Saturday, January 31, 2015

Why I Love Middle School

Every year, the personalities of the kids emerge in late fall. We encourage the kids to be their quirky, unique selves and we accept everyone unconditionally. We want the kids to be comfortable in the fact that at least in school, in our classes, they can be themselves without having to worry about what others think. Over the years, we have had some characters. It is during the middle school years when kids are bridging that divide between childhood and adulthood and we are there to help and guide them along the way.

On a daily basis, the kids do things that just make us laugh. Once they feel comfortable being themselves and revealing their quirks, we are treated to a community of vibrant, talented, genius, funny, intelligent, awkward, dopey, cool kids. Sometimes the kids are intentionally funny and sometimes they are accidentally funny. Friday after school, I noticed an oatmeal cookie on the floor. Apparently it had fallen out of a locker. One of our boys noticed it too. He said, "Do you think it's still good?"

I replied, "Probably not. It's on the floor." He decided he would try it out anyway. This kiddo proceeded to pick it up off the floor, give it a sniff and pop it in his mouth.

"It's still pretty good," he said while chewing. Off he went down the hall on his way home. Sometimes, you just have to laugh and appreciate the strangeness that is middle school.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Getting Ready for EdCampSTL

Last year, the hands-down best professional development I was involved in was EdCampSTL. I had heard of EdCamps but had no idea what they were. Knowing a few teachers who were on the planning committee for EdCampSTL gave me the nudge I needed to attend. I had no idea what to expect.

When I walked into Affton High School, the EdCampSTL site, I saw a sea of teachers mingling, coffee in hand, and signing up on huge white sheets of paper that were hanging on the walls. Signing up for what, I wondered? It turned out that teachers were signing up for rooms and times to give PD sessions. Ahhh, I was beginning to see how it worked. Teachers who were not presenting could see the offerings and create their schedule accordingly.

The underpinning idea of EdCamps is that teachers can provide high-quality, relevant professional development for other teachers. All teachers are expert in many areas and can teach their colleagues many things. In typical professional development situations, we normally don't put teachers in those situations. We have traditionally hired "outside experts" to come deliver PD to the teaching staff, overlooking many on-staff who could offer PD that is just as good. This traditional PD model assumes that the teachers on staff are not expert, and it is wrong. The EdCamp model relies on the expertise of teachers to deliver quality PD. The role of the teacher is the big difference between traditional PD and EdCamp PD.

I have said for years that if you want good PD, you should put teachers in a room together with NO AGENDA, and what those teachers come up with, naturally and organically, will knock your socks off. Teachers, by their nature, are curious learners who want to find new things to do in class and new ways to teach the essential skills to the kids. Teachers are creative, passionate experts who have a lot to offer their colleagues. The EdCamp model takes advantage of teachers' expertise and gives them the venue to share, collaborate, train and learn. It is a beautiful day of learning. When our schools run more like EdCamps, we will have taken a giant step toward personalize learning for students, and the students will be all the better off for it.

Note: For teachers interested in attending EdCampSTL on February 7, they can find all of the information at

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Reorganizing Space and Time in Schools

Earlier this week we had an EdCampSTL planning meeting at the Cambridge Innovation Center. The center bills itself as "A coworking and entrepreneurial community for start-ups in St. Louis".  The building is in the Cortex district of St. Louis, a technology and biotech innovation area.

As we walked in the building, we immediately saw that this space was not a traditional office space. The start-ups were not really traditional technology businesses either. There were huge open spaces, offices of various sizes (from one-person offices to rooms the size of two basketball courts). There were small "telephone booths" for people to make private cell phone calls, communal meeting spaces that could be reserved at any time, and a "flow" to the building that was both logical and beautiful.

This building is what schools should be. The building facilitated collaboration among the start-ups. There were numerous meeting places, a cafe where people could brainstorm and develop ideas and lots of open spaces for pondering and wondering. Similarly, the people who worked in the offices regularly talk to others, bouncing ideas off each other, giving advice and troubleshooting for each other. The work grows out of the idea and the building seems to have been renovated with the growth of these small start-ups in mind. 

Our meeting ended at 8:30 pm and there were several offices where people were still working. Wandering around, we saw one group trying to solve a work-flow issue while another group was creating clothing on a 3D printer. In the CIC, the time and space are organized around the work and both the time and space can be adjusted based on the work. 

Schools should look a lot more like the CIC than they do. This center is a sign of things to come: flexible work hours, flexible work space, collaborative teams and the project work driving the agenda. Traditional schools do not operate this way. We still divide up work into distinct "disciplines", fragment the work day into 50-minute periods, ask kids to work individually too often, and consider collaboration "cheating" in many cases. Traditional schooling is rigid, competitive and fragmented. The environment of the CIC encouraged flexibility, collaboration and big-picture thinking. The problem drives the use of space and time.

Why can't schools evolve into places where a problem is posed to a group of kids, those kids are given the flexible time and resources necessary to solve the problem, and then skills from all disciplines can be taught to the kids along the way to solving the problem. The learning would be relevant and immediate and would also be a closer approximation of what the kids will experience in the world when they enter the work force. We don't have to offer 50-minute increments of each subject but we choose to structure school that way. Why? Because that's the way it's always been done. 

How many of us, when we tackle any project, divide it up into distinct "subjects" and work on those "subjects" separately for 50-minute increments? We never do. We tackle the project as a holistic entity, learning all "subject" material in an integrated, interrelated way as we work through the problem. This type of work was well-represented at the CIC and students would be much better off if schools could organize the time and space in a similar fashion.