Lost and Found: A Teaching Philosophy

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image via Pixabay

Recently, Amanda Potts asked a few of us on Twitter if we had a teaching philosophy to share. I said, “I’ll look in my files.” Now nearly a week later, I finally remembered to follow through on my promise. I found one. From 2012 and wow, it’s kind of stirring, in its own way. It’s a bit more formulaic than I would like but OK. My beliefs are recognizable and still feel very true. Here it is:

Sherri Spelic

Statement of Philosophy of Education

Connection, curiosity, struggle, and celebration: These are the four elements of my philosophy of education.

All humans are wired for connection with other humans. We are the quintessential social animal. Much of our learning is motivated by our desire to make connections with others through communication. Understanding this principle is central to surviving a room full of chatty 5th graders or squirrelly kindergartners. When children are left to their own devices, they are remarkably adept and entirely prepared to carry out their own versions of psycho-social research. They play tag. They approach and run away from each other. They exchange secrets. They form groups. They select leaders and determine outcasts. They build hierarchies and create rites of passage. They initiate, react, observe, assess and reassess. They are marvels of social activity and organization at every stage of their development.  For this reason, the social life of the child at school becomes his or her bottom line.  Who are my friends? How will I keep them? What do they like about me? What will make them like me more?  These are only a few of the questions which drive children to engage in the types of social “research” described above.

In the classroom, it is important to acknowledge this reality and work with it rather than against it. Remaining sensitive to our students’ needs of connection and belonging goes a long way towards setting the stage for academic learning to take place. Successful teachers are masters at creating the safe, welcoming and encouraging environments which allow children to explore and develop their very individual paths towards friendship and participation in the group.

The second element in my model is curiosity.  Because children are innately curious from an early age, I wonder what we as adults and educators can do to foster and enhance the curiosity mechanisms that are on fire at age four and often seem to peter out by age fourteen. What types of educational experiences help children and adults maintain their natural and very individual forms of curiosity? This is the question that most interests me. And I have no definitive answer to this. What I do have is a deep appreciation for programs in which care and attention are devoted to developing students’ confidence and competency in raising their own questions and where students are also given opportunities to seek and present their own paths to solutions.

Struggle is closely tied to curiosity and stands as the third element of my model. When we are curious about something we are often willing to work to close our “knowledge gap” (Heath and Heath, Made to Stick, 2007).  We struggle to find the answers we feel we are missing: How can I get accepted to the college of my choice? How long will it take me to lose 5 more pounds?  What do I have to do be able to run a half marathon without stopping?  The key lies in the fact that the struggle is specific to us as individuals and its outcome must hold meaning for us. When we struggle with a task, our internal curiosity rises: Can I really do this? How far have I come? How much further do I have to go?

Our students need the benefit of struggle. They need opportunities to grapple with bunches of goal related questions and derive their own responses and test these repeatedly before arriving at one solution or several. In its ideal form, the struggle turns into an experience more valuable and rewarding than arriving at the destination. It becomes the tale we love to tell, the story that leads to new ventures, questions and the next struggle.

The fourth element in my model is celebration. I use celebration to indicate any instance in which we acknowledge to ourselves and perhaps to others that progress was made, a goal reached, a milestone passed. There needn’t be fanfare and champagne, but stopping along our paths of struggle and recognizing the signposts of success along the way enables us to prepare for later successes. If we fail to celebrate our accomplishments both small and large then we cut ourselves out of a significant opportunity for growth.  Indeed, celebration and recognition whet our appetite for more challenge and embolden us to strive towards the next opportunity to flex our struggle muscles.

Connection, curiosity, struggle and celebration are the four critical ingredients I would look for in a classroom, on a faculty, in an administration, in a school community.  Every individual has a need for human connection and belonging. Each of us has a natural, intrinsic curiosity which needs opportunities to stretch and grow. The gift of struggle lies in its capacity to stimulate our resourcefulness, persistence and resilience, while celebration and recognition have the power to stoke the fires of our ambition and spur us on to new adventures.

These four elements of my educational philosophy are interrelated and interdependent.  They begin and end with the experience of the individual, yet they also apply to groups and systems.  Looking back, I see that I have spent my teaching career cultivating these elements in myself and my students.  Mine is an experientially based philosophy and its formulation here confirms my belief that some of my best teaching happens when I step out of the role of knower and become a student again.

 

 

 

November 2012

Landing Space, Post-PoCC

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image source

In the past, when I’ve returned to school after my singular experience at the National Association of Independent Schools People of Color Conference (NAIS PoCC) I’ve written a blog or e-mail to share with colleagues, to let them them know where I was, what I experienced and how it might be of interest to them. It feels like good practice on a number of levels: modeling a means of sharing professional learning after an event, giving myself a space for recap and reflection, providing conference organizers and attendees with one person’s publicly documented feedback. I may do that again this year but it may take a bit more time.

It’s Sunday. The day after the close of an intense four-day professional and personal learning experience. I have a long day/night of travel ahead and the calls of re-entry are already audible through my inbox. Frankly, I’m exhausted. The 9 hour time difference is about to serve up another punch to my somatic system upon returning home, my sleep patterns have been off since I arrived and I maximized my conference involvement by hearing all the major speakers and attending a workshop in every slot. I am deeply grateful for every conversation, shared smile, knowing nod, sudden laughter. This is that conference where I show greedy tendencies: I show up here and there and there because this special opportunity will not present itself again for another year. I am feeding my educator soul for the long season in between when I am not surrounded by colleagues of color and local conversations on justice become rare and hushed.

As I leave this place and the thousands of impressions I am holding, I feel a sense of lonely release back into the overwhelming whiteness of being. I have chosen these spaces. I am fully accustomed to being the only or one of a few. Non-threatening, amenable, easy to welcome. I don’t harp on my Blackness and that seems to make everyone feel more at ease. I’ve said it before: for white folks, I’m a very comfortable Black friend and colleague to have.

What I’m thinking about now as I head back into my life in progress, is not so much about dramatic change in myself or others. I notice that my attention is desperately looking  for a good, solid place to land. A place to process and sort. A cleansing space for feeling the feels without apology; an interior home base to reassemble the pieces of myself I have given more free reign than usual in these four days. There’s gratitude, joy, concern, curiosity, wistfulness, pride, fear, overwhelm, ambition, purpose and wonder to make sense of. What’s next? Who do I need to lean on? Where can I lay some of these burdens down? Where do I need to pick up some slack? Who am I now and what is different from a week ago?

After visiting with my favorite uncle here in Seattle I’m thinking about family history. How do we account for all the unknowns which, in my case, outnumber and outsize the known? How have my ancestors’ sacrifices manifested in my life and those of my children? What does it mean to know, I mean really know, whence we came? The older I grow, the more cognizant I become of how deep these questions run. And then to understand the impact of growing up in a society that told me time and time again that my past didn’t matter. It is at turns physically painful to recognize how that double-edged sentiment has been applied to deny the legacy of dehumanizing racism while uplifting the doctrine of rugged individualism and exclusive self-responsibility. It is a shock to my system to decide post-50 that I’m ready to battle these demons.

So, attending PoCC means that a lot of my thinking has been stirred up; my emotions are hanging about me, still exposed. I am vulnerable and unprotected. To name that seems important. The conference is identity based, identity grounded, identity moving, identity shaping. That’s the wonderful part and also the risky part. I will take my time before I decide what and when to share with colleagues. I will try to be gentle with myself as I return to the ocean of other folks’ expectations. I will give myself time to process, rest and heal even if it means saying no to some things.

There were so many people at the conference who let me know that I am valued, accomplished, welcomed and loved. I am taking these gifts with me and thank you for sharing your time, care and wisdom with me.

What The Elementary Students Said About Art

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Our school celebrated the opening of the Elementary Art Show for grades 1 – 5 on Friday. Positioned along a main corridor of the school, students and their families were able to feast their eyes on over 300 distinct pieces of artwork, selected by each student to be included in the display. Because I travel this hallway several times a day on my way to and from the gyms, I had multiple opportunities to glance at a few pieces each time through. What really caught my attention, though, were the artists’ statements. Alongside each artwork, my colleague, Sabina Trombetta, posted the artist’s name with a statement. I was struck by these honest testaments to students’ relationships to their effort, their craft, their enjoyment and their understanding. Here’s a sample of what some of them said: (The number refers to the grade level of the student)

Art makes me feel happy. 1

I am an artist because my teacher taught me how to be an artist. I like to do different things. 1

I am an artist because I can turn everything into art. 1

I am an artist because it is my thing. 1

I have learned that not all artworks have to be perfect and how you want. 2

I like art because it’s fun seeing new stuff, looking in a different way, and exploring. 2

I love art so much. It is my favorite subject. Art makes me feel happy and loved. I love art so much I even drew with my left hand when I had a broken arm. 2

I have learned feelings in color. 2

Art is very calm. It makes me smile. 2

Art can be a dream.  You can fly or visit outer space.   But most of all art is from the heart. 3

Art can be a great inspiration. I have learned art takes time. 3

Art can be good and normal. Everybody does different art. 3

Art is good. But it’s challenging. 3

Art is so fun even if it’s boring. I always find some way to make it fun. 3

I love art. Art is my life. On the first day of school I was like “Is there art?” 3

To me, art is anything you want it to be. 4

This artwork is a musical country. My inspiration came from Motown.  I ran wild with my imagination making it. 3

Art is something everyone can do. 4

When I create art it makes me feel relief. 4

When I create art I think that I’m in the picture. 4

I have learned that if you want something to go your way you have to work for it. 3

I have learned that art is everywhere. 4

Without art I wouldn’t have done this beautiful piece. I would have some boring blank spots. 4

Art makes me feel free. My inspiration for this artwork is reality. 5

I think art is important for me because you can be creative. 5

The experience draws the art. 5

I have learned many things, but art is a gift granted on all. Some big, some small, art is everywhere waiting to be found. 5

My inspiration comes from the things around me. 4

I love art because when I’m mad at my brother or I’m sad, art always calms me down. 3

I wish I could share more of their insights and ideas. Reading each one gave me a fresh view of each child. Again, I am humbled by what children will tell us if we would simply listen.

IDK

I Don’t Know

everything about everything or

All

about the things I choose to study.

I Do Know that I’m curious and

I wonder.

A girl who likes to propose

a good workshop for learners she’s never met;

A girl who thinks the topics on her mind

will make for a good conversation

among self-selecting walk-ins.

I Don’t Know

All

About the things I choose to write on.

I Do Know that I feel a certain kinda way

About some things

and that my health will thank me

if I assault the page

rather than a passing human.

Because I’ve realized that my writing, studying, presenting

Is less about KNOWING

and more about LEARNING.

My writing, studying, presenting  – all that’s about

moving somewhere,

changing my perspective (and maybe yours, too),

opening up spaces dark and silent

developing eyes and ears for connections.

What I know is

how to gather and marshal resources.

I know how to welcome what you know

and feel

into the room.

I know how to encourage

movement, spontaneous or otherwise

because we’re going places.

We’ll take our flashlights and hard hats

to investigate ruins and

sites of construction.

We’ll build stuff ourselves: relationships,

bodies of work, archives of resources,

towers of knowledge.

I know how to

raise questions

raise eyebrows

raise the bar

raise the roof.

Knowledge becomes a thing we

unpack

take apart

remix

re-imagine

reinvent

discover

refine

relate

recover

reassemble

.

It’s a dangerous, risky thing

to say

I Don’t Know.

Which is why I say, too

I Do Know

how to listen

for what the situation requires;

how to face the discomfort

of waiting to find out

what happens next.

I am a teacher.

This is my calling.

I know.

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Photo: © Alexandra Thompson

 

 

Written in great anticipation of a 5-day learning experience in Digital Pedagogy Lab, August 5-9, 2019 at University Mary Washington, Fredericksburg, Virginia.

I will lead the #DigitalIdentity Course.

Please come and make it what it fully needs to be.

 

 

 

 

Post-Conference Reflection: Wishes and Realities

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What I would love to have happen:

I write a succinct and witty recap of the leadership conference I just attended in which I describe the excellent session my Director, Steve Razidlo and I delivered on the second day.

I tell you in short form about the positive feedback we received both on the process and the content. I refer you to the Right Question Institute for details on the Question Formulation Technique we applied to Diversity and Inclusion, a protocol which is nothing short of brilliant.

I also describe all the wonderful people connections I was able to make over the two-day conference that began in small-talk and became much more real after the gala dinner, dance floor escapades and final hugs goodbye.

Cleverly and cheerfully I wrap up my summary of events with a few more happy shout-outs and acknowledgements of people, places and particulars that made my stay on the Portuguese coast memorable and recommendable.

The reality is:

All of the above is true. Meaning that all the positives I would have tried to describe and convey were significant parts of my experience. We rocked our interactive session for real. Folks learned something new and we take full responsibility.

It is also true that I experienced frustration at various points:

  • Three male keynote speakers each with an hour of stage time but only 45 minutes for a panel of 7 women at the conference’s conclusion.
  • In the choice of individual keynote speakers I noted a preference for education-adjacent men with strong entrepreneurial tendencies who mostly failed to cite women in their presentations.
  • Given that the banner theme was exponential learning, it was interesting but not surprising to me that the sessions I attended were steeped in deeply traditional sit-and-get models of delivery. There was a lot of talk about learning by doing with remarkably few instances of actually learning by doing. But maybe I attended the wrong sessions. That’s possible.

I struggled with an internal need to defend my right to be present as a real live teacher without a leadership title. And yet I persisted.

It’s a challenge to balance praise and criticism of an event when both are necessary.

I had to recognize that I was fairly close in age to the post-middle-aged crowd of school administrators but my dance-floor-self felt kinship with the young women who ran the conference.

One highlight of my total experience was talking with former administrators of mine who shared their learning and growth in a couple of key areas since we worked together. That made me hopeful.

The mix of messages about the future of education rarely sat well with me, even if plenty resonated. My relevance as an educator has less to do with technology than it does with my capacity to reinforce humanity at every turn.

After attending such a conference, I wish:

I had a time and dedicated conversation space to share my thoughts and work through my feelings in the aftermath.

I could find less wordy ways to say the nice things, while also pointing out the problematics. (I just made that up. I think that should be not just a word but the name of an urban contemporary boy band: The Problematics.)

That I could really rest well before I have unloaded my cocktail of mixed emotions and experiences.

That now this is done, I can look forward to real sleep I hope. (Fingers crossed.)

 

Notes:

The conference I attended was the Educational Collaborative of International Schools (ECIS) Leadership Conference outside Lisbon, Portugal. On Twitter: #ECISLisbon19

From our session proposal: Diversity and Inclusion: Which Questions Are The Right Ones?

When a school community attempts to engage in meaningful discussion of diversity and inclusion, how do we start? What are the right questions to ask? Using the Question Formulation Technique, participants will gain insights about approaches to D & I work in an empowering, replicable process.

And yes, it was a big deal that I got to do this session with my head of school. Just sayin’.

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Mosaics are everywhere in Lisbon and environs!

 

Coming Clean With Equity

Reading widely is a fine way to expand our vocabulary. I still find all kinds of words that I thought I knew and have to look up and realize I had no idea or actually the wrong idea (or better yet, the completely wrong pronunciation like segue (segway? really?!)).  Today, I’m thinking hard about equity. Yes, equity. As in, “the quality of being fair and impartial” not “the value of shares issued by a company.”

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In education circles we talk and hear a lot about equity – in our districts, schools, and classrooms. There are popular posters distinguishing equity from equality, clarifying that equality means that everyone receives the same treatment, access, materials regardless of specific needs, while equity requires that each person receives treatment, access, materials according to their specific needs. Sounds reasonable, right?

I recently finished reading Dr. R. L’Heureux Lewis-McCoy’s Inequality In The Promised Land in which he describes disparities between Black and white families’ experiences in a suburban school system. One piece of his analysis really made me stop in my tracks, though. He specifically examines the way the achievement gap between Black and white students remained even when they sat in the same classrooms. Even if I can fathom this based on student discipline statistics that demonstrate how Black boys and girls are suspended and disciplined at disproportionately higher rates than their white peers, and knowing that with an overwhelming majority of white teachers, implicit bias presents further hurdles for Black students in the classroom, this still surprised me. Even having a rough understanding of those factors, I was not fully prepared for the case that Lewis-McCoy makes with his observations.

This chapter has demonstrated that racial and economic minorities in RAPS [Rolling Acres Public Schools] experienced school differently. The different assessments and treatments of academic performance (teacher feedback), behavior (student discipline), and culture (perceived family background) cumulatively contributed to the marginalization of the minority students… Mr. Marks, Ms. Reno, and Ms. Jackson thought of themselves as culturally sensitive teachers who created diverse classrooms for quality education. In fact, their classrooms created unequal experiences for black and white students. (p. 136)

The teachers believed they were doing their level best to offer equal opportunities for all of their students to excel. Lewis-McCoy further explains that

RAPS teachers and school staff were attuned to issues of social inequality, but they seldom incorporated their social scientific knowledge when discussing their own classrooms. Instead teachers saw educational inequality as a function of individual student issues or family issues. (p.137)

In our educator hearts I think there’s a real tendency to want to deny that this could/would happen to us. We use our best intentions as flattering headlights that guide our practice with children. We know we need to do better – to truly examine where our blind spots are, determine which forms of bias we may be operating under without consciously realizing it. Yet, we struggle to make necessary changes. Our old habits don’t die hard, they just don’t die.

In an article chronicling similar disparities in academic performance between white and black students in an affluent suburban high school in Evanston, Illinois, we find a typical system-oriented response.

The analysis showed that District 65 provided a much better education to white students than black students, no matter their income…

The board has hired a consultant to assess each school’s practices, is committing to hiring more teachers of color and making lessons more culturally relevant, and is encouraging staff to attend workshops to help expose unconscious racial bias.

It’s a common package of proposed changes that several schools and districts take on to shift the entrenched dynamic. What stands out for me is thinking about how we in our individual classrooms learn to practice equity with a capital E. We’re no longer talking in the abstract about systems and policies, we’re talking about our classrooms and the students we have in front of us, whoever they might be. Shana White has a powerful post on educational equity that is an excellent resource for action steps. How are we working to meet the needs of specific students? To whom are we likely to give the benefit of the doubt in conflict situations? How do we respond to children who challenge our authority? Which children are most likely to be excluded as a behavior consequence?

If I look at my own situation: it’s boys, often very athletic boys, sometimes with attention issues but not always. They are the ones most likely to be caught in some sort of temporary discipline bind. If I’m as committed to equity as I say I am, then I need to consider what I might do differently to interrupt those patterns. Having an instant activity helps. Using a whiteboard agenda to minimize the need for oral instructions during class helps. Pulling an individual aside rather than confronting him in front of the whole class can help. These are not wildly innovative. But for individual students and the atmosphere of the class, they can make a significant difference.

My point is that in my own little instructional world I can practice equity every day (or not). I can study my own habits to find out where my blind spots lie. I can ask my students for honest feedback. I can also look at my personal history to consider which lenses I may be applying when I encounter a little blonde boy who seems to behave as if he already owns the world. How might I be interpreting his behavior in light of my personal history? A consultant who comes into my school and delivers a workshop might ask me to consider such steps. The choice to take the steps, to share my progress (and setbacks) with others will not be a given nor necessarily easy.

A while back I was asked to create a video in response to the provocation:

How would I design a learning environment if I wanted to marginalize certain populations?

 

As an exercise, responding to the question proved extremely helpful in getting me to think about all the ways we set up barriers to learning whether we intend to or not. The same goes for creating classrooms that are genuinely equitable. I’m convinced it means listening to students more. As we hold up standards as the new cure-all for what ails academic achievement, I believe it also means developing hundreds of ways for students to demonstrate their attainment of a given standard, not just one or two. That’s what we would do if we were truly committed to equity. You know, stretch ourselves to meet the specific needs of all of our learners. May seem like a big expensive ask for a whole school system.

In my classroom, however, I hold the most powerful levers – relationships, professional expertise, resources. I can put them to work for equity daily. And I’ll need practice, help and critical feedback. My students are counting on me.

Reading “Inequality In The Promised Land”

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R. L’Heureux Lewis-McCoy writes about how Black and White children and families experience school and the attendant opportunities in a Midwest suburban district. The title of his book, Inequality In The Promised Land (2014), describes the unfulfilled dreams of Black families who sought better education outcomes for their children enrolled in a suburban school district and the actions of white families that inadvertently or otherwise frustrate Blacks and other minorities in securing the same level of resources, opportunities and influence. Lewis-McCoy spent 4 years conducting one hundred in depth interviews with families, school officials, and teachers along with studying the local demographic and political history of the district referred to as Rolling Acres Public Schools.

It is an academic book and I am all in my feelings. Lewis-McCoy talks about “concerted cultivation” of children that commonly happens in White middle class families. He describes the ways in which those same families throw their political weight around by being particularly vocal in making demands on school officials to insure the best resources and opportunities for their own children by resisting efforts that specifically seek to address racial disparities in both opportunities and outcomes. As I was reading about policy initiatives aimed at ‘closing the achievement gap’ and hearing white residents espouse how much they value the diversity in the community while also locating the reasons for achievement gap disparities firmly within Black families and not in the systems of school, I felt so weary.

My mother was fighting these battles when we were young. She pursued concerted cultivation with a vengeance and perhaps because my brother and I arrived at a time in her life when she was more at liberty to take advantage of certain opportunities, we were able to engage in all manner of extra curricular activities. My older brother certainly had his share of scouting then school sports that filled his schedule. Our home was filled with books, we were used to traveling all over the city, shopping at suburban malls as if we lived there. We knew lots about life beyond our neighborhood. And now as adults, my brother and I are firmly anchored in the middle class.

With my own children I have had the means to similarly pursue “concerted cultivation.” Supporting their varied interests in everything from electronics to club sports, summer camps and theater pursuits. They have gotten the message: “try everything.” Because they may. They enjoy the benefit of an “abstract approach” to their further education, rather than an “utitlity-focused” approach which would suggest seeking a field of study or training likely to yield the best return on investment.

My parents, who grew up during the depression, came of age during the second World War and became race barrier-crossing homeowners in the late 50’s, seemed to be fixated on the inherent value of education. As kids we understood that college was a non-negotiable. My mother completed her BA and my father finished an associate degree. My older sister who was an adult when I was born was the first child of theirs to finish college. The path was set, we only needed to travel it. And we all did.

I see now how painfully aware they were of the fact that our education was not only about the schools we visited but everything else we did as well. We were involved in our conservative Lutheran church, we participated in boy and girls scouts, respectively. We grew up familiar with museums, libraries, theaters, concerts and events in far-flung corners of our Northern section of the state. My parents understood the value of acquiring these middle class understandings. And to some of their Black friends and family members, these efforts seemed misplaced or unnecessary or simply beyond my parents’ means. My mother mentioned this kind of commentary fairly often and used it to reiterate her fundamental aim of “exposure, exposure, exposure.”

I grew up being exposed and now that’s a large part of what I do online. Expose myself to new knowledge, old knowledge, relevant knowledge, recycled knowledge. I share widely and aim to expose others to what I’ve found and am trying to grasp. As I’m working through Lewis-McCoy’s careful study, I am exposing myself (again) to hard realities about White American forms of racism denial that hold us all captive. I have to wrestle with the capacity of schools as systems to perpetuate deficit thinking steeped in classism and racism. At the same time I have to expose myself to my own complicity in school systems that privilege white middle class values over more inclusive, anti-racist curricula and instruction.

That may be why this read has got me more in my feelings than I anticipated.