Grade 5, difficult conversations and responsive teachers

9a831261036a8929a1177d8250a48deb

(apologies for the low quality image, but it really says it all)

Working with our Grade 5 team is really interesting at the moment because what’s going on is a real to and fro’, a real Ping Pong game in the way that the students are responding to the provocation that the teachers have designed for them, and then the way the teachers are responding to the provocations offered back to them by the students’ responses.

The teachers are having to re-think, not only having to re-think the nature of this current Who we are unit, but today they began to re-think how the data they’re getting back from the students affects the unit that comes next also. This is very exciting because this means that the teachers are not seeing difficulties as roadblocks, but instead seeing difficulties  – as a result of what their students are doing and saying (or not doing and saying) – as an opportunity again to reflect and to think “OK, how do we respond to what we know about the students now?”

The case in point here is that Grade 5 teachers, through the provocations they have been doing this week and last week, have really unearthed that the students (a) are not particularly curious about human behaviour and, probably as a direct result, (b) are not particularly good at observing human behaviour and noticing patterns. And so, as a result, they’re thinking that their initial hopes that students would be able to get to the point where they are designing their own social, behavioural experiments as part of Who we are were overly ambitious. Instead, they are going to have to devote the time and energy of Who we are to really developing that curiosity about human behaviour  – with an ongoing reflective angle that “learning about other people’s behaviour helps me reflect on my own” – and also developing their ability to actually observe human behaviour and asking those questions… what am I looking at, what am I looking for, what do I notice, what evidence is there, how do I record that evidence and what kind of patterns am I noticing that could become a big idea or even a hypothesis?

They then said “OK, well let’s do How the world works next… and in How the world works, we give them six whole weeks just to test those hypotheses and to do so using a clear scientific process. Now that flow and constructivism from one unit to another is really exciting.

And, there’s a lot of tension and worry about “how am I going to get my students to this point or that point by this time?” or “oh, my students haven’t responded to this very well” or “they’re not that interested in it yet”… all of these natural tensions that teachers feel – good teachers feel. But then, coming together spontaneously – not waiting for a meeting – coming together spontaneously, working their way through it using all that information  to help them redesign and redefine how things go from here.

It’s brilliant.

It also reinforces a point that I make over and over and over again and that is that teachers have to have difficult conversations, teachers have to go through the struggle themselves, teachers have to finish the day thinking “I don’t know where this is really going… how do I find that clarity, how do I help my students find that clarity?” The only way they can do it is by having difficult conversations, by challenging each other, by challenging themselves. Good teaching is not just a series of tick-boxes that you can say you’ve done. Good teaching is critical thinking, it is tension, it is emotion, it is responsiveness, it is spontaneity.

As Suzanne, one of the Grade 5 team said after reading this post:

“Openness to spontaneity makes good teachers great.”

 

 

Provocations and the Ping-Pong Analogy

Many powerful and transformational ideas emerge in the world of education, become trends and then vanish. This is sometimes because the vast majority of educators never fully understand it in the first place.

The latest example of this is “provocations”.

All sorts of educators are using the word and they believe they are planning them for their students. Sadly, very often, these so-called provocations are turning into missed opportunities, throw-away activities that really don’t transform the subsequent pedagogy in the slightest.

I find this really frustrating, and I find the fact that educators are unable to see both the simple and the sophisticated information that students are revealing to them almost impossible to comprehend. As I try and wrap my head around this, I see the following patterns:

  • Some people, if they were being honest, have little or no interest in changing their pedagogy. They want to do what they’ve always done and see anything that threatens that – regardless of the source – as a threat. As a result, they develop a sort of selective blindness to any of the fascinating information their students reveal. It may well be impossible to move people away from that mentality and so it may be necessary to move them out of our schools instead.
  • Some people are – perhaps unwillingly – so caught up in teacher-speak, written curriculum, standards and old habits they too are blinded – they can’t “see the wood for the trees”. Some of these people may still be rescued, but only if you can still see the glint in their eye that indicates some interest in who their students really are and enough curiosity to want to find out.
  • Some people are – fortunately – poised, ready, willing and able to plan and carry out provocative experiences that give their students opportunities to reveal powerful and useful information to them. However, they may not know how to use that information to transform their pedagogy and, of course, there is no single, universal answer. Instead, what is powerful, is the teacher’s determination to find ways to do so.

A very useful analogy is Shana Upiter’s Ping Pong approach. When you provoke your students, you are hitting the ball to them… then, they hit it back to you – in all sorts of directions! Now it is up to you – the teacher – to figure out what to do with the ball and how to hit it back to them again, and so on… If you can view provocations that way – as the ongoing exchange of stimulus and response, ideas and action, thinking and questioning – you will start to understand how to use the concept in your teaching. You can also liberate yourself from thinking that provocations need to be huge, overly-planned extravaganzas!

For this to happen though, the teacher must be fascinated by the words their students write or say, the choices their students make, the way their students think, the patterns of their students’ behaviour, how their students react in different situations and the questions their students ponder.

When provocations create the conditions for inquiry – by teachers into their students – there is nothing more powerful. When they just lead into a series of activities and a whole load of teaching, they may just be another buzz-word.

 

Careful what we keep out of children’s reach

This is a wonderful talk and a timely reminder that we – adults – have to stop putting an unrealistic vision of perfection out of children’s reach.

As Emma Marris eloquently teaches us, we keep referring to an idea of a perfect, untarnished nature that simply doesn’t exist. We say there is no nature in or around the schools we work in, but there is… there’s lots of it. We have just lost the ability to see it and, more dangerously, we are failing to help young people see it, touch it, be in awe of it and want to see more of it.

We may be in danger of doing the same thing to peace. Do we present an idealistic vision of a perfect peace in which everything is sweetness and light, and therefore keep it out of reach of young people? If we do, then we need to refine what we believe peace is, or could be.

Yesterday, as I walked to work, I passed an empty plot of land. It was full of overgrowth and teeming with insect life. I had walked past it more than 200 times before and failed to consider it to be “nature”.

If we are capable of becoming so jaded, so blind and so susceptible to the false dichotomies the media provides us with, what hope have we of helping young people evolve with more sophistication?

humble inquiry

humble inquiry

As I mentioned in my previous post I am moving to a new school….. this book has revolutionized every aspect of what I hope to achieve as we create positive change and consolidate on what works….. together. Especially, as we look more closely at the culture of the school.

There are many different personalities with different leadership qualities and styles. While a true leader may have to bend depending on the context, person/people or situation there should always be at least one thing that grounds your approach. I believe it is ‘The gentle art of asking instead of telling’ which should be something we attempt to develop as our craft.

For most of us we work in and with an inquiry curriculum, we need to also inquire too. The people we work with are just as important as the students we teach. They are! If we truly want the best out of people telling them will not create mutual respect or trust for open communication and collaboration. Asking builds relationships. Not only does asking build relationships, but it sharpens our IQ and EQ on what type of questions to ask which invite open dialogue.

Humble inquiry is intended to illustrate an attitude or provide specific questions that show interest and respect, which will stimulate more truth telling and collaboration. Humble inquiry is not a checklist to follow or a set of written questions – it is behaviors that comes out of respect, genuine curiosity, and the desire to improve the quality of the conversation by stimulating greater openness and sharing.

To put some of these ideas and approaches into action I am going to experiment with this by conducting a humble inquiry into who we are as a school and to mark a point on where we are in place and time as a school as we set goals and connect to our vision and mission. To take it a little further, I hope to use all the 6 transdisciplinary themes and through observations, conversations and humble inquiry I hope to gain a clear insight into who we are as a school with fresh eyes. If what I notice is the same as what people see and feel, then we have an opportunity to challenge, learn and plan ideas to implement change or improve on what we are already doing. This should make people feel part of the process, encourage opinion and amplify voice. I have no idea what this will reveal after such a process, but isn’t that the point of inquiry?

I will be using this to record the things I notice and hope to get teachers and students to also be part of this inquiry too. Let’s hope we can create the culture of listen first and then make sound decisions after with pure intentions to bring people together and help us be the best we can for our students and the people we work with and learn from.

6 week inquiry

 

The best place to start – physical space

 

not knowing

Starting a new role is exciting. The thrill of doing something new and different is incredibly grounding and sobering.

Taking that next step out of the classroom and stepping back into even more classrooms is a very humbling privilege.

I sat in my ‘office’ for the first time a few days ago and must admit I was feeling quite overwhelmed – in a good way.

“Where do I even begin?”

I felt blank and the urge of panic was creeping in and about to take a hold on me.

I have an inordinate amount of things to do and don’t even know where to start. So, I sat there in that moment to quiet myself and regain some composure.

Anytime Sam and I have ran or lead anything to do with teaching and learning there is still one we’ve always started before pedagogy. The physical space. This is often overlooked yet it sets the tone for everything you do.

Create the space you want to be in, feel, think and do. Let that space reflect and be an extension of who you are and what you want to be about.

I did just that….. moved furniture, emptied old draws, put folders aside, made a list of the things and furniture I would need to make the space show who I am and what I value.

Voila…..

From this point on, I was able to chip away at all the other things. I felt comfortable and there was a sense of calm and peace in the way I approached that endless list which buried me before.

As we all start again a new year, whatever your position or role, start with the physical space first.

What does your space say about you?

What mood do you want to create?

How will others feel when they are in that space?

How does your space allow you to do things even better?

Are students part of your thinking and designing? How?

Now, before you do anything else, think about the space you want to be in. It is just like your bedroom, you spend just as many hours in it, yet you are actually awake. Make it special!

School leaders do have favourites, for good reasons!

IMG_0544.PNG

There was a recurring theme in the recent feedback on school leadership by teachers in the school I work at – favouritism.

The gist of it is that there are certain teachers who are considered, by a few, to be the “favourites” of the leadership team. This is quite an interesting point, really, because… to be perfectly honest… people in leadership positions do – inevitably – have favourites. Let me elaborate a bit on that.

There’s always some people who don’t need to be managed, they get on with their jobs and do so to a high quality and in a way that symbolises and encapsulates, to the best of their ability, the vision of the school and the type of pedagogy that school leaders hope to see. Some people might believe they fit into this category because they just “get on with their job”. However, they may not realise, understand or be willing to admit that their practice simply isn’t what school leaders are looking for.

There’s always some people whose practice inspires school leaders and stretches their vision of the school and of pedagogy. Let’s face it, the minute you step out of the classroom and become an “administrator” of some type you will inevitably be referring to pedagogy that you used to practice. School leaders need teachers around them who push their boundaries, reveal new possibilities and teach in ways that are better than they would be able to teach themselves!

There’s always some people who are just natural learners – they ask questions, they are interested in the world, they read books and blogs about education, they seek advice, they pop their heads into offices to run an idea by you, they wander the corridors of the school to chat to people and find inspiration or possibilities for collaboration, they try stuff out. School leaders adore people like this… sorry, there’s no point denying it.

There’s always some people who have classrooms and learning spaces that are welcoming. Their students can’t wait to get to school because their classroom feels like home, because it is stimulating and comfortable, because it belongs to them and because interesting things happen there. Guess what… it’s not only kids who feel that way. School leaders are drawn to those rooms by the buzz of learning and students who are happy, motivated and involved in doing interesting things. They are often invited to join in conversations or get involved in the learning somehow – either explicitly or just because they can’t help themselves. When you’re walking up a corridor, you’re naturally attracted to classrooms like that and, yes, you end up in them more frequently than others.

There’s always some people who know that improving things involves their active participation. People like this don’t complain about the way things are, they take steps to do something about it. In fact, they usually go further by seeking out things that need to be improved and naturally thinking about solutions. They don’t plop their gripes on the desks of school leaders and hand the problem over to them… but, if they do seek you out they do so with a clear indication that they wish to be part of the problem-solving process. It’s only natural that people in leadership positions will respond to people like that with more enthusiasm, more willingness to help and less dread when they see their heads pop in the door or see them coming up the corridor.

There’s always some people who are just good to be around – they know that people in leadership positions are trying their best, they understand all the hidden complexities involved in such positions, they communicate respectfully and without confrontation, they listen actively in meetings and professional development sessions, they are open-minded and willing to see things through different lenses, they are humorous and don’t take themselves too seriously, they abstain from gossip and negative judgment of people they work with, they attend social events and stick around for five minutes to chat after meetings.

The biggest problem with all of this is, unfortunately, that all of these qualities are usually rolled up into the same, small number of people… the ones who get labelled as “favourites”. So, my feedback to the feedback would be to try to aim to have more of the qualities outlined above. Not so you can be a favourite, but just because they’re pretty good qualities to have!

Growing out of defaulting to negative

Anyone who knows me would say I’m not exactly the most positive person in the world! But, I’ve been thinking about positivity and negativity a lot recently, and particularly this quote:

preview (1)

It has become increasingly obvious that there is a negative default for many people who work in schools. And, that this negative default builds up to a disproportionate sense of entitlement and readiness just to be critical of everything.

So, for example, an improvement is made to an aspect of the school – say, the playground – and then, as soon as that improvement is complete people forget what it was like before and then complain about the improvement. They pick faults in it or moan about “not being consulted”. In short, they will find something to complain about. Indeed, it is impost impossible to interact with some people without some complaining happening!

Now, of course, this negative energy is really debilitating. But, more worryingly, it reveals a lack of memory… or a lack of willingness to remember. This immediately reduces our ability to have perspective. Perspective doesn’t just come from going somewhere else and seeing things differently because of a change of location, or meeting a different person and seeing things differently through them. Perspective also comes through time, and schools’ relationship with time is often so abusive that we may well have lost our ability to achieve this.

How often do we ignore all of our success and focus purely on our failures? How often do we ignore our “Done List” because we’re so obsessed with our “To Do List”? How often do we forget to congratulate ourselves for our achievements because we’re blinded by our goals? How often do we allow someone’s negativity to infect everybody else’s positivity? How often do we focus our emotional energy on responding to negativity and leave ourselves too depleted for the positive energy?

I’d like to see a movement towards living by the quote above and away from the gravitational pull of negativity and negative people. Schools should be positive places full of positive people – I don’t mean that in a trite, naive or ignorant way – but positive in a way that still has substance. You can sense  the overriding air of positivity very strongly when positive people dominate, and great things happen as a result. You can equally sense the air of negativity very strongly when negative people dominate, and the potential for great things to happen slips down the nearest drain.