On letting go

The world outside of our schools becomes much more interested in our students right about the same time we stop focusing on them. Our students leaves us and move on to colleges, employers, and other institutions–they begin interacting with the world in a much different way than when they were with us. This is the point at which these institutions become very interested in the types of people our students have become (and are still becoming)–and it’s right when we’ve moved on to educating the next group of students.

We let go of these students and send them off into the world so we can focus our attention on the next group of students. We still care about our graduates, and I love watching from afar as they move on to college and beyond–but we don’t focus on them the same way as we do our current students.

I’ve been really aware this year of the usual “shift in focus” that happens for me every fall. I’ve definitely shifted focus by becoming a student again, but I feel much more connected to the seniors I “graduated” with last spring than I have in years past. We’re sharing a lot of the same experiences, and I love having this new perspective on what it’s like to transition out of high school.

Of course, my transition is slightly different from theirs. My program is only a year long, and much more focused. The “what comes next” question also looks a lot different. But I’m looking forward to taking this new perspective with me when I return to working in a high school next year.

I cringed (and that’s not okay)

During class this morning my professor put up a slide showing a math diagram. You could feel a collective cringe in the room.

One of my math teacher friends in the class was (rightfully) annoyed by the collective cringe. Why, he asked (in so many words), is it okay to so openly express a disdain for math?

The answer, of course, is that it’s not—which I think all of us in that room knew. But we did it anyway.

Incidentally, I disagree with the frequently-offered premise that only math gets this reaction. I’ve had enough conversations about being a librarian to know that many people are very comfortable sharing their dislike/disinterest/disdain for reading (it’s enough to make me wish they’d go for a Dewey decimal joke instead).

Since we know aversion is not the right reaction (and since I’m sure we all have examples of times when someone has shown disdain for something we’re passionate about) why do we still, almost instinctually, so openly show our aversion for subjects that we know others are passionate about—and that we understand, objectively, are important?

I think it’s a way of deflecting. If you say, “I’m not good at this” in advance, no one else will be able to point it out to you. Or if they do, you’ve got a head start on them: “I already told you I wasn’t good at this.” By pretending to vulnerability, you make yourself invulnerable to future criticism.

This is not, I realize, a groundbreaking insight. A lot has been written about what this looks like and what this means for students, but I’ve been thinking about what this means for us as adults. Right now I’m thinking of it in particular as an adult student, but I think it’s worth thinking about for all of us no matter what side of the classroom we’re on—or even if we’re outside of the classroom entirely.

What do I model for my students? Do I dismiss their learning? Do I diminish their passions? What do I cut myself off from learning when I go with the default reaction? Is there a difference between saying “I don’t know how to do this” and “I don’t like it”?

Howard Gardner: ‘Multiple intelligences’ are not ‘learning styles’

Howard Gardner: ‘Multiple intelligences’ are not ‘learning styles’

He does a really clear breakdown of what the terms intelligences, learning styles, and senses mean–and what they don’t mean. The whole thing is well worth reading.

As someone who learned the concepts of multiple intelligences and learning styles as if they were one and the same thing (or at the very least, a Venn diagram with lots of overlap), I found this fascinating.

While multiple intelligences always made some sort of intuitive sense to me, I struggled with the idea of learning styles. We all have our own learning style, and different areas of strength and weakness, but so so often I’ve seen the idea of learning styles used in a reductive way–by teachers and students.  I see the concept of a learning style used by teachers to pigeonhole students, or for students to pigeonhole themselves.

I think it’s really important not only to have students think about how they learn (and wow do I wish the word “metacognition” wasn’t being overused–and misused–into meaninglessness, but that’s for another day), but to help students have an understanding of learning as a complex process–a process which involves not only relying on areas of strength, but building up areas of weakness.

The recommendations Garnder makes at the end of his article are things that many teachers will be familiar with–and already do. Individualizing and pluralizing our teaching can be hard work, and it’s good to be reminded of why that hard work is so important.

Who needs sleep?

I do. We all do.

While some studies show that we’re at our most creative when we’re not at our “cognitive best”, I don’t know anyone who’s trying to figure out how to get less sleep (though it’s nice to know my sleepiness may have some advantages).

When a good night’s sleep is not easy to come by, a nap may help you feel at least a little sharper. Lifehacker has some tips on how to get the most bang for your buck out of a nap.



Research vs. Experience

These two articles have me thinking not just about models for “flipped” classrooms (though there are a lot of interesting things to think about in that first article), but about how we let (or whether we let) research influence our practice.

Classes should do hands-on exercises before reading and video, Stanford researchers say

“With this study, we are showing that research in education is useful because sometimes our intuitions about ‘what works’ are simply dead wrong,” said Blikstein.

My Research is Better than Your Experience?

“Were those students “auditory learners?” I don’t know. And I don’t think it matters. I found a way to teach them, playing to their strengths. And that was good for everyone in the music program.”

Things I’m wondering:

  • When do we trust our “gut instincts”?
  • What if our gut is wrong?
  • How can research inform our instincts?
  • How can our instincts influence research?
  • How do we make meaningful connections between research and practice–in both directions?


Who Becomes a Teacher?

I’ve been thinking a lot this week about who becomes a teacher. When I think of my teaching colleagues throughout my career, I see a lot of people (myself included) who were “good at school.” But some of the best teachers I’ve known are people for whom school was a struggle–for any number of reasons. These teachers connect with students in a much different way, and look at curriculum through a much different lens. And students can tell.

Does it make sense to have teachers teach subjects (math, English, history, etc.) that they had a natural affinity for? I taught English in part because I loved reading and discussing literature–but that passion for literature did not give me a lot of common ground with students who found the study of literature. . . pointless. Would they have been better served by a teacher who could empathize with that point of view? Who maybe had not connected with literature in high school but had very consciously developed the skills and interests needed to be a critical reader?

How do we encourage students who struggled in school to become teachers–the kind of teachers who can empathize with and support the kind of students they once were?


Mindsets, Resiliency, and what it means to be a learner

I read Carol Dweck’s book on Mindsets this summer, and have been wanting to write about it since. I’d put all of the links below into a draft, and left it languishing in the hopes that I’d be able to turn it all into a coherent post. Which I may be able to do eventually, but the readings for one of my classes this week covers this topic, which has only muddied my thinking (in a good way). My thoughts on this topic are still coming together, so I thought I’d just share some of the questions and ideas rattling around my brain:

  • The way teachers think about learning–and how their students learn–clearly matters. Given that, how does that change how we think about teacher preparation and professional development?
  • Content knowledge is important, and knowing how to teach content and concepts is as important as it ever was. But what about an understanding of resiliency and how students develop it? As important as content knowledge? More important?
  • I’ve been thinking about the idea of “When the student is ready a teacher appears.” But our students are in school whether they’re ready or not–and so are the teachers. How do we make our schools place where students can be ready for learning? What does that look like? What happens to the student who–for any number of reasons–isn’t ready
  • How is easy/hard is it to change the language we use with each other and our students we when talk about learning? It’s one thing to “know” these things, and another thing entirely to weave them into the culture of a school.
  • How does this change how we should think about our own learning as teachers? Do we need to be more transparent with our students about we learn and how we think about our own learning?
  • How do we embrace a growth mindset as teachers? Not just about our students’ learning, but about our own teaching? How do we keep growing as professionals?

And some of the articles I’ve found interesting as I’ve thought about this topic:

Overwhelmed (and grateful)

Last Monday, during one of our classes, we were asked to sum up our experience in the program (so far) in one word.

People shared a range of words–though there were definitely a few prominent themes–and there were lots of nods of agreement. And then one woman shared her word: Community. And I wished there was some better way to show agreement than nodding; a fist pump seemed not quite appropriate.

That was one of the things I was most worried about coming here, though I don’t think I fully realized just how worried I had been until that moment. I have been lucky enough to work with an incredible community of people for the past six years, and leaving them was really hard. I was worried that I wouldn’t have the same type of support and friendship that has been so important to me.

I was thinking about this sense of community and its role in the larger context of ideas about leadership we’re beginning to explore, when this quote (attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt, though I was unable to find a definitive source) turned up in my Twitter feed:

“A good leader inspires people to have confidence in the leader; a great leader inspires people to have confidence in themselves.”

I feel comfortable saying, “I don’t know,” or “I feel lost,” or “I need help,” without being judged by my peers. And because I can say those things without fearing repercussion (formal or informal), those feelings aren’t in my way the same way they would be if I felt I needed to hide them.

Paradoxically enough, by being able to share my uncertainty I begin to feel more confident.

We talk a lot about Professional Learning Communities or Personal Learning Networks in education, and I think most people who are part of one would say that they are incredible professional resources. But more than that, they are an invaluable personal resource.

Just as our students need to feel safe and supported in order to learn, so do we. When we take care of needs that are lower on Maslow’s hierarchy, we can focus our energy on learning and growing.

My word, just for the record, was “overwhelmed.”

And I meant it in a lot of ways. There is a lot of work, and while I’m used to having a lot of work to do, this is a very different kind of work; I’m not used to having so much unstructured time. But more than that, I’m overwhelmed because I’m thinking about ideas I haven’t had the time to think about for a long time–and they’re ideas I’ve wanted to be able to spend time pondering. Every new reading opens up new lines of thought I want to pursue, and every conversation feels too short. I am overwhelmed by the possibilities.

I am overwhelmed by living in Manhattan, especially after having been in a rural area for so long.

But most of all, I am overwhelmed with how lucky I am to be a part of this amazing learning community.

The September Instinct

It is sort of disorienting being on the other side of the classroom this fall. My instinct this time of year is to be preparing the library for new students, running orientations, collaborating with teachers on lessons. And while I’m still doing a lot (I mean, A LOT) of preparing for classes, I’m doing it as a student. Which feels weirder than I thought it would.

Last night I saw the Accidental Shakespeare Company‘s Hit and Run production of Macbeth. For a “hit and run” performance, actors memorize their lines in advance, provide their own costumes and props (often rather silly), but do NOT rehearse. No director, no plan. They come together for the first time on the night of the performance (more details at the links above–if you ever have a chance to see a production, DO IT). And it is amazing. Not amazing as in “incredibly refined Shakespeare performance” but amazing as in “holy crap that takes guts and is also a really incredible Shakespeare performance.” Watching it made very clear the importance of not only knowing what you’re doing, but knowing when to let go and just have fun.

So what does this have to do with anything? Last night as I was sitting watching the performance one of the actors came up next to me (did I mention this was performed outdoors in a garden? Yeah) and said, “Will you be my sister?” And then before I could really think of a way out of it, I was up on stage.

I’ve read Macbeth many times (and even taught it a couple times) but it’s been about a decade since I read it; I know the broad outline, but there are some scenes I’ve forgotten. This was one of them. I had almost no idea what was going on. I just had to follow her lead and do what she told me. And then–because it’s a Shakespearean tragedy–someone came to murder everybody and I hightailed it offstage.

Finding myself on the “other side” of a performance I was, ostensibly, watching was more than a little disorienting. But also kind of fun. Because I wasn’t really sure what was happening, there was no way I could really mess it up (and if I did, I’d never know).

That sudden change of teacher/student or audience/performer can be unsettling, but I think having a sudden perspective shift every once in a while can be a good thing. If nothing else, it reminds us that there are more perspectives than our own.

What does everybody “need” to know?

I recently read “Everybody” Does Not Need to Learn to Code and had been thinking about
the idea of what everyone “needs” to know about the technology we use on a day-to-day basis. When I think about technology (and especially when I have conversations with people who don’t “do” technology) I often go back to the great Alan Kay line about technology being anything invented after you were born. I’ve met some hardline self-described technophobes, but none of them have ever expressed any qualms about using electricity.

I couldn’t wire my house, but I feel no qualms about using electricity. And I know it’s not directly analogous, but it’s a lot of what the “everybody must code” argument ends up sounding like to me. There are a LOT of things I can think of that “everybody” needs to know that everybody doesn’t know. Which is fine. That’s why we live in societies–so everyone doesn’t need to know everything. We can specialize and collaborate and build on each others’ talents.

I think it’s also true that context for learning matters (whether it’s code or anything else)–and many of my friends who advocate for learning to code make this exact point–find a project/problem, then decide to learn to code.

And then before I had finished thinking about that article, I read Kids Can’t Use Computers. . .  And This is Why It Should Worry You, which makes a lot of excellent points about the disservice we do to students and teachers when we call young people “digital natives” (a term I have always disliked) and move on.

Are we only teaching how to turn on a lamp? Not everyone is going to be an electrician, but someone needs to be. Maybe not everyone needs to learn to code, but we need to create an environment where students who want to develop those skills can.

I may not be able to wire my house, but I can do basic trouble-shooting when a light won’t go on–is it plugged in, is the power strip on, is the lightbulb burned out, is there a power outage? Same when it comes to a computer–I may not be able to fix every problem I encounter, but I can do basic trouble shooting (a step or two above “is it turned on?”)–which allows me to better communicate with people who do have the type of in-depth knowledge and skill needed to diagnose and repair.

And that’s what I think is important–it’s impossible for everyone to know everything they “need” to know. There is always more to know, and some fields evolve so rapidly it’s not reasonable for a lay person to stay on top of every development. What we need more more than to all have specialized skills is to have problem solving and communication skills.

Those problem solving and communication skills, whether they’re developed by learning to code, or building a car, or building a tower out of marshmallows and spaghetti will be applicable not only to questions and challenges students face today in schools, but to questions and challenges they will face throughout their lives.


xkcd’s brilliant tech support cheat sheet: