Thursday, December 26, 2013

Yes, Virginia, There IS Hope For The Future

My best Christmas gift:  On the 24th, word came from my favorite subscription, Yes! Magazine, that one of my seniors won their National Student Writing Competition - to read and respond to an article by Simon Okelo.  When our young people are thinking and writing on this level, there is abundant reason to believe in a bright future!  Enjoy.

Doing Without 
Spencer Reed '14 
Most of what surrounds us is unnecessary. We could meet our needs with nothing but a small shelter, a single set of clothing, and some food. Not many people would choose to live with so little; certainly, some would (and do), but they are the exception rather than the rule. To some degree, it is clear that our possessions can increase our happiness beyond the point at which they meet our basic needs. For instance, for the families living in Manyatta described by Simon Okelo in his article, “Growing Up in a Kenyan Slum Taught Me the Real Value of Stuff,” more possessions could improve their quality of life. Some luxuries would have a noticeable effect on their lives, because they appreciate what they have to a greater degree than do people living in societies of excess. As demonstrated both anecdotally by his experiences and in most happiness surveys of rich and poor countries, the relationship between wealth and happiness is not an indefinite prescription for all worldly woes. 
I think there is a point of equilibrium between the opposite extremes of all-out consumerism and the simplicity forced by widespread poverty. However, I don’t believe that this balance is the same for all people. Instead, I think it should be the goal of each person to find their own compromise. This goal is more applicable for those lucky enough to have the ability to choose; while I may always simplify if I so choose, it is not generally possible for someone born into the opposite end of the global spectrum of wealth to simply choose a more materialistic life. I would not only like to find for myself a balance between simplicity and complexity, nature and produce, but to help make the freedom to have more but choose less more widely accessible. 
Given that the possessions of my family that contribute directly to the satisfaction of our basic needs are, for lack of a better word, necessary, I would classify almost all of the remainder of what we have as either for entertainment or comfort. The former could easily be condensed, and the latter is often redundant. We could easily halve our stuff without even noticing a change in our quality of life. Simply put, we have more than we need, and so does our society. We are beyond the costs of our way of life being passed on as externalities; at this point, we have so much stuff that it is detrimental to our own happiness. I don’t just mean in costs to the environment or the workers who suffer for us, but that we have pushed our materialism well past any equilibrium until it consumes us and prevents us from being happy. 
Change starts slowly. Simon Okelo learned to appreciate the real value of things, and so should we. Ideally, we might be able to reverse his process, spending extensive time in societies without our pervasive consumerism. Practically, sharing his revelation and the stories of others who have experienced similar shifts in perspective might be effective. Even if it’s not, change can begin with individuals. If you and I start to really appreciate our luxuries and choices, then will change the way we act; instead of being guided by the question of “Do I want this?” we should be guided by the question of “Do I need this?,” or, failing that, “Why do I want this?,” understanding that we can be just as happy or happier with less. 
I doubt that we’ll ever be reductionist enough to choose to live with nothing but our most basic necessities. However, by being more conscious of our decisions and questioning both our decisions and our possessions, we can get closer to equilibrium. We may choose to keep some of the things we don’t need, but we should remember that we can live without it. Buying for the sole purpose of having is a vice of our society. We would all be better off if we rejected the idea that more is always better just because it’s more; as Edward Abbey said, “Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.”

Monday, December 23, 2013

The Hackschooling Mindset

Many of you have probably already watched the brilliant TED Talk by 13-year old Logan LaPlante. I'm placing my bet right now that "hack" will be one of the 2014 Words of the Year - cause it gets right to the heart of what is happening to all institutions in society today.  This is the world the web is making, and there ain't no stopping it.  As humans, we've had our historical transitions that fundamentally transformed how we relate to the planet and to each other: the Neolithic transition to agriculture, the Industrial Revolution's transition to intensive energy use, and today, the Internet-borne access to information, to ideas, and to each other.

It's hard to clearly recognize and analyze all the dynamics of a revolution as you're in the middle of it.  But floods of books and blog posts are all attempting to do just that.  In my opinion, one of the most fundamental dynamics: The Hack Mindset.

The Hack Mindset is the spectrum opposite of Status Quo.  Nothing is "just the way it is."  Nothing goes unquestioned.  Nothing goes untried.  Hacking equals creative innovation.  Hacking equals fearlessness.  Hacking says, "Maybe we can do better.  And maybe we can't, but we won't know until we try."  It's the mindset that Logan is inheriting AND helping to create.

So, as a teacher . . . one of the first big questions that pops into my mind is: How do we hack schools - every school - so that students do not need to drop out and homeschool like Logan has?  How do we bring the lessons, spirit - the essence - of Logan's school hacking insights to our education system as a whole?

The answer to that question is as complex and dynamic as the Internet Revolution itself.  But if education of our youth is fundamental to the wellbeing of society, then this needs to be one of society's fundamental questions.  The answer is unfolding in schools across the country (prime example: The Partnership for Change in Burlington & Winooski, VT).  The answer is in asking young people like Logan what they are passionate about.  It is in teachers breaking through the isolation and collaborating through Professional Learning Communities.  It is in the uses of technology for authentic student learning.  It is in the rethinking of assessments, the focus on project-based learning, and the importance of social-emotional learning.  It's everywhere, and it's happening.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

If You Don't Know Where You're Going, You'll Probably End Up Somewhere Else

In this time of dizzying change, I think this quote from Laurence J.Peter gets right to the heart of what we as teachers need to do TOGETHER.  There are piles of different ideas about what a Good School is in the Information Age, and even bigger piles of opinions about how to get there.  My personal belief is that, while school change should certainly be data-driven and evidence-based, there is no one right way for a school to innovate and adapt to the shifting realities.

This brings me to what I believe is the very cornerstone for any school - heck, any organization, period - that wants to be dynamic and successful.  A school needs a SHARED VISION.  That shared vision can be different for every school out there, but the faculty, administration - AND the students and parents! - in every school needs to know where they're going, or they'll "probably end up somewhere else."  For more on this, check out Peter Senge's book "Schools that Learn."

The shared vision is the map.  Do you turn left, right or continue on straight ahead?  That depends on where you as a faculty have decided you want to go.  Designing a new unit - maybe with the help of a PLC?  How does it fit with the shared vision?  Crafting a new school policy?  Does it move the school toward the shared vision?

A shared vision also creates unity.  We're in this together and we know what we're working toward.  This is who we are as a learning community.

Developing the shared vision - that can be the hard part.  At Vermont Commons School we've tried a couple of different things - the most successful of which was a weekend retreat in the late winter of 2012 that brought together teachers, students, parents, trustees and alum.  We used an appreciative inquiry process to pull out the aspects of the school that we value most.  We also asked ourselves what we wanted the school to grow into.  It was powerful weekend - and most of us walked away with a great feeling  - but on Monday it was back to the day-to-day, and we haven't heard much about the gleanings of that day since.

That's pretty typical for schools, I would guess.  If developing the shared vision is hard, then putting it into action is even harder.

So at the beginning of this year I decided to try it again - smaller scale and with a very specific focus. I posed a handful of questions to the faculty, who chatted about them in groups of 5-6.  The questions were open-ended ones like: "A school should teach . . . ," "A good classroom is one which . . . ," and so on.  Even if there's little consensus at first, it's a great thing for teachers just to think about these kinds of questions that get so lost in our day-to-day hustle.  In our case, there was incredible consistency in what teachers said, and when we were done I took all the feedback from my colleagues and made this Wordle:

I have to admit, I get goosebumps very time I look at it!

The specific focus?  To make sure this doesn't become just another feel-good activity that gets done and then forgotten, my plan is to print this piece of art as a giant poster to hang on the wall in the room where we have Faculty Meetings, Department Chair Meetings, and Professional Learning time. And I plan to encourage us to refer to it as we make decisions and discuss everything from the mundane to the big picture.  We should measure our actions, programs, policies and structures against it.  It's our compass and our map.

I'll reflect on how that's going in a later post.

Friday, December 13, 2013

The Wealth of Parent Communities

Certainly not every school has parents with financial wealth, but every school has parents with a wealth of knowledge, experience and skills.  That fact has really started to sink in for me this year.  Starting last year, a motivated parent at Vermont Commons School began surveying parents and compiling a Parent Resources Inventory.  It asked them what they have to share that could add to the curriculum and student learning.

At the beginning of this year, I perused the list, mostly out of interest, and immediately possibilities began jumping out at me.  A parent who does climate change research on Vermont forests; perfect for my senior Ecological Economics class!  A father who has spent a lot of time working in central and eastern Africa; perfect for my students who are collaborating on a project with students in Mzuzu, Malawi!  And another parent who is a professor of philosophy & religion at St. Michael's College, just down the road; what an opportunity for my 9th grade religions unit.

It's a win-win-win. The parents are honored to be invited to help teach a class.  The teacher and the students get an enriched curriculum and experience.  And the school develops an even stronger relationship with its parent community.  What's not to like?!

Check out this video I made of our visiting philosophy & religion professor, and think about the depth of thought and discussion these 9th grade students are having as a result!

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Video Production is the New Research Paper

Watch this wonderful news report here!

For the past ten years as a Social Studies teacher at Vermont Commons School, working with high-achieving students, the quintessential history research paper has been a sacred staple of my curricula. A 9th grade student would write a 5-7 page paper, but by the time students were in my 11th grade 19th-century history class - look out! - they were expected to write 15-20 page papers.  This was hell for some, and a great experience for others.

Why did I find this to be a worthwhile use of student time?  To be honest, at first I assigned these papers because it just seemed like the Social Studies class thing to do.  Heck, I had to write my share of research papers back in school, and I gained a great deal from the experiences!  As I assigned and graded papers for the first couple of years, I began to refine the process and see what kinds of higher-order thinking were happening:

  1. Students were choosing their own topics, within the parameters of the course material.  This was giving the students a rare opportunity to choose what they wanted to dig deep into, in their learning.  This idea of student voice and choice in pursuing their interests and passions in school has become a really exciting issue for me, and I'd like to explore it more in a future blog post. In the meantime, if you're interested, check out Dennis Littky's Big Picture Schools.
  2. Students engaged in a process of identifying important questions and then figuring out how to find the answers, and organize the information they found.
  3. Students practiced making a persuasive argument.  I required them to present a thesis and then defend it throughout the paper with arguments and evidence.
  4. As part of learning to be both persuasive and scholarly, students were required to cite all their sources with footnotes & bibliography.  They learned about assessing credible sources.
  5. I required an outline to be submitted before writing began.  We all know our penchant for diving straight into the writing without a clear plan.  Creating an outline can seem like an unnecessary step . . . though it's probably the most valuable step in the process.  The outline also gave me a chance to catch any problem papers before the students went too far down the writing road.
  6. I required a draft that I spent significant time reading and giving feedback on.  The first draft emphasized the importance of iteration and revision.  Again, something so valuable that both students and adults avoid at all costs.
For all these reasons, and more, I have always valued the research paper process.

But over the past year I have started to wonder if there are more relevant ways to practice these same higher-order skills.  Long research papers are great . . . but who actually reads them in the real world?    Are research papers the vehicle by which my students will use these skills after finishing school - or are they simply an intellectual exercise?  Is their generation informed and persuaded by long online research papers, or by other mediums?

I started hearing about and observing the prominence of video in the real-world learning of students, and immediately thought that it would be fun to do with students.  But it would also take LOTS of time.  Would it be time well spent?

My weeklong summer course with RETN answered that question for me.  Video, I realized, could practice every skill I listed above.  In addition, video is inherently more fun and engaging for students, resulting in more learning.  Video also necessitates group collaboration, thus incorporating a crucial 21st century skill.  And video requires concision.  Make your point, make it clearly, and cut the frills.  Paralleling the above list:
  1. Student groups choose their topics.
  2. They research and organize their information.
  3. I required the students to make a point to the viewer in their video.  Teach us something!
  4. For lessons on copyright and credibility, video includes everything that a research paper requires, but also includes images and music.  Of course they want to use their favorite pop song, but sorry, no go!
  5. The video version of an outline is the Storyboard and Script - used by every professional in the film industry.  All the elements of an outline plus sketched scenes. Beautiful!
  6. And as for iteration and revision, groups presented their drafts to the class half way through the editing process for group critique.  The students all learned the process of peer feedback, and learned that there's always more you can do to improve your work!
I recently finished my first attempt at video production in the classroom with our Odyssey Video Project and, while there are a LOT of kinks for us to work out for future projects, I have come away from the experience convinced that video production is a powerful way to nurture the time-tested skills of scholarly research paper writing - in a way that can engage students and develop additional skills that may be far more relevant and useful in their lives.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Students as Producers of Media, Not Just Consumers

Watch this wonderful news report here!

So, each school year I like to choose an area in which to try something new in my classrooms.  Something that's a challenge and could go really wrong . . . or really right.  This year it's multi-media student productions - primarily video.  I guess I am so drawn to this because I see our world as increasingly media/information oriented.  We all know that our students are rabid consumers of media - the good, the bad and the ugly.  I think it's awesome, because I see my students guiding much of their own learning by following the information threads that interest them most.

But I don't want my students to only be consumers of information - I want them to produce it as well.  The internet is a beautiful things because it's two-way, unlike television.  That means young people can contribute to the intellectual conversations that are happening in cyberspace - whether social, political, literary, scientific, anything!  If the days of textbook head-filling are really gone, then we need to begin to see students (and ourselves) as the producers of intellectual media.  (For more on this idea, see Douglas Rushkoff's book Program or be Programmed.

And it's become so much easier to do because the cost of the technology has gone down while the quality has gone up.  All the tools are accessible to many schools.  What are the hurdles?  For me they were 1) a lack of personal facility with video equipment and editing software and 2) the ubiquitous lack of time in every teachers schedule.

The latter I dealt with by making the uncomfortable decision to let go of a little of my Must-Cover-Lots-of-Content mindset.  That's a topic for another blog post.

The former I dealt with by signing up for a summer teacher workshop called Using Video Production in Your Classroom, run by the local treasure RETN (Regional Educational Television Network).  The five-day course gave me the skills and the confidence and, more than that, the flame under my butt to really go for it this year.  Wonderfully, RETN also loans equipment for free to teachers who have been trained through them.  Bonus!

I decided to make my 9th grade students my guinea pigs.  Our first project: The Odyssey Video Project.  I learned that the students would be reading Homer's Odyssey in their Language Arts class, so I decided they would explore some aspect of the historicity of the epic tale.  We created groups of 2-3 and I set the students loose to begin researching and identifying the focus of their video project.

I'll get more in to the process of the project in my next post, but for now here is the result: a playlist of 6 videos of varying degrees of quality from my 9th grade students!  Please watch and post any feedback to me.

The other "create media" projects this year have been blog curation by my seniors in Ecological Economics, and podcast production by both seniors and 9th graders.  More on those later as well!

Saturday, November 30, 2013

The Greatest Adventure Begins with a Single Step

I suppose the title of this post refers to both the adventure of teaching, and the adventure of blogging.  While this blog will focus on the wild ride of teaching high school students in the 21st Century, the act of actually sitting down to write my first blog post is a first, single step for me as well.  It's a step that has been long in the coming and, I hope, will be part of a great adventure of processing my own experiences in a community of friends and teaching professionals.

A bit about me.  I've been teaching at the high school level for fourteen years now; ten of those at a magical little school in South Burlington, VT called Vermont Commons School.  My first four years were spent cutting my chops at Erasmus Hall High School in Flatbush, Brooklyn - not a long stint by any means, but long enough to get a taste of what it's like to teach in a massive, bureaucratic school system.  I loved the students I got to work with each day (mostly recent immigrants from the West Indies) and I appreciated my hard-working, devoted colleagues, but I had very little love for the NYC school system, the way it treated its students and employees, and the systemic shackles that kept teachers bound to a micro-managed curriculum.  We were expected to be automatons rather than creative, inspired professionals.

I left the school system after four years, not because I was fleeing the NYC Board of Education, or the fate I saw in the cynical, defeated, just-get-me-through-to-retirement eyes of my 30-year veteran colleagues - but because my wife and I wanted to begin a family somewhere outside a major city.  We settled on beautiful Burlington - the "big city" of Vermont - and I began my job search.  I scoured every public high school within an hour's drive of the city and turned up a very frustrating nothing.  Almost by accident, I stumbled upon the information for Vermont Commons School.  I was committed to the public school system, but I decided to give a desperate call to the school and try my luck.

My life basically boils down to a long series of lucky breaks, and I count that phone call as one of my biggest.  "I'm calling to see if you happen to need a Social Studies teacher."  "You called at the perfect time.  A position just opened up!"  It turned out one of the two Social Studies teachers had just informed the school that she was leaving.  A resume and a visit later, and I was hired.

If there is spectrum opposite of the behemoth bureaucracy called the NYC school system, it is Vermont Commons School  - small, nimble, focused on the needs of everybody in the community, and founded on a trust in its excellent teachers to create their own magic in the school.

That is the fertile ground into which I was planted ten years ago.  The freedom and encouragement that I have received from administration and faculty has nurtured my innovative spirit, allowing me to follow my teaching passions, to try, to fail, and to try again.  I feel like I am still only at the very beginning of this adventure of discovering what it means to be a teacher in the 21st Century and, more than that, to be a learner.

I look forward to sharing this adventure online with the assumption that you are also on a professional journey of your own, and with the hope that we can learn from each other as we take our steps.