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Learning is Uncomfortable

Recently my new principal, who is showing every sign of empowering teachers and students, showed us the following quote in a staff meeting.

“Teachers who truly understand what they want their students to accomplish will almost surely be more instructionally successful than teachers whose understanding of hoped-for student accomplishments are murky.” -W. James Popham

She then asked us how we could relate to this quote. It struck a chord for me. It is terrible to have irrelevant experiences like Renee Moore, but an entirely different tragedy to get wrong information that could prevent student learning. As a mid-career teacher, I know when I am learning, so I shared the following experience with my colleagues in our staff meeting.

At my recent election day professional development, we had an “expert” presenting to our Head Start program about our child-centered curriculum. In one activity she presented us with anecdotal observations of students and asked us to figure out how we might encourage the student to learn more. My colleague was provided the following:

A 4 year-old student sorted through a box of magnet letters to put on a magnet board. She picked out the letters, I, L, F, U and showed the teacher. She said, “Look! I made I love you!”

The ‘expert’ said, “See, this child doesn’t know how to spell. She is not even close. That is why we need to refer students early before they get to Kindergarten.”

I was stunned. As a teacher and a researcher of early childhood literacy I knew that this student was actually experimenting with invented spelling and obviously knew the names of the letters. She was figuring out how phonemes operate in English. Without thinking I argued the point and explained that the student was demonstrating invented spelling. I don’t blame my administrators, they weren’t providing faulty information, and most of what our expert said was correct and valuable if you hadn’t heard it before. I just knew I wasn’t learning. More importantly, our expert’s murky understanding of early childhood literacy could prevent learning if followed by my colleagues.

This experience is sadly repeated on a regular basis in our public schools. Luckily, something good came out of the experience. When I shared it in my staff meeting, I informed my principal’s PD and our schools’ understanding of what our principal was trying to get teach us. Murky understanding of what you are trying to accomplish can be damaging to student learning. Our principal went on to address learning targets as opposed to objectives as a method for empowering students. She later provided a link to a video so we could see this approach in action. I actually learned from this video because it was relevant and showed a real teacher doing real teaching that benefited students. I think this is the key to my learning as a mid-career teacher. Whether it is Twitter, my Professional Learning Community (PLC), my grade level meeting, or my school’s professional development I know when I am learning, and I can tell when it will benefit students.

I have several strategies to keep myself learning that revolve around making myself uncomfortable. My three main strategies are to find hard conversations, look deeply at my practice, and reflect publicly.

I know I learn more from engaging with other teachers than with “experts” so I try to visit Twitter and The Collaboratory often. Recently, I learned about the PLC #BFC53, a community that posts member questions at 5:30 am each morning. It makes for an engaging way to wake up. My recent question was selected and I learned a bunch from the discussion. My question was, “What would ‘Student Driven’ vs ‘Data Driven’ schools look like?” I met some new teachers (@mgrosstaylor @SenorG @brianrozinsky) who I added to my feed that are challenging me to learn.

It is hard work to grow as a teacher. Sometimes I even reconsider my basic assumptions about my teaching. Last year, I signed up to participate in a research project that challenged me to re-evaluate my teaching. I emerged secure in my practice but also strengthened in areas that I did not know I needed help. The project, Best-in-Class, is a Tier II behavioral intervention for students who are at-risk of school failure due to social emotional development. Last year, it helped me with an extremely difficult student, and, this year, it is strengthening my relationships with my class.

Every year, I film a few of my lessons and reflect on them. I am especially interested in capturing students’ experiences in my classroom, so I have started to hand my phone to my kids and ask them to record me teaching. It is a blast! I use these videos in my presentations at conferences like Teaching and Learning and National Association for the Education of Young Children. I love presenting at these conferences because I get to talk with teachers, spread my expertise, and learn from my peers.

I have found that any time I share my practice publicly, I learn something about my teaching. This is why I encourage teachers to blog about their experiences. Writing about about my practice helped me to find my true teacher voice, an almost unheard of goal for a district mandated professional development. The act of going public with my teaching often leads me to articulate something I didn’t know I knew or believed. I hope that by being vulnerable about my teaching I am able to provide others the strength to see themselves clearly. Seeing myself clearly is uncomfortable, but it is also a sure sign I am learning.

Image: A 3 year old student.

8 Comments

Renee Moore commented on November 15, 2015 at 3:58pm:

"Willing to Be Disturbed"

 

There's so much good thought food in this piece, but overall, it reminds me of a great essay by Margaret Wheatley called "Willing to be Disturbed." It's often used in preparing people to engage around cultural diversity or equity issues. Her premise, like yours, is that we can't truly learn or grow unless we're willing to have our current thinking (or habits) challenged, or at least examined. 

I'm genuinely impressed with the many ways you find to explore your teaching from different angles. Just curious, since you let students take video of you, do they offer critiques as well? 

 

John Holland John Holland commented on November 19, 2015 at 10:29pm:

Critique of the 3 year old teacher

Renee,

Sorry it took me so long to respond. i will look up that Wheatley piece. In response to student critique I have, in the distant past interviewed students at the end of the year (they were 4 yrs). What do you like at school? What do you not like at school? I used video but have no idea where it is now (pre-youtube). They said that they didn't like standing in line and that they liked dancing, playing outside, the usual. I have written about standing in line and my students several times. The way I tried to change after the critique was to incorporate even more teaching into my transition times. So the short answer is yes. However, there are two complications. One is that they can not write so there is no anonymity and are influenced by my relationship with them. The other is that the language skills at that age for the majority of my students is not high enough to produce personal thoughts. I will try this year though because overall this class has a lot of language already. Thanks for the inspiration.

Reconsidering basic assumptions commented on November 15, 2015 at 6:11pm:

John, there's so much to

John, there's so much to respond to in this post. I am struck by the suggestion that learning as a mid career teacher involves challenging basic assumptions-ours and others'. This can be uncomfortable for us and for others as well. I'm impressed by your administrator who recognized the learning opportunity in your critique/disagreement with the visiting "expert," and also by your choice to share your disagreement. I think the culture of schools so often silences dissenting voices without ever statting it, and many teachers self-regulate, choosing to remain quiet. Thanks for sparking my thinking on this. 

Ariel Sacks commented on November 16, 2015 at 11:43am:

Challenging Basic Assumptions

John, there's so much to think about in your post. I am struck by your suggestion that learning as a mid career teacher involves challenging basic assumptions--ours and others'. This can be uncomfortable for us and for others as well. I'm impressed by your administrator who recognized the learning opportunity in your critique/disagreement with the visiting "expert," and also by your choice to share your disagreement. I think the culture in schools often silences dissenting voices without ever stating it, causing many teachers self-regulate, choosing to remain quiet. Thanks for sparking my thinking on this. 

High School Teaching Resources, Teaching Resources commented on November 16, 2015 at 6:09am:

High School Teaching Resources

Hi, Your blog is very informative really how they teacher know what there student need form them.if teacher are ready to work with there student they also perform very well.

Susan Graham commented on April 15, 2016 at 6:03pm:

PD from the Best Providers of All

Took 20 years to figure it out, but I found my best practice assessment ever was these three questions on my final exam.

1. What would you tell a friend if they asked if they should sign up for this class?

2. What did you learn in this class that you're pretty sure you will remember and use ten years from now?

3. What should I or could I have done differently to make this a better learning experience?

The only requirement for full credit was an honest answer and a complete sentence. It was incredibly revealing. It was sometimes wonderful and sometimes painful. It was one of the bravest things I ever did as a teacher. It was also one of the smartest.

So then I learned to ask on the first day:

1. Why did you sign up for this class?

2. What do you want to learn and why do you think it matters?

3. What are three things I ought to know about you?
 

Susan Graham commented on April 17, 2016 at 8:38am:

PD from the Best Providers of All

Took 20 years to figure it out, but I found my best practice assessment ever was these three questions on my final exam.

1. What would you tell a friend if they asked if they should sign up for this class?

2. What did you learn in this class that you're pretty sure you will remember and use ten years from now?

3. What should I or could I have done differently to make this a better learning experience?

The only requirement for full credit was an honest answer and a complete sentence. It was incredibly revealing. It was sometimes wonderful and sometimes painful. It was one of the bravest things I ever did as a teacher. It was also one of the smartest.

So then I learned to ask on the first day:

1. Why did you sign up for this class?

2. What do you want to learn and why do you think it matters?

3. What are three things I ought to know about you?
 

Kathryn Desmond commented on July 24, 2016 at 7:08pm:

learning target

I loved the video attachment from your conversation piece!

An article I just reread follows closely with your thoughts. "Knowing Your Target" is from an Educational Leadership March 2011 edition. It explains how important it is that stduents must know what the target of the lesson is from the beginning of each lesson so they can put the lesson in context instead of "flying blind". Using the language "Ican..." at the beginning of the standard/target or goal allows students to internalize the learning that should take place. 
 

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