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What Happened?

The question “What happened?” is so basic that it’s easy to forget its importance.  It’s one of the first phrases we learn– if you don’t believe me, read for a while with a two-year old.  And like many simple but important questions, it can be difficult  to find a satisfactory answer.

But “What happened?” is really two parts– the “what” and then, separately, the “happening” that brought about the what.  If you walked to a parade and saw, for instance, this:

…you’d be able to say, probably right away, a few things:

1) There is a gorilla carrying a woman in a cage, parading down the street.

2) This town really knows how to celebrate July 4th.

You could then go on to make some observations about the cage, the woman’s clothes, the fact that this is probably a person in a gorilla suit, etc…. But you wouldn’t as yet, be able to tell why this spectacular scene is before you.  It is a political statement?  Modern Art?  A revolt at the zoo?  David Lynch’s retelling of Goodnight Gorilla?

In other words, you’d know the what, but not the what happened.

With schools and data, it’s easy to get lost in the what.  Take, for example, this graph:

Observations, Unit 1

If we take a look at this performance of, say, all the science teachers in a school over a 6-8 week period, there’s no shortage of “what” to dissect.  You can pull out some conclusions of your own, but here are some highlights:

– the teachers tend to plan lessons well

– teachers walk around a lot and have good rapport with kids

– everything looks safe and well-organized

At the same time, however…

– formative assessment doesn’t seem to be happening much at all

– assessment in general, but especially higher-order and self-directed           assessments, seems to be a weak area

And this is all good.  We’ve successfully identified that whats.  We know there’s a gorilla and a lady in a cage, and we know what these teachers have and have not been observed doing.  But what we don’t know is the whywhy are we seeing the things we’re seeing?

This is where story comes in.  To be a good storyteller, you have to know what happened.  You have to know, for instance, that this is a school where there were rampant discipline problems 10 years ago, and the most important thing was for teachers to get control of their classrooms– more important than performance on any assessment.  And the school hired supervisors who cracked down in specific ways– teachers who had their plans in on time were rewarded, and those who could demonstrate the easy stuff– like walking around the room and being nice to the kids– were left alone.  No one cared about “messy” formative assessment and checking for student understanding because the administrators believed that the more work the teacher gave to kids, the busier they’d be and the better they’d behave.  And now, 10 years later, the teachers still show these behaviors, even though the school has changed a great deal, but they’re still teaching the kids from 10 years ago.

A graph like the one above is like a movie still.  If I see this picture, for instance:

… I think that this is a movie about a prince and princess falling in love.  But if I don’t see this, too:

… I’m missing a lot of the story.  And that’s not even to mention all the stuff with the dancing cups and candles and stuff.  We’ll leave that out for now.

To use data effectively, we need to know what happened.  And that involves digger much deeper than we’re accustomed to.  It’s not enough to look at presented data, make some observations about what we’re seeing, pat ourselves on the back, and say “Let’s stop doing that!”  Knowing why we’re seeing certain data– what happened to make the data even be there is the most important part of telling stories with data.  Only then can we begin to use data to change the way things are, and write the story of what will happen from that point onward.

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The Reflex

“The reflex is in charge of finding treasure in the dark
And watching over lucky clover isn’t that bizarre
Every little thing the reflex does
Leaves you answered with a question mark”

– Duran Duran

That’s right.  I opened this post with a quote from Duran Duran.  Breathe it in.

I won’t pretend that I often seek the wisdom of the sage and stylish Simon LeBon. But in this case, the lyrics point to a larger truth– white jeans and mime shirts are hot   reflexive actions have the the potential for significant impact.  At least I think that’s what he’s trying to say.  Although I’m not sure about the lucky clover… I think that’s just the 80s talking.

The title of my position is “data specialist.”  That’s the kind of title that leads people to ask exactly what you do, given that I don’t have a formal IT background and I’m an English teacher at heart.  I tell people that my job is all about getting teachers and schools leaders past “We have data and don’t know what to do with it,” and closer to “We know what to do with it.”  But that path is something that I had to conceptualize in a way that made sense to people.  The educators I worked with understood that the most effective thing they could do with data was analyze it, present it in ways that made sense, then find ways to act on it within the confines of their school– and, if necessary, work to loosen those same confines if they could.

I often discuss the concept of becoming data reflexive.  Too often, “data” is something done in bursts, on special days, when the consultant comes in, or when someone’s looking.  It usually involves consulting binders full of charts, making teachers fill out data protocols and hand them in to supervisors, and arguing about having too many or not enough tests.  When data is something that’s done in discrete chunks like this, it’s like p.d. that you go to for one day and then go back to your classroom and never use– without sustained interaction and reflection, it’s never gonna work.

Data reflexivity, though, represents the idea that, when making a decision, an educator reflexively turns to data in order to inform that decision.  Data isn’t an awkward appendage; it’s the source code, so to speak, of what’s happening in the life of a classroom, a school, and a district.  A programmer knows that when software isn’t working, go to the code and de-bug.  That’s a reflex– the same can be said for a teacher re-stating directions when a students says he doesn’t understand or a counselor closing the door and offering a tissue when a student comes in crying.  Those actions are reflexes, for the most part– that behavior isn’t so much learned like you learn how to solve polynomials.  In the same way, teachers that use data reflexively always think of what’s happening in class as an endless source of data to be taken, and can switfly and fluently collect and analyze data and use it to inform what they do next.

Of course, data isn’t just numbers or performance on a test.  “Constantly collecting data” doesn’t mean over-testing, and it doesn’t mean becoming a robot about students’ lives.  We collect data all the time without being conscious of it– when we meet someone, we feel out their mood, their trustworthiness, their personality; all of these things are sources of data.  That’s important to remember since too often, “data” only means performance, and only on certain tests, at that.

Ultimately it’s the reflex to turn to data to inform fundamental questions like “What do my students already know,” “What things that I do resonate with my students most,” or “What do students of difference ethnic groups think of their school experience” that marks true data reflexivity.  Using data can be as much a behavior to shape as it is a concept to understand– my hope is that thinking about it as such can remove some of its mystery.

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Everything I Need to Know About Classroom Management, I Learned From Lifeguarding

There are a lot of things I learned during my 4 years as a lifeguard at the Jersey Shore.  Some things I learned on my own, like always being mentally ready to act in an emergency.  How beautiful nature can be.  Or how important coffee is at 8 am.  Some I learned from watching other people, like not wearing jeans into the ocean— ever.  How you have to watch kids every second when they’re around water.  Or how amazingly bad an idea it is to offer a seagull a French fry.

There’s a lot I learned that I found applicable to my work as a teacher, too.  There are a lot of teachers on beach patrols— it’s the perfect job when you can count on summers off every year.  As much as I like the idea of year-round school, I can’t help but think about what that would do to lifeguarding and beach safety.   

I like to say that I learned all I needed to know about classroom management from lifeguarding.  Both are complex work, involve more than a little bit of people skills, and require experience for improvement.  Here are the three most important lessons I learned: 

1) Prevention is the Mindset

Any guard who has to go into the water over and over to rescue people isn’t doing the job well.  The first thing you learn about lifeguarding is that it’s not the number of dramatic rescues you make, it’s the number of people you never let get into trouble in the first place. 

A teacher that constantly needs to write discipline reports, give a dozen detentions a day, and take hours to call home for bad behavior may think he’s being vigilant or having high standards of behavior, but he’s missing the point.  Any teacher with these issues has to take a long, hard look at the kinds of things he’s asking his kids to do in class.  If kids are acting out, it may be because they’re bored.  I’ve heard plenty of stories about how “bad” kids don’t act up in shop class or gym, or in a certain teacher’s English or math class.  It’s hard to get bored in shop and gym.  And for the teacher that gives kids something worth paying attention to, they won’t have time to act out.  A teacher has to ask himself, “Am I asking my kids to do something that’s relevant, and did I explain why it’s relevant?”  And, “Am I presenting this in a way that challenges them, makes them think about possible answers, makes them try things until something works, lets them move around and work with each other, and lets them be creative?”  Those are all things that can be said about shop and gym, and those are lessons that academic teachers need to adopt if they want to be preventative about class management.   

On the beach, a guard has to scan his water continuously, and know where everyone is and how they’re doing, at all times.   Teachers need to adopt this mindset, too— a teacher that ignores a slightly distracted student finds that the student gets progressively more distracted, gets his friends involved, pulls other kids in, and ends up needing a full “rescue” from his behavior.   But a teacher with a preventative mindset only needs to redirect the student back to his meaningful work as soon as he notices the small issue.  “Rescue” unnecessary. 

2) Stay Calm in Rips

On the beach, rip currents form and can carry even the strongest swimmer dangerously far from shore.   Swimmers try to swim against the surging water and get tired, distressed, and panicked very quickly.   It’s a dangerous situation.  The thing that can save you in a rip is your ability to stay calm.  Rips aren’t out to get you— they’re not evil, and they’re not trying to pull you down.  It’s just water rushing along the side of an obstacle like a jetty, or through a narrow gap in a sandbar.  It’s not personal.  If you wait until you’re past the point where the rip is flowing, swim sideways out of it, and back toward shore again, you’re fine.  But it takes a very clear, level head to do that when things are quickly going out of your control, and what you usually do— swim straight to shore— isn’t working.

In a classroom, students are going to have outbursts from time to time.  They’re people, not robots— you can’t program them to always behave according to instructions.  People get frustrated, angry, hurt, and upset, and they act out.  I’ve noticed that often, it has nothing to do with you, the teacher.  It’s not personal.  It’s something with the student’s home, or his girlfriend, or another class, or whatever— sometimes, it’s just the need to be free from the tightly-controlled environment that is school— even if it’s just for a moment (like Andy Dufresne playing that music over the prison exercise yard). 

Sometimes the best thing to do is to stay calm and let the student vent.  If you fight back by yelling and lecturing, you’re only swimming against the rip.  It’s not going to work.  The situation is going to escalate and spin out of your control.   Don’t get me wrong—outbursts aren’t acceptable when they disturb everyone’s learning.  You’re probably going to need to issue some consequences after things settle down.  We’re in school to learn how to behave in society, and allowing outbursts without consequences isn’t setting anyone up for success.  But calmly and unemotionally handling the situation will go a long way towards preventing an emergency.  Later, after the outbust is over, ask the student what’s going on that made him act that way.  Help him work it out and find a way to control himself next time, if you can.  Explain to him that there are consequences to his actions, but it’s not personal– it’s school, and it’s learning how to act and how to control one’s self.

3) Prepare

I knew I was going to be on the beach for 8 hours with limited opportunities to get food, get changed, or do much of anything not found right on my cramped lifeguard stand.   So I prepared.  I had changes of clothes, plenty of water, sunblock, food, a radio, sunglasses, and anything else I was going to need.   Preparation was mental, too.  On slow days, I would visualize what I’d do in certain situations that I knew mightcome up sooner or later.  I tried to figure out what I’d do if a pleasure boat was stalled in my water, or if someone went into shock, or anything out of the ordinary.  And that doesn’t count the hundreds of times I thought about the ordinary— the quick rescue, the lost child, the cut foot. 

Teaching is the same way.  If classroom management is a challenge for you, visualize yourself putting your management plan into action.  Picture how you’ll react if a student does _________.    Try to anticipate common and uncommon situations— students fighting, refusing to do work, sleeping, whatever— and decide how you’ll proceed.  If and when the situation happens, you’ll be prepared, and you’ll act the way you know is best.

But really— trust me on not wearing jeans in the water.

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The American Team

Last post, I said that educators need to worry less about politics, budgets, and structures, and more about teaching and learning.  Today, at risk of being hypocritical, I’m going to indulge in the wrong stuff.  Sometimes, the moments that jump out at you have to be dealt with when you see them.

In listening to President Obama’s latest speech on how we need to “out-educate” the competition, I was struck by an image of an as-yet-unmade documentary in my head.  In it, the words of the president echoed out over applause, as he spoke of the need to invest in education, keep our priorities straight in spite of our budget crises, and turn to education to light the way out of the American recession.  At the same time, on the screen, you’d see images of local and state leaders calling for huge cuts to school budgets, legislature to destroy collective bargaining for teachers, and angry vilification of schools as places where waste and self-service rule the day.  As I watched this movie in my mind, I saw the yawning chasm between the national rhetoric and the local reality.  And I was struck by just how little we were all working together in this country at the moment. Here’s the video if you have a few minutes, and here’s the text.

It’s not unusual to criticize a school for not promoting effective collaboration among its teachers, and it’s not unusual to criticize administrators for not communicating effectively or being willing to work with teachers.  In fact, one of the things I do at my job is develop Professional Learning Communities (PLCs), which revolve around both the expectation that teachers will collaborate and giving them the time they need to do so.  If America was a PLC, it would be a colossal failure.

I’m haunted by that unmade documentary.  Obama praised Intel for their willingness to build new facilities in America and hire Americans trained in science and engineering.  Naturally, for a nation to produce skilled people of science, there needs to be a solid foundation in the schools, and education to give these scientists the tools they need to succeed at advanced levels.  The President reminded us, “If we want to make sure Intel doesn’t have to look overseas for skilled, trained workers, then we’ve got to invest in our people — in our schools, in our colleges, in our children.”  In the movie, this is what you hear while you see newspaper headlines of local budget cuts aimed squarely at education– cuts that slashed $820 million from New Jersey schools last year or a proposed $1.5 billion in New York.

In another scene the president says that he wants to create permanent tuition tax credits and revitalize community colleges so that students can attend them more easily, without crushing debt– over the backdrop of headlines of colleges losing massive amounts of funding, substantially increasing costs, and of states cutting scholarship opportunities for students who know that college is the way into a productive life, but can’t take on a mountain of student loans.

And while I applaud the president’s vision of an investment in education, much of the way we’re going about it is misguided.  In Obama’s speech, Race to the Top was called “the most meaningful reform of our public schools in a generation.”  So far, 11 states and DC, the winners of RTTT, have won substantial sums of money to aid their schools.  And what about the rest?  They lost this “race.”  Their residents are faced with a very hard educational future, and they’ve gotten the message– your local governments didn’t measure up, and you’re out of luck.  Obama lauded that RTTT  “has led over 40 states… to raise their standards for teaching and for learning. And these standards weren’t developed in Washington — they were developed by Republican and Democratic governors throughout the country.”  He conveniently left out the part where these new, rigorous standards soon may not have left anyone qualified to teach them effectively.  I’m all for healthy competition, but I know what works better– collaboration.  Have an incentive system where people are rewarded for winning a competition and what you’ll get is a game.  I played sports in high school (they’d be pay-to-play now, of course) and I know what I did to win those games– I attacked, deceived, fooled, and ran over my competition, and I didn’t care about them on my way to the goal.  I may have even cheated a bit.  I emerged bruised, bloodied, and exhausted.  And at the end of the game, of course, there’s only one winner.

I’ve also been part of collaboration.  I shared what I knew with others, who then taught me what they knew.  We all learned, we all got stronger, and we all agreed that we would continue to share what we learned, to improve our performance.  This is what teams do.  In his speech, the president admonished us, “We are all on the same team — the American team.”

I agree, coach.  So stop making us fight each other.  Start rewarding cooperation and collaboration, not competition.  Make Race to the Top about how many other states you share with, not step on. Find a way– I don’t know how, but it’s your job to find out how– to get local, state, and federal funding schemes to work together to continue to fund schools while still solving local budget crises.  It can be done; it just requires innovation– the way how hasn’t been discovered yet.  The kids we teach now will one day solve the problems we face today.  They need our team to get its act together.  I grew up playing hockey, so there was always only one time-out.  I’m using it.  Let’s figure out a game plan, because we’re getting close to overtime.

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The Two Realms of Curriculum

Since my last post about curriculum was well-received, I figured it might be good to write more on the subject.  A little on my background– I’m working my way through a doctorate in a program that deals with curriculum and instruction, and my job involves thinking about curriculum a great deal.  I created an independent study for myself in general curriculum theory and practice because I found that though I was mostly done my course work, I still didn’t really know what I wanted to know about the topic– namely the most fundamental question of all– what should a good curriculum have?  I found that a lot of others had the same problem– curriculum studies remained kind of a mysterious, amorphous area.  Everyone knew what is was… kinda, but it was hard to talk about in concrete terms.  So I’d like to share in Show All Your Work as much as possible what I’ve learned about curriculum through study and experience.

There’s a lot of debate over “the future of education” everywhere you look.  Look no farther than Youtube to find hundreds of videos that show the future of education as a place where students will be surrounded by slick, exciting technologies that make learning fun, instant, entertaining– basically everything that the internet is.   But there’s a whole other camp that calls for a return to “basics” such as reading, writing, and math.  Facts, to this group, are not challengeable, and learning is not “constructed.”  Students are in school to learn about the world as it is, and to learn self-control, discipline, and the things that educated people need to know.

And whichever side of the fence you’re on, there’s research to back you up.  If you’re convinced that technology will open wide the doors of the world’s information for students, and let them become quick-thinking, problem-solving, multitasking, knowledge-creating whizzes who are never more than a mobile device away from instant and continuous learning, you’re not alone.  Don Tapscott believes so, too– his books Growing Up Digital and Grown Up Digital tell us how young people are learning to lead, think, and create in ways that most adults didn’t ever get to do in their lifetimes.  Steven Johnson tells us that everything we think is bad for us— TV, too much internet time, video games– actually makes us smarter by engaging us in cognitive tasks.

Or, you might think that our reliance on technology is the beginning of the end of civilization, and that students and young people are being turned into mush-brained zombies that can only speak in short, dissociated, self-indulgent chirps about what they’re doing at any given moment.  Or that the only thing they learn from YouTube, iLife, and MySpace is that the first person is the first– and only– person that matters (you English teachers and grammar fans will appreciate that one).   You’ll be in good company, too.  E.D. Hirsch’s Dictionary of Cultural Literacy tries to convince us that the best of art, culture, and history is important for students to know and not just be able to Google.  Mark Bauerlein, whom I’ve written about here before, admonishes us not to trust anyone under 30‘s insect-like attention spans, and Nicholas Carr ominously wonders whether the internet is re-wiring our brains to avoid deep, sustained concentration.

At the center of these debates are, of course, the students that expect schools to prepare them for a world that no one– not experts, writers, leaders, politicians, and not their teachers, either– can really predict.  The role that curriculum can play in these debates is to ensure that students experience as much of both sides of the “two realms” as possible.

What that means is that in the first realm, students will need to learn skills and habits of mind.  They will need to have experiences where what they know doesn’t matter so much– it’s what they do with information that matters.  For their math class, they can have all the formulas they want handed to them on a laminated index card.  But how they apply the formulas is what will matter, and what will show their teachers that they’ve learned.  What good is knowing anything if there’s nothing to be done with the knowledge?  I might know Trigonometry forwards and back, but without creative vision, the problem-solving capacity to work around obstacles, and the ability to empathize and negotiate with local neighbors and residents, the building isn’t getting built.

It also means that students still need to be expected to learn things by heart.  What I mean is that they need to internalize information, know it, hold it, and keep it ready for use when it’s needed.  Knowing things has taken a hit in the past 10 years or so.  Why bother remembering anything when you can get your answer from Google in .8 seconds?   But the key here is that the knowledge and skill realms don’t work against each other– they work with each other.  A student with a deep, broad knowledge base from which to draw becomes a more-skilled problem-solver, critical-thinker, or empathizer.  Students who possess knowledge aren’t slowed down and disrupted by having to look up everything– no matter how instantaneous the search.  They are like musicians who are in a state of flow as they play a complex, improvised solo.  Imagine if a musician didn’t know any scales, but instead relied on looking them up as needed.  That solo isn’t getting played, people aren’t being moved, and music isn’t happening.  It’s the knowledge of musical theory, the instrument, even the music’s historical precedents that feed the creative and technical skills– those are what makes the music.

When extremist sides are taken, the dogmatism and stifling debate can sometimes miss the real point.  To endow students with the background and the ability, curriculum needs to be a balance of both skills and knowledge.  School isn’t a place to come to memorize discrete, unrelated, useless factlets, but it’s not a place to pretend that knowing things doesn’t matter anymore, either.


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Some Thoughts and Three Questions About Curricular Experiences

Part of my job involves writing curriculum.  For a long time I found it really hard to wrap my mind around exactly what that means.  Was it just thinking up some neat courses for students to take?  Was it reading through pages of complicated standards, and making sure that some class everyone took covered every one of them?  Was it even something that you could do well— and if so, how?

As I kept teaching, and then became a curriculum director, I saw that deciding a curriculum meant thinking about two things: first, what was it that students should know or be able to do; and second, what should students have to do in pursuit of that knowledge and those skills?

Depending on your school, the word “curriculum” is tinged with either freedom and excitement or restriction and rules.  It might be about learning, or it might be about coverage.  It might be a flexible, living set of ideas that can grow and shift to include new ideas, or it might be doctrine, a set of laws as immutable as the periodic table– which, maybe some chemist will tell me, actually can be mut-ed.  My hope is that when thinking about where students need to be and what they should do to get there, a few things will happen.

First, get the students’ input.  One thing that looking at 20th-century curriculum history tells us is that using a series of outside agencies, think-tanks, and other groups to decide what students to learn might be a good way to increase rigorous content, but it leads to a lot of back-and-forth.  Any time you have one group saying we need more math and science, there’s another saying that we need more art instead.  It’s the back-and-forth that’s behind the “reform wars” that prevent a whole lot from getting done.  It’s not to say that all outside agencies are bad; the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, for instance, does a great job of figuring out exactly what those skills are.  But an agency that says its agenda is the secret to improving schools is necessarily short-sighted.  Schools don’t need just more math or just more art– they need more everything.   Asking students what they might want to learn about sounds simple enough, but as the professionals, it’s easy to get caught up in fighting our own battles, and lose sight of what the students in question might want to learn.

Second, involve the teachers in writing curriculum.  Curriculum specialists are all well and good, but since the teachers’ job is to enact the curriculum, they can’t be treated as soldiers who simply carry out orders.  Maybe the most leaderly thing a curriculum director can do, paradoxically, is give leadership away to those who will bring the curriculum to the students directly.  Treat the teachers like professionals, and give them their say.  That’s what leads to buy-in– a whole-school effort and everyone on the same page.

Maybe the most important, and final consideration when thinking about a curriculum is to ask these three questions:
1) Does the experience ensure the best opportunity for mastery of the subject matter?
2) Is the experience provided in a way that fosters the development of 21st-century skills and habits of mind in students?
3) Is the experience grounded in relevance and real-world application?

If a new curricular experience– a new course, an assessment, a trip, a collaboration– fulfills these three requirements, then it’s probably worthwhile.

Thanks to all my readers out there– I wish you all a wonderful holiday and a very happy new year!


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The Three Steps to Problem-Solving

Every day, I see school problem-solving efforts started and stopped, and started again and stopped again. Or they meander, with no one being sure exactly what should be done first.  Or one person burns out after carrying too much of the load.  Or projects fizzle out because they lose shape and the people involved lose track of who’s supposed to be doing what.  The English teacher in me wants to quote Yeats:

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold”

That’s one of the most ominous lines of poetry ever written.

There are so many good ideas for solving what-seem-to-be-intractable problems whizzing around schools, but so few turn into anything actionable.  I see good projects implode at three times: the start-up phase, the refinement phase, and after it’s been running for a bit– the “loss of inertia” phase. I’ve found that there are three steps that need to be taken when problem-solving.  Following them, I think, can turn a good idea into action, and keep it up beyond the honeymoon, when everyone’s excited over what’s new.

1) Collaborate

We as a society are miles beyond the need to address our problems on our own.  We work in schools with dozens of professionals, and hundreds or thousands of kids.  We can connect to other teachers and school leaders through email, Twitter, Diigo, wikis, Facebook, and an endless list of educational journals.  There is great wisdom in crowds, as James Surowiecki and Francis Galton know, and solving problems together harnesses the brainpower of everyone involved.  I had been a life-long individual problem-solver, and until recently I wasn’t convinced about the wisdom of crowds.  But after working on deep, entrenched problems like achievement gaps, outdated curricula, and ineffective, teacher-centered instruction, I’m convinced that one person can’t do it all, can’t see every possible solution, and can’t have every experience on which to draw.  There are giants on whose shoulders we can stand, and there is great power in collaboration, networking, and teamwork.

2) Articulate

Teaching vocabulary and literary devices made me see the power of articulation.  My students could always read definitions, but not until I forced them to put things in their own words did they truly grasp what an unusual or complex word meant.  The dictionary definition for irony always fell flat, for instance– but try articulating it in your own words, and it becomes understandable to you.  Or try poetry.  Or metaphor— and you can’t use the phrase “without like or as.”

Until you can articulate exactly what’s wrong and exactly how you think it should be, you can’t effectively work on a solution.  Putting things into words has power– witness anyone who’s ever written down their thoughts in order to see how they really felt about something (Author’s note to himself– insert mirror here).  Articulation lets collaborators define the problem, map out specific solutions, and be on the same page in their efforts.  This might be the hardest of the three steps, but it’s the fulcrum on which the others hinge.

3) Sustain

Good problem-solving efforts are only as good as they can be sustained.  If you’ve created a wonderful student rewards program that has students reading like never before in exchange for points they can redeem for more books, you’ve created every educator’s dream.  What you haven’t done is make sure that the program continues once you leave the school to become an administrator, or a writer, or a teacher somewhere else.

So how do you ensure sustainability?  The best way is to find ways so that more people have a stake in the project.  If it’s just you, you are the project.  If a group is responsible for the work, there’s more structure and stability.  If everyone is invested in the solution– here’s why school-wide buy-in is so essential– the solution can be more intractable than the problem once was.

Another provocative line from Yeats’s poem is

“The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”

If that’s not enough to motivate you, what will?  Problem-solving is never easy; every school has unique challenges and roadblocks to get through before success.  But we must be up to the challenge, and find not just the necessary passionate intensity, but the kind of systematic collaborating, planning, and following through that changes the unchangeable.


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Empathy was always one of those words that my students found confusing.  Was it just like “sympathy,” but you sound smarter saying it– kind of like the word “matriculate?” Empathy was a little like sympathy, I told them, but it was a little bit… more.  If sympathy was seeing someone get hurt and saying, “Aw, that’s too bad,” then empathy was about feeling that person’s pain, seeing the world through their eyes, experiencing what they experienced in their minds.  It sounded so lofty, so special, as if you had some kind of superpower.

Jeremy Rifkin’s “The Empathic Civilization” makes it clear that empathy is an essential skill for the 21st century.  It’s something you may have heard in other places, too– Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence got the ball rolling with the idea that after a long time of prioritizing skills like analytical and computational abilities, orderliness, and linear thinking, technology had gotten to the point where it would always be better than our human brains at these such abilities.  The internet emerged, computational power continued to explode according to Moore’s Law, and a computer beat Gary Kasparov at chess.  We were forced to– and are still forced to– fall back on what I call our sense of “human pride”– the things we can do that a computer can never probably won’t ever be able to do– empathize with someone, break existing rules in the name of creativity, and imagine things that never were, for starters.  Human pride is one of those ideas that escapes definition– it’s hard to articulate, but we know it when we see it.

Rifkin says that empathizing will be an essential ability in the coming years, and I agree.  The confluence of extraordinary technologies and the forces of globalization has made worldwide communication cheap and easy.  This means that we’re running into people who are very different than us, more than ever before.  Just a hundred years ago, it would be easy to go your whole life and never meet or talk to anyone from another country.  Today, kindergartners  can Skype with  counterparts in Argentina and practice each other’s language.  We’ll run into a lot of people who are very different than us in our lifetimes.  Empathy lets us do what’s most important– find the ways in which we’re all very much the same.

Rifkin tells listeners that Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and the rest of the social media rock stars will increase empathy throughout the world– the plight of those in distress broadcast over these communication networks means more attention, more discussion, more action.  But I caution that broadcasting the troubles of the world over instantaneous, pervasive outlets  might do the opposite– desensitize us, distance us, keep problems relegated to a click of the mouse.  The more we’re exposed to something, the more we habituate to it.  If you had shown people across the world images from World War I as it was happening, they would have been horrified more than they ever thought possible.  Now, we can watch footage from battle– real battle– in Afghanistan on Youtube, and not miss a bite of our sandwich.  If every tragedy to befall the world comes through on our iPhones and Droids, it will take a tsunami-sized catastrophe to get our attention.

Either way, cultivating empathy in our students is essential for a society to be able to keep being human when technology runs so much of our lives.  We have to keep our focus on technology as a tool to serve our humanity, not the other way around.  If we can teach students to remember the meaning of a living thing, and to be able to mentally put themselves in someone else’s place– to really see, hear, feel, and think like they do– we will be giving them a skill that will helped them live a happier, more human life.  Perhaps that will be the best definition of human pride.

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Are We Slaves to Language?

I’ve been thinking a lot about how hearing, seeing, or speaking a phrase regularly can get someone to really believe it after a while.  I’ve been listening to Seth Godin’s Linchpin on CD, and after hearing him tell me that I’m creative,  exceptional, and could be a linchpin, I find this attitude emerging in my mind more than before.  It could be just a placebo effect, or confirmation bias– where you see “evidence” of things you expect to see– but maybe not.  In an appearance on The Accidental Creative podcast, Godin gave the advice to write “I’m exceptional” on a post-it and post it [that was neat] at your workplace.   The language with which we surround ourselves may in fact shape our thinking more than we realize.

This article on linguistics and psychology has dramatic implications for teachers.  Deutscher looks at the way language shapes our thinking in profound ways, as in the cases of non-English speakers who  say they  conceptualize objects as masculine or feminine, depending on the “gender” assigned to the word– think back to 9th-grade Spanish here.  English speakers don’t have this opportunity, of course; things are neutral– objects are objects, after all.  But there may be a kinds of richness in thinking that English misses out on– there’s something literary and epic in seeing everything as imbued with a gender, even if it is, most of the time, linguistically arbitrary.

If I’m in a classroom, and I tell kids every day, “You’re all capable of great things,” or “Every one of you is a success in training,” or “You are creative,” could this be the kind of language they need to hear in order to make what I’m saying real?  What about the opposite– if I tell kids “You can’t do that,” “You have to lower your expectations,” or “You’re not going to get anywhere that way,” how long until these prophecies fulfill themselves?

“Can’t” is a word that invites a lot of debate.  There are those in the “can’t-means-won’t” camp, and those that find solace in the pragmatic, “There are some things he can’t do, and that’s ok.  He doesn’t have to be good at everything.”    The difference for teachers is that we’re not in the business of limiting abilities.  We’re in the business of making things happen, not advising what we don’t think is going to happen.  If a student wants to get into a college that we think is way beyond his ability level, telling him he won’t get in takes him one step further to your being right, except for the exceptionally-resilient kids who take comments like that as fuel for their determination– but they’re exceptional, no post-it needed.

Of course, it does no good to mislead students, either.  If my D student wants to get into Harvard, I have two choices:

1) Say “You can’t get into Harvard because you get D’s in school.  If you wanted to go there, why didn’t you study more?”

2) Say, “To get into Harvard you need to have very high academic scores, to start with.  You also need lots of other activities, recommendations, and more.  Where do you stand right now in school?  How can I help you to get those scores to where they need to be for Harvard?”

There’s still a part of me that wants to admit that the first person is probably right.  But that’s not the kind of language I want in my head, because I believe that the language I use to think about things is going to shape who I am, just like the French think of forks as having feminine voices (read the article).  It’s time to use the language we use with ourselves and with our students as a catalyst for a more-productive attitude. Instead of “They can’t ____________,” try “I haven’t yet figured out a way to get them to ____________.”

If this becomes a habit in your mind, think how positive you could become.  I admit that it gives  some kind of cathartic release to be pessimistic sometimes– I like to put on 90s grunge and pretend I’m lonely and hopeless as much as the next guy.  But positive thinking is where innovation comes from, where creativity thrives, and where things get done.  When you use the way language shapes thinking to your advantage,  nothing is impossible, because impossible is just another way of saying “I haven’t yet figured out how to…”

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More Book, less Face?

There’s a war going on.  You might not be able to name who is fighting whom, or who the allies are, or how it ends.  It’s a war of cultures, a war of this generation of students vs. previous generations of students– now the teachers, commentators, writers, and guardians of the old culture.  It might end a lot like Bob Dylan’s lyrics to “The Times, They Are a-Changin'”:

Don’t criticize what you can’t understand
Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command.
Your old road is rapidly aging.
Please get out of the new one if you can’t lend your hand

This war is between the Facebook Culture and the “More Book, Less Face” Culture– a group that should be called the Ironic Culture since most of them have Facebooks themselves.  But Facebook isn’t the same for these two camps.  For young people, social media are the same as life, as much as walking out the door and going to school.  The constant contact afforded to students by technology means that they’re never more than a Tweet, poke, status update, or text away from their 1051 1052 friends and followers.  For those of us that grew up without social media and smart phones, Facebook is a tool or a plaything, a thing that you can do when you want to– and sometimes you spend a lot of time with it– but in the end, you walk away to your actual life.

And maybe you go read a book.  So, which way of living is better?  Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows gives an exhaustive look at the neurological evidence that shows that online habits literally re-wire your brain to “crave” the online click-browse-click-browse rhythm.  It’s the plasticity of your brain at fault– do something enough and your brain rewires itself to be good at it. And it gets rammy when it can’t have what it craves– anyone else get strangely, freakishly furious when their internet doesn’t work?  Those who quit smoking might know what I mean.  So what?  Maybe we get new brain circuits?  And?  The flip side is that our brains aren’t as infinite as we wish– for all the new circuits we form, others fall away– like those otherwise used for reading, for instance.

Mark Bauerlein calls today’s students The Dumbest Generation.  Young people are spending increasingly-less hours reading and more hours online, mostly engaging in the kind of chatting, gossiping, trash-talking, bullying, and mindless meandering that marks a lot of what people– not just young people– already do when they’re together– you know, just plain hanging out. In the spirit of this conversation, maybe you can just check out this video instead of actually reading his book:

Social media and constant connectedness, Bauerlein laments, gets young people stuck in an adolescent world where they cocoon themselves in a digital world with each other, and remain blissfully unaware of the adult world around them.  He disdains the fact that most students will find Facebook, YouTube and MySpace– although MySpace has been sooo meh since about 2007– more compelling than Julius Caesar.  But then why do students even need Caesar?  I try to get my students to like coming to school– won’t forcing them to read Shakespeare derail even my best efforts to make it interesting?  And people do read on Facebook– all that reading of status updates is a new kind of literacy for the 21st century.   So what if kids don’t read books anymore– one in four Americans don’t, and they end up fine, mostly.  Kanye West and Victoria Beckham don’t read, and they both ended up fine rich.

But it’s not the same, and we know it.  The best, most trenchant point that Carr and Bauerlein both make is that reading books makes us good at specific things– like sustained, focus concentration and interpreting language.  I’ve heard the argument that when books were brought to mass production in the 15th century, there was noise  about the fact that people were losing the ability to memorize huge, classic works, like the ancient bards who could recite The Odyssey in its full version.  These same people usually say that this is all a dialectic, a historical inevitability, that digital media will destroy the book because better technology always displaces what came before it.  But I don’t think there’s such a thing as historic inevitability– I think there are people who are too afraid of being perceived as old, uncool, and out of touch, like the old-roaders of Bob Dylan’s lyrics.

Here’s what we know:  When books became the norm, yes, we lost the presence of those who could memorize astounding chunks of lyrics.  But other things happened, too, not long after the turn of the 16th century.  Science flourished.  Life expectancy soared.  Diseases were eradicated.  The fundamental laws of the universe were discovered.  Superstition fell away in favor of reason.  More people had more money and were lifted out of a kind of poverty that made life literally unlivable, in some cases.  Democracy became the norm.  Quality of life skyrocketed exponentially.  I believe that these things happened because people got good at sustained, focused concentration.  Because they read.  It was causation, not just correlation.

I don’t think the internet is a bad thing– if I did, I think I’d rightfully belong somewhere in the middle of Bob Dylan’s song.  Most people that know me would say I spend a lot of time online.  I manage two websites, and give workshops on Web 2.0 tools for learning.  The internet has been my professional bread and butter.  The internet gives us its own amazing gifts– the ability to multitask and manage complicated networks of tasks; a chance to communicate with anyone in the world cheaply and quickly, the record of all the world’s information at your fingertips, no matter how poor you may be; powerful tools that let creative minds do things never thought possible.  But it doesn’t give you the sustained, focused concentration that has marked the past 500 years.  We take in the online world through quick click-throughs and ephemeral moments, and we lose patience when Youtube videos take more than 30 seconds to load.  I agree with Carr and Bauerlein that our ability to engage in sustained, focused concentration– however we learn how to do it, reading or otherwise– is absolutely essential to our ability to continue to flourish and make progress in the world’s problems.

For teachers, and anyone who serves as a role model for a young person, another part of Bob Dylan’s song comes to mind: “Keep your eyes wide, the chance won’t come again.”  We’re at a critical time in the history of information.  The last 500 years show us the kind of advances that a book-reading culture can make.  We don’t totally know yet what an online culture can do.  But I’m not willing to step aside for some delusion of historical inevitability and bet the next 500 years on hoping for the best.

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