Thursday, September 29, 2011

What I learned in 35 minutes at Pleasant Valley School

After reading an Edutopia article about How Classroom Environments Can Ignite Learning and Cultivate Caring, I thought about the many teachers who are doing a fabulous job of this here in our own backyard.  The best thing is that we don’t have to travel across the country or bring in experts at great expense! So I dropped in at one of our local elementary schools on my way to work.

In 35 minutes at Pleasant Valley School I learned:

Teachers are passionate and committed to their students.  I knew this already, of course, but when you are out of the classroom, you tend to forget as you are awash in “how to fix the education system” conversations.  Of course, in the meantime, extraordinary teachers are just getting on with the deep work of ensuring that each child is learning.

Even kindergarten students can organize their learning.  In Teri’s kindergarten class students sign in (if they can’t yet write their names, they trace it).  They already know what to do next, going to the centres board and putting a clothespin next to the centre they want to play in.  And they already know about the “four no more” rule and choose a different centre if it’s full.  This year Teri added a new feature to her classroom – curtains to hide the bins of toys and books.  They are less distracted, she says.  What an easy solution for creating a calm “ready to learn” environment.

Across the hall in the other kindergarten room, Wendy shows off the carpet - it is multicoloured circles.  When students come in, they settle themselves on the circle with their name card. When I came in, Wendy and her EA were looking at the name tags and discussing  where each child would sit for this morning's lesson.  In a few simple routines on the carpet, student learn number, shape, letters, how to notice what’s happening and how to get along with whoever is sitting beside them.  What’s more, students who have difficulty participating in groups feel safe and able to join in when the space boundaries are clear.

Collaboration happens in a many ways.  We read about PLCs and argue about how best to implement them system-wide.  In the meantime, teachers just work together.  Wendy and Teri co-teach yoga and on “Fabulous Friday” half of each class swaps to begin to get to know more of the children who will be part of their learning community for years to come.  What a simple idea to ensure that students feel safe, connected and part of the broader school community.

Students can organize the classroom routines. Upstairs in Jan’s grade 7 classroom, students were getting their homework done before class started.  There is no guess work about homework;  students can see what’s expected in a glance and help each other.  Tell her, one of the students piped up, about the "while you were away" folder.  If we are absent, she told me, we know just where to look for what we missed.  On another wall, the job board lets everyone know who’s in charge of what and students set up for gym, fine arts, recycling and other jobs that make the class run smoothly so deep learning is the focus.

Student caring and courtesy is alive and well.  If you read the news too often or attend too many meetings, you’ll often hear that “kids nowadays” are rude and self-centred.  Jan was telling me about the food drives, buddy work and other acts of generosity the grade 7s are committed to and organize on their own with only a little coaching.   As she talked, with her “teacher eye” (teachers always scan), she noted a boy gently rocking and standing at a short, but respectful distance from us.  You look like you have a question, she said.  Thank you for your patience and polite signalling.  Relieved to have her attention before the bell, he launched into a very-important-to-him series of questions.  I left them to slip across the hall to see Lesley.

Self-regulated Learning is happening.  Our new superintendent wrote in his latest blog post about “Self Regulated Learning & the New Human Development Theory.”  There are always, of course, new theories and new initiatives and new programs.  And, of course, there are people (like me) who run workshops and share resources and send out articles.  Meanwhile, in classrooms, teachers get on with the work and find ways to ensure that the children in their care are learning.  I got to Lesley’s grade one room just in time to watch the children filter in.  It was only the third week of school and they clearly knew exactly what to do.   They quickly organized their coats and supplies and settled into their seats.  One boy got up quietly and went to the back of the room and returned with a little container of play dough and began to shape it.  Several other children, I noticed, also got out the play dough.  They talked quietly while their teacher greeted and had soft conversations with the arriving students.  All conversations stopped as the announcements came on.  A fire drill was announced and after the announcements, Lesley asked them questions about what they remembered and did a quick role play (students enthusiastically called out the things the teachers and students would have to say and do) to help them review the process.  The whole time her voice was soft and calm and instructions were clear and gentle.   How long do we have left? a boy asked.  Lesley gestured to what she called her new favourite tool – the timer at the front.  He nodded, satisfied, and bent to his play dough again.  These timers (like the play dough) are often used to support students with behaviour difficulties, but of course, are effective for everyone, giving all students a clear sense of “how long” or “how short”.   I reluctantly left the classroom to attend a meeting, but really, I felt calm, alert and ready to learn!  And I’m sure the grade ones were, too.

It’s amazing how much you can learn by just spending 35 minutes in a school.  What struck me most was that in each case, when asked about their “best thing” for starting the year, what the teachers shared with me were the simple routines and tools that set up each student to be ready to learn (removing distractions, clear routines and organized space, strategies to help them be calm, alert and to feel safe) and best of all - to be in charge of that learning themselves.  Lucky students.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Unplugging to Plug in Powerfully

I’ve been waking up too early:  my “back at school again” lists of things to do keep playing in my head.  Usually I succumb and get up to start on my list, beginning by answering emails (sent to me by teachers very late at night, no doubt after they've done their marking and lesson planning for the day – why do I keep hearing that teachers only work from 8:30 to 3:00?).  On this particular morning as I answered emails, I kept my twitter feed open and followed a couple of good links, read several articles, tweeted two, revised my to-do list for the day (adding the items that woke me too early), noted two birthdays from my Facebook “friends” and sent messages, and researched which screencasting tool would work best in an elementary classroom before I was distracted by the sunrise sky filling my window.   

I had been reading lately about the positive effects of getting “off the grid,” that reflective downtime is necessary to learn, remember and come up with good ideas, that moral and emotional reasoning, in particular, demand adequate time and reflection, that we are “hooked on busyness” (and my morning routine and sleepless nights suggests I am), that our obsessive clicking, the endless stream of information, the constant connection with anyone and everything, our relentless pursuit of “friends” and “followers” is reducing our capacity to think deeply, relate meaningfully, or to know ourselves.  Indeed, as one researcher contends (in an article that tries to find the benefits of our attention deficits), our digital distractions are “a cognitive plague that has the potential to wipe out an entire generation of focused and productive thought.”   The final argument that made me back away from my screen (in an article that is part of the firehose of information that streams across my desktop daily):  people learned significantly better after a walk in nature.  (An interesting recent study showed that students with ADHD have less severe symptoms if they have regular access to open green space.)  So despite my list, I resolved to walk my way into deep thought and good ideas with the sunrise.  (Did you follow the links?  There are hours of distractions embedded into this short post!)

As I walked (the morning air was soft, warm), my mind began to flip through its own archive of clicks:  I remembered the Slate writer who set up fake birthdays, three in a row, to show the shallowness of Facebook birthday greetings.  He says we are using social media, first as a self-promotion (look how many friends I have and how many of them wished me a happy birthday – or how many articles I’ve read and created as links in my blog or tweeted for my “followers”), but also to fool ourselves that we’ve made connections.  Real connection, he argues, takes more effort than a 30 second post.  It’s more, even, than a retweet or “twitter love” or a comment on a blog post (although it is nice to have comments on my blog posts).  Breathing in the fresh sea-scented air, I began to regret my cheery FB wishes earlier (and my childish glee in comments and “followers”). 

Of course we get caught up.  When there are more than 750 million active users on Facebook spending cumulatively over 700 billion minutes per month at the site), when millions of twitter users send 1 billion tweets per week, when there have been 500 new blog posts since you started reading this one - we begin to accept the norms these new media create.   Now our grandmothers, banks, department stores, NGOs, writers, reporters and schools all blog, tweet, and post to Facebook.  It must all be good, right? 

And therefore, it goes without saying that the tools to access these social media so you can access your friends any time of day, check your RSS feeds, “like” pictures on Facebook, and post interesting tidbits to Twitter are essential.  And, of course, if they are essential, and their uses are good, we need them in schools; children, too, should use Facebook, twitter, blogs, instant messaging, polling, video and more to connect to information instantly, to find what they need immediately, to follow their passions, to personalize their quests. 

At the top of the hill behind my home overlooking the glittering ocean and the red sky, I began to question my morning routine, the screen-facing hours, to wonder if technology matters more to education than quiet moments and fresh air.  My mind clicked to the recent NYT article that revealed years of technology implementation has not improved test scores forces us to at least ask questions. The first question, I hope, is – what are these tests testing and is it relevant?  But it isn’t enough to simply dismiss the findings as another black eye on testing.  We can’t keep saying that because Facebook is used by millions, it is good; because technology is pervasive, we must therefore buy technology for schools.  Industrialization must have taught us a lesson or two. 

We want to be sure to ask – what do we, as educators, want to do with technology.   Right now our conversations seemed to be mired in more and better.  More computers.  Bigger computers.  Smaller computers.  More friends.  More followers.  More programs.  New programs.  Apps, apps, apps. More links.  More sites.  But just as more money doesn’t bring more happiness, more technology won’t bring better education.  Quoted in the NYT article, education researcher Brian Goodwin says of the pinnacle of “more” – a device in every students hands: “Rather than being a cure-all or silver bullet, one-to-one laptop programs may simply amplify what’s already occurring — for better or worse.”  If technology isn’t amplifying students’ ability to do the things we traditionally test for (reading, writing, math, general knowledge), what is it amplifying?  And is it good? 

I love technology.  I love the possibility, the creativity, the choice, the now-ness.  I love being able to read or learn whatever I want whenever I want; I love being connected, that I can see my family, my friends, colleagues when they are far away, that I can participate in a conference as I did recently – live! – half-way across the world in London. The possibilities for education are dizzying.  And yet, you can have an extraordinary education without technology and a shallow one with it.  While it is no doubt true that technology can only amplify what already exists, the amplifying power of our current technologies is so vast, its reach so pervasive, the change it brings, as Neil Postman warned, not just additive, but ecological, that we must be much much clearer about what is important in education. The danger of amplifying indifference, ignorance, banality, shallowness, inequities, injustice is greater now than ever before. 

Technology is a given.  What is still up for grabs is how we’ll use it.  I think it will take a lot unplugged thinking so we can plug in for powerful learning.