Unpacking from SRI’s Winter Meeting

I’m on the airplane from Tucson to San Antonio as I begin this, and if all goes well I’ll be done before I’m told to “stow electronic devices.” However for this entry that may not be possible. What I would like to do is capture how my time was spent at SRI’s Winter Meeting: what I talked with others about, what I learned, and what I’m now aspiring to (in CFG work we call this What, So What, and Now What).

In general, I want my entries on this web site to help other educators think about their practice and share the ideas and actions that make a difference for students. For that to happen I understand that my writing should be brief and to the point. 20 or more paragraphs chronicling two and half days of learning is not likely to lead those who find this to urge friends and colleagues to come read what I’ve written and join the conversation in comments. So this post is for me- and maybe any supervisors who are wondering if it was a good idea to allow me to be off campus for two days to participate in the Winter Meeting.

Place

We began our conference by hearing from the principal of a charter high school in downtown Tucson. Carrie welcomed us to the meeting, shared our meeting’s theme, and encouraged us use our time well. What stood out to me from her opening remarks was her enjoyment at having so many (200? 400? 800? I couldn’t really count) of us gathered together in her hometown. She shared 5 words whose usage and meaning illuminate the Place where we were gathered. By introducing Place as a theme for our meeting a couple of big ideas about people and society were able to surface in my mind. The five words she shared with us to help us understand Tucson were mariachi, Sonoran, saguaro, roadrunner, and border.

The first big idea is that people want to be a part of a community. By this, I mean that I believe that people want to unify with those who they have something in common for the purpose of friendship, support, and inspiration. There are few things more natural for communities to form around than proximity. Though we don’t always form a community with those we live near as adults, the majority of the student population in schools is defined solely by geography. I think this point is important because it reminds me that even when students seem to have little in common and seem to be incapable of learning together there may be a common bond through the idea of Place that can be a starting point for building a classroom culture.

Secondly, the idea of Place reminded me of something I believe to be at the root of transformational education. I think transformational education is a fascinating concept to explore further, and since it likely means something different to me than it does to you, I think I should explain it a little bit more. The basic idea is that no matter what our role in the education system we all we want to make a change in a student, in a teacher, or in a system. For the change to take place it is necessary to understand the context that we want to make a change in. The discussion of Place at the opening of our conference reminded me that learning about the Place our students live and learn is essential to effectively enacting any changes.

Be Kind

Our keynote speaker was Jeanette Maré who founded Ben’s Bells Project and works to sustain and grow the project. Ben’s Bells is a project unique to Tucson that was created as Jeanette was coping with the loss of her son, Ben. As the anniversary of his passing approach she and her friends and family decided to honor Ben by creating chimes made of a bell and painted ceramic patterns that could be placed around Tucson. The bells included the phrase “Be Kind” and those who received them were asked to perform an act of kindness for another in the community and pass the kindness on. Over the years, Jennifer and Tucson have come to discuss and learn what it means to be kind. How it is an expression of love and a way to show unity that goes beyond being nice. Indeed sometimes being kind means offering critical feedback or helping someone make a better choice.

The most important piece of her talk to us was that she has found in both her work and her research on the mind that kindness is a skill to be learned and practiced. We don’t automatically know how to be kind to each other but we can learn if we have kindness modeled for us and are provided a trusting environment to practice kindness. It was fascinating to consider kindness in the context of schools. If we all aspire to have a school where students are kind to each other then what steps do we need to take to teach them how to do it?

Here are six additional points about kindness she wanted us to take away:

  • Kindness is within our power
  • Kindness honors personality and honors connection
  • Kindness builds trusts
  • Kindness is fierce
  • Kindness is intentional, it is a way of responding rather than reacting
  • Kindness is selfish, it changes us first

And finally, 3 questions for us to bring back to our schools. She began with these questions to help us focus on her presentation and make meaning of it. If you are with me still, consider answering one or more of these questions with a comment below.

  1. Is my school a kind place for all?
  2. What steps can I take for my students to be kind?
  3. What can I do to restore hope?

Who we are and what we do best

Our small group was eager to work together. From the start it was noticeable how enthusiastic the participants were to be learning from each other. A simple activity like going around the circle introducing ourselves led to praise being tossed around our table like a beach ball at an Angels’ baseball game. The affirmation continued as we moved into a norming process, discussed CFG work and protocols and prepared to have our first structured conversation- a tuning of adult work for a school leader preparing to lead her school community in a revision of the school mission statement.

The old mission statement had been created 10 years ago as the school was created. It was successful and useful for shaping and guiding the board, faculty and students who were building a community. And now that the school was ten years old its leader believed that it was time to reevaluate if the mission was still saying the right thing. Our group used a process of examining the mission statement, asking clarifying questions, comparing the mission statement to six goals and values for the school community and providing warm and cool feedback. Finally we were able to hear from the school leader and what next steps she was considering.

One of the outstanding phrases that arose from this discussion was that she wanted a mission statement that could show the community “who we are and what we do best.” Another participant in the group later used the idea of a mission statement being a gate to the community. These two ideas clicked in my mind as I thought of my classroom communities and my broader school community. My aspiration from this discussion was to try to come up with a way to succinctly summarize what takes place in my classroom. I feel like my classrooms have been lacking clarity around what the purpose for our learning is. I have a long list of performance outcomes, AP objectives and the goal that I “want students to be prepared when you take these classes in college.” But how much more powerful and useful would it be if we could have a single statement that we can point to each day that reminds us that I should take pride in the tasks I ask my students to complete and students should take pride that they are not just getting new facts in their head but are changing themselves into better mathematicians, better scientists and better citizens. This point was significantly emphasized in our closing keynote and I hope to articulate more about it.

To close this section, I love the ideas behind the school’s mission and I’d like to leave the complete statement and the goals/values here as well:

We strive to be a community of learners in which all members use their minds well and care about one another. We engage with challenging academics and the unique resources of our city and region in order to become active citizens and responsible stewards of our work.

School Goals/Values (I’ll use the school’s headings, and then give a brief statement in my own words of what it represents.)

  1. Personalization– every individual on our community matters and we will all treat each other accordingly.
  2. Challenging academic curriculum– Students will engage in meaningful tasks to learn important content
  3. Community connections– students will understand the community around them and engage in it responsibly
  4. Student leadership– students will take responsibility and show initiative to improve the school and community
  5. Diversity– we will honor the multiple perspectives that our diverse population brings and our curriculum will reflect our cultural diversity
  6. Institutional advancement– our school will use resources responsibly in a manner that supports growth and innovation.

The Issaquah

Following a brief break after our discussion using the Tuning protocol we next decided to look at school leader’s dilemma using the Issaquah protocol. I love this protocol because of a wonderful CFG leader I met in Boston last year who loved this protocol and sold me on it. Now, anytime this protocol comes up in CFG work I remember how much I enjoyed my small group in Boston 2014. So naturally when our small group facilitator asked for a volunteer to facilitate the Issaquah I volunteered.

In essence the dilemma we discussed was this. How do you give support to those educators who need it, but are already stretched to their limits and beyond in terms of time and workload? Two wonderful things happened during our discussion. First, I made a mistake in the protocol. Others in the group would probably just say that I made a choice in facilitating to depart from the protocol as written, but it wasn’t intentional and I regretted making that departure. This was wonderful for multiple reasons. I’ve learned something from this mistake. I’ve talked about it, reflected upon it and I will be more careful in reading protocols so that if I depart from how it’s written it will be a deliberate choice. Additionally, this mistake gave us a chance to talk as a group about facilitating and mistakes and to hopefully support others as they take risks in facilitating discussion.

My second wonderful thing from the discussion was the group’s kindness as I received praise from others in the group. I wasn’t sure if I would share publicly that it made me feel good for others to tell me they thought I was an excellent facilitator. It seems a little bit vain and it’s not really a surprising insight to say that telling people they did something well makes them happy. But I think there’s further implications that make me want to include it in this too-long reflection. The kind words of my group are what are giving me the courage to make my thoughts public. I want to sustain a conversation about transformational learning communities fiercely committed to educational equity and excellence and spread the value of CFG to those who may have never heard of it. It is because of the support of those I worked with this week that I believe that I can use Complementarity to do this.

As for the dilemma we discussed, I am taking two thoughts on this back to San Antonio. The first is that even if someone is out of time, it’s worth it to force the time to be carved out if the conversation and support is authentic, collaborative, and transformational. The other thought is that as an instructional leader I need to be more sensitive to the needs of the teachers around me. Perhaps they aren’t knocking on my office door asking for help, but if I can be a greater presence in their classrooms and have a better understanding of their strengths and weakness then I can offer the right kind of support for them.

Our first day of work together ended after we discussed this dilemma, and though I’d love to share the learning that took place as a cohort of us from San Antonio ate, walked, and talked together, I’ll save it for a second reflection on the other day and half of Winter Meeting.

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Can the model for great classrooms can be found in pre-k and kinder?

The 2013-2014 school year has been underway for about 3 weeks now.  I have been teaching a class of 21 eleventh and twelfth grade students, my daughter has started 4th grade and my son has been in preschool after being taken care of at home for the last two years.  My mother made a career in early child development, coordinating child care services for an urban county in the San Francisco Bay Area and teaching college courses part time.  I mention this because I was raised learning about the importance of pre-k and kinder education and how it fits in to the work done in elementary, middle, and high schools.

So before I write more about elementary and secondary classrooms, I thought I’d start with a few things worth sharing about the education of three, four, and five year-olds.  Sir Ken Robinson shared in one of his recent TED talks that tests for creativity given to five year olds produce higher scores than the tests given to 10 year olds.  In essence he argues that formal schooling reduces the ability of kids to ask questions, be creative, and learn for themselves.  This got me thinking that if inquiry, creativity, and self-directed learning are things I value in secondary students, then perhaps some reflection of what these traits look like in pre-kinder classes could help me articulate to the teachers I work with what traits we want to see in their classroom.

So in what ways are pre-k students creative?  The first thing that comes to mind is what I hear and see when kids have time to play by themselves.  Sticks can turn into swords, blocks can turn into houses, and kids can turn into talking ponies (my family has been on a My Little Pony kick for a while now).  Kids are not limited by what they have to play with, and will simply imagine that whatever they need is what they have.  There are no constraints on their creativity until an adult tells them that the time has come to stop playing.

Is there an “educational value” to this kind of creativity?  Certainly there is for pre-k and kinder students.  If they are trying to engage in this sort of play with others, then they learn important social skills as well as develop the language capabilities to communicate effectively.  If a student is engaged in creative play by themselves, then I believe that children are learning an important lesson about independence, and that the act of imagining and creating is intrinsically rewarding.

Is there a way to allow elementary, middle, and high school students to engage in this kind of creativity in their education?  A school can help support student creativity by ensuring that there is adequate time for recess, art, and music.  Clubs and organizations will often allow creative students to have an outlet for their passions.  However, I would like to see the goal of creativity embraced as an essential part of the core curriculum.  The Common Core won’t do this, and it’s not likely to be a part of any college readiness initiative like AP and IB programs.  Instead, we need the individual classroom teachers to understand what it means for a scientist to be creative or a mathematician to be creative or a social scientist to be creative or a reader and writer to be creative.  Once the classroom teacher understands creativity, then they can build it into their program.  I’ll close this section by saying this, most math and science teachers cry a little inside (sometimes very deep inside) when they hear a student say that they don’t like math or science because they are a “creative person” as though the two were mutually exclusive.