Archive for April, 2011

New Addition or New Edition?

April 25, 2011

One thing I love about my school district, is that I have opportunities to engage in the work with others on so many different levels.  We’re large enough that there is ALWAYS something going on that is amazing and we are small enough that there’s a good probability I am at least aware of these amazing things and often involved in them beyond just my awareness.

One thing that is going on right now that is of particular interest to me is yet another construction project at Greer Elementary.  Greer underwent Phase I of this renovation in 2008-2009 and the School Board received an update on Phase II at its April 14, 2011 meeting.

My personal reflections on a planning meeting at Greer with Matt Landhal (@mlandahl, principal) and some of his teachers led to me kicking this blog post around with the current title intact.  Talking with Matt and his teachers about how they want kids to interact with space, content, each other, media, and the world in the new addition and how they are looking to connect it back to what happens (currently and in the future) in the current physical space has me kicking around a ton of questions –  how can we use a new addition as a platform for thinking through and envisioning a new edition?  How do we leverage the new space without creating inequities for students who are assigned to the “old” space? Will some kids be “better off” in the old space or the new space?  How could we possibly know?  Where does the space drop out of the equation and the teacher come in to it?  How will we decide who is assigned to what space?  What difference will that make?

All of these questions and some I haven’t been able to get out of my head and to my keyboard come back to a larger question of how space influences learning or not.  This leads to a larger question of what influences a teacher’s decision-making.  I don’t believe any of us would argue that if you put someone who doesn’t know the curriculum and is either unskilled at or uninterested in connecting kids to said curriculum in to the “perfect learning space” that great things will happen.  I do not believe the space (including all of the stuff in the space) is at all causal, but I do believe it is influential.  So, now the question becomes, what influence do we want the space to have on the learning?

This question strangely connects me to my visit to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum shortly after it opened in 1993.  This museum has set the standard for how to use space to influence emotions and interactions.  I remember the changing lights and sounds changing my expectations of what was to come next.  I remember how the ducking and the turning made me feel herded and manipulated.  I remember watching out for the 70 plus students I had taken with me and noticing who was crying when and who was standing in silence and awe to pay more attention to what.  I remember this disbelief and disgust.  I remember the day as my single most rewarding day as a teacher.

I felt some of this same space-caused emotional roller coaster when I visited the National Civil Rights Museum – enough that I wasn’t disappointed but not enough to feel like I had sat at the back of a bus long enough. 

I was so disappointed when I went to the National Museum of the American Indian shortly after it opened.  After my last conversation with my half-blooded grandmother before she died, I was expecting a Trail of Tears exhibit that jerked me around like the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.  Instead, I found nothing about what my family had lived through on “the Trail.”  I call it “The Museum for the Commercialization of the American Indian.”

Why did I go from thinking about new Kindergarten spaces to thinking about museums?  The central question of “what influence do we want the space to have on the learning?” connects these in my mind.  These Kindergarten classrooms will impact what decisions teachers can and do make and how kids react to these decisions.  What impact do we want to have?  If the walls open up and two classrooms can be connected through a portal, what will happen differently than if the kids actually had to go through a traditional doorway, out in the hallway, and through another traditional doorway to walk between classrooms?  How did I feel when I had to walk through a box car to get from one room to another, knowing that thousands of people had ridden this same box car from being rounded up to being murdered?  The pathway between two spaces matters on how the two spaces are perceived.

As I think about all of the questions and information tossed out between teachers and architects on that afternoon in the Greer library, I am humbled by the shear number of decisions at hand.  I am also intrigued by how those decisions will be made and then how they will influence what kids and teachers do in the “magical” spaces.

While I don’t think of Kindergarten classrooms as museums, the purpose of having the portal between the two classrooms took me back to my experience at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.  Then, my mind shifted to the places in my division where I know opening a portal between two classrooms is possible and I thought about who uses this utility and to what end.  I am convinced that who gets put on either side of the moveable wall determines whether or not the wall will ever move and what the purposes of the movements are.  That the walls move simply represents an opportunity.  Whether the opportunity is realized is dependent upon the teachers.  Whether the “right” teachers are located on either side of the wall is primarily a principal decision that represents attention to a vision or not.

Should we plan for cubbies in the classroom or should we plan for them in the hallway?  If we put them in the hallway, do we need to put doors on them to provide a little protection and ensure they stay neat and tidy?  If we put them in the classroom, can we do it in a way that doesn’t take away flexibility in how we use the space around the cubby?  How does snack time look differently if the cubbies are in the room or in the hallway?  How will we manage the traffic flow and monitor the students?  This line of questioning took me back to a visit I made to another school when I went to three Kindergarten classrooms in the five minutes before shifting from class activities to specials.  One teacher put on a clean up song, and like salivating dogs the kids responded in a very well-conditioned manner and started cleaning up.  Another teacher clapped a pattern and flicked the lights and told the kids to start cleaning up and then began doling out strategic praise statements like, “I like the way Jack is cleaning up his space.”  The third teacher said, “Class, it’s almost time for PE.  What do we need to do to ensure our math supplies are where we can all find them tomorrow?”  In unison, the students shouted, “Put them away!”  and started working to make sure the needs of the classroom community were met.  Three different strategies with the same short-term end result in mind, but representing three very different visions.  The storage compartment shape, size, and location had nothing to do with these differences.

So, how can we use a new addition as a platform for thinking through and envisioning a new edition?  What about what we are currently doing or not doing would we like to change?  What would we like to have remain the same?  Why?  How do we envision five year olds interacting with the world five years from now?  How do they interact now?  How does school prohibit, permit or promote this natural interaction with the world?  What role does space and stuff play in this?

Where will the teaching wall be?  Do we want a teaching wall or multiple teaching spaces?  Who is going to be teaching whom?  How often would we expect to see 4 or 5 students gathered around a teaching space engaging in something?  What would they need access to when they do this?  Would you design a teaching space differently than you would design a learning space?  What kids of interactions do you foresee?  “Teacher” to “learners”?  “Learners” to each other?  Everyone to content?

In many cases, there will be trade-offs we don’t really want to make.  If we don’t have a whole class teaching/learning space, how/where will we hold morning meeting?  If we do, how can we make it flexible so we can re-purpose it easily when we don’t need it to accommodate the whole class?  Overall, I would say the challenge is to provide the capability to do everything while not forcing anything.  Choice and flexibility for the teacher occupying the space so that he or she can provide choice and flexibility to the learners.  How can we provide this without a gazillion dollars per square foot?

One thing I know about all of these questions as well as the ones that never made it from my finger tips to your eyes is that there are no easy answers.  Perhaps the challenge is not to answer the questions but in understanding the questions we are asking.  Are we asking questions that point to “student-centered, inquiry-driven learning” or are we asking questions that point to something else?  What if we had kids come along with us on this journey?  Would they be asking the same questions or a whole different class of questions?  Will this be a new addition or a pathway to a new edition?  How will we know?

“The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.”  Albert Einstein

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Time dilation, dog years, and our tolerance for rapid change

April 16, 2011

It’s time to stop using time as an excuse.

I used “The only reason for time is so that everything doesn’t happen at once”  as the Albert Einstein quote in my last blog post and am using if for this one as well.

This quote doesn’t mean we can slow everything down so it doesn’t happen until we’re ready for it to happen.

A fellow educator whom I admire and was in a meeting with recently cited the research about change taking 3 to 5 years to become institutionalized.  Well, I first read that research in 1991 and it is now 2011.  I am skeptical that it still applies and tired of it being used as an excuse.

The world is changing very quickly right now.  The questions shouldn’t be around how to slow this change down or throttle it back like a cellular service provider.  The questions should be how we can take advantage of the rapid pace of change and use it to the advantage our young people.  If we don’t, someone else will.

It struck me recently that my district took seven years to decide on and finish installing ceiling mounted projectors in every classroom.  Seven years.  If you can’t get a techology-based roll out done from start to finish in seven months now you better not call it a roll out!  Just stick to “multiple installations” or some other phrase.

So, why the title?  Well, I would suspect most people have heard that Einstein had a theory of relativity and many people have seen commercials or other depictions of a person traveling around the earth really fast and not aging like a person sitting relatively still (pun intended).  Well, that’s called time dilation.  We cannot continue to believe we can slow down time in schools.  This approach is doing our kids no favors and is giving the public education critics fodder.  Let’s not just keep up, let’s lead the way.  The educators reading this blog are not the ones I am worried about, it’s the ones who do not engage in social media or other means of constant, public learning and public practice.  Use the strategy “each one teach one” today and print out an interesting blog post from me or someone else and hand it to a colleague who doesn’t have a blog roll or an rss feed or a PLN.  Suck them in.  The kids depend on it!

And dog years?  Well, I keep thinking about the seven year roll out of projectors.  The 7:1 ratio made me think of dog years as I thought a human year of aging was 7 dog years was until I found this article in preparation for this post.  Regardless, we can’t do this any more.  We don’t have the time.

Watching the Clock

April 4, 2011

“The only reason for time is so that everything doesn’t happen at once.”  Albert Einstein

This is the time of year when Virginia enforces a 4pm burn law.  It’s also the time of year when campgrounds around Virginia open for the season and people who have suffered cabin fever can finally get out and enjoy themselves, seniors begin suffering from “senior slump,” others experience “spring fever,” and a host of other things are counted down to (like the MLB opening day and the last day of school).

How much of our lives is spent counting down to something or watching the clock to end something?  Why do we count down and watch the clock?  How can we take the energy and excitement behind the next great thing we anticipate and leverage it to enjoy right now even more?

As a teacher at a non-traditional, alternative high school of choice, I got a tearjerker of a letter from a parent that accompanied by a box of to-die-for cannollis bought on a trip back home to New York City.  The letter was lost in a classroom flood, but it had a line in it I will never forget.  “Thank you for giving me back my daughter.”  The mom went on to write something like,  “We put her on the bus the first day of kindergarten and she was so excited to go to school.  Slowly, school killed the excitement.  Until now.  Every morning, it’s like putting our kindergartner on the bus again.  Only now, she is a young lady.”

Do your kindergartners look forward to Friday?  Why?  Why not?  Do they look forward to Monday when they come back to school?  Why or why not?  How can we make Friday better in anticipation of Monday? How can we keep the kindergarten excitement alive and well FOREVER?

How does your school handle the last day before a break?  Do you consider this “lost time” with respect to “instruction”? 

My school system is on Spring Break this week and I took the week off to go camping.  I will wait until 4pm to start my campfires and I will follow the opening week of baseball using the At Bat Lite app on my iPhone.  When I return to work a week from today, I will work with principals to begin registering teachers for summer workshops, I will provide the Superintendent’s cabinet an update on a major project, I will lead a meeting with our district’s professional development team, and conduct a status call with a vendor.  While I will have enjoyed my week off, I will be happy to return to work because the things I do should be done and I am pretty good at doing them.

Some kids will come back to school, happy to be met with routines and boundaries again.  Some kids will eat better because school is in session.  Some kids will make something up when asked “What did you do over Spring Break?” Some kids will play down what they did.  Some teachers will know how many days are left until the last day of school.  Some will know how many until the first day of state testing.  Some kids and teachers alike will bounce in to school with kindergartener-like excitement and some will show clearly that this excitement is long gone.

How can we take the energy and excitement behind the next great thing we anticipate and leverage it to enjoy right now even more?