Wednesday, December 09, 2020

Good teachers; bad teachers

 Rarely is there a good teacher or a bad teacher, instead there's a great mix of educators who are generally great teachers for some and not-so-great teachers for others. No educator has all gifts and can speak to all students, but there is rarely an educator who does not significantly impact the lives of some of their students. This is why it is important for school communities to include a diverse array of educators, and to recognize, value, and support the great diversity of skills, strengths, and impact they bring to the school community. 

This morning I received a letter of gratitude from a former student. As part of their high school wellness program, students are asked to write a letter of gratitude to a teacher who has impacted them. I LOVED getting the letter, and what I loved even more were that the qualities the student identified as positive, qualities that well-matched my overall pursuits in education. What I truly believed in impacted this young girl in significant ways. That made me happy.

Too often, people try to choose the best educator when, in truth, it is better to acknowledge the great diversity in teaching teams that make their programs spot-on when it comes to serving the variety of needs, interests, and potenteial in the school community's children and families. Most teachers are good teachers, and that good is exhibited in multiple, different, and meaningful ways. The key is to figure out who you are as an educator, and to hone those talents, skills, and perspectives. It's best that every educator work to be the best of who they can be, and in that way, they will impact students in significant, life-enriching ways. 

Tuesday, November 03, 2020

Inspire students to create a composition studio

 As I wrote about my writing journey today, I recognized the need to update my composition studio. And as that thought filled my mind, I realized how important it is for writing teachers to help students create a modern day composition studio both in real time and online. What does this studio include, and why is this important? 

To compose is a journey

As all composers know, it is a journey to write, make film, craft musical scores, and publish podcasts. You get better over time, and it is the rich repertoire of work you do that informs later work. That is why it is integral to create online and real-time composition spaces that include the work you've done and the tools you use to compose. 

Images

No matter what you compose, whether it be poetry, stories, essays, musical lyrics, podcast interviews, or film, images matter. Images are rich resources of ideas, understanding, and share. Every composer needs a collection of images. For me, I'll start with figuring out how to combine my image collection from my phone and online to create a personal image gallery to use as a rich resource for future compositions. I'll figure out ways to organize that image library too. For writing students, it's a good idea to help them create image files they can refer to as resources for inspiration and content for their compositions. 

Music

Music inspires our creativity in countless ways. Music also helps us tell our stories and express our truth. It is in the best interest of every composer to create and save playlists of vital musical pieces to add richness to the composition work they do. Similarly, with regard to both images and music, is to understand copyright laws and practices. That is something I need to study more. If possible, creating files of your own music and images helps in this regard. Students can be encouraged to record the songs they play and music they create to use in their compositions. 

Words

Both written and spoken words should be stored in readily accessible places. As students compose, they will likely use similar ideas over and over again. They will grow their ideas and better their stories in countless ways. To be able to readily access the words they've spoken and written is a great advantage for any composer. 

Artifacts, Tools, and Creative Spaces

Every composer has a collection of artifacts and tools that support their composition work. They also have preferred creative spaces. Ask students to share their ideas related to this with questions such as:

  • What tools make your compositions better?
  • What artifacts inspire your creativity?
  • What spaces inspire your best creativity?
For me, tools that inspire my compositions and make them better include a great lap top, good head phones, a blogging spot, image files, playlists, movie-making software. Old photos, beautiful flowers, natural scenes, favorite books, wonderful art, and beautiful music. And as for creative space, light is critical for me. Comfort and simplicity matter too. 

Composition Studio

To add all of these elements together is to create both online and real time composition studios. Students may use these studios for invention and innovation too as there is great overlap with composition and creativity of all kinds. 

Beautiful flowers are a source of inspiration for my compositions. 

To truly inspire and teach students to compose well, you have to give them the opportunity to create their own creative studios. You also have to give them time to write, and avenues to share their writing with audiences that matter to them. 

Let your students lead their own composing by answering these questions:
  • What composition genre is your favorite? Is it writing, drawing, music, movie-making, podcasts?
  • What do you most like to think about, create about?
  • What audiences do you prefer creating for? 
  • Why do you compose?
  • What are the ideal objects for your real-time composition studio?  
  • What is your ideal online composition studio like?
  • What do you need to become a better composer? 
  • Where do you best like to compose?
  • Do you create better on your own or with others? What is the right mix of individual time and group time for your ideal compositions?
  • What can I do to help you reach your composition goals?
To teach writing and composition is to immerse students into this craft in organic, meaningful, personal ways, and when you do this you provide students with awesome paths to bright futures. 

Friday, October 23, 2020

What's wrong with schools?

 The pandemic is bringing to light so many of society's problems--areas of life, unsupported over time, are clear to us now as we rely on long held traditions, institutions, and lifeways more than ever for survival. What's wrong with schools is staring us right in the face now during these pandemic days. With this knowledge, what are the next steps?

Teacher voice

Sadly, in too many schools, teacher voice is ignored. This obstructs the good work possible and ignores educator investment, training, ideas and care. I know this issue first hand. In the spring, when the pandemic struck, I did everything I could to create a worthy, successful virtual teaching/learning program with my colleagues. While not perfect, it was very good and almost every student made significant progress. Where children did not make progress, we understood why. As the school year came to a close, I shared the many ideas we put in place as well as the additional needs that existed to make the program even better should the pandemic continue through the summer months and into the fall. Then when that happened and leadership began planning for the fall, they ignored teacher voice and opted to project their own lack of classroom experience and knowledge of what we had done onto the fall plans. They planned an unhealthy, disrepectful, and weak return to school in the fall--their plans not only neglected teacher voice or the good work we did in the spring, but their plans also put teachers' lives in danger--they saw us as their peons, people to manage, direct, and use/abuse, and not as the professionals we are, professionals with years of dedicated service, experience, knowledge, and skill. I knew that I could not return to such a situation--a situation where I would be used/abused and put in harm's way. I retired instead.

School systems that employ management/leadership models that negate educator experience, ideas, knowledge, and skill are on the path to destruction. Educators will not be able to work at their possible capacity in situations like this. Instead they will do what they have to for survival, and little else. The disrespect I noted in so many leaders' decisions, words, and voices were oppressive, inhumane, and frankly, simply not smart when it comes to building a strong, successful school environment. How money, time, and capacity are used and acknowledged in schools needs to be reconsidered with strength--there is too much good potential ignored and misused, and that includes teacher choice and voice. Educators, along with their students and families, should be the centerpiece of school systems everywhere.

Poor leadership models and infrastructure

Throughout my career, I was always dissatisfied with the wasteful organization, money, and time at the leadership level. While educators often didn't even have time to use a bathroom, go to a doctor's appointment, make a call, or take care of a sick family member, leaders had the luxury to do as they pleased with little accountability. Mostly leaders did not know what teachers were doing, and as long as parents didn't complain, they stayed mostly away from schools, teachers, students, and families. These leaders, including some school committee members, would talk about school without the knowledge of what was really happening and without the knowledge about how children learn and the many, awesome tools out there to help educate all children. This was always frustrating. In my opinion, there is a lot of waste in school leadership models--there are too many people distanced from the actual teaching and learning with too much power--these people are often a burden, not a support. How can we make change in this area?

First, it is essential to look at time-on-task for leaders. I believe school leadership models waste a lot of time with issues and efforts that don't matter or do anyone any good. I had coaches who were earning full salaries who had no idea what was happening in the classroom and did not understand the content being taught. These people would send out random ideas every so often that were either too late or too distanced from the curriculum to be of any use. In my opinion, the coaching models in place where I worked were a waste of money. Also, many leaders would simply hire consultants to do the work without any care of whether that consultant work was successful or not. Over my tenure, consultant after consultant was hired to update and better programs, and most of these initiatives were dead ends. The consultant came, shared ideas, and left without much change. There were a few instances where consultants did make good change. Further, there were many leaders who were so high on their positions that they never listened to educators. For example, I took a real interest in technology and used it to help students learn often. Yet the technology leader would never support my work--I had to pay for almost all the technology I used, and whenever I asked for support, all I got was a lot of negative feedback and forms to fill out. The technology department, for the most part, was a hurdle to any good work in that area. I had to do it on my own and with the help of outside consultants and experts who were willing to help. Leadership models in school are often poorly constructed, managed, and utilized--often leaders are without the knowledge they need to make good decisions. This was particularly visible with some of the system's school committee members who were making decisions with a lack of modern information about how learning happens or how schools work--they clearly had an attitude that teachers were dumb and they knew more. I believe, in the long run, they will find that this is working to their detriment if they want to continue to foster a strong school system. 

Neglected school buildings and environments

All over America, businesses have been building incredible campuses while school buildings have been neglected. The richest Americans send their children to gorgeous private schools often located on multi-acre campuses while poor and middle-class students are often relegated to old, crowded buildings with sometimes unsafe and polluted structures, schoolyards and communities. This is horrible. America needs to update their school environments for both in-school and virtual learning so that every child in America has access to an inspiring, workable, safe school environments. There are many creative ways to do this--one is to tax businesses more to support great schools. After all, businesses profit from well educated employees. 

School evolution

Schools and education have to continually evolve. In the past, I was very pleased with what my state, Massachusetts, had done to build a strong school system. In many ways, I've been disappointed with the leadership during the pandemic because I feel that our leadership at the state level has been disrespectful to educators and not broad-thinking about the needs of families, children, educators and schools.

The pandemic has laid bare the lack of support for working parents, children, the environment, teachers, and schools--it's a chance to take a hard look at what exists now and what we want to build for the future. In my opinion, many communities are still operating with outdated ideas about what makes a strong, happy family and school environment. We need to reimagine life in the United States to do better, and as we reimagine, we have to consider the following questions?

  • What can we do to ensure that every child and every family has what they need to be healthy, happy, and strong for themselves and others?
  • What can we do to create greater environmental health in communities, natural lands, homes, schools, and other buildings?
  • How can we connect child/family-care agencies in ways that streamline the accessibility to needed quality health, recreation, nutrition, and other supports?
  • How can we better support children from birth to age six--what can we do to ensure healthy, happy early life experiences. Strong, healthy, happy early life experiences prevent a lot of troubles later on--this is a great investment for any community?
  • How can we support working families more--what can we do to give families adequate leave time to take care of their children, the time/money to build their career knowledge/skill, and time for healthy, happy recreation--the kind of events that build a strong, caring community and culture?
  • How can we ensure that our schools and education systems are evolving with the best new knowledge, progams, and results? What do we need to do? 
While I know that everyone is busy just surviving during this pandemic, we cannot loose the opportunity to see this as a ripe time to analyze what's going on and to work on a better vision for our families, schools, and communities. David Culberhouse has some terrific writing and research which supports efforst like this. 

Tremendous opportunity for positive growth and change

The pandemic found most people unprepared for the changes we're experiencing, yet most people have risen to the challenge and maintained some success during this time. There is a lot more that we can do to use what we've learned to recommit to building strong supports and structures for optimal family life, the environment, education, health care, and communities. It's time to begin reimagining where we want to go and what we want to do. We have to ask the important questions about what matters to us and why that matters--we have to listen to the voices of all stakeholders to make optimal change and growth in the many ways possible. We can do this, and I look forward to working on a process like this in my own, new chapter of life--a chapter which finds me shoring up my capacity to contribute in ways I find both meaningful and productive for my own life and the lives of others. 


Wednesday, October 07, 2020

MIstakes in the Field

 As I right my ship toward new endeavor, I am thinking about some of the errors I made during my 34-year teaching career. There were many successes, but I know it's important to focus on the errors too.

Meeting problems head on, early on

Mainly in the early years of my career and sometimes later on, rather than meeting problems head on, I would discuss those problems with others quietly using conjecture, judgement, and worry. It would have been a lot better to address those issues head on, early on to figure out what to do. Back room conversations, conjecture, and worry lead nowhere, whereas transparent, respectful confrontation and discussion of issues holds great potential. Too often I tried to solve problems on my own as well. Later in my career, I worked more with colleagues and my local union to solve problems collectively--that was better. 

Establish vision and seek incremental change

I often wanted change to happen right away, I didn't consider the strength of incremental change. In hindsight, it's good to establish a great vision, break it down into parts, and then work to achieve each section of the vision. There is great power in incremental change.

Take time out

Dreamers like me get frustrated at times, and when emotions run high, you mostly have to take time out rather than let the emotions loose. Some emotion is okay, but too much obstructs the work you want to do. 

Prioritize

You can't do or be all, prioritize what's most important to you. Focus on that. Chart your progress. Reflect and revise. Seek critique from trusted colleagues and others. 

Take care of yourself

You can't take care of anyone else if you don't take care of yourself. 

Sunday, October 04, 2020

Surviving slumps

 I've known people who had long slumps, slumps that lasted months and years. I ached for those people and tried to help as I could. I just weathered a three-day slump. Fortunately, I was able to give into it knowing that slumps are a natural occurence in everyone's life, and an especially regular situation when your facing pandemic limitations and ramifications. 

What caused the slump?

The slump was caused by a number of physical and environmental factors. There was also an element of procrastination related to completing some needed, undesireable tasks. The more I neglected the tasks, the greater the weight of procrastination came. From 6-22, I was a great procrastinator who put off doing my school work until the last minute all the time. Once I left college and began working, I learned how to avoid procrastination and, for the most part, completed tasks ahead of time. I loved what that change brought to my life. But recently, a few new and not-so-inviting tasks led me back to some deep and unhealthy patterns of procrastination which, in part, led to the slump.

Slumps often reveal hard truths

There's always some truth to be found in a slump. I remember that one friend who experienced a lengthy slump had to face some truths about his family and his own personal limitations that were unpleasant. Once he faced those, he moved out of the slump. For me, I had to face some hard truths about some work that has to be done--work that's quite ordinary as you think about people's lives, but work that is not inviting, but has to be done. The hard truth is that I simply have to do those jobs--there's no way to avoid them. I can do them and I will. That proclamation lifted the dark clouds of the slump, and I'm over it. 

Slumps will happen

Slumps happen in every aspect of life. The key is to figure out why they happen and the truths those slumps reveal. Once you've remedied the situation by taking care of your physical needs and embracing the truths and resulting actions you need to do related to those truths, you're ready to move out of that slump. In general, it's best to give into the slump at first to figure out what that slump means. Of course, if it starts to last too long, you'll need to get some help to move out of the slump. 

Life is rarely a steady stream. There will always be good times and challenging times. As we acknowledge this, we learn to work with it in good ways, ways that help us to live lives we're proud of and lives we enjoy. Onward.