Schools Making A Difference: Films and Discussions

The Portland City Club is continuing its educational series Schools Making A Difference: Portraits of Excellence, Engagement and Equity – films, panel discussions and participant dialogues.

Though economic realities pose significant challenges for our education system, when schools and communities work together with a clear vision and heroic effort, they can achieve stunning results. Exemplary schools provide high expectations and opportunities for all students to succeed. They also provide real world learning experiences that prepare students for college, careers and citizenship in the 21st century. They do this through an engaging curriculum that recognizes the diverse talents and needs of their student populations. Join fellow citizens, educators, and students for any of four evenings of films, panels, and participant dialogues that offer portraits of such schools in our region and around the world.

The series continues Feb 8 at Mission Theater with a screening of Robert Compton’s “Two Million Minutes” followed by panel discussion. March 5th: “The Finland Phenomenon: Inside the World’s Most Surprising School System” by Robert Compton. (Hollywood Theater) The final forum is March 14 How Important Are the Arts and Civic Education for Our Students’ Current and Future Lives? featuring the film “Paper Clips” by Elliot Berlin & Joe Fab. (Hollywood Theater)

I attended the first session which featured the film Lessons from the Real World. Bob Gliner, filmmaker, as well as local educators offered an engaging follow up discussion with the audience. The film highlights project-based learning in greater Portland region schools. It’s a fascinating look at K-12 schools that weave community and societal problem solving through their curriculum.

Oregonians will have another chance to see the film which is screening on OPB Plus Sunday night, Feb. 12 at 7 PM throughout most of Oregon. More on “Lessons From the Real World”

Many people feel our public schools are failing, or at best, muddling through. What to do about this critical issue has almost exclusively focused on the efforts of No Child Left Behind and now Race to the Top legislation to improve test scores in core subjects like math and reading. 

Lessons From the Real World, contends, like many educators, that focusing on test scores to improve student achievement is looking in the wrong place.

Learning to read, do math and other subjects will come if students care about what they are learning, rather than drilling them with subject matter largely divorced from their real lives, and the community and societal problems which often impact those lives.

In Portland, Oregon, teachers at a wide range of schools are putting this idea into practice. While this is their story, it can help point the way to rethinking how schools everywhere can be successfully transformed.

Why Johnny Can’t Search – a Response

Image by Stephen Poff
Image by Stephen Poff

I just got my latest issue of Wired Magazine (Nov 2011). In “Why Johnny Can’t Search,” Clive Thompson writes:

We’re often told that young people tend to be the most tech savvy among us. But just how savvy are they? A group of researchers led by College of Charleston business professor Bing Pan tried to find out. Specifically, Pan wanted to know how skillful young folks are at online search. His team gathered a group of college students and asked them to look up the answers to a handful of questions. Perhaps not surprisingly, the students generally relied on the webpages at the top of Google’s results list.

But Pan pulled a trick: he changed the order of the results for some students. More often than not, those kids went for the bait and also used the (falsely) top-ranked pages. Pan grimly concluded that students aren’t assessing information sources on their own merit – they’re putting too much trust in machine.

Other studies have found the same thing: high school and college students may be “digital natives” but they’re wretched at searching. In a recent experiment at Northwestern, when 102 undergraduates were asked to do some research online, none went to the trouble of checking the author’s credentials. In 1955, we wondered why Johnny can’t read. Today the question is why can’t Johnny search?

Every day he walks into a sanitized information landscape with the expectation that anything he finds behind the school firewall is valid. How does that teach Johnny good digital hygiene?

If you spend any time around students, none of this comes as news. Given a research task, many go straight to Google and grab the first “low-hanging fruit” they find. Their inability to critically evaluate sources or context is more crucial as the barrier to the production and distribution of information has disappeared. (It doesn’t take much for any crank to start blogging the “true story of the Holocaust.”) While many applaud the digital revolution’s successful overthrow of the media gatekeepers, it does force us to become our own editors. (Should I forward the email that claims in next week’s sky, Mars will appear bigger than the moon?)

Many schools respond by sequestering students behind an information firewall. That allows school administrators to sleep at night knowing that students can’t get to any “bad information” during the school day. It’s a safe “CYA” for the educators, but it doesn’t provide any guided practice for Johnny to learn how to critically evaluate information. In fact, I think it sets Johnny up to fail in our “wild west” of information. Every day he walks into a sanitized information landscape with the expectation that anything he finds behind the school firewall is valid. How does that teach Johnny good digital hygiene?

Schools inhibit the development of critical evaluation skills in another way – the relentless (test prep) focus on mastery of facts. Johnny can assess the validity of information because he’s awash in a sea of text without context. Critically evaluating sources requires a deeper understanding of author and purpose. That’s developed with an inquiry-based approach to learning – exploring multiple sources, sussing out context, comparing perspectives, recognizing patterns, and encouraging constructive controversy and evaluation among peers. No time for that – we have to “cover” content for the test. In the relentless march to the exam, Johnny gets well acclimated to quickly stuffing his head with facts. No wonder he’s willing to take up Google on the bet that “I’m Feeling Lucky.”

Today’s student needs to become a critically-thinking citizen and the best response schools can come up with is to force-feed students in sanitized information feedlots.

It would seem that the demands of the information age would put a premium on teaching critical thinking skills. But the test regime leaves little time in the school day for that. Teaching information literacy is everyone’s (and no one’s) responsibility in school. (And I fear most of the librarians who were “fighting that good fight” didn’t survive the latest round of budget cuts.)

And isn’t this all so ironic. We live in an information age that puts a premium on the ability to find, decode, evaluate, store and communicate information. (All skills central to mastery of the Common Core standards). Today’s student should be in training to become a critically-thinking citizen and the best response schools can come up with is to force-feed students in sanitized information feedlots.

Image credit: flickr/Stephen Poff

Learning Walks: The Power of Teacher to Teacher PD

Learn and Lead
Learn and Lead

It’s always a pleasure to work with the school district that “gets it.”
Lebanon Community Schools in Lebanon, Oregon is that sort of place.

“This creates teacher leadership opportunities. It turns visits to the classroom into teacher to teacher professional development – transforming the notion of what happens when people visit your classroom.”

I was first introduced to LCS in May through their work with Oregon’s Class / Chalkboard Project. In August, I gave an opening-day faculty presentation focused on looking at learning from the students’ perspective. Since then I’ve assisted LCS in training a group of six “learning walk leaders” who will lead their peers on reflective learning walks through the classroom. As one of the leaders neatly summarized our goals, “This creates teacher leadership opportunities. It turn visits to the classroom into teacher to teacher professional development – transforming the notion of what happens when people visit your classroom.”

I have worked with many districts leading teachers and administrators on “classroom walkthroughs” (the term I generally use for the process) and conducting sessions designed to train-the-trainer. But Lebanon’s approach topped them all – their initiative with solid administrative support and a teacher-centric focus worth replicating. Ryan Noss, the district assistant superintendent attended all the training sessions, but consistently deferred to “let’s let the teachers decide how they want to do this.” Here’s how it went. (All quotes are from the six participants’ reflective journals.)

The district is supporting six teachers with stipends to lead their peers on reflective classroom walks. This week I completed three days of training with the “Learning Walk Leaders.” We first met as a whole group to discuss the opportunities and challenges of learning walks, but soon got into the classroom to try it out. Over the course of two days, I led pairs of teachers on visits to K-12 classrooms across the district. During that time, they had the chance to both experience the power of reflective discussion and see how to best focus our conversations on the students in the classroom, not the teacher.

We used a similar approach for each classroom visit. After checking with the teacher to see if it’s a good time to enter, we typically spent about 5-8 minutes in each class. While there we did not talk among ourselves or take any notes. (Visitors with clipboards make me nervous.) If appropriate, we might speak briefly with the teacher to get some background to the lesson or chat up a student who wanted to share what they were working on. But we weren’t there to try and “understand” the lesson. You can’t do that in 5 minutes. We wanted to see students in action and use that experience as a catalyst for a discussion. Think of learning walks as moving professional development from the lecture to the lab.

Think of learning walks as moving professional development from the lecture to the lab.

After exiting class we traveled down the hall for a brief discussion. What tasks were the students engaged in? What types of thinking did the students need to use to complete the task? What sort of choices did students need to make to complete the task? Can we find consensus about what level of Bloom’s Taxonomy best describes the student task? As Sarah Haley put it, “I love the idea of honing our reflective skills – what’s learning look like when compared to Bloom’s?” As Chrissy Shanks observed, “Learning walks gave me a fresh perspective on the ways students think.”

Often the time spent in class proved to be a jumping off point to more hypothetical discussions about student learning. “We just saw students making maps – what are the essential elements of a map? How do people use maps? What could students learn by making a real-life map for their peers to use?” Some of our best discussion about our own practice as teachers came from these extensions of what we saw in the classroom. “Teacher learning walks inspired me to become a better teacher! I learned so much about what students are doing in our district and was able to reflect on my teaching practice.” Melissa Johnson

On the third day learning walk leaders took turns “guiding” each other on visits. After each visit,  they came back to central location and one leader “led” the reflective discussion in a “Fishbowl,” while the rest listened, and then offered feedback. Finally, we met to develop a protocol for how to conduct visits in the future. We want to make sure, that learning walks are seen as productive, not interruptions in the classroom. As Erica Cooper wrote “We are students of instruction in a lab setting. A trust has to be built to make it work. I want to be able to guide teachers in observing student learning to help their teaching practice.”

Next week the learning walk leaders will promote the process to their peers and begin leading reflective visits to district classrooms. We decided they needed an “elevator pitch.”

  1. Focus on the students (not the teacher) in a quick visit to the classroom (snapshot of learning)
  2. Discuss the tasks students are doing. Do we agree on what level of Bloom’s we see?
  3. Result – Teacher To Teacher Professional Development. Shall we call it “T3PD?”
  4. Best way administrators can support the effort. Ask, “Have you had interesting discussions today?” Note: don’t ask “have you seen good lessons today?” You can’t judge a lesson in 5 minutes – besides we’re watching the student. 

Image credit: iStockphoto

The Future of Schools – Three Design Scenarios

Richard Elmore and Elizabeth City of Harvard Graduate School of Education wrote a powerful piece in Education Week Using Technology to Move Beyond Schools (May, 16, 2011).

Since it’s behind a subscription paywall, I thought I’d quote it broadly to help spread its powerful message. For my thoughts on the subject please see my post What Happens in Schools When Life Has become an Open-book Test?

“What proportion of the activity called ‘learning’ will be located in the institution called ‘school’?” The availability of relatively cheap technologies offering direct access to knowledge of all types creates opportunities for students to experience a dramatic increase in the choice of what they learn, with whom they choose to learn, and how they choose to learn. How will the institution called “school” survive in this environment, in what form will it survive, and what would schools look like if they chose not just to “survive” but to find a productive place in this new environment?

With rare exceptions, schools currently treat the digital revolution as if it never happened. Computers, more often than not, still sit in dedicated rooms, accessible only with adult supervision.

… When students step out the door of the institution called school today, they step into a learning environment … in which one is free to follow a line of inquiry wherever it takes one, without the direction and control of someone called a teacher… If you were a healthy, self-actualizing young person, in which of these environments would you choose to spend most of your time?

… The more accessible learning becomes through unmediated relationships and broad-based social networks, the less clear it is why schools, and the people who work in them, should have such a large claim on the lives of children and young adults…

Consider three possible school scenarios for the next generation or so.

The first might be called “fighting for survival,” or “turtle gets a laptop.” Schools continue to be organized and run in much the same way as they are today. …Teachers and schools continue to control access to content and learning. In this instance, schools will increasingly become custodial institutions, isolated from the lives of their students and the learning environment beyond their walls.

The second scenario might be called “controlled engagement,” or “frog gets a GPS device.” In this case, schools make some nonincremental leaps in the way they are organized and run. Schools set the learning destinations and map out the best pathways to those destinations. … Teachers are less gatekeepers of knowledge, and more knowledge brokers. … Schools become less places where students go to learn from adults, and more places where adults and students get together to enter a broader learning environment

The third scenario might be called “open access to learning,” or “caterpillar learns to fly.” Here schools cease to play the determining role in what constitutes knowledge and learning. …Schools are on their own, competing with other types of service providers and learning modalities for the interest and loyalty of students and their parents. A family might combine services from two or three different organizations into a learning plan …Schools, as we presently know them, would gradually cease to exist and be replaced by social networks organized around the learning goals of students and their families.

I imagine that many educators will dismiss this commentary as being too far-fetched. Perhaps schools need be reminded of the growing irrelevance of information gatekeepers (record companies, book publishers, newspapers) in the lives of their students.

Image credit flickr

Jerry Seinfeld: History Teacher – Observations in the SNL Classroom

Seinfeld-history-teacherCurrently this link works. (9/15/15)

 Last week I used this classic Jerry Seinfeld piece from Saturday Night Live as part of an administrators’ workshop. We had lots of fun. Here’s your chance to borrow the idea.

Goal: I was working with a team of principals and district administrators who wanted to provide more consistency in their teacher observations and look for strategies for using observations to assist teachers in reflecting on their instructional approaches. We first met at district office before going out to observe a few classrooms and share our impressions. I thought it would be useful (and fun) to warm up with Seinfeld’s disastrous history lesson.  

Here’s the process I used:

  1. We watched the video.
  2. A volunteer agreed to take the role of an administrator who just observed Seinfeld teaching. I played the role of Mr. Seinfeld as we both met for a post-observation conference.
  3. I set up a “Fishbowl” discussion group among the remaining participants. Half would pay attention to the administrator conferencing with Seinfeld. They were asked to record two types of admin questions or comments on a T-Chart – either ones that caused Seinfeld (me) to reflect on myself as a teacher or judgmental questions / comments that caused me to get defensive. The second half of the fishbowl group focused on me (Seinfeld). They were asked to record two types of comments I made – either comments where I was reflective on my lesson / teaching or comments where I got defensive / argumentative.
  4. I asked each of the fishbowl groups to compare within their two groups.  We then we shared in a full group discussion.

While there was little positives to find in the Seinfeld lesson – the activity got us thinking about ways in which an administrator can give teachers feedback that is less judgmental and more likely to cause teachers to reflect on their lesson and instructional approaches. 

Sample judgmental admin question: “You say that you want the students to ‘think about history’ and forget about the details, so why did you start asking a series of content questions on material they had already failed on the test?”
Similar theme explored in a non-judgmental, reflective tone:  “What are some of  the methods you like to use to gather feedback on student mastery of content? How do you use the information to design a lesson?”

It was a great icebreaker and loads of fun for everyone. Later in the day we observed some actual classrooms taught by teachers who had volunteered to host us. We came back together as a group and compared our impressions using the district evaluation instrument. We compared our results to calibrate the observation tool. Our final activity was to develop some feedback to give the teachers who hosted our visits. We crafted comments that were more reflective than judgmental. The volunteer teachers’ principal later delivered the feedback to the teachers. 

Everyone thought it was valuable session. I hope you can find some use or ways to modify. 

How to set up a Fishbowl discussion group  Download Fishbowl-discussion 58kb pdf