Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Living Up to the Gifts

Being a Brit, Thanksgiving isn't technically my holiday, but after living here for ten years and raising two American children I think I'm safe to take part in the celebrations now! I have enjoyed watching and learning about Thanksgiving traditions from my friends and colleagues over the last decade. I see stress levels rise as house cleaning and grocery shopping missions take priority. Excitement grows with the imminent arrival of family, as does fear and trepidation at the inevitable excessive calorie intake, and always, conversations center on the things we have to be thankful for. You'll never catch me making a pumpkin pie, but I will be giving thanks.

This year in particular I have received more than my fair share of gifts and I have a deeper understanding of the notion that gifts come in many forms. I have been thinking about the ways I can show my appreciation in a meaningful way. When I was little," thank you" took the form of a handmade note or card. Today we email, text, tweet, Facebook, call and occasionally get to say thank you F2F. One of my favorite expressions of thanks I learned from a student.

Each year this particular student and her five siblings are required by their parents to sit and think about a person who has had a positive impact on their lives during the previous year. They then sit and write a letter to that person explaining, in great detail, how their lives have changed for the better as a result of their shared experiences. I was fortunate to receive one of those letters a few years ago and it made me cry. Emails, cards, voicemails or tweeting out THX just doesn't seem adequate for the abundant year I have had. Instead, I am determined that I am going to live up to the gifts I have received.

For my husband I pledge to be a better confidant and supporter.
For my children I promise to notice and acknowledge the gifts you give me every day.
For my family I will not let the miles create distance.
For my colleagues I will be a better collaborator and flexible thinker.
For my old friends my shoulder will be more readily available for tears.
For my new friends I commit to maintaining and strengthening the bonds we have made.
For my students I aspire to teach you as much as you have taught me.

With that said, I wish you all a wonderful time of giving thanks with your nearest and dearest. Being British is irrelevant, being grateful is what matters.

Friday, November 18, 2011


The first twelve years of my teaching career were spent in England as an elementary teacher. Fresh out of college, I was handed the National Curriculum, given a gentle push over the classroom threshold and told, "Have at it!" And I did, and a marvelous time it was too! Being the only Year 6 teacher in the building I was free to do pretty much my own thing behind my classroom door. As long as my kids did well in standardized tests nobody really asked or questioned what I was doing. 

When I arrived in the U.S. I was fortunate to be hired at Birmingham Covington School (BCS) , an innovative school of science and technology. I was hired to be a 5/6 math and science teacher sharing 54 students with a Social Studies/Language Arts teacher. I was required to collaborate with my teaching partner, the math and science teachers and the whole 5/6 team. To do so effectively required certain skills: active listening, flexible thinking, risk taking, effective communication, and being politely critical. I didn't have any of them! When we started teaching Engage, we discovered that students don't naturally have these skills either.

Engage is a 3-8th grade project unique to BCS. Engage was conceived as BCS sought to reinvent itself to keep pace with the real-world skills that are demanded of our students when they exit our system. The overarching goal of Engage is to engage students in problem-based and project-based activities that integrate elements of science, educational technology, technology education, and language arts as well as the four main elements of the enGauge 21st Century Skills: Digital Age Literacy, Inventive Thinking, Effective Communication, and High Productivity.

We designed challenges that required a team of students to collaborate in order to be successful, and they weren't! They just didn't have the necessary skills. Students were excited and engaged but lacked the ability to listen to each other, to communicate effectively, to challenge each other in meaningful ways and to reach consensus on effective solutions. Realizing that the skills were not inherent and had to be taught, we developed a bank of
resources and strategies.

When teams are first introduced, each member completes a personal skills inventory , assessing their own strengths and weaknesses. They use their findings to allocate specific roles within the group. The roles are determined according to the task but generally include a project manager, materials manager, communications manager and lead engineer. Once students have a clear understanding of their responsibilities we provide them with scripts about how to be politely critical and how to reach consensus .Armed with these tools they can begin to focus on the challenge activity and intermittently take the time to assess the success of their team using teamwork rubrics.

The success of these strategies can be measured by the fact that Engage was selected to be one of the projects representing Team U.S.A. at the
Microsoft Partners in Learning Global Forum in Washington D.C earlier this month. As an attendee I was lucky enough to take part in discussions about collaboration with teachers from all around the world. One teacher likened collaborative projects to making a jigsaw: each student is given an element of a task and they connect the pieces together to produce a complete picture. I had to disagree. This describes co-operation, not collaboration.

Collaboration is more like bread making. The individual ingredients are blended, kneaded and pummeled, flattened, stretched, rolled and ultimately transformed into something warm and nourishing that smells and tastes good. Unlike a jigsaw, the original ingredients are unrecognizable and cannot return to the way they were. In learning to collaborate effectively with my colleagues at BCS I have often felt pummeled, stretched, challenged and transformed into a better teacher and learner.

When we ask our students to collaborate they should feel the same way. They should be able to take their individual thoughts and ideas, stretch them , reshape them and synthesize them to produce creations of meaning and consequence. The process should transform them as learners and take them one step closer to becoming more effective collaborators.

The next time you design a collaborative assignment for your kids, stop and think: Am I asking them to make a jigsaw or am I asking them to make bread?

Saturday, November 12, 2011

A Partner in Learning

I bought a camping trailer this summer. Not the most momentous event in my life in recent months but certainly significant on my journey into Blogging. The saleswoman sat in front of a wall plastered with her numerous awards as salesperson of the month. When I pointed them out she laughed and said, "They make me put them up." Three weeks earlier I had been named teacher of the year in my school district. My first formal accolade in twenty three years of teaching. Nominated by my teaching partners and verified by fellow colleagues throughout the district. A real honor, and where was my framed certificate? In a drawer in my bedroom.....hmm!

Not long after that I received an invitation to a ribbon cutting ceremony for a new methane operated electricity plant at a local Waste Management facility. The invitation was completely unrelated to my award, and came from Chris Klein the education officer there, who had visited my classroom on several occasions to talk to my students about alternative energy, human impact on the environment and stewardship .I found myself mingling with local dignitaries, General Motors executives, and business leaders. While marveling at my free lunch and goody bag people would ask who I was and my reply was, "Oh! I'm just a teacher." Chris, on the other hand, introduced me as an important member of her team. She considered me to be amongst my peers while I felt like a kid who'd been allowed to eat at the adult table.

Last week I found myself in Washington D.C. at the Microsoft Partners in Learning Global Forum. I was part of the USA innovative educators team and was treated to an intense week of professional development, global collaboration and serious discussion about the future of education. Anglea Maiers ,one of my educational gurus, was participating and I wanted desperately to meet her. I couldn't fathom, however, what to say .What could I say to her that would enhance her learning as she has done for me so many times through social networking? So I backed off and missed the opportunity. Tono Sablan didn't.

Tono was also a part of Team USA , presenting his Project Unite which he developed to celebrate diversity in his school and to reduce fighting amongst the students. He introduced himself to Angela, handed her his card and described his project. He walked away with a promise of future collaboration. He is fifteen years old!

Why couldn't I do that? Some may say I lack confidence but I can hear those that know and love my loud and obnoxious self choking back laughter at the very suggestion. Have I been brainwashed by the old adage "Those that can't- teach." Was it the high caliber of the fellow attendees that made me feel like I am "just a teacher" ?

I think again about the lady who sold me my camping trailer. Those awards on the wall should have given me a clue as to how good she was-she sold me a fifth wheel that was five times more expensive than I was willing to pay!!When I get back to school I'm going to put my teacher of the year award on the wall outside my classroom. I want it to give my students a clue that when they come into my classroom they will get five times more of an experience than they bargained for.

We all have that kid in our classroom who just sits there like a sponge soaking it all in but they rarely look up and engage in the conversation. And it drives you crazy because you see that they are learning but you constantly wonder how much all of us could learn from them if only they would share their thoughts and ideas with us. And as teachers we encourage and coax and cajole that kid into participating. Well it turns out that I am that kid.

I want to thank my teachers : the R.V. saleswoman, my amazing colleagues, Chris Klein at Waste Management , Tono Sablan and especially the Microsoft Partners in Learning Team. You have all taught me that even amongst business leaders, movie makers, politicians, policy makers , educators... I am amongst my peers, and I am a Partner in Learning .With that comes responsibility-the responsibility to share , engage , take risks, challenge, participate-everything that I demand of my students and now it is time that I demand it of myself. I am lifting my head. I am raising my hand. I have something to say , "I'm Pauline and I am a teacher!"