Tag Archives: Teacher

What does learning look like?

Play a game with me. (I love games.)

Picture a teacher. Any teacher. A teacher you’ve had or a teacher you wish you’d had. A teacher you liked or a teacher you didn’t. Picture that teacher in a classroom. What does the classroom look like? Where’s the teacher? What’s the teacher doing? Put some students in that room. Where are the students? What are the students doing?

Try to keep that picture in your mind while reading the description of what my grade ten classroom looks like on a typical day.

Current Classroom
All students have laptops. They’re working, some talking with others but mostly just sitting quietly. Some are listening to music. The desks are in three clusters of four, one cluster of five, and two rows of three. I’m not sure who set them up that way. The students go back and forth from our class blog, which contains links to all resources they’ll need for the day, to whatever it is they’re working on. Some have printed copies of the linked resources and some are using pocket translators to help. There are notes from whatever we’ve recently discussed on the board. As the teacher, I’m either sitting in a spare student desk or on top of the cabinets at the side of the room. I have a laptop, too, and I’m probably on it.

We spend the beginning of each class reading through and then sharing the news. We discuss or review a few things together as a large group. Students complete a task, we discuss, students complete a task, we discuss. Sometimes these tasks are done independently and sometimes they work together. Sometimes students submit responses or assignments on GoogleDrive and sometimes they comment straight onto the blog. Often, they do neither and we periodically discuss for a few minutes after students have talked in their groups.

I’m willing to bet my classroom doesn’t look much like the one in your head.

The classroom in your head probably involves a teacher standing at the front of the room. Depending on how old you are, the students are probably in rows, though maybe groups of four. If you’re picturing a high school class, the students are probably taking notes while the teacher talks. Maybe there’s a PowerPoint presentation that the teacher is using, or maybe there are notes written on a transparency or perhaps on the board, again depending on how old you are. In this classroom, I’m willing to bet that the teacher is “teaching” and the students are “learning” and that the roles and responsibilities of both are clear. Anyone walking in could see that the teacher has the information and the students are supposed to take it in and understand it.

And if that’s not the classroom in your head, I’d love to hear what the classroom in your head looks like!

Even though my classroom might not match what we often think of when we hear “classroom” or “teacher” or “learning”, I have no doubt that my students are indeed learning. I can make this claim based simply on what they say in class, whether we’re having a discussion or they’re asking for clarification while working. I can make this claim based on individual conversation I have with students while checking up on their progress. If necessary, and sometimes it is, I can also provide samples of student work and show you the data I’ve collected and tracked on each student.

And yet.

And yet there’s some anxiety, anxiety for me as the trained educator in the room. What am I actually doing when others walk in or walk by the room? What am I actually doing that requires me to be there? I feel a sense of insecurity because I’m doing what I think is right by my students but looks inactive as compared to what others may do in their classes. The reason my classroom looks the way it does and I organize my classes the way I do is because I know, because I have learned, that with access to curated resources, assistance as needed, and feedback on their progress, my students will be just fine.

I might not be “teaching” in the traditional sense, but the point isn’t that I teach; it’s that students learn.

A few months ago, I read Michael Horn and Heather Stacker’s book Blended, which argues for disruptive innovation in schools. The authors explain that disruptive innovation comes from attempts in the business world to make products and services available to more people at lower cost. It was while reading this book that I began to rethink (yet again) the way that schools run and, more specifically, what I could do within my own classroom to meet students where they are and let them learn in the ways that make the most sense to them.

Future Classroom
Disruptive innovation in schools means making education and educational opportunities available to more people in ways that education may not have been in the past. In order to receive a diploma, everyone used to attend a building called a school. Considering schools in the context of disruptive innovation makes us ask, is that necessary anymore? Horn and Stacker describe models of schools that are a mix of remote and in-person learning experiences, either determined by the students themselves, by a the student in conjunction with a counselor, or by the student’s results on assessments. The very idea of a classroom, then, is called into question.

If I could, I’d design a school that looks like the one described in earlier writing here. I still believe that building peace is the purpose of education and that our students need a toolkit to make the world a better place. As much as I can, I design my grade ten curriculum around the real learning that is necessary for solving world problems and realizing one’s role and responsibilities as a citizen of the world. While my students have due dates, deadlines, and specific assessments, I’m trying to make my classes more flexible by providing students access to a wide range of resources and a choice about which ones to use.

There’s a long way to go. I know. There’s a lot of working, dialoguing, and understanding that has to happen. None of this happens quickly and I’m trying to be patient. I’m trying to be satisfied with one small change at a time. This isn’t the type of change that happens quietly, either, which is why I write about it.

Play a game with me. Design your ideal classroom or school or learning environment. Why do you think it should be this way or look like this? Comment below or send me a message.

Thank you for your thoughts, as always.

Why I Went to Work on International Women’s Day

I didn’t intend to write this post.

And then my eighth graders asked some questions and I realized I was missing an opportunity to explore the complexity of what it means to be a woman and educator in today’s world.

As my students noticed, I did not participate in A Day Without a Woman on Wednesday, March 8. I did not participate in the demonstrations in New York City. Instead, I went to work.

This lack of participation is a sharp contrast to my activism in the Women’s March back in January, and my students were curious about it. Many of my eighth graders read this blog (and ask me about it in class when they’re supposed to be working on other things) so this post is for and because of them.

My favorite sign from the Women’s March in January

The Question
A number of my students come from households that talk politics. Some of them come to class echoing their parents’ conservative or liberal views, others come with questions, and still others want to be involved in the conversation but don’t know where to start. I  don’t openly discuss my political views with my students, but I’m also not completely closed off when political questions intersect with deeply held personal views.

On Thursday, March 9, the day after International Women’s Day, two young women who usually present very different political narratives quietly and separately asked me, “Why were you here yesterday? I was expecting you’d be at a protest.”

I was surprised because I hadn’t even considered skipping school to demonstrate or protest. My identity as an educator is such that I feel a sense of moral responsibility in being there for my students to guide their learning. That is what I tried to convey in my answer to both of those young women on Thursday.

The Answer

That’s a really good question. The way I see it, my job is to make sure that you’re learning. I know that I can best do that when I am here helping you learn and guiding you along. When I’m not here, I have to leave that task to someone else. Yes, someone else can do it, but I know what my goals are for you and I know what I’m doing to help you reach those goals. My not being here is potentially harmful to your learning. So, to be the best teacher I can be, it’s important to me to be here with you.

I understand why some women made the choice to protest. I understand why it’s important to show the country what happens when women are silenced and shoved aside. But I think that an alternative way to demonstrate that is to be here with you and talk about it. So I support those women who didn’t go to work. I support their decision to make their absence felt. It just doesn’t fit with my job right now. I have a different agenda, which is to do what’s right for you.

The girls nodded. Both expressed their surprise and understanding. One of them told me she respected that decision.

In truth, the more I think about it, it’s far more complicated than that.

The Challenge
The challenge for me is to “talk the talk and walk the walk”. It’s all well and good to say that I support women who took time off work, either paid or unpaid, to stand in solidarity with other women on Wednesday. However, I did not take time off work. I did not physically stand in solidarity with women. Do my actions speak louder than my words? If so, do my words of support still count?

If I want to be a role model for my students and do what is right, am I obligated to stand up on behalf of women and join them in protest? Or is sticking to my beliefs about education modeling in itself?

I’m not sure.

I could be giving myself far too much credit as essential to my students’ learning. I know they could have gotten through a day without me and that the day would not have been a loss. So maybe I’m not as important as I think I am, and maybe I could have had a greater impact missing school and joining a protest.

Similarly, there are definitely things I could have done in class on Wednesday to draw attention to A Day Without a Woman. I could have addressed it explicitly and discussed the history of women’s protest with my students. I could have asked if they knew anyone participating. I could have pulled opinion pieces and even footage of protests and demonstrations and we could have had a class discussion on the purpose and effectiveness of protests.

Picking a Side
In truth, I didn’t think about it. Perhaps I should have. Perhaps this was a lost opportunity and my students and I all missed a valuable learning experience. Perhaps this was not simply a matter of another day at school.

Unfortunately, I think that’s all too common in schools. I think we often miss valuable learning experiences because we’re tied to other priorities, whether those are selected for us or by us. I don’t know if I made the right choice in going to work. I don’t know if I made the right choice in spending the day on “normal curriculum” instead of digging into protest in America or wage inequality or women’s issues around the world.

I do know that I’m walking a line between political and personal identities and I’m having trouble finding a bridge. I feel like I’m coming from two almost opposing camps and I don’t always know where they should intersect.

On Wednesday, I chose to go to work and do my job because I felt like it was the best thing I could do for the young people under my care. Yes, there are others who care for them. But I can only control what I do and the messages that I send. It was more important for me to stand by my promise to be present with my students than it was to embrace my role as a woman and skip school that day. At this point, all I can do is recognize that choice for what it is and perhaps consider what other options I might have in the future.

Eighth graders, you ask good questions. Keep doing that.

Moral Lines in the Classroom

The end of the day. A room of teachers. Quiet laughter about the upcoming blizzard. Coffee and snacks. A normal start to a faculty meeting. The meeting itself, however, was far from normal. Topic: Talking with students in a tumultuous political climate.

The discussion was interesting but inconclusive. We shared some of our experiences in the past months and discussed ways to approach difficult questions in the classroom. From the nodding around the room, I think everyone agreed about the importance of dialogue and raising multiple perspectives to allow students to come to their own conclusions.

However, the question very quickly came up about whether we, as a school, should take a stand on specific issues and refuse to condone perspectives or discussions that cross certain moral lines. I believe that we are morally obligated to clearly define what it right and what is wrong, and also that we are doing our students a disservice by legitimizing illegitimate claims.

This does not mean that I am opposed to having discussions about controversial topics. For purposes of example, I will discuss the recent travel ban because it has generated much political discourse and countless questions from students.

I believe the travel ban should be up for discussion in the classroom. To address the questions students are asking, we should look at all the arguments Trump is using to uphold the ban and investigate their inaccuracies. We should discuss the fears that led to the travel ban in the first place, and examine times in history in which immigrants and refugees were barred from the US because of xenophobia, economic and employment concerns, religious discrimination, or racism. We should then explore the implications of past policies, look at statistical evidence and data to allay fears and debunk rumors, examine the Constitution to understand checks and balances, and discuss the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights that US signed in 1948. Finally, we should consider how we would each want to be treated if roles were reversed, and whether we have different internal metrics for how we approach different groups of people. If so, we need to then examine why that is.

An investigation like this would serve to help students draw conclusions about the travel ban that are based in fact, evidence, a deep understanding of historical context, and respect for all of humanity. They would understand why the ideas behind this travel ban are factually inaccurate and therefore ethically wrong. We need to teach about the travel ban so that students can understand why it is wrong from a moral perspective, and be able to defend that position when faced with opposition from those who have given into fear.

My school walks a delicate line between being a faith-based institution and a school, and it does take a stand on certain controversial issues. Not all of our stakeholders agree with the school’s positions, but it provides teachers with legs to stand on and a mission to stand by when we evaluate differing perspectives. It gives us the freedom to say, “I understand what you are saying, but this is why you’re wrong.”

Currently, I don’t have the academic freedom to condemn the travel ban on moral grounds. I don’t even really have the freedom to engage in the discussion with my students because I don’t know whether I’d have steadfast administrative support if phone calls start coming in. So when questions come up, a daily occurrence in eighth grade, I find myself pretending to be nonpartisan, dancing around issues that I feel very strongly need to be addressed. I do my best to explain each side’s arguments to my students as succinctly as I can and then try to redirect us to whatever we’re actually supposed to be studying (and that’s a different issue entirely). I don’t want to say something that is later taken out of context and politicized when it was not meant to be. I don’t want to ruffle the feathers of those who are already poised for a fight.

What a world we’re living in if I’m afraid that standing in solidarity with refugees and immigrants could cost me my job.

Unfortunately, this tendency to politicize is exactly why I am trapped in a personal moral dilemma. I believe that the purpose of education is to build a better, more peaceful world and that doing so involves cultivating attitudes of empathy, caring, kindness, and compassionemphasizing dialoguerethinking traditional masculinity and femininity; and engaging with real world problems to figure out how to solve them. Avoiding controversial discussion, thus allowing a moral wrong to be construed as a legitimate opinion, is incongruent with these beliefs.

If a student left my classroom, went out into the world, and enacted a travel ban like Trump’s, I will have failed at educating that student. I will have failed as an educator. My job is to provide students with the tools to explore and answer their own questions. Part of that means guiding students towards what is right. I would be vehemently attacked if I supported a student’s project on, for example, ways to get young people involved in white supremacy groups. And I would be likewise attacked for diverting a student’s interest away from a project about fundraising for groups working to end poverty.

Clearly, there is a right and there is a wrong. Clearly, we have already drawn moral lines. It should be no different with issues labeled political. In the end, we’re dealing with people who need help. It is no more challenging than that.

As an educator, it is my responsibility to guide students to do their own research to draw ultimately conclusions based on valid information. So I am not opposed to the discussion. I am simply opposed to allowing a perspective that is flawed, both in evidence and in morals, to have a defensible place at the table.