Because Counting Our Blessings Just Isn't Enough

Archive for December, 2012

Speaking about the Unspeakable

There was a time, before Columbine, when school shootings were unimaginable; the very definition of an evil so unspeakable as to be in our minds essentially impossible.

I have never forgotten the seriousness with which my  fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Jackson, defined “evil”. An educator nearing the end of her career, Mrs. Jackson captivated my imagination with the detail, nuance, and emotion with which she conveyed tales of how her family survived the Great Depression. She often had substantive conversations with us about topics connected to character and values. With all she shared, it was her definition of “evil” that most shaped my world views. In response to our class’ use of the term “evil” as slang, dramatizing minor, annoying behaviors, Mrs. Jackson sat us down for one of her serious chats. “Evil,” she said, “would be a terrorist entering a school and shooting children.” The image horrified; representing what we could not imagine as even conceivable. I never again used the word “evil” for anything short of the mass murder of defenseless people.

Then came Columbine. The inconceivable occurred; only at the hands of troubled youth, not terrorists. And this Friday, the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.

After Columbine, as a relatively new educator and new mother, I was painfully unprepared for the fear of my students and their parents. Hearing students speak about where they would hide if armed attackers entered our school, I recognized the need for reassuring conversation, yet I had no idea what to say. I hastily directed teachers, similarly unprepared, to speak to their students about the tragic event. Sending teachers into a panic and understandably angering our school’s guidance counselor, who recognized how ill-equipped we all were, I was swayed to reverse my directive. We would say nothing. It was the best we had at the time. It wasn’t enough.

This monday will be different. Never prepared to speak of the unspeakable, sadly, we have more experience. Since the days and weeks after September 11, 2001 school psychologists have rallied with a plethora of resources to help. Compilations of resources guiding parents and educators include: Resources for Talking To Children About Traumatic Compiled by Michael Fisher of Digigogy and Resources for Talking to Children About Traumatic Events Compiled by Edutopia.

Our school’s educational leadership will spend much time this weekend planning ways of supporting our children physically and emotionally. In preparation for our children’s return to school, our faculty will meet at 7:30 AM monday morning. We will support one another in finding ways of shepherding our children through the difficult emotions we anticipate. We will be in close communication with our on-site security and our security consultants, who quickly on Friday patrolled the perimeter of our campus and stood in close supervision of teachers and students playing outside during recess. We will be in contact with our local police department; who rushed to our school on Friday after news of the shooting to patrol, on high alert. The officer who arrived, visibly emotional, shared that it was his privilege to be able to be present with us and his hope that there was also police presence at his own children’s school.We will  be guided by the wisdom of our school psychologist concerning age-appropriate conversations. We will be supported by our school rabbi who will listen to our pain and provide us with prayers to express the deep emotion we experience. We will grieve. We will express gratitude for the privilege of being alive. We will do our best to strengthen one another so that we may be fully present for our students.

As quickly as we can, we will return our students to comforting routines. Soon, on the surface, school will look as it always has. Students, parents, and teachers will again be concerned about academic challenge, social difficulty, and the range of normal upsets and tribulations that are part and parcel of growing up and of life in schools. And yet; the unimaginable has occurred and the scars will remain. We’ll study our emergency plans more carefully; consider more thoughtfully how to explain lock down drills to our students; and deliberate on what we as schools and as society can do to keep our children safe. I can’t anticipate what our conversations as a school and as a nation will bring. We will do what we can to bring comfort, knowing that we live in a world in which the unimaginable has occurred. We’ll do what we can to find the words to speak about the unspeakable.

Dreams From The Dojang

Dreams from the Dojang:
On Less Teaching, More Feedback, and Goals of Consequence

First published in Mr Brett’ Clark’s Education Dreamer: 12 Days of Dreaming Series

I am in training to become a martial artist.
In this goal I will face many challenges.
I dedicate myself to face them with honor, respect, and modesty.
I pledge that on this journey not only will I train my body to be strong, agile and flexible but
I will focus on being a Taekwondo practitioner with self-control desire and discipline.
These ideals and all aspects of my training are my responsibility to learn.
Student Oath, Master P.L. Edwards, Exceptional Taekwondo Center, White Plains, N.Y

Black Belt photo

Some of my best professional learning happens at the Taekwondo Dojang. As I train, I learn – not only about martial arts, but also about education, or more accurately, about learning. I’m not the strongest, the most agile or the most flexible – not by a long shot. Most of the other students are younger and more physically fit than I. Yet, with perseverance and good humor, I have earned my black belt. I have learned.

My successes are a direct result of a learning environment with less teaching, more feedback, a focus on core values, and a plethora of meaningful learning activities, serving both as practice and then as formative assessments that demonstrate to me progress toward my own goals. Some of my goals are significant (to become a martial artist); others are of ultimate consequence (to strive for excellence in all areas of my life), while many are small and specific (i.e. to turn my hip more to extend my reach in a kick.) Achieving my goals involves much more feedback than teaching and the responsibility for learning is entirely my own, although I benefit both from the skilled coaching of the master instructors and from the collegial support of the other students. It’s a learning environment I dream about for our K-12 schools.

Less teaching; more feedback, recommendations offered by Grant Wiggins in Seven Keys to Effective Feedback sounds simple on the surface, yet I believe represents an educational paradigm shift of potentially seismic proportions. Indeed, Everything you know about curriculum may be wrong. Really., Wiggins declares in his blog. He advocates a focus, not only on content knowledge, but rather on learning to perform in the world and even more, on learning “not just to know things – but to be a different person – more mature, more wise, more self-disciplined, more effective, and more productive in the broadest sense.” Performing well trumps content knowledge and striving to fulfill core values and make a positive impact is ultimately what performing well entails.

The shift to a focus on less teaching and more feedback grounded in core values will require thoughtful reflection. Synthesizing more than 900 educational meta-analyses, researcher John Hattie has found the average effect size of feedback to be a remarkable 0.79, which is twice the average effect of all other schooling effects. Indeed, Hattie found feedback to be among the top ten influences on achievement. But there is a caveat. While feedback is among the most powerful influences on how people learn, its effects vary considerably. (Hattie, John. Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning. Taylor & Francis. Kindle Edition)

To give effective feedback, we’ll need to understand what effective feedback is and what effective feedback is not. The insight may surprise. Feedback, according to Grant Wiggins in Seven Keys to Effective Feedback, isn’t grades for students. It isn’t evaluations for professionals. It isn’t praise. It isn’t constructive critique. It isn’t advice. Rather, “feedback is information about how we are doing in our efforts to reach a goal.”

I am dreaming of a K-12 educational system that functions more like the Dojang with less teaching, more feedback, and goals of consequence. The journey toward fulfilling that dream will not be easy. Much will shift and change. Yet, at the same time much will remain the same.

We’ll need to envision education anew – shifting our focus from teaching to learning; from curriculum to feedback on practice; from standards to core values. These shifts will require us to think differently about potential ways of utilizing learning spaces, schedules, personnel, student groupings, and technology in order to improve the quality of learning. The possibilities are limited only by our imaginations and will require collaborative, creative exploration and dreaming.

We’ll need at the same time to consider what must not change, but instead remain grounded in enduring core values. It will be vital to set goals of ultimate consequence connected to our core values and to identify clearly many specific benchmarks along the way to these aspirational goals. The journey will stretch us beyond standards and move us from a primary focus on what students need to know, or even on what students need to be able to do, to an emphasis on who students are becoming – individuals of character and moral grounding prepared to strive to make a positive impact in their communities and in the broader society.

I am dreaming of less teaching, more feedback, goals of consequence, and the society children who emerge from such an educational system will together be able to create. I invite you to dream with me and share your perspectives on ways of moving forward.

What’s the point of homework?

CC licensed image shared by flickr user Svadilfari

CC licensed image shared by flickr user Svadilfari

A curious thing appears to have happened at my school. Over the course of the past two years, it seems we’ve decreased the amount of homework we give. At least, I think we have. We haven’t had an official policy change, or even any recent formal discussions as a faculty about homework. But there’s been informal collegial reflection.

My information to date is only anecdotal. Yet, it appears potentially significant. A growing number of teachers have reported parental gratitude for reduced homework loads. I’ve received far fewer calls from parents complaining about too much homework; indeed only one or two in the past year and a half. And, very recently I’ve heard from several parents wondering why there isn’t more homework, concerned that perhaps the lack of work assigned at home reflects a lack of rigor in our school. After conversation, the few parents who have expressed to me their concern about what they perceive as too little homework have come to understand and respect the increasing quality of learning experience and achievement at our school resulting from intensive recent attention given to revisions in curriculum and assessment. Homework, I’ve explained, is not the way to evaluate what is occurring in school, but rather educational quality must be judged based on evidence of student learning. Quite, fairly, some thoughtful parents have recommended that we clearly articulate our school’s approach to homework. What we have written in our parent handbook, crafted with the active collaboration of our entire faculty, has not been revised recently and is a remnant of practices of years past, no longer accurate or reflective of our approach.

I have indirectly addressed homework in posts on our school blog in the past; The Homework Parents Give Me: A Deepening Dialogue Between Home and School; May 13, 2011 and Making Homework Meaningful and Manageable; September 8, 2011. Although those posts hint at conversations that were occurring among teachers and parents about homework, they are neither sufficiently recent nor sufficiently clear and direct. They are merely glimpses into a more quiet, yet potent, shift. Parents, or at least some of our parents, long for and deserve more. So do many of our teachers, having a strong sense of what their colleagues believe, but not a comprehensive understanding. Providing parents and teachers with the clarity they appropriately seek cannot be my task as principal alone; but must represent a shared faculty understanding and vision.

I wonder whether my perception that there is less homework assigned in my school than in past years is accurate. And, if there is less homework, I wonder how this reduction has come to be. I wonder how homework is integrated with school learning and how we can evaluate the impact of homework on quality of student learning. I imagine that serious dialogue and reflection among teachers during the last few years about what does and what does not positively impact student learning has led to shifts in practice in many areas, including homework.

But, how can I know? Well, certainly I can ask.

We will be conducting a survey of our teachers on what and how much homework they assign. We’ll share survey results with the entire faculty at a morning “breakfast and brainstorming” (our version of faculty meetings, focused not on administration or even on professional learning traditionally defined, but rather on dialogue as a faculty on topics that impact student learning). We’ll consider our own perspectives and reflect on some of the available research. Homework: What The Research Says Brief, National Council of Teachers of Mathematics is a concise, balanced brief quoting respected studies. Worth reading, the brief concludes that there is experimental evidence that homework for young children can improve scores on unit tests involving simple mathematics skills such as learning place value, but that homework does not appear to have much impact on broader measures of achievement for young children. John Hattie’s research is also of note. Synthesizing more than 900 educational meta-analyses, Hattie has found that the effects of homework are small, and close to zero in elementary school. Of 138 influences on learning included in Hattie’s expansive study, homework scored 88th. [Hattie, John (2012-03-15). Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning (Kindle Location 408). Taylor & Francis. Kindle Edition.]

Hattie urges teachers to utilize the finding on the minimal impact of homework as an invitation to try something new.  He shares that many schools in New Zealand did not abandon homework because too many parents judge the quality of a school by the mere presence of homework and get upset if there is none, but instead tried different approaches. One school worked with students and parents to create a website of various ‘home challenges’ and evaluated the effects of this new policy on student motivation, achievement, and parent involvement with their children’s learning. [Hattie, John (2012-03-15). Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning (Kindle Locations 382-393). Taylor & Francis. Kindle Edition.] 

So, what’s the point of homework? What learning makes sense to extend from school to home or alternatively from home to school? And, what processes might you suggest for a faculty to come together and determine collaboratively the role of homework, or perhaps more poignantly the role of home learning connected to school learning? What processes might you suggest for including parents, and even elementary school students, in that conversation? I welcome your input.

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