Tuesday, August 30, 2016

The Teachers Who Saved Us

I was one of several consultants conducting district workshops on a Saturday; I was with a group of teachers who weren't very happy to be there. Maybe because it was a Saturday; maybe because the topic was something with which they already felt somewhat familiar.
I just wrote about Angela Duckworth's research on grit and some of the responses to her research and her book. I'm not alone in finding this a topic worth discussing. Well on this particular Saturday, one of the videos in the deck was Duckworth's TED Talk. I had to be a bit gritty to show the video to that particular group of predominantly African American teachers whose students often arrive at school hungry and whose lives outside of school are, at the very least, difficult.
Yesterday I read a story about a New York principal who showed some grit when she was inspired by one of her own students. The New York Post article is here, but you can also find two 2015 versions of the story by The Atlantic and by PBS. Let me tell you: that's one amazing woman, and she has grit. Yes, she has talent, but there is one line in The Atlantic video that made me catch my breath. "I tell my teachers all the time that we are chosen to be here because we're supposed to transform a community that doesn't believe in themselves."
To do that work day in and day out, especially without the spotlight of television cameras or the attention of journalists and daytime talk show hosts, requires grit. But here's a bit that's lost in the story about Ms. Lopez: Vidal Chastanet. Yes, that student got a scholarship, but that might not have happened were it not for the chance encounter that prompted him to answer a question about who has influenced him the most. As Ms. Lopez says in The Atlantic video, Vidal could have named a family member, but he chose to name his principal.
When I was meeting with those teachers on that Saturday, and we were talking about grit, about helping kids become #futureready, about how important yet hard it is to create a safe space for kids knowing the situations from which many of them come and to which many of them return. We know we can't do much for them outside of the time they are in our care, but during that time. . . 
And so we talked about the teachers who saved us and how rare it is that those teachers ever know. An astonishing number of us grew up in abusive households. Many students survive varying levels of poverty, chronically difficult family situations, and more. Those of us who manage to get through school, even go to college and carry on to have reasonably productive lives can probably point to an educator and say, "That teacher saved my life."
In my case, there were a few teachers. Miss Gibson, my 4th grade teacher, who took no nonsense and insisted we take care of our things, but had a heart-gripping compassionate side to her. I remember the day she came to my house after I'd gotten sick. I distinctly remember being awed that she would bother to do that for someone like me. Then in 7th grade it was Mrs. Moen whose influence continued into 8th grade. In high school, probably when I needed them the most, again, it was Mrs. Hawkins and Mrs. Gamble. They each invested in me in different ways, but they invested in me and clearly believed in me when I did not or could not. My life out of the classroom didn't enter into anything because the classroom was the only space they could influence. And they did so by insisting I be my best self, and then helping me, in ways they cannot imagine, to become my best self.
Here's an example. Mrs. Hawkins, one of my English teachers, returned a paper to me. She put it on the desk and tapped it with her finger as she looked at me until I looked her in the eye. Then all she said was this: "I know you can do better than this."
Daniel Engber of Slate titled his review of Duckworth's book "Is 'Grit' Really the Key to Success?" I was intrigued by Engber's closing remarks as well as his initial question.
In education we talk a lot about student success, but we are terrifically inconsistent when it comes to offering any clarity about what we mean by "success." Grades? Proficiency or mastery of the standards? Creativity? Collaboration? Critical thinking? Problem solving? What if I'm a student with loads of creativity, can demonstrate mad problem solving and critical thinking skills but barely push past a C. Am I successful?
Duckworth offers some steps for exhibiting grit successfully, and it is these to which Engber alludes in his closing sentences: "If you want to win forever on the football field, or join the military, or write a book about a big idea, then it might be best to stay on target, compete in everything, and finish strong. But others find their path through mindful wavering and steer away from simple answers." Sweet bit of snark in that last phrase, by the way.
So here is my big takeaway from Duckworth's TED talk: "Failure is not a permanent condition." Sure, I got a D in Foundations of Math I in college and I got that D because, once again, a teacher invested in me and coached and coaxed me across that finish line. I was never so proud of a grade because yes, I stayed focused and finished strong, so I did well enough to pull my grade up to a D. What's so amusing is that many years later I taught math. Because I am a reformed mathphobe and because I'd done poorly in college (and high school) math, I understood my students' anxiety.
Teachers saved me. In every sense of the word. And they saved me because they believed in me, because they saw something I couldn't, because they would not let me quit. Because they coaxed, encouraged, and sometimes even badgered me into keep trying and to try harder. They willed me to be gritty. 
I learned valuable lessons from those teachers, the least of which is the importance of not giving up and that failure is not a permanent condition. Was I successful with that D in college math? You bet I was.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Got grit? Is that the right question?


A friend of mine recently asked me about an article published in The New York Times. Well, there were several articles/editorials related to the publication of Dr. Duckworth's book. The first was an April 2016 interview in which Duckworth says--and please remember this out of context--" The parenting style that is good for grit is also the parenting style good for most other things: Be really, really demanding, and be very, very supportive." Hmm.

Grit started getting its own headlines soon after Angela Duckworth's TED Talk started making the internet rounds. Soon educators were talking breathlessly about grit and its important for student success. An easy digression here is to talk about student "success," but I'll refrain. For the moment.
I am NOT suggesting there is no value in talking about grit. I've posted about Duckworth's video and some of the important points she made. I love some of her ideas and applaud them. But helping kids become grittier or helping them find their grittiest or grittier selves is not the answer.
Then came a New York Times book review in May by Judith Shulevitz. I began to be concerned for Duckworth's own grit in navigating what was yet to come. As Shulevitz notes, "Duckworth never questions the values of a society geared towards winning, nor does she address the systemic barriers to success."
In early June, Duckworth was published in The New York Times and it is what looks to be a commencement speech. Now Duckworth has been described by a colleague as one of the grittiest people he knows. More from him shortly. So I read her message with interest. She speaks nothing of "grit," at least not directly. What she does say, and I paraphrase generously, is that it's important to figure out what drives you by fostering your passion, but also to realize that the first step is not the last step. Like many of us, Duckworth did not move directly into the career that has proven (so far) to be her passion. It took her a few steps to get there and, along the way, she learned more about herself, her interests, and her abilities. At the end of her message, Duckworth says this: "Work as hard on your last as on your first." Now put this together with an earlier statement on finding purpose.
I've heard this notion elsewhere: rather than ask kids--or anyone--what they want to be when they grow up, ask them how they want to make a difference in the world, what problems they want to solve. That's finding a purpose. Here's an important point to consider: that purpose may NOT be in your work. That is, the job you do on a day-to-day basis may not be the avenue for making a difference or solving a problem. That work may be a means, however, that allows you time, opportunity, and maybe even money to make a difference or solve a problem.
Having said that, I don't want anyone thinking they can't make a difference in the most menial of jobs. Nearly every day I am grateful, grateful, grateful for the people who are willing to do so many jobs I can't imagine doing. I'm thankful, thankful, thankful for the housekeeping staffs in hotels, for the people who work the cash registers pretty much anywhere I have to shop, for the people who pick up my trash and haul my garbage, for the people who do jobs I don't even know exist but who contribute to the infrastructure of making the world in which I live a better place. THOSE people make a difference in a profound way and are often looked down upon because their work doesn't seem as "important" as someone else's. Pshaw. Getting up to go do those kinds of tough jobs and for mostly ungrateful and/or unaware people, and often that being only one of two or three jobs, now that's grit.
Okay, so back to Duckworth. Scott Barry Kaufman of Scientific American is a colleague of Duckworth's and wrote a review of her newly published book, one I have not read and, to be honest, probably won't. Well, maybe won't. If someone gives it to me, then maybe I'll read it. Anyway, Kaufman writes about the response to Duckworth's book and that some people might be misunderstanding the title, the purpose, and/or the content. While Kaufman offers some insightful critiques on her work, he also builds on her work because he reminds us the research is not yet finished. That's the problem with writing a book: too many people think a published book is the end of the story, as it were. Maybe a publisher needs some sort of indicator that there is more yet to come so read this book in anticipation of further research and learning. Well, it's a thought.
As Kaufman thinks about his work and Duckworth's, as well as that of his colleagues and fellow researchers, he notes "Additionally, I think these findings, combined with my own study, point out something interesting about real-life creativity: creativity requires both perseverance and openness to experience." He further elucidates his thinking, inviting readers to think about their own stories and experiences, but also reminds us the work is not yet finished.
When Duckworth's TED Talk became a darling of K-12 circles, grit and helping kids become grittier became a thing, along with a few other things that were school and district initiatives. The big question was how to help kids become grittier as though simple grittiness would be a solution to kids' performances in schools.
Ahh, but regardless of the school situation in which they find themselves, students' abilities to navigate to success are not limited to grittiness in the classroom. And that's why, in many ways, asking about grit is not the only question we should be asking nor is it always the right question. More to come.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Turning online possibilities into real opportunities

How much time do you spend online every day? It's not a rhetorical question. Think about how much time you spend starting at an illuminated screen--computer, tablet, or smartphone.

Okay, now. How are you spending that time? Facebook? Instagram? Checking out the latest celebrity stories? Researching something? Going through your email?

The OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) has a new report on how the digital divide continues to widen between rich and poor students, and more so in some countries than in others.

If you live in the US, don't bother looking for the United States because we're not even on the chart. I suspect that means we didn't participate in the study, but I imagine most of us can guess our results.

You should review the actual report rather than read only what the World Economic Forum surmises about the report; however, there is a particularly telling quote: "'They may not have the knowledge or skills required to turn online opportunities into real opportunities,' the report says."

And that's true. Disadvantaged students may not be savvy about the extent of the possibilities or even how to find out about MOOCs or Lynda.com or anything else, providing they know what a MOOC is or that there is such a thing as an online course.

There is no doubt that students can find these things on their own provided they look for them, provided they know to go look for them. That's a big "if."

Another part of the equation for more disadvantaged students is what their parents and teachers know about online possibilities. If teachers and/or parents don't know about online learning, online job possibilities, etc., then how are kids to begin to figure that out? And maybe the kids are mostly focusing on online games because they don't know about anything else. Or maybe games attract most of their attention because those ads are better and more compelling. Or maybe because they don't have much hope about changing their situation.

So how do we help disadvantages learners anywhere in the world learn to take hold of the power of online and find the opportunities or make their own opportunities? Well, it might not hurt to partner with some of those games in which kids are so interested and create some ads or teasers that are compelling enough for a click. But that isn't all. Check this out.

It's a quote appropriately at the bottom of the OECD report. Is the issue internet access? Is it the device? Nope.

It's reading. Because when kids know how to read, they can find what they need and want to find. They will begin to learn more when they read so they can ask questions.

I don't think reading is the end of the story though I firmly believe it's an important part. Not only do students need to know how to read, they need to know how to think critically. And their teachers need to be sufficiently trained to know how to help their students find resources online OR their teachers need to know how to go online to the entire edtech/learning network of educators--and that's millions of people--to help their kids find what they need and want to find and learn. Only then can students--and their parents and teachers--begin the hard work of turning online possibilities into real opportunities.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

First pedagogy, then technology. Maybe.

This isn't a new topic. George Couros raised it in his blog post Pedagogy Before Technology? He wondered if the absence of the word "learning" in the definition of "pedagogy" might be an issue. Pedagogy, after all, is about teaching.

In the past several months, and perhaps longer, I've developed a particular twitch when educators focus only on their teaching. When talking with administrators about observing the teacher in the classroom, I've received puzzled looks when I've asked what they observed about students learning while the teacher was doing his or her thing. I've managed not to ask what might be an obvious question: "If a teacher teaches and there are no students in the classroom, is learning taking place?"
After all, as George suggests, education isn't just about teaching. I might be delivering a great lesson and doing it really well, but if my students are just going through motions and not actually learning, well, I haven't done my job.

I'm a fan of thinking first about pedagogy, but that doesn't mean that pedagogy remains at the forefront at all times. In my work with educators, it is inevitable that someone will say, "Well, that won't work with my students." Whether we're talking about an instructional strategy, an approach to building a lesson, some sort of technology resources, or anything else, there are teachers who flatly reject something because they think it won't work with their students.

Now I know that this is often code for "this is too complicated/hard/confusing for me so I'll blame my kids," but I've also had teachers who have gone on to explain why the thing is a problem for his or her class. As we've talked, we've usually found ways to adapt or modify the thing, but the point is the teacher was thinking first and foremost of her students.

So while pedagogy is, in fact, "the method and practice of teaching," good teachers automatically incorporate their curriculum and their learning objectives as part of pedagogy because they are thinking about their practice of teaching. And because they are thinking about learning objectives, they are thinking about their students--who are the strong readers, who are the ELs, who has diverse needs, etc. When they then think of instructional strategies, they also think about low- and high-tech resources to help them help their students achieve the learning objectives.

The teachers who are thinking about their students and their students learning, don't think first of pedagogy and then of technology. For many of them, there is no real differentiation as they think about various instructional strategies and resources, selecting some and discarding others.

Now that is not to say there aren't those who find a new tech toy and want to figure out how to integrate, and often because they want to play with the toy. I've been guilty of that, but even as I think about the new tech gadget or resource, I think about how it will help my students learn or how it will help move the engagement needle. There have been plenty of times I've had to set aside my new toy with great reluctance because I just couldn't find a relevant way to integrate it. However, as a result of that process, I learned more about the way I might use that technology and thought through the possibilities which meant I was that much further ahead for the occasion it was going to make sense. . .for the students.

Where Need Meets Creativity

The temperature hovered in the upper 80s/low 90s for the full two weeks. The second week we were so grateful to be in an open-air space with languid ceiling fans helping circulate the slightly humid air. Providing professional development in one of the poorest countries in the world while wearing shorts was a novelty for me, and on many levels. Nice shorts, mind you, but shorts nonetheless. And practically a necessity. But thinking as though there was no box in sight was what really challenged me.

In that second week, some of the local teachers had sessions they wanted to offer their colleagues. While the math session was quite good, the one that ripped my heart and blew my mind was the session on creating manipulatives and other hands-on resources using recyclables.

By our first world standards, none of them were extraordinary except they were simply because of how they came to be. Need to find another way to help slow readers learn letters and their sounds? Use some old CDs, some scraps of paper, and whatever else you can find to create a sort of flash card concept. Looking for ways to help students learn their times tables and practice their addition, subtraction, and multiplication? Let's make up some games using our hands or using those CDs but with numbers on them. Yea, you want to know more about that, don't you?

So you could buy some number wooden disks for about $30 or get the rubber ones for more. Or you could paint numbers on an old CD or some pieces of wood or whatever scrap makes sense and has some substance.

One of the game ideas was something like a "whack-a-mole" but for addition, subtraction, or multiplication. Put some of the disks on a table and call out the operation and the result of that operation. Kids have to smack the right disks. So "addition" and "10" and kids have to smack 8 and 2, or 6 and 4. You get the idea. Yes, it will be noisy. There are probably a dozen variations on that game alone.

The other game we developed needs no manipulatives: just hands. Think of rock-paper-scissors. Kids start in pairs. The teacher calls out an operation: addition, subtraction, multiplication. Division is possible, but harder. Anyway, each kids smacks fist in palm and then shows some number of fingers; a fist on the third beat is zero. The first kid to complete the operation correctly based on the fingers shown, gets a point. So the teacher hollers out "multiplication" and the first kid shows 2 and the second kid shows 3. The first of the two to shout out 6 wins a point. So maybe you play to 5 points and then two pairs form a quad. Now you can work up to your 10 time tables and do more complex problems.

The way this version works (and this is my own variation) is each student shows a number on the third count after the teacher calls out an operation. In pair #1, the first kid shows a 3 and the second kid shows a 0 (fist). In pair #2, the first kid shows a 4 and the second kid shows a 2. Each pair has to add its numbers and then perform the operation. So the first pair ends up with 3 and the second pair ends up with 6 and if the operation was addition the first pair to call out 9 wins the point. Another variation is multiple operations. The teacher calls out "multiply and add," or "subtract and multiply." Each pair has to perform the first operation on its own numbers and then the second operation on the combined numbers. So with multiply and add, the first pair gets 0 and the second pair gets 8, and the first pair to call out 8 wins the point.

Now I'm back in my first world environment and murmuring with delight as I cuddle up to my technology and mind-numbing options. But I cannot forget what I saw those teachers bring as they tried to figure out how they might replicate some of our ideas using whatever they could gather and scrounge. Not just their passion and determination (let's talk about grit, shall we?), but profoundly creative ways to engage their students and make a difficult learning experience more interesting.