Yesterday I rode a yellow school bus to Newark airport to meet students and teachers visiting from Konstanz. This marks the 12th year since Gary and I began running student exchange programs between a US middle school and schools in the UK and Germany. We had considered ourselves “retired” from this enterprise, but were convinced to host one more exchange this year to stave off many disappointed young travelers.
It’s a challenge — working with nervous school boards, negotiating the least expensive airfare, handling paperwork, making reservations — Gary and I have noted that there’s a reason we leave this to younger teachers nowadays! But seeing 50 ecstatic exchange partners greet each other last night for the first leg of their exchange visit reminds me why we do this: it’s an experience most students never forget and a critical foundation to cultural understanding.
In light of recent events, it’s more important than ever to help our kids feel connected to other cultures.
First US experience — riding the big yellow school bus!
I am currently working on a MOOC through MIT: U.Lab: Transforming Business, Society, and Self. It’s been an incredible learning journey that I am determined to focus on, despite the craziness of my fall work and travel schedule.
Today in week 4, Otto Scharmer shared a change story about a time in his life when his family home burned to the ground. While I can’t point to such a dramatic even in my own life, I can remember a similar moment when I realized that I needed to take a leap forward without safety nets in place.
I had the good fortune to work at ACS Cobham in England as the deputy head of a preK-12 school. It was an amazing experience but for various reasons I could not move my family across the ocean with me. Sadly, I resigned myself to returning home, leaving a job I loved and with no work prospects ahead of me.
Shortly before I left England I had the pleasure of meeting Clay Shirky for coffee. We were discussing changes in educational systems as a result of technology and the internet. After a while, he asked for my story.
I told him my tale of woe and mentioned my nervousness about returning to the US without a job. His response has stayed with me ever since that conversation 6 years ago over coffee in Paddington Station. “Listen,” he told me, “everybody’s deck is being reshuffled over the next few years. Look at all the cards you’re dealt and something will emerge.”
Easy for you, I thought. Clay Shirky is an internationally-acclaimed speaker and professor at NYU. But he was right. I returned to the US and began to consult with K-12 schools across the country and around the world. Now I work with schools on all sorts of topics, ultimately all focusing on how we can make learning better for students. Not a bad hand to be dealt.
An 8th grader was sharing during social studies class that her family has spent the last few years playing the License Plate Game, attempting to find all 50 states. “So a few months ago, we were down to 10 states,” she explained, “and my dad said that whatever state was the last one, we would go visit over spring break.”
“Last month it was down to two states: Hawaii and South Dakota. We got really excited because we figured that there was no way we’d see a Hawaii plate.”
Over the past 6 months, I’ve had the opportunity to co-facilitate a truly great professional learning program. It’s a partnership between the NJEA (teacher’s association) and NJPSA (principal’s association) to offer a series of collaborative opportunities for teachers and administrators to work together to refine evaluation practices. Too often, evaluation systems pit educators against each other: teachers vs principals. When true collaboration occurs, the system is refined, made productive, and ultimately reaches the intended goal: improving instruction for students.
We’re building on the idea shared by Randy Nelson: that collaboration is not just souped-up cooperation, but something altogether different. True collaboration amplifies the abilities of those involved, resulting in a better product than individuals can accomplish alone.
Last Monday, the first cohort came together to consider their current practices, unpack their expectations and belief, and commit to changes both teachers and supervisors can make to improve the system. They will meet again in December to review their work and continue planning. The second cohort is scheduled to meet at the end of October and begin their journey.
Labor Day was created to celebrate the contributions of American workers to the strength and prosperity of our country. I worry that we take for granted all that we have, especially in light of what is happening elsewhere in the world.
So as not to take it all for granted, I just made a donation to the UN Refugee Agency to support the millions of Syrian refugees struggling to re-start their lives. Here is Neil Gaiman’s video made in one of the camps last year (warning, it will make you cry):
And a very easy donation page can be found here (http://donate.unhcr.org/international/neilgaiman/)
It’s been a great summer. I’ve had the chance to criss-cross the US working with dedicated educators who — despite the challenges — are determined to do their absolute best for the students in their charge.
As Labor Day approaches, I often wax nostalgic about my days in the classroom or school district. But as I look forward to a fall line up of exciting work (Southeast, Midwest, West Coast, New England, Old England, China!) I recognize that we’re all in this together. Every school year is an opportunity to give it another try.
In the spirit of trying again, here’s a classic from Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers:
We cannot have an educational culture that respects the individuality of students and allows their classes to develop their own character without restoring much of the professional autonomy of teachers that has been lost to accountability-driven reform. As Stanford University’s Larry Cuban explained, top-down reformers have long made recurring efforts to curtail the professional autonomy of teachers in order to impose standardization of classroom instruction. Cuban described this micromanaging as “teacher bashing” or “blaming teachers for resisting changes.” School reformers have repeatedly attacked the professional autonomy of teachers, basically asking, “Why can’t teachers simply change their shoes, pull up their socks, and get on with the changes for God’s sake?”
Historically, teachers have pushed back and quietly reasserted a measure of control of their classrooms. The result is a system of “constrained autonomy” or a shifting balance of power between classroom teachers and those who seek to supervise us. And, I believe history will repeat itself. The childhood experiences of today’s teacher candidates may have been constrained by the culture of teach-to-the-test, but at some point they will fight back and refuse to impose this pedagogy on the next generation.
And let’s not forget that autonomy is one of the key ingredients in what motivates us (see Daniel Pink‘s Drive). Is it any wonder teachers are leaving the profession as their autonomy is continually eroded?
Across the country, districts are struggling with shortages of teachers, particularly in math, science and special education — a result of the layoffs of the recession years combined with an improving economy in which fewer people are training to be teachers …
Fewer than 1 in 5 middle and high schools in the U.S. began the school day at the recommended 8:30 AM start time or later during the 2011-2012 school year, according to data published today in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. Too-early start times can keep students from getting the sleep they need for health, safety, and academic success, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.