Curriculum and Instruction During the COVID-19 Crisis

Bike Monologue 1

Today, I used 5 miles of my 20-mile bike ride to record a video of my thoughts about curriculum and instruction at this time. I’m calling it the first “bike monologue.” It’s an experiment, which is an aspect of learning to teach and teaching to learn I wholeheartedly embrace.

If you don’t want to watch the video, here are the highlights.

We Don’t Need to Do What We Did March – June

…and We Shouldn’t.

Instead of doing what we did before, which was akin to flipping the light switch on a bunch of gremlins, we teachers and students should take the lessons we have learned and apply them to virtual teaching and learning this upcoming quarter. For example, when we are in “class” – either virtual or brick-and-mortar – we should be doing something as often as possible.

  • Flip the classroom so they come to school prepared to work in class and we are prepared to help them.
  • Engage the students right away with activity.
  • Avoid passive learning as much as possible.
  • Encourage active learning as much as possible.

The COVID-19 Slide Exacerbated the Summer Slide

Since it is true that students may have regressed during the last quarter of 19-20, it is also true that it was a mistake to cancel summer reading and other enrichment activities this year. All we can do now is try to help students rediscover the love of learning we are all born with. Now is not the time for drills that kill that love of learning. Now is the time to help students explore their world and interests and develop their confidence as self-directed learners.

Alternative Assignments and Assessments

Now is also the time to consider alternatives to traditional assignments and assessments. We could even consider letting students design their own assessments. How will they demonstrate mastery of key skills they need? With our help, they can learn how to design their own assessments (and assignments) that will prove they understand the material, have mastered the skills, and are ready to take on the next challenge. Here are just a few alternative assignments and assessments.

  • Portfolios
  • Projects
  • Essays
  • Research Papers
  • Quiz Design
  • Seminar Design and Delivery
  • Presentations
  • Infographics / Posters
  • Videos (Documentaries!)
  • Design Your Own Assignments and Assessments

I want to thank you for reading this. Being able to write out my thoughts has helped me put words to my perspective and my fears. It is my hope that my words help others as well.

Why Reexamine What Education Is Right Now? Why Not?

During this crisis, we need to remind ourselves of the true purpose of education.

Some aspects of this post might be unpopular. I apologize in advance.

Why Do Schools Close for So Long?

Please, teachers everywhere, do not wince. It’s a good question. According to PBS, there is a really good answer as to why schools close for so long: It’s hot during the summer. There are still MANY school buildings that do not have airconditioning. (It is 2020, right?) That begs the quesiton: Why isn’t it a priority to make sure that school buildings are modernized? Why is it that 36,000 schools have air system problems, according to the GAO? Since this is the case, why is our President tweeting this?

Mr. President, screaming at us will not help.

Should we not fix the problems, make the buildings safe, and then return the students, faculty, and staff to them? It’s possible that just makes too much sense.

Oh, lest I forget: Betsy DeVos, I have a special message for you. Feel free to find me on Twitter.

Why Did We Close in June?

Well, Heather, you just answered that question in the last section, you are thinking. Keep reading, though.

Before discussing summer teaching in a virtual learning environment, it is important to note that educational equity and fair technology access is a serious problem. For example, in Prince George County in Maryland, virtual learning was impossible and so teachers sent home copies of learning packets. It’s 2020 and we still can’t get tech in the hands of students. That is heartbreaking. Furthermore, it’s a situation that can be fixed if districts can get the funds needed to purchase the technology that all stakeholders in education truly need.

There are other districts that have implemented a one-to-one initiative whereby every student receives either a tablet or a laptop to use during the school year. Some districts were able to get tech to their students during the crisis. Some were able to offer WiFi hotspots to their students at no cost to them. Internet companies worked hard to bring access to those who did not have it before. For those who were able to offer such technology, my suggestion below could have worked. For those who were not, more packets could have worked.

If we had continued “virtual learning” (further developing the skills we learned through “crisis teaching”) through the summer, would we still be having this national meltdown about re-opening in the fall? Perhaps we could have helped students stop their learning regression and restart their progress if we had just “soldiered on” for a little while longer. There was an opportunity to support educational experiences, and we did not take advantage of it. These hypothetical “experiences” would not need to look like “traditional learning.” Kids would not need to sit in front of their computer for hours a day. We could have crafted highly-engaging activities using project-based learning principles and portfolios that could have helped students rediscover what education is: The process of acquiring freedom.

Instead, many districts did not even assign summer reading this year. We were and are burned out, for sure, but that was a mistake. What better time to climb a tree and read? (For those who are not that adventurous, perhaps curling up on the couch or somewhere outside is preferable. Wear sunscreen! Take your mask with you!)

Everyone needed a break; that’s obvious. However, it is important to wonder if all of us would have benefited from some more time with the technology and the chance to develop the online community and its norms we are certainly going to need this year. Perhaps we will reopen in August and September, but trends suggest that we will be virtual again by Thanksgiving. Some colleges are already preparing for that, for example, and sending their students home at Thanksgiving break to complete the semester.

It’s all about money, which is – again – heartbreaking. I know that local entities are supposed to be in charge of education and that leads to a disparity in opportunities because of property-tax revenues. Still, it is not fair. Every child should have the same chance to receive a quality education, regardless of geographic location or socioeconomic status.

None of this is fair. None of it.

What Is the Purpose of Education?

After listening to several arguments about reopening schools, my first thought was an angry one. Why are we being asked to sacrifice ourselves and the children so that the economy can reopen? What role do they think teachers and staff play in a child’s life? If we are opening schools ONLY because people need to go back to work, then we are not valuing the needs of the children over the economy. We are definitely not thinking things through to their logical conclusion, that’s for sure. When did we become such a crass country?

What happens if someone gets sick? Oh, the chances of that are rare, we are told. The likelihood of children regressing socially is higher than the chances they get sick. The number of behavioral health issues has increased since schools were closed too. Considering the number of videos online in which parents beg teachers to take their kids back, I believe that. While these videos make us chuckle a bit, they also make us realize just how important school is for monitoring and mitigating behavioral issues. Still, is there not another way to socialize?

What about the teachers? The likelihood that teachers will get sick IS high, considering that many of us are older.

It is time for us to remind ourselves of the true purpose of education. I’m not talking about the factory model of education, the one that is supposed to “produce” excellent citizens who can make a contribution to our society. I’m talking Socrates here. Education should be about freedom; through our acquisition of knowledge and our development of critical thinking skills, we realize we are free. By storing and using learning techniques, we can function as independent people within a society of interdependence. We know what we are capable of and no one can take that away from us. We can reveal truth to ourselves and others, citing evidence along the way that is concrete and verifiable. We prove that we are not sheep; we are the shepherd.

As we become more educated, we also realize that we are in charge of our education, we are self-directed learners, and will always be self-redirected learners. Teachers gradually release responsibility to their learners as they master the skills of critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity. Teachers guide on the side, always ready to have the difficult conversation with a student. Get this: We are all students, too. We might have the title of “teacher,” but it is the wise teacher who realizes that we learn from everyone we encounter. Not that I am that wise (yet), but if I didn’t realize that truth, I would not have been as moved by receiving this quote from a student of mine.

“We used to think that if we knew one, we knew two, because one and one are two. We are finding that we must learn a great deal more about `and’. ” – Arthur Eddington

C.F.

Just take a moment to consider that quote and how it is such a powerful use of language. In martial-arts terms, it’s the cross followed by the hook. Boom! It knocked me out. It came from a student who has realized he is a self-directed learner. If he wants to achieve his dreams, he has to make them happen. He’s a voracious reader, adept thinker, and avid “tinkerer” with all things technological. We need to help more students achieve this level of development, and we can. If we have to do it online, so be it. If we can get back into the classroom safely, that is preferable. The key word is SAFELY.

Anyone who has studied Maslow knows that if physical and safety needs are not met, then there is little motivation to move onto the other aspects of the hierarchy. That just makes sense. Question: How much real learning is going to happen if everyone in the classroom is worried about whether today is the day he or she gets sick?

Until we are convinced that the “experts” know what they are doing, we need to consider all the options for reopening school, in my opinion.

Thank you for reading.

Should I Teach To Kill a Mockingbird?

As I write this, I am struggling with the notion that next year I have to teach the novel To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee for the first time. Therefore, I am using my blog to create a question paper, to write to learn about why I feel so hesitant.

Why am I struggling to accept that I must teach To Kill a Mockingbird (TKAM) this upcoming school year? Is it the fact that the N-word is present in the text and I have many problems with that word? Is it that a white woman wrote it and the story includes the arrest and trial of a black man accused of raping a white woman? Is it that I am not sure how 15-year-old students are supposed to grasp the nuances in the novel, just as I did not when I first read it?

Or is it that I fear students might be suffering from racism-fatigue? I don’t even know if that is a word, but it sounds reasonable, and are my students suffering from it? What do I do about students who are tired of talking about race, especially in our current cultural climate? How do I make this relevant to them? And what about the African American and Latin-x students I have in the room? How are they going to feel about this story? How are they going to feel about a white teacher presenting this story and trying to have honest conversations about it when she truly doesn’t understand? Haven’t they been through enough trauma?

Isn’t there a text by an African American or Latin-x writer that I could use instead? Or would that be like avoiding an honest-to-goodness discussion of race, white privilege, bias, perspective, and our nation’s history? Would it make more sense to let an alternative text lead the discussion, or would it be wiser to confront this one head on? What about the students’ families? How are they going to react to this text? Apparently, it’s been in the curriculum for years, but how will they react to it this year, a year in which yet another black man was killed for nothing? And why hasn’t it been challenged before now, and why should I challenge it now?

I think I know why I am so hesitant. I’m afraid. I’m afraid I am going to blow an opportunity to have an impact. I don’t teach merely to teach. I teach literature to help all of us understand the human condition and how to choose our place, our role, within the human community.

Thanks for reading.

This Is Why I Teach Literature

Image Credit: Posted by Michelle Argo Parker, an AP® Literature teacher in Minneapolis

One of Mrs. Parker’s students created this peaceful protest message using apropos quotes from Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. This is why I, and thousands of my colleagues, teach literature. As Mrs. Parker noted in her post: “He gets it.” We study literature to understand the human condition. It’s not all about the key concepts we are supposed to teach so that students understand literature better; it’s about the understanding. For more information on the six facets of understanding, as proposed by Wiggins and McTighe, check out this article.

Words Matter.

If you want to know how one lunatic managed to take over an entire country with his words, which were eventually backed up with military might, in the 1930s, take a look at tweets and hours upon hours of video showing history repeating itself. In recent months, Mr. Trump has been tweeting things like “Liberate Minnesota!” He’s also called for liberating other states which just happen to have Democratic governors. He held rallies where he riled up his followers, calling the press the “enemy of the people” and “human scum.” He called the protestors “thugs.” He hasn’t denounced the police officers who murdered George Floyd. He hasn’t called for their arrest either. Top law-enforcement officer? I think not.

Yesterday, he topped all this off by sending in a huge law enforcement presence, complete with tear gas and rubber bullets, to disperse peaceful protesters from a park, so he could walk through it to do a photo-op at a church while holding a Bible. A picture is worth 1,000 words, they say. Here’s one that I think tells the tale well. Granted, it’s the words in the picture that also matter, but it’s still a picture.

Here’s another one of a very unfortunate headline from The New York Times. Do better, NYT; you totally missed the point.

Then, this morning, I read that Representative Matt Gaetz posted a tweet that Twitter found to be glorifying violence.

New York Times

On the same day, Trump gave a speech in the Rose Garden in which he said:

I am mobilizing all available federal resources, civilian and military, to stop the rioting and looting to end the destruction and arson and to protect the rights of law abiding Americans, including your second amendment rights.

From rev.com; emphasis is mine.

Coincidence? Hunt down people with our second-amendment-guaranteed weapons? Again, I think not. That, dear reader, was a ‘dog whistle’ if ever I heard one. Someone is going to get killed and it will all be traced back to these messages coming from these people. Hopefully, that will be today and not twenty years from now.

Words Matter.

During World War II, John Steinbeck wrote a propaganda piece called The Moon Is Down at the behest of the U.S. Government. It was meant to support those under Nazi occupation. It was so important to people that it was copied and distributed in Norway to bolster the morale of the Norwegian people in World War II. Steinbeck was awarded the King Haakon IV Freedom Cross for his work. The book was also distributed in numerous other territories occupied by the Nazis. Churchill was quite enthusiastic about the book as well. I highly recommend it. It isn’t the greatest piece of literature, but one of the more important.

Free men cannot start a war, but once it is started, they can fight on in defeat. Herd men, followers of a leader, cannot do that, and so it is always the herd men who win battles and the free men who win wars.

From https://Steinbeck.org/his-work/the-moon-is-down

Take that and choke on it, those who think that we should just take their word for it.

Words Matter.

We literature teachers look for the messages writers send in their works. Sometimes, we’re right and sometimes we are imposing our own reality on theirs, but that doesn’t mean we are necessarily wrong. When Charlotte Bronte wrote about many of the students in Jane Eyre’s school dying of typhus, was she not recalling her childhood and making a comment about the poor treatment of indigent children? When Toni Morrison wrote about Pilate’s complete capitulation to the police while in the station trying to retrieve her property, what message was she sending about the lengths that African Americans have to go to get any cooperation at all? What about Charles Dickens? Surely he was sending many messages about social disparity. And what was Alice Walker trying to say when Celie let loose on Mr. ___ and his son? That was a classic scene of a woman standing up for herself. My final example refers you to the first picture I posted. It will be the first novel we read in AP® Lit this year. Those are a few examples that come to my mind as I write this.

Somewhere, there is a writer crafting the first COVID-19 novel that touches poignantly on all the problems we have today: systemic racism, high unemployment, cuts to essential services to bolster “industry,” class disparity – and the list that goes on and on while one’s heart breaks. I can’t wait to read it.

Waxing Philosophical: The Purpose of Education

There are so many articles, blog posts, and books about the purpose of education that it might seem odd to see yet another one. However, this might be a good exercise for any teacher to try, if only to determine his or her own views on the subject. Reading about it, or listening to someone speak of it, is one thing; forming an argument is quite another.

If you ask almost any teacher why he or she entered the teaching profession, you are likely to hear something like this: “I want to help people, especially the kids.” And if you were to ask those same teachers what they think the purpose of education is, you are likely to hear that it is to help students learn what they need to know to become effective, productive, and happy people as they mature into adulthood and beyond. That is true.

That is not the whole story, though, and we all know it. History tells us that many schools were established centuries ago in the colonies to teach children how to read the printed word. The Bible was a popular text, for example, as Protestantism indicated that reading the Bible for oneself was virtuous and recommended. Instead of relying on the minister to show one the way, it was important that a Protestant was somewhat self-reliant and able to speak to passages in the Bible that were relevant to the situation in which they found themselves.

History will also tell us that as the country industrialized, so too did the education system. School became the main venue for teaching students how to work hard in factories, pay attention to directions, and do basic things like reading, writing, and math (the 3Rs). When you read literature about this priority in education, you will often see a photo of students sitting in rows of desks with their hands folded in front of them, patiently listening to the teacher. This helps the reader connect schooling to aspects of industrialization such as the assembly line.

Finally (at least in this post), schooling was used as an assimilation vehicle, too. As immigration to the United States increased, schooling provided the children with the opportunity to learn about what it means to be an American, and to learn English. Schools’ practices related to this varied widely, of course, depending on the location. Assimilation continues to be a priority today.

Some controversies surrounding public schooling can be traced back to the inequitable quality of education that groups of students received based on their location and the funding available to the schools / school districts. In higher-income areas, students enjoy more advantages: better technology, more experienced teachers, pristine infrastructure, and more extracurricular activities with up-to-date facilities. My high school benefited from affluent alumni; we received donations all the time to keep our facilities thriving. We needed those donations, as the school district was always in a financial bind. But other high schools in the district were not so fortunate, and it showed – crumbling buildings, ineffective faculty, disengaged students, and few resources. I subbed in one school district that featured a bank branch in its high school as well as its own TV studio from which students would broadcast the news during homeroom, and in another school district where trash cans served to catch rain as it leaked through the roof, and teachers had to buy their own copy paper. The quality of education was strikingly different. The affluent school district allowed teachers more freedom to innovate, and encouraged its students to develop 21st Century Skills. The poorer district forced teachers to use a ‘standardized’ curriculum that was scripted and required teachers to be literally on the same page each day. The students and parents lined up once a week to receive donations from the Panera located in the town adjacent to theirs. The students learned hand signals and cues to keep the class on track. My ‘favorite’ was “Clap once if you can hear me,” to get the students to quiet down. If that didn’t work, the teacher asked, “Clap twice…” and then, “Clap three times…” – you get the idea. There was also a procedure that involved snapping one’s fingers, but I can’t remember exactly when that was used. Teachers in this school spent a lot more time on classroom management than they did on fostering collaboration and creativity. No, it was not the kids who were to blame; it was the adults’ view of the kids’ capabilities that was.

Therefore, it would seem (to me, at least) that the practice of education often runs counter to the expressed purpose of education. In my study of education over the years, I have found the following expressed purposes of education. Some we can all agree with, others are worthy of debate, and some just make us cringe.

• To prepare children for adult lives
• To help them become “God-fearing” people
• To prepare them to become effective and informed citizens
• To inspire students to be creative, innovative adults prepared for jobs that don’t exist yet
• To further humanity down the road of progress
• To “produce” adults who know how to follow directions
• To “provide” the knowledge they’ll need to succeed in their profession
• To lift children out of poverty
• To help the nation become a melting pot of cultures that all get along
• To help children learn how to learn so they can be lifelong, self-directed learners
• To encourage children to approach life as fierce competitors, prepared to win
• To develop critical thinking skills that will protect children from charismatic and overly ambitious people
• To demonstrate that geographical boundaries are no longer as relevant as they’d once been
• To convince children that all can learn once they understand their own processes, and can construct knowledge
• To push children beyond their perceived limits and barriers
• To instill in children a realistic confidence in themselves – and others
• To promote collaboration in the world of work and regular life
• To enculture children in the content areas they study, which they may someday enter as academics or professionals
• To explore “strange new worlds”
• To inspire children to become teachers too
• To further the cause of education’s continuous improvement
• To identify the special and support their development

Those who have been disappointed by the U.S. education system may add the following.
• To give kids something to do
• To turn them into “sheeple”
• To help them “ace” standardized tests and become “standardized people”
• To control children’s thought processes and mold them into those that best serve authority
• To show children what their “place” is in the world
• To keep children tied to their communities
• To regulate the knowledge that students have access to
• To teach kids irrelevant stuff they’ll never use again

I think that the purpose of education emerges school by school, and perhaps even classroom by classroom. A beautiful principle that makes up the American Idea is that divergent thought is supposed to be supported. Even in the age of standardized testing, teachers still expressed themselves through their practice, and this is wonderful. What would help these creative, compassionate, passionate teachers would be to provide them all with the same access to tools they need to educate 21st century kids to use 21st century skills. What would be wonderful is to see the schools in any neighborhood in terrific condition, radiating hope for, and confidence in, the students it serves. Its doors would be open to the community, allowing anyone who wanted to learn the chance to do just that. If we could agree on just these simple things, perhaps we could fulfill the purpose of education so many teachers go into the profession believing to be most important: to help children become happy, healthy, productive, passionate, compassionate, critically thinking, creative, and loving adults.

Here Are The First Five Reasons Why I Love Sensei Steve’s Class

Before you start reading about the topic of this post, I want to mention that all the classes at [google-map-fb-popup id=”2″] are taught by well-trained, committed teachers who care about their students.  I wanted to focus on one class in particular, but that is no reflection on the other classes whatsoever.

Sensei Steve Turoscy, Jr. is a fighter.  I don’t mean that he is simply an excellent martial artist and an instinctive fighter.  I mean that Sensei Steve has overcome a number of challenges in the time I have known him, challenges that less-motivated human beings would have considered too difficult.   He has an internal locus of control that is inspirational.  He will not be held back by his circumstances; instead, he wants everyone to know that he is going to overcome them, and that if you find yourself in the same kind of situation, you will overcome them, too.

 

 

[aesop_quote type=”block” background=”#000000″ text=”#000000″ width=”100%” height=”auto” align=”center” size=”1″ quote=”You have to aspire to inspire before you expire.” cite=”Sensei Steve” parallax=”off” direction=”left” revealfx=”off”]

Reason One: Everyone Is Welcome

I started Sensei Steve’s class as a white belt, after Sensei Kristie told me about the class and said I should try it out.  Others told me it was a very difficult class and that I should wait, but Kristie convinced me that I would be fine.  Therefore, I showed up the following Saturday morning at 8:00 AM, hoping that I would not be turned away.  On the contrary, I was welcomed.  I was also told to do what I can, and encouraged to continue to improve instead of expect to be able to do everything the first class, or even for several classes after that.  If I remember correctly, I was the only one wearing a white shirt that day.  Everyone else was a black belt.  Although that was intimidating at first, by the end of class I felt better.  I have been attending that class as often as possible since then.   Since then, too, other white shirts have joined the class.  They feel just as welcome, too.

Reason Two: You Are Always Challenged

When I think back to that first time and about how little I could actually do, and compare it to now when I can do so much more, I think it’s that Sensei Steve and the other students do not accept that a challenge is insurmountable.  What they do believe is that practice is the only way overcome internal and external obstacles to your progress.

 

 

 

[aesop_quote type=”block” background=”#222222″ text=”#000000″ width=”100%” height=”auto” align=”center” size=”1″ quote=”Amateurs practice until they get it right. Professionals practice until they can’t get it wrong.” cite=”Sensei Steve” parallax=”off” direction=”left” revealfx=”off”]

Reason Three: You Never Know When Sensei Will Break the Routine

We have a format that combines PT, traditional martial arts, and fighting, and there is a certain rhythm to the class.  You never know, though, when Sensei Steve will say he wants to try something different.  He’s very creative, too, so those “different” things could be almost anything.

Our current schedule is:

– First Saturday: Regular Class
– Second Saturday: “Creative” Class
– Third Saturday: Regular Class
– Fourth or Last Saturday: Technique Class

Still, you never know if that regular class is going to turn into something you weren’t expecting.  Sensei Steve can add something much more challenging when he is in the mood.  He is also an observant teacher and knows when to change the routine to accommodate those of us whose achy joints and bones just can’t handle the regular routine that day.  He has also been very kind to me personally, allowing me to modify as I must when doing some things.  The point is: Sensei does what every good teacher should do.  He reads the room and acts accordingly.

We often have more students join us the fourth / last Saturday of the month for Technique Class.  It’s a great class!  It gives us a chance to work on the techniques and kata that we need to know for our next test.  I wish more people would come to the other classes, too.  I’m sure they would find them enjoyable.

When I was training somewhere else, our classes were all the same.  It was cookie-cutter curriculum that had to be followed by every teacher, handed down from corporate headquarters to the franchise owners.  It was boring.  So, it’s special to me to have teachers be able to try something new to get their point across.  Additionally, Sensei Hoover is not one to sit back and let the curriculum get stale.  He is constantly thinking about it, it seems.  Changes to the curriculum happen all the time, in the hopes that our techniques will become more effective and efficient.

When you come regularly to a Saturday class at the North Dojo, you learn so much – about yourself, about the practice, and about dozens of absolutely wonderful people.

Reason Four: He Has Welcomed My Son into Class

My son is 15 1/2 years old, and this class is for adults.  However, when he started working last May, I asked Sensei Steve if my son could come to class so he wouldn’t miss training on a Saturday.  He agreed without hesitating.  Recently, my son has been a regular in class, and in just the short time he has been coming regularly, I have seen a change in my son, both in practice and in spirit.  He works very hard in that class; as a result, he is stronger, a bit more confident, a bit more strategic in his practice, and a lot more skilled as a fighter.  My son has always been my best teacher, but now he is my teacher in martial arts class, too.  Being able to train with him on Saturdays (as well as on Tuesdays) has been a blessing.

He isn’t the only young adult who has been able to train with us on Saturday, and those who do are special kids.  They are bright, talented, and mature.  We who are able to train with our children have been given a special gift.  Sensei Steve would be the first to tell you about how much that gift meant to him while he was training with his own son, also named Steve, who now teaches at the West Dojo.  One day, he told Lucas and I about how important those years were to him.  Having seen the senseis interact, I know they were special to his son as well.

One of my favorite stories comes from another Mom who trains on Tuesdays and Saturdays.  Her daughter often trains with us on Saturdays now.  She says that at times she will think of a technique or a kata and struggle to visualize it properly.  Usually, her daughter is on the bus going to school when this happens.  So, she will call her daughter and ask her about it, which always leads to her daughter asking her in an exasperated voice why she is thinking about that now when she has work to do.  Nonetheless, her daughter has the answer!   Training with her child has added a complexity to their relationship, and another stretch of common ground upon which they can stand together.

How cool is that?

Reason Five: Class Starts at 8:00 AM

For the longest time, my workday has started at 5:00 AM when I first shuffle down the stairs to make coffee.  Some days, I do start working at about 5:15, but more often, I am trying to wake up and ease into my day.  Therefore, a class that starts at 8:00 gives me a chance to sleep in a bit (till 6:00!), but still get in a class early enough in the day that the rest of my day is mine to do with what I will.  That usually involves a nap!

Because of the early hour of the class, my son is able to attend and still go to work on Saturdays.  He loves that.  Those of us who go to that class all agree that it is an ideal time, for any number of reasons.

[aesop_quote type=”block” background=”#000000″ text=”#000000″ width=”100%” height=”auto” align=”center” size=”1″ quote=”Come in at eight, punch your ticket, and the rest of the day is yours.” cite=”Sensei Steve (paraphrased)” parallax=”off” direction=”left” revealfx=”off”]

 

 

 

These are just some of the reasons I love Saturday’s 8 AM class so much.  I’m sure that my classmates have many more to contribute as well.  Please leave a comment using the form below.  Thank you for reading.

We Owe Our Children Everything

Our children do not come to us in a dream and ask to be born.  Instead, we make a choice to bring our children into the world.  They owe us nothing.  We owe them everything.

That does not mean that they are allowed to walk all over us and demand every wish be fulfilled.  Rather, we owe them every opportunity to practice becoming honorable, loving, conscience-bearing human beings.  We owe them our patience and kindness as they struggle through the learning process that every human must go through to truly understand their purpose and place in the world.  We owe them our willingness to be their role models, and to practice ourselves, every day, what we expect them to adopt for themselves as they journey toward adulthood.

We owe them their education in things such as the six “selves” philosophy that our martial arts dojo espouses: self-awareness, self-confidence, self-control, self-defense, self-discipline, and self-respect.  When they violate our right to one or more of those, we owe it to them to help them understand those actions are not acceptable.  When they violate their own right to one or more of them, we owe it to them to help them understand that those actions, too, are unacceptable.

We owe them the opportunity to learn deeply, think critically, and to take risks.  We owe them the chance to fail, but to fail productively.  We owe them the chance to feel unconditional love, not only from their parents, but from everyone around them.  We owe them the chance to love unconditionally, to forgive, and to express frustration.  We owe them the right to have their own voice.  We owe them the right to make an argument, to win it if they have done their part effectively, and to lose it if they have not.  We owe them the right to experience disappointment, to express disappointment, and to find the joy in overcoming it.  We owe them the opportunity to learn to accept disappointment from others, too, but we owe them the right to protection from needless heartache.

We owe them the right to expect us to respect them, and to learn to respect us and others, who also have the right to expect respect from them.

Children do not ask to be born.  We parents make a choice.  From then on, till death do us part, we are forever in their debt.  Someday, they will be in debt to their own children.  If we have done our job right, their children will feel as loved, cared for, respected, challenged, and important as we tried to help our children feel.  If we have taught them well, and they have learned well, we can all truly be the positive change we want to see in the world*, working with one precious child at a time.

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*Although Gandhi didn’t actually say “be the change you want to see in the world,” what he did say that inspired that sentiment is so profound that I included it as the featured image for this post.

 

Writing across the Curriculum

Freshman year of high school was terrifying.  People seem incredulous when I tell them that, of all the years of schooling I have had, that year was the hardest.  After all, it was high school.  What could be so tough about that?

As my Grandmom used to say with a huge sigh, “Well…!”

The first problem was that I was not prepared for the workload.  Coming from a public middle school into this rigorous public high school that wanted to weed out those who weren’t able to handle the curriculum, I found myself suddenly overwhelmed by the amount of work they made us do.  By the time I turned fourteen in October, I thought I was going to lose my mind.  It didn’t help that our school President, Dr. Pavel, said to us during orientation, “Look to your left and to your right.  One of these people, or more, will probably return to their home school at the end of this school year.”  Yikes.

The second problem was that I was expected to do things I had never done before, like write papers and essays.  In elementary and middle school, we did not do much writing.  I think we did book reports in fifth grade, but I could be mistaken.  It wasn’t that I was a bad writer.  I actually enjoyed writing for my own purposes, but did not have the tools I needed to create the papers and essays the teachers wanted.  In other words, I didn’t know how to meet their expectations.  That was scary.

Enter Dr. Kreider, my World History teacher.  She is still my academic hero; I haven’t met a teacher like her since.  The best gift she could have given us hurt like hell: The chance to practice writing.  Many of us almost wrote our hand off.

OK, not really.  But it really did hurt.

Dr. Kreider did three things for us, actually.  First, she managed every student a copy of the New York Times every school day.  Second, she made us keep journals in which we reacted to topics covered in class and NYT articles.  Third, she responded to everyone’s journals over the weekend, and not just with a “Nice job!” either.  Oh, no.  We would get paragraphs back.   If we almost wrote our hand off, she must have thought she should, too.  I do not know how she did it, but I do know that she loved her kids.  She loved them enough to embrace writing across the curriculum with gusto.   Dr. Kreider actually did research in the area, I would learn later, and delivered papers about the positive effects of students learning to read and write in all content-area classes.

Fast-forward 30 years to my son’s freshman English class.  His teacher listened to the students, slack-jawed, as they told her that none of them knew how to write an essay.  Admittedly, this is her first year teaching freshmen in a long time, so perhaps she simply lost perspective.  In my opinion, however, it just shows that some things never change, but they need to quickly.

Rewind 26 years to English Composition class.  Typically, we would write an essay, peer review our classmates’ essays, and then create a final version for the teacher.  I remember being appalled by the writing I reviewed.  My red pen dashed across the page until I think there was as much red on the page as blue or black.  Some classmates appreciated the help.

Others, I was informed one day while riding the 66 bus home with my friend Susanne, were terrified to give me their papers to review.  I asked why.

“Because you are so mean, Heather,” she replied, quietly.

“I’m just trying to help!” I responded, indignant.

“Perhaps you could try helping with a different color ink and less sarcasm,” she said, emboldened by being right.

I sulked, as I usually did when I was wrong about something.  The next day I went to the college store, purchased a green pen, and resolved to restrain myself.

Situations like these are why the creators of the Common Core State Standards focus on literacy and writing – in other words, on communication in all its forms.  The fact is that many students need more opportunities to write their hands off (and yes, I’m an advocate of writing on paper before writing electronically).  They need to write in each content area class, not just English.  Social Studies teachers – like Dr. Kreider – have excellent opportunities to have their students write informatively, persuasively, and creatively.  Science teachers can enforce good communication skills, as well as proper grammar and style, in lab reports, responses to essay questions, etc.  Even math teachers can post intriguing problems and require a constructed response (Aside: Where did that term come from?  I’m not crazy about it.).  My son’s math teacher has done that, using a discussion board online to help the students think through Algebra II problems using critical thinking and standard English.  Technology teachers can incorporate writing skills into their projects.  PE and Health teachers can ask students to produce works that show critical thinking.  Vo-tech teachers can ask students to write about their projects and what they have learned from doing them. Any teacher can incorporate critical thinking and effective communication skills into their curriculum.

Again, why are the creators of the Common Core State Standards so keen on ensuring that communication skills are practiced across the content areas?  I am sighing now as I write, “Well…!”  Here is a another reason.

The students’ inability to communicate effectively, both when writing and when speaking, continue when they enter adulthood and the workforce, unless they are given the chance to overcome these challenges in school.  The potential for knowledge sharing is greatly diminished when a person cannot get their ideas out of their heads and onto paper, the screen, or during a meeting.  Opportunities for innovation are lost, as well as opportunities for employees to advance in their careers.

As teachers in a corporate setting, we find this inability to be most problematic when working with the SME, the subject matter expert. Often, SMEs have difficulty explaining what they do.  They express frustration, often punctuating it with, “That’s just the way it’s done!  Watch me.”  Being unfamiliar with a technique, we can watch all we want, but we will not be able to reproduce their efforts without spending more time than we have to spare trying and failing, or researching.  We cannot ask the SME to teach others, since they cannot teach us.  If we do, we just waste everyone’s time.  That invaluable knowledge remains stuck  inside the SME’s head.  No one else can benefit from it.  We educators feel that is a terrible loss.

Great communicators are not born, contrary to popular opinion.  They learn their art the same way that we all learn something that intrigues us, by watching, listening, and trying.  As Vygotsky said, all learning is social, and it is within the community that we progress from a state of not knowing to mastering something under the tutelage of one or more more knowledgeable others.  It is important that we learn from those who can explain.

I have heard time and again: “I’m just not a good writer / speaker / teacher.”  What they mean is, “I don’t have the talent to be a good writer / speaker / teacher.”  Talent is irrelevant.  Communicators such as  Hemingway, Jobs, Socrates, Shakespeare, and Twain made it look easy, natural.  In fact, they practiced.  Their first efforts were, most likely, awful, not awesome, and what I mean by “first effort” is each and every time they chose to create something new by rearranging the letters of their alphabet.  I’m sure that even Socrates had to practice on someone, perhaps Plato.  Ask any of my writer friends and they will tell you that they have “killed trees” trying to get their message “right.”  What makes the great communicators different from the rest of us is commitment, perseverance, and grit.  Somewhere along the line there was their Dr. Kreider there to push them, even if only in their minds.

I applaud any teacher who embraces “Writing across the Curriculum.”  For those who aren’t English teachers, it seems like a daunting addition to their curriculum, although it does not have to be.  There are plenty of resources on the web that will help these teachers figure out where it makes sense to include a writing or speaking component into their current plans.  Explore the NCTE and ASCD websites for more information.

Happy New Year!

What is the value of an internal training team?

This post is speculative, based on opinion and observation, and full of educated guesses.  If that is all right with you, please continue reading.

What’s in a name?

Calling a training team an “internal training team” boxes the members into a corner and restricts their role within the organization.  It gives others the impression that the team is only to be used for training colleagues, when in reality, that team could do more by also interacting with customers or employees of those customers.  Therefore, renaming the team would increase its value in the eyes of fellow employees.  Putting team members in front of customers would increase the value of the team outside the organization.  It would also help them do their jobs back in the office, by providing an important perspective with which to develop curricula – that of the customer.  Helping them to assume leadership roles within the organization would increase their credibility and their chances of keeping their jobs should the economy tank yet again.

We trainers know that we are the first group of employees considered when the management decides to downsize.  In one company I worked for years ago, we were called “overhead” and considered expendable.  Fortunately, we managed to make it through the RIFs (Reduction in Force) each time because we did more than train fellow employees.  When we put on the second and third hat, we increased our value.  Instead of being “nice to have,” we became employees they “must have.”

My advice: Consider calling the team something that truly reflects their value within the organization, and consider diversifying their duties so they are not training all the time.  Let them use their skills to interact with employees outside the classroom, and with customers outside the office.  Then, expect them to reflect on those experiences and use them to build curricula that will resonate with colleagues and customers alike.

How much does it cost to retain an employee?

You spend months training a new hire – and then they leave.  How much money have you wasted?  This happens all the time.  Either the employee decides the position is not a good fit, or the company decides that the employee is not a good fit for the position.  Either way, thousands of dollars were spent for nothing.  If the company had had a more rigorous new employee training program (which I will not call ‘onboarding’), the situation might have resolved itself much differently.  Management might have had enough information to decide to part ways with the employee much sooner, for instance.  Alternatively, the employee could have performed better, given the proper training and support, and everyone would be happy.

Trial by Fire

Unfortunately, many small to medium-sized companies do not have such a program, and probably don’t have an internal training team, either.  That has been my experience, at least.  My colleagues and I refer to these first few months in a new job as “trial by fire.”  I’m sure many others do also; we certainly did not invent the phrase.

There really are many new employees who find themselves in a cube with a computer, phone, office directory, and a list of “Who to Call for What.”  They have a basic understanding of what is expected of them, but hardly enough information to start working.  Unfortunately, they are expected to start moving earth without having any idea where this tunnel is going to lead them.  Perhaps someone has given them some URLs, a few printed manuals from 1995, etc., but other than that, they are on their own.  After a few days, if the employee hasn’t bolted from the office screaming, they usually stay.  They are bleary-eyed and miserable, but they slog through while they keep their resume up-to-date on LinkedIn, Career Builder, and Monster, just in case something (anything) better comes along.

Does that sound familiar?  Come here, I’ll give you a hug.

Peer Training

A slightly better approach is to conduct peer training or on-the-job training.  Companies that do not have training programs for new employees often rely on veteran employees and managers to train others.  I’ve found the following problems with that approach.

  1. The veteran employees, although highly skilled and considered SMEs (Subject Matter Experts), have no idea how to share their knowledge with someone who is new to the position.
  2. The manager does not have a lot of time to devote to one employee, so the employee sits in a cube and pretends to look busy or studious while the manager runs off to help other employees.
  3. Neither the SME nor the manager have a curriculum to guide them as they train the employee.  There could be gaps in knowledge transfer, or they could be confusing the new employee by not teaching things in the proper, logical order.
  4. Neither the SME nor the manager know how to teach someone.  They aren’t trainers and have never received training on, well, how to train.
  5. There is an important part missing in this approach: the orientation.  Humans need the big picture to understand the more detailed aspects.  What I see instead is that the employee is immediately immersed in details.  By the end of the day, she’s more confused than educated.

 Bring in the Team!

Let’s end this post on a positive note.  There certainly is a way for managers and SMEs to train new employees, and they should be involved in the process.  First, however, the manager and SMEs should consult with the training team and develop a training plan that makes sense.  Some of my colleagues are very good at this, as they want more than anything to see the new employee succeed.  They need that new employee to succeed.  As soon as they receive an acceptance from the employee, I turn around and they are at my desk.  They want to put a plan together that includes formal training, peer training, and self-study.  They work closely with the employee during that first week on the job, teaching them the logistical things they need to know, introducing them to teammates and other employees, and establishing the training plan with them.  Gradually, they release the new employee into the wild, often entrusting him or her to the care of those in their team while also keeping a close eye on them.  Those that are successful often learn to request training on their own when they realize the training they need. I have seen it work, and it is something beautiful.

The managers and SMEs that make the new employee process work have a few things in common.

  1. They are tireless advocates for their employees.  One refers to herself as “Momma Bear, when it comes to my people.”  No argument here.
  2. They think things through and incorporate their experiences into new paradigms of thought and action.
  3. They take full responsibility for the success or failure of their team.
  4. They truly love what they do, and want everyone else to love their jobs too.

The Cycle Should Never End

Imagine how good such a program would be if the training team truly understood the objectives and goals of the team in question!  That brings this post full circle then.  Invest in the training team by sending them outside the organization to learn the customer’s perspective.  Require that they reflect on those experiences and incorporate them into their training programs.  Require that managers and SMEs work with the training team to develop plans for new employees.  Encourage all peer trainers to consult with the team prior to taking on new training tasks.  Stop calling them the “internal training team” and find a title that truly reflects what they do.

What would your title be?