Taking Advantage of this Opportunity to Think Big

So, we have an opportunity to think big, and out of the box? Good news:

I think big as a rule…

  …and when I think about the best way to take advantage of some “closing the gap” funds and a significant opportunity, I think of targeting the foundation of learning first. For learners that foundation is a cognitive “net” woven during development from fetus to nurturing to parenting to schooling to life… It starts at the core of the person, and continues in the parents’ arms, satisfying the most basic physical and emotional needs.

Then it starts developing beyond that core’s reflexive responses to start reaching, touching, interacting. Those infant experiences are intertwining and stretching-weaving together continuously and then reaching outward and interconnecting with every new experience, whether introduced intentionally or just through circumstance. That cognitive net engages with its environment, makes sense out of it based on what it has already established, and then has new understanding as new experiences are integrated. Threads are created, reinforced, branches shoot off for little side trips that might connect with or just tickle/tweak other relevant experiences…  The result of a well woven net (aka prior knowledge and experiences) is that learners more openly experience new settings, new people, new ideas, new understandings… Kids just absorb it as they live it and new experiences get cross-connected in a “seven degrees to Kevin Bacon” way.

     The prepared and adept learner has an intricate weave and can access and pluck a plethora of threads that send signals all across that net and return information that drives that weaving and ends up providing the foundation for students at the beginning of their k-12 experience. We would like them to be at least “ready to learn” at the very beginning, and in the very best case scenarios: prepared to soar.

It seems our students are having difficulty, though.

The foundation, that “net” is the key. It’s gaps where threads in the net might have been. It’s threads and experiences we wish weren’t there. The things we need students to be able to do aren’t accessible to them yet because there’s weaving to be done. Maybe even undone and then redone.   A few years ago, as part of ongoing efforts to understand the students and their lived realities, their culture, we were made aware of what a pervasive and oppressive force poverty is during a poverty simulation.

     The differences in the learners’ exposure to language and vocabulary. The proportion of positive to negative interactions, and how starkly different that proportion looks when comparing our most stable and nurturing homes to those on the other end of the spectrum. Those eager to attack what educators are trying to do with catchphrases like “poverty is just an excuse” come up short on substance because they know the truth. The poverty line is not just a number to be exploited (like standardized test scores), and to engage in a rhetorical battle to blame teachers for the perpetuation of inequity and oppression through political and economic policy is disingenuous or misguided.

This process starts with students’ core relationships with parents or primary caregivers in their lives, which form a personality that is either secure and attached or insecure and unattached. Securely attached children typically behave better in school (Blair et al., 2008).

Our academic mission is supposed to be our primary mandate, but we find ourselves having to spend a lot of effort on social and emotional gaps in order to get to that mandate.

The in loco parentis role (I’m told that means we are like crazy parents) kicks in because we find that prior knowledge/learning/skills (“ready to learn”) is wanting in the areas largely pertaining to learners’ empathy, emotional stability, social connections, sense of self-worth… A growing number are “trauma informed” in ways we wish we didn’t know about, but need to know about to be our most effective.  We are spending a lot of time actively nurturing in order to get to the teaching we’ll be held accountable for. 

     So, us crazy parents have no choice but to rush into situational fires to save these children, only to emerge with them, covered in soot with our eyebrows singed off.

     So that we can then make them take standardized assessments and later be shown spreadsheets of test data that show how badly we are failing them.

Sure we have to move that ELA test score needle in the right direction in a sustainable way, but it is going to require a shift in mindset not just doing the same things more rigorously.

     We still need to target those mandates, but doesn’t anyone wonder if we married our endeavor to the wrong spouse? I envision a more desirable common-law wife than HEDI, but getting rid of her evil influence is a side mission of my own.

In the here-and-now I’d like a shift away from:

  • continually identifying, measuring and remediating/repairing on the back-end to try and catch those falling behind and falling through that “net” because they haven’t engaged in experiences and exchanges that weave well.
  • thinking that the space inside the four walls of the classroom is the “least restrictive environment”. 
  • accepting the crap of disingenuous reformers with an agenda that is more about markets and their opportunities, less about children and what they need.

I’d like to shift towards:

  • helping learners weave in more threads to extend their nets with, giving them more cognitive integrity and flexibility to support further (and more independent) learning.
  • re-envisioning the least restrictive environment. In my mind it is outside the box, out in the world, or at least in one that mimics the flexibility to move into and out of various settings and cooperative (mixed grade level, even) learning groups within the school.
  • teachers being the respected experts who have say in how education gets done instead of blamed for the results when others tell them what to do.

So, let’s think big and “outside the box”.

     If the regular, standard setting/environment/program is one that allows more movement between settings and groups, it isn’t an “accommodation” or “program modification” when it happens. It IS the program, and one that sends the fewest “why am I different” signals to students because everyone is doing it. The movement through and reconfiguration of various groups would be continuous and feel organic, while actually being planned to combine students in a purposeful way and track progress towards academic and social/emotional targets.

      It’s establishing that foundation/net and growing a culture of learners on the front end, and it could help prevent some holes in the net while inspiring more learners to start weaving on their own.Think of a district-wide PBL where “effective” (thanks to HEDI for that, at least) means active participation in one’s own learning as well as the learning of the others in your community. 

My opinion is that focusing on our school culture and nurturing learners first is a better strategy than obsessing over raised bars, grit and rigor. 

      A well-nurtured and guided learner is prepared for that grit and rigor when it happens. We shouldn’t force grit and rigor onto them hoping for better outcomes. Remember the fable about the sun and the wind having the contest to see which could get a man’s coat off the fastest? The wind was sure that by sheer force it could achieve the goal by just blowing the coat off. The harder it blew, the tighter the man gripped, held, resisted… and the coat stayed on. 

     The sun simply shone. 

     The man took the coat off himself!

     Pretty cool that warmth did the trick. Even cooler that I am using “cool” and “warmth” together in a sentence that way. Hey look…I did it again!

So let’s think big, shine like the sun, and warm this place up!