Monthly Archives: March 2015

Hovering the Surface, Then Diving Back In

Last week was our spring break, and it could not have come soon enough — I felt completely saturated with learning.

The vacation permitted me to do something important: not go to school. I tucked away my work and left my laptop on my desk at home as I packed for a trip with my family. I didn’t plan to do a lot of deep thinking or reading while on vacation — what I really wanted was to skim along pages and unfamiliar streets alike. With just a few books in my bag, I felt especially weightless as our plane took off.

We flitted in and out of places in London, not worrying about seeing everything there is to see or doing everything there is to do. During our trip, we visited the Churchill War Rooms for under an hour and the Victoria and Albert Museum for about two. Perhaps the longest thing we did was wander the stacks in Foyle’s bookstore, pulling titles and filling our arms with the ones we wished we could take home to read later.

Each day, we meandered through the city without an agenda, dipping in and out of parks and markets, marveling at the ancient city with its modern edge like spectators at a ballgame or a play. But while we did not go deeply into things, we nevertheless learned a lot from our cursory glances and fleeting thoughts. We were able to make real-life connections to things we have been deeply immersed in for the past few months at home — Harry Potter and Great Expectations, the bloody history of the Tudors, and how to perfect the English breakfast.

We had a memorable week away but felt ready to come home. A change of pace and place, of observation rather than analysis, helped each of us to feel reenergized and ready to dive below the surface once again.

Collaboration & Design

I recently attended the National Association of Independent School annual conference in Boston. The theme was “design the revolution,” an apt choice given the current focus in education on instructional design, design thinking, and the digital revolution.

I hadn’t been to an NAIS conference in over 15 years, and a lot has changed. Every workshop was supported by state of the art technology, and there were professional artists put to the task of doodling, or making visual representations, while speakers talked. But the thing that stood out the most to me was that most of the workshops were led by several people sharing the stage, often from a number of different schools.

Not so long ago, workshop leaders mostly stood alone before an audience. Likewise, not long ago, teachers ran their classes as they individually saw fit. But today, the teacher who doesn’t collaborate with colleagues, who doesn’t communicate with other teachers in an effort to not only expand pedagogy but also to verify practice, is looked upon with an increasingly skeptical eye.

There’s no doubt that it’s important for adults who work with children to model the 21st century skills that have been identified as being crucial for future success, collaboration being one of them. But it’s not always easy. Many of our role models were essentially lone wolves, professors who holed up for hours in libraries, adding to their own knowledge and then, in a quasi-magical lecture delivered twice a week, sharing that knowledge in what often felt more like a meteor shower than class.

It’s exciting to see teachers working together to deliver the best possible curricula using the best possible pedagogy. Technology has allowed for a tremendous uptick in collaboration and communication among teachers seeking to develop their knowledge and practice as teachers.

But whatever happens in the next few years in and to our schools, I hope we will always allow — in fact urge — teachers to spin some unexpected magic of their own, to step out alone onto a stage or in a classroom. After all, a spark can be ignited in many different ways.

Students at the Center

In addition to  other commitments, this semester I’m “teaching” an independent study on contemporary literature. I put teaching in quotes because from the start, the deal I struck with four seniors was that if we added this study to our plates, they would share leadership of the class and, whenever possible, I would follow their collaborative decisions as to pace, assessment, and discussion topics.

They chose the books (we’re reading Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See now); they chose the place (in the library on the couch near the front); they have a say in which day of the week we meet (it really depends); they decide how to respond to the literature (I suggested they keep a journal, but they decide what goes in there).

I’ve learned a lot as a student of my students. First and foremost, I’ve learned to hold my thoughts for longer than I usually do. I know I could still do better. Nevertheless, in the process of keeping quiet I’ve learned that if given the space to lead, students not only can, but will.

These four ask surprising questions and don’t mind not knowing the answers. They mark beautiful passages and agreeably read the words out loud for all of us to hear and contemplate. They contextualize narratives and probe at characters without any prompting. They search the internet when they have questions that can’t be answered by the text. While they don’t go deeply into that digital information, they do sit with what they find online and question it as well.

When I first heard about “student centered” learning,and the push in education to move teachers away from lecture and toward collaboration, even management, I wasn’t sure about the benefits. Good teachers have what is called “deep pedagogical content knowledge” and students by nature of their relative youth and lack of experience typically do not.

I’m still hopeful that there will always be a place for teachers to share the knowledge they have acquired over time with students who have not yet had the time. But the medium and the method is clearly changing, and I’m becoming more and more convinced that it’s a good thing if it means that young people are increasingly comfortable partnering with adults to gain skills, fluency, and voice.