Thursday, June 14, 2018

Making Sense of it All: Learning Design

Like a delicate design our team has been working daily to craft a plan that meets students' interests, needs, and challenges. We have woven many standards into meaningful study, study supported by grants, special events, field studies, problems, and projects. We take this program design seriously and debate the way we use time often to make sure we are promoting the best possible teaching and learning for children.

This kind of teamwork and design matters a lot to me. It matters to me because I know that when we make the program more tailored, holistic, and targeted, children are more excited, enthusiastic, and engaged in the learning. We also know that by providing students with these thoughtful learning experiences, students learn more and better. We often try new learning venues too, and then we assess the merits of those venues as we move forward to more planning and teaching. We stay informed by reading, research, attending conferences, taking courses, and sharing ideas and information regularly with one another.

It is this evolutionary, prescriptive design process that aims to teach each child well that makes teaching meaningful. This process is much better than doing the same thing year after year without any good analysis or effort to truly teach the children well.

The way we complete this work demands a lot of time. We don't mind putting in the extra time if that time results in elevating students' knowledge, concept, and skill in meaningful ways. For example,  during the last several weeks, teachers on the team devoted countless extra hours to helping every child become an expert on one individual in history. We helped students read, research, write, and create as they prepared to portray 76 notable people. In the end, the students' learning and presentation were top-notch. We would not have reached success without good teamwork and extra effort, and the reward was in the students' sense of pride, confidence, and new knowledge and skill at the presentation. The same has been true for countless other efforts during the year including multiple field studies, visiting experts, special events, STEAM projects, and science study. We continually and carefully choreograph the year with students' learning at the center--we know that education when done well is engaging, child-centered, positive, and rightly challenging and rewarding too.

As a team we've been talking about deepening and broadening our sense of team. I have played with numerous ways to do this including new scheduling routines and ideas. I've also been advocating for modern ways to share information, develop a sense of team, and work together to truly uplift student learning and experience of school. At the center of my education philosophy related to this work are the following tenets:
  • Good teaching is child-centered and holistic.
  • Regular, consistent, targeted, honest, meaningful, and respectful communication and conversation are essential to good teams.
  • The best way to teach the standards is to embed the standards into quality learning experiences.
  • Quality learning experiences include a catchy start, rationale, explicit instruction, multi-modal online and offline learning experiences, assessment, reflection, revision, creativity, problem solving, and design. 
  • Flat, narrow learning is not as rich as holistic learning that teaches the child first and the curriculum second.
  • Lead time, planning, and prep result in good teaching. 
  • Positive relationships are critical to good teaching and learning.
  • To teach well requires consistent time-on-task with students--often those who are distanced from students do not understand in real time what it takes to teach children well. 
With the grade-level team this is not a problem--we continually work together with honesty and care to forward the education of each and every student. 

The greater challenge comes with the coordination of the many, many educators who serve our team. Our students are taught by many specialists, special educators, therapists, teaching assistants, coaches, and counselors. The challenges here include time, focus, and philosophy. 

When teams are as big as ours, it's difficult to find the time to converse or coordinate what we do. In this regard, it's best to divide and conquer by deciding who does what, and when we want to work together it's best to make time to plan and prepare together for that shared endeavor. For example typically specialists have their own curriculum goals and forward those goals with students during scheduled times during the year. There are a few projects where we all work together and for those projects, it's important to make time to plan together. 

Differing focus and philosophy can be stumbling blocks to good teaming too. Some educators may define a good education differently and it's important to discuss that. For example when working with special educators, therapists, and counselors, it's important to discuss what we think is most important for our teaching time together--who should do what and how. To discuss this will help us to understand the focus and philosophy of each educator, and that understanding will help to create a greater sense of team and shared goals. For example is it better to pull a child out of the classroom to help a child strengthen a skill or is it better to stay in the classroom? I think that both answers can be right depending on the learning goal and what's needed to build that skill. Sometimes the noise in the classroom hinders good learning while at other times the camaraderie of classmates encourages greater learning. It depends what the learning goal is and what the individual learner needs to meet that goal.

Of course good communication is essential to any team. Expectations need to be clearly communicated and discussed regularly, and it's important that the expectations are sensitive to who students are and what they need. For example our students currently take countless tests. I think they take too many tests, and was upset recently by what I realized was yet another mandated test in the last weeks of school. I don't see any real rationale or use for this final test at a time when students are exhausted. Also had I realized this expectation, I would have planned the year differently so that I gave the test at a time when students would be able to do their best. It's a set-up for failure to give students a test when they are not prepared. It is also an insult to my professional reputation and efforts to layer on additional assessments without clear communication. I want my students to do well with all expectations and to direct me to give a test unexpectedly when students are not prepared changes the program I've worked carefully to design, and it also means that students' scores will not be a good reflection of the work we have done and continue to do. A request like this seems insensitive to me and insensitive to students too. When demands are thrust upon us like this, it is demeaning and makes a teacher like me feel a lot like a robot or peon rather than an experienced, professional educator. It also feels like tests and data trump the end-of-year needs of children and the program we've carefully planned and worked to create.

Sadly, in school, many teachers often feel diminished. Our voices and choices are continually challenged no matter how much we read, research, and teach--we are challenged in our schools, our school systems, communities, states, and country. It is difficult to be a teacher who cares because often it feels like if you don't care so much, you are more quickly embraced and welcomed into the fold--caring teachers are often too much work for the many directors and leaders that surround them, the kinds of leaders and directors who prefer to dictate than collaborate. 

It's not a perfect world of teaching and learning anywhere--in every place the programs, professionals, and efforts are evolving. I need to take a giant step back during the final days of school, days when I'm feeling quite diminished with regard to the work I've been doing, work that receives little respect or regard even though the students are happy, most expectations have been met (note that the expectations equal far more than a year so to meet most expectations is positive), and the program has been well regarded by families too. 

Every year at the end of the year I get upset. I get upset because of the residual effect of so many special and deep end-of-year teaching and learning events including statewide tests, big projects, and other special events. I become upset due to the sensitivity of spending a whole year focused on a group of children and families who will be moving on--there's a natural sensitivity to this separation. I feel upset because every year at the end of the year, there are countless added expectations with very little time to complete those requests some of which do not feel meaningful or well chosen. I feel upset because many of the typical supports are removed from our inclusion classrooms at the end of the year so there are more student needs to service on your own as the teacher.

I am aware of this emotion and have been working to coach myself each day towards greater positivity. I am coaching myself to follow my philosophy of putting children first and teaching them well. I need to steer clear of those who do not support my good work, but instead continually challenge what I believe and what I can do with unsupportive language, acts, and efforts--challenges like this always needle me at this time of year, a time of year when these challenges seem more present and troubling.

Taking one step in front of another, I'll forward the day--a very busy day when students will complete building their cardboard creations and then paint. It will be a messy, intense day of student support, but as in years past and with every project, there's always the messy, intense stage sometime in the middle or towards the end of the project--the upside down bell curve of project work. 

Time to teach, time to do the best I can. Onward.