Learning About Giving

Students love field trips, and I do too. Visits have to be meaningful though, not just a fun day off from school. When planning trips, one needs to ask what  the children learning from the experience. There are many reasons to leave the classroom. A few include, extending the curriculum, participating in authentic learning, and being exposed to new ideas and resources.

I’ve always appreciated the size and scope of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, but until this year, didn’t know that they had a visitor’s center adjacent to their headquarters here in Seattle. If you are ever in Seattle, I highly recommend a visit. It’s only about a 7 minute walk from the Space Needle, and it’s free. Our second grade classes visited last week.

The center is divided into 5 main areas:

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Voices

Hear voices from around the world and see portraits of our foundation family—employees, grantees, partners, beneficiaries, and our co-chairs.

Family & Foundation

Find out why and how the Gates family started this foundation, see examples of how we work around the world, and tell others what you’d do if you had your own foundation.

Partnerships

Discover how our partners are making progress on tough problems globally and locally, and weigh in on newsworthy issues.

Theater

Watch and listen to a rotating program of short videos offering a deeper perspective on our work.

Innovation & Inspiration

Solve real-world problems using your own best skills, and learn more about how people just like you are making a difference every day.

My favorite (and I think the children’s) was the innovation and inspiration area. The entire visitor’s center is designed to be interactive, but we could have spent hours in this particular room. Children are asked to think outside the box to design solutions to some of our problems. They also had several examples of products in the field on display such as shelter boxes and filtered drinking straws. They even had prototypes of items like Soccket, a soccer ball that captures energy during play. Enough to light an LED for a few hours or charge small batteries. The foundation pointed out that they weren’t the inventors of these innovations, but supported efforts like these to further their mission.

One of the neat features of this interactive room was that the children’s ideas or creations were displayed and shared instantly on large walls alongside ideas from previous visitors.

One of the other rooms emphasized partnerships. That while one person may have a brilliant idea and can have an incredible impact, it takes teamwork to achieve many of our goals. Our tour ended with our docent asking the children what they would do if they had a foundation. It was great to hear students come up with ideas that were outside the scope of the Gates Foundation, like animal welfare.

Before our visit, our class had a great discussion about needs and wants. The class agreed that basic needs included water, food, and shelter.

They had a harder time deciding at what time in one’s life one could care for themselves. They decided it could be both a need and want depending on the context. The other two topics that students grappled with were education and health. Several students had solid reasons why they were needs, wants, or somewhere in between.

We involve our students in service in many ways such as helping one another in our own classrooms, partnering with students outside our classroom, planting trees in a city park, and packing food at a local feeding center. Helping children see beyond themselves is not always easy, especially in 2nd grade, and some of these ideas come from the adults around them. It’s extremely powerful, however, when service learning ideas come from the students themselves. Hopefully, this visit inspired a few and planted some seeds that will help serve our immediate and global communities.

What Makes a School Great?

Almost a month has past since the NAIS annual conference, and many of the ideas shared are still present in the back of my mind. The theme of the conference was “Think Big, Think Great,” and outgoing president Pat Bassett asked us to come up with our list of 25 factors that make schools great. His list is quite impressive, and it was hard to come up with 25 of my own. Instead, as I read each one, I began to see some commonalities among them all.

Relationships: Whether the focus is on students, teachers, families, administrators or the greater community, the things that make a great school on Mr. Bassett’s list all depend on forging strong relationships.

Communication: To achieve all those factors, a school needs to have excellent communication among all constituents.

Values: Whatever the values are for a particular school,  a school needs to be purposeful in its endeavors and have that work shaped by its values.

It’s hard to come up with a list of 25, but if you click on the link above and look at Mr. Bassett’s, I think you’ll see these three things woven throughout. Maybe you’ll see more.

All It Takes Is One Person

There were so many great ideas shared at the NAIS conference. Some were new, some validating, and some that challenged my own philosophy about education. While I need time to process and reflect, I also want to dive right in and push myself to try new things.

The theme of the conference was “Think Big, Think Great” and the main keynote was Jim Collins, known prominently for his work “Good to Great.” He left the audience with 12 questions to ponder which I hope to do in the coming months. Rather than summarize his entire talk, which you can find here, I want to highlight something that stuck with me. He said that a great enterprise, be it a business or school had to pass three tests:

  1. Superior performance relative to your mission.
  2. Makes a distinctive impact on the world it touches. (If your school went away, would it leave an unfillable hole? Who would miss you truly and why?)
  3. Achieves lasting endurance, which means it’s great beyond any one leader. (Your school is not great if it cannot be great without you.)

Throughout the conference, I was reminded about these three things several people I heard speak. Here are two examples:

One of the general session speakers was Tererai Trent who grew up in what is now Zimbabwe. Married at 11 and mother of three by 18, her biggest dream was to get an education. She earned a doctorate in interdisciplinary evaluation. With the strong belief that education is the way out of poverty and a way to stop the mistreatment of women, she wanted to start a school back in the village where she grew up. As of today, she has helped build 8 schools.

Another session I attended was led by Lee Hirsch who made the documentary “Bully.” You can see the positive impact the film has been making at CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360 page here.

Both these speakers set examples that pass the three tests mentioned by Jim Collins. Whether their intention was to impact one life or hundreds of thousands, their mission remained focused. It was clear to me that they let their projects become bigger than themselves, big enough to endure without them.

Both speakers did not do it alone. Tererai Trent, for example, received help from Oprah. Their dreams of change, however, were their own, and their belief that this change was achievable never seemed to wane.

The kids we teach are all dreamers. For lack of a better analogy, those dreams are like seeds. Maybe we play a role in planting some of those seeds. Maybe we don’t. Whether those dreams impact one person or many, part of our jobs as educators is to nourish those seeds and help them grow.

Promoting Collegial Conversations

The last two days have been great days for me in terms of having collegial conversations. They were two very different events, but both professionally stimulating.

Observing Other Teachers Teach

The final keynote speaker at the PNAIS fall conference (almost a month ago) was Rob Evans. He spoke of the many challenges teachers face in having collegial conversations with each other.

Some challenges are obvious, like time. But others exist because of the nature and culture of teaching. Teachers spend more time talking to students than they do talking to other teachers. And as Roland Barth observed, when teachers do get together for things like faculty meetings, what they talk about has very little to do with learning or instruction. In Evans’ article, Getting to No, Evans highlights the difficulty of giving teachers feedback. With the rise in trying to quantify teacher quality and performance, and linking it to job retention, compensation, and other factors, it’s natural for teachers to become defensive when receiving feedback rather than seeing it as an opportunity for growth. It’s also natural for some teachers to play it safe and not try anything innovative or take risks in order to better their craft.

I’m really excited to be on a committee at my school trying to address these challenges. Yesterday, I had 4 teachers in my room observing a lesson, and I in return was able to observe lessons of two of my colleagues. As this is the first time, we’re not at the stage of exchanging feedback yet, though we all agreed that we would feel totally comfortable soliciting that feedback from our peers. We also felt that as long as we weren’t being evaluated, we could trust each other to honestly ask or answer any questions we had about our teaching. This process wasn’t just a learning opportunity for the teacher being observed, but as an observer, one can learn so much from watching their colleagues teach. This doesn’t replace teacher evaluations, but contributes to a culture of learning, growth, and collaboration. It also adds to the professionalization of teaching.

EdCamps

I just returned from EdCamp Seattle today, and it was quite invigorating as an educator. EdCamps are ‘unconferences’ that came about in 2010 as a way for teachers to come together, exchange ideas, and have those collegial conversations. Like the exchanges in Paris Cafés in the 1920s, but with educators. Ok, it’s nowhere near as romantic as poets, artists, and philosophy.

This is the second one that I’ve had the privilege of helping organize. Unlike traditional conferences, participants put up the topics, issues, and ideas that they’d like to discuss. Some are more instructional and informational, others are more collaborative and hands on. While participants mingled over coffee as they arrived, a blank grid was filled to offer over a dozen workshops and conversations. Topics included, design thinking, ipads in the classroom, teacher evaluations, strengthening literature and math, common core transition, and many others.

Grid of workshops offered at EdCamp Seattle

There were over 70 participants today. Unlike other conferences, there is no registration fee. EdCamps are free and voluntary. It’s always invigorating to see so many educators continually pursuing growth in their profession. In 2010, a few teachers had an idea and, in that year, 8 edcamps in various US cities. This year, there have already been over 100 edcamps including ones in Hong Kong, Dubai, Belgium, and Christchurch, NZ!

How Do You Measure Success?

The London Olympic games are coming to a close, and I’ve noticed a few themes/issues throughout the games that seem to spill into the realm of education: 1) How do we measure success? 2) In 20 years, other sites may push twitter or Facebook aside, but I’m pretty confident social media is here to stay. How do we promote digital citizenry and prepare kids to use these tools productively and? 3) Privilege and equity – does every country have a fair shot at a sailing or equestrian medal? Does every child have access to a good education? 4) Standards: what are the standards for commentary on the Olympics? I know very little about gymnastics, but I don’t need someone to point out that a fall off an apparatus is not a good thing. Did the opening ceremony need a play-by-play? Can you imagine giving students the answers rather than providing opportunities to grapple with, discover, and construct their own knowledge? There are many more themes that have emerged from these games, but the first one I mentioned resonates with me the most. How do we measure our own success and the success of our students?

After Michael Phelp’s fourth place finish at his first event, the USA Today had a story titled: “Sluggish Michael Phelps is not swimmer we expected in London.” Since his first event, Phelps has become the most decorated Olympian in history, but I guess if you look just at the one fourth place finish, sluggish it must have been.

Why is it that some athletes cry for joy after winning a silver and other athletes are visibly disappointment, often with tears in their eyes for winning a silver medal.

The most emailed article in the New York Times over the past three days has been one titled: Raising Successful Children. It’s a parenting article about the importance of not over-parenting and allowing children to make mistakes and build resiliency on their way to success and confidence.

I’m not a parent, but I completely agree with the statement, “HANGING back and allowing children to make mistakes is one of the greatest challenges of parenting.” It’s a challenge of teaching as well. Not all failures are equal. They need to be ones that lead to growth. So what kind of mistakes should parents and teachers let kids make?

“In this gray area of just beyond the comfortable is where resilience is born.”

Perhaps being called ‘sluggish’ and then coming back to win 4 gold and 2 silver medals can qualify as a good measure of success.

I just came back from a great three day summer planning inservice with my colleagues where we spent a lot of time looking at and practicing how we assess and give feedback to our students and to each other. I wish us all a successful school year that can be measured by the risks we take ourselves in that gray area just beyond the comfortable and by the resilience we develop in our students. 

 

Are Disruptive Questions Necessary for Innovation?

“I don’t really see any innovative teaching around here.” That was something a parent said four years ago during a meeting regarding our school’s mission. Given that our school’s mission statement begins with, “Through innovative teaching…,” the comment made by that parent stuck with me, and innovation in education has been one of the areas that has become an interest of mine. I keep reading and hearing about the necessity of schools to change. Not just in terms big reform movements that we’re seeing across the nation, but in terms of fundamentally changing the way we teach to adapt to the way children learn today. Yet, the culture of schools is so deep – from the expectations of parents to the way we teach; from the way policies are set to the way schools are run – there is so much resistance to change. So often books are read and conferences are attended by teachers and school leaders, they come back excited and say, “…yeah I got some great nuggets out of that. I can’t wait to share them.” The new ideas are usually shared briefly if at all, and then everyone returns to the way things used to be done.

I just finished reading  The Innovator’s DNA: Mastering the Five Skills of Disruptive Innovators by Dyer, Gregersen and Clayton M. Christensen (author of Disrupting Class). 

The book’s introduction claims that “a recent IBM poll of fifteen hundred CEOs identified creativity as the number-one ‘leadership competency’ of the future.”

The book emphasizes that to innovate, it requires courage. First, courage to challenge the status quo, and second, courage to take risks. It also states that innovators “have a passion for inquiry.” They are always asking questions. Asking why once isn’t enough. Continuing to probe until a novel (usually efficient and well-designed) solution emerges is what innovators do. Asking insightful ‘what if’ questions is just as important.

This book’s main claim is that innovation is not genetic. It can be developed. If so, how do we develop these in our students (challenging every child to be courageous and curious are part of my school’s mission). If most of the stakeholders in a child’s education aren’t developing these innovation skills themselves, then what chance do our students have? Without going into too much detail, the 5 skills according to this book are:

  1. Associating
  2. Questioning
  3. Observing
  4. Networking
  5. Experimenting

I’ve heard from educational leaders and teachers from schools of all shapes and sizes that school culture is deep, and those who have challenge the status quo continue face an uphill climb. Most prefer to do what they’ve always done. I’m glad I work with colleagues that continue to ask good questions and have the courage to ask why. In the end it’s best for our students.

My favorite quote comes from the chapter on experimenting.

” I haven’t failed…I’ve just found 10,000 ways that do not work.”

— Thomas Edison

I asked earlier in this post about how to develop these skills in students. In a couple of week’s, Tony Wagner has a new book that comes out: Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World. I can’t wait.


Who Chooses What We Teach?

Another good ‘Room for Debate’ page in the NYTimes appeared again this week. This time the question is: Should Parents Control What Kids Learn at School?

My initial response would be that parents should know their child, how they learn best, what their strengths and challenges are, and work with the teachers in the development of the curriculum. Whatever it is that kids learn in school, there are basic fundamentals that children should learn like reading, writing, and arithmetic. Teachers and parents can certainly agree on those. What it is they read, however, may be up for debate. Social/emotional learning is very important too. I wonder, for example, if the social/emotional learning of the Italian captain of the cruise ship Costa Concordia had more to with the tragedy than the engineering and ship operational training he received.

I think the most important part in this debate is that all stakeholders start first by agreeing on what fundamentals ought to be taught in schools. For early primary, the academics are obvious, but the delivery and pedagogical methods may not be. Minor philosophies on homework, etc. will always exist, but the overall goals are similar. For example, regardless when people think the correct age may be, they can all agree that kids should be able to read.

Customizing the curriculum has always been how I’ve worked (public, parochial, or private). Every year the range of abilities changes with a new set of students, so why wouldn’t you adapt your curriculum to those different needs. With the new law in New Hampshire (which I haven’t read), it seems like what bothers most is that parents can make any demands on the content. I’ve never had any issues with any parents. Even with ideological or religious differences. I can think of one family years ago, who for their own religious reasons, did not want to participate in Halloween activities at school. While the school respected that family’s ideas and suggested alternatives and modifications, Halloween would still be celebrated at school.

I think it becomes a problem when parents have a different mindset than you about what is age-appropriate content, or if the content seems too ideologically radical for some. In elementary school, it’s possible to see how a simple biography project might go awry if a parent disagreed with the teacher on whether a child’s choice were appropriate. Is a biography about Anne Frank is suitable for an eight-year old? While the biography may be, some of the events surrounding it may be considered too much for a second grader. This actually happened with a student of mine last year. She chose Anne Frank after perusing the biography section in the school library. I was just as tentative as her mother in her choice, but we both agreed that she was a child who was ready to read about those horrific events. Both me and her parents just wanted what was best for her. It would have been different if it were a different child which is why knowing your students (and their families) is so important.  If we are supposed to welcome diversity and embrace its benefits, than we cannot just go with the status quo, and we have to listen to everyone.

Will some abuse a law like New Hampshire’s? I’m sure some will try. Every once in a while, there will be a battle between the over-entitled parent and the extremely inflexible and obdurate teacher, and that is unfortunate. Like so many other things, there is often so much we have in common. A lot that we can come together and work with. If we start where our ideas and values overlap and recognize our differences as strengths to enhance those ideas and values, there is so much we can achieve.

Can an atheist enjoy Christmas carols and Islamic art?

Can someone who’s gay be a Republican?

Can someone working at Microsoft like the iPhone?

Can an epicure eat cereal for dinner one night and love it?

Of course they can, but too often lines are drawn in the sand instead of bridges being built.    Rather than objecting to the curriculum, as one of the writers in the opinion page mentions, parents should use those areas as teachable moments. Teachers should too. I remember a child years ago asking me about the existence of Santa Clause. He just couldn’t see the plausibility of it all. I certainly wasn’t going to be the one to break the news to an 8-year old. What I told him was to think critically about it (I’m sure I used different words) and make that decision for himself. I didn’t defer it to his parents nor did I subject him to my thoughts. That was an example where he could make up his own mind. He could grapple with his own dilemma and reach his own conclusions.

Currently, I’m teaching a unit on penguins. What would be objectionable is if a parent insisted that I teach about emus and ostriches instead. There’s no reason why I couldn’t, but there’s no reason why I should either. A follow up question to this debate on whether parents should control what kids learn at school is if teachers can control what their students do at home?