Below is a modified version of a letter I wrote recently. I ask you to read it and share your thoughts. If you are aware of any schools doing what I mentioned or research that supports my thinking, I would love to be pointed in that direction. This is my take on “best practices,” but that phrase is totally overrated until proven through research as the best practice.
Every school needs a “thing.” Some schools are a Big Picture school. Others are an International Baccalaureate school. Some settle on the Advanced Placement program. Regardless of the final choice, nothing about these programs is unique. This is not intended to be a knock in anyway; it is just a statement of fact that many schools use these models. I believe good schools should want to be a model for other schools to follow. Although schools are not usually in the woods, Robert Frost described this current situation well when he wrote, “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.”
Although many of us aren’t in a position to shape our entire districts as a whole, we are able to provide some influence in current direction of at least our program, perhaps even our whole building. I think there are two roads less traveled, two initiatives we should all undertake to improve the education of our students, improve teacher moral, and improve the brand of our schools as a whole.
1. Every district needs a defining trait kindergarten through 12th grade. I propose that each grade takes a state, region, or country to connect with. Literally connect with. Talk with. Create projects with. Twenty-first century learners need to develop collaboration skills with people from all around the world. These partnerships would provide an opportunity to broaden the horizon for our students, many of whom are sheltered within the confines of their own community. Furthermore, as we move towards more project-based learning and authentic learning experiences with Common Core State Standards (CCSS), these partnerships would provide a framework for structuring these lessons and units. Some schools are doing this already, but this is something we all could do to help stand out and improve results.
Just think how cool it would be for our fifth grade students to connect with a country like England. Not only could we learn about their culture, traditions, etc., we could use them as a resource as we study the Revolutionary War during social studies. How powerful to be able to connect with students on the other side of the Atlantic and get their cultural perspective on the Revolutionary War. Definitely more memorable and meaningful than a textbook.
2. We should look to maximize the results for each child as we educate them for about six hours every day. Breaking up a day into arbitrary subjects is archaic and ineffective. In order to improve the quality of education provided and to make our schools a brand to be respected and replicated, we need to move away from the idea of subjects towards an idea of units.
In this sense units are cross curricular. Two or more subjects are combined into longer learning activities. An example of this could be the fourth grade frogs currently used in science. In addition to meeting the science standards with these frogs, we should be reading nonfiction books, magazines, and websites about frogs. We should be writing persuasive essays or feature articles about frogs. In math we are currently studying rates. There are endless real life problems relating to these frogs that relate to rates. We could time how often a frog comes to the surface to breathe and use that rate to calculate how many times each day it breathes. The possibilities are endless
With the coming of CCSS and the push towards reading more nonfiction, it is important this is done with thought as well. Sticking with a structured schedule such as this month is fiction and next month is nonfiction has several flaws. First of all, if all students of a grade are reading the same content at the same time, this requires a larger number of texts to be shared. Second, nonfiction reading works better when tied into other subject areas. Reading nonfiction out of context isn’t as effective as reading nonfiction with in context. Third, it prevents flexibility in scheduling. I see many fun ways to integrate nonfiction into a weekly schedule in addition to reading fiction. For example, reading websites, blogs, or newspapers about current events, content related to their fictional texts, or about other subjects. Finally, teachers like support and structure, but they are tired of being micromanaged. There are bigger battles to fight that are worth more than dictating which day a teacher is supposed to be reading fiction or nonfiction.
Here is a rough idea of how I think teachers should be held accountable and helped to stay organized. Each teacher needs a spreadsheet with all of the standards listed in rows down the left side. Each row then has numerous spots for teachers to check, date, etc. when and, perhaps, how that standard was met. This would allow more flexibility but still help with accountability. I can explain more clearly face-top-face than through writing.
Some of these changes may seem dramatic or drastic. That is because the changes that are needed need to be dramatic and drastic. We cannot continue down the same road and expect to come to a different location. We need the road less traveled. In the past we have tried to not make perfection the enemy of good, but we have only succeeded in making good enough the enemy of perfection. These changes need to be made, and they need to be made now. I believe these should be district wide changes, but at a minimum, they should be piloted by those who are willing. Good teachers became teachers because they wanted to be creative. They want to be effective. They want to be supported. But they don’t want to be micromanaged. If the administration truly felt confident in the staff, he or she would not feel the need to manage issues such as lesson plan format, daily schedule, sequence of units, etc. If what we value is test results, which it appears it is, then the measure of successful teaching would be successful test results. It is nearly impossible to measure the true effectiveness of a teacher when so much control is seceded by the teachers. We cannot hide behind the excuse of ineffective teachers. We need to do what is best for the students, which I have just listed above, and if there are teachers who cannot do this, then changes in personnel need to be made. A car company would not say they couldn’t build a car the way they wanted because their engineers weren’t good enough. They would find engineers who could design what was needed and desired. We should operate the same way.
In the book Drive by Daniel Pink (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AyRu7k70Jhc), he says that all great people are defined by one sentence. For example, Abraham Lincoln’s sentence is, “He preserved the Union and freed the slaves.” Every district needs a sentence, but we can better start by figuring out what our program or school’s sentence is. I propose our sentence to be, “Our school teaches with progressive concepts, stays ahead of the curve, and prepares successful 21st century learners.”
Who’s with me?