My One Change…Traditional View Of Teaching

First, A Defense

The Public Education system is the best institution we have. It gets attacked a lot. It has become a pawn in a political power play. It does have a lot of flaws. We do talk a lot about the changes that need to be made to make it better. But, every large institution has flaws. And, every institution can be improved. Those notions should not mask the enormous amount of good that public education already does and has the potential to do.

It is easy to get jaded when listening to political leaders talk about the system, especially when the supposed leaders of the education department don’t sound like they’ve been in a public school building in decades, or ever. It is easy to get jaded by the political battle that seems more to do about money than it does about kids. It’s easy to glance at the headlines and make snap judgements. Headlines never celebrate success. It’s only scandals, poor test scores, and motions to move away from the free, public education system. But, as all good English Teachers teach their students, the responsible citizen looks beyond the headlines, the rhetoric, and the sensationalism. It is only there where truth can be found.

Is the public education system perfect? Definitely not. But, it does so much good. There are so many good Teachers and Administrators working to do what is best for kids. I am fortunate enough to call many of them my colleagues. One colleague, who has been in the middle school classroom for over 20 years, described to me her vision of teaching like this.

“I want each kid in my class to feel like they went to the best show over. I want them to learn, get passionate about things, and realize that they have the power to make a difference. I want them to love coming to class.”

And, she lives that year after year. She still writes out formal lesson plans each year, not simply copying what she did last year. Her gigantic binders are full of material that builds in sequence, from the opening act to the grand finale. She continues to evolve. A few years ago, turning on a computer was a challenge. Now, she’s Ms. Google, using Classroom to communicate with her class, collaborating on Docs, and trying out all kinds of other things.

There are so many others like her. They may express it or approach it in different ways, but the intentions are pure. The execution is outstanding. And, the outstanding ones can teach any kid. One colleague taught high school English for about 15 years. She taught all grades and even designed a college class. I asked her if she would move to the Middle School. Despite having the high school gig down, she went to the Middle School and is doing an amazing job, as if she has taught that level her entire career. Kids are curious in her class; kids are writing great pieces. Now, she doesn’t talk about her class as a show, but she is the Teacher who will start a conversation about teaching argument writing at 2:15 on a Friday and then write down notes and ideas and say, “that’s good, I’ll use that.” And, she’ll share them with anyone who asks.

Those are just two examples of excellent teachers who make a difference each day. I see teachers in all subject areas–from the immensely talented Social Studies Teacher and Coordinator allowing his students to explore through project based learning to the young middle school Science Teacher reviewing the periodic table with such enthusiasm that every one of her seventh graders is locked in–not only teaching excellent content, but giving kids a great experience in school.

Public Education isn’t failing. It doesn’t lack for talented Teachers. It doesn’t lack for talented Administrators. When one discusses changes needed–and changes are certainly needed–it isn’t about failure. It’s about improving.

Change is most definitely needed as we, as an industry, need to evolve. We need to improve and modernize practices. We need to give kids a voice. We have a lot to do, but that doesn’t negate all of the good that happens each day in public schools.

My One Change

Recently, The Teacher and The Admin asked a group of educators about making one change. The answers were inspiring. Much of this site is about exploring different ways to improve our practices. But, this question stuck with me. What would be my ONE change?

Obviously, our attitudes and execution of homework would need to change. And, the idea of zeroes needs to change as well. But, those are systemic changes. As a Teacher for 20 years, there is one area that I know I can control. It’s the one area where red tape, minutia, and political battles are silenced. It’s a place where intentions and execution can meet. It is the classroom.

So, my change would be what goes on in the classroom. The change would be to shift the idea of what it means to teach a class. The classical thought of teaching is one person in front of the room dispensing knowledge. We’ve since evolved a bit with cooperative group work, project based learning, literature circles, the workshop model, and even flipped classrooms. But, in the end, it is still primarily about the adult in front of the room worrying about “how can I fit this in?”

That is the question that needs to leave education. “Fitting things in” isn’t teaching. It is about complying with curriculum demands in spite of student needs. Get a group of good teachers in a room who want to talk about improving education. There will be so many ideas, but inevitably there will be the feeling of “how can I fit all of this in?”

My desired change would be to allow Teachers to have the confidence to give up the lead role and let the individual student dictate the lessons. Obviously, that would require a complete demolition to tradition lesson plans. It would require a change to the observation and evaluation methods by Administrators. It would require a change to how we view curriculum.

It would also involve trusting kids and giving them some credit.

That’s a difficult piece for Teachers. Kids are there to be taught. We have the knowledge. How do kids know what they need to learn? So, many will rely primarily on whole class lessons. Sure, there might be group activities now and then, but the primary content dispensing comes from one person talking to a group of kids. Obviously, there is a time and a place for this. Whole group instruction should not be obsolete. However, it should not be the primary form of instruction.

But, that involves a whole lot of trust. How can we ensure that kids are getting the skills they need to master the course objectives? Many will use the whole class approach because it ensures that the content was covered. If a student fails, a Teacher can defend by saying that it was covered. But, is that really teaching? Is that really differentiation? Why does a Teacher have to be in front of the room on most days? Can we break away from the tradition view of what it means to be a good teacher and do what’s better for kids?

If we want true differentiation in a classroom and to have kids become passionate about what they are learning, the traditional whole group approach doesn’t work for every single lesson. An excellent lesson can happen without a Teacher actually starting class or being the focus of the lesson. After establishing a routine, students can come in, choose their activity, work on the activity, and the Teacher can work one on one with kids throughout the period. It can happen and it does work. Elementary Teachers do this with great success. Secondary Teachers need to embrace it. It can be done in every subject, even Math.

I also teach a graduate level class about literacy in the Middle School. One student, a Math Teacher by day, gave an example of this. She took a class period to teach the concept of average by using whole group instruction. Instead of homework, she had a flipped video for review, if her 6th grade students wanted. The next day, she laid out different scenarios for average. Some were sports related. Others were finding TV ratings. Essentially, there were a variety of different, real world problems to solve. The students could pick any of them. She circulated throughout the room, reinforcing concepts to certain students. She knew some kids needed more of her than others because she is an observant Teacher who knows her kids well. Every kid was engaged working on a common skill, but all were doing different, interesting things. At the end of the period, kids were actually asking for more scenarios. They were even willing to do them for homework. She continued this type of format for the next couple of days, checking in with each student before moving on to the next concept. For the kids who got it, they had more challenging scenarios. For the kids who struggled with the concept, she worked with them one on one. Every single student in the class was challenged.

If you break down that classroom setup, it was quite engaging to the students. They had choice with their work and final products. They each had one on one time with the Teacher, while working through a problem. This was an outstanding format for learning a math concept. And, it was done without an objective written on the board, a do now, a lecture, and homework. She had the courage to break away from the traditional lesson and do something far better for kids.

I always joke that if an Administrator or fellow Teacher walked into my room, it would look like I never teach. On many days, the bell rings and I already have a student waiting for me to read his/her writing. The rest of the class is working on their individual writing or project. Then, I meet with more kids to discuss their writing, give some thoughts about where to go, and, yes, even address some grammar. It’s a routine and it works. I used to try to hide this as I felt insecure about this method. I knew it was a good setup for me and it worked for kids (I asked them), but I was afraid of being judged by colleagues. Obviously, I am over that part.

In the past, I have tried to take this to the extreme. During the previous two years, I taught 11th grade English. Two years ago, I had this idea for a little experiment that I pitched to them in December. I asked if they would like me to give them an outline of each assignment, assessment, and skills lesson at the beginning of the third quarter. They would get to choose what what book they read, how they read it, and what writing work to do each day. They said yes. I spent 10 weeks coming into class, meeting with kids about what they were working on, and teaching different skills within the same period. Again, it looked as if I was doing nothing; I had four whole group instruction days built in, but that was it. For the rest, I was sitting and talking with kids. I will argue, however, that I was teaching more, the kids were more invested because they had a choice in what they could do, and each kid got an individualized education.

When the 10 weeks was over, I asked them (both years) what they thought. The majority of the kids stated that they enjoyed it because of the freedom and that it allowed them to revise their writing even more than usual. They liked the idea of it being ok to not want to write on a particular day and work on their reading. The students who didn’t like it all had one thing in common; they wanted more structure. If I were to do this again–I will at some point–I would build in structure for those who want it by working with them on due dates and such. If I am going to individualize, I have to take care of my students who want structure.

The point of this isn’t to say that all classes can or should be done like this every day. The point is that there are more ways to teach a class in an engaging way that fosters a passion for learning in students. It won’t look like the traditional “chalk and talk” or even the traditional group projects. But, it is more engaging, authentic, and differentiated.

This change requires a complete mindset shift about the idea of what it means to teach. We’ve been conditioned to believe that teaching is about control and one message. We must rid the industry of what a “good lesson” looks like and replace it with what “good teaching” looks like.

Ok, I’m Cheating…One Other Change

The other change I would make sort of manifested from above. It is the idea of being judged. Those who are passionate about education are often silenced by the loudmouth naysayers. There aren’t many of those, but they tend to have the loudest voices. So, when a person speaks about their passion for education or even decides to write about it, it is often met with negativity. That negativity often squashes some great ideas and the willingness to try something that will be better for kids.

I see this often, especially with new Teachers. Last weekend, we ran the First Annual EdCampRockland. During one of the sessions, we were talking about non-traditional approaches to teaching writing. It was a great, 45 minute discussion. One young Teacher caught my attention because she was a bit scared to talk. She just finished student teaching and had ideas. Each time she spoke, she began with “You guys probably already know this…” and “I know I am just starting out…” I remember that feeling of having a good idea, but being met with the veteran Teachers’ look of disdain because I didn’t have their experience. She looked scared of that. Fortunately, EdCamp is the complete opposite of that so the young Teacher gave some really good, innovative ideas.

My second change would be to take away that fear of judgement so that great Teachers can share their great ideas more often and more freely. Sharing ideas isn’t bragging. It isn’t saying “I know better” or “I am better”. It is simply about exchanging ideas that work well for kids. It is simply about trying to help colleagues.

And, you know what? It’s ok to say that you like the job and want to do better. Those are the people I want teaching my daughter. Those are the people I want to work with.