Kids Before Curriculum

It is when you least expect it that you learn the most, become inspired, invigorated, and motivated to contribute to your field, to make a difference.

This happened for me a few weeks ago in the most unlikely of places, a high school classroom during an after school PD session.

I had presented on homework, more specifically about how and why I felt our District could better utilize homework to inspire our students as opposed to what it has become in most schools: a barometer of students’ ability to follow directions and do what they are told.

Too often, we use the excuse that “it teaches responsibility” and it helps to develop habits necessary for success in life. I have and will continue to argue that the most successful people question the status quo, look for a different way. They refuse to waste their most valuable resource–time–just because they are told to do something.  

It is the job of educators to develop thinkers, doers, individuals; it is our job to hone and cultivate creativity.  Unfortunately, the time honored tradition of assigning homework, in most cases, is counter productive to this goal.

That is why I have spent the past three years examining, researching, and talking about homework. It is my goal to change how homework is used in the District I work in. It has not been my most popular crusade in some circles, but it is the one that I am passionate about.  

That was what brought me to our High School that day. But, to be honest, I was getting tired of hearing myself speak about homework.

I was nearing the end of my “Tour de Homework.”  I presented to each department in our High School and Middle School and each grade level  at our six Elementary Schools. Some of the presentations were better than others. In the best ones I let my passion shine through; I was open enough to listen–truly listen–to what others had to say about this topic, even if I didn’t agree.  

I wish I could have a few do overs, take back the comments that came off as sarcastic, take back the times I worried about rebutting a conflicting opinion rather than actually listening. I know I wasn’t always compelling and inspiring, but I learned, grew, and got better at listening.  

This particular day I wasn’t  into the presentation. I was ¨I need a coffee tired¨, had a lot on my mind–personally and professionally–and was still adjusting to returning after the winter break.  

I am sure teachers I was about to speak with were not jumping for joy to talk about homework.  What high school teachers do on a day to day basis can often be overlooked. High School students are not as overtly needy as their counterparts in the Elementary School or rewarding for that matter. They don’t give hugs, are stingy with smiles, and rarely let you know they appreciate it when you make a difference. Kids in High School are good at blending in, at zoning out, and, as one student recently said to me, ¨doing my time in high school so I can get the heck out of here.¨  

The best High School teachers realize that although 16 year olds do not seem to need or want our help, they actually need a caring adult at this stage in their life more than ever.  They may act like they don’t like praise, real connection, recognition, or to get silly, but they actually crave these things. But, they are good at hiding because they want to appear ¨too cool for school¨ .  

It is exhausting to be there for someone who acts like they don’t care, or doesn’t want connection.  Just ask a parent of a teenager! That child who once worshiped the ground you walked on, wanted to spend every minute with you, hung on your every word, now sees it as a chore to say more than a complete sentence to you or answer your text.  

Now imagine trying to connect with and be there for over a hundred of these creatures.

Is it no wonder that some burn out, become robots walking through their days in a haze waiting for that next bell to ring, the next summer break that brings them one year closer to retirement.  

Is it any wonder that teachers who are strong enough to persevere, that continue to make a difference year after year, that always look for ways to be better, to make things better for their students are reluctant to hear the next great idea from a disconnected central office administrator? Many admins have forgotten how emotionally draining it can be to shape the minds of the amazingly talented, yet challenging students that fill our High Schools.

Adolescence is tough and teaching adolescents can often be even tougher. One of the reasons why presenting to a crowd of High School educators is difficult is that they often tune you out.  They know they have an important job; they know what kids face each day. And, they know the less they say, the quicker you will shut the hell up so they can get on with the important work they do.  

That is what I was facing that day, a group that I was sure would be respectful, but probably tune me out until I was done. That day I was fine with that; I was ready to check this box off my task list.

I was setting up and the teachers started to arrive.  A respected veteran in the department said hello and then stated, ¨So I hear they are doing away with homework.¨

I felt a little rumble of anger in my stomach and was ready to reply with a clever and sarcastic retort. Luckily, I took a breath and explained that it wasn’t the intent to do away with homework, rather to do it better.  He looked at me through skeptical eyes; my answer was canned and we both knew it. This was not starting off well. And, as the entire department showed, I was a bit taken aback by the size.

I forget what a classroom full of adults looks and feels like, especially when you are there to deliver a controversial message and you are the one thing standing between them and getting home.

Fortunately, the butterflies woke me and motivated me to be heard and, more importantly, to hear them.  I no longer wanted to get through it, I wanted to inspire, to connect, to getting them thinking.

I decided I would listen, truly listen. I would throw all of the company lines out the window and have an honest and open conversation with a group of people who want to make a difference, who want to be valued, who want to be heard.  

The meeting started slow, but they seemed to warm up after they realized I was just being honest, real, and wanted the same from them.  

The turning point was when I explained that the ¨they¨ is this homework reform movement was me. I was the ¨they¨ that was pushing this. For better or worse, I was the one who was behind this uncomfortable change. This was my initiative, this was my idea, and I was motivated by nothing other than a desire to make things better for our kids.

Some pushed on my theories, and challenged my thinking. Others explained how they were using homework in more progressive ways than I imagined.  

We debated respectfully; we listened, we shared ideas and thoughts.  As the group became more comfortable, the conversation veered into other areas they and I were passionate about.  

  • Kids are taking too many AP and high level classes
  • Kids are putting too much pressure on themselves to get into the right college.
  • Parents push and push to get them ready for the life they think they should live.  
  • Teachers are worried that if they break from the norm they will be putting students’ futures at a disadvantage.  
  • It is not healthy for high schoolers to get up so early, to go to bed so late and to have so much on their plates.

They spoke of students who were breaking down, crying in their offices, riddled with stress, self medicating, or just giving up because it was all too much.  

They spoke of students who didn’t want to be in school, but had no other place to go.  

They pointed out, and I agreed, that homework is just a small part of what is contributing to the increase in mental health issues our students are facing.  

As the conversation continued I could feel the passion exuding from these educators, even if it was below the surface, even if it was masked by frustration at a system that is slow to change, makes too many decisions based on what is easy, what makes money, or what gets officials elected.  A system that rarely asks the experts, those living it, fighting the good fight every day for their thoughts on how to make improvements.

Bureaucracy gets in the way or progress; it is used as a crutch for apathy.  We are the educators, we are the ones who know what works, what doesn’t, and what is just window dressing.

As our meeting was coming to an end, a statement was posed that has resonated with me since. .

“I agree it is important to address all of these things, we spend too much time on things that really don´t matter. But, at the end of the day, we are judged on how our students do on the Regents. There is so much curriculum we don’t have time for all that other stuff.¨

My first thought was to remind him that we live in New York, a union state and as a tenured teacher you would pretty much have to kill someone to lose your job so do what you know is right for kids. I refrained; the conversation was going well and I did not want to poison it with a sarcastic remark.

Despite my mind going to a wise ass response, I knew he was right.

I also struggle with the pull of standardized tests and the emphasis that is put on how students perform on them.  

Colleges use them to determine admittance, our education commissioner uses them to judge our effectiveness, and realtors to drive the price of property.

These facts  frustrate and infuriate me, because it does not take a person who scored a 5 on the AP Physics exam to realize that these assessments are basically meaningless measures that rarely are indicators of success in life. They are used because they are easy to grade and analyze. They are used to judge what is not quantifiable.  

I offered a response that I hope was as thought provoking as the conflict he posed.  

I explained that it does not really matter how much material we cover, how much we tell our students; what matters more is how much they actually hear and process.  If kids are not ready to learn, tired, disengaged, emotionally ill, hungry, bored, or uninspired, they will tune us out.

I reminded the group that I had spoken to them on opening day, that we had Yong Zhao as a keynote speaker, and our always inspirational Superintendent delivered a positive message.  

I them asked how much they remembered of what we all said. I asked if they zoned out during any of the talks? Felt the burning desire to feed their smartphone addiction?  This brought some laughter to the room because it wasn’t accusatory, just factual. It also helped when I explained that I often catch the stink eye from our Sup when she catches me on my device at inappropriate times.   

We were wrapping up when one of the teachers, a usually quiet member of the department said, ¨I remember one thing from opening day. You said we should put Kids Before Curriculum, do you really mean that? ¨  

You bet your ass I do!

What can I do as a District leader to encourage Kids before Curriculum?  What can I suggest for teachers who want to do the same?

Kids Before Curriculum Suggestions For Administrators

Listen to Students- Find a way to interact with students in a formal setting.  Form a Leadership council, involve them on committees or as part of the decision making process.  

Listen to your teachers-speak with them in small groups, individually whenever possible.  Sending surveys to get feedback is a great strategy, but nothing is more valuable than actual person to person conversations.

Give Permission- Give permission for ¨different¨, encourage risk taking, support what your teachers are passionate about, not just what you are passionate about.

Follow your heart- Do not let the pressure of state tests, of the latest trends, of the loudest voices dissuade you from what you know to be in the best interest of kids.

Make connections- Talk to other leaders, build your PLN, go to conferences, visit other schools.  Find great ideas, great programs and bring them to your District. Not as a carbon copy, but with your own spin that works for you and your team.

Have courage – To make a difference, to make change you will face naysayers.  Some will poke fun at you, some will talk behind your back, and some will outright attack you.  If you are making a change you believe in, for the right reasons, if you have researched the topic, and listened to people you respect, you must be willing to face criticism and political push back.  The best leaders sometimes have to say “F it” and do what they know is right.

Be willing to change course- All of your decisions will not work out.  Sometimes you will stick your neck out with the best of intentions and it will flop.  You have to know when to fold them, to adjust, and to learn from your mistake so you and your organization can do better next time.

Kids Before Curriculum Suggestions for Teachers

Have fun with your kids- Your kids spend more of their waking hours in school than anywhere else; that goes for teachers as well. Have fun, enjoy the time together, do not take yourself, your subject, your curriculum so seriously.  When you have fun, when you are happier, you perform better (Shawn Achor TED)

Be real with kids-Let them know why it is important to jump through certain hoops, and why others ones…not so much.  Explain the pros, the cons, the realities and the myths. They may not act it as high schoolers, but they idolize their favorite teachers, and their favorite teachers are the ones that don’t BS them; they are the ones that tell them the way it is.  

Don’t listen to the disenfranchised- Every field has them, and education is no different. These people either got into the field for the wrong reason, lost their passion along the way, or just have been beaten down by life.  These people will give you are hard time when you make a difference for kids, are innovative, or get too much credit. They will try to bring you down because they are threatened or jealous.  They can be convincing, pointing to old myths to make their argument. They can be threatening, claiming you are not being a good member of the union when you go above and beyond. Sometimes they just act like bullies by laughing at your expense and rallying others to do the same.  Smile at them, nod, and then go do your thing. Do not let the these people make you as unhappy and ineffective as they are!

Do what is right, not what is expected- Just because conventional wisdom says that you should do it a certain way doesn’t mean you have to. Do what you know is in the best interest of the kids in front of you, which isn’t always what will get them the highest score or into the best college, but will help them to be the best person they can be.

Prioritize relationships- Take every opportunity to connect with your kids, and when I say your kids I don´t mean just the ones in your class. Talk to them in the hallways, have lunch with them, chat with them at that school event. As teachers we need to take every opportunity to teach.  It is more important to teach kids how to live, how to feel, than how to solve a quadratic equation.

Get feedback- Give your students a venue to provide anonymous feedback to you on how you can better met their needs.   

Take a break- Get them up and moving, go outside, do a breathing exercise, a mindfulness activity.  Kids will learn more and be more engaged when they have the opportunity to disconnect from content once in a while.  Teachers may find these breaks also serve them well, helping their patience and energy.

Give up the reins – Let your kids talk, teach and discover on their own. It is not always easy to give up control, but when teachers do, the results are often magical.  Kids need time to process and create without us always telling them the right way.

Go deep – There is too much to cover in most courses.  That is part of the reason why our teachers and students are so stressed.  Determine what are essential elements of your course and look to take a deep dive into those skills and concepts rather than just covering everything, some of which may not be all that important.

Give kids an audience- When students have an audience they are often motivated to create a higher quality product.  It is easy with technology today to give students reach that was not possible just 10 years ago.  That is powerful and the best educators look for ways to tap into that. Social media is not for everyone, sharing student work with other students, teachers, or parents can be just as effective.  

Give kids a cause- We sell students short when we are always getting them ready for the next thing.  Consider posing a real world problem, in their school or local community, for them to solve.  They can make our world better today when we empower them. When the work is real they learn, research, and remember content that seems impossible in a traditional classroom setting.   

It can seem overwhelming, all the challenges we face as educators.  

Where do we start? What can we make better? Will it even matter?  

YES it does matter, YES we can make a difference!  If not us, who?

Can you take one small step tomorrow towards making schools better for kids? Can you be a hero to kid tomorrow, not because you finally got them to solve that quadratic equation, but because you were there for them when they needed it most?

There is so much to do and time is scarce, but when great educators commit to putting kids first, day after day, change happens, schools get better, we get better.

I closed out the meeting with the group by letting them know they are right, there are so many ways we need to get better, to fight red tape, to make practical improvements.

For better or worse, changing how we do homework in North Rockland is my effort to make things better.  Like many things in schools, I believe history will not look kindly upon how homework is done in schools, or I may be completely wrong. If I am, that is ok, because I will adjust, learn, and do better the next time.  I am doing it for one reason–I think it will make things better.

I implore all of the amazing educators out there to cut through the red tape, be courageous, and do what you know to be right. But, please, I beg you…always put Kids before Curriculum.

Tweets ways you puts kids before curriculum to #kidsfirst .


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