Monthly Archives: January 2012

Takeaways from Educon

First and foremost, after a weekend of thinking and learning, it is the people! It is always the people who make the time at Educon so important. Educon isn’t set up like any other conference. The challenge for those who are presenting is to create “conversations.” It is not to stand at the front of the room and pontificate. The presenters’ job is to get people to talk, to share and learn together. Sometimes it is difficult to get the conversations going, and some questions or initial presentations of ideas are more captivating than others, but overall the connections with other educators are made.

Educon is not for the faint of heart or the passive. Teachers and administrators don’t come to Educon unless they want to grow and develop their practice. It isn’t a place for anyone who simply wants to sit on the sidelines; it is for those who are willing to try new ways of meeting the needs of their students. Most of the people there found Educon through Twitter and came to meet face-to-face with the people they had connected with through dozens or hundreds of tweets.

I led a session, with Wendy Eiteljorg and Philip Cummings on “Being a Risk-Taking Teacher.” The session was filled with teachers who are trying to change the world, one small project and one individual child at a time. They willingly shared their challenges and their successes with each other.We built the session around the ideas in Making Thinking Visible by Ron Ritchart, Mark Church and Karin Morrison, so everyone who came had to be up and moving around throughout the session. We set up activities that allowed them to think about taking risks while learning new ways to present material in the classroom. The session was before lunch, and the movement helped to stimulate their bodies and minds as well as create a sense of community among the teachers. I will be writing more on these strategies as I use them in the classroom.

Another thought, as I leave SLA exhausted and in many ways, overwhelmed, is that this sort of learning, intense, hour after hour, is what we do to our students every day. We ask them to go from one class to another and give it their all. We want them to care about every subject, deeply and with commitment, 50 minutes at a time. After 2 days of it, I am exhausted. I can’t imagine how they can do it with any level of passion and enthusiasm. As always I believe that change is going to have to happen to schedules first of all. Students need time to design and build,  to reflect and integrate new ways of thinking. If we don’t give them that time, the best plans in the world will fall on disheartened and tired minds and hearts.

Time for me to rest now before the start of another week! Thank you to Science Leadership Academy and Chris Lehmann for a wonderful weekend!

Heading to Educon 2012

Today is the first day of Educon, one of the most amazing conferences for educators that I know of. Educon is held at the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, a charter school that was founded in connection with the Franklin Institute. The conference is based around the idea of having conversations. It is a model that demands that the people who present avoid becoming the dreaded “sage on the stage” and instead develop strategies that allow the teachers and administrators who attend to become part of the sharing and learning. The sessions are organized to create dialogue.

This is my third year attending. My first year, Educon was where I met face to face the people who were populating my PLN. I wrote about that experience here. Educon pushed me even further out of my past comfort zone, building connections with educators who were refusing to look at learning in the same ways that they always had. They were people who were and are deeply committed to their students and to creating enriching and meaningful learning experiences for them.

Educon starts with an Open House at SLA, where teachers can visit, talk to students and see how the SLA model of education works. It is also a time to connect with friends made in past years and learn what their experiences over the past year have been before the whirlwind of the weekend begins. Saturday and Sunday are filled with conversations, hours of thinking, sharing, and learning. My brain and in many ways, my heart will be filled to bursting by Sunday afternoon.

As I get ready to leave, I am excited and nervous. It takes a lot of energy to learn, to be honest about the mistakes of the past year and to look for new challenges for the coming one. It is something that I have to do, however, to stay fresh and determined. These times of conversation and sharing energize me with new ideas and force me to not become complacent. They help me to know that I am part of a community of educators, that there is a Moveable Pasture for me if I will take part in it.  When I come away from Educon, I always have a clearer sense of what I want to try next.

My Survival Guide to Educon:

  • Lots of sleep – I am a morning person, so it is definitely Early to Bed this weekend
  • Sneaker – there is lots of walking around SLA and around the neighborhood
  • Charged laptop
  • Energy snacks for when I just want to keep talking and sharing and don’t feel like finding food
  • Water bottle
  • List of people coming, to jog my memory

Just saw this tweet from Maureen Devlin, @lookforsun and had to add it as the conclusion to this:

#educon Best Effect: Happy, engaged, curious, spirited, creative, empathetic, playful children w/skills, concepts & knowledge to succeed.

That says it all!

Moveable Pastures

I am regularly struck by just how persistent Change has become in our lives. For me, 2011 was a year of tremendous change, both personally and professionally. There were so few “normal” or “standard” days. Every week brought different challenges, ones that I had never encountered before. I recently read this quotation by Sir Ken Robinson, the “rate of change is going to accelerate; it’s not going to decrease. We are not heading towards some calm pasture where all of the change will be behind us.” While I have believed this intellectually for some time, it is only recently that I have begun to wrestle with what that means for each of us as educators. If there is no “calm pasture,” if we must adapt and flourish in the midst of constant upheavals and confusion, how do we survive? How do we keep our creative energies flowing when there are so few calm spaces?

Teaching in an ever-changing world is stressful, that is all there is to it. If Sir Ken Robinson is correct, and I believe that he is, change is now the new constant, and there will be no respite for us as educators. There will not be a simple Finish Line to cross. We will not learn how to teach with technology and be done or to master Project-Based Learning and be able to relax. The list of skills and novel ideas will continually grow. As soon as we adapt, the landscape will have changed.

What is a pasture and why is it so appealing? First, it is a place where each member of the herd is recognized and known. The group bears the same brand, no matter what the shape or size. It is a place where each member is accepted. It is also a place of healthy nourishment. The herd stops and rests there. The grass is green and the water is pure. Finally, it is a place of safety. The wolves and dangers of the outside world are held at bay, while the herd is refreshed and strengthened.

I want a place like that in my life. If I have to live with constant changes and shifting, I want a place to be safe and nourished. I want a place where I am known and accepted. A primary goal of 2012 is going to be to create that sort of space in my life, a Moveable Pasture that will allow me to maintain the necessary energy and creativity to survive all of the challenges. I want to create or build relationships where I can relax and be honest, where there is healthy learning and growth. Basically, I want to be part of a self-shepherded flock of educators who are in a Moveable Pasture that will support and nourish us as we travel this crazy road.

I believe that we need to connect with other teachers who are honest about the stress of this work and yet still are passionate about providing the best for our students every day.

Do you have ways that you refresh and nourish yourself and your teaching? I would love to know what you do to handle the stress of teaching in this ever-changing world.

“It’s about learning…”

We had a meeting after school to talk to parents about the use of portfolios as a means of assessment, instead of grades, in 7th grade. We wanted to share with them how the process empowered the students, building a new sense of energy and connection for them to their learning.  It was the beginning of a process of shifting the center of control from the teacher and training each student to take it on herself. In many ways it was very hard for the parents to imagine an effective learning system, the work of a School, where there were no grades.

“How will i know if my child is learning anything?”

“How will my child know if she is learning?”

“What will motivate them if there are no grades? We have raised them to perform in response to a graded system, almost like trained seals, so how will you get them to work without them?”

It was at that moment, in the midst of the parents’ questions, all of which were legitimate and important, that one student spoke up to share the  effect that not being graded and using a portfolio had had on her.

“At the end of the trimester, I am more interested in learning. Before all I wanted was to do better, just get a better grade.”

I wanted to jump up and down! She got it and on top of that, had the confidence in the midst of what was an Adult Conversation, to share it. She had found that she cared about learning. I don’t know if the parents, who had all grown up like I did in a very different system, were able to understand the power of what the student shared, but I did. I knew that we were headed in the right direction at that moment.

The process that we had put in place to make class be about her and her growth as a student and a learner was bearing fruit. When the student’s work was towards learning, it was, plain and simple, different from learning that is done so that someone in authority will tell them that they did a good job. It has only been a few months, but it didn’t take long. The students wanted to learn about how their brains worked and how to make them work better. They wanted to assess themselves in ways that took away the fear. When saying, “I don’t do this well,” does not lead to be bad grade, there is no need to avoid it. When the student can name the challenge, then she can grow from right where they are. Without the discouragement of a bad grade or the tension of only working for a good grade, learning can be set free. It took them no time to want to take ownership of their learning.

I had two significant conversations with parents after the program was over: one parent of a student with learning challenges and one with a student who easily gets “A’s” and rarely has to work hard. For both of them, the work of the portfolio had energized their daughters. For the student who normally did not have easy success, she lost her her regular sense of being slower than other girls and was beginning to focus on the process of learning, naming a skill and working towards mastery. She was starting to take pride in the areas where she had success and identify what she found challenging outside of an arena of that was tinted with previous failure.

For the student who always succeeded, when asked to challenge herself, to identify her areas of difficulty and seek to master them, she suddenly engaged with the learning process. There was no longer an easy Finish Line to cross that let her stop working and growing. When she had to set the goal, it became about her own effort and work: good, healthy, hard work that led to new levels of thinking. There was no easy A to slow her down or allow her to disengage.

It is a lot of work for the students and for the teacher to use portfolios, but if just one student begins to care about learning, rather than simply the grade, it is worth it!