Saturday, February 28, 2015

Schools as open systems

Spent the day today doing some reading and writing about school culture for my school administration class. Funny, I began by wondering which of my "3 options" I could employ to make the task more tolerable, only to find by this afternoon that I'd inadvertently become interested in it. (Not sure I slipped into flow, but almost.)

A few things rolling around in my head as a result...

Gerstner's quote: "culture is not part of the game, it is the game."

Too many toxic cultures in schools these days. Maybe it's the result of a constant barrage of mandates from above, or maybe just a blame-game response to the very real challenge of educating our diverse clientèle. Either way, this has got to change, and I love the story in Deal and Peterson of Jefferson High. They brought in a consultant, and one toxic teacher stood up and asked him to leave even before he'd begun. He responded that he was thankful he had the option (implying he was better off than them for that reason). But he stayed, and proceeded to interview every one of them and compile such a dismal picture of the school that they were all forced to face the facts and embrace the need for change. We need a paradigm shift from schools as filters that serve the "good students" to schools as fires that ignite a love for learning in every student.

Deal and Peterson on school-parent relationships: "a school must be... an open system with highly permeable boundaries."

One of my dreams is that the walls of public schools will dissolve and the school will truly become bigger than the building. We live in a truly global community, and it's time our educational system reflected that. Education is not about textbooks and content curricula--it's about being human, and that means being hypersocial animals with a passionate penchant for understanding.

For too long, schools have been like factories. It's high time they became a catalyst for community. And my experience the other day in a Senior Center confirms that the community wants this as badly as we do.

A synthesis coalescing from my two years of study in this program: As a school leader, I need a streamlined system by which students, teachers, parents, and community members can rapidly and easily give me feedback and get involved in the decision-making process.

Which ties back to the above points. In order to build this kind of community, everyone needs to have a voice, and not just a voice, but a say in the decision-making process. Our systems of governance need to evolve with the world. The days of hierarchies and top-down directives belong in the dust heap of history. And today's digital technologies can facilitate this.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Maybe I am learning

They have a test on Tuesday. It's on stoichiometry. The balrog of high school chemistry.

Yet they came in today as talkative and excited about life as ever, seeming oblivious to their impending doom. And this was possibly their last chance to review, since yet another snow storm may rob them of their chance on Monday.

My first thought: They are being irresponsible. They need to take this seriously. So I warned them, "If you don't  finish this problem set by the end of class... be afraid. Be very afraid."

Still, very little response. No fear. They worked, but not like their lives were on the line.

(Lesson #1: As you can see, I still haven't totally weaned myself of the carrot and stick approach to motivation.)

And their peril was worse than I thought. As I walked around checking their latest problem set, which I had handed out last time, most were blank.

I continued my rounds as they worked, asked to see one students notes. And my growing suspicions were confirmed: I hadn't covered it adequately. They'd watched a homework video (this is a flipped classroom), but I'd never reviewed it with them.

What to do...

First thought: Their problem. They need to step up their game.

Next thought (much more humane): My problem. My oversight. My job.

"Hey class, I just realized I never really went over problems like this. Let me go over one of these on the screen..."

Lesson #2: So maybe I am learning something--learning to be a bit more responsive, listen, and pay more attention to where they're at and what they need.

And as for their apparent nonchalance, who knows? Was it the paralyzed shock of the gazelle cornered by the lion, exhaustion induced by our first full week in months, blissful ignorance, or just youthful optimism?

I'm guess maybe a combo of all of the above, but two things are clear:

1) Trying to frighten them will do no good.
2) This is not about using tests as motivators or punishments. It's about learning.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

No grades, but lots of data

I'm really interested in the concept of the "no grades classroom" that people like Starr Sackstein (@mssackstein) and Mark Barnes are advocating. My students and I have been trying out Starr's goal-setting and self-assessment conference approach lately in biology, and though I'm still giving grades, I'd love to get rid of them.

I think replacing grades with formative feedback could go a long way toward causing a paradigm shift in our students (and teachers)--from a focus on grades and points to learning and growth.

Right now, for some students, the coursework is mostly about getting a good grade so they can get into a good college, while for others, it's just about passing. Either way, it's not about learning. It's not about autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

So getting rid of grades altogether should help. But that can't mean getting rid of data. It seems to me we need regular, quantitative performance measurements in order to assess their progress (and our instruction) objectively and improve it.

At first I thought these two goals were incompatible (no grades but lots of data). But that doesn't have to be the case at all. What I'm envisioning these days is something like this:

The students don't get grades, but they get lots of rich feedback, and I record as much data as possible.

But what about report cards and GPAs?

Well, we'll have to tackle that next.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Fact, story, feeling.

*Hypothetical* Scenario:

I'm trying to deliver a mini-lecture in chemistry biology--droning on about exciting things like chemical weights or the molecular structure of DNA.

Two students are having a conversation between themselves while I talk.

I get upset and reprimand them (mildly) in front of the whole class.

Or maybe it wasn't in class. Maybe it was the other night when my wife made an off hand comment that offended me and I got upset and kicked in the silent treatment.

In both cases I thought that what was upsetting me were the things I observed--the facts of the case: the talking in class or the offhand comment. But that's not true. What upset me was the story I told myself about the facts.
I really just upset myself.

According to the authors of Crucial Conversations, an awesome audio program I've been listening to, it works like this: We observe something. We interpret it--we tell a story to explain it. Then we feel something, based on our story.

Facts don't lead directly to emotions.

Facts lead to stories in our heads, and those stories lead to emotions.

When I saw the students talking, that was a fact. Then the story kicked in: They are being rude. They are disrespectful. There are just challenging my authority, trying to make me look like a fool in front of the other students. Then the emotions kick in: I feel threatened, irritated, angry even. And then I act... and cause damage.

Instead, what I need to do is follow my emotions backwards down that path and notice the story I'm telling myself, and question it, and then make up a different, kinder story. And then watch my feelings soften.

What if I found out one of their mothers was deathly ill? Or what if I could put myself in their shoes and feel again just how difficult it is to be a teenager (or just how exciting it is to be a teenager), or just how excruciatingly boring my lectures are?

And maybe my wife just had a really rough day? Or maybe she simply wanted to spend time with me and I was glued to the computer (not that that happens...).

Funny thing is, these kinder stories are much more likely to be true.

And the result is more positive climates and stronger relationships.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

A day in the life of a chem teacher at E. O. Smith

I don't write as much about my #chemistry classes.

But that's just because I haven't been doing as much experimenting with them: The flipped model I'm using this year in chem is essentially unchanged from last year.

But that doesn't excuse my neglect of writing them up, because every day with them is just as cool as with my biology kids, though I have no doubt it'd be even cooler if I tried out the project- and mastery-based approach with them as well.

Today is a case in point.

Our lab: Flinn's Micro-Mole Rockets lab. Students make mixtures of hydrogen and oxygen gas in plastic pipette bulbs, light them with a match, and rate the loudness of the pop. Then we launch them like rockets with a Tesla coil. (I'll have to get some photos tomorrow.)

And they'll use the data to confirm the ratio at which hydrogen and oxygen react to form water (2:1, H2O).

It's an elegant method they use, involving a constant total amount of gas while only varying the ratio of gases. it's called the method of continuous variation.

And they have been progressing beautifully this year in their attention to detail and controlling their variables, and they never cease to amaze me with their inquisitiveness ("What makes the hydrogen react with the oxygen?") and their energy for life.

As I walked around the room, hydrogen and oxygen popping together like firecrackers, my student teacher (a Ph.D. biochemist and veteran pharmaceutical researcher) helping them launch their rockets, and a steady chorus of "Dr. Green?" requests for assistance keeping me moving, I was distracted by one student telling stories of mermaids and Jason the Argonaut, and another accusing Thomas Edison of being the greatest villain of history, and I was laughing.

Laughing because of the intellectual and creative energy that burned in there like a fire inside and between them all.


Maybe. But I don't think so.

Some see teens as narcissistic, annoying and who knows what else. I prefer to see them for what they are: The most creative and energetic stage of the most amazing species on the planet in a most amazing universe.

Our intertwined lives

So how about a little balance to that last post about being who I am?

Because who I am has a lot to do with the relationships I've been a part of for the past few decades. And those relationships have put down roots into my own life, my own mind, and my personality.

So to imagine that who I am is somehow separate from them is a big mistake.

We are, after all, eminently social beings, perhaps only out-socialized by the ants, bees, wasps, and termites. According to Christopher Ryan, it's possible that our big brains, which many seem to think our most distiguishing characteristic, are only a consequence of our hypersociality. He goes so far as to say that our closest relative, in terms of behavior, is the bonobo, an ape known for its intensely interwoven, egalitarian communities.

And I think I've often overlooked the implications of this. While I've often seen how an individual ant or bee doesn't have much identity apart from the hive, I miss the extent to which our lives are interwoven with those we interact with.

And I doubt we can really be happy with an overly individualistic approach to the pursuit of happiness.

In short, while I'll stand by the goal of integrity, transparency, and being true to myself, I prefer my earlier approach: 
THIS is a goal worth striving for. A better match, a better fit between the world and us.
In other words, our goal has to be to help move us all forward towards greater integrity as humans, not trying to be someone entirely self-defined. I'm not entirely sure what I'm trying to say, but that's OK. Suffice it to say, we is at least as important than I, because they're intertwined.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Making the school bigger than the building

The two teens stood in front of a small crowd at the senior center, explaining their project to help feed the hungry in the local area, how they'd already raised $6,000, and how they'd be working with Feeding Children Everywhere to assemble 40,000 meal packs at the high school, and how they'd like the seniors to join them. They said there would be lots of fun and music, and that they wanted it to be a whole-community event.

The teens were energized, eloquent, and sincere. The seniors began firing off questions, "Will this be a regular event?," "Will we be able to do it while sitting down?," "Do you have a website?," "Can we donate if we can't make it that day?," "Can we sign up now?," and "Can we choose the music?"

Laughter followed the last one.

The young man replied, "It will be all big band hits."

More laughter.

The organizer of the senior center closed the session saying how excited she was that the high school was excited about intergenerational activites.

And this, I thought, is how you build community through the school.

On being myself


The word gets thrown out a lot, and probably means different things almost every time, so I may as well add my definition.

To me, it's about being true to yourself. It's the antonym of hypocrisy.

And it's really hard.

It's hard because there are so many pressures and forces trying to shape us into their mold: other peoples demands, expectations, and imaginations, a whole slough of rules and regulations, traditions and social mores, and our own notions of what we are supposed to be and do.

And some of them seem good--like what we're supposed to do, supposed to be. And some of the people are really important to us. And we so want to be accepted and important to others.

And the path of least resistance is to take on the shape they want us to.

And maybe this is OK sometimes.

But I think it's usually just painful. It usually just holds us down--makes us into something we really don't want to be, a shape we really just don't fit.

In a previous post, I decided this was a worthy goal: A better match, a better fit between the world and us. 

Here, I'll make it a bit more personal: A better fit between me and what I really am.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Why teaching is so hard, and our 2 options

I think I know why teaching is so hard: Modern schooling simply does not fit with the way kids (or adults) are built. It doesn't fit with the way our brains work. The so-called recitation method, bell schedules, desks, detentions, honor rolls, grades, hierarchies, and traditional subject-specific curricula are out of sync with our biology.

And instead of performing open-heart surgery and overhauling this beast, we just keep adding more of the same wrong drivers, like accountability ("The beatings will continue until morale improves."), new curricular mandates (well intentioned but miss the main point), initiative after initiative, program upon program. But the thing just gets more tangled and unwieldy. And we're in denial.

And teachers, they may get lots of vacation time, but they also get to work in this thing and try to get kids to actually learn in it. And make no mistake, learning is a very organic and human activity. It's not something that can be legislated or mandated or dictated. (It can be studied though, and it has been. And the system as whole hasn't really paid attention.)

There's a good reason one of the world's top educational theorist said "I no longer believe in institutional public schooling." Though he may have seemed like Nietzsche’s madman prematurely announcing the death of God, he's no madman. This champion of instructional rounds and inventor of the concept of the instructional core is both amazingly insightful and willing to face the brutal facts.

Meanwhile, as this beast is in its death throes, teachers have two options:

1) Dig in and entrench themselves in the status quo, like Vicksburg under siege by Grant's army, work against change, and defend their service to society in filtering out students who just don't meet the standard. To be fair, many of these folks are really just defending themselves. They don't feel they have the time, skills, energy or support to change (and with all the new mandates, many don't). So they become defensive, competitive, protective, and isolated... and ineffective. Ineffective, because creating a system that helps every student is going to require a truly  collaborative effort like nothing we've seen before. Or,

2) Be the change. Say, "It starts with me." The cool thing is, this is how change really takes place. It usually starts small, then grows to a crescendo, a paradigm shift. (That's what we need by the way.) Experiment with more "human" strategies, break free from the factory model in your own classroom, whether this means throwing out grades like Mark Barnes and Starr Sackstein, trying out #geniushour, or just focusing on relationships like Rita Pierson. (My current effort surrounds mastery-based learning.)

But here's the rub: Being the change means being vulnerable--being open and willing to take criticism, exposure, face brutal facts, and acknowledge your weaknesses and the failures of even your own pet strategies on a daily basis.

As a Melissa Salgado said today on Twitter, many teachers are "terrified someone will find out they aren't perfect." I'm thinking that may be the single biggest barrier to change.

And that goes not for just teachers, but for us all. The biggest barrier to improvement is our own fear. But on the other side of fear is freedom.

Freedom, and schools that are not filters, but fire-starters.

So that's my mission, make a better fit between humanity and education.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Motivation without due-dates

Today in mastery-based biology:


And it had nothing to do with chemicals. 

As I mentioned yesterday, I've been concerned this week that my recent slackage in grading and feedback on their assignments was causing them to slack a bit on their work. Slow feedback = demotivation.

Feedback is key for generating flow, so today I went into the 2-hour double block with a very simple plan: Give extra-rich feedback as I could to every student as many times as I could during the period. (I wanted to see if that alone would make a difference.)

I can't say for sure, since I also reviewed the list of assignments that were under way, and reminded them of the impending quiz next week. But one thing I do know is that they worked more steadily than I have ever seen them work. And that's pretty good, seeing as they are usually around 60% (in terms of time on task).

About a third of the way through the two-hour class today, noticing that they were all working hard, I said something like this, "Here's how I see it, if you work hard for 75% of the time in a two-hour period, that is pretty darn good."

So I watched the clock nervously about 1.5 hours through. They kept going. Right to the end.

And this is without any deadlines except a quiz date, and I even told them I might change that if they weren't ready.

As they left class today, I said, "Good job today, folks. You all worked hard."

I've said this before, but I'll say it again: So far, it really seems like this system works.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Slow feedback = demotivation

I'm a slow learner.

It's taken 10+ cycles of this for me to get the hint.

When I fall behind in giving my students feedback on their work, their motivation suffers.

I try to catch up on grading over the weekend. It's hard during the week, when planning for impending classes takes priority (should it?).

But sometimes, on weekends, I am faced with snowdrifts of accumulating extracurricular (and often imposingly boring) tasks, and I let the grading/feedback slip.

And now I know, there are implications.

Maybe it's just coincidence, but my students are less motivated to work steadily and diligently toward their learning objectives.

Here's what I think: Timely feedback taps into Daniel Pink's trinity of motivation: mastery, autonomy, and purpose.

Maybe it's mostly about mastery here.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi says that flow-generating activities require immediate feedback (think of the feedback a basketball player gets as she shoots three pointers).

By puuting off feedback, I'm sucking the flow out of these experiences, and sucking teh motivations out my classrooom and studntes.

Of course, feedback takes time, and I can do anything, but not everything, but hey, what am I trying to accomplish here?

Time to make feedback priority number 1, 2 or 3 (second/third only to planning with meaningful standards (purpose) and relationships?).

The Mary Poppins principle

I've been resisting this, but I can escape it's necessity.

I felt like it was giving into boredom, shirking my responsibility to myself to enjoy every moment to the fullest extent possible. I preferred the two options that would enable me to bypass boredom altogether.

But I have this nagging feeling that the coin of hedonism has two sides: enjoying every moment and enjoying as many moments as possible.

Problem is, that flip side--enjoying as many moments as possible, sometimes seems push us toward doing boring things. Sometimes we can't just not do it (Option 1) or even transform it into something interesting (Option 2).

In other words, I am open to the possibility that some tasks that are irrereparably boring are also unavoidable, given the goal of maximizing our long-term enjoyment of life.

But let's not take this too far.

For one thing, I may be wrong: I'm still not convinced Options 1 and 2 can't handle everything.

And secondly, I think Options 1 and 2 are by far the best choice.

But as a last resort, break this glass.

It's called the Mary Poppins Principle (Option 3, for short).

And it's simple: a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.

Frankly, I'm a bit concerned that this was the whole theme of my life strategy not long ago. (And I was actually pretty proud of that post, too.)

But my current thinking is this: that strategy is, at best, a bit of a band aid. At worst, it's a waste of precious time.

But if you must use it in an emergency, here's how it works: do the boring task, 50 minutes a at a time with 10 minute breaks, and do it while enjoying something else. That doesn't mean multitasking, it means enjoying your favorite music, food, or beverage (or location--doing work at a picnic table in a park, for example) while completing the boring task.

VoilĂ . The medicine goes down.

But next time, how about this? Reorder your life to fit better with human nature. Order your life so you don't need the medicine.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

A better fit between humanity and the modern world
There are several things about the modern world that do not seem to fit well with the biological and psychological make-up we have inherited from our ancestors, and this leads to a dilemma.

For one, the advent of agricultural and large scale grain production led to a diet that is dominated by carbohydrates, and there are some (including myself) who believe that we're really not built for this kind of diet. (I switched to a primal-paleo diet more than two years ago, and it has made a huge difference in my health and well-being.)

And this is about more than just diet. There are many incongruencies between modern life and the lives under which our bodies and minds evolved. Take exercise, for example, diurnal sleep cycles, and the structure of leisure time. And some even point to major incongruities in sexual norms as a source of modern discord.

All of this highlights that same tension I've wrestled with in these posts before: the tension between contentment and improvement, between primitive simplicity and the worries of the complex, modern world, between getting back to our ancestral roots and expanding our horizons through technology. (I sometimes wonder if it comes down to choosing between quality of life and longevity, but that's a discussion for another time.)

The point is, it's easy to see how we might well be happier, at least in some ways, if life were simpler and more attuned with our evolutionary environment. It's easy to see how the complexities of modern life, education, and employment, the busyness, the countless potential threats to keep track of, and the barrage of distractions and information are all causes of trouble.

And it's easy to see how our ancestors probably got lots more exercise, were better attuned to their bodies natural rhythms and in general, were better attuned to the social rhythms of their tribe, and generally lived lives more suited to human nature.

But it's also easy to see the advantages of the modern world. Medicine tops the list for me, but I also appreciate heat, bedding, a stable food supply, electricity, modern transportation, and the internet.

And then there's the fact that, were it not for modern technology and science, we would not know our ancestral heritage in the first place.

And of course, the development of modern technology was probably inevitable.

But still, I have to wonder, do we have to choose between the two? Do we have to sacrifice optimal conditions for humans in order to embrace technological advance?

It's almost as if, through the process of evolution and technological development, our species finally woke up and become self aware, but not until after it put itself into a rather difficult situation, and now the question is what to do about it.

We can't very well go back. As Mihaly Csikszentmihalyiput put it near the end of his classic book on the psychology of optimal experience:
"Few would argue that a simpler consciousness, no matter how harmonious, is preferable to a more complex one. While we might admire the serenity of the lion in repose, the tribesman's untroubled acceptance of his fate, or a child's wholehearted involvement in the present, they cannot offer a model for resolving our predicament. The order based on innocence is now beyond our grasp. Once the fruit is plucked from the tree of knowledge, the way back to Eden is barred forever."

So what's an exile to do? 

What if, through science and technology and her own ingenuity, humanity was able to solve this problem, as she has done so many problems in the past, and find a way to tailor all of this modern complexity to her own ancestral nature? Or maybe she could change her own nature to fit the technology: Hack the world or hack human nature. Neither is out of reach.

And either way, THIS is a goal worth striving for. A better match, a better fit between the world and us.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Post #150: Two options--dealing with boredom in the classroom

Today, I'm celebrating my 150th post on this blog. I also finished Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's book, Flow (probably one of the top three most important books I've read in recent years).

Then I spent some time in Logee's Greenhouse in Danielson, CT. OMG. If you haven't been there, you are missing out, especially in the winter, it is just what the doctor ordered for the winter blues and cabin fever. It is about as close as you'll ever come to exploring a tropical rainforest in the middle of a new England winter, complete with fruiting papaya, lemon, and orange, and a mind-blowing variety of beautiful tropical plants to drink in with all the senses (and purchase for very reasonable rates). And it's the opposite of boredom. (PS: If you make a special trip out here, please look me up, I'd love to come with.)

And then I had a great, extended, invigorating time snowshoeing and then shovelling the roof. Then, though I didn't expect it, enjoyed reading from Unfinished Business for the School Climate course I'm taking.

And I didn't expect it. In fact, I was trying to figure out how I was going to deal with the impending boredom of completing that task. I was trying to figure out which of the two options for dealing with boring tasks I laid out yesterday I should employ. 

And I'm sticking to those two options. I started to think there should be a third, something like "3) Enjoy your favorite music, food, and/or beverage while completing the boring task." 

But I'm going to try to resist that. It's too much like giving in. And I'd rather do option 1) or 2) AND enjoy music, food, and beverage.

But speaking of boredom, one of the coolest quotes from my reading today was from a student who had been involved in the Student Outreach Committee project at Berkeley High School in the 90s. He wrote this in his essay about students the high school:
"They are reprimanded when they act out because they are bored with the poorly designed lesson plans."


There is more instructional wisdom in that one sentence than half the books on the topic on Amazon.

Even before I read that, but after writing my post, I was wondering if I would allow students to implement my "2 Options" in my own class. I am quite aware that they find much of what we normally do as boring, and I no longer see that as their problem.

So what if I taught them the two options (I'm really tempted to include the third as an emergency measure) and then gave them permission to implement them.

Hmmm.. what about number 1? I can't let them go snow boarding down the massive snow bank in the south parking lot instead of writing their movie response, can I?

Perhaps not. 

Which makes it that much more imperative that I make Option #2 possible, even likely.
"Transform the boring task to make it a challenging, flow-generating experience, make the forms into a work of art, or a game. Make that boring essay into something that interests me."


Sunday, February 15, 2015

Life's too short for boring tasks

Sometimes a task looms so boring in my mind that I simply can't bring myself to do it.

This often stresses me out, because I feel like it's something I have to do and I can't get it done, and I guess deep down I fear something bad is going to happen as a result, like one of those dreams where something's trying to get me and I can't move or open my eyes.

But guess what, Bill? That's not happening.

In fact, that's exactly the point. This task looms so boringly in front of you exactly because it is exactly NOT a lion trying to get you. In fact, it is just the opposite of anything that meaningful or important. That's what boring means.

So, what's a person to do when faced with/weighed down with/bullied by boredom?

The wise words of Rosie from Never Cry Wolf may have the answer for us. As their plane sputters in flight somewhere over Alaska, Rosie has this little discussion with Tyler about boredom:
"How do you beat boredom, Tyler?


Adventure, Tyler."
And Tyler's words at the end of the movie are even better:
"I wonder why it was that long ago I became a watcher of things. Always watching others do and feel things I wouldn’t or couldn’t do myself. Always standing off at a distance, isolated, detached. I envy the wolves for how they experience the world. Always in such direct contact with their environment, travelling through their territories, alert and attuned to all the signs coming in through their senses, telling them where a rabbit recently passed or the sweet water lay, revealing a whole universe to them that we can never really know. But I sit behind glass lenses, filling up notebooks and triplicate forms…"

Tyler's answer: Engagement. Immersion in the grittiness of life. Mindfulness.

So this oppressive task that's stalking me--these "triplicate forms"? There are two things I can do with them:

1) Not do them. Go snowshoeing instead: Drink in the wind and blowing snow and feel the snow give way beneath your feet. Do something fun, challenging, real, even if it means the "forms" don't get done, because life's just too short. But triplicate forms are necessary if you want to live an enjoyable life in the future, aren't they? Hmmm... but what if the future is now? (And what if a future that requires forms means a future filled with forms? Hint: It does.)

2) Transform the boring task to make it a challenging, flow-generating experience, make the forms into a work of art, or a game. Make that boring essay into something that interests me.

So, what will it be, Bill? Will you be a watcher of things, a filler of forms, a slave to the boredom bogeyman, or will choose to actually live instead?

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Find common purpose, and strategies are just details

Lately I've been part of a new initiative at my school. Surprise, surprise. Any of you familiar with American education will know that new initiatives are nothing new--they're the like an addiction.

But this one, I really do like. It's about using mastery-based performance tasks to measure students' progress toward broad, practical graduation standards like communication and problem solving skills.

But, frankly, to many teachers, it is just one more thing (and for some, it's the straw (after the straw after the straw) that broke the camel's back).

That's why my ears perked up when I heard the following. I've been listening to Crucial Conversations during my morning commutes (and sometimes afternoons, though those are usually reserved for blowing off steam with my favorite Dutch DJ, Armin van Buuren). And yesterday they were covering their C.R.I.B. Method for establishing a mutual purpose (C.R.I.B. stands for Commit to seek Mutual Purpose, Recognize the purpose behind the strategy, Invent a Mutual Purpose, Brainstorm new strategies.) 

When we are in disagreement with someone, one of the most important things we can do is seek a common purpose. Instead of arguing about strategies (like mastery-based learning or performance assessments), what if we first found our common purpose? Maybe it would be something like: 
"We all want to see all students succeed."
(BTW, I hope it would be exactly that.)

Once we establish that all of us want every student to succeed, then the only question is how best to do that. And then the details are really minor issues in my book. We can work them out together. Whether the strategy we use in the end is mastery or the old fashioned lecture, as long as we agree that the goal is to get every child to succeed, and as long as we measure our progress and really do progress toward that goal, I'm satisfied.

And I think the same thing goes for so many relationships and issues in life. If we can establish a common purpose (and if we have trouble with that part, that's what the C.R.I.B. method is for), the rest is just details.

Friday, February 13, 2015

So that's how it is
"Do you know what I like about our kind of work? You can be happy or unhappy; it makes no difference. It doesn't matter if you like what you find or hate it. You look at it and say, 'So that's how it is!'" -Rosalind Franklin in Double Helix

Watching the BBC's classic story of the discovery of the structure of DNA, today with my biology students, two things stood out.

1) They looked bored. I like to show the film because it depicts science as it's really practiced, with all the political and interpersonal realities. I love the brilliant contrast of Watson's focus on the goal of discovery (and the fame) and Franklin's zen-like devotion to the process of discovery itself. And I want to light that same fire in my students. But maybe there's a better way than this film. I recall a tweet from a teacher friend on Twitter: "If they are bored, STOP."

2) Rosalind Franklin, played by Juliet Stevenson, backs this up. For all my good intentions and all the movie's merits, if it is not the best way to light kids fires for science and siscovery, then it's not the best way. Instead of defending my past practices and habits, I need to look at the data, with Franklin, and say, "So that's how it is." Then adjust my strategies accordingly.

And this may mean I've made a mistake. It may mean I've been doing it wrong. So be it. This is just one movie, but the same principle applies to all my teaching, even the new mastery-based teaching methods I'm piloting now. (It may apply to my whole life.) But when I'm worng, I need to take Rosalind's perspective. I love what she said at the end of the movie when veiwing Watson and Crick's model of DNA, which they deduced from the meticulous data she produced: 
"It doesn't matter. THIS (DNA model) is what matters. Life is the shape it is for a purpose. When you see how things really are, all of the hurt and waste fall away. What is left is the beauty."  
And neither does it matter if I end up having been wrong. What matters is what's true. I want to see things as they really are, regardless of the implications for my pride or lifestyle.

As Sagan said, "It is far better to grasp the universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring."

Thursday, February 12, 2015

From a climate of judgement to a climate of acceptance

Awesome to sit down with four students today for a chat about school climate. This weekend I'll write a more complete reflection, but for now I just want to say a few things.

First: Young people are #awesome, and their world is not so different from ours (though it may be harder in many ways). Some of the words and phrases that came out when I asked about the general climate in school were "judgement." Others were "social stressors," "ostracization," and "cliques." They talked about peers who "just want to show their superiority, so they put others down."

Power plays. Not unique to the teen years, but more fundamental in some ways, since at this stage in their lives their whole identity is more tied up with their social world.

And when I asked at the end, "If you could wave a magic wand and change one thing about the school, what would it be?," there was talk about overwhelming homework and school lunches, but then one said, "I'd make it so people weren't afraid to be themselves."

This resonates with what the Looking In Theatre students had to say the other day.

So much of the school climate is about whether there is a climate of acceptance, or lack thereof.

So this will be a priority of mine: Try establish a climate of acceptance--a place where you can be yourself.


One student suggested bringing in alumni who had been "different" and maybe even ostracized in school but were now "successful."

So while we can't force kids to be open and accepting or to express themselves and be secure in who they are, we can certainly model it. We can provide examples, starting with ourselves.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Will the mastery-model require too much time?

I've been having lots of success with the mastery model, and the best part has been that it makes my teaching time (and my students' days) less stressful and (I believe) more productive and effective.

But I've been struggling with whether it really does just take too much time. if you allow studentsto revise and resubmit everything, that multiplies the time requireed for grading. And if you need ot redesign assignments to fit the mastery model, that multiplies planning time.

And while there may be some teachers who go home every day at 2:30 and don't work weekends, I don't know them. In other words, they don't have a lot of extra time during the school year to spare. And as I've mentioned before, U.S. teachers already work half-again as many hours as the OECD average.

But here's what I'm thinking:

1) I don't do mastery because it is convenient, but because I believe it works for more students.

2) I'm not convinced it will mean extra time in the long run. After the initial redesign phase, the extra planning time will be a non-issue. And I think the extra grading time can be partially balanced by, a) automation and, b) replacing some formal scoring with informal teacher feedback and/or peer- and self-assessment.

I believe that quantitative, objective-as-possible scoring (i.e. data) is essential to real instructional improvement, but not every activity needs to be scored in this way, and some could be automated (as I currently do with short content quizzes).

This is exactly what I've been working towards lately with my new system: employing more informal feedback before the students submit an assignment, and using student self-assessment as a supplement to my own assessment of their work.

Though a switch to the mastery model will take more time up front, I think it might not require more than the traditional model after it's fully implemented.

The trick is, how do you create this massive paradigm shift and support this large initial spike in input to get the change to take place?

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Happiness is not caring who gets the credit

Another thing I've been thinking about a lot lately is this desire for recognition. Why is it so darn important, anyway?
If making other people successful and happy is what makes us happy, then what's the point of being so worried about myself.

I watched Mingyur Rinpoche talk about this the other day, and have read about it elsewhere. Turns out, I guess, that if we focus on pursuing our own happiness, it's like chasing a phantom. But if we focus on others' happiness, what do you know, we find our own.

So here's my plan:

What I really want here is not my own fame, recognition, or even some fancy job. It's the success of my students, the piecewise, grass-roots construction of a more human education system, one that enables every student to succeed--one that's not a filter, but a fire that lights the potential in every young person.

So here's what that means: Who cares who gets the credit for anything? What's important is that new strategies are tried, and the data is faced with honesty and integrity, and the results are made known, and improvements can be made.

And further, that means focusing on my sphere of influence.  The people in my immediate sphere, my own kids, my students, my school, are the most likely to benefit from my actions. Success in my own home or classroom may not bring me more followers on Twitter, but it will be real.

Not that I won't keep sharing what I do on Twitter. I've learned a ton from the teachers and others I follow and chat with on #satchat, but really, ground zero is right here in front of me every day.

That's ground zero for the kids I have the greatest impact on.

And so, ground zero for happiness, as long as I don't care who gets the credit.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Snow day *chaos*

Snow days are chaotic. It's not that thing are chaotic around my house. We all pretty much just sit around on the computer, shovel snow, and go out for occasional snow-shoeing or skiing.

But I have to say that snow days generate a bit of chaos in my head. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi would call this psychic entropy--which is when there's no order to your thoughts. For me, this happens whenever my routine is brutally ripped out from underneath me, like on snow days.

Am I really complaining about a day off?

Yes... Yes, I guess I am. But it's my own fault. What I need is more flexibility, more ability to switch from flow-generating activity to flow-generating activity on the fly. I need a mental gear box.

I shouldn't need routine. I shouldn't need for everything to proceed as scheduled. Serendipity should be welcome. Disruption and interruption should be invited. Because lots of awesome things happen when no plans have been made, like snow-shoeing with my 18-year old daughter, who also had a snow day. That's when relationships happen.

So that's my goal: To always be ready to take full advantage of serendipitous interruptions to my routine, to always have flow-generating activities ready to go at a moment's notice, and always be ready to engage in relationships whenever the opportunity presents itself, and to always maintain a flexible mindset that's focused on people and what's really important, rather than a mechanical, algorithmic schedule and tasks that I run through like some workaholic robot.

So I suppose the 4 or 5 snowdays we've had so far this winter have been good. they've shown me another area for improvement.

And I think this is a big one.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Still analog after all these years

As a tech junkie, it's sometimes hard for me to admit that the technology is just not there yet to totally replace the real world. 

Don't get me wrong, the day may come, and it may even be soon, when computers can do pretty much everything we can do, and better (watch this short video about algorithms that can author blog posts).

And though I very much enjoy the real, physical, dirt, sweat (and snow) world, I must say I feel like reality leaves plenty of room for improvement. I wouldn't mind being able to adjust certain settings on my brain at certain times, for example (and then there are things like cancer...).

But though we're progressing at breakneck speed, we don't want to embrace tech for tech's sake. For one thing, history is strewn with examples of humanity biting off more technology than it (or the environment) can chew at the time. And though I love the internet and mobile tech, we don't fully understand the potential impacts on our brains.

But that's not my main point. I'm willing to take a few risks for the sake of the advantages of early adoption. I'm more concerned about the practicalities. 

Case in point: Bullet Journal.

I'm a planner/to-do-list type, and was never able to find an app that could do everything I needed (though I love Google Calendar). Then I found Bullet Journal. Only it's not an app--it's a paper-based system designed by an art director named Ryder Carroll. And it's awesome. Even as a tech addict, I'm not ashamed to say I use a paper planner and journal when it's a brilliantly elegant system like this. The computer-based technology is simply not there yet. It hasn't reached the multi-faceted flexibility of this analog system.

And of course there are countless similar examples, most of which are much more significant than planners: Real human relationships, for example. They are still analog, of course, and I imagine it will be a while before they are replaced by a 100% digital version. And it will be a while before there's a digital replacement for hiking the Great Gulf Wilderness.

The problem comes when we try to jump the gun, when we think the tech is there and it's not, or when we jump in without looking first, or when we adopt without understanding the consequences, or are caught off guard. Social media are an awesome way to increase our connections with others, for example, but they easily become a distracting or addictive. Google is an awesome resource, but it can lull us into intellectual laziness if we're not careful.

The answer is not a Luddite knee-jerk rejection of tech, but nor is it blind immersion. It's about intentional and careful experimentation and thoughtful adoption. And patience. And for techies like me, willingness to admit that sometimes (often times?) the pen and paper, flesh-and-bones, or face-to-face method is still better. 

The question is, what's really the best way to do what we need (or want) to do.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Drawing without an eraser

On a Twitter chat (#satchat) this morning, a friend (@ShiftParadigm)
posted this powerful pic that summed up so much of what I've been thinking and feeling lately.

"Life is the art of drawing without an eraser."

Every moment is a new beginning, but we have to work with what all of the previous moments have produced for us. Every moment is a new opportunity to make something beautiful and awesome out of the my past.

Sometimes I wish I had that eraser.

But then again, it's more of a challenge this way. And maybe there's a special beauty to this kind of art.

It means facing the brutal facts, yet moving forward with faith and optimism. I don't deny my mistakes, but I use them as the foundation for my future successes. I don't deny what is ugly or wrong in my past, but I transform it into power and beauty.

Relationships, decisions, events, bad and good become the raw material. My decision, now, determine what the next stage will look like.

Like a story that's being written while you're writing. Each day a new chapter..

“It's like everyone tells a story about themselves inside their own head. Always. All the time. That story makes you what you are. We build ourselves out of that story.”

― Patrick Rothfuss, The Name of the Wind

Student Feedback on the Flipped Classroom
This is the third year I've been "flipping" my honors chemistry course. Instead of classroom lectures and practice at home, we flip it: their homework is to watch a short video (and a quick mastery-based online quiz) and then we do problems in class, where I can provide more one-on-one assistance.

I feel better able to help them learn the material in this format. My role in the classroom has shifted from lecturer to coach and tutor, and their time has shifted from 90% passive to 100% active.

But don't listen to me. Here are some excerpts from a little survey my students completed for me. (Since I have recently done a bit more in-class lecturing for logistical reasons, the students had a unique opportunity to compare the two approaches.):

"The videos (and quizzes) have been very helpful for me to learn new material as well as reviewing and testing myself on material that I've recently learned."

"I really like being able to do problems and worksheets in class so we can ask questions and get help easily. I liked it better when we took more notes on online lectures instead of doing in class lectures because I'm better able to focus. Also, that gives us more time to do actual problems in class which is helpful."

"The emphasis on practising problems in class is very beneficial. Being able to practice and have the opportunity to ask questions really helps me learn. The lecture part of class is very effective as well. We never sit and take notes for too long which helps us stay engaged."

"I think you do a really good job of making sure that there are plenty of materials for us to use to study for tests. I like that our homework is on Moodle a lot because that is so much more convenient since when I don't have time to sit down and do it at home, I can just do it on my phone wherever I am."

"I find that the online videos are helpful to me. They are not very long but they are very effective in that I can replay them over and over again until I fully understand the concept at hand. Often, in class, I get confused because chemistry is not my best subject (though, I am working on changing that) and we go a bit fast."

"Though it isn't the most fun things to do, watching the videos that you put online actually helps me to remember the lessons betters, and it makes me feel as if I'm in the middle of class. The fact that there is a quiz after also helps me to make sure that I pay attention and keep focused on the video."

"I think many things have worked for me this semester. For one, I really enjoyed learning some of the material on my own time because it let me go at my own pace and it gave me the option of using other resources. I also like dong practice at school because it allows us to ask the teacher last minute questions on some of the harder questions and gives us an idea of what the test is going to be like."

Others are not so fond of the videos, though they still appreciate the extra time we have for in-class problems and practice:
"One thing that has worked for me is all the worksheets given to us for practice. That has really seemed to help me. One thing that hasn't helped as much is the videos outside of class. I often find myself searching more on the topic to give myself a comprehensive understanding."

"In the past few weeks, I've enjoyed in-class lectures. I like learning in the classroom more. However, I didn't like the video and quizzes on Moodle. It often feels like we have to sit through things we already learned just to get to the topic of the quiz."

"I don't learn as much from the video lectures as I do in class when we take notes because I have a hard time focusing during the videos. In class when you explain it, its much easier to understand."

"Doing practice problems was helpful. Your lectures teach more effectively than homework videos, though though they have their merits."

"I like how we take notes and then do a worksheet after because it helps me make sure that I understood what we just learned. I also like the homework videos on Moodle because I like being able to go back and listen to the lecture instead of just having notes. The only thing I don't like is that sometimes the homework quizzes are only testing to see if people watched the video, not testing to make sure everyone understood the concepts." 
And this last complaint rings true, but at the the same time captures the essential advantage of this model:
"Well when we are working on a problem sheet and the whole class is raising their hand to ask some questions. You run back and forth from one end of the class to the other. I think it would be helpful to have maybe a student teacher in our class to help answer some questions we usually ask."

All in all, out of 39 students responding, 10 clearly identified the online vids as helpful, 6 preferred in-class lectures, and 9 mentioned liking the massive amounts of in-class practice they get.

My take: In class, it's harder for kids, but the net result is more learning.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Crucial conversations

Here's the claim: Any time you find yourself stuck in some area of performance or improvement that's important to you, what is keeping you stuck is very often one or two crucial conversations that you're not holding or not holding well.

-Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, and Switzler, Crucial Conversations
I'm pretty sure this is a crux issue for me, and I'm pretty sure this will be a life-changing book, right up there with Drive.

My goal: One-a-day. One potentially emotional, high-stakes conversation that I don't particularly want to have per day--with a student, colleague, family member.

Not that I intend to force it, but if I interpret it a bit loosely, I doubt I'll have much trouble coming up with convos I need to have--like that conversation with a student about how his lab partner seemed distressed after the lab.

And I'm looking forward to honing my crucial conversational skills. After all, it's one thing to have a difficult conversation, and another to do it well--to make it a positive thing rather than a negative thing.

So maybe I'm broadening their concept a bit, but that's OK. More skilful communication, at the point and place and time where it's needed is the key.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Looking in

I had the opportunity last night to see the Looking In Theatre from the Greater Hartford Academy of the Arts.

It was an amazing learning experience. These teens act out bullying and related scenarios experienced every day by high school students, then they sit down and answer questions from the audience, first in character, then as themselves.

As a teacher, parent, and hopefully soon, school administrator, I was captivated. I kicked myself later that I hadn't had my bullet journal on me to take notes during the discussion--it felt like such a gold mine of data. It was great to hear (and see) their perspectives on what it's like to be a teen today and their thoughts on how we could better help them and improve schools.

A few insights stand out in my mind.

One of my colleagues asked the students what they thought of anti-bullying assemblies like the "Names" program, which includes an "open mic" time, when kids tell their stories. This young woman said that they do make a difference. That day everyone is nicer. But then it wears off. "We need to be reminded that there's more to people than what's on the outside."

Isn't that the truth. It's so easy to forget.

And when asked why she was so mean, why she would tell another students she should "just kill herself," one female student answered (in character) that it was how she showed her peers that she was strong, that she could handle anything.

I thought of how I'd read that adolescents are so socially minded that everything revolves around their social status, and only as they mature are they able to place things in proper perspective. This is what one young lady last night called "growing up."

For many high schools, the self is so tied up with that of their peers, it is hard to see things properly.

But at  The Greater Hartford Academy of the Arts, these students feel accepted. Maybe it's because the school attracts more accepting kids, or because the cosmopolitan environment frees them from cliques and normal peer pressures forces them to be open and accepting. Or maybe, as one student suggested, it's because kids simply want to be there--want to be learning about things they care about, so they are not all set on edge by constantly being forced to do things they don't want to do.

Whatever the case, I think we need to focus in on these bright spots, like the Names program and accepting school cultures and climates like The Greater Hartford Academy of the Arts, and try to replicate them throughout the year and across schools. Then, maybe we can really help.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

What looks like resistance is often a lack of clarity

They hadn't done their homework. 

They said they were confused by the snow day.

Granted, #snowmageddon2015 had hit us hard here in #CT, but I had emphasized it on Friday--told them it was critical they watch the lab prep video so they would be ready, and safe--it was a potentially dangerous lab.

And now we had less time because of the 90-minute snow delay.

I was getting upset. I asked, "OK. How many of you watched the video."

One or two hands go up. Arghh!

I move to my computer to make sure I assigned it, my mind oscillating between irritation with them and the growing realization that obviously something was not clear to them.

I explain that it's going to be hard to do the lab if no one watched the video, my irritation leaking out all over the place.

"But, we don't have lab today," they said.


Then... Wow. I am so confused.

Not only would I have been wrong to blame them for my lack of clarity about the assignment. I would be doubly wrong because there was no assignment. I was thinking they were my other section.

Just another case in point. Students are rarely to blame.

I really believe this.

There are so many things going on in school, that they really need things to be made very clear, and we rarely make them so.

As that life-changing book, Switch, puts it:

What looks like resistance is often a lack of clarity. 

Or just teacher confusion.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Ambition v. contentment
Had a short discussion with a student the other day about this: How do you balance contentment with the desire to improve?

I had struggled with this in a previous post, and wasn't quite satisfied with the result. Then yesterday I read this post on the topic, and loved the way a conversation with her friend summed up the problem.

She writes:
“All I truly want to be in life is content,” I told him confidently. I was sure I had life figured out once and for all.

“Great,” he replied, “but is content all you ever want to be? What about always aiming for something bigger? What about your desire to continually grow and learn and transform?”

Sigh. I knew he was right. After almost burning out on creating stress, I had gone too far in the other direction. I had lost sight of my vision.
And her solution echoed my thoughts:
Active contentment. Such a liberating concept. It’s about being completely at peace with who you are and what you’re doing in the moment while simultaneously maintaining a vision for the future.
But somehow I was still unsatisfied. How can you be both at the same time? Is this like Schroedinger’s Cat or something?

I don't think so. My latest thinking on this is that contentment and improvement are inherently incompatible.

Stay with me. This morning I was reading Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and came across his thoughts on the subject:
Optimal experience is not the result of a hedonistic, lotus-eating approach to life. A relaxed, laissez-faire attitude is not a sufficient defence against chaos. As we have seen from the very beginning of this book, to be able to transform random events into flow, one must develop skills that stretch capacities, that make one become more than what one is. Flow drives individuals to creativity and outstanding achievement.
And then a quick search pulled up this post, in which the writer quotes an interesting study in which, "They did the experiment on a group of employees at a company, and it played out just as stated above.  Those employees who were told to reflect on all they’ve accomplished on the job became happier and less motivated.  The ones who were pushed to reflect on all they still needed to accomplish were less content but harder working."

And I suppose that shouldn't be surprising. There's no reason to suppose the same strategy should work all the time. In fact, it makes sense that the strategy for optimal experience might just vary with the circumstance, i.e. running from a lion vs. enjoying a string quartet.

If so, the solution is simply that the solution varies. For everything there is a season, a time to be content, and a time to change. A time to relax and a time to strive. A time to be mindful, and a time to run like hell.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Traditional teaching vs. biology

Why do we keep teaching in a way that is clearly not effective?

This is the second in what's sure to be a boatload of blog posts about Hattie and Yates' book, Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn. Today I read (in Ch. 6) about a study of over 1,017 U.S. classrooms. The most common classroom configurations looked like this: 
"the teacher explaining or lecturing to the total class or a single student, occasionally asking questions requiring factual answers;... students listening or appearing to listen to the teacher and occasionally responding to the teacher's questions." 
Hattie and Yates call this the recitation method, and they say the problem is that it just doesn't jive with what we know about the psychology of learning.

First, "Within the world of psychology, there is no such thing as passive learning, unless the term implies learning to do nothing, in a manner akin to learned helplessness." And the recitation method encourages passivity. In fact, it is often easy for students to "opt out" of learning altogether, by learning how to "become invisible"--to look interested and engaged and avoid eye-contact so they are not called on.

Secondly, after about 10 minutes, our minds start to wander. (I can vouch for this.) There are two theories for why this happens.

1) "One's ability to focus intensively... literally runs out through biological exhaustion, indexed by glucose levels available to the brain." Wandering is our brains' way of conserving resources so that we are ready for the next time we have to focus intently.

2) Wandering is our brain's attempt to keep itself free from confusion when it is becoming overloaded.

Either way, the fact remains. One study of college students found that, half-way through the lecture 55% of students admitted their minds were wandering, in other words, about half were engaged. This fits my experience in college classes.

(Take-home message at this point: When we teach like this, we are literally fighting biology.)

Lastly, explanations that are given to the whole class are often "out of sync" with individual students background knowleded. We can't expect the whole class to understand the same explanation--explanations need to be individualized as much as possible.

But why does the recitation method still dominate education despite decades of reform efforts? Well, for one thing, it allows the teacher to control the classroom so she/he plough through mountains of curricular material. And unfortunately (and this is me talking now), many "reform" efforts just increase the amount of stuff we have to "cover." This, combined with the natural fear of and effort required change (and fear of failure) leads to tremendous inertia.

But my hope is the tide is turning.