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What’s your story?

What brought you to the teaching profession? In my 20+ years in education, I have heard various responses to this question. Many of them include a number of influencing factors on deciding to become an educator. Whatever the reasons are, I invariably/consistently hear one commonality again and again as teachers share their individual stories: Some teacher along the way substantially impacted them in some way, and this somehow influenced their decision to enter this profession.

For me, it was a combination of experiences, though my high school English teacher unknowingly set the frame of what became the foundation of my own journey.

When I was in high school 25 years ago, most of my teachers lectured with the expectation that I’d listen, take notes, and learn. Much of the assessments consisted of traditional pen and paper tests where I regurgitated the passive information I had absorbed. My English teacher, however, framed his classes differently. They mostly consisted of an interactive, Socratic-seminar structure. It was my favorite class, in part because I already loved reading and writing, but also because every day became an interactive and engaging adventure through literature. My years as his student opened my mind to a new way of thinking – to question, read actively, make connections across texts, and add to class dialogue (though admittedly, I was – and still am- a relatively quiet student).

So, please think back to a moment that may have forever changed your learning perspective. What’s your story, and how has it impacted your journey to teaching?

The Adolescent Brain

In the past 20 years of my professional life as a teacher and teacher leader, I’ve spent a lot of time with teens. As such, I’ve always been intrigued by their cognitive development. Until recently, the general assumption was that the adolescent brain was that of a “young adult”, and thus similar to adult brains. Recent research indicates, however, that this is not the case at all. Rather, it exhibits a different learning level ability combined with some possible vulnerabilities in a still-developing brain.

Thus, we should approach the adolescent brain with certain considerations for teaching and learning (Jensen, 2015) in mind:

  1. Learning is based on meaning and emotional response;
  2. Children and teens can imprint on their experiences; and
  3. The brain is social and thus development requires interaction.

Neurology expert and Harvard Medical School professor Frances Jensen provides more insight into this fascinating topic below.

Teaching, Students, Content ?

Before I officially begin this post, I’d like to credit The Novi Community School District (Novi, Michigan) for this post’s visual (see below). You can find it on their project-based learning page, as well as a wealth of useful PBL resources.

Not too long ago, I wrapped up teaching a five-week Introduction to Instructional Coaching seminar for teacher induction coaches. An integral component across our sessions was coaching through the lens of Richard Elmore’s instructional core: the relationship between students, teachers and content. According to Elmore, student learning occurs when there is increased (1) teacher knowledge and skill, plus (2) level and complexity of content, combined with       (3) students’ understanding of and engagement in the instructional process. As such, teacher content and pedagogical knowledge, together with an understanding of the stages of student development and identity formation, should have a substantial impact on how and what students learn and the level of engagement they have with the content.

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While the instructional core concept isn’t exactly new, using it as a professional learning framework is an emerging approach to supporting teacher learning. For a little more context, check out this 2016 Australia case study. (I’d post the article here, but it’s currently only available for individual use). I’ll be spending some time reading the article in more depth over the next few days, though, so I’ll gladly share some of their findings, especially as they indicate a number of positive outcomes relating to the instructional core.

In the meantime, engaging in a Problem of Practice can be a powerful way you can apply the instructional core to your classroom. Identify a real issue you are struggling with that would impact student learning if you improved it. Then, ask yourself:

  1. What am I doing? What are students doing? What is the content?
  2. To what extent is my identified issue directly observable? What data can I gather about my issue that might inform my teaching and student learning?
  3. To what extent is my issue actionable? In other words, is it something I can improve and change, or is it an issue beyond my control?
  4. To what extent will addressing this issue impact student learning?

It’s ideal if you already have an instructional coach or colleague to support you in this process. If you’re out there on your own, however, I’ll gladly volunteer to be your thought partner! Just send me a message via the Contact page so we can connect directly.

Breaking the Barrier

One of the many instructional hats I wear is that of “coaching the coach”.  I recently reflected on a session with a coachee, *Karen, a veteran math and science teacher who is now primarily coaching teachers new to the profession. One of the teachers she works with is a novice teacher (Rick) in his 60’s. He’s a late-career changer, having earned his teaching credential many years ago and then embarked on a different career path for the bulk of his professional life.

Karen noted as *Rick indicated to her, he “teaches as he was taught”. Thus, his classroom consists of a traditional lecture-based structure. Additionally, when he does call upon students to answer a question, he usually calls on the same four or five students. Karen described the traditional science teaching approach as one following a series of specific steps, but without students really knowing  what the purpose of those steps were or how they fit together into a larger learning whole.

Karen asked me how she might move forward in her coaching of Rick, as she’s already tried a number of strategies. These include modeling for Rick by teaching his class, co-teaching, observing expert teachers, and writing specific action steps into his lesson plan. Nothing seems to have any impact. Rick, however, wants to learn and enthusiastically engages in activities and teacher-coach collaborations.

Whether we are coaching or teaching, we all experience times where we collide with a barrier that impedes our progress or unintentionally diminishes student learning. Yet, how do we break through barriers? Below  I’ve outlined the conservation structure Karen and I engaged in that helped us delve deeper into the issue and devise tangible next steps for action.

Quick Framing: Rick’s current teaching/learning goal is implementing active learning strategies (turn and talks, equity sticks, specifically). 

Consider the possible subtext of the situation. Possible questions to ask in this phase:

  • Why is this happening/what is really going on here? (possible reasons/scenarios)
  • What might be preventing the teacher from…(in our case, implementing the turn and talk and equity sticks)?

Use tangible data to explore in more depth. Possible questions to ask in this phase:

  • What have I observed (coach) or experienced (teacher)? For example, perhaps the coach has observational data that informs what might be going on. In our teacher scenario, the coach noted that (1) the teacher lectured about 75% of the class time, (2) that the teacher asked questions that elicited a 1-2 word response, and (3) that he called primarily on the same four students.

Devise possible next steps. These might include:

  • (in a coaching conversation) Ask the teacher to articulate what the deeper issue/reason might be for what is happening.
  • Video record the class to look for particular patterns.
  • Observe expert teachers to learn from what they do
  • Determine one small action step at a time.

Note: *Indicates a pseudonym; additionally, school name, location, and grade have not been included for maintaining confidentiality.

Ideal School?

In 2016, I participated in the national XQ Super School Challenge. My team and I weren’t one of the school concepts selected, though we did make it through the first two application rounds, and the entire experience really pushed my thinking about the essential ingredients of an ideal school. As part of the initial research/data-gathering process, I asked students, friends, and family to share their own input. See below for their insightful responses.

Question: I’m part of a team taking on a school redesign challenge and would appreciate your input. What would your ideal high school look like? Please share your ideas!

Former Students (US and Abroad)

  • Two kind of main grades that can be achieved based on one subject. One is the traditional assessment papers and the second one would be your attitude and active behavior in the classes.
  • In general: fewer tests. Only have graded tests once or twice a year. The other tests should all be based on getting proper feedback, so the student knows what he has to improve and how. Education should be about gaining knowledge instead of studying for grades.
  • Natural light, open spaces dotted with structures that you could climb/sit on and be inspired by, plenty of circular meeting places with varying textures/atmospheres, lots of nature.
  • Our high school has so much natural light the teachers almost never have to turn on the lights- and the tech high school looks like a college campus- and the cool part is – in spite of the dire warnings that the comfy chairs and nice tables would be trashed- five years out it turns out- the kids have kept it nicer than the teachers keep the office!

Friends/Family (not educators)

  • The building should include green technologies such as lots of natural light and continuous fresh air exchange through good filters from the HVAC system.
  • It would be great to think about how the larger community could use the space, depending on school calendar. School facilities are, in many ways, underutilized during evenings, summers etc. incorporating public space or building useful for public events…
  • Childcare space for teachers and maybe students. And exercise facilities that teachers would use in addition to students.
  • Oh, make it easier for kids to be able to bring food from home and be able to heat it. And design lunch distribution systems that give actual time to sit and eat once they get lunch.
  • Water distributor in the classrooms, uniforms, ten minutes break each 30 minutes of lesson, leaving shoes outside, mini-library in the classroom (number of books=number of students), renewable energy powering it, big windows, high-tech tools available at each desk.
  • A foreign language mother-tongue teacher, from the first day of primary school up to the last day of university.
  • Natural light and/or a semi-outdoors kind of space. There is nothing worse than four white cinder block walls and artificial light. It was suffocating as a kid.
  • My daughter’s history class has individual, large wooden desks, which she likes. My kids also seem to like it when the rooms have less traditional set-ups, like large round tables. My ideal school would have more wood (floors, desks, big tables) and a library with big windows and large leather chairs.
  • My daughter’s high school has a no-kidding, respectable aquarium that is student run. Only one like it in the nation, I believe.
  • Classrooms that encourage standing, fidgeting, and moving around.
  • I would hope to incorporate green technology and a garden/compost program to feed the students. And use this green technology as a classroom, have students learn how to build, use, run, maintain it.
  • Lots of vocational skill classes, bring back wood shop, auto shop, and a good dose of home economics, everyone isn’t going to graduate with a comfy job that pays regardless of skill or ambition… provide real world skills and the individual can prosper… check out the “Mike Rowe Works Foundation” for some inspiration.
  • Water filtration systems to reuse water on site. And those big solar panel carport things over parking lots. Fruit trees that the kids/neighborhood can eat from.
  • A facility that says “you have a human right to a good education – you are valued.”
  • My ideal HS would have the Ramones somewhere on the premises.
  • Didn’t see if anyone else posted this but good nutrition in the meals is an oft-overlooked aspect to good learning but so critical. There is so much research behind this, but it’s somehow overlooked. Of course, the usual: small classes, small classes, small classes. Ironically, though, I think large schools work. [My son] is in a very large school (3000 kids), and it actually lessens peer pressure and cliques quite a bit, because who knows who is who?

What would your ideal school look like?