Wisdom Begins with Wonder

You can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus

The title of this post is a quote from Mark Twain and truer words were never spoken.

Speaking scientifically, there is more truth to this statement than most of us realize or choose to believe. “Reality” as we experience it is as much a construct of our mind attempting to make sense of ┬ávast amounts of stimuli as it is a shared experience. In other words, each of us experiences the visual world in different ways. From infancy, we learn to “calibrate” our understandings of common phenomena (colors, for example) by on sitting side by side with someone and having them pass their understanding of these phenomena onto us. Some experiences, especially those that happen very rapidly, defy our ability to calibrate – even when we experience them together. Two people will often vehemently disagree about what they have just seen (see instant replay in pro sports)… and they may both be “right.” This is why eyewitness accounts of an event can often vary dramatically.

Once upon a time, nearly all education was about creating or engaging in shared experiences and “calibrating” our understanding of that experience. As the sum of all human knowledge became too great to simply learn it all by shared experience, we created schooling. Still, many of the best learning experiences we have still revolve around making meaning from shared experience.

It’s time we moved away from standardizing what all students must be taught and how they must show their learning and, instead, moved toward a form of education that emphasizes making meaning from shared experiences.

The curse of the standardized test

I’m not enjoying teaching as much as I once did.

Don’t get me wrong, I still love working with young people. I still think my job is valuable and important.

Unfortunately, the testing mandate has arrived in my classroom. My students must pass a Biology End-of-Course (EOC) Exam to graduate from high school in Washington state.

Before it came, I naively thought it wouldn’t affect me. Get them engaged, allow them space to explore and learn, have fun with biology, and the test will take care of itself. Unfortunately, the stakes for my students and my school are too high. Soon, my job may depend on these test results.

I have become a standards-driven, assessment focused teacher and it sucks. Sure I still avoid textbooks and worksheets like the plague. Yes, I still strive to bring hands-on, engaging, real-world learning to my students.

Still, I would be lying if I claimed this test hasn’t changed me. It has. And not for the better…

The time has come to reexamine my values and the way I’m facilitating learning in my classroom and figure out how to bring them back into alignment.

Commencement Day

Blue Scholars are one of the best music groups to arrive on my musical consciousness in recent years.

Their song, “Commencement Day” actually got a teacher placed on administrative leave in Spokane, WA for sharing it with his students. Oh, the irony!

Enjoy and judge for yourself (NOTE: the song does contain multiple profanities, although not the “f-word”):

There are times that I wonder not how but if we can fix our educational system. Luckily I’m an eternal optimist. I’m also a realist – so I focus much of my energy on what I can do in my classroom to minimize my role in the forced indoctrination of our young people. Beyond that, I gladly share my opinions – with anyone who will listen – about testing, grades, professional development, the purpose of school, punishments and rewards in school, etc.

Are we just tilting at windmills?

Make time for… Getting Socratic

socrates_teaching

“I cannot teach anyone anything; I can only make them think.” ~ Socrates

Watch out! I’m ’bout to get all Socratic up in this classroom!

One of my goals for this school year is to improve and expand my use of questions.

I mean this in the broadest possible context. I want to ask more and better questions.

Questions:

  • …that get students thinking, discussing, even arguing
  • …to help them move forward
  • …to deepen their thinking
  • …to assess understanding
  • …rather than lecturing, when dealing with students’ behavior choices
  • …with colleagues to help move discussions forward or improve the functioning of our PLC
  • …with myself, to improve my reflection on my teaching practice

So, now that I’ve stated this goal, I need to attack it!

I’m going to come up with some key questions that I can use and practice. I’ll keep a cheat sheet handy in class.

More importantly, though, is a mindset of questioning. I have been and will continue to push myself to go to the question first when reaching for an arrow in my proverbial teaching quiver.

Make time for one-on-one conversations

This is one of those that I must constantly remind myself about!

Today, my students were working mostly independently on a research project. I spent the entire class period rotating between my students. I sat down and talked to every single student in each class today.

I don’t do this nearly as often as I should. Every time I do, the conversation is incredibly valuable for both of us on many levels:

  • I learn more about each student as a person
  • I learn more about each student as a learner
  • I correct important misconceptions
  • I give valuable feedback to students about their learning
  • I receive valuable feedback from students about my teaching
  • I improve my relationships with the people whom I am privileged to teach
  • My reasons for loving teaching are reaffirmed

Even though today was not a perfect day in my classroom, it was an important one.

Make time for instructional agility

Last week I gave a quiz about natural selection and the results were not good.

The mean grade for the quiz was a D/ D+.

At that point, I had a couple of options, right? I could have moved on and said, “oh well. No time to reteach that concept. State test is coming whether we like it or not and there’s still a lot to cover.” OR I could have said, “Whoa! The kids didn’t get natural selection AT ALL. This is a crucial concept that I need to reteach!”

I chose the latter. We reviewed the misconceptions that arose on the first quiz. I then came up with a task that would require them to apply the criteria of natural selection to examples from nature. Each group then presented to their classmates and answered peer questions.

Tomorrow I will re-assess their understanding of natural selection and I know the results will be much better. They have had time to discuss, to process, and to ask questions. They have had to wrestle with the concepts in a different way than before.

My point is this: we often feel such pressure to “cover” material that we get poor assessment results and feel forced to move on in spite of the data. Either that or we blame the kids for performing poorly and we move on in order to punish them for not understanding the concepts the first time.

In the face of pressures and frustrations, it is critical that we make time in our schedules for instructional agility. We must be able to respond to the needs of the learners in our classrooms and adjust our instruction – even if it means taking a week longer to teach a concept than we had originally planned.

Make time for class meetings

Today my classes held their first class meetings of the year.

What do I mean by class meetings? All of my students (1oth and 11th graders) and me seated in a circle talking about our class.

I am now kicking myself for not having started this ritual much sooner. There is incredible value in sitting in a circle and discussing issues that are important to the group!

Class meetings serve four important purposes:

  1. Connecting (to each other, to the class, to the school)
  2. Deciding (making important decisions – whether the decision is made democratically or whether I make the decision after considering student input)
  3. Planning (upcoming class activities and lessons)
  4. Reflecting (looking back on previous lessons and activities)

The process of these meetings is critical. My goal is to establish a classroom culture where my students feel valued and respected. I want them to feel that they have some control over the direction of our class. I want to empower them to make important decisions (not just token ones).

It’s also a great chance to model and reinforce good behaviors and positive contributions to the group. Yes these meetings do take time. Anything of value does.

You can learn a lot by forcing yourself to be a listener in your own classroom.

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More resources on class meetings:

Alfie Kohn – Beyond Discipline: From Compliance to Community

Donna Styles – Class Meetings