Developing Learners

I’ve heard a lot of talk in the past about educational “snapshots” with regard to various items such as teacher walk-through evaluations, student conferences, mentor observations, ad infinitum. Any view of a work in progress can be given the title, but I’m not concerned about how we label these diverse tasks; I’m concerned with how we interpret them.

Are we taking polaroid pictures of our students, teachers, and schools and then evaluating the photography before the film fully develops? Are we seeing jaundiced test results, red-eyed teacher malpractice, and splotchy school visions? Maybe we need to listen to Andre 3000 on this one (didn’t think I’d ever go to The Black Eyed Peas for educational advice but here we go):

“Shake it, shake–shake it, shake it like a polaroid picture.”

As out-of-place as those lyrics may seem, I stress this: we need to follow through our photography with good developing–I’m sure there’s room in this analogy for a dark room reference, but I’m not sure where yet–there needs to be a process and patience, in other words, accompanied by our snapshot. Without that, all we have is a moment in time that could show something like this:

This is me pre-coffee

Every student, teacher, and school has snapshots like this at some point in time.

Or they could look more like this:

Surfing anyone?

We all find paradise moments in our learning as well.

There’s no reason to argue against taking snapshots, but only against using ones that look like this to define things:

This picture actually looks pretty cool, but you get my point :)

A day at the beach or the desert?

Coming to an understanding together, as two parties must do to progress, there needs to be a conversation to aid in development. The process of shaking the picture helps to mix the chemicals within the film. Only when combined together do they allow us to see a discernible picture; then we know how and where to take the next one.

Is Your School Like a Glow Stick?

Originally post on the ERT website

While reading a post on The Student Affairs Collaborative, a blog on higher education, I got a very vivid image in my head. The title, Break the System to Remake the System, made me think of a glow stick instantly. I like this image analog for several reasons. First, I relate to the idea that what we need to shine, as schools, is already inside of us. To me, that’s an idea that just about every teacher already embraces. Yes, you need to hire well, but you’ll almost never be in a situation where you get to replace every teacher in a building; training and cultivation is the best answer to improvement.

breaking

How does a glow stick work? Well, if you’ve never been to a fair or theme park (or a rave I suppose) then you need to know about glow sticks. They are clear plastic tubes with two luminescent chemicals trapped inside, but separated by a thin artificial membrane. When you “break” the tube by holding it between your two hands and bending, you cause the chemicals to mix, thus causing a safe exocharmic(exuding excitement and entertainment) reaction which makes the stick glow fluorescent.

Now that I’ve made you relive a time when you were overwhelmed by large crowds of children wielding cheese-filled pretzels, I’ll get back to idea of education I’m trying to get at. The glow stick: you need to break it in order for it to work. Is public education the same? More specifically, what can we define as “breaking” education? Will Race to the Top “break” it? Did NCLB already break it (or will it be revealed as broken in 2014)? Will it break slowly over time or instantaneously? Are you risking breaking your school by providing new ideas? These are all questions worth considering.

How-Glow-Sticks-Work_02

I can’t pass up a good diagram. Haven’t you always wondered about glow sticks?

Second, if we do “break” education and all the evident faults and possible strengths are fluorescently illuminated for us, how do we act in response? Is there something contained within the action that broke it, or is it still external and unknown? Before I veer off into a metacognitive or philosophical cliff, I want to focus this topic into one coherent question:

What does a “broken” education system look like?

When any large change is brought about in a system, it could very easily be seen as broken in the pejorative sense of the word, because it is no longer preforming functions as it did previously. Change can be a scary thing if you fixate on the unknown; you have to  look inward and concentrate on what goodness is hiding inside your school that can’t be let out until you break the tube.
My answer to what a broken system looks like: noisy, shifting, luminescent, radiating light and energy. I want my school to have such energy and I want us to visibly share it with the world. We should hold our glow stick up to illuminate the darkness and understand that even though it will not last forever (a dying glow stick is a traumatic realization for a small child) we know how and why we must break another one if we expect to see.
I’m interested in hearing from you: Is your school like a glow stick? What is waiting to shine through? Is a system broken from outside forces or made from what’s inside?

The Extended Metaphor, A Principal’s Best Pal

My principal is a good speaker. When he stands before a room he commands our attention with subtle humor, candid allusions to his own teaching, and a generally upbeat attitude (even when explaining that he is sick and could vomit any minute and it’s a good thing the front row is empty). I’m always encouraged to hear him, but it isn’t solely because he is an experienced performer. The content of his speech always interests me.

Okay, I’ll give you that most whole faculty in-services and presentations are pretty dry. At their worst, they are seen as being filled either with information you’ll be emailed anyway or with emotional platitudes about the current state of education in the building. That is where good principals are separated from average ones;  good ones take a page from their communication arts curriculum and employ extended metaphor to do the job of entertaining while informing.

While writing an essay, short story, or even a blog post, using metaphors is hard to avoid unless you’re in business of scientific research (Even then, when I was in chemistry class, my lab reports were always very descriptive, “the reaction isolated a finely ground precipitate, which was canary yellow and resembled a delicious pile of saffron…” Then again, I did change majors for a reason).

So how does an extended metaphor help with teaching teachers?

coppersulfate

I'm fairly sure this is copper sulfate. (CuSO4)

It’s like translating words to images, building a mental analog for people to grasp and compare to the words you used before. Think about this simple one, “There’s no silver bullet for fixing any one problem in education.” You’ve heard this before, and you probably know that a silver bullet is the magical solution to killing a werewolf or, in this case, a big scary problem. So you already know and use plenty of metaphors in your every-day language, but the best leaders know how to use ones that apply to an entire topic.

A good extended metaphor is like a seed crystal. You’ve already got a beaker full of the proper chemical components, you’re stirring it, and you’ve agitated the glass a bit as well; there should be some crystals growing…but you see nothing. Until, that is, you add a seed. The seed of understanding is what’s needed for whole faculty meetings, and leaders (like principals) need to be the one to deliver it.

The point is that even if you have the most perfectly measured proportion of chemicals to grow a certain type of crystal, sometimes is just doesn’t work. You could end up stirring and agitating for hours. We all know what it’s like to be agitated for hours in a bad meeting, am I right? There has to be some seed of understanding publicly revealed (think modeling) for a large group to glean understanding of any broad and abstract concept. You’ll be able to see when your teachers start to have those Ah-ha moments.

ah-ha

Your whole faculty meeting might benefit from a funny cat picture, who knows.

Is Twitter Just Window Dressing?

Sometimes I wonder, there is a lot of content that gets repeated, retweeted, and passed around, but how much of it is actually read? Milton Ramirez’s tweet got me thinking (because I do try to reflect):

tonnet

I’m sure any marketer or business person could tell you how wonderful Twitter and social media have been for their website traffic and ad revenue, but what should teachers care about traffic? Sure, it’s interesting (and even useful depending upon your role) to know who visits your website or blog, but those data don’t provide much value in and of themselves.

I’m wondering how much window-dressing is going on through social media. I consider myself very active. On a scale of 1-to-10, where 10 is the most active one can be healthfully online, I’d rank myself at an 8 or 9 on most days. The truth is, I’ve always been addicted to social interaction, feedback, and connecting with other people. They are what keep me fueled and on fire for life. What can be dangerous is when you lose yourself in something like that.

Twitter provides a rush of information and interaction like being in a big conference hall where anyone (experts and ed celebs included) can be reached. You get a nice little chill the first time you get “RT’d” and someone repeats the same message you sent out into the blue. The echo can make you feel validated, your name is stamped on it, others can see it, and it’s really real. However, the drive for building a following loses all value and authenticity if it is one based on numbers rather than people. If you just search for “social media expert” on Google, you’ll find a list of results amassed with keyword flailing marketers bound and determined to optimize themselves for search.

Teachers: we have to be different. We aren’t selling anything, not seeking “followers” but collaborators and fellow learners. Twitter can’t work if you try to make it about you. It must be about US. Soren Gordhammer of Mashable says in his post Zen and the Art of Twitter, “Give what you want to receive.” The simple advice for those who seek encouragement is to offer it rather than beg for it. The same is true of attention.

We’ll Fix It in Post?

Sometimes I think to myself, after perhaps a very long and unsuccessful day of teaching, I wish I were a film maker or television producer because then I could simply say, “meh, I’ll fix it in post.” Meaning of course that I wish I could go back and edit, tweak, cut, and enhance my lessons, actions, and reactions to be more suitable. What I really should be thinking, I realized, is “meh, I’ll fix it AND post.” Meaning, that I should just write about what went wrong and reflect! Teachers don’t have a post-production phase and then a studio. We don’t have a special multi-colored key board to tune up and down the pitches of our practice, but we do have our words.

keyboard

I can’t imagine how much differently this year would be turning out without this blog. I’ve come here to write often with a full heart overflowing with joy, other times with a heavy one weighed down with frustration. At the risk of sounding like a small child talking to his imaginary friend or diary, I think I need this blog; I can tell it anything. Then again, unlike a journal locked away in a drawer or a made-up companion, this blog is connected to something bigger than myself. I get to speak here and be heard. I can listen for dissension, affirmation, and comments that add to my understanding of what I’m encountering in teaching.

Unlike what I learned from the theories in my education classes and the experiences I’ve had in the classroom, reflective writing provides me with a chance to process information. Without time to write, I’m left to sort out the ideas in my head, and they don’t last long up there. When I write, my ideas take form on the page (usually the screen though) before me and I can subtly choose what I want to store in my longer term memory. I like to think of my brain as a computer that has representative parts like the memory I mentioned.

Let’s say my eyes are like a web browser that allows me to take in vast quantities of information constantly from many sources. I get to store some of the unprocessed information in my temporary memory (my RAM) and only when I decide that I want to download some of it, does it go to longer term memory (my hard drive disk). You’re all familiar with how computers work I’m assuming, it’s nice to have a bunch of web browser tabs open and be “reading” lots of stuff at once, but you never really learn it until you save it and apply it later. It’s not until you make that hard drive disk needle write to the platter, orienting all those zeros and ones, that there is a chance for storing what you experience.

It’s easy for me to get lost in analogies, especially technology ones, but I always come back to this idea. If I am browsing browsing browsing all the time and never taking the time to process it in writing, then am I spending my time wisely? I have to remind myself to stop and write, because if I don’t, then my temporary memory will get full and I’ll crash.