classroom

In defense of humanity: what we value

Perhaps the most disheartening outcome of the systematization of education is the way that it dehumanizes classrooms. Emboldened by being ‘the best,’ our education system has become blinded to the individual. The student-with-a-name. We’ve exploited our students for bragging rights of having a top performing school. The best test scores. Better than the others. Sometimes we even manage to convince ourselves that aiming for high-test scores is a noble goal. That it will make our country strong.

That, as a result, our students will be relevant in a global economy.

We’ve justified our actions for so long and sold each other on the idea that higher standards, more accountability (read testing), more ‘rigor’ will bring success, make us happy.

All the while we lose.

Lose ourselves, our identity, our uniqueness, our voice.

May we, as educators, stand up and defend the humanity in our classrooms!

We need the audacity to step outside of a system that forgets the individual. The student-with-a-name. To leave the perceived comfort of false/forced/misguided data that convinces us on paper that we are doing it right.

What is it that we value?

Are we really willing to trade meaning for the perception of being collectively ‘the best’ because the test says so?

What if learning as a human endeavor is too big and beautiful to fit into the tiny, meaningless data battles we insist on?

Don’t get me wrong, I deeply believe that the initiatives that call for increased accountability, higher standards, and additional data collection come from the right place of doing right by kids. Of making education more equitable for all. But the goal is wrong. We can’t focus first on numbers and being competitive on global tests.

Ignoring who a child is misses the core of what education must be about.

These initiatives and education movements are culpable in forgetting and overlooking that we are actually teaching individuals who have names. We’ve lost the plot in education and made it about competition (whether we’ll own up to that, or not).

Who a child is, is the core of what education must be about. Recognizing that the population is made up of individuals, unique in the whole of history, who have something important to offer the world. By truly honoring that humanity of the individual, we can collaborate with the rest of the world in such a way that collectively we can solve the problems of today.

Shifting education so systemically can feel overwhelming, impossible even, but it is up to each of us to decide that it is going to be different. It is up to us to uphold humanity, to recognize the individual, the student-with-a-name.

The good news: you don’t need permission to do this. Honestly, you don’t! The first step to restoring humanity is to decide that you are going to value the individuals that make up your class, your school, above all else. Commit that they won’t become numbers, scores, or data points.

Decision made?

Good.

Where do you start? By getting to know your students-with-names.

At Anastasis Academy, we’ve decided that above all else, we will value the identity of all of our students. Because this is a core value, we’ve built it into our school year. Before our first day of school, we hold two days that we call “Learner Profile Days.” Parents sign their child up for a one hour, one-on-one conference between the student and teacher. During this hour, our teacher’s job is to get to know the student. We ask a host of questions that inevitably come with nuance and supporting stories. Then the kids interact with Learning Genome card sets to identify their learning style preferences, their multiple intelligence strengths, and their brain dominance. The result is a Learner Profile.

Learning Genome Card Set

This profile is our starting point for every decision we make. When you begin the year this way, it is impossible to think of students as data points. When you listen to their stories, you learn their feelings, and experiences, and values, and habits of mind, and gain a picture of who they are.

You can do this, you can make the decision to take time out of your first weeks of school and gain a picture of who your students are. What do you value?

The anatomy of a Learner Profile:

 

Anatomy of a Learner Profile

Student Name- In the whole of history, there has never been another one just like them. With this name comes unique gifts, passions, and a vantage point on the world. With this name comes unique genius all their own. The student name is a bold reminder of the identity.

Interests/Passions- This is where we begin to learn about student passions, their likes and dislikes, their hurts, and the things that make them feel alive. In this one-on-one interview, we hear stories, often these questions will lead students down a thought trail that gives us insight.

Learning Style Preference- Learning Style preferences do not indicate that this is the only modality that the student can learn with; however, when we know the preferences that a student has we can make better decisions about introducing new learning. We discover Learning Style Preferences through the Learning Genome Card Set.

Learning Genome Card Set: Learning Styles

Multiple Intelligence Strengths- Howard Garner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences details eight distinct intelligences. All learners have the capacity to learn and understand in a variety of ways, each learner differs in their strengths of these intelligences. Discovering a students unique mixture of strengths allows us to better direct students in learning and curiosity. We discover Multiple Intelligence Strengths through the Learning Genome Card Set.

Learning Genome Card Set: Multiple Intelligence Strengths

Brain Dominance- Learning about a student’s preference in brain dominance allows us to make better decisions about how we design our classroom, how we design learning experiences, and how students will approach learning and assessment. We discover Brain Dominance through the Learning Genome Card Set.

Learning Genome Card Set: Brain Dominance

 Strengths Finder- This is where we gain insight into our students strengths and the way passion can collide with learning experiences. We use Thrively.

Knowing Kids As Well As We Know Wine

By now, I’m sure you’ve been inundated with news and social media stories about ninth grade student Ahmed Mohammed who was arrested when he brought a “hoax bomb” to school. As it turns out the “hoax bomb” was nothing more than a homemade digital clock that the 14 year old created and brought to share.

This story has raised all sorts of questions about racism and religious persecution, and those are really important discussions that should be talked about and considered. But, for me, the conversation has to be bigger than just race and religion. The truth is, this is a systemic issue that impacts all students and the question that keeps coming to my mind is: How is it that the teachers in MacArthur High School, and it’s administration, know so little about Ahmed and WHO he is? Why didn’t they know that he has this passion for engineering, robotics and electronics? Why didn’t his English teacher know him beyond the color of his skin and his religion? Because if anyone in the building had taken the time to really get to know Ahmed, they would know that this is a brilliant student who is excited about learning. They might know that he had been working on projects like this, and that he would want to share his excitement of accomplishment with his teachers. They might not have made such a ridiculous judgement call based on race and religion because they would know who he is.  When Ahmed showed his engineering teacher the homemade clock, the advice that was given was to hide it away and not to show other staff. Wait, what?! (If a student brought something like that to me, my advice would be to share it with all of his teachers and other students!) Why would we tell students, in a SCHOOL, to hide away an accomplishment like that? Ahmed did as he was told and kept his clock in his backpack, that worked well until an alarm went off in English class. When Ahmed showed the clock to his English teacher, it was followed by a threat of expulsion and interrogation by five police officers and handcuffs.

Students have names, and with those names stories. Consider the amount of time that parents consider what they are going to name their newborn. There is anticipation and excitement for this new person that they’ll soon meet. And each of the names being considered have a story. Sometimes it is a family name that they want to carry on because of the stories that come with the name, the fond memories, the accomplishment. Sometimes the name is a desire for parents to declare something new and unique. Sometimes the names come from a special place visited, or based on a memory. Names matter because they come with rich history and story and promise. Each one of the names is as unique as the student who carries the name, because it comes with that history and story. By the time that we meet that student as an educator, the name carries additional history of their individual experiences, personality, struggles, and accomplishments.

It seems that we know the weight of names in other facets of life. Consider the sommelier who not only knows the names of wines, but also the varietal of grapes, the climate they were grown in, the different hints and notes of flavors, the aging process, the vintner who made the wine, the bottling process, and hundreds of other idiosyncrasies of the particular wine. There are coffee masters who, by taste, can tell you what region of the world the coffee hales from, what that region is known for, how the coffee was roasted, and the hints of flavor that a particular bean has. Why don’t we have more education masters who know students?

In education, we’ve done the opposite. We’ve taken incredible individuals, students with names, and we’ve created a system where we see them as the same. We rank them and tell them their worth through test scores, we purchase boxed curriculum that exposes them all to the exact same material, in the same way, on the same day. We set the exact same standards for all of them. When they enter our classrooms we have no time to KNOW them, because the focus isn’t on the student with a name and a story, the focus is on external goals. Are they going to pass the test? Are they going to go to graduate? Are they going to make us look good when we compare ourselves with another country’s scores?

When they come to us with cool clocks that they’ve learned to program, we don’t know WHO they are well enough to celebrate that accomplishment with them. Instead we leap to conclusions based on assumptions, and misinformation, and fear.

The thing that I am most proud of at Anastasis Academy is that we know our students names, and the stories that go with those names. We take the time as a staff to get to know EVERY child in the building (it helps that we have a small population, but it is also one of the reasons we have a small population). Knowing our students colors everything that we do. It transforms the way we use classroom space, the way we assess, the way we interact as a community, the way we make decisions about choosing resources and learning excursions, the way that we do school. When kids are known, they bring their passions to school. Teachers don’t panic when a child brings their knife collection that their grandfather left them, because we know the story and can help the child share that story with others in a way that is appropriate. We can help students “stand again” (the literal translation of Anastasis) in who they are as learners, and the unique gifts/talents/perspective that they add to the world.

Ahmed’s story reminds me of all the ways that we’ve lost the humanity in education. When humanity is stripped away and the focus is not on the students with names and stories, fear and panic drive our decisions. Fear and panic are generally related to a lack of knowledge, so we make assumptions and fill in our own blanks. Pretty soon we have creative, innovative, amazing students who look more like robots. As a society, we’ve got to stop being okay with students as numbers. To truly transform education, we’ve got to focus on the humanity, knowing the students with names and stories. We have to know kids (at least) as well as well as we know wine.

Hanging a question mark on the things we take for granted

“In all affairs it’s a healthy thing now and again to hang a question mark on the things you take for granted.”

-Bertrand Russell

This. This quote is one of my new very favorite quotes ever! This is where innovation lives. In the question marks.

Too often in education, we talk about innovation as if it is something that we’ve created and something that can be owned. We talk about innovation in steps and processes and we make it into something it isn’t. And so when we talk about education reform, the conversation gets centered on the wrong things: rigor, standards, tests, Race to the Top!, No Child Left Behind!, technology, better teachers, more tests. Things that end up actually adding layers between us and what we fight for: students. But educational innovation doesn’t live in any of these.

Innovation is a shift in mindset. It is hanging the question mark on things taken for granted.

5 years ago, I started a school fueled by questions. Surrounded by an incredible team, we search for the question marks on those things that we take for granted. In the process, we’ve found that questions are the catalyst of innovation. Questions have the unique ability to disrupt the status quo and force us to think differently. This is important for our students, we believe that this world needs citizens who are self-learners, who are creative and resourceful, and who can adapt and adjust to change. This is also important for us as educators. We need the questions. In a system that seems to value the answer above all, I’m proud to say that Anastasis teachers are those who value the questions. Innovation seems to thrive in this environment of “what if?”. Answers end the process of inquiry, yet this is what our schools have largely been built on.

At Anastasis we are constantly asking, now that we know-what is possible now? We live for those ‘what if?’ moments! These ‘what if?’ moments are our slow hunches that give rise to something bigger. We go through the process of asking: Why? (Why is this the way it it?), What if? (What if it were different?), How? (How could it be different?), what solutions might there be?.

Our assessment at Anastasis is testament to this process of questioning.

Why? Why does assessment look like it does? Why do we judge students on a moment of time? Why have we decided that these things that we assess are the MOST important things? Why are we okay with assessing students this way? Why do stakeholders accept this as a picture of a child?

What if? What if assessment wasn’t based on moments in time? What if we looked at the whole child? What if we changed the guidelines? What if assessment helped students grow? What if assessment could reveal to stakeholders where students are in their learning journey? What if report cards were more comprehensive? What if assessment wasn’t the end point?

How? How do we show stakeholders that a student is more than the few data points we collect? How do we use assessment for growth? How do we determine what should be assessed? How should a student who leaves our school look? How do we know if a student is ‘succeeding’? How will we share with other schools? How could we offer something meaningful?

What solutions can we come up with? What do we want students to leave us to look? What are the words we want to describe them? What can we do to reveal learning journey and forward progress? What do we do to help others understand the bigger picture? What do we do to help students understand the bigger picture?

When we went through this process as a staff at Anastasis, we began with the end in mind. What do we want students to look like on leaving our school? You know what never came up? Scores. Grades. Specific content knowledge that would deem a child ‘educated.’ Instead we came up with words like: inquirer, problem solver, risk-taker, communicator, compassionate, responsible, thinker, mathematician, scientist, self-aware, writer, reader, creator, connector, historian, geographer, respectful, open-minded, service-minded, healthy, reflective, resourceful, responsible, innovative, researcher, discerner, aware, logical.


These words are vastly different from what we generally see listed on a report card. Different from what we generally value (according to what we measure).

This was the launching point for our assessment system. The questions led to innovation.

Our report card looks like this:

UpGrade Anastasis Academy Report Card

We know it looks different, it should. It started with a question mark. It evolves every year.

Innovation doesn’t come as the result of declaring that innovation is needed and putting a plan in place to reach a predetermined outcome. Innovation comes in hanging a question mark on the things we take for granted.

Be the Green Dot

Yesterday I was catching up on my Google Reader and ran across this gem from Seth Godin called, How Big is Your Red Zone? In the post he shares three graphs (I have created my own with a similar feel below).  The first graph shows how our joy grows over time as we learn how to do something new.  At first our joy over learning it may not be huge, it is sometimes difficult and frustrating to learn something new.  But, over time as we get better at the task, our joy in interacting with it grows.  There may be some dips of boredom with our newly acquired learning but over all the trend is upward.

The second graph shows the hassle of the same activity.  At first the hassle is large because as I mentioned before, it can be difficult and frustrating to learn something new.  Eventually overtime the hassle is less as our expertise and experience with the learning grows.

The last graph shows the two overlaid.  There is a gap between the initial hassle and the initial joy of the learning.  Seth’s contention is “that the only reason we ever get through that gap is that someone is on the other side (the little green circle) is rooting us on, or telling stories of how great it is on the other side.”

This had me thinking about student learning, professional development learning, and the value of a personal learning network (PLN).

First student learning. As teachers, it is easy to forget the frustration and discouragement that comes from learning something new.  We teach the same material year after year, in nearly the same way.  After the first few years we can start to take for granted the background information that students have and just try to dive into the new learning.  This is a mistake.  It causes the hassle graph to rise quickly and the joy of learning drops substantially.  We need to remember to meet our students where they are at and be that green dot that is rooting them on and encouraging them to keep going so that they enter that place where learning is a joy.  I think one of the major problems in schools today, is that we have made the green dot a grade or diploma.  The school system seems to be under the misguided assumption that if they offer a grade or diploma (as the green dot) that students will hold on to that and work to get through the hassle to the joy.  Unfortunately that green dot just doesn’t do it for most kids.  The promise of a grade on the other side diminishes the joy of learning and makes the journey to the little bit of joy a big hassle.  So, how can we transform our classrooms into places where students know that when they work through the hassle they will reach that ultimate joy?  We can be their green dot, we can encourage their peers to be the green dot.  We can work together and encourage each other in the learning process.  We can hold out our hand and help them along until the hassle drops and the joy of learning remains.  We can offer our students learning opportunities that provide  a lot of joy and discovery so that the hassle doesn’t really seem like so much of a hassle.

Professional development can be an enormous source of frustration for teachers.  This has been especially true in technology training sessions.  Teachers enter the training wary of having to learn one more thing and worrying about how to add it into their already packed curriculum.  They can enter with an attitude of hassle so before a word has been uttered, their hassle graph is already high.  The joy that might be gained from the learning is overshadowed by worries of meeting AYP, passing state tests, and thinking about a student who came to school with cigarette burns down their arm.  Trainers make the mistake in professional development of overselling.  They try too hard to make it all look like joy that the real joy of the learning is lost in a sea of wariness.  Teachers have been sold the “joy” before.  It looked great in the last training but when it was attempted in the classroom it was met with blocked websites, slow Internet connections, and unruly students.  How could professional development look different?  What if it was built into the school day instead of an extra crammed in after school?  What if teachers were really given time to learn the new tool or concept?  What if teachers were given time to work together with colleagues and encourage each other?  What if the roadblocks were removed when they got back to the classroom so they could actually use it?  I think the biggest missing piece in most professional development scenarios is the green dot who urges teachers on in their learning.  Everyone needs someone to rely on for help and support.  Everyone needs someone to remind us of the joy that is just on the other side of the hassle.  Change your professional development model to include those things and PD will suddenly be a true learning experience.

I have mentioned this many, many times before, but it bears repeating: my personal learning network consistently makes my learning a joy.  My PLN (mostly on Twitter) constantly acts like my green dot.  They cheer me on, encourage me, and help me when I don’t understand.  Whether your PLN is digital, face to face, or a mixture, invite them to be your green dot.  Let them excite you about learning and remind you of what a joy learning something new is.  Don’t forget to be the green dot for others, you may already be “in” on the learning, but don’t overlook those who need encouragement to get there.  A PLN is all about giving and receiving!

Can you be the green dot?

A Vanilla Education

The focus of schools today really isn’t learning. The focus is standardizing the student population.  What we are left with is an educational system that is vanilla.  Don’t get me wrong, vanilla has its place in the world.  Vanilla makes an excellent base, you can add almost anything to it and it is only enhanced.  But we aren’t really enhancing it with anything are we?  We are stopping at vanilla.  We are standardizing learning until each of our students is popped out the other end looking exactly the same.  This isn’t really what this global, connected society calls for, is it?  What it calls for is innovation and creativity, anything but vanilla.  Yet in our schools, we strip it all away and pass students through making sure that they reach certain standards and pass certain tests.  Where is the individualization, the flavor?

It seems to me, that in this world where everything else can be individualized, education should be individualized as well.  We have managed to customize our cars, our computers, our happy meals, how is it that we haven’t figured out that education needs customization as well?  A few weeks ago while we were driving, I asked my husband if he had a favorite teacher when he was in school.  He gave it some honest thought and couldn’t come up with even one name.  How sad.  He wasn’t a traditional learner.  Sitting and being lectured to and taking tests must have been torture for him.  He is a graphic artist.  He has always been naturally creative, innovative, and artistic.  He loves to know how things work, how they are put together. He sits and reads blogs and tinkers in our garage for hours.  He taught himself how to use Photoshop, he is a learner.  Not one teacher stands out in his mind as a favorite, someone he really clicked with and enjoyed learning from.  I find it hard to believe that there isn’t a teacher out there somewhere who could have been his favorite.  When we were in school, the connections that could be made today weren’t possible.  What if we started customizing education?  What if we connected learners with teachers around the world who really understood them as learners?  What if every teacher was a favorite teacher? With the collaboration tools today, this doesn’t seem a farfetched dream to me. If we had teachers who understood, recognized, and drew out the passions of students, maybe learning wouldn’t be so vanilla.

Standardizing is not the answer in education.  We don’t need a group of people who can do exactly the same thing, the same way.  We need a society that has many talents.  I am afraid that right now we are losing the great talent to standards.  Students don’t feel that they measure up, so they give up and drop out.  It isn’t that they aren’t brilliant and don’t measure up somewhere, they just don’t fit in the standardized school box.  These kids are still getting “Left Behind”.

With the tools we have available to us today, how could we begin to offer customized learning?