Our lives are so busy nowadays that we are almost always multitasking to the extent that those around us let us get away with it. We rarely take the time to be fully present for others and allow our observations to inform how we treat them. When we are not attuned to others, we rely on our assumptions about what they are need. These assumptions are often wrong, leaving others feeling disempowered and disrespected. What are the consequences when we allow these assumptions to guide how we treat small children? What is there to see when you are observing a baby? Is there really an empowering and respectful way to change a diaper? In Baby Knows Best: Raising a Confident and Resourceful Child, the RIE Way (Little, Brown, and Co., 2015), Deborah Carlisle Solomon outlines the parenting approach first developed by Magda Gerber and Resources for Infant Educarers 35 years ago for parents and teachers in a changing world.
Everyone hates being underestimated. We want to feel included without others showing us condescension. At the same time, no one wants to be overestimated. We want to feel challenged without others overwhelming us. We recognize that children can be frustrated or disengaged, but we often fail to see that their feelings and behaviors are caused by the same things that stir up these feelings in adults — flawed assumptions about their abilities and interests. What if kids are more capable cognitively than we think? What if we demand too much of them pragmatically? Nowadays, we simultaneously adultify children and infantalize them, depending on the situation. But what if we have those situations backwards? In The Importance of Being Little: What Preschoolers Really Need from Grownups (Viking, 2016), Erika Christakis shares her insights gleaned from years working with young children as a parent, preschool teacher, and preschool director.
When adults today look back on their time as children, many of their memories may come from moments when they were engaged in free play with kids in their neighborhood — exploring creeks, riding bikes, and playing pick-up sports. Moments like these, occurring outside of adult-imposed structures, put children in a position to make decisions, take risks, and navigate social relationships. Now parents are much more likely to organize playdates on behalf of their children or push them into organized sports and summer camps. But do these interactions provide the same kinds of learning experiences? If parents value free play, what choice do they have? In Playborhood: Turn Your Neighborhood into a Place for Play (Free Play Press, 2012), Mike Lanza describes how individual families can establish hangout spaces for kids in order to foster self-reliance and joy for their children and build community with their neighbors.
From time to time, we all ponder life’s most difficult questions. "Is there a god?" "How can I live a good life?" "What happens when you die?" When we share our worries or wonderings with friends and family, we can leave those conversations feeling connected, comforted, and even energized. But when these questions are not regular topics of conversation — as is often the case — we lose sight of how they are shared, leaving us feeling anxious, confused, and alone. Adults are even more hesitant to raise these issues with children. Why give them reason to worry? We forget that we had these questions as children too. We are actually missing an opportunity to provide reassurance as well as an opportunity to learn. While we can share our knowledge and experience with children, children are open-minded and can cause us to question our long-held assumptions. They make excellent conversation partners. In The Philosophical Child (Rowman and Littlefield, 2015), Jana Mohr Lone shares her insights gleaned from countless philosophical conversations with children of all ages and provides guidance for parents and teachers who hope to build stronger relationships, model thinking dispositions, and deepen their own understandings.
In this episode, I speak with Heather Shumaker, the author of It’s OK to Go Up the Slide: Renegade Rules for Raising Confident and Creative Kids(TarcherPerigee, 2016). Her book offers advice to parents looking for new approaches to common problems facing their school-age children. We discuss how our perception of childhood has changed over time, the importance of acknowledging dilemmas and desires that may seem trivial from an adult perspective, and the role of modeling in teaching behaviors.
She recommends the following books for listeners interested in her work and our conversation:
We may disagree about whether phonics or whole language is the better approach to reading instruction or whether bilingual education or English immersion is the better way to support English language learners. Whatever our opinions are, they are founded on the perceived immediate impact on students in school. But how might the way we use language with children years before they enter school affect their academic potential? Does it have the ability to improve more than their vocabulary? Can it foster creativity, empathy, and perseverance? In Thirty Million Words: Building a Child’s Brain (Dutton, 2015), Dr. Dana Suskind outlines research on the critical language period and connects it to an early-childhood curriculum and a series of public policy solutions.
We treat children differently than we treat adults. For example, if we would like children to do something, we use directives with them, rather than asking them. When we do ask them to do something, we expect them to do it, even if they are busy or uninterested. In fact, we would be surprised, annoyed, or angry if they refused. Although something said to a child might be phrased as a question, it is rarely a choice. Perhaps this is not a problem as long as adults have the best interests of children in mind. But what if they do not? Are we treating children fairly? Do they have any advocates without conflicting interests? In Escape from Childhood: The Needs and Rights of Children (CreateSpace, 2013), John Holt compares the plight of children to other oppressed groups and outlines ways for adults to show greater respect to children in their lives as well as his rationale for extending basic rights afforded to adults to any child who would like to invoke them.
In this episode, I speak with Pat Farenga about the new edition of John Holt’sFreedom and Beyond (HoltGWS LLC, 2017). This book offers a broad critique of traditional schooling and its capacity for solving social problems. We discuss John Holt’s transition from classroom teacher to public intellectual as well as the broader implications of schools prioritizing job training over citizenship and self-actualization.
It feels like schools are in the midst of unprecedented change -- sometimes more in different places and sometimes more in different ways. Many people are thinking about education differently than they did a few years ago. Others still are learning and assessing in new ways, using different tools, and collaborating with different partners. But in what ways are schools changing the most? What happens when multiple changes occur simultaneously? How can people who have different relationships to schools prepare themselves and support change? In Education Nation: Six Leading Edges of Innovation in Our Schools(Jossey-Bass, 2012), Milton Chen draws upon his years of experience using television and the Internet to share educational material in order to explain what schools look like when separate school innovations begin to converge.
One of the most commonly used words right now in education is "innovation." It seems to be part of any response to our collective anxiety over the fact that the way we educate children does not seem to have changed as quickly as the ways we access information, communicate with each other, or travel from place to place. Of course, before innovation was an education buzzword, it was a buzzword in Silicon Valley. It is easy to list examples of companies that are innovative -- Google, Apple, Uber, etc. -- but it is much harder to define. This leaves us to wonder, is innovation in schools just integrating more apps and touchscreens? If not, what is it? And if we want innovation in schools, how do we get there? In The Innovator's Mindset: Empower Learning, Unleash Talent, and Lead a Culture of Creativity (Dave Burgess Consulting, 2015), George Couros, provides a framework evaluating whether school practices are truly innovative as well as a guide for leaders interested in fostering changes in their schools that are both original and positive.
There is no shortage of talk about our public schools being broken. Some critics say we need to embrace a reform agenda that includes more standardized testing and a longer school day for students and performance pay and an end to tenure for teachers. Others respond that the effects of these measures are overstated or counterproductive and that the most sensible place to start is to dramatically increase funding for public schools in their current form. Whatever their positions or priorities, both sides in this debate are likely making the same key assumption — public schools are the best way to promote socio-economic mobility. This means that they still envision a lot of the same things, like an adult teaching a large group of children, who are approximately the same age, content that someone else has decided is important for them to learn. What if they instead accepted that other social programs would be a more effective means of achieving equity in our society? What if they believed that public education was a worthwhile endeavor, but that its true power was in its ability to facilitate creativity, critical thinking, civic participation, and self-direction? That would result in a much richer discussion with ideas that look completely different from the schools we recognize today. In Schools on Trail: How Freedom and Creativity Can Fix Our Education Malpractice (Doubleday, 2016), Nikhil Goyal makes the case for completely rethinking our conception of school and its purpose and presents models we can look towards to take it in a radically new direction.
Whatever your role -- teacher, principal, or superintendent -- when you work in a school system, you experience tensions between your reasons for going into education and how you actually spend your time in schools. You might be driven to support student-directed learning, coach new teachers, or initiate portfolio assessment, but you continually find yourself called away from those drivers. Instead, you have to assume some other responsibility that you may not see as essential but has gradually taken up more your time — sometimes without explanation. How do we change institutions, like schools, to ensure that we are focused on our actual priorities? How do we jumpstart uncomfortable conversations? What can we learn from schools that were willing to totally rethink how they do things? In #EdJourney: A Roadmap to the Future of Education (Jossey-Bass, 2014), Grant Lichtman shares reflections following his three-month road trip across the country to visit schools and discuss innovation with stakeholders inside and outside the classroom.
Many of us are familiar with the court-mandated bussing programs created in an effort to achieve school desegregation in the 1960s and 1970s. Far fewer of us realize there were also voluntary transfer programs that were crafted in out-of-court settlements in the decades that followed. For example, as part of the Canford Program, wealthy districts like those in Arbor Town accept between 6-60 students from nearby South Bay City, where resources are more scarce. These children who win the lottery have access to all of the same teachers, facilities, and curricular materials as the students living in the surrounding neighborhoods. Still, their experiences are far from the same. Canford students ride the bus each morning. Their trips are long and chaotic, and as a result, they often arrive late, hungry, or unsettled. These students must quickly transition into routines that fail to take this reality into account, and issues of equity quickly arise. Do the benefits of such a program exceed its costs? How might such a program be redesigned? To what extent is the bus (or recess) part of school anyway? In The Bus Kids: Children's Experiences with Voluntary Desegregation (Yale 2009), Ira Lit, recounts the experiences of small children participating in an interdistrict transfer program designed to allow students living in a low-income community to attend better-resourced schools in other nearby towns.
It can be tempting to generalize certain attributes of schools as either being good or bad. Magnet and charter schools are often characterized as being inherently good. They usually offer special programs that ground all of their instruction. Having that choice is appealing to many families, and why not? Someone must have put a lot of thought into creating that special program, convincing stakeholders to open a school, and persuading teachers to build their curriculum around the program — often times forgoing a higher salary at another school. With the neighborhood school, it seems like had to be there, and there is not anything “special" about it that ties it together, except maybe geography. How is it supposed to compete with International Baccalaureate or STEM or performing arts? These things seem to give school a purpose. But what if the special program is something unexpected, perhaps something with a bit more baggage? How do geography, industry, and what our society expects from students influence the special programs made available to them? Are there any school lotteries you would think twice about before entering your child? In A Curriculum of Fear: Homeland Security in US Public Schools, (University of Minnesota, 2016), Nicole Nguyen, provides an ethnography of a public high school that responded to calls for reform by adopting homeland security as its primary focus and lens for all other classes. She explores the history of militarization in schools, its impact on students, and the intersection of ethics and personal politics.
Many of us went through school not fully knowing what we were supposed to be learning or how our teachers were measuring our progress. These priorities and processes were largely hidden to us as students because they were assumed to be irrelevant or uninteresting. How much learning can happen under these conditions? What if teachers translated standards into student-friendly language and worked with students to develop personalized goals? What if teachers asked students to examine their work and articulate their growth to their parents and classmates? How might increasing ownership and changing accountability allow for greater learning? In Leadersof Their Own Learning: Transforming Schools Through Student-Engaged Assessment (Jossey-Bass, 2014), Ron Berger and co-authors, Leah Rugen and Libby Woodfin, outline a series of practices designed to make students more active participants in their school experience, including student-led conferences, celebrations of learning, and passage presentations.
Every year, thousands of teachers visit San Diego to understand project-based learning and find inspiration in the work done by students at High Tech High. Their multimedia presentations have been installed in public art galleries, and state and local ecologists have relied on their field guides for years. These high school students spend their time doing the complex work of professionals in countless fields. But what are the benefits of teaching this way? How do teachers create their own curricula? What structures do they use in their classrooms? In Work That Matters: The Teacher’s Guide to Project-Based Learning (Paul Hamlyn Foundation, 2012), Alec Patton outlines the rationale and foundations for project-based learning, while succinctly addressing the practical questions posed by curious teachers.
All of us are familiar with multiple-choice tests. They may be the one thing that you can find in kindergarten classrooms, college courses, and workplace training programs. But why are they so common? Multiple-choice tests may be the simplest and easiest way to see if someone knows something — or at least that someone probably knows something. No one would contend that this form of assessment moves beyond the lowest levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy — remembering and understanding. Of course, we want students — and employees — who can do more than that. What kinds of assessments can measure whether someone can apply, analyze, evaluate, or create something? How would teachers prepare students for those evaluations? How would schools promote those practices? In Transforming Schools: Using Project-Based Learning, Performance Assessment, and Common Core Standards (Jossey-Bass, 2015), Bob Lenz and co-authors Justin Wells and Sally Kingston outline a series of practices designed to promote higher levels of cognition as well as the means to implement them school wide.
The school structures we present to teachers can sometimes resemble two extremes. In the first set of circumstances, teachers have enormous autonomy over what they teach, when they teach it, and how they teach it. In the second, they have almost no choices whatsoever. The texts are all provided, along with the objectives, the script, and the pacing guide. I am not sure that either of these working conditions are sustainable longterm. Obviously, no one enjoys being told exactly what to do. It conveys a lack of trust and respect. But it is an awesome responsibility to be told that everything is up to you. When we live in a culture that continually reinforces the idea that the longterm success of every student is tied to a single teacher’s priorities, words, and actions, this is a recipe for burnout. Are there practices that provide room for creativity without placing an unreasonable burden on individual teachers? How might teachers' aims inform their choices? How can all teachers facilitate deeper learning in a sustainable way? InLearning That Lasts: Challenging, Engaging, and Empowering Students with Deeper Instruction (Jossey-Bass, 2016) Ron Berger and co-authors, Libby Woodfin and Anne Vilen, outline instructional moves, lesson structures, and discussion protocols that ask more from students and work in a variety of teaching contexts.
Time and resources are scarce for many teachers. Often times, these same teachers are under immense pressure to produce higher test scores and severely constrained with the actions they can take in their own classrooms. What are the consequences of working under conditions in which you have increasing responsibilities without sufficiently corresponding support and professional autonomy? Teachers may only prioritize the content that appears on standardized assessments and rarely address other worthwhile knowledge and skills. They may also work excessively long hours, ultimately undermining their personal well-being and their professional effectiveness. What if teachers were instead incentivized to model mindfulness and teach practices to students? Could we avoid more situations like the ones described above? In The Way of Mindful Education: Cultivating Well-Being in Teachers and Students (W. W. Norton & Company, 2014) andThe Mindful Education Workbook: Lessons for Teaching Mindfulness to Students (W. W. Norton & Company, 2016), Daniel Rechtschaffen provides a definition for mindfulness that clearly distinguishes it from other similar or related ideas and articulates its unique benefits for teachers and students by drawing on classroom dilemmas and corresponding practices.
In this episode, I speak with Tim Walker, the author of Teach Like Finland: 33 Simple Strategies for Joyful Classrooms (W. W. Norton & Company, 2017). This book stems from recent interest in Finland’s educational system resulting from its success on international assessments and explains how policy translates into classroom routines and structures as well as what American teachers can learn from their Finnish counterparts. We discuss how the two countries take different views on what makes good teachers and learning outcomes as well as ways teachers can promote well-being in any school context.
Parents often wonder what their children do at school all day. How different is it from what they remember years ago? Teachers often hear similar questions from their friends. Is it like what they imagine? If these adults could really understand, what might they say about school? Does it matter? It would seem that the most effective critiques are those offered by the individuals with the most firsthand knowledge. But the analysis of outsiders is also powerful. These people can draw on their varied backgrounds to bring new perspectives to familiar challenges. They may see things that those with more experience can more easily miss, perhaps even the lived experience of students. What can we learn from those stories? In Substitute: Going to School with a Thousand Kids (Blue Rider Press, 2016), Nicholson Baker describes his month spent working as a substitute teacher with students of all ages or anyone looking to deepen their understanding of those experiences before offering their own policy proposals.
Anyone who has spent time in a school as an adult probably knows how hard it is for teachers to leave their work when they come home every night. There always seems to be more work for them to do, along with inordinate responsibility and a sense that every extra minute spent on tomorrow’s lesson plan will generate better outcomes for students. But teachers also bring their non-school lives along with them when they return each day. We have young teachers and old teachers; single teachers and those who are married with children; teachers who have lived their entire lives in their communities and those who have traveled the world before settling down. Each of them already brings at least one thing that is unique and worthwhile. Maybe it is their energy, optimism, or sense of purpose. Maybe it is their wealth of firsthand experience or their understanding of the community and its history. Is there something we should look for in our teachers? How can we prepare them to share the best of what they have to offer as we encourage them to grow in new ways? What can teachers learn from reflecting on how their biographies and life circumstances intersect with their work? In Teacher: Two Years in the Mississippi Delta (University Press of Mississippi, 2016), Michael Copperman recounts his experiences as a recent college graduate recruited by Teach for America to serve in a community far from his home that was burdened both by poverty and racial segregation.
In this episode, I speak with Lee Gutkind, the editor of What I Didn’t Know: True Stories of Becoming a Teacher (In Fact Books, 2016). His book shares more than twenty firsthand accounts of teachers working in different contexts. We discuss how personal narratives can contribute to our understanding a profession, the writing process, and the similarities and difference between these stories and those featured in his other work.
He recommends the following books for listeners interested in his work and our conversation:
Whatever its current prestige in our society, teaching is undoubtedly complex work. Like physicians and therapists, teachers work with people, rather than things. They try to help their students to improve over time, and while they have influence, they do not have complete control. Unlike these other human-centered professions, we often see teachers as being directly responsible for the success or failure of their students. It is their job to create equality of opportunity. The onus of our entire nation is placed on individuals, and the pressure is enormous. How do teachers navigate the anxieties associated with this work? How do they deal with the conflicting demands of their numerous stakeholders? How has their work changed in response to new technology and an emphasis on standardized testing? In Getting Schooled: The Reeducation of an American Teacher (Metropolitan Books, 2014), Garret Keizer reflects on his return to teaching English at the same rural Vermont high school he left to pursue a full-time writing career fifteen years earlier.
In this episode, I speak with Steven Levy, the author of Starting from Scratch: One Classroom Builds Its Own Curriculum (Heinemann, 1996). His book shares his reflections on the complexities of teaching by drawing upon his years spent implementing project-based learning in the elementary grades. We discuss his beginnings and influences, the roles of expertise and curiosity in teaching, and the qualities that make a good teacher.
He recommends the following books for listeners interested in his work and our conversation:
As you spend more time working in one role, organization, or field, it can become easy to lose perspective on how your work is similar or different from that being done by people in other positions, places, and industries. How are you asked to spend your time? How are you given feedback? How are you evaluated? Do your workplace norms make any sense? What would an outsider say about them? Because so many teachers enter the profession right out of college and either spend their entire careers in schools or leave within a few years, they are not often in the position to hear or offer these kinds of school critiques. In Confessions of a Bad Teacher: The Shocking Truth from the Frontline of American Public Education (Sourcebooks, 2013), John Owens describes his frustrations upon leaving the publishing industry after 30 years and pursuing a second career teaching high school English in a New York City public school at the height of the education reform movement.
Most of the time, school performance is not like performance in other arenas. In music, we want people to play something for us. In sports, we want people to show us our skills. Performance in school is filtered through test scores and letter grades. When we ask students how they are doing in reading, we do not expect them to actually read to us or share their thoughts on a recent books they have finished. We expect to learn them to tell us a reading level or point to wherever they are on a rubric. But what does that mean? Have we lost sight of the actual value of the things we are attempting to measure and quantify? What if we looked at school work the way we attend practices, games, and recitals? In Digital Student Portfolios: A Whole School Approach to Connected Learning and Continuous Assessment(Theory and Practice, 2014), Matt Renwick, outlines the rationale for portfolio work in the twenty-first century, including how portfolios can motivate and empower students, provide evidence for report cards and school conferences, guide the instruction of teachers, and share school language with families.
All of us experience trauma at various points throughout our lives. On one end of the spectrum, we have negative experiences from which we tend to think we can recover quickly. This might include a fight with a friend or an hurtful comment made in passing. On the other end of the spectrum, we have those experiences that induce so much anger, sadness, fear, or disgust that we readily acknowledge our difficulty moving forward. These are everything from the death of loved one to the diagnosis of a disease to an instance of sexual abuse. How might creative expression help with the healing process? What can we learn and teach others from the writing and artwork that emerge from these traumas? How might we come to value personal writing as worthy of increased scholarship? In Facing the School: Composing Through Trauma in Word and Image (Parlor 2015), Roy Fox, shares his reflections based on years spent developing a graduate course that asks students to come to terms with the most difficult moments in their lives.