simplicity and significance: a reflection from the AASSA conference

It’s been a good semester of professional learning and reflection.

First, the Learning and the Brain conference in San Francisco which I wrote about here. Then the week before last I attended the 2019 AASSA Conference in Santiago, Chile. This year’s theme was all about transforming partnership, but really, the whole thing kinda of blew up what I thought of education and my role in education.

Ya know, no biggie.

I learned lots of stuff about visible thinking and co-teaching and international mindedness and how exciting it is to find a PF Changs and Chilis in a foreign land.

I really learned a lot from Diane Sweeney. She was both a keynote and a workshop leader. Her sessions inspired me to incorporate more choice and DEEP learning in my classrooms. On a philosophic level that I haven’t quite figured out yet, I came away from her session with the deep (and painful) conviction that I overscaffold for my students and rob them of important opportunities to wrestle with the discomfort and messiness of not knowing. She addressed the idea of The Learning Pit…but, ouch, I am so. good. at. building. bridges. over that pit. Still chewing on that…

On a practical level, her sessions also helped to crystallize something I always struggle with… objectives and success criteria in the English classroom. I always feel like reducing the ART of language–which is what I teach, right?–into success criteria is… well…just that: reduction. I mean, come on, that’s easy for math and science, but humanities??? But her session helped me to approach it from a different way: where are concrete gaps my students struggle with, and how can I use those gaps as an entry point into this new approach? One of those gaps I see over and over is vague and generalized “analysis” of the effects of features in text. English teachers knowwwhat-I’mmm-saying: “It gets the reader’s attention..” or “It paints an image in the reader’s mind.” Ugh.

But honestly, my teaching world was rocked with two sessions. I still can’t stop thinking about them.

The first was a preconference I attended with Kevin Bartlett: From Cultures of Compliance to Cultures of Cocreation. I knew I was in the right session when he started with “culture work is identity work” and a deep focus on authenticity and storytelling. If you’ve read my blog, you know I’m all about culture: in my classroom and among adults where I work. It is the. everything.

Two echoes from his session still resonate with me: simplicity and significance. Reduce what we’re doing to focus only on what matters most.

At one point, he asked us in table groups to discuss: “what would you fight to teach?”

Not once did English, or Science, or Math, or History come up.

Instead we talked about wellness, sustainability, communication, patterns.

Yes please. Although, admittedly, this feels much larger than me in terms of systemic application, I can move to concept-based teaching within my class.

This session paired really well with the highlight of the conference for me: Mike Johnston’s sessions about design systems for sustainable education. What’s system thinking? That was my question exactly when walking into the session. It’s all the rage these days, isn’t it? Design thinking. Systems thinking.

But man, I now get it.

And honestly, what made it click for me was this opening question:

What do you want the world to be like in 50 years?

Of course, everyone joked, nervously, by saying: existing. But we also said peaceful, loving, and all those other pipe dream responses. And at once, almost like all of our collective cynicism embodiment spoke, someone commented that we’ve always wanted that, but it’s not happened yet.

His response: we don’t design schools for that.

Mike (Johnston) drop. Ha (insert snort-smirk here).

I’m guilty. When I prepare my lessons, I am mostly thinking about two things: IB and college. And yes, while that is future-thinking, it is so. very. narrow. And ultimately, in 50 years, I don’t care if my students remember what a simile is or if they finished Othello. I care that they know how to manage their time. That they know how to read texts the world as a reflection or criticism of themselves…and respond appropriately. That they see patterns and capitalize on them accordingly. I care that they are good people. That they see beyond themselves to a larger community. That they make a difference in the world. That they love wholly and forgive fiercely and laugh beautifully and breath fully.

I care that they have meaningful strategies to protect their hearts and the hearts of those they love from a sucky world.

How do I teach like that.

Which takes me back to systems thinking. Teaching like that is more than just fixing a problem. First, I have to see the problems fully. I need to examine the causes and effects of the issue with a nature, economic, societal AND well-being lens.

Whoa. That’s a lot.

True statement. But…I am excited at the serendipity in the universe though. Just this week, unrelated to AASSA, the school I serve participated in a Think Tank to reflect on what we’re doing and make changes to do it better. More information is still coming on the results of that, but most participants I’ve talked to have summed it up through these words: time, depth not breadth, people. That sounds like it aligns to my reflection, doesn’t it?

But again, I go back to what’s in my control. My classroom. My instruction. My world of students.

And for them, I’ll fight for simplicity and significance.

I’ll fight for what matters.

*Featured image from http://the-seekers-corner.blogspot.com/2012/01/mirror-of-heart.html

an open reflection on my practice: semester one of teaching abroad

“As I draw the curtains on the sleepy eyes of 2017, my mind turns to the power of reflection. It is my first semester teaching internationally. How has it gone? What are my strengths? What are my next steps?

At the end of the semester, I presented a survey eliciting student feedback. It is a survey provided by my school leadership that I modified for what matters to me most as a teacher. Here are the results (prompts are at the top). Some thoughts:

  • I need to improve in clarity. 1, “In this class the expectations for assignments, quizzes, tests, homework, summatives are clear.” 2, “In this class I am clear about the goals, standards, objectives.” In both of these categories, I scored an average less than 4. As I have wrestled with before, my current school is adopting Ken O’Conner‘s approach to grades: that is, no grades. Or accurate grades. Or standards-based grading. Or… well, you can see why my students are unsettled with this aspect of my instruction: so am I! As with all initiatives, it is not the theory with which I am at odds, but rather the annoyingly messy implementation. I think this also ties into the below 4 score in “My teacher is fair” category. Here are my plans to address this: 1, more class models and collaborative scoring of work 2, student self-assessment and reflection 3, soliciting continued feedback from students about this aspect of my teaching 4, deliberate introductions and thorough explanation of assessments and 5, being targeted with and explicit about the alignment among homework, formatives and summatives. Those are the easy ones (insert giggling emjoi here). More nuanced but nonetheless necessary: the intentional offering of opportunities for ambiguity (never accidentally). I know that students need to tolerate and negotiate ambiguity to be successful in the real world. But sometimes this is at odds with grading policies, especially in a competitive school like mine. I want to work on transparency regarding this. And yes, well, that is ambiguous. Hopefully, I’ll work through it like my students will!
  • I am proud of the level of rigor I have maintained this semester. 1, “My teacher challenges me to think critically and analyze information.” 2, “In this class I feel challenged.” This has always been the hill I will die on. [bctt tweet=”I will not insult my students by lowering expectations for them. ” username=”eternitymod”] They deserve better. And yes, it is shreddingly painful while I’m establishing that 1, yes they can 2, no I will not back down 3, this comes from a place of love and 4, that’s right, now here we go. One of my greatest points of pride as an educator is the number of alumni who have told me my class prepared them for the intensity of college. I may not be liked, but I make a difference. 

But therein lies the rub: I want to be liked. And this has been the dominant reflection in my mind this break. Today marks two weeks since I have last seen my kiddos; and I won’t see them until January 23rd. I miss them. Do they miss me? Am I a part of their lives more as than just a taskmaster?

To be fair, I don’t think it’s about being liked. That is superficial. But it is about a connection, which is exactly why I asked this question on the survey: “I feel connected to Mrs. Davenport.” This also scored below a 4 average. And out of all the other numbers, I am NOT. okay. with. this. average. And really, connection shouldn’t be about average: it should be percentage. 100% of my students feel connected to me. I am connected to each. and. every. human. in. my. charge. 

And so, more than anything else, this is what I want to work on next semester. And it has a face. This student doesn’t do well. And this student sits in class, quiet, anonymous, hidden. I do not know this student. I am annoyed by parental blame on me rather than student ownership. And I have probably taken it out on this student. And I know this student probably rated me low on so many aspects of the survey.

I have failed this student. I have let it become personal instead of professional. I have neglected our connection. But that was 2017. Look out, this student, I am coming for you.


To all my teacher readers: I’d love to hear your reflections. What went well for you this past semester? What are you working on? What’s your “this student” story? What questions help you reflect meaningfully on your practice? 

 

meditations on the sea

It is vast against the horizon. So much so…it IS the horizon. It shifts the sand beneath my cold toes, and still further dizzies my eyes with its periphery-dancing. Yet the sea does not dread the distances, calculating arrivals and departures, lost in the abyss of so-whats and then-whats.

It is buoyant despite emotional spasms. At one rock outcropping–battered knuckles of stone rising against the blue–there is anger. Foam churns, one million crashes in a busy liquid intersection. It is violent, destructive. Just five rock-knuckles down, small children and grown men laugh in the surf, their bodies caressed by the gentle tide. Here, there is joy: a playground for the young at heart. Yet, the sea does not worry about its vacillating waves of ups and downs, giggles and groans.

It is storied. An infinite amount of narratives are surrounded by its borders. There is no place on earth not footnoted by its boundaries. Beneath its surface another language exists: tall tales of ferocious hunters and tiny fables of minuscule plants. Yet, the sea is at peace in its own identity, authentic and brave and beautiful.

It is inconstant. The only thing that stays the same is that it changes. Fluid, flexible and fluctuating because nothing is in its control; it bows to the moods of the moon and the pollution of the people. Always unsure of who it was or who it will be, the sea just is.

It is frightening. Dangers lurk beneath it and above it and beside it. Fear multiplies like grains of sand: storms and tsunamis and sharks and stings and sunburn; currents and cancer and career changes and crashes. Yet, though drowning in a million anxieties, the sea is not anxious.


 

 

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