Unlearning

In education, obviously we talk constantly about learning. That’s our job here, right? Fostering learning, assessing learning, innovating learning experiences, understanding learners.

But as teachers, we have a lot of unlearning to do, too, especially when it comes to how we “manage” our classrooms. Many educators replicate the systems of classroom management that they themselves experienced, without often pausing to wonder whether the underlying philosophy of this “classroom management” is the right one.

I recently read Alfie Kohn’s book Beyond Discipline  for the first time. I’ve been familiar with Kohn for a while and my previous school was heavily influenced by his philosophy, but reading his book was invigorating. I highlighted approximately half of every page. Kohn’s overall premise is that a focus on compliance in our schools harms children and adults, and we can do better by developing community instead: “the more we ‘manage’ students’ behavior and try to make them do what we say, the more difficult it is for them to become morally sophisticate people who think for themselves and care about others” (p. 62).

It sounds great in practice – but it takes so much unlearning for educators who have spent their whole lives in systems that value compliance. So many teachers are also in positions where compliance is demanded of them every day by administrators, state decision-makers, federal laws. Kohn quotes de Charms: “When teachers are treated as pawns, they don’t teach, they become drill sergeants.” Teachers need not only to unlearn how they were taught, but also actively swim against the tide of compliance that is the reality of many schools.

So how do we unlearn? First, I think we need to connect to the big picture. For me, this could look like reading books from my favorite educational philosophers, or books that challenge my understanding of the status quo, or seeking out articles from diverse perspectives. I need to expand my worldview, and in doing so, take apart and discard the parts that don’t serve me or my students anymore.

Connecting to the big picture can also look like dreaming together with other educators – whether that’s attending a conference, and Edcamp, or simply talking with a teacher friend over dumplings about the dreams we have for our students.

Unlearning also takes practice. I’ve been thinking about both/and – we need to think about and talk about the big picture, but we also need concrete ways to test things out. In thinking about unlearning “classroom management,” a couple of concrete ways to try it out include the CPS model and restorative circles. I find that when I commit to trying something concrete, I can practice not only the actual strategy, but managing the feelings of frustration and uncertainty that come in the midst of a change of philosophy.

Unlearning is difficult, especially when everyone is telling us that the “way it’s always been” is the way it should always be. But as Kohn says, “to create a classroom where students feel safe enough to challenge each other – and us – is to give them an enormous gift” (p. 77). Unlearning compliance and embracing a messier version of community is the foundation of a healthy democracy. That’s the direction I want to move with my students.

Beyond curating and sharing – how Cybraryman teaches on Twitter

I have to admit – at first I didn’t see what the big deal was about Cybraryman.

Okay, he has lots of links. That’s cool, I guess. Web curation takes some time and effort and I appreciated that. But there were still so many links! So many resources on each page! What made this different from all the other repositories of links out there?

As you know if you’re reading this and you know anything about Cybraryman, what makes the difference is Jerry. The teacher makes the difference.

I stand by my original impression that if you come to the Cybrary on your own, through its main page, you might be kind of overwhelmed. There are tons of topics, and subtopics, and sub-sub-topics, and dozens of links for each. The Cybrary is not necessarily a good resource for the casual browser.

But in our classrooms, when do we ever lay out all of the content about everything we’re going to teach the entire year, and allow students to just poke around? I doubt we’d engage many kids that way. Yeah, one or two things might be flashy and catch the eye, but curriculum needs context, and that’s one of the main roles of the teacher. Have you ever had the experience of reading a so-called “classic” book on your own and not enjoying it – but having the opposite experience when read with a teacher or a class? Teachers lend context, nuance, and guidance, and help us make sense of the world around us.

That brings me back to Cybraryman, also known as Jerry Blumengarten. I’ve only had the pleasure of meeting Jerry face-to-face once, at EdCamp Boston, but he’s a constant fixture in my Twitter feed. And what Jerry’s doing there is teaching.

You see, Jerry doesn’t just blindly promote the Cybrary at any old time, linking folks to the front page and telling them good luck from there. No, Jerry does what great teachers do – he listens.

You can tell he’s doing it by watching where he crops up during an #edchat or an #sschat. During a conversation about alternative models for professional development, he’ll link to the Cybrary’s EdCamp page. While #engchat is discussing the pros and cons of project-based learning, there’s Jerry with his projects page. If there’s buzz on Twitter around a big Apple announcement, Jerry will provide you with his iPads page.

Jerry listens, and he responds with resources. He lends context to conversations – talking about group work? Here’s a collaboration page. He puts his resources in context – here’s my page on differentiated instruction, since we’re talking about meeting individual student needs. He shares his own experiences and then provides external sources so that we can further explore based on our need and desire to learn.

We can learn some great lessons about teaching here. Students need to be directed toward the best resources the web has to offer. They need context, and the timing has to be right. We can show off flashy technology tools all we want, but without a meaningful situation in which to use them, we might as well not bother.

We can also all aspire to do more on Twitter and in online professional development networks. Let’s not limited ourselves to sharing, curating, and connecting – let’s teach one another.

So here’s a tip of my hat to you, Jerry, and thanks for teaching us all!

Experiment: Using Google Calendar to Hold Us Accountable on Goals

You know the feeling: you participate in some great professional development, you attend a thought-provoking conference. You generate ideas and you set goals for yourself. Then you go back to school on Monday, and the tidal wave of Stuff To Do overwhelms all your good intentions.

This summer I facilitated a professional development group on ISTE’s Essential Conditions as they relate to our school. We came up with some awesome long- and short-term goals. I’m trying something new to help keep us on track with those goals.

Using Google Calendar, I set myself periodic reminders, and enabled an email notification so I’m extra-sure I don’t miss them. I asked each group member to write out their goals within the time frame of the next year, so in each reminder’s description area I put a narrative of where we should all be in our goals at that point.

I’m hoping that this external reminder will give me the little jolt I need to hold myself and the other group members accountable for those goals we made. I’ll let you know how things are going when I get the first reminder!