Make or Break Time for Education

As an educator, I saw an opportunity in the return to school after that COVID-induced stretch of remote learning.

Not that COVID is really over, as much as people want to pretend it is. Right now it feels like we are fudging our way through the positive tests and the obvious illnesses. Back to knowing that if a parent has no daycare options, a sick kid might be sent to school. Onward, implementing the merest measures as a society in order to keep people at work, and students in school, protecting economic interests first.

The pandemic revealed our society for what it really is.

Regardless of what political party holds the reins, it would appear that a market-driven strategy that defers to efficiency and easily quantifiable outcomes wins out over the human endeavor of educating. If a truly educated and capable citizenry were the goal, how we design and implement the systems that allow us to educate would reflect that. There would be more honesty in policy language coming down into our schools and classrooms from above, and it would be more about learners and a comprehensive, whole-child look at their needs, less about the limiting boxes on spreadsheets filled with standardized test scores.

The opportunity I saw in the return to in-person learning was a chance to rethink our priorities regarding the goals we are setting for students.

A reach for our better selves and a higher purpose in our service to students and communities is needed, and I feel we are in a make-or-break moment for choosing to do that. The data we are mandated to collect officially is far different than the data we are compelled to collect by the multiplying realities in the moments instruction should be happening. Those “confounding variables” keep popping up to get in the way of better outcomes.

What data educators collect matters. How we use it to build understanding about the learners as developing human beings with needs and inform our educational decisions matters more. Empowering the people actually doing the work matters most.

More to come…I’m tapping this on my phone and will get to some editing tomorrow.

What Education Should Mean

I have long advocated for a better direction for education reform

Educators should be building a culture for learning, not standardization and perpetual testing, especially post-COVID. It’s not that I don’t think education needs to be done better-it absolutely does, and that’s why I am 100% pro-reform. But I am interested in real education reform. I’m talking about the type of education reform that turns our eyes away from screens, machines, and spreadsheets, education reform that empowers educators to attend to the learners as if they were actual living, breathing human beings right in front of us, because that’s what they are.

Don’t just take it from me, there are people who tell it better.

“But our obsessive need to measure academic progress and loss to the decimal point—an enterprise that feels at once comfortably scientific and hopelessly subjective—is also woefully out of tune with the moment…” (Stephen Merrill, April 2021)

      Merrill describes in that article the epic mistake of obsessing over “learning loss”, warning about focusing too much on the soulless bits and pieces of standardized assessment data during pandemic recovery. It’s a suggestion that we focus instead on the social/emotional return and support-allowing the bits and pieces to rise up from that foundation, the way it once did for the majority of students who once, long ago, arrived at school secure in themselves and ready to learn.

That article also states:

     “If there’s a pressing need for measurement, it’s in the reckoning of the social, emotional, and psychological toll of the last 12 months.”

     The best way to do that in the school setting is through culture-an approach to each other and our shared priorities and goals realized through instructional practice that includes a prioritization of social connections. Socratic Seminars are one example of how this can be worked into instructional practice. Another example, maybe even more powerful, is through storytelling.

On that foundation/culture:

     For years “Great Books” (or Junior Great Books) has been my response to the “What are your ideas/what should we do…” questions. What I really meant was the concept/approach, not that program specifically. There might be some meat on that carcass but I’d be building culture not buying more programs. The thing I loved about G.B. is the Socratic seminar format it relies on. It is engaging, challenging, and inspiring, given the right selection of texts to dive into.   

     I think using it in the youngest grades would include a lot of that morning meeting, What is the best way to take turns, …ask a friend to play, …say “I’m sorry” focus as the cognitive weaving is being done to establish social skills and consistent, reliable classroom and discussion norms. Once learners become acquainted with the thinking/sharing/ discussing around real life in and out of school, those skills can be turned towards exploring those issues and themes in what they read and in what they write about.

The Socratic Method is a way of thinking that involves three steps:

1) An initial definition or opinion.

2) A question that raises an exception to that definition or opinion.

3) A better definition or opinion

  Guided by a facilitator, individuals experience the three levels of Socratic dialogue, which are conversation, strategic discourse, and meta-discourse…

     That’s a technical definition. Execution in practice could vary a little, as the original purpose was to dissect a concept not pursue content. But teachers already engage students in this way (or something close to it), so it’s not an out-of-reach skill. Through specific activities like morning meetings and “fishbowl” discussions, it’s already done. Some teachers just have that instructional style and continually engage learners with thought-provoking questions, discussion, guided reflections and then follow-up questions, and so on.   

     Developing these skills (weaving that cognitive net) in K-12 would move that test score needle, and it might even create an eager reader/writer or two along the way. It will most certainly create learners who engage each other more productively. A more purposeful and systemic approach to creating a community of effective thinkers/questioners/ collaborators by doing Socratic seminars catches us bait that lands the fish that will fill our bellies with better test scores. 

On a personal note, this was/is my approach to my parental role in raising my daughters, and often is my approach to teaching.

     I don’t just talk a lot because I like to. I like to mess around with ideas and words and present them quickly in novel ways and I like to keep learners’ minds “on the hook”, with ideas followed by questions, then letting the line loose on occasion to see how they swim, letting them free when they’re ready to swim on their own. Whether it’s a content issue or a behavior issue I want the learner engaged in a thought-response-thread that keeps them weaving that net. Remember that net?

     So while my daughters have certainly suffered some, they are leaders because they are thinkers and reflectors. Their ideas today are a result of nurturing and engagement, and they learned early how to put good thoughts into good words. Why I remember clearly the day Chloe spoke what was (according to Jenn) her first full sentence:

“Momma, is that a crappy sidewalk?”

     With that one sentence, our little one demonstrated: great vocab skills, great recall and connecting concepts to words, presenting her idea in the form of a question to seek feedback and more ideas- a more concrete understanding (pun intended). She was out for a stroller ride around the block when we lived in Cortland, and you know how tree-lined streets in town tend to have sidewalk issues as roots heave cement and seasonal erosion takes its bites. The first thing Jenn told me when they got back to the house was the big “first sentence” event, and I couldn’t tell if it was a “proud tears moment for the scrapbook” thing, or a “this is because of the way you talk around her” thing, but casual talk and pointed and purposeful questions turned into reflective and responsive conversations as they grew. The McConnell’s “Socratic seminars” still happen, often around the family dinner table, but they are a little more demented these days.

We can’t go back in time with our students to create “ready to learn”

     …but I think we can work at establishing a foundation for and culture of learners in order to fill some gaps in that readiness while inspiring more to start weaving on their own and with each other. It will make their personal mission to learn more personal, meaningful, and relevant to their sense of belonging, to who they are, and to who they want to be. This is where storytelling comes in.

As educators we should embrace an understanding that storytelling can help educators make connections with each other and with their learners, making all feel valued and giving incentives to participate more. It is a path to better understanding, for both the listeners and the tellers. From cave paintings depicting the realities seen by long ago “historians”, to the epic oral tales of traveling performers, to stage performers and comedians like the late, great George Carlin, reflecting on our existence and sharing stories has educated us in ways that phonics drills and spelling tests never could and never will.

In my classroom, storytelling is one way I make connections and draw students in to engage their academic skills. Personal stories of my multiple foolish Tom Sawyer attempts to impress my personal Becky Thatcher (Carla) hit just right with students at that age. To know their own teacher was once living it and to have that connection makes them more tuned in to literary elements like plot, sequence, detail, characters, motivation, problem/solution… It’s about their teacher! Of course I don’t reveal that right away, but they catch on quick that the main character, “Little Danny” was me.

When I turn the stories I tell into short one-page stories they read, they are far more willing to write several sentences about the character traits of Little Danny and the mistakes he made, including descriptive details of the consequences. Some of these students, now grown, remember those stories and even the name of my crush. They remember the results of my foolish attempts to impress because those connections were built through the telling of the story. With that model to work from, students are better able to identify and track narrative elements of texts and stories they encounter, as well as start building the skills needed to develop narratives independently.

Conclusion:

Teachers need to be teaching with more stories. Not just stories in print or those read together and read aloud in class. I mean telling stories, sharing experiences and bits of themselves in a way that models for students how they can do that too. When people tell stories they provide their audience windows of opportunity to better understand the world, the others in it, and the experiences others have and are having. Creating communities of learners who engage in this practice would help strengthen the social and emotional connections humans crave and are sorely lacking in today’s world because this type of connection is what really matters to social animals such as ourselves. Stories and story sharing are primary ways learners build background knowledge, from cradle to grave, that they carry into their learning experiences.