ensure success.
  3. Challenging enough to require help.
In the case of Project Block, this year we'll be trying to raise trees from seed and cuttings in order to help fight climate change. The first day, after introducing the idea of climate change and the "Trillion Tree Solution," we'll go right out into the woods to look for tree seeds that we can bring back inside for the next steps. We humans have a natural interest in living things, and while I am sure they will all be able to find seeds, I also think it will be challenging.

If I can infuse success into these kids, then I've succeeded. Success here could restart their whole lives, and that's what this job is about. It's not about all this other stuff that's going on in the world or in education these days. It's about these kids and their futures. It's about what we can do to help them.

Friday, March 8, 2019

Has coddling destroyed a generation?

One of the most common conversations among educators these days is the rising tide of anxiety and depression among young people. This disturbing trend comes at a time when schools are already being asked to do more and more academically, and these two factors are creating a perfect storm that we are having difficulty navigating. And so we are seeing ideas like grit, resilience, social-emotional learning, and trauma-sensitivity being offered up as possible solutions, and this new book by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, The Coddling of the American Mind.

The basic premise of the book is that by protecting our children and students from everything from peanuts to opposing viewpoints, we have crippled our college campuses and created a mental health crisis among teens and young adults. The book is definitely worth a read. The increasing prevalence of anxiety and depression among young people is something I deal with every day, and it's clear that something has gone wrong on college campuses when speakers are being "disinvited" simply for holding opposing political viewpoints.

I also see overparenting as a major issue. It's a constant struggle as a parent to keep from overprotecting your kids from failures and consequences, and the same goes for running a school. What is needed is an authoritative approach, with clear rules and consequences and a focus on support, rather than a permissive or authoritarian approach. Coddling is a good reminder that we do damage by not allowing our kids to experience difficulty. I always viewed parenting as repeatedly casting my kids out and reeling them back in. 

But while I think the book makes important contributions to the discussion, I also think it muddies the waters a bit. The authors are huge fans of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), and they noticed that some of the cognitive errors targeted by CBT are similar to logical errors being made, in their opinions, by parents, schools, students and universities that are overprotecting kids. From there, they built their case that overzealous censorship at universities and the mental health crisis were symptoms of the same cause--what they call the "3 Great Untruths."

1. What doesn't kill me makes me weaker
2. Always trust your feelings
3. Us vs. them

While I agree that these are dangerous errors, I think this greatly oversimplifies the problem. From my perspective as an administrator, overzealous protectionism at schools has little to do with ideology or philosophy and everything to to with protecting ourselves from litigation. But that is a minor issue compared to the question of what is causing the mental health crisis.

The authors themselves mention some other possible causes of rising anxiety and depression, such as screen time (citing Jean Twenge's book, iGen). Sarah Rose Cavanagh has questioned the role of screen time, but suggested several other possible causes, including the decline of "face-to-face social communities" and economic inequality, just to name a few.

Human psychology is complex, and the changes taking place in our society are profound. Take, for example, the massive cultural shift that has been under way in our whole worldview as a society. I just finished listening to The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker. This classic lays out Becker's theory of what happens when you strip the dominant religious worldview from a culture. Who knows but that we are also seeing those types of effects today among young people?

We live in a world that has become a whitewater rapid of change--technologically, culturally, economically, you name it. Anyone growing up in such a world as this would be understandably prone to anxiety, just as much as they would if they were born in the midst of a river rafting trip.

I think our best bet in supporting them is to do just that--support them with research based practices and provide high expectations backed up by high levels of relational and academic supports. Allowing them to experience consequences is part of this, but my concern with this book is that is reflects a movement to discount the massive changes taking place today and their impact on kids. Kids today have to be tougher, in my opinion, than I had to be growing up. It means we have to be there for them even more than ever, casting them out into the whitewater and reeling them back in again, again and again.

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Having fun with PD: Micro-teaching

Professional development days can be fun. No, really. Case in point:

A group of teachers sit around a table while one of them heats some water in a couple of soda cans and then puts them in an ice bath. I won't tell you what happens in case you've never seen the demo, but the teacher delivers this lesson as if we were students, and he is looking for feedback about his questioning techniques.

After he's done, all of us, including the teacher who presented, take a few minutes to write down positive feedback and things that could be improved on. Then we go around and share out, and we finish off with the teacher sharing his reflections.

This is called "micro-teaching," and it's #13 on John Hattie's  ranking of factors affecting student learning. That's #13 out of a total of 252 factors listed. That's a big deal. Micro-teaching has an effect size of 0.88 on Hattie's scale, where 0.40 represents the amount of student learning you would expect in a year, on average. That means micro-teaching could double your impact on student learning.

We decided to try this out on a PD day at E. O. Smith, and it was lots of fun. It's a chance to try out a new teaching strategy you are working on, a new lesson idea, or to get feedback on something you are struggling with. I came away with a few cool new tools for my teaching toolbox and some great feedback on my own practices. I'm looking forward to our next session this week.

Here's the protocol and feedback form.