Monday, January 25, 2016

Other Side of the Bridge

Last week I spent a few hours in the company of some newly minted teachers of the year at their first conference in San Antonio. I was helping deliver a presentation with Hope Street Group on the topic of building relationships with leaders. For me though, this experience was a profoundly reflective one. That is, I found myself reflecting on the two years since I sat in these teachers' seats and thinking about how much I've changed and grown since then.

Two years ago, I worried a lot about the conference before I arrived. My experience had been mostly limited to my classroom, where I had spent my time fretting about my students' grasp of comma splices and when to schedule my next club meeting. I was not some super-teacher. I was not a policy expert. I did not really even know how to dress myself; I'd bookmarked a graphic I found depicting the differences between business casual and professional.

After I arrived, my worries were confirmed. Those other teachers of the year were definitely stellar, knowledgeable, competent. They knew about policy. They had their platforms and elevator speeches. Their voices didn't quaver when they introduced themselves. I am not exaggerating when I tell you this: I was waiting, the whole time, for someone to call from Montana and say, "We've made a big mistake; you're not the teacher of the year." It would have been a humiliating relief.

But no one called. After that week I decided they must have just accepted their mistake, and left me to cope. And this is where my memories of that week and my new perspective on it collide. As I sat there watching these new STOYs I was reminded of one of my favorite TED talks.

Amy Cuddy's research on body language is fascinating and useful, but it is her personal story that reaches me. She talks about losing her own sense of identity, how she struggled to regain it, and in doing so how she reinvented herself. She says, "Don't just fake it till you make it; fake it till you become it."

New state teachers of the year are in a similar position. They have lost their classroom-teacher-only identity. They are swimming in a sea of uncertainty, trying to find their feet. They are wondering how to catch up, and whether someone is going to find them out.

I know. I felt that way. But two years later, the imposter sensation does dissipate. The opportunities afforded every state teacher of the year are enough to make change.

But the biggest shift is a change in mindset: as soon as we begin to see ourselves as leaders, we become leaders. We advocate and innovate. We solve problems. We write. We amplify the voices of our colleagues. We lead.

So, to the Class of 2016: 

Find your voice. Speak your truth. Yell if you have to.

Fake it till you become it.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Belief in What Works

I recently went through a 16-month no-sickness stint. From May 2014 to September 2015, I didn't get a single cold or anything worse. This health streak is surprising when you consider that I am both a mom and a teacher, up against kid-borne illness, uncovered coughs, and who-knows-what on the doorknobs and keyboards of my life.

How have I accomplished this health feat? Simple: orange juice. I put a lot of faith in orange juice as the reason for my bodily well-being. Imagine my surprise, then, when I read this article describing how orange juice doesn't promote health. In fact, OJ could be judged unhealthy if you consider the sugars and processing involved. But it works for me - and why? Because I believe in it. Call it a beneficial psychosomatic effect.

The other day I unwittingly started a fire on my Facebook page about learning styles. Learning styles theory posits that individuals learn in different ways and that some people learn best visually, some through auditory means, others through hands-on methods, and so on. Everyone has a hardwired learning style, say these believers.

I am not a learning styles advocate. I trust cognitive scientists like Dan Willingham who handily and convincingly debunk this theory as a myth. At the bottom of this post you will find several resources addressing learning styles as a myth, and there are certainly more available.

During the Facebook fire, one friend commented that using learning styles to differentiate instruction works in classrooms, so why question it? I agree - if you can do no harm while enhancing learning, use whatever vehicle is available and familiar, as long as you know the theory you espouse is widely considered to be false.

As long as people are not doing the following, I say fine, use this theory to support your classroom decisions.

1) Using learning styles to suggest that students can't learn in other ways. This promotes a fixed mindset.
2) Using learning styles to excuse students from doing more challenging work, or work that might be uncomfortable for them.
3) Telling students that learning styles are real, since study after study has shown this theory to be unsupported by actual research.
4) Using learning styles to label and pigeonhole cultural groups ("Native Americans are visual learners" is a common such label).

Scientists say that too much orange juice can be unhealthy due to its sugar content and processing by-products, just as they warn educators against using learning styles theory inappropriately. I hear their concerns, and I don't question their judgment; after all, they do research and I don't. Personally, I reject learning styles theory because of this research and their credentials.

However, I'm not going to stop drinking orange juice even though I know it's not actually boosting my immune system. I'm not arguing with the scientists; I'm willfully ignoring them. I know that as long as I'm doing no harm, I can stick to my own theory.

And if it works, more power to me -- and my OJ.

The concept of different "learning styles" is one of the greatest neuroscience myths

Different Strokes for Different Folks? A critique of learning styles

The Myth of Learning Styles

All You Need to Know About the 'Learning Styles' Myth, in Two Minutes

Brain-Based Learning, Myth Versus Reality: Testing Learning Styles and Dual Coding

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Projecting the Plans

It's eight degrees outside, but the sun is coming up and the snow is pink. I sit here sipping my coffee reflecting on the last couple of weeks of winter break. My to-do list shrank over the break, which is gratifying since I made sure I didn't do all the work at once, wearing myself out. I completed many significant tasks, tying up projects left over from fall and even some from last summer.
Then yesterday I spent a couple of hours planning for spring semester, and afterwards I posted a picture of Monday's lessons on Facebook. I did not anticipate the response this picture would generate! Some teachers like Lisa commented that they were envious, Sean chastised me for going in, and still others like MeMe and Tricia were pleased to see it for various reasons. Then we started sharing our own planning processes. Meghan even decided to crowdsource planning styles for an upcoming Scholastic blog post!
Planning is a key part of good teaching. For me, it is the most satisfying part. I know, I know -- the kids are supposed to be first on that list. But I can't feel good about my work with kids if I don't know what I'm doing, and I'm the kind of teacher who can't sleep at night if every detail of the next day isn't ready to go, from the lesson plans to the conversations I need to have to the prep-time minutes I must use for assessment.

Teaching is really a kind of big project. Each class over the course of a year or semester is a project, and each unit within the course is its own project. Other tasks teachers do are projects too, whether it's coaching, club advisory, or a PLC. When I think about it, I have always loved projects: making quilts, painting rooms, even putting on productions like TEDxArlee. I love the focus, the beginning-and-end, the way they diversify my life. It makes sense that I see teaching as a project and that I love it for that reason.

Happy January 4, classroom friends and colleagues. May you find joy in renewal of your own projects!

Friday, January 1, 2016

The Magic of Teacher Leadership

At the end of 2014, I wrote five pledges for 2015 which I've already taken a moment to review, except for one. I reserved #3, teacher leadership, for this separate post. 

3. I will continue to push for teacher leadership models in our school structures.

Teacher leadership is a hot topic right now in the circles I inhabit, particularly those at the national level. At every conference I attend, in many twitter chats, and in blogs I read, teacher leadership is repeatedly invoked. "Teachers leading" is a catchy hashtag that inspires almost everyone. ASCD lists Ten Roles for Teacher Leaders, edublogger Jose Vilson has provided a list of  Do's and Don't's of Transformative Teacher Leadership, and the National Network of State Teachers of the Year has created an entire framework of standards for teacher leadership. This is not a passing fad.

Yet I'm going to dig in a little against formalized teacher leadership. I have experienced a form of teacher leadership in my role as literacy coach and have been afforded opportunities to lead both within and outside my district, and I have seen the pitfalls. Like a magic show, teacher leadership can be delightful and illuminating -- or it can be an awkward and embarrassing experience for everyone. Finding the right role and appropriate support is crucial to making the show fly.

Informal teacher leadership exists just like a group project in school: one or two people always do all the work. Certain teachers lead committees, initiatives, departments, union work, and even sunshine activities. Others do nothing. There's really no need to comment on that.

Formalized teacher leadership, however, is a little like the rainbow unicorn. It feels good. It sounds great. Teachers who feel confined to a box and wish to bust out of it, in particular, strive for a form of this magic. Teachers who want change but don't want to become an administrator look to teacher leadership roles as a way to diversify their careers.
Teacher leadership sounds like the answer to the problems of confinement and repression. Most everyone says they want to implement it, but it exists successfully only under very specific circumstances, which must include, at minimum, the following:
1) a specific structure which has been created in part by teachers in the district;

2) roles strictly defined and adhered to (no sneaking administrative work in);

3) administrative support for the role which is evident and unquestioned;

4) no additional pay or benefits, either real or perceived, unless specifically designed and sanctioned during the process of #1.

Should these conditions be ignored, teacher leaders may find themselves back in their classrooms, doors shut, and happy to get the target off their backs. There is a crabs-in-the-bucket mentality in some school cultures: one crab tries to climb out of the bucket and the rest pull him back down. The resentment and negativity engendered by many factors in a district can hinder attempts to create the positive, lift-everyone approach essential for teacher leadership to thrive.  

I am for teacher leadership. I agree with ASCD, NNSTOY, and Jose Vilson, especially in this blog post which makes mention of what I've covered above. I believe that teachers should be able to carve openings out of the boxes we live in, so that we may make the best use of all our  expertise and interests. Given the right planning, administration, and school culture, teacher leadership can be fruitful and satisfying for everyone: not just a magic show, but real transformation.

Looking Forward

At this time last year I was reminiscing about 2014 and all I'd experienced in that momentous year. I linked this blog post to a Facebook post about moving into 2015, and I was a little surprised to find the following five-part pledge buried in there. (I don't usually take myself so seriously.)

1. I will continue to advocate on behalf of Montana's teachers and students in ways which my experience and intuition guide me.

2. I will continue to be active in my Teacher of the Year networks and associations to enhance my ability to advocate for public education.

3. I will continue to push for teacher leadership models in our school structures.

4. I will continue to be vocal against nonsense testing, overtesting, testing without feedback, testing fads, and testing profiteering.

5. I will continue to teach at some level because I know that's how I can best serve my community.

Look at all those "I will" statements! So purposeful. But instead of diminishing myself, I'd like to review them earnestly. Number one was a gimme. Of course I will always do that. 

To address number two, I became a Hope Street Group National Teacher Fellow. The Fellows worked together to obtain teacher input on the topic of teacher preparation in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Education. I also had the opportunity through the NEA Foundation to be a Global Learning Fellow and visit Peru. For me the most important part of this experience was learning about the ways indigenous and impoverished children are educated and how community schools are built and run in Peru. This gave me perspective on my own experience on the Flathead Reservation in Montana, which I blogged about here.

I'll come back to number three in a different post about teacher leadership.

Number four: Clearly, I continue to be vocal against all kinds of nonsense testing, overtesting, testing without feedback, testing fads, and testing profiteering. This was my favorite piece of the pledge because I am passionate about it; toward the end of the year the Every Student Succeeds Act was passed and it allows for testing reduction in states that want to do so. In fact in Montana, our superintendent has rescinded the Smarter Balanced tests for 11th graders, leaving only the ACT in their place. Hallelujah.  

In defense of number five, I left my part-time literacy coaching position and returned full-time to the classroom this year. Coaching was not a strength of mine, and it did not fulfill my desire to be with kids. It also required that I be intimately involved with and supportive of the additional testing we do in our district (see numbers one, two, and four). Back in my classroom, I was astonished at how much happier I felt about my daily activities and the work my students and I accomplished together.

I look forward, therefore, to 2016. I look forward to renewing these pledges and becoming more involved in policy. I look forward to developing new ways of advocating for public school teachers and families. I look forward to learning to work more effectively with all my students. 

I look forward.