Communities of reformers & learners (great posts 2 & 3)

Communities of reformers

Some posts hit you exactly when and where you need to be hit. Dina over at The Line wrote a post that did just that recently. In a new school where I'm not exactly enthralled with the existing culture, I've found myself frustrated often. I haven't been posting as much in part because I felt like most of what I wanted to write about would be negative and complain-y. I'm not one to be content with school culture that needs some work so I've tried pushing some things here and there with very limited success. That's frustrating. Add that to teaching brand new classes and I'm frustrated knowing that this isn't my best year as a teacher, even if its simply because it's all new

In the midst of frustration the providencial interWebz sent Dina's post my direction. Frustrated working to change a school while working in that school she pulls in advice from several of my favorite names in education (featuring Deborah Meier and Chris Lehmann) who advise reforming with a posse (for support) and giving yourself a break when things don't work out they way you'd like. Check out this gem of a quote from Chris:

Trying to be Rafe Esquith or Debbie Meier is a good goal, but only if we don’t beat ourselves up when we fall short… teaching is a marathon, not a sprint. We desperately need wise, kind, thoughtful people who make this a career and a life.

And we need to forgive ourselves when we aren’t perfect or awesome or “A-game” every day. When the people who care leave because we cannot measure up to our ideal version of ourselves, in the end, that’s bad for our schools and our kids.

I have been in the habit of beating myself up for falling short this year, and Dina's post helped me remember that it's okay. I can fail without being a failure (and that I need to start forming a reform posse 😉 ).

Communities of learners

Michael Wesch teaches his college classes as if they were research groups. He does this to great effect and has received quite a bit of notoriety for his unique teaching style and the products of his students' research (some examples). In the post Our class on how we run our class, Wesch details how the class is organized and what the students are responsible for generating.

Wesch has effectively created and implemented a teaching style that I've been slowly working towards in my last several years as an educator. It's basically the definition of student-centered, authentic, active learning (I know that's a lot a buzz words in one sentence, but if they're ever applicable, it's here).

This post gave me a lot to unpack and think about in relation to my own teaching. I haven't had the time to sit down and decompress all the information he's slammed into this one post quite yet, but it'll definitely be something I spend time on this summer (if not sooner).

Michael Wesch was a guest on a recent Seedlings Podcast (#60) where he gives a little more insight into his philosophy of teaching. An interesting tidbit: he uses Eric Fromm's The Art of Loving to stay focused on what how he should think about his students. The whole show is worth a listen.

Follow then fail

I haven't posted for 25 days. Yes, the holidays played a decent part of that hiatus, but it's also been the result of the binge of artifacts I had students create just before winter break. In short, I was so excited to break away from the traditional teaching style that I probably stretched myself too thin.

I previously taught at a small high school in Michigan. If you were in 10th grade at Whitmore Lake High School, you had Mr. Wildeboer for Earth & Physical Science. I was the only teacher who taught Earth/Physical Science since it was introduced in 2002¹ (my first year). This situation meant that I was solely responsible for the content of that class. I developed all of its lessons, projects, labs, and activities myself.

I was given the freedom to experiment, create projects, swap out exams for cumulative projects, cut back on breadth and focus on depth, and do pretty much whatever I felt would be best for the students. Freedom to do what I personally saw as best was the advantage of being a "lonely" teacher. The disadvantage was that I never really had anyone to work through ideas and struggles with. Sure, I could talk to other teachers who could provide valuable feedback, but it's something different entirely to collaborate closely with another teacher while developing lessons or other curricular materials.

This year there are three other teachers who have the same classes I do. When I was hired, I was quite excited at the prospect of being able to collaborate with other teachers. I knew that might mean I wouldn't have the same degree of freedom as I had enjoyed previously, but I figured I could live with the trade. I didn't start the year working with the other teachers very well (several old posts explain why), but that was more the fault of Central Office than anything. As time when on however, I found we weren't working together as closely as I would've liked. At lunches and meetings we'd talk about what we were currently on, where we were going next, and what supplies we each needed. Unfortunately, that was about it. We shared a little back and forth, but I wasn't thrilled with the worksheets being sent my way. I would take some time to tweak them, then use my own presentations (which were shared, though I don't have reliable intel that they were ever used outside my room).

I tried to replicate what the other teachers were doing as best as I could while only making design and other minor changes to improve the quality (IMHO) of what I was setting down in front of students. This was frustrating. In hindsight it seems foolish.  I provided what I consider sub-par curriculum materials to my students because I wanted to stay at the exact pace of the other teachers. I did this even though we really weren't collaborating with each other, and looking back, I realize that I was really replicating was teaching style². No wonder I was frustrated. What I was doing was trying to do was suppress the style I had developed over several years of practice, research, and experimentation. It was foolish of me, and I now regret it.

Coming soon: What happened when I decided to stop worrying about keeping up...


¹ Interestingly enough, due to changes in the state curriculum, the school decided to switch up the science curriculum starting the year after I left. The class I taught was replaced with something different- meaning the class started and ended with my tenure.

² I don't mean to suggest here that the other teachers were ineffective. I have a certain reperatoire of activities and projects that have proven to be effective and mesh well with my personality. I'm happier when I teach within my personality, and happy teaching leads to happier students.


Image Credits:

Power Law of Participation by Ross Mayfield
Streeter Seidell, Comedian by Zach Klein