I had the fortune of spending a full day at El Cajon Valley High School last week shadowing a student across his day. This student is a recent immigrant, and his English skills are still developing. He joins a large population of refugees and immigrants at the school.

My usual visit to a site involves a meeting or two and maybe some short visits into classrooms. While I don’t think I’ve lost touch with being in the classroom every day, this experience was something completely different.As a teacher, you conduct the class – you are responsible for delivering the instruction, must ensure the class environment is conducive to learning, and check in with as many students as possible. That’s before you did any grading, attend after school meetings, engage in professional development, meet with administrators, etc. It can be exhausting.

Spending the day sitting in classes as a participant affirmed some thoughts I’ve had for years. The student experience is exhausting in a different way. Let me first say, I think the teachers heading up the classes I watched are all exceptional. They took the time to build lessons that academically challenged students and while also teaching them English.

So, here is what I found.

  • It’s a long day in those desks.
  • It is easy to get distracted in a room full of 30-40 students.
  • While our English Language Learners are getting good instruction in English that combines learning content and skills with learning the language, most of those students speak their native languages with their peers. Two different students noted that this to me and expressed that their English acquisition is probably slower as a result. I saw this first hand as students clamored to know who I was and why I was there each class – in Arabic and Spanish.
  • Changing subjects every hour requires students to stop mid-thought and then jump back in where they left off the day before. In the classes that had some time to work independently, students took some time to get settled and start working then they had to stop.
  • The academic language of a high school subject is daunting. I felt a little overwhelmed jumping back into biology and geometry.
  • One student I spoke with shared his confusion during his first semester when he walked into the school with almost no English. However, just six months later, he had a strong handle on basic conversations. English is his fourth language. Compared to my one.

I challenge all administrators to take a day and follow just one student.

Moving On and Falling Out

The hard part isn’t coming up with a new idea.
The hard part is falling out of love with the old idea.
Seth Godin

As he often does, Seth Godin masterfully captures an idea that speaks to the state of education.

We get use to teaching certain ways. Sometimes those ways could be more engaging, student-centered, or effective. But, we are attached to them, because they feel good or comfortable or safe. Or they worked in the mindset that dominated a different time.

I use to love the art of lecturing. I would spend days researching a topic, scribbling notes in on yellow pads of paper. Then I would create an outline that would build up to a revelation or problem they had to solve or something that would shock them. Then I would work on the images and the timing. Maybe try and add a personal story or corny joke.

I’m sure I wasn’t as good as I thought I was at the time, but when everything aligned, it certainly appeared they were engaged. My enthusiasm seemed to build a sense of engagement. They asked questions, shared their own insights. Well, a few did at least. The others, dutifully took notes. Maybe. When I collected them for points, they totally did at least.

And at the end of the day, I was exhausted, but satisfied. I had successfully imparted the historic impact and lessons learned of A Soldier’s Life in WWI or the Rise of the Mongols. At the end of each unit, I was always a little disappointed when they underperformed on my customized multiple choice and short answer tests. But, in the moment, I felt like I was breaking through to them.

As I matured as a teacher, my arsenal of project types, simulations, and other student-centered activities grew. For each addition, something had to go. Initially, I was casting aside individual PowerPoints or Google Slide Presentations. Eventually, I was breaking up and falling out of love with the approach as a whole. Picking change, growth, and often, innovation, over what I knew and had once loved. Pushing more of the work to the students and letting them create, collaborate, and think more. Seems only natural now.

What lessons or instructional approaches have you fallen out of love with? Which ones should you?

Our #GoOpen Journey – Getting Started (Part 2)

In the Grossmont Union High School District, we have started the process of developing several OER curriculum collections to eventually replace some of the traditional textbooks currently found in classrooms across our ten high schools. We have started to share some of the different pieces of that journey in different venues and thought it was finally time to document with some more detail in one place.  

Part 2: Getting Started

#GoOpen offered us a chance to empower teachers, ensure equitable access to curriculum, modernize instructional materials, and save money in the process. It should be easy, right? Of course, it wasn’t. After I drafted a proposal in December 2015, we got sucked into the challenge of matching the ideal with the messiness of our reality – district policies, association agreements, and a product that would work for and in our ecosystem. 

The first big hurdle was to establish the parameters of the project. Without getting into the details, the district and the teachers association were able to come to an agreement that clearly defines the roles, qualifications, responsibilities, selection process, and compensation (see the resulting MOU ). As we began spreading the word to departments and teachers, we created an FAQ to address pressing questions and dispel some of the rumors and myths that had spread during the negotiation process.

With the logistics under control, the next step was to determine the general shape of the finished products (knowing that they would never fully be finished). We didn’t just want to just create an online textbook. That defeated one of our purposes – providing digital content and resources that will help facilitate an instructional transformation or evolution. We wanted more. We also wanted to provide a wide array of resources to allow teacher choice on what resources to use based on their classroom needs and areas of interest. To address that up front, we created a multitiered approach to categorize and guide the work.

  • Core Content – Textbook-style content that serves as the foundation of the course. This meets our Williams Settlement obligations (A California thing).
  • Supplemental Resources – Additional readings, primary sources, videos, multimedia resources, online simulations, etc.
  • Teaching Materials – Multiple pacing guides, activities, simulations, projects, lesson, etc. This section draws from the content and supplemental resources.

This structure continues to guide our curation of materials. It started as a generic template, but as the work progress, it evolved into something more user-friendly.

By Summer 2016, we were ready to start selecting subjects, building teams, and starting he work.

Next: Doing the Work

Modeling Failure Successfully

Last week my district was the victim of two intense DDoS attacks. Our connection to the world was severed. The network team worked tirelessly with our security vendors to try and get us back online. We were successful on Thursday, only to be attacked again the next day.

Across the district, Chromebooks spun and teachers scrambled to come up with an alternative plan. There was plenty of frustration and those who are critical of our FutureForward initiative pointed to this instance as reason why teachers just can’t rely on technology (even though these instances are pretty rare).

IMG_9825On Saturday, we hosted 125 teachers from around East County to our annual TechFest for a day of learning with technology. Luckily, we had put into place a mitigation service that fended off any further attacks. During the TechFest keynote, Jen Roberts went through ten things that she learned going 1-1 in her classroom. While all ten were relevant and helpful to the audience, one stuck with me – we need to model successful failure.

She went on to remind us that kids are watching us. All the time. When we hit a point of frustration because a lesson didn’t go as planned or the network goes out, what do we do? How we react speaks volumes and provides an example to students on what to do when we face an unforeseen challenge.

It just happened that on the first day of last week’s network outage, I was leading one of our GUHSDtech Google Ninja workshops. And the Internet was down. I internalized my frustration and we went a slightly different route. As I listened to Jen talk about modeling successful failure, I wanted to think that all of the teachers in my district took the same approach. 

When things don’t work out as planned in front of 30-40 students, how do you respond? What lesson are you teaching? It might just be more valuable than the actual lesson you had scheduled.