Saturday, November 19, 2011

What's the Nutritional Value?

"Everything I do has to have a high nutritional value."  Jane, music teacher extraordinaire

I love talking about learning.  Actually, I should say I love listening to educators talk about learning, asking them questions, reflecting meaning and coming to my own new levels of understanding about the craft of facilitating learning.  Earlier this week, the music teacher at my school stuck her head in the door to say hi.  I don't recall exactly how we got there, but in our conversation she said something that I loved.  She said, "everything I do has to have a high nutritional value."

I asked her to tell me more about that.  She began to share about the fact that, at the primary grades, she only sees students for a total of 48 hours per school year.  Because of this, every minute of every lesson is precious, and everything she chooses to do must be purposeful and of a "high nutritional value."  She extended this thinking to what she and the other music teachers in our district had done last year, through curriculum review.  The group involved in the process developed their vision of a graduate of the K-12  vocal and instrumental music program.  They then developed the essential components necessary to reach that goal.  The "nutritional value" of each standard, each strategy, each technique and even each essential vocabulary word was discussed.  Difficult decisions were made and people had to let go of some favorite activities because, as Jane said, "they were just sugar."

This conversation took me back to a breakout session I attended at the PLC Summer Institute in Minneapolis.  I don't recall if it was one of the DuFours, Robert Eaker, or Mike Mattos, but someone said, "everytime we choose to teach something, we are choosing not to teach something else."  I liked the quote then, but it wasn't until my conversation with Jane, that I truly grasped the urgency we must understand when it comes to the PLC Big Idea of a Focus on Learning.  I don't think we typically thinks about the value of each minute spent with students in the way Jane does.

For me, this conversation brought clarity to the ideas of Endurance, Leverage and Readiness.  In everything we do, we should think about, is this a skill, behavior or idea that, through endurance, will foster future, cross curricular success?  Will this maximize leverage for creating an independent, critical thinker capable of owning their own learning?  Am I opening the door to new skills, behaviors and knowledge in a developmentally appropriate way?

The most exciting part of this whole conversation is the fact that Jane's operational values are perfectly aligned with her stated values.  Visits to her classroom, and especially the incredible performances our students give, demonstrate highly purposeful instruction.  Our students love music.  They confidently sing, play and dance, and they love to invite their principal to join them whenever I happen to walk into the musical mansion.  And, as a principal learning, I am happy to join in.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Get Out of the Way

Children have to be educated, but they have also to be left to educate themselves.  Ernest Dimnet, Art of Thinking, 1928

Due to an experience in the summer of 2010, with Quality Learning and a gentleman named David Langford, I have made a point to have periodic conversations with students about how they learn.   These 10-15 minute conversations, regardless of the grade level of the child, never disappoint. See, Mr. Langford, along with my new boss, introduced me to W. Edwards Deming, and what I thought I knew about student-centered learning was turned upside down.  Since that time I have sought to find the answers to questions about learning, creating ownership, fostering pride and joy and facilitating unlimited possibilities.  

Seeking these answers has led me to the usual suspects, The DuFours, Reeves, Marzano, Stiggins, etc, but truly owning my learning and opening a Twitter account was the best step I could take.  Seeing the thinking of others, interacting with their thoughts and synthesizing my own has been incredibly empowering.  The next step has been clear for a few weeks now I just haven't taken the plunge.  Tonight, however is the night.  This is my first blog post.  I am a principal learning, and the day that ends is the day it is time to move on.  My hope is that I push my own thinking through this effort.  If I happen to enhance the thinking of someone else too, that's even better.  

For my first post I wanted to capture the power of students taking ownership of their learning.  We had parent/teacher conferences this past week.  I was very excited by the fact that, for the first time, a number of teachers chose to have student-led conferences.  The excitement I heard in their voices as they prepared for, and then carried out these conferences was contagious.  I had to find something to reinforce the choice they had made and to show them they were on the right track.  I also wanted to show them this wasn't new or radical.  I found the above quote from a book written in 1928, and I had my message.  Learning is and has always been learning.  Sometimes it is just easier to think of the learner as an empty vessel.  We can just disseminate the knowledge and go home.  Moving forward my hope is that we can standardize this practice.  I want to see us get out of the way of the learner.  I want students to own their achievements and find joy in sharing with those that care about them.  

I am interested in hearing how others create student ownership of learning.  Feel free to share your thoughts.  I look forward to sharing my own educational journey.  I'm just a principal learning.