School starts for me tomorrow morning. Over the course of the day, 100 brand new sixth graders will roll through my classroom door. They will be quiet at first. Finding your way around a new building with new teachers and trying to figure out new sets of rules can make any eleven-year old more than a little bit apprehensive. Under their nerves, however, the kids assigned to my learning team will also be hopeful – counting on me to turn our time together into an exciting journey of wonder and joy and discovery. That hope is what I love the best about teaching middle school. Knowing that my students still believe in their teachers and their schools leaves me energized.
But make no mistake about it: That hope also scares me to death. I’ve seen the statistics around student engagement and I know that sixth grade marks the beginning of the end for any sense of wonder and joy in our schools. By the time they get to high school, seven out of ten of the students that I meet tomorrow will see school as a place where boredom is the norm rather than the exception to the rule. Endurance instead of excitement will define their attitudes towards another new year.
I’ll do what I can to nurture that hope in the next 180 days. Whether we are thinking inventively about the content in our curriculum or using digital tools to drive change beyond the walls of our schoolhouse, my goal is always to do more than blindly march through my required curriculum. Like most classroom teachers, however, I can’t truly make school different without the support of my principal.
Specifically, I’ll need her to:
Set aside explicit time during the school day to support curiosity and discovery: My favorite moments at school are the handful of free minutes at the beginning and end of every class period. Students literally surround me, waiting to ask questions about concepts that caught their attention. Those questions serve as tangible evidence that our kids are far more interested and motivated than we give them credit for. What bugs me, though, is that there is little room during the rhythm of a regular school day for students to wrestle with those ideas. Instead, their intellectual lives are governed by bells. School becomes a grind because we churn students through class after class in an all-out effort to master “the required curriculum.”
But that doesn’t HAVE to be the case. Much like the time that we intentionally build into our schedules for struggling students to revisit core content, our school could create similar opportunities for students to pursue answers to their own questions. That might mean setting aside 15 minutes at the end of the day for students to meet in clusters with mentors and likeminded peers to process challenging ideas, adding time to every transition so that teachers and students have moments to encourage and celebrate great questions, or embracing more formal structures for exploration like Genius Hour.
The specifics are irrelevant. What matters is my principal’s commitment to creating space for students to wonder. “We spend 14,256 hours in school between kindergarten and graduation,” writes A.J. Juliani, a technology staff developer from Philadelphia. “If we can’t find a time for students to have some choice in their learning, then what are we doing with all those hours?”
Make smart investments in technologies that support the kinds of core behaviors that matter: Nothing frustrates me more as a teacher than school leaders who blindly invest in new technologies, convinced that new technologies in and of themselves are essential for creating modern learning spaces. The simple truth is that modern learning spaces aren’t defined by technology. Instead, they are defined by our ability to prepare students for something more than standardized tests. Will made this point recently here on EML by quoting Seymour Papert, who once argued that modern learning spaces should “produce people who know how to act when they’re faced with situations for which they were not specifically prepared.”
Now don’t get me wrong: I’m not suggesting that technology should be absent from today’s schools. In fact, technology might be the most important tool for anyone trying to tackle intellectually uncomfortable situations.
But that’s certainly not how technology is being used in most classrooms. Instead, we continue to rely on popular tools that do little more than make it easier for teachers to deliver content to kids – think learning management systems like Blackboard, video warehouses like Discovery Education, and basic presentation tools like Smartboards. No wonder our classrooms haven’t changed despite decades of investment in technology. We continue to waste cash on products that facilitate traditional behaviors.
That’s something else that my principal can control. She can ask careful questions before spending a dime of our technology budget, ensuring that there is a clear connection between our purchases and our core beliefs about what today’s learners should know and be able to do. Aligning our spending with the goals that we care the most about is an essential first step towards making school different.
Building her own knowledge on the changing nature of learning in today’s world: The greatest challenge that I see in changing schools ISN’T changing the minds of practitioners. In fact, most teachers that I know are more than ready to move away from the content-driven instruction that dominates our class periods. Instead, the greatest challenge to making school different is changing the minds of parents and policymakers who often have far more conservative expectations for schools built from their own experiences as students. Spend the better part of two decades memorizing content in quiet classrooms and you are unlikely to see a real need for learning spaces that emphasize tacit expertise over explicit knowledge.
Changing those minds depends on school leaders who remain committed to building their own knowledge on the changing nature of learning. If my principal is constantly reading and constantly writing and constantly reflecting on provocative ideas that actively challenge longstanding notions about schooling, she will be able to articulate a new vision for our school to every stakeholder. Informed advocacy is an essential skill for school leaders in a rapidly changing world.
Does any of this make sense? I am all for making school different – but without the support of a principal who is willing to create space within the day for students to wrestle with important questions, who remains committed to investing in tools that facilitate new behaviors, and who can change the minds of people who aren’t ready to embrace a better future for schools, there’s little that I can do no matter how motivated I am.
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