The Times (and the Classrooms) are a-Changin’

Photo Credit: John Wick

you better start swimmin’
Or you’ll sink like a stone – Bob Dylan

I recently had the pleasure of giving a presentation (though it was really more of a discussion) about the removal of textbooks from the classroom.  At the beginning of the presentation, I demonstrated how classroom environments have changed little over the last several centuries.  Think back to your childhood classrooms and more likely than not you’ll picture a square room with rows of desks all facing forward in a straight line. Its the tried and true lecture style of teaching.  We have grown to expect that teachers will be the lone keepers of knowledge, safe in their ivory towers of isolation, doling out bits of wisdom from their state approved tomes of power. The problem is that this line of thinking is woefully outdated and does not accurately reflect the world in which we live.

I cannot remember the last time I ever held a job, or within my career, when I was asked to sit with 30-40 other people in straight rows to complete a task.  Our world has become one that values collaboration.  The ability to quickly adapt to changing circumstances is one of the most vital skills any person can learn.  Yet, we force our students into these artificial rows and accept this as the normal setup for any classroom environment.  What a shame that we automatically think of these environments as necessary.  It’s teacher centered, and diminishes the ability of the students to collaborate.

The picture at the beginning of this blog post [blurred and cartoonified to protect students’ identities] is taken from one of the classrooms at my school.  I had one brave teacher who was willing to take up my challenge and change the way her classroom worked.  I posed the audacious question: “Why do we need student desks?”  Together we pushed the desks out of the classroom and asked the students how they would like to learn.  The results were amazing.

Students brought in bean-bag chars, bouncing chairs, folding chairs, and seating devices I had never seen before.  Parents raised an eyebrow but knew we were trying to do something different, something that would help their children.  Every student in this class has an iPad and we have a projector with an AppleTV that allows the teachers and students to instantly interact with each other on the subject they are learning. We put Ideapaint on the wall and now the entire wall is a creative work surface. We have a few students who like the feel of a desk and they use it at their discretion.  This setup has been a huge success.  Students are engaged and excited to come to school.  Students in other grades are talking about how they also want to have the same setup.

There are difficulties associated with this.  The teacher has to give up decades of indoctrination into the rows and lecture style of teaching.  The teacher has to become a facilitator, a mentor, a collaborator in knowledge making.  The teacher has to be brave enough to sometimes say “I don’t know, lets see if we can find out together.”  It is time we stop blindly walking into our classrooms and accepting what is there simply because it has always been there.

I challenge each of you with a classroom, or you administrators in charge of a school, to walk into  your rooms and look at them with new eyes. See it as a big empty square box and try to remember what the childhood version of you wishes he or she could have as a classroom.  Ask your students to help you.  There is no reason why we have to adhere to models that were designed for lecture halls and Industrial Age societies.  We are all experts in our field of study.  Lets show the world that students come first and that we can help them succeed by giving them the environments they deserve.

If you do nothing else, make one major change to your classroom this week and try it out, the results may surprise you!

As Always I welcome your thoughts and comments on this.  What do you see as the benefits of changing classroom environments? What do you see as the challenges?

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Rebels in the Classroom

standing alone
Creative Commons License Photo Credit: Paul Nicholson via Compfight

In order to exist, man must rebel, but rebellion must respect the limits that it discovers in itself – limits where minds meet, and in meeting, begin to exist – Albert Camus

I had the recent pleasure of watching an edcampHome session called the “Concept and Practice of Rebellion”.  If you’d like to watch the broadcast (it is only 25 minutes) of that session you can click here to view it or copy and paste the full URL: http://www.youtube.com/embed/XYfNg4d3Dto.

This was a wonderful conversation in which Samantha Bates (@sjsbates), Chris Thinnes (@curtisCFEE), Laura Robertson (@Mamarobertson4), Eric (@ericdemore), and Urbie (@urbie) met to discuss the concept and practice of rebellion as it relates to students in the classroom.

The session participants were very well spoken and provided an excellent discussion on the topic. Three main themes emerged that merit review and further discussion.

  1. Negative connotations associated with the word “rebellion”
  2. Teachers’ response to rebellion
  3. Constructive Rebellion.

I’d like to provide a brief viewpoint of each of these and would love to hear your thoughts on the topic.

Negative Connotations

“Rebellion”  – The word almost instantly generates images of those who are rising up against something and taking action (often in violent ways).  The origin of the word is situated from the Latin “Bellum” which means “War”. Chris Thinnes  beautifully illuminated this when he stated that rebellion is a “pejorative, insubordination, trespass against cultural norms.”  However, he also states that rebellion is necessary to give voices to our students to ask critical questions.  Therefore, rebellion is not always reviewed as negative; after all, if it were, I hardly believe we would celebrate our own rebellion from the British Crown.

As is often the case, perspective plays a central role in understanding rebellion. I’m reminded of an Addams Family quote, which in part states “…What is normal for the spider is chaos for the fly”.  Without going into an axiological tirade of postmodern thought, I think it is safe to say that rebellion is a perception.  It is the perception of the student committing the act of rebellion and the perception of those in authority that makes the act a “rebellion.” Urbie brings up a good point that what we may be discussing as rebellion is actually asking students to think critically and always doubt what they’re being told.

Laura Robertson asks the important question: “How do we put rebellion into a more positive light?” Eric responded that one way would be to “stop calling it rebellion.” Maybe it’s the rebel in me, but I’m more inclined to continue calling it rebellion.  Only through using the word continuously to describe the acts we perceive as rebellion will the term become one that we own and that precisely describes the rebellious actions our students take. After all as Paulo Freire stated “language is never neutral.” With this in mind we need to examine the response of those in authority (teachers) to rebellion.

Teachers’ Response to Rebellion

During the conversation Eric hit on one of the major issues that arise from student rebellion: teachers’ responses to rebellion.  Often times when a student questions authority or the status quo they are met with an immediate shutdown tactic. Often, the teacher usually develops a negative view of the student and tells the student to simply follow the directions or rules. As Laura stated, our educational colleagues often view rebellion as insubordination that is to be avoided. I think Eric beautifully explained this point when he stated the professional quandary that educators face in these situations when he asked, “Are we [educators] going to try to stop rebellion in its tracks, or are we going to try to yield some type of teachable moment from it?”

Samantha Bates brought up a good point in that often times disruptive students are labeled as rebellious when they are often just confused.  Teachers need to really understand what the student is going through; they should be supportive of active inquiry rather than shutting it down in a totalitarian display of authority. Once more I am drawn to Freire’s line of thinking: “Any situation in which some men [teachers] prevent others [students] from engaging in the process of inquiry is one of violence;… to alienate humans [students] from their own decision making is to change them into objects.”  Our goal is to help our students become critical thinkers and to have the ability to give voice to their opinions.

Samantha Bates expresses one of the greatest fears of teachers when she stated that “The Boston Tea Party was a rebellion, but I don’t want my students going on a rampage in my classroom.” I think this describes most teachers… there’s a natural fear of losing control, of admitting that we do not have all the answers, however in admitting that we do not have all the answers we become co-constructors of knowledge with the students.  I’ve found some of my most positive teaching moments took place when the students and I worked together to find the answer to a question.

To this end, I believe that we need to open up our classrooms and schools to become environments in which we are open to this type of dialogue. I would love to see this take place as a bottom-up initiative where teachers begin to form this type of environment, yet there will always be those who actively resist such environments.  In such cases it becomes necessary to have a top-down model.

The school, as an institution, must create the environment and hold teachers accountable for their support, or lack of support for the practice of encouraging student inquiry. Chris Thinnes explains that “when the institution has created a space (schoolwide) in its vision to hear students’ concerns… teachers tend to feel either empowered or obligated to create that space (ability for students to rebel).  As Freire stated, “If the structure [classroom or school] does not permit dialogue the structure must be changed.”

Constructive Rebellion

Our goal must then be to foster the spirit of rebellion within our students and to provide the environment in which they may actively voice such rebellion.  Samantha Bates expertly observed that that “rebellion stems from change – it is recognizing something amiss and wanting to change it; our job as educators is to teach students how to constructively rebel.”  Eric described a time when his students rebelled with the guidance of teachers as an act that was focused, organized, and controlled rebellion.

Controlled Rebellion?  Isn’t that a contradictory phrase?  I believe that Camus quote at the beginning of this post adequately answers this question:

“In order to exist, man must rebel, but rebellion must respect the limits that it discovers in itself – limits where minds meet, and in meeting, begin to exist.”

Camus hit on an epistemological foundation in realizing that where minds meet, the dialogue between individuals and sharing of concepts is of paramount importance to the human condition and very act of rebellion. To ignore this limit and forgo the respect of these limits creates a situation contrary to the natural state of human existence.

We must therefore help our students to find and express their voices.  This doesn’t mean that we acquiesce to their every rebellious action or inquiry (after all there are many examples of rebellions that have not been successful), rather it is our duty to help students begin to actively participate in the act of their own existence.  We learn as much from our successes as well as those times in which we do not succeed.

Laura Robertson stated that, “We want to create students that are actively engaged citizens.” Eric describes this type of rebellion as “the difference between being active and being passive.”  We should be encouraging our students to become more active in their daily experiences.  Only through action can they begin to understand and authentically connect the lessons they learn in school to the reality in which they live.

Samantha Bates stated, “I feel like I am rebellious and I enjoy rebellious students.”  I couldn’t agree more; we are duty bound to inspire the rebellious spirit of critical inquiry and action within our students. Our future will be defined by the actions and voices of our students, as they become adults. Let us give them the experiences and tools necessary to expertly wield their causes; otherwise, we risk creating a generation of what Tom Petty termed rebels without a clue.

As always I welcome your conversation. What are your experiences with rebellion in the classroom? How do you deal with students who challenge the status quo? I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter.

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Gen X in Education: Don’t be Late

Generation X

Creative Commons License Photo Credit: Chrisinplymouth from Flickr

Our little group has always been and always will until the end – Nirvana

I’ve been mulling over what it means to be a member of a generation that is smaller than the generation that came before it and the generations that have followed. You see, I’m a member of that “forgotten” generation known as Gen X. Ive been reading “X Saves the World” and finding it entertaining and informative. Because this generation is a minority sandwiched between the Baby Boomers, Y gen, and Mellennials, I’ll fully understand if you skip reading this post and move on to other compositions that appeal to the masses. However, if you are compelled to read further, then I welcome you to this reflective piece of writing.

At the beginning of this school year I sat in a room with other administrators to hear a presenter give a speech on generational differences. He asked those in attendance to raise a hand if they were born between certain years. As he did this a vast majority went up for the Baby Boomer generation. Then he came to my range. I sat in the front row and raised my hand when he asked who was born between 1965-1980. I saw an interesting look cross his face as he noted me then scanned the room and stated “just you?” I glanced around the room and apparently it was true; I was the only administrator who was a member of Generation X. I thoroughly enjoyed his speech, however it was tailored to the Boomer principals dealing with Mellennials. I found myself in the unique position of reversing a great deal of what he said to help me work with my Boomer-Mellennial faculty.

Many of the traits associated with Gen X are vital to pushing education in new directions that have the potential to help improve student learning. Here are just a few traits associated with my compatriots:

  • Expects immediate and ongoing feedback & is comfortable giving feedback to others
  • Independent
  • Resilient
  • Highly adaptable
  • Dislike authority & rigid work environments
  • Eager to learn new skills
  • Works to live does not live to work
  • Not impressed by titles
  • Technically competent

The list goes on and on. As I read through the list above, I find that there is a need for each of these qualities in order to make significant changes to education. It would seem that built into the very fiber of my generation is a need to ask “why” something is done rather than to blindly accept what has always been. This is a valuable asset when taking up arms to challenge educational practices that have been in place for more than a century.

I’m under no delusion, we also have our weaknesses. Gen Xers can be overly confident. We can sometimes push forward and think, in our own naïveté that we know best. It’s a double edged sword. Sometimes that confidence is necessary to ignite real change and to weather the maelstroms that threaten to sink our initiatives. Other times, our disdain for authority hinders our ability to change course when the rockets come at us sideways. However, more often than not, it’s a benefit rather than a weakness.

Being a member of the minority generation perhaps means that even as more and more people become administrators, the number of Gen X administrators will always be small. However this should in no way hinder our ability to affect real, significant change in education. We may be a small group when it comes to generation population numbers, but we are also innovative thinkers who desire new methods of solving old problems.

I am the first Gen X principal in my diocese; an honor and a pressure that I embrace. I consider myself the first shot fired across the bow by Generation X to herald innovative, revolutionary change in Catholic education in my diocese. However, I cannot do it alone. It will be with the help of my Boomer, Y, and Mellennial colleagues that we truly improve student learning. I may be at the helm of the ship I call my school, but it is the crew that must trust in the direction in which I steer our course. Conversely, I must trust to the strengths and skills of the other generations that sail with me.

Gen X may be a small generation, however we have the potential to enact real, significant change. I call upon my brothers and sisters of my generation to stand up and apply for leadership positions in education. The time to make our voices heard is now. In the words of Nirvana (a symbol of Gen X):

“Take your time, hurry up, the choice is yours. Don’t be late”.

Perhaps it’s that last line that means the most. We (Gen Xers) do things the way we want, but we are rapidly approaching the point where we may be too late to affect change. So don’t be late my fellow X colleagues. We need principals with your unique qualities.

I found this to be an interesting reflection on my generation and value your feedback and thoughts. I would love it if you would share with me a comment or two on this topic.

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