Friday, March 27, 2015

What the Heck. Let's Just Do It!

Last night, we had our first district Twitter education chat, #wgsdchat. It just so happened to run concurrently to our iDEA (district PD) committee meeting. The confluence of these two events made for a rich and robust online PD experience. The iDEA folks joined our edchat from their meeting and continued to meet after the chat ended. This being our first district Twitter chat, we intended to chat for only a half hour but as the time went by, it was obvious that enough people had joined in and had so much to share that we were going to go overtime. The educators involved included teachers from all levels, principals, our superintendent, assistant superintendent and technology specialists. When this many educators with these different backgrounds get together to share, only great things can come from it.

Melissa (@melissahellwig4) and I had discussed launching a Twitter edchat for our district a while ago. We were busy with other things at the time and let the idea go with the intention of revisiting it later. About a month ago, Jason (@thetechspec) and I were in a Twitter edchat (#sunchat) and threw the idea back and forth a few times until we finally decided that the three of us would launch this baby. We figured, "What the heck. Let's just do it!" That Monday, Jason, Melissa and I planned out the details, brainstormed the first three week's worth of questions, and publicized the chat.

We had immediate buy-in. John (@jdsnwg), our assistant superintendent, was pumped from the beginning. He saw it as another way for teachers to share and learn together. We all did. With a good number of us talking it up, we had some Twitter newbies in the chat as well as some Twitter veterans. Our focus for this first chat was "getting to know you" but the conversation quickly escalated into what amazing things teachers are doing in their classrooms, how we can support each other, and the beginnings of some collaborative projects both between schools and grade levels. In just forty five minutes in a Twitter chat, some formed new educational partnerships, we cemented an online venue for sharing, and we have created a weekly sharing session for district educators. I would say that we accomplished our goals!

I feel very fortunate to work in a district where this kind of thinking and initiative is supported and encouraged. We will continue to create, innovate and risk because we have such a great network of support both from our colleagues and from our administration. We could not ask for a better environment in which to grow as educators and as people.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Imagineering Schools

The Walt Disney Company has a job title called Imagineer. In fact, there is an entire Imagineering department and you can actually get hired as an Imagineer. The job responsibilities include "Creating the never before seen". How awesome is that? People get to work all day toward dreaming up the perfect entertainment for a changing culture. They get to tweak and streamline what already exists and dream up new ideas out of thin air.

What if we had Imagineers for Education? What if we took a hard look at how we do things and how our structures are set up and changed them with the idea of providing the perfect education for kids in a changing culture? What if we put learning, real learning, ahead of convenience for the adults in the school, quantifiable data collection, and an homage to the way things have always been done. What if we really did put kids first?

I often ask other teachers, "If you were to dream up a brand new way for kids to learn, how much would it resemble the current school structure?" Nearly everyone has replied, "Not at all." In fact, most teachers would throw out the entire system and start from scratch. Yet we are stuck. We are entrenched in a system that seems too big, too immobile, too archaic. We think, " I am only one teacher. How much change can I really make?"

The trick is to start small. We all have nearly total control of our own classrooms. Why can't we start there? Why can't we do things dramatically differently and focus on the kiddos? The big secret in education is that we really can affect change even if it is only at the micro-local level of our own classrooms. Don't like the textbooks? Throw them out and find better resources. Don't like the reading materials you're using? Chuck 'em and find something else. Don't like the structure of time at school? Use the time you have differently. Don't like the isolation of being a classroom teacher? Blow the door off of that classroom, collaborate with others inside and outside of the school, and watch things change for the better. Tired of seeing drone-like automatons scratching out answers on a worksheet? Burn those worksheets and collaborate with the KIDS to come up with better things to do to reach those learning goals.

Many teachers who have been in the system for a while have lost their ability to dream. Not kids. They dream all the time. Sometimes they are having a glassy-eyed daydream while we are trying to explain what we are doing in class that day. How did we lose our ability to dream? Of course, we are overloaded with work, have too little time to plan anything and have meetings out the wazoo. But the most important thing any teacher can do is dream. Dream about the way kids should learn. Dream about the way teachers should teach. Dream about the ideal collaborative and learning space. Just dream. Soon enough, those dreams will start to turn into reality. At first it will start with a little different furniture in class and then a few cool learning activities. Then it may morph into including kids in the planning process. Who knows? It may even turn out that we have classes of kids teaching each other as we roam the room, facilitating and providing some expertise here and there. 

Dreaming is restorative. It fuels us, excites us, drives us to become better and better. Our kids desperately need us to be better and better each day. We have to trust that we can be the people who design better learning experiences for our kiddos. With our determination and creativity, we can become the Imagineers that our schools so desperately need. 

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Preparing Kids for Yesterday

This is a short excerpt from a book that Melissa and I are writing about our 20% Time program, our PBL classes and the philosophy behind it all.

Traditional schooling is destined to fail our kids. Our kids will be graduating into a world that no longer values book knowledge but rather problem-solving, creativity, design and intellectual agility. Our schools need a revolution. We need to throw out all that we know and begin building from the ground up. I like to ask other teachers, “If you were to completely redesign a learning program for kids, with no restrictions, how much would it resemble our current school system?” Not one teacher ever told me that it would be close to what we have today. We know in our hearts that we are going down the wrong road but we feel powerless to stop, reverse course, and begin the process of change so that kids can experience real learning.

We have to approach our teaching with much more urgency. We have to know that these kids leave us in a precious few months and we may not have adequately prepared them for the world in which they will live. We may have prepared them for the next grade level of school but there is little resemblance between the next grade level and the skills they will need for their lives after school. Yet we hold on to the past, teaching with the same methods that would be recognized as good schooling in classrooms 100 years ago. In fact, we are preparing the kids for yesterday.

In my district, there is great autonomy and taking risks is valued. Many teachers in my district are experimenting with methods and programs that actually lead to great learning. Why aren’t all? Many have reached the “comfort zone” which is the most dangerous place to be. The teacher is comfortable doing the same thing year after year and wonders time and again why the kids are not responding like they used to. The kids resemble silent, bored automatons, slogging through their daily chores in order to get to that final bell that allows them to leave school and begin learning what is really important to them.