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Friday, July 29, 2016

Learn Well: Tackle a Tough Task


When you have a great and difficult task, something perhaps almost impossible, if you only work a little at a time, every day a little, suddenly the work will finish itself." - Isak Dinesen

One recent summer afternoon, I had the time to talk to a relative I rarely see about her life and interests. She told me about her passion for crafts including her latest focus, soap making. Her story included her learning path. She watched many videos about soap making, used trial and error, talked to soap makers, and visited stores that sold homemade soap. As she spoke, she lit up with enthusiasm and a bit of frustration too as she relayed the challenge of squeezing her passing into her already busy schedule of work and family life.

In all the years I've known this relative, I never had the chance to really listen to her tell a story about her deep affection for crafts and the passion she has for making. I could easily understand her emotions as I feel quite similarly when it comes to teaching and learning and all the creativity involved in our work as educators.

Then today, I sat down and started writing a book. I've tried that before, but this time, I have a specific audience in mind which has deepened my desire to get the job done. Like my cousin, I found myself searching the net for just right advice and the best book writing and publishing program. I decided to use Pages and then I got started with the book, a book I've actually drafted before, and one I want to better in order to share at an upcoming conference and possibly beyond that. I know that the book has merit as I return to the words and content area often to inspire my own work, and I know that many others consult the book's content areas often as they teach and learn.

Writing a book is a tough task. There's lots to think about, and as soon as I started creating this book, I gained admiration and respect for the many authors I know and admire. Sitting down to create with care made me realize just how much time, attention, and focus authors invest in their work. This attempt to write a book has sensitized me to authorship. In fact, I'll never truly look at a book in the same way now that I'm trying to write one myself.

This experience has once again made me realize how we have to give students the experience to create real world, deep structures and results of learning. We have to challenge students to tackle the tough tasks because with those tough tasks comes deep knowledge, process, and respect for learning and teaching well.

In fact, as I write this book, I think that every high school student should be responsible for a significant, published or produced result of learning, exploration, investigation, and creativity by the time they graduate. They should have to go the full process from inspiration to research to creation and publication or production. Last year I visited our high school's STEAM Center and had the chance to see students' inventions--they had that experience of going from inspiration to prototype. Next steps would include greater advertising, new iterations, funding, and production. It was amazing to see their learning, and in fact I tried to gain support to import one of their designs to our school. Unfortunately i was not successful due to a number of reasons, but I may try again.

It doesn't really matter what students create, publish, or produce, but instead, it's that process that matters as that process builds deep knowledge, confidence, and connections that motivate and empower continued successful efforts in a students' area of exploration, passion, interest, and need.

To learn well, we need to tackle tough tasks. In the best of circumstances we'll be able to tackle the challenge and find support.  Nevertheless, it's never too soon to identify the challenge and begin the journey. As so many have said, you'll never regret it.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Public Education: Opportunity for All


I remember my first day of school.

Dressed in a crisp plaid dress with a matching kerchief and brown leather shoes, I proudly marched up the wide, shiny wooden steps of my large, brick city elementary school. A small group of teachers looked down at us with welcoming smiles. I was so happy and excited.

My parents were also happy. Two loving, working class parents who had big dreams for me--dreams that I'd be the first one in the family to go to college. They reminded me of those dreams regularly, and I did go to college and graduate school after that.

School for me was an open door to the world. My enthusiastic and dedicated teachers taught me to read, write, and study in every subject area. They and my parents brought me to museums, parks, and nature preserves. Those teachers listened to my ideas, answered my questions, told stories, and awakened me to interests, investigations, and information that inspired future study and endeavor.

While I was an eager and ready student, my bright brother found school to be a laborious, unwelcoming place. As I skipped down the hall, he was relegated to standing against the wall because of "bad behavior." While I quickly learned to read and write, dyslexia hindered his ability to learn in the ways expected in those days. While school lifted my confidence and sense of self, it served to demean my brother.

My parents' enthusiasm for my schooling turned to frustration when it came to my brother's experience. He struggled so much with the expected learning yet his mind and ideas were bright, capable, and trapped by the fact that no one really understood how a boy like him learned and what they needed to do to build his confidence, inspire his love of learning, and help him attain the skill, concept, and knowledge he was so capable of developing.

This troubled me, and I was not alone. In the neighborhood it was clear to see who found school easy and welcoming, and who found it to be troubling and uninviting. The children who struggled generally turned to other activities to engage their curiosity and build camaraderie. They mostly hung out on the train trestle by the edge of the school playground. As my parents would tell it later, drugs were introduced to the neighborhood and so many of those teenagers and even preteens and younger children would get involved. You could hear the loud music and raucous play from the tracks late into the day and night. The gang, involved in drugs, were harmless to others, but often destructive to themselves with addiction and risky behavior. Thankfully it was a time before the ready availability or acceptance of guns, knives, and neighborhood violence. Though there was the occasional brawl.

For me school continued to be a haven. I did well. I enjoyed learning. I was headed for college. But for my brother, school continued to be a disastrous path of overwhelming challenge, little support, and struggle. He turned more and more away from school towards his comrades and their collective risky behavior. His actions created struggle at home as well and my parents were split between one child for whom school was a successful path towards achievement and one child for whom school was anything but successful. They had four more children who all fell somewhere on the continuum between my experience and my brother's experience of school.

My brother's struggle led me, in part, to teach. I chose teaching because I want every child to experience what I had--a positive, supportive path towards a good life. My brother was treated unfairly. He wasn't given a chance to experience school as a welcoming, supportive, and successful path. I don't blame his teachers as, to a large degree, what happened to him was due to the ignorance of the times. People didn't understand dyslexia, active boys, learning dispositions, or how the brain works. They had no idea that every child can learn when given the right supports and encouragement. Instead, he was relegated to descriptors such as "behavior problem," "unable to learn," "low skilled," or "uninvested." Teachers and others back then didn't know what we know today.

I watched my family and teachers struggle with my brother, and then I watched my brother struggle too. I watched his own children struggle as well. The ignorance of the past propelled itself into the future with injured self concept, mistrust, and disengagement.

I know, in my heart of hearts, that there's a good place for every child in this world. I know that every child is capable of success and that learning has its own path and pace for every single child. I understand that what's most important when it comes to teaching well is that relationship you build with a child--a relationship that says, "I believe in you and you have what it takes to live a good life for yourself and others." My brother's great struggle has been a teacher to me. I've learned that what we do for and to children carries forth throughout their lives and the lives of their children and grandchildren. Every time we reach out to do what's right for a child, we positively impact the world for generations to come. In contrast, when we neglect, hurt, or injure a child in any way, we hurt and injure the community that surrounds that child and that child's family to come.

It's not a perfect world and no parent or teacher will be the perfect coach, educator, or mentor--but we can work together to build the best possible schools and education system. We can support the terrific opportunity that public schools hold for the lives of individuals, communities, and our nation, and not give up on public schools and continue to use our collective voice and dollars to build schools that serve all children.

My choice to teach is based on the promise and potential education holds for positive lives today and into the future. My parents' pride and dreams for me are embedded in my choice, and my parents struggles and frustration with my brother's experience of school is similarly embedded since it has propelled me forward to envision schools that do not harm, but instead elevate and celebrate every child.

Too many today want to give up on the notion of public schools. They want to use our public funds, the hard-earned tax dollars from all citizens, to support schools for some, but not for others. They want to give our tax dollars to private charter schools who see school as a "corporation" for financial gain and a way to create workers for their industry rather than to invest our public dollars into a high quality, holistic, and inclusive education for all, the kind of education that teaches well and allows students to find promising paths to good lives.

Yes, our public schools are not perfect, but they do hold tremendous potential for what is right and good. Giving away needed dollars will not better public schools, but instead dismantle public school, tearing apart the great institution of democracy that we have assembled. It is vital that the public decide how their collective funds are spent and it's critical when spending those dollars that the investment is made to support all of our children, especially our children most in need as they will be the backbone of our future society. A good education for all will translate into a strong, prosperous country of equality and opportunity.

As a little girl in a plaid dress and kerchief with shiny brown leather shoes, I remember taking the big steps up those elementary school stairs. It was a climb well worth it. Now as an educator, I urge you to take the big steps that we need to take to support our public schools, the foundation of our democracy, so that every child gets a quality education, a chance to succeed, the confidence to live a good life, and the model of your generous commitment and contribution that they'll replicate in their own lives.

As a people we hold great promise for our lives today and the lives of our children and grandchildren tomorrow. This promise is a great challenge and opportunity to live and do well.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Professional Priorities

I'm moved by impressive effort.

I'm inspired by good work.

I like to know what other people are doing in schools so that I can learn, get better.

I recognize that I am but one of many moving down this teaching/learning path.

Probably better than anyone, I know the many ways that I can improve my craft and better my teaching--there's always lots to do in this regard, and new challenges arrive daily.

The errors of the past were not intentional, but clearly part of the learning curve that comes with teaching and learning well. It's a mighty adventure as we aim to do better, learn more, and work with others to forward what we can do.

I'm making time this summer to think and rethink the path as schools change--to look deeply at my role--where it's working and where it can be better.

I love the challenge that teaching holds, and yes, I get frustrated at the pace and depth of change at times.

In the days that follow, the work will include the following:

Salary and Working Conditions Committee
I'll study our contract and think about ways that this document can better situate us for the good teaching and learning possible.

Professional Learning
I'll engage in a number of professional learning events in the days ahead, events which are opportunities to learn with engaged teachers throughout Massachusetts.

Curriculum Map, Schedules, and Goal Setting
I'll work with my professional team to goal set, map the curriculum, and solidify the schedule in the weeks ahead.

Learning Environment
I'll devote the time necessary to update the learning environment to make it inviting for every student.

Teacher Leadership, Policy, Communication, and Vision
I'll continue to embark on learning more about teacher leadership, policy work, vision, and communication. As schools and structures change, there's much to learn in this sphere.

Simplify
I'll simplify routines and objects to make more time for meaningful work and endeavor.

Union Representative
I'll continue to update our website, listen to, and read related information, and work with the union team to support educators in my system and elsewhere.

Paperwork
I'll stop procrastinating and get the mounds of paperwork related to family and professional life done--a painful necessity :)

Friends and Family
I'll make time for those I love.

Getting the goals down to this simplicity is awesome as it clears the path for the good work to come.