Introduction

Only last year I became the Coordinator of Studies and Instruction at my school, a new position created in response to our need for a directed curriculum and guidance in employing inquiry based curricular models. Our school, under the leadership of our present administration, has been growing substantially over the last five years. Old buildings have been torn down and up-to-date, spacious, new construction has taken their place. Each student from 5th to 12th grade now carries a MacBook everywhere he or she goes. And every classroom boasts a SmartBoard, a 21st century chalkboard that would confound John Dewey. We have a new structure in place, but many of us are simply employing the traditional model in an unconventional setting, pouring new wine into old wineskins, you might say. We began to see that in our rush to reform and innovate, we did not lay the foundation for the framework we began erecting.

Before the year began, I envisioned guiding teachers in the development and implementation of the backward design method. In preparation, I had created two units that I would use as my models: one, a year-long historical fiction writing unit for 9th grade English that focused on primary source documents, and two, an inter-disciplinary novel study that investigates a novel from five different approaches –historically, socially, artistically, ecologically and morally. I shared my models and the process and purpose that supports them with each department in the upper school in a mini-dog and pony show, and hoped that each teacher would begin developing his or her own model unit. The goal was for each teacher to create two project-based learning units this year so that we could build a curriculum that engages students in critical thinking, problem solving, and shared inquiry. In short, I was naïve.

Many teachers, jaded by the history of educational reforms, viewed my vision as well intentioned, but ultimately quaint and idealistic. And they were right. I hadn’t argued that I needed time for buy-in, didn’t anticipate the frustration, and wasn’t prepared for the pushback. Nine months later, I found myself reading the following excerpt from DuFour article “What is a Professional Learning Community?”, and nodding my head in tired agreement:

In this all-too-familiar cycle, initial enthusiasm gives way to confusion
about the fundamental concepts driving the initiative, followed by inevitable
implementation problems, the conclusion that the reform has failed to bring
about the desired results, abandonment of the reform, and the launch of a
new search for the next promising initiative.

I wondered whether I had made any positive progress at all this year, despite my principal’s reassurance that I had secured a substantial toehold. Coupled with my doubts, our school is undergoing enormous change. The church with which we are affiliated has a new rector, and our school will be undergoing a new headmaster search in the coming school year. And, of course, the current economic climate has created challenges for all area schools – private and public alike. All of these conditions have contributed to a sense of anxiety and uncertainty in our school. Fortunately, I live by the Martin Luther maxim, “Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.” It’s May, near the end of the 2009-2010 school year when I should be focusing on my summer vacation plans, but nevertheless I’m busy rethinking my strategy for next year. I realize that the current climate requires that I tread lightly, seeking buy-in, understanding, and commitment to the 21st century education vision advocated by the school. However, I feel fortified by my participation in this cohort, which has provided much-needed direction, encouraging me to research best practices and to listen to varied professional perspectives. Although I by no means have all the answers, I believe I have a good sense of where we need to head and how I can help us get there.

What follows is a brief explanation of the four initiatives that I will be advancing next year as Coordinator of Studies and Instruction.

Project-Based Learning

At the heart of our new curriculum is the embrace of project-based learning as a way to facilitate the competencies highlighted by the 21st-century-skills movement: critical thinking, problem solving, creativity, innovation, collaboration, communication, media, technology, and global literacy. Project-based learning begins and hopefully ends with inquiry, sparking and continually fueling a student’s curiosity about a subject. The project approach challenges students to think for themselves, conduct research, solve authentic problems, meet deadlines, and manage much of their own learning. As I mentioned in my introduction, I began last year by offering teachers my own models so that they could understand the pedagogy that undergirds them as well as their practice. This year, however, my principal has asked all upper school teachers to come to school four days earlier than usual to engage in professional development focused specifically on creating curriculum units that employ the project-based learning model. This summer, the technology integration specialist and I will spend two weeks planning the format and content for these days. In particular, we will be responsible for presenting departmental workshops on project-based learning, backward design, authentic assessments, and the effective use of technology to support desired learning outcomes. We plan to develop five model units, each with a central focus on a core 21st century competency, which we can use to guide our discussions while helping teachers brainstorm ideas to bring the reality of their disciplines into the classroom. Hopefully, a subtle shift will begin to occur so that students won’t simply just learn history but will instead learn to think like historians. A good “PL” demands the utilization of all of the 21st century competencies, but in order to be a successful guide or mentor for students, teachers themselves must appreciate and employ the competencies in their own practice. That’s the step that I forget last year or was not afforded the time or opportunity to work with faculty members. Hopefully, the four additional development days added in August (not enough, but I’ll take them) will give us the opportunity to begin collectively engaging in the central questions that all teachers should be asking. Those questions lead to my next initiative: a professional learning community.

Professional Learning Community

I broached the idea of a professional learning community with my principal who supports my passion and innovation but who has been around the block enough times to know that not everyone will share in my enthusiasm. His tempered approach reminds me that I cannot assume that my work will be met with success. In fact, much of this past year, I’ve learned from failing. Not everyone wants to change; many teachers are seemingly happy with the status quo and wonder why we have to try any new initiatives. I listen to and attempt to understand their voices, what they may have endured in the past and assume will have to begrudgingly accept in the future. But I also want to help them recognize that the autonomy that they so preciously guard often masks disconnection and a reluctance to try something new. We cannot simply acknowledge and accept the perspective of those who want to shut their classroom doors and keep the future out; instead, we must insist that good teachers are always in search of better teaching practices, not just “new” teaching practices, as the cynics argue. In fact, good teachers encourage scrutiny, self-reflection, appraisal, and guidance in the endless quest to become great teachers. In turn, though, I recognize, especially from my experience last year, that successful teacher development programs cannot rely on curriculum specialists, technology integration coordinators, or paid outsiders, willing to teach us for a day and then leave. We’ve got to employ the collaborative competency and look to each other in small, informal, personal conversations about what we are doing well and how we would like to improve.

To that end, I’m hoping to begin a professional learning community that starts with the department chairs, a group that I meet with once every other week for an hour. If we can achieve success as a PLC, perhaps each department chair can then model that approach within his or her own discipline. It’s not the ideal construct, but we have to work with what we’re given.

Obviously, the success of a professional learning community depends on one central competency more than any other: collaboration. But few of the books on how to build an effective PLC discuss how to build a team, which I’m not really sure is all that intuitive, especially in a school. In fact, I’ve heard it said that teaching is the second most private act that humans engage in, and I think there’s some merit to that observation. Many teachers like to close their classroom doors and remain unobserved, or at least they think they do. But I also believe that they haven’t seen the enormous growth and progress we can make when we embrace team building.
Recently, I read Patrick Lencioni’s book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, which offers a fabled account of a struggling company, which turns itself around by asking its employees, managers, and owners to act as a team. Lencioni argues, “Not finance. Not strategy. Not technology. It is teamwork that remains the ultimate competitive advantage, both because it is so powerful and so rare.” Summarizing the characteristics of a healthy team, Lencioni concludes, “Teamwork ultimately comes down to practicing a small set of principles over a long period of time. Members of functional teams overcome the natural tendencies that make trust, conflict, commitment, accountability, and a focus on results so elusive.” Although his book primarily addresses the problems of the corporate world, his words echo the central premise of DuFour’s book: a professional learning community should be established that seeks input from key members of the constituency to identify, articulate, model, promote, and protect the shared values that a school deems inviolable. I’d like to offer for discussion in our chair meetings two of DuFour’s “big ideas” that represent the core principles of a PLC.

The first “big idea” is Ensuring Students Learn. On its face, this idea seems patently obvious, but I know from my own experience that I often focus more on what I teach, and not on what students learn. In fact, I’ve noticed lately that the focus in faculty meetings often hinges on the students, whereas chair meetings and, even more so, department meetings tend to shift the spotlight from the student to the teacher. Subject, verbs, and objects matter; they tell us something about how we think. Traditionally, a teacher like myself is apt to state, “I teach English to 9th graders.” But what if we were to begin to say, “9th grade students learn English in my classroom”? It seems like a minor shift, but what would happen if we put the whole weight of our commitment behind those words? DuFour argues that every PLC must engage in an on-going focus on three core questions:

1. What do we want each student to learn?
2. How will we know when each student has learned it?
3. How will we respond when a student experiences difficulty in learning?

The first question requires concerted effort on the part of each faculty member within each department to identify the essential knowledge and skills that all students should learn in the academic year in his or her classroom. This question supports the premise of the backward design philosophy: you must know your final destination before you begin your journey. The second question relates to authentic assessment. Does the assessment and hence a passing grade reflect understanding on the student’s part? Can teachers agree on the criteria by which they will judge a student’s work? Can they be consistent in applying those criteria? Lastly, what type of coordinated strategy on the teacher, dean, parent, and student’s part will ensure that the student is supported to succeed in the classroom? According to DuFour, a PLC must quickly identify students who need guidance. The PLC must focus on intervention, not remediation, recognizing problems before they are too late. And, lastly, the plan must require that students seek assistance, rather than simply invite them for help. The motto, “we must honor a student’s choices, even the bad ones,” is discarded in favor of preventive, active, directed support.

The second “big idea” is A Culture of Collaboration. As DuFour rightly argues, many schools give lip service to the competency of collaboration, preferring to equate it to “congeniality” or “camaraderie” among students and staff. Our school often cites as its greatest asset its emphasis on “community,” which I believe falls into that same category. Don’t get me wrong – a school that functions as a community has much to be proud of. But DuFour’s idea of collaboration challenges the educational status quo: “The powerful collaboration that characterizes professional learning community is a systematic process in which teachers work together to analyze and improve their classroom practice. Teachers work in teams, engaging in an ongoing cycle of questions that promote deep team learning. This process, in turn, leads to higher levels of student achievement.” However, DuFour makes the important distinction that the leader of the team must provide teachers with explicit questions to discuss and tasks to accomplish. He urges educators to remember that “collaboration is a morally neutral activity” that can actually reinforce negative aspects of the school culture. Collaboration only gains value when teachers focus their efforts and inquiry on instruction, curriculum, assessment, and strategies for implementing the vision of the school. Essentially, he argues for a systematic and open approach to how teachers, both individually and collectively, attempt to ensure that all students learn.

His explanation of the value of collaboration exposes the hollowness of autonomy; many teachers want to work alone because it’s safer and predictable. But we cannot encourage our students to take risks and to approach their studies with curiosity and courage if we fail to exhibit these characteristics ourselves. We as teachers need to be talking to other teachers about teaching. As DuFour insists, “Educators must stop working in isolation and hoarding their ideas, materials, and strategies and begin to work together to meet the needs of all students.” After all, if what is working in your classroom is good, why not share it?

Mentoring Program

That last question serves as the impetus for a mentoring program that I will be overseeing next year. As part of my role as Coordinator of Studies and Instruction, I was expected to be the mentor for all new teachers to our school last year. But, as is often the case with new, well-intentioned initiatives, we hadn’t fully fleshed out what that role would actually look like. I observed all new teachers and detailed at length what I saw in their classrooms, highlighting their strengths and recommending how to overcome weaknesses. I built relationships with some mentees who relied on me heavily throughout the year, but I served only a perfunctory role for others, ensuring that they fulfilled minimum requirements. In hindsight, however, I realize that the structure of the program required too much of me as the “go-to” person, when in fact I simply didn’t have the time in my schedule to offer substantive advice or guidance. I’ve fleshed out next year’s strategy so that each mentee will have an advocate, a “buddy” of sorts, who helps them find their way, helps them understand and navigate the culture of the school, and who they will observe as a “model” of successful teaching in our school. In turn, the mentor will observe the mentee, providing positive support and encouragement, but they will not serve in an evaluative position in any way. Mentor and mentee will be advised of the nature of the relationship so that a relationship of trust and candor can develop. The “buddies” are there to help new teachers acclimate themselves to this new setting and to become part of our school “family.” We, as a school, must draw upon the freshness and creativity of new teachers while helping them become seasoned professionals, capable of overcoming the inevitable obstacles that every teacher encounters.

My role in this process will be two-fold. I will work with the chairs to choose a mentor for each new teacher. For this initial year, mentors will not receive a stipend; however, depending on the success of the program, the position may ultimately earn one. In the meantime, we have plenty of passionate, eager teachers who will enjoy serving as “buddies” to new teachers. This is truly a “grass-roots” initiative, which will yield depending on the individuals who agree to participate. One of the central tenets of our school’s mission statement is “service to others,” and I believe that many in our faculty would welcome the opportunity to encourage and support a new teacher to be successful at Holy Innocents’.

Technology and Professional Goals

The last initiative I approach with trepidation. It seems like a simple request to ask a teacher to outline his or her technology and professional goals for the coming school year, and yet I know in my heart that there will be teachers who will only hear in my words potential criticism and a demand for accountability. I cannot discount their suspicion or distrust. It’s bred of a cynicism that results when the high hopes one once had for teaching have been dampened by experience or by the failure to interpret one’s experience accurately. To be honest, I don’t have this part figured out yet. I know that we as teachers should and must set goals for ourselves, but when a teacher doesn’t instinctively believe that to be true or doesn’t trust another individual to encourage them to do so, how can that cynicism be overcome?

Parker Palmer in his book The Courage to Teach refers to the psychologist Erik Erikson’s reflections on adult development, in which he argues that in middle age we face a choice between “stagnation” and “generativity.” Referring to education, Parker explains that stagnation mirrors the disenchantment so many teachers eventually feel and their concomitant cynicism is simply a mask hiding the initial enthusiasm and hope that led these individuals to careers in education to begin with. Parker argues that the way of renewal is called generativity, a combination of the words “creativity” and “generations,” with its “implied imperative that the elders look back toward the young and help them find a future that the elders will not see. Put these two images together, and generativity becomes creativity in the service of the young – a way in which the elders serve not only the young but also their own well-being.”

His words resonated with me, in part, because I don’t believe that you can force someone to set goals if they don’t believe in a better future or in real progress or in a shared vision. Perhaps I overestimate the value of buy-in, but until teachers believe that what they do will make a difference and that they have some control as stakeholders in the process, they will not work toward making that vision a reality.

I do believe that we as teachers must set goals for ourselves each year. I think we need to consider – on paper – what troubled us this year, what we struggled with, ways in which we were not able to reach our students, and likewise what was successful, moments when we connected with students, and lessons that generated enthusiasm, industry, and insight. We need to talk with one another about what worked and what didn’t. We need to help each other gain some objectivity on our lessons and to point out characteristics of the moments that failed and those of the moments when we succeeded. This is true collaboration and connection that is only engendered when people feel a shared sense of purpose and mission.

I hope to begin by offering up my own goals for next year. Throughout this year, and frankly throughout last year too, I struggled with many of my college prep boys who seem to lack motivation and interest in their studies. Not all, of course, but an unhealthy majority, to be honest. The problem is not their minds. The boys are bright, for the most part. They simply lack strong work ethic. They don’t see the value in education and how it might connect to their future success. Their interests lie elsewhere, although they don’t seem to exhibit true joy in those pursuits either. In short, they seem adrift. Certainly, I could complain about that (and truth be told I do), but I sound like the doctor who bemoans that all of her patients come to her sick. My central focus as a teacher should be to transfer understanding, and if the conveyance does not take place, then I need to consider why and what I can do to remedy the situation. I’ve highlighted addressing that problem as my central goal this coming year, and I’ve already begun strategizing ways to combat this crisis.

Conclusion

As a whole, my participation in this cohort this year has been very positive. I began this year as a devoted convert to the “21st century educational” perspective, so it was not difficult for me to fail quickly in line with the cohort’s focus. In looking back over the year and refining my thoughts about “21st century skills,” I retrieved my initial application to the Dobbs Foundation. In responding to a question about how I have been a “force for change” in my community, I wrote,

Education reform today is fighting a battle against culture. In our fast-paced world of cell phones, You-Tube, Facebook, and laptops, students struggle to succeed in the academic world where attentiveness, reflection, persistence, and cooperation are the foundations for achievement. Young people today become frustrated easily and resist intellectual challenge. Their impatience makes them less willing to untangle a complicated mathematics problem, decipher the ancient language of Shakespeare, labor through an intricate science experiment or edit an essay until it exhibits both insight and polish. Frustration restricts a young person's ability to listen, question, and process knowledge gained through study. However, we teachers cannot change the cultural milieu in which our students live, nor can we work against it.
Recognizing the need to compete in our technology driven world, our school has embraced a laptop program from fifth to twelfth grade. The program has earned mixed-reviews. Some teachers argue that since its implementation students talk, think, and engage less. Others find the use of laptops liberating, making the chalk or whiteboard obsolete. Personally, I sympathize with both perspectives. Laptops, unlike other instructional tools, offer tremendous temptation, allowing students to shop, game, and text in class. However, used appropriately, laptops can help support the teacher’s curriculum by aiding research, writing, and critical thinking. I use laptops extensively in my classroom. In developing my curriculum, I identify the desired results that I wish my students to attain, and then plan learning experiences and instruction that will achieve those results. My purpose for integrating technology is two-fold: the various available applications help support the learning results I hope to achieve and students need to become proficient maneuvering through the technological terrain where ideas and information are exchanged.

Perhaps it’s a testament to my own stubbornness, but my perspective remains the same. I’ve sipped the Kool-Aid and developed an appreciation for its taste, but you won’t find me chugging it. In fact, I fear that in some ways our school has tacked too far to the right in the all-too-common slavish devotion to technology. It’s not hard to understand why after all. So much of the current pedagogy that surrounds 21st century technology inspires a rush to action, as though if we do not act immediately and fully, we will lose our global competitiveness and risk reducing our students to lives of humiliating subjugation to other “first world” up-starts who know how to think critically, problem solve, collaborate, act creatively, and connect in ways that we do not. But our fears are unfounded, and our response to our fears dangerous. There’s nothing new about “21st century competencies,” as though we didn’t need to engage in problem solving or think critically until the last ten years. And, of course, we should teach our students to manipulate confidently the new technologies that foster their intellectual development. But I fear the reform has lost sight of the forest for the trees, embarking in uncharted territory without a map or a compass. Instead, they take their cell phones and laptops, hoping to get a signal.

Diana Senechal, in her article “The Most Daring Education Reform of All” published in American Educator this spring, offers sage advice: “Instead of rushing to incorporate 21st-century skills in all aspects of school, instead of embracing change for its own sake, we should pursue perfection in curriculum and pedagogy.” Every student, 11 years and older, in our school carries a laptop wherever he or she goes. We assume that in class, at break, during lunch, and after school, students will unleash their creative impulses via this extraordinary tool. But for the most part I continue to see students remain passive observers, just as they were a mere ten years ago in the 20th century when they endured the outdated lecturing teacher. Worse, I see them lose even the potential to listen as they game, shop, and chat with others, despite the individuals who are within arm’s length. In her article, Senechal cites an old professor of mine from UVA, E.D. Hirsch, who understood that “the central purpose (of education) used to be to create virtuous citizens with enough shared knowledge for all to participate in the publish sphere.” In his seminal but highly controversial work, Cultural Literacy, Hirsch explores the need for core knowledge in order to develop reading comprehension. Students must know something about the world in order to make sense and contribute to it. Senechal additionally offers a secondary purpose of education, “to prepare us for solitude, which is part of every life; if we know how to be alone, then we may be less prone to distractions, escapism, and boredom.” Certainly, man was made for relationships; he was made to connect and collaborate. But man was also made for solitude. Our essential condition requires that we lay down our heads at night with only ourselves to talk to, to sort things through, to come to conclusions. Communing with our fellow man is vital to our health, like nutrients to our body, but the capacity to live in solitude is akin to the very air we breathe. Parker Palmer in his book The Courage to Teach highlights the paradoxical need for both solitude and community: “When it is torn apart, both of these life-giving states of being degenerate into deathly specters of themselves. Solitude split off from community is no longer a rich and fulfilling experience of inwardness; now it becomes loneliness, a terrible isolation. Community split off from solitude is no longer a nurturing network of relationships; now it becomes a crowd, an alienating buzz of so many people and too much noise.”

The “21st century skills” must not overlook the basic human skill that will always endure: the ability to sit in solitude and think. I think we need to ask our students, and even ourselves, whether we are creating and fostering an environment for our students that allows them the peace and quiet to know themselves.