Why It Is Unlikely That I Will Ever Become a Curriculum Guru

pixabay.com
pixabay.com

Most of the 20+ years that I have taught have been dedicated to elementary Physical Education.  When I am in the gym, scrambling to shift and adjust equipment between classes, playing my eclectic mix of 70’s –  90’s pop, and doing a cartwheel on my way to pick up the next class, then I am in my element.  Once the kids arrive and I’m responding to a series of requests and questions all within the first 30 seconds while I try to get everyone moving as soon as possible, then I reconnect with the gritty reality of how many decisions in a single class period? and remind myself, this is a choice.  Teaching is so familiar to me. I have earned my 10,000 hours of practice and while there’s still so much to learn and certainly to improve, I feel at home in my methods, my philosophy, and in my commitment to doing right by kids.

Down the road and to the left of my day-to-day teaching are those conceptual edifices: curriculum and standards, scope and sequences, benchmarks, exit criteria; essential questions and enduring understandings, and so on. They hold their ground and need constant refurbishing.  Where they stand in relationship to me and my teaching and student learning can confuse me on occasion.  Of course, there need to be  structures for determining what we are teaching, why we are teaching it at all, and how it should be taught.  This makes sense to me. There needs to be *a plan based on students’ needs; a way of deciding how those multiple and varied needs will be met in achieving the desired learning outcomes.  Accepted.

As one would expect, my colleague and I create a road plan of what topics we intend to cover with each grade level every year. We have objectives, a clear time frame in which to fulfill those objectives, and we have a wealth of lesson plans and activities to get us where we believe (and our curriculum says)  our students need to go. Great.

And yet, whenever we sit down and are presented again with fresh standards and their intended outcomes – pages and pages of color-coded charts, loaded with text and cleverly notated with abbreviations like: S1E7 24, well then, I have to admit, my eyes glaze over and I wish I could be doing something, anything else, but this.  Although the conversations my colleagues and I  get into over the categorization and terminology  of our craft are stimulating  and often charged, most of us also struggle with the process of documenting and (ultimately justifying) our inventory.

What’s funny about this situation is that I’m a language lover.  I can formulate and reformulate until the cows come home. Wordsmithing is second nature.  When it comes to curriculum writing and mapping, however,  I would be your girl, if only it excited me enough. And sadly, curriculum design and standards alignment, just do not do it for me. Yet. Participating in the conversations, having the need for the “refurbishing” process explained to me once again, and engaging with the material – these all have value.  Even so, I feel like a very impatient middle-schooler while sitting in that room, folding and unfolding my arms while I try my best to appear focused in front of my peers.

Becoming a connected educator has helped me to appreciate that although this post feels embarrassingly confessional, like I’m telling a dirty little secret, there are probably at least a few folks out there who can empathize. I am connected and therefore not alone. And there may be someone out there who will say, “Hey, I hear you and I can help!”  Perhaps there’s someone out there who can say: “here’s how I learned to make that process work for me.” Because I don’t want to shut out the possibility.  I never used to eat cheese and now I enjoy mozzarella.  I know that I can learn and change.

While it does seem highly unlikely that I will ever become a curriculum guru, I do intend to continue becoming a better teacher.  Being and staying connected with my diverse and highly engaged Personal Learning Network (PLN) means that I have every opportunity to keep working at just that.

 

 

*”a plan, based on children’s needs” – maybe that’s where my disconnect originates – I’m not always sure that standards and curriculum are truly developed with kids’ diverse needs in mind. That’s a conversation for another post.

Welcoming Order into My Creative Chaos

A couple of  days ago I attended a wonderfully energizing presentation on learning and the brain. My colleague, Barbara Kaindl, who is a learning coach and memory trainer provided a host of useful tips and tricks for improving study habits while maintaining an enthusiasm for the process of learning.  Although the talk was designed for parents dealing with school aged children, I was struck by the number of tips I found thoroughly applicable to my work.  In a simple exercise she made an open and shut case for how much more efficiently the brain can operate when there is a recognizable order of things.  She showed us scattered numbers on a page something like this: (photo: http://fisforfirstgrade.blogspot.co.at/2011/03/who-likes-free-stuff.html)

and we had to find the missing number (unless you take 21, none are missing in the picture.). Then she offered the same set of numbers in a calendar format like this: https://edifiedlistener.files.wordpress.com/2014/09/39895-pumpkinnumbers.jpg(image: https://edifiedlistener.files.wordpress.com/2014/09/39895-pumpkinnumbers.jpg)

– no problem finding the missing numeral here (if one were missing).  In another example she had the group tell a story with a series of random words in order to demonstrate how much easier we found it to remember all 20 terms once they were embedded in a narrative of our own creation.

I left the event, fired up about what my colleague was bringing into the world and also celebrating my desire to do better:  To create more order in my work..

The scattered number image is a powerful one for me. It looks familiar – like a map of how my mind seems to want to work a lot of the time. I can enjoy jumping from topic to topic and decide where to go based on my internal brand of sequencing.  This approach has taken me far and also landed me in trouble on occasion. And I like it. It’s the kind of thinking that makes my days interesting and occasionally surprising.  At the same time, I can see how others – my family, clients, students – benefit from signs of order that help them know what to expect and how to approach things. This is where I can and will do better.

Writing up lists has helped. Keeping track of things on our family calendar also furthers the cause. Regularly circling back through my inbox to check for missed or overdue action items is a new habit.  And recently I collected and filed random papers that had piled up on and around my desk. That felt empowering. Part of this process involves giving a nod to my creative drive (which is all over the place) while gently stacking, sorting and prioritizing the evidence in ways which will help me find and use it later. My path to greater order is like walking on a see-saw. It’s a balancing act. I move in stages between the extremes. And when I’ve found that sweet spot in the middle where I control the ups and downs, I can hardly believe my good luck.  Balance is possible, if only for a moment.

Idea Fatigue and Staying Anyway

Sometimes I read a blog post by Terry Heick and a few things may happen.
1. I read it through a couple of times to make sure I get the gist and often feel briefly wowed by the profundity.
2. I go into social comparison mode and rank his visible thought process as deeper and more substantive than my own.
3. Part of me feels uplifted and as a result, I save the link to Evernote for eternity and perhaps tweet it out to my network.
4. Another part of me simultaneously wants to promptly leave the field of education without a trace.

What’s going on here?
One of the joys and also woes of diving into the fullness of twitter and other social media is managing our sense of self as we engage with so many others in various ways. On the one hand, I revel in the intellectual challenge and meatiness that reading a well crafted blog post can offer. On the other hand, particularly if the post concerns education and proposes steps towards rethinking and changing practice, I can also develop a sudden case of “idea fatigue.” That moment when you recognize that your will is much weaker than your best intentions. It’s when you decide to fold rather than play out the hand on the chance that the next card might just turn things around. It’s the point at which your incredibly wise, diligent and productive learning network members rise to edu-Olympus without you. These are the very real moments when I think maybe because I don’t feel as ready to “go hard” as many others, I should decide instead to “go home.”

All that said, I have yet to actually “go home” or to leave the field. I keep reading, saving, tweeting, commenting, coping. For the time being I am enjoying a break from the classroom to focus on coaching. I have other, not bigger, fish to fry. My idea fatigue is real and so is my commitment to ongoing learning, however checkered and imperfect.

So when I read this knock-out imagined speech from student to teacher imagined by Terry Hieck:

Help me to see the limits of my own knowledge in a way that fills me with wonder. As a song I’ve never heard. Why should I care? Not the future me–the right-here-and-now me.

And maybe more crucially, how can we–you as the teacher, me as the student–turn this learning process all the way around, where it becomes to be about what I don’t know as a kind of spectrum of context and possibility.

Where ignorance is a kind of elegant and formless to-do list that shapes and reshapes itself endlessly, lighting my eyes with boundless curiosity and fire.

… I want to weep both for joy and despair. For he has captured both the essential longing and weighty onus of great learning.

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What’s Missing in This Picture?

Digging deeper pays off.
A couple of weeks ago I wrote about so much of what I’ve learned through Twitter and blogging. One of the points I made was about reading the comments made in response to particularly controversial, or even any article or post. Comments often contain points and arguments which can stretch your thinking and expand your perspective on a topic. Well, now I’ve learned something else.

If a post or article offers a link to another article or post and happens to be based on that link, go read the link. Yes, it involves more time and perhaps an extra click or two and it means you may get much closer to seeing the whole picture rather than just a piece. Here’s my tale:

I read Tom Whitby’s recent post which asks “Does Tech Hold Educators Back?” Right at the outset he offers a link to the blog post from which he quotes an unconnected educator describing his Edcamp experience. Initially I did not read the link. Rather, I read the post and became irritated about something in it but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. I reread the post the following day and came up with the following:
Near the end of the post, Tom Whitby makes this claim:

Again, to better educate our kids, we need to first better educate their educators. Edcamps do just that, and most will be dominated by technology discussions, because that is the very discussion educators need to engage in to maintain relevance.

While I agree that enhancing teachers’ learning is key to enhancing students’ learning, the assumption that most Edcamps will be dominated by tech discussions and that these technology discussions are “the very discussion educators need to engage in to maintain relevance” rubbed me the wrong way. It sounds (in the context of the whole post, I remind you) as if educators who question a heavy tech emphasis are somehow seeking to avoid improving their practice. In my thinking, any educator who attends an Edcamp and returns as enthused by the experience as the quoted teacher is relevant and is making attempts to stay relevant. And that ought to be the point of acknowledgement rather than judging the individual’s nerve to question the heavy emphasis on tech tools and tips.

So I began working this whole argument out in my mind, preparing this counter-argumentative blog post and I re-read Tom Whitby’s post again (3 times the charm). And this time I actually opened the link to the original post by Tony Sinanis, “#Edcamp, What’s the Point?”. And imagine what I found: A perspective which echoed many of my own thoughts.

On the one hand, Tony Sinanis raises the question:
“are #EdCamps just about sharing tech tips and tools? Has the experience become about technology?” and then goes on to conclude that:

Although there was a relatively “heavy” tech focus at #EdCampLdr that wasn’t what most people will remember from that day – it is definitely not what I will remember that day. What I remember is that I was in a room with hundreds of like-minded, passionate and enthusiastic educators who excitedly self-organized to share, connect and enhance their craft. I remember the exchanges, discussions and conversations. The conversations generally revolved around learning and teaching; around thinking and inquiry; around innovation and a different way of doing things; around passions and interests.

Aha! That’s what I wanted to hear more about. That’s what I was missing in Tom Whitby’s post: an appreciation for a voice and perspective which calls our assumed practices into question. Rather than diagnosing the deficit in the observer’s view, we all need to continue to be curious about both our individual and collective learning. We need to ask such observers more questions: what were you missing at this learning event? What would you like to see more of? In what ways would you consider contributing in the future?

And I would have missed this whole part of the story if I had stopped at the first or second reading of Tom Whitby’s post and skipped reading the whole of Tony Sinanis’s post.

We need to recognize the layers of reading that these relatively new forms of publishing require. We can hardly claim to prepare our students to become critical thinkers if we ourselves are not prepared to do the necessary digging, surfacing and reasoning. That’s my lesson learned this time around.

What I Know Now About Twitter and Blogging That I Didn’t Know A Year Ago

393 Tweets in.

78 Blog posts deep.

About a year ago I took the dive into Twitter and also began using my blog to express what I could not manage in under 140 characters. What I know now about Twitter and blogging is much more than what I knew just a short year ago.

In no particular order, here’s my list:

  1. Twitter has become my go-to source for excellent content. And actually it is content that comes to me through excellent links shared by the people I follow.
  2. Those people I follow and who follow me, I understand, comprise what is known as my Professional or Personal Learning Network (PLN).
  3. It often frustrates me to decipher unfamiliar abbreviations found in my twitter feed and so I try to make sure I spell them out once if I have the space before continuing to use them.
  4. I am excited about tapping into the wealth of knowledge and expertise I have found both within my PLN and beyond.
  5. I love the fact that my PLN is growing gradually. This has allowed me to acclimate in manageable steps. I’m still learning how to use lists to help with prioritizing. That may become important down the road.
  6. Surprising fact: Educators make up one of the largest groups of twitter users. I made it to the party and it has been so worth it!
  7. It’s possible to search for stuff on twitter using the right hashtags. What comes up is often more interesting and nuanced than what a typical Google search might yield.
  8. My blog posts get read by many more people if the links are retweeted by an individual or organization with many followers.
  9. If a link is very important to you, it makes sense to tweet it out more than once and address it to people you value, who perhaps have more and different followers than you have and may retweet.
  10. When you read a controversial article or post, read the comments, too, in order to really broaden and clarify your thinking.  I have sometimes found comments that were better formulated and argued than the original post.
  11. There is space for my input. To my surprise, there are people who are interested in hearing and seeing what I choose to contribute. I would have never have known this if I hadn’t taken the risk in the first place.
  12. Thanks to my PLN I have learned new skills and found all kinds of apps, tools and resources to expand my tech repertoire.
  13. I live under the influence of a “variable interval reinforcement schedule.”  This means that all of this digital messaging via twitter and e-mail is impacting my brain circuitry so that yes, I’m a little addicted.  The occasional yet unpredictable reward of finding a like on my blog post, or a new follower, or a retweet, keeps me coming back to check both the twitter feed and my inbox far more regularly than is actually necessary.  I want to wrestle with this a little more in the coming year.
  14. I have never done a #ff. (Friday follow = people you would recommend following) So I’ll do it here as a year’s worth: @RafranzDavis, @tomwhitby, @plugusin, @theJLV, @TeachThought, @Edutopia, @grantlichtman, @artofcoaching1, @gcouros, @AngelaWatson, @TeacherSabrina.
  15. It has only been a year and yet the learning has been rich, deep, exciting, and compelling.  I’m in. Let’s see what the next year brings.

I’ll Meet You There – Easier Said Than Done

You plan to go out with a friend and you agree to meet up in specific location. The plan assumes that each of you will travel some distance to reach the common meeting point. In teaching we may operate on a similar assumption.  I, the teacher, will travel a ways to meet my students where they are in their understanding. And in turn my students will use their skills, effort and drive to strive in the direction of that designated learning goal.  So much for the plan.

pixabay.com
pixabay.com

Anyone who has ever tried to instruct, teach or impart anything to anyone, will know that the reality is always much murkier and messier  than “the plan.”  Learning anything is rarely cut and dried. And the notion of teaching as a process through which knowledge is given or passed on to someone  misses the point of the interaction.  When I try to build a bridge between the knowledge and experience that I have and what I believe my students are supposed to learn, then I will have to travel. Building that bridge may well become an extremely arduous process.  While I am planning, engineering, and constructing,  what are my students up to?  Some of them are watching me work up a sweat, as I run back and forth gathering materials and begin putting in the foundation. Many of them, however, are talking to each other or staring into their gadgets or generally just hanging out. There doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of interest in my bridge.

And there’s the catch. It’s my bridge. I have to build it, right? To get to where they are…  What kind of traveling are my students doing in this scenario? How are they moving to meet me? Well, they’re not. They are spectators at my teaching show. They have not been asked to help build the bridge. They’re just going to wait until the bridge is done and see what happens.

Let’s do this differently: When I try to build a bridge between the knowledge and experience that I have and the understanding that my students have shown me they are seeking, then they and I will need to travel, and gather resources, and put in some effort to meet up at the designated learning goal. The planning, engineering and constructing will look different than when I chose to do it all on my own. The process will likely take longer and guess what? My students and I will learn not only how to build bridges, we will have learned much more about each other – our individual strengths, weaknesses, and inclinations in addition to discovering what we are capable of as a group.

Shifting my role from teacher, in the traditional sense, to lead learner requires some important steps on my part:

Before:

  • I need to have awareness about where I am in my development as a person and as a professional. How comfortable am I with sharing leadership?  How do I cope with ambiguity and uncertainty? Who do my students need me to be in order to be able to embrace this kind of approach to learning?

During:

  • patience and more patience.
  • openness to uncertainty, ambiguity, confusion
  • Staying connected to the vision which led me to venture down this road
  • Heaps of faith in myself and my students in what we are undertaking together
  • Humor

After:

  • ample opportunities to celebrate as a group and as individuals
  • time to step back and really take in the scope and magnitude of accomplishment. That is, not just looking at the finished products, rather, reflecting on the many steps it took to get there and all the mini victories those steps represent.
  • Closure: How do we want to remember what we did here?  Where are we headed next?

While it appears that I have replaced one “plan” with another. The real shift has less to do with the format and much more to do with what has happened in me. In order to shift from control and command “teaching” to the shared responsibility and distributed leadership stance of a lead learner, I, as a person, need to be aware of my strengths and vulnerabilities and be able to acknowledge them openly.  That is real travel. It is the journey of a lifetime and it never ends. The gift we can offer our students is to respect where they are on their unique journeys even as we acknowledge the twists and turns of our own expeditions.  As the lead learners, we are then in a position to accompany and support them as they get acquainted with new terrain and increase stamina. That’s when we can confidently say to our students, “I’ll meet you there” and mean it.

A Twitter Recipe for Learning

A few days ago I had a question. It had to do with tech and I decided to ask some twitter friends for ideas. I wanted to know if I could collect the links I tweeted on Evernote. See the tweets below.

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I promptly received an answer: go check out IFTTT.com and make a recipe.
So that’s what I did and when I arrived it felt like I had just entered a sort of tech facilitating candy store.

IFTTT stands for “If This, Then That” and what it offers is a platform for for creating recipes for apps to trigger and carry out actions on one another. I want my twitter account to talk to my Evernote files and IFTTT makes it possible.
Here’s my recipe:

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What’s cool is that you can create all sorts of recipes to meet your individual needs. On the website itself I fully enjoyed the absolutely user-friendly interface, no-fail, step-by-step instructions, and a generally a remarkably upbeat, encouraging user experience. I understood almost immediately how to define what I wanted and how to make it happen. And once it was all set up, within an hour I had a two new notes on Evernote documenting the links I had tweeted out.

Imagine that: I got what I asked for easily, with smiles and a whole lot of satisfaction. That’s product. Asking questions, tapping into resources, making new discoveries, and sharing the experience: that’s process, which in this case involved real people, offering real support in real time with the aid of some useful digital tools.  Sounds a bit like a recipe – for learning.  Power and powerful.

Huge thanks go to Beth Still for responding and sharing. Kudos to IFTTT.com for designing an excellent platform for users to become inventive in meeting their mobile tech needs.

Learning to Build Community; Sharing to Sustain it

I am in the middle of a terribly compelling read: The Soul of Money by Lynne Twist (2003).  Recommended to me by a good friend, I am finding much in its pages to wake up and shake up my thinking and feeling around not just money, but my fundamental beliefs related to scarcity and sufficiency.  At the same time, I’m thinking about my inner and outer resources: what are the things I hold dear and what do I have the greatest joy in sharing?

My last post talked about the value of being able to learn as more essential to progress than knowing stuff.  Getting beyond thinking that revolves around money and thinking about resources that I have and what I would call important, I recognize both my unbridled enthusiasm for learning and my deeper need for sustaining and sustainable community – not simply having community but creating, developing and nurturing community.  An in my pursuit of learning, I have often discovered communities of like-minded individuals through workshops and courses. However, the experience was often fleeting. Shortly following the conclusion of the event that brought us together, despite our promises to stay in touch, our individual and group connections sputter and eventually fade into the (often digital) background. My sense of community with that set of people may remain faintly in tact, yet it rarely becomes the go-to resource which sustains me and lasts over time.

Oddly enough, and I hesitate to admit it, I have found pieces of that aspired community experience specifically on twitter. I feel like I have gained a few twitter neighbors with whom I gladly connect and share. It helps me to have just a few such neighbors in that vast online world who are able to offer genuine interaction when I need it and whose wider contributions of links and thoughts, I can often use and incorporate into my practice. When I look at this development in the context of resource flow, I see that in order to create more of the community I so desire, I can dare to share a bit more.  The community can become stronger, better, fuller when I offer what resources I have, however humble.

With so much talk about making a difference in the world, it’s easy to scare ourselves away from acting on anything based on all the inadequacies we bring to the task matched up with the magnitude, complexity and variety of needs to be addressed. It is exactly at this intersection where learning builds the bridges we need to get beyond our hesitancy to act. Learning, experimenting, risking, discovering – these are the experiences which build and strengthen communities when they are shared and extended beyond the two halves of our constantly churning brains. This process also  fairly accurately describes my  increased involvement in online media, especially through this blog and twitter: a steadily unfolding learning experience, a flow.

On a more practical note: I have found that it also pays to repeat some thoughts which we’ve previously shared and to stay tuned to others because when we least expect it, that critical piece of learning we were missing may just show up at the right time. (Thanks for Rafranz Davis and Beth Stiller for recently sharing tips about how to use google forms which I was able to immediately apply!)  And if that doesn’t happen, all we have to do is ask. Right, neighbor?

Don’t know much about…

  • trees, bees, flowers, various forms of plant and animal life
  • physics, chemistry, higher math
  • History that extends beyond Europe and North America and can be referred to as “ancient”
  • Engineering, construction, mechanics
  • plumbing, carpentry, sewing, heating and cooling
  • finance, tax regulations, mortgages
  • Cultural riches of Africa, Asia, South and Central America
  • US celebrity culture
  • playing an instrument
  • specialized branches of medicine

And yet I hold two advanced degrees in my special areas of interest, I attended a prestigious college and did well in high school.  One would think that I must know a lot. Rather, I know more about the things I want to know more about.  It is also true that the more I learn, the more aware I become of how much I do not know. 

When we think and talk about school and what we expect our students to learn, it would be beneficial for us as educators, parents, and functional adults to step back and just hold our proverbial horses for a moment longer.  Asking ourselves and our kids: “What do I/you/we know?” is not serving us well.  Knowing/not knowing is not what is holding us back. Rather, the questions we need to be investigating alongside our kids go more like this:

  • “What can we learn from this situation?” 
  • “How and where can I find out more about how to do that?”
  • “Who can help me learn that?”
  • “What is the learning I am not willing to live without?”
  • “What have I learned in the past that can help me approach this new thing?”
  • “Where do I see evidence of my learning?”
  • What is it that I can’t wait to learn?
  • How does this connect to what I understand about …?

Although I know how to drive a car, that fact alone will not be enough when I go to the UK and have to drive a stick shift on the left side of the road. My capacity to learn some new habits, while temporarily unlearning some old habits will directly affect my success in this situation. In fact, lives would depend upon my capacity to learn and unlearn efficiently and effectively.  What appears to happen in schools is that we focus so narrowly on students achieveing that specific set of replicable skills in standard situations without providing the tools for expanding the repertoire or encouragement to redefine the task in more useful terms.

For all of those things I listed above about which I don’t know much, I do know that I can learn what I need and want. That has been the greatest benefit of my life’s education so far.  As a community of educators (parents, teachers, students (yes, students, too!)), we need to be clear that our greatest assets in school are inside our own heads, which multiply exponentially when we collaborate and support each other.  With my own children and students, I hope that they can grab hold of this essential point: “able to learn” travels better and farther than “ought to know.”

New learning: a crafting yarn

Yesterday I brought home three new balls of yarn to prepare for my next round of crocheting adventures.  I reconnected with this handicraft skill of my youth just a few short weeks ago.  All it took was an enticing display in the book store: attractive yarns, a nice selection of crocheting hooks and an abundance of instruction books.  Unusual for me, I took the material bait and left the books there.  I figured I’d do just as well looking online to find whatever I needed to get started.

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Three beginner scarves later I can say that the digital promise was fulfilled.  But that was only the start.  My soon-to-be 6 year old saw my selection of yarns and immediately seized the opportunity to get in on the act.  He’d been bringing home his own yarn creations from the Austrian kindergarten he attends.  After making the tough decision of which colors, he set to work independently and began creating a three meter long chain by knitting with his fingers.  I asked him to teach me and within a few minutes I was creating my own funky chain. One day later we have three beautiful chains (one of which is actually a snake) and I say, Christmas can come!

The beauty of this experience has many faces: I followed my son’s lead and the payoff was so astoundingly rich. I got to remember how much I enjoy working with my hands and making things for others. It brought me back to the notion of “lifelong learning” and how much more multifaceted it can be beyond the realm of professional development. I chose to renew an old interest and found more than ample resources online to get me going on my path. I can hardly wait to decide on the next creative project! Beanies or bags?  Learning momentum in action.  I’m hooked! (Couldn’t resist that pun…)

The snake
The snake