It’s the most wonderful time of the year

For the last four years, I have been heavily involved with a fantastic event: EdCamp Bemidji. 

EdCamp may well be my favorite day of the entire year. Four years ago, I was a participant at the first EdCamp Bemidji, which had been organized by two forces of nature: Stacy Bender-Fayette and Lisa Sjogren. After that first year, I got involved on the planning committee, and for the last two have been a co-chair of the event.

Sometimes people ask me why I got into teaching, and I used to feel bad that my answer was not the typical elementary teacher answer– “Because I love kids.” I mean– don’t get me wrong– I DO love kids. But the reason I got into teaching (and lately, administration), is because I love LEARNING. A few years ago I got into professional development, and the idea of parallel process- meaning– what’s good for the kids is good for the adults. That single philosophical shift has made a major difference in my career and my outlook. I realized that it’s good for adults to be learning new techniques, exposed to new ideas, involved in developing new methods– even if they never, ever use them– simply because the process of the learning and reflection on the learning is so valuable.

If you’ve never been to an Edcamp, I suggest you find one right this minute and attend. 

Edcamps are free and open events that are focused on best practices in education. Rather than bringing in expensive clinicians or keynote speakers, we basically get an auditorium and fill it full of educators, and then ask them– What do you want to learn about?

Teachers propose the sessions– they come up and say, “I’d like to have a discussion on the best way to engage students of color in my classroom,” or “I have never used twitter before and I want to find out how,” or “I’m a student teacher and I want to learn more about using Daily 5 or Reader’s Workshop” and then we find them a room, add them to the schedule, and there you have it. Teachers choose which sessions they’d like to attend, or they choose to spend an hour researching something that they’d like to use, or they choose to spend an hour sitting with their colleagues talking about the things they never have time to talk about.

I have always felt that administrators should be more involved in professional development. It models good behavior and a growth mindset to staff, as well as letting your staff know that you truly value continuous improvement. At Edcamp, we’ve always been careful about levelling the playing field, and letting people know that we are all equals. This makes the Edcamp experience even more valuable– I learned so much listening to teachers about what they value and things that they struggle with and want to know more about. Administrators who do not take the time to value their staff in this way will soon find themselves irrelevant and out of touch.

I am super proud of EdCampBJI because Stacy and I are laser focused on making sure that they day is smooth, easy, and fun for everyone. Our committee goes crazy finding great prizes, food, and a beautiful space for the event, and keeping everything absolutely free for the educators.

This year, as a new Director, I was particularly proud of my staff. Throughout the day I saw Schoolcrafters leading sessions, offering ideas, helping people find their way, volunteering to move coffee/clean up after lunch/etc, and basically just propping people up all day long. Schoolcraft has been a sponsor of EdCampBJI for the last 4 years, and I am anticipate that we will always find ways to be involved.

The trouble with my generation

I love Simon Sinek. This video has been making the internet rounds as of late. As a millennial myself, I think that my generation has a lot to offer the world if we could channel our perspective into something productive, and I think Simon would agree.

While I don’t agree with everything he is saying here, I absolutely agree with his indictment of millennials need for instant gratification.

The need for instant gratification

I once had a long chat with my Grandma about what made her happy as a kid, and she looked a little amused and said she hadn’t thought about it much because she was working too hard. She was finally able to settle on a memory she had about swinging on the gate when she was letting the cows in and out of the pasture. This was her fun time, a few minutes each day, when she swung on a gate while in the middle of an arduous and crucially important task.

For previous generations nothing was automated– if you wanted to eat a cookie, you had to make it. If you wanted to heat up some leftovers, you had to build a fire (and also preserve the leftovers). If you wanted to know how much money you had, you had to keep track. If you wanted to own something, you either had to make it, or you had to find out how to get it, or you had to learn how to live without it.

If you wanted to know something, you had to research it, read about it, and think about it. These are all tasks that are automated for my generation. Literally no effort is required. Think about what it takes to read a book like Les Miserables or a Tale of Two Cities. My generation watches the movie, reads the Spark Notes, or asks Siri for a synopsis– and that is probably good enough to pass a test in their Literature class. But when you take an experience and reduce it to the smallest possible iota that could be earned from it, you lose so much– how much vocabulary, context, character development, and emotions are lost when you read a synopsis vs. reading something epic? It is true that you may have gained the knowledge, but you have completely lost sight of the skill. It is a focus on product, rather than process. Knowing, rather than learning.

I think that this has lead to three unique problems for millennials:

1) Impatience
Example: when I started dating my husband, he would often watch three different shows at once by flipping back and forth between three channels during the commercials. I thought I was going insane.

Anything that takes time to curate is often seen as not worth it. Remember when we were teenagers and we would sneer at passion– teasing people who cared about something because it just so uncool? Millennials never grow out of that. Why care about something and develop your skills at it? There’s an app for that– or I can just go online and order it from Etsy. Plus– Who has time to care about something and get better at it when there’s a new season of Gilmore Girls on Netflix?

2) A total misunderstanding of their own talents and abilities

Example: If I am not good at this immediately, I am a failure at it and should never do it again.

I am not one who is prone to regret, but of the few regrets I harbor they are all related to things I gave up because I didn’t excel immediately. Piano. Dance. Foreign language. Poetry. In each of these cases, I recognize that I had siblings who excelled in those areas, seemingly without having to work very hard. I was embarrassed that I had to practice piano twice as long as my brother in order to be half as good, so I gave up altogether. As an adult, I now know that my brother is an incredibly talented musician, and that I actually wasn’t half-bad at piano– but because I was only comparing myself to him, rather than focusing on my own talents and abilities, I got lost. I felt like– hey– why care about piano when I could be focusing on writing, which is something that I am way better at and don’t have to work so hard at? I’ll just do that instead. I would give anything to go back and try again– because (duh) it’s not about being the best. It’s about enjoying the ride. My brother is a professional musician, and I am a mom who would like to be able to play along with her kids when they are singing Christmas carols. I don’t need the same level of skill as him, and by only focusing on the things I was already good at, I missed out on a lot of character building experiences when I was young, and the stakes were nice and low. That leaves millennials like myself with two choices: either learn those lessons in college or early adulthood– when the stakes are much higher– or don’t learn them at all, steer clear of them forever. We all work with people like that. It is not, shall we say, a pleasure.

3) Equating HARD WORK with failure

Example: “I have to work harder at this skill than so-and-so; so I should give up. I must not be meant for this type of work.”

I’m not saying that we all have to be rock stars or NFL football players. I’m not saying that it’s never okay to give up on something– I, for example, have zero interest in basketball and would really consider it a waste of time to develop my skills in that area. At some point, as we discover both our strengths and our interests, and we will start allocating time to the things that we care about the most (to help your focus on this: I tell my students to think about a problem they want to solve).

In the end, as someone who makes hiring (and firing) decisions, I will take someone with  good work ethic over someone who claims to have an inherent talent any day of the week. Talent is fantastic and also needed, but hard work can make up for a lack of talent– where talent without hard work will only get you so far.

Plus– just a tip– I have noticed over years of being on interview panels that the people who claim to possess amazing talent are often the people who disappoint the most when it comes to actually getting a job done. But those who are willing to admit that they have skills they are working on and things that they’d like to learn, but have a proven track record of being a hard worker? They will never let you down.

So what is this doing on my professional blog, rather than my personal one?

Because what Simon Sinek is talking about in this video, and what I have outlined here, in a nutshell, are why schools are failing. Schools as they are today were designed by people who were looking to create a workforce of assembly line and factory workers. And those schools were populated by kids who lived on farms, or if they did not, had other responsibilities at home– character building experiences were inherent. They came to school already knowing about nebulous topics like personal responsibility, accountability, effort, and the reward that comes from trying again. These are processes that cannot be automated. It’s the difference between mowing down a field of hay by hand, baling it, and selling it for very little money, using that money to re-invest in next year’s crop; and reading an article about that process. Even the most well-written article would be hard-pressed to help you understand the heartache, frustration, and rewards of farming.

Until schools wise up to the fact that they are designed to create workers for a workforce that no longer exists, using students that also no longer exist, and training teachers to teach these non-existent students in this totally outdated way, the system will continue to fail, and will eventually be pushed into total irrelevance.

Invictus

So; here is a piece of my truth.

Tomorrow I am beginning my last quarter of graduate school.

I just wanted to point this out because I was once one of “those” kids. I was once told– by hard-working and well-meaning and wonderful teachers– that I was not going to go on to college. Teachers who cared very deeply about me, and who thought I was a good student, would say things like, “Don’t feel bad. College isn’t in everyone’s future.” Or, “Not everyone is cut out for college.” I was once barred entry to a college prep history class because I was not “college material.” I had an advisor in high school refuse to help me with application materials to a private school because “why waste either of our time?” After I was in college, I had it even worse– professors who should have been dismissed for the way they treated me.

Equitable access to educational opportunities has become the driving force in my life. Because any poor kid can tell you that you never want to have more possessions than what you can carry with you on your back if you have to run in the middle of the night. And once I realized that when I learned something it meant that I could keep it forever, I was hooked. And I want that for everyone; not just for the ones who can afford it.

Don’t get me wrong. My teachers were wonderful people. They would have walked across hot coals every day if it meant that just one more of their students would graduate high school. But they had seen too many students just like me end up with student debt and no degree, because students like me didn’t just lack money, students like me also lacked a support system. It takes more than money, and unfortunately, it also takes more than smarts to muscle your way through a college degree. And though it is getting less relevant by the day, a college degree still opens doors that nothing else will. To being a teacher, for example– which is all I ever wanted to do in my entire life.

So to all my brave little lovelies– bright, capable, but impoverished, needy, hungry, cold, tired, and pushed around– I am here to tell you to keep dreaming. Don’t give up. We’re going to work together, you and I. And we’re going to change all their minds.

Inertia

Consider, if you will, Newton’s Laws of Motion. Here you go:

Law 1: Every object persists in a state of rest unless it is compelled to change that state by forces impressed on it.

Law 2: The acceleration of an object is tied directly to the power of the force acting on it, and also to the object’s mass. Put another way– the heavier the object, the greater the force you will need to move it.

Law 3: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

Picture a swimmer ready to turn. She places her feet against the wall and pushes. No matter how strong she is, the wall is stronger. Or, rather, the force the wall exerts on the swimmer is stronger than the force the swimmer can possibly exert against the wall. She is propelled forward through the water. The stronger the swimmer is, the more force she can exert against the wall. The more force she exerts– the harder she pushes– the faster she will get away from the wall. The faster she can leave it behind.

Without the wall, she cannot change direction. She has to hit the wall first to start moving away from it. So, the swimmer has to plan for contact. If she simply collides with the wall, exerting only the force of the inertia she had built up from the swim, she will drift aimlessly in the water for a few feet. And then, unless she acts against the water, she will sink.

But if she plans the collision carefully, tucks her feet underneath her body, and pushes– HARD– against the wall that is designed to stop her, she will find herself slipping away from it. Again– not for long– because the water exerts a force too, called drag. The swimmer has to keep moving, using her hands and legs and a lot of energy, to push against the water.

Questions for your consideration:
1) How’s your inertia going? What forces are acting on you to change the direction of your trajectory? Is it time to make a change?
2) How far are you from your wall? Are you against it? Is it approaching? Have you already collided, and now you are drifting? If given another chance, would you plan your collision more carefully?

Consider a few hard truths: The wall is a solid mass. The wall is unmoved by your attempts to break through it. The wall does not care if you crash. But the wall is there for a reason. Without the wall, you will drift. The wall is there to save you from aimlessness.

So, instead of giving up, be a scientist. Be an engineer. Accept that there are some mountains that you cannot move. Remember your dreams, and use the wall against itself to get there. The wall is there to be the force that gets you where you want to be.

Don’t believe the myth that you are moving backwards. Be a swimmer. Once you have turned, you will find that the water has changed.

There’s no such thing as backwards, in time, science, or religion. Keep swimming.

Get up.

Sometimes when I am feeling down, I watch an arsenal of youtube clips that I have saved up for inspiration. Tonight I watched this one. A few times. I think I’ve watched it about a million times. It still gives me all the feels.
 
I just love everything about it. I love the moment when the crowd realizes what they are seeing. I love it when the third place runner realizes that she is running as hot damn fast as she can, and she’s going to get passed.
I love it that just as Heather is starting her sprint, and starting to pull ahead of the pack, she falls. Just when she thought– I got this— she falls.
 
But I love the most the split second after she falls down, when she gets back up and takes off. No hesitation. Not even a second to pound the ground with her fist before she heaves herself back up and launches into a sprint. Split second decision making. Get up.
All of the runners in this race have years of training. They are all talented runners. They all have their own very important reasons for running. And when she fell, they probably thought that this was the perfect combination of skill and luck. But that’s not what Heather thought. Heather fell down and, while her face was still in the pavement, she thought, “No. This is not how today is going to end.”
Whatever is pulling you down this week– don’t let it keep you down. Get up. And run like hell.

Fail Faster

Twice a month (roughly) the instructional coaches in my building get together to trade notes and discuss plans for the future. We’ve been doing a book study on High Impact Instruction by Jim Knight, which I highly recommend to anyone who teaches, not just coaches.

So, we were talking about the learning maps section in Knight’s book and learning targets, which is an innovation we’ve been studying as of late. One of the ladies in our meeting used to teach PE, so she talked about how learning targets come very naturally to her because it’s very obvious what you want the kids to do and it’s very obvious whether or not they have been successful at it. “There are a lot of ways to dribble a ball incorrectly,” she said, “but only one way to do it right, and the difference is obvious.” I thought back to my years as a music student. My music teacher would say something like, “Today we’re going to learn the G flat major scale,” He’d play it once, and we’d sing it back. If we were terrible at it, he’d say, “Almost– but you missed the fourth,” or something like that, and then play it again, and we’d try it again.

The formative feedback is immediate, and ongoing. It’s easy to compare yourself against the model and try again, even more so with some coaching. After the PE teacher models dribbling, for example, she tells the kids, “Go,” and they all start dribbling. She walks around and adjusts posture, hand positions, etc, and then eventually blows the whistle and gives the whole group formative feedback, “You’ve almost got it. This time, try to use the pad of your fingertips, rather than keeping your hand flat.” She blows the whistle again, and it’s time to go again. This is why kids like video games– depending on which way they wiggle their thumbs, they immediately know if they’ve made the right choice, and they can immediately try again.

What would that look like in a language arts or math class? Keep in mind that the definition of learning includes a change in behavior.

Could we boil down our general ed classes so that the kids are given a target/model, a description that is literally as long as a tweet, and then an opportunity to try?

At first, I thought, “Well they’ll fail immediately.”

And then I thought, “Oh.”

If they fail immediately, just as they would the first time they try to dribble a ball, the teacher now has an opportunity to provide formative feedback and then let them try again. Immediately. In a gym class, how often do you try dribbling the ball on the first day that dribbling is introduced? Probably about as much time as there is in the lesson. You spend the majority of the time engaged in the performance of understanding. We learn when we fail, not when we get it right all the time.

Additionally– by giving them a clear target, but then releasing them to try right away, aren’t we giving them the opportunity to invent their own strategy and construct their own learning?

AND FURTHERMORE– by curating this high failure, but low risk, environment– aren’t we automatically putting them into a growth mindset?

What if we taught kids to try, and then try again, and then try some more, and then keep trying? What if we all taught like PE teachers?

Professional “Development”

Day 5 of sick kids at home! I’m going bananas! My kids are typically blissfully healthy– so much so that when they both came down with fevers on the same day last week, I wasn’t even sure what the name of their pediatrician is. I couldn’t recall where we kept the children’s Tylenol. I was vaguely aware of standard operating procedure, but had to remind myself on a few occasions that my six year old probably would not want to engage in the activities that I find most helpful when I am sick: pajama pants and binge watching Downton Abbey.

Anyway.

As I was unexpectedly home for a few days, I had some time to do research outside of the norm. So, I read this article yesterday:
Ed Weekly “Let’s End PD As We Know It”

And in particular I liked this section:

“My wife is a doctor, and by nature, a somewhat skeptical person. But she really likes professional development; it is consistently useful, practical, interesting, and well-targeted to what she wants to know. The modal presentation is by doctors and for doctors; a presenting doctor talks about a case or a series of cases connected to a particular condition or disease, briefly explores the underlying science, and explains how they treat it and why. Then there is time for discussion, as other doctors offer how they would handle the same case or condition and why. Attending doctors always have choice about which sessions to attend, and only presenters who are highly rated by the audience are asked back. Sometimes there are also talks by MD-PhDs about how the underlying science is evolving in the field, or by people from industry about broader trends in health care. But all of the talks about practice come from practicing doctors. When I asked if they would ever have a non-doctor present on practice, she looked at me like I was crazy. “Of course not,” she said. “Why not?” I asked. “Because we would never take them seriously,” she replied.”

-The reason I liked this section, admittedly, is because it’s exactly what the EdCamp model is like. Teachers generate the discussions that day, powerpoints are frowned upon, and we have collaborative, problem solving sessions based on practice. Although some sessions get heated, hardly ever are they negative– very much unlike some PD I have attended when a consultant is brought in. In traditional PD, I have seen teachers read the newspaper, do crossword puzzles, storm out, argue with consultants, etc. As my school’s instructional facilitator, I have had teachers come to me to ask for consultant’s qualifications– and no matter how much education the consultant has, it doesn’t count. They want to know how much time they’ve had in a classroom. What is the established pecking order? Why do we have one? Why do we believe that some people have more to offer in the way of interesting ideas than others?

However– obviously there are times when we want teachers (and doctors) to learn something that is mandated; not up for debate– especially if we find ourselves identified as a priority school, or if we otherwise find we are behind the best practice curve. How do we facilitate that kind of learning for professionals?

For example, at some point, some surgeon decided to start doing gallbladder surgery through a scope, and now that is standard procedure. Did the hospitals hire surgeons who already had this skill, or did the hospitals train their existing surgeons in how to do it? What was that training like? Did the hospitals say to their existing surgeons– you have until the year 2000 to get board certified in laproscopic surgery, or did they just stop scheduling gallbladder surgeries with those doctors who refused to change their practice? Whatever they did– how can this be replicated in education?

Anyway. Some of my ramblings from being stuck at home with my kids (who are totally adorable, but not exactly good conversationalists unless the topic is race cars or my little pony).

Discussion welcome.