Change is an opportunity to do something amazing, so let’s build a new school.

For the first week of season 2 of Innovator’s Mindset, I get to pour the metaphorical Legos out onto the floor, and build a new school.

Recently, I’ve written here about some of the things I’d like to see in forward thinking classrooms (A New High School Course), about some new models for writing (Trashing the High School English Classroom) and about how I’m working with students using Twitter to build connections to ideas they’re researching (Students, the Twitter-verse and Me).

When the IMMOOC prompts came out, I felt a little stalled, and to work through the block, just made some lists of practices I was trying to embrace as an educator and my reactions to the early pages of Innovator’s Mindset. I wasn’t feeling it, so decided to spend sometime engaging in design thinking and build a new school.

I’ve heard teacher re-frame the focus of education: “I don’t teach X subject, I teach children.” It’s, of course, an important distinction to make. The learners in classrooms need to come first, and before learning things like the quadratic equation, logos-ethos-pathos, the theme of Hamlet, or the parts of a cell.

However, I wonder, if we think of schools just in terms of the children, and that children are the only clients that we serve, we maybe do a disservice to the entire community. After all, teachers are there, and some will spend thirty or more years working in a building, the same can be said of the administrators, counselors, and other members that make up the service that’s done. Schools also function, arguably, to create functioning members of the community. Doesn’t a school serve, beyond its children and faculty, the larger community?

I’ve stopped saying, “I don’t English, I teach children,” to “I’m trying to engage in a practice that honors the humanity of all of those involved.”

By trying to make things better, and to engage in design thinking, I hope to honor the humanity of my students and my self. When I read Launch, last summer, my central take away is that when we are going to create, we have to start by asking questions that force us to consider those we are trying to create for. If we’re going to build better schools–both physically and in terms of the curriculum, we have to empathize with all involved.

Here are some things that I would do in the new school:

First I’d start with some questions. Here are some questions that need to be asked?

  • What kinds of environments do people feel most productive in?
  • What does psychological research reveal about the connections physical space, productivity, and learning?
  • What kinds of spaces exist on the cutting edge in industries such as tech, medical, automotive, business? What do they look like and why?
  • How can schools provide services important to people that move beyond the academic? For example, can we put medical clinics, dentists, legal aid, fruit and vegetable markets, DMVs, county clerks offices in schools for members to have access to?
  • What are the core experiences of our humanity? Community? Language? Cooking? Collaboration? Innovation? Creativity? Making? How can schools promote such experiences?
  • How do we create a school that will still be relevant in 5, 10, 20, 100 years?

Physical:

  • A range of classroom layouts that accommodate for a range of instructional styles: direct, project-based, small-group, rotational.
  • Outside classrooms designed and constructed so that teaching and learning could happen year round. Heated spaced, covered spaces.
  • A large, open communal space designed to be welcoming for all members of the school during the day, and for all community outside of school hours.
  • A movie theater.
  • Individual office space for each teacher. Space large enough for teacher and small group of students.
  • Labs designated for use not tied to classes: maker spaces, computer, media. Spaces where members are allowed to work, play, create.

Curricular:

  • A strong, developed, transparent, and rigorous system of assessment for all students. Assessments are generated or negotiated between teachers, students, parents, community members (hospital, business leaders, for example), allow for multiple approaches to complete, and involve all stakeholders in the evaluation of the assessments.
  • Emphasis on project-based learning, inquiry, research, interdisciplinary study.
  • Expectation that administrators work in classes; expectation that teachers perform administrative tasks.

What would I leave behind?

  • Assumption.
  • “This is how we’ve always done it.”
  • Budgetary restriction.
  • Peddling to the mediocre, average, and fearful.

I would love to hear about what your schools have done to be different and any questions you’d add to my list. I’m sure that I’ll be revising this blog. As soon as I post, I know that I’ll have something new to add to one of the lists above.

Now, off to read some great blogs and be inspired.

 

 

 

A New High School Course

A recent post in my Facebook feed suggested that high schools should focus on teaching basic skills such as figuring out a mortgage payment, how to fill out a check, and writing in cursive.

I felt a tug of disdain. This kind of discussion about what should be happening in schools bothers me because the public often believe two incorrect things about public schools. First, they know what happens in schools, what is taught there, and what the curriculum is. Second, schools are default place where knowledge and skills are taught that can’t be taught in other places.

My response was to say that schools are not the dumping ground or location to fix what people perceive as the ills of society–kids not being able to write in cursive.  I was pressed to then explain where, if not schools, these things should be learned. While I don’t feel pressed to provide a solution, when I think about it, maybe a bank could teach its clients how to calculate a mortgage or write a check. And, really, when was the last time in a professional setting where you were asked to hand-write a document in cursive.  

However, my second, and hopefully more thoughtful reaction, is to ask people to recognize that our world–and particularly how knowledge is learned, constructed, found, owned, transferred–has fundamentally changed. When everyone carries a computer in his or her pocket and YouTube and Wikipedia are the largest libraries we have ever seen, knowledge has become decentralized. Self-teaching and self-instruction is new way to learn (Here’s a link to a search in YouTube on how to calculate a mortgage payment; here’s a link to videos on writing in cursive).

Accept that creativity, entrepreneurship, design-thinking, flexibility and innovation are the new skills that people entering the workforce need. If we accept the predictions that those entering the workforce may change jobs three or four times in their work-span and that the jobs they may participate in have not been created yet, then our schools, classrooms and teachers need to change from the models of education created coming out of the industrial revolution, and an 1950s, Eisenhower-ian, white, male, middle-class establishment.

However, schools and teachers are important. They are places where  students prepare for the challenges of life. Teachers are important, because they understand how to structure learning, and give people the skills to be auto-didactic. 

Here are 10 exercises and learning experiences that, I think, that 12th graders should have. The list is in no particular order. Perhaps this would be the foundation for a 1 semester class:

  1. Conduct an interview with an adult, someone they don’t know.
  2. Create and conduct a survey using online tools.
  3. Write the following: a resume, a cover letter for college application or job, a “This I Believe” essay, a letter to a state or national representative, an application for a federally funded grant or the paperwork for a small business loan and the tax forms to setup a personal business.
  4. Maintain a social media account or blog.
  5. Work, volunteer, job-shadow or complete a project for 20% of the student’s outside of class time.
  6. Learn a new skill to proficiency. Perhaps this skill should be one of student choice, and perhaps it should be a skill that they are told they need to learn. Maybe both.
  7. Teach someone a skill so that the learner is then proficient in it. As above, the learner here should, maybe, be disinterested.
  8. Be given one of the following situations and develop a protocol for solution/action: your house has burned down or a natural disaster has occurred and you must relocate, you or a family member are given a life-threatening medical diagnosis, you’ve been fired from your job.
  9. Build a family tree.
  10. Learn to code.

I work to provide many of these experiences for my students. I’m sure this list will change. I would love to hear your ideas.  

Storm Fronts and Warnings

My classroom felt like upstate, New York November weather. For those familiar with this region of the country and its violent shifts in weather–one day in the 60s and the next in the 30s, or the skies the color of prison walls, the trees drained of their Splendid October color, the grass turning to a limipid yellow, the shift to shadowy mornings and coal black afternoons, quick setting nights–can understand the weight our climate places on the existential scale.

A public school classroom, my classroom, has felt much the same. Kids sleepy, eye-rolling, and derisive. You could see a storm front building in, a clear line of air between my place in the room and theirs, a scar of frayed clouds hanging between us. All of us just begging for a fire alarm to provide some reprieve from looking at one another. For me questions act as a great barometer of environment. Questions say that the material is approprite to challenge, gripping enough that kids get forced to care, and engaging that they want to understand. This week there hasn’t been a question about content, material, approach or inquiry…questions have been about grades and assignments due at the end of the quarter. Questions have been about making bargains and deals. Questions have been about when something is due. The storm front is stalled–dank, clammy, queesy.

It would be easy to say, that it’s the change in time. We gained an hour but the body clock is adjusting. I blame it, most of the time, on school culture in both the microculture of my school and the macroculture of the present state of public schools–their emphasis on testing. The common complaint, “There’s no joy in learning,” or “There’s no fire in teaching.”

In one class, we looked at mentor texts for information based writing. Texts about college preparation. We looked at a student model and graded it on a rubric. In another class, we prepped for a paper with class discussion that devolved into, “I don’t think this book is any good so why did you give it to us to read.”

I’ll perseverate about this week. I’ll nightmare about it. I plan new ways to do this differently next year. I’ll create new materials for next week to sharpen the approach. I’ll put a new costume on next week, adopt a new persona to catch and hook them.

And to that point, there are probably those in the audience who say, “Find a way to connect,” or “Maybe you need to scaffold it better,” or “Give them the purpose, lay out the objectives,” or even worse…play a game, give them choice, use some technology. For those who know enough about my instructional practice will know how grounded it is in all these things. I’m sensitive enough as a teacher to know when the lesson is either no good or not work or both. The mark of an experienced teacher is not necessarily years, although that helps, but instead, figuring out how to cover up the mistakes.

So, it was the kind of week where despite best efforts, experience, knowledge, reasearch, preparation, practice, adjustment for the rudimentary talents and abilities of adolescents, when all should have worked well, it didn’t.

What do you do when the weather is lousy? Here in upstate, people will wait five minutes for the weather to change. However, the weather metaphor is all wrong. It means that teaching is fickel andpredictable. Is it? Maybe it should work the other way–the weather is like teaching: cyclical, controlled, powerful.

Maybe it is both, neither, all, and maybe it’s time to leave the upstate and find new patterns.