After years of having a consistent online presence, I’m continuing to come to terms with my lack of blogging and other writing/sharing in the school year just past. But I think I can say that my muted voice is in part the result of a ever-increasing focus in my school district — and I think in many districts across the country — on the all-important high stakes tests, and the strict curriculum controls and direct-instruction mandates that have grown up around the national “accountability” movement.
In earlier years, so much of my blogging was motivated by what was happening in my classroom, and the classrooms of others we were collaborating with. As students and teachers continued to develop this new pedagogy built around active learning and online connecting, the excitement never stopped building. Collectively we felt part of a powerful community that was onto something very special.
The way it was
Teachers who were caught up in this excitement moved even further from the “sage on the stage” kind of teaching and learning to becoming what could be described more as “co-learners” or maybe “learners-in-chief.” As teachers we were still in charge, to keep things running smoothly and offer our guidance as needed. Sometimes it became apparent, through observation or other assessment, that a lesson was needed on a concept or skill, either with a small group or the whole class. But we were always modeling learning ourselves.
Learning this way involved every subject. Students were more self motivated to do quality work because the work was more creative and closer to their own interests — and it was usually published online for all to see. So it had better be good. Direct instruction was not (and never will be) abandoned, we just created many more opportunities for students to build knowledge, use and share what they knew, and tap much more deeply into their curiosity and creativity.
The way it has become
The enthusiasm that grew out of these new adventures in teaching and learning has eked away over the past several years. A few things that happened in my classroom in 2011-12 brought this into focus for me.
One is that we were involved in a project we mostly had to “sneak in” under the radar, around the required programs and policies. As we worked together on our Point of View Writing Project, I saw the magic again.
My students collaborated using Skype and Google Docs to write non-fiction pieces with a class across the country. Their excitement, focus and requests to work extra outside of school on their research reminded me what we had been onto back a few years ago. We didn’t have this new pedagogy down to perfection then, but we were well on our way, and with some support from leadership we would be even closer to being there now (not that you would ever get to perfection, mind you).
Skills that we’ve lost
Here’s something else that happened this past school year that reveals something we’ve lost in the way of skills-teaching. My students became excited about several topics through their reading about a subject or a current event, and (surprise, surprise) they wanted to learn more about them. In the fairly recent past, because we took the time to learn to do internet research in focused and safe ways, those self guided learning opportunities would have been embraced. But because we have done almost none of that kind of work this year, AND because (thankfully) my school district leaves the web pretty wide open, I have not felt safe letting them do searches for information, photos and video when there has been even a smidge of time to do so, unless I was available to very closely monitor them.
In the recent past, part of using these powerful learning tools has involved lessons and projects in their safe and ethical use. There is no time or real support to do that now. You wouldn’t set your class loose in woodshop without teaching them safe use of the power tools. And I’m not going to set them loose on the Internet without the necessary skills and understanding. I’d be setting my students, parents, my school, my school district and myself up for a load of problems.
There’s just not much to share
The upshot of all this is that I have few examples or experiences to share from my classroom this year. There’s an almost total lack of autonomy. It’s been replaced by a daily schedule designed by my administration that only includes reading, writing and math. And most of this must be taught with prescribed programs or with the inclusion of specific direct instruction pieces that MUST be included and literally leave no time for anything that encouraging curiosity or sparks creativity.
I’ve managed to squeeze just a few things in here or there, but “squeezing in” means things are not done comprehensively and there is no time for students to learn from mistakes, redesign, or even just re-edit well. This is how we improve and how we make learning stick. But this is not what we’re doing in our classrooms under these kinds of restrictions. I have to work hard to keep an enthusiastic face on things and my students aren’t developing as deep an appreciation and enthusiasm for learning.
And it’s not just me or my district
The worst news is that I’m hearing a similar story from other teachers I used to collaborate with often, and from others in my Personal Learning Network who work with teachers in many locations. I have refrained from sharing this woeful tale during the year beyond a few tweets, because I hoped to find ways to overcome the restraints and did not want to discourage others by my experience. I’m reporting out now because we need to get these stories out there. I would say even more, but don’t feel safe in doing so in a public space.
Things are not all lost however. I’m optimistic that they can change. We did blog some and worked on a project. I have learned some effective direct instruction pieces I will use in the future. Most of all I’ve learned that this new pedagogy that many of us have undertaken really works, and not being able to access it much has been a real detriment.
Perhaps the powers-that-be will wake up to what we’re saying. I keep hearing that the pendulum is past due to swing back towards teacher autonomy and less testing and test-prep pedagogy. I keep hearing (but I’m not totally convinced yet) that the move to Common Core standards implementation will drive us back that way as well. Perhaps. We’ll see.
I’ve taken a new position in my school district at the middle school level that could very well put my students and I back on track. I look forward in the coming year to being a strong voice from and for the learning revolution!