Tuesday, March 20, 2012

We're Not in Kansas Anymore

Like Dorothy, I was ripped from my comfort zone today and transported to a strange and unfamiliar land. I left behind the safe bubble that is my classroom and entered the mysterious business world .My journey was not facilitated by a tornado, but by the Oakland Schools Education Foundation’s Teacher-Business Leader Exchange Program.
I am one of twelve lucky teachers invited to be a participant in this pilot program which matches teachers with business executives. The exchange involves two days total-one day during which the teacher joins a business leader in their day-to-day job activities, and another day where the business leader spends a day in the classroom with the teacher. As a committed lifelong learner I willingly accepted the invitation because I have absolutely no knowledge of the business world, and I hoped that the experience would somehow help me enhance the classroom experience for my students.
In January I met my match and I couldn’t have wished for a better partner. Dan Hunter is the Deputy Director of Oakland County Economic Development & Community Affairs. He bravely took the first step and spent a day at Birmingham Covington School last month. He joined me at a before school event hosted by our Proud Dads organization. We Skyped with award winning author Frank Cottrell Boyce as part of our Battle of the Books campaign to discuss his book Cosmic. Frank happens to be my cousin and I was excited to have my daughter with me to share in a wonderful family event.  I’m not sure I gave Dan the most attentive reception as a result!
We moved on to my classroom, which was in complete disarray from the previous day’s Valentine’s party. After rebuilding the room and taking attendance I originally intended to introduce Dan and let him sit back and watch the show, but I couldn’t let the opportunity to have an expert in my classroom slip by. Dan was put to work and spent the next two hours talking to two classes about his job and answering questions from his avid audience. He was amazing and brought wonderful posters and flyers to share with the kids. After a team meeting with administration, we ate lunch in my room and Dan was able to observe two math lessons in the afternoon. I totally got the better part of the deal!!
My day began with a tour of the Raleigh Michigan studios in Pontiac, less than a year after the filming of the Disney prequel “Oz: The Great and Powerful.” Accompanied by various members of the business community I sat through a presentation in one of two screening rooms at the facility .I immediately saw authentic connections that could be made with my math classes to teach concepts like ratios, rates, percent, area, conversions and problem solving, but I had a nagging sensation that something was different and I couldn’t put my finger on it until we continued the tour. I was in awe as we walked through the 440,000 sq. foot facility and delighted at the possibilities it afforded to teach science concepts like energy, conduction, insulation and sustainability. Ironically, it was on one of the vast sound stages that I realized what was missing from my day-sound! My days are filled with the sounds of children talking, laughing, playing, shouting, vying for attention, running, moving, jostling, huddling, yelping, debating, creating…learning. This enormous place was hollow, empty, and strange to me. It also saddened me because such a wonderful facility should be filled with similar sounds, activity and creative energy.More details about the story of the studio and why it is so eerily quiet can be found here.

The only thing that filled the void was the huge passion displayed by my guide, Raleigh Studios investor Linden Nelson. As a key architect in the project, he engaged us with the stories of his vision and dreams for the future of the studio and his commitment to investing in Michigan. Three times in the course of the morning he referred to the most valued asset and treasure in our community, our children. The connection between the business world and the education world suddenly became apparent to me. We have a common goal: the health and growth of a community, and that begins with education.
If we are to achieve both high quality education and a diverse and vibrant local economy, business and education partnerships are essential. Making connections beyond the classroom is critical for students to achieve success in the 21st century and the business leaders within our community can help schools make those connections.

Abraham Lincoln stated:

“A Child is a person who is going to carry on what you have started.  He is going to sit where you are sitting and, when you are gone, attend to those things which you think are important.  You may adopt all the policies you please, but how they are carried out depends on him.  He will assume control of your cities, states, and nation.  He is going to take over your churches, schools, communities, and corporations.  The fate of humanity is in his hands!”
The fate of our community is in the hands of our children.I spend my days with companions like Dorothy-kids who are full of heart, courage and wisdom. It’s time we started hooking them up with the “wizards” of the business world who can share with them their talents and expertize to create a healthy, vibrant community. I want to take this opportunity to thank Dan and his colleagues who took time out of their busy day to help me identify the connections that can be made between my classroom and their offices. I hope that this program is the spark that inspires business and education leaders to find innovative ways to make connections that help us utilize the vast amount of talent in the business community to strengthen, enhance and enrich the quality of education and grow the leaders of tomorrow.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

I Know I'm Teaching When...

I know I’m teaching when
A student has that crumpled up facial expression that says “This assignment is challenging.”
Students won’t leave at recess time.
Students create their own assignments and lesson plans.
I get unsolicited emails from students sharing something interesting they found online.
Students are completely oblivious to the fact that I am even in the room.
I overhear a group of students debating about who has the “correct” answer.
I don’t know the answer to a question but can get a student to answer it themselves.
Students are teaching me.
Students can articulate a problem they are having and develop their own strategies to solve it.
Students can tell me what they are most proud of.
Students can identify the next steps on their learning journey.
Nobody asks to go to the bathroom for an entire class.
I’m late to class and the lesson has already started.
I’m utterly exhausted and couldn’t be happier about it.

When do you know you are teaching?

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Personalized Professional Development

My teaching partner and I launched the 2010-2011 school year by showing our students the movie Blindsight. The film documents the efforts of six blind Tibetan teenagers who set out to climb the 23,000 foot Lhakpa Ri on the north side of Mount Everest. The journey was different for each child as they each faced different challenges but their determination, courage and the help and support of their Sherpas and guides resulted in a successful journey for each of them.
The movie inspired us to begin our own learning journeys together. The school year was the mountain we had to climb. Each of us would face different challenges but by helping and supporting each other we would be successful. We wanted to make the journey as personal as possible for each student so for one hour each week we set aside time for students to explore their own learning paths. The aim was to empower our students to formulate and answer their own questions, to pursue their passions, to take more ownership of their learning. When experts were needed to help them on their journeys we looked first within our own classroom for student Sherpas, then within the school, then the wider community and, with the use of technology, the global community. As the students became more and more comfortable with autonomy they started to develop more sense of when, where and how to dip into the collective wisdom to consume, connect and create. No two sessions looked the same as students worked individually, in pairs, in groups or with adult experts they had invited into the classroom. The one common element was that learning was taking place. Learning about poetry, film making, lego, art, algebra, chemistry, history, biology, bullying, community service… whatever floated each kid’s boat.

Sadly, the schedule for this school year was different and we were unable to offer these types of sessions in the same way as we did last year.  I‘d almost forgotten about them until this weekend when my district administration sent out a survey about professional development and what we would like it to look like. My dream version of P.D. would be just like the sessions we offered our students. There would creativity and innovation in its design and teachers, as learners, would be empowered to follow their passions and natural curiosity. There would be flexibility about how and when they learn, and as autonomy grows so would the teacher’s ability to determine when and how to use collective wisdom. There would be less focus on P.D. delivering something, and more focus on P.D being used to help teachers develop into expert practitioners.

I feel fortunate to work in a district that has invited teachers to take part in a discussion about Professional Development. Is the type of personalized professional development I described even possible? I’m not sure, but then again I never thought it was possible for six blind teenagers to climb Mount Everest!