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On Friday, I attended an event called Memories Matter: Stories of the Holocaust. To my right sat Holocaust survivors. Behind me sat students ages 13-18. In front of me sat local and state officials. To my left, representatives of philanthropies. We came together to celebrate middle- and high-school student for using writing and art to reflect what they learned from Holocaust testimony. This was a room full of stories and storytellers.

When keynote speaker Esther Safran Foer made her presentation, you could feel the collective awe.

The daughter of Holocaust survivors, Foer now directs a synagogue in Washingon, D.C. One of her sons, Jonathan, wrote “Everything is Illuminated” and “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.” Her other son, Joshua, wrote “Moonwalking with Einstein.” I had heard of her sons, and read their work. Her short presentation at the awards ceremony had an incredibly powerful impact, however — much like testimony can.

I can’t do justice to her story, in which she recounted her quest to learn about the half sister she never knew. I can only tell you that no one could have done a better job introducing a day intended to celebrate story, memory, learning, testimony, and survival. The students who won prizes each received cash, and a study trip to Washington. They, like Esther Safran Foer, had the chance to read their work aloud in the auditorium on Friday. A poetry winner read his prize winning poem about how conflicted he felt facing a bright future watching the testimony of a woman who appeared about the face a bright future until the Holocaust robbed her of almost everything. She, now in her 80s, sat in the chair just in front of me and to my right. She nodded as she listened to the poetry, to the young man who said he prayed for her, and I noticed she remained dry-eyed, while I wept quietly behind her.

I can’t think of a better prize for such a contest than a study trip to Washington, D.C. where they will get to meet again with the remarkable Esther Safran Foer.

I was humbled to be in a room full of such powerful storytellers, teachers and learners, both young and old.

Today I spent the day at PLAY! As part of a working group (affiliated with PLAY! — Participatory Learning and You!), I had the great fortune to contribute to a diverse gathering of educators researching, designing, and implementing participatory professional development. Some of the people in the group are widely published thought leaders, and others are dedicated practitioners, yet even in our own group, we worked hard to define our most basic terms, asking key questions like, “What does participation mean?”  These questions led us in fascinating and important directions, as we debated if a lecture could be participatory, confronted the danger of top-down language, and determined that we do not, in fact, all need to share the same definition of participatory, as long as we unpack our own definitions via our work.

Anyone who has worked with me previously will appreciate how much I enjoyed discussing the necessity for participatory design for participatory professional development; it’s something I’ve advocated for over the years.

Full of reading, writing, thinking, brainstorming, wondering, talking and working, today was brain candy. I am fascinated by the way educators learn, and in turn how they then are best empowered to create learning experiences for others.

I have a passion for designing professional development, but today I was the one developing professionally, and in a very transparent, organic, participatory way. What could be better?

Today I had the opportunity to talk to the founding principal of a charter high school that will open in the fall. Her school won’t look or sound like any high school you are likely to imagine, and I liked so many things about what she said that I felt compelled to list them for you:

  • She said her school will be a hybrid. Does that mean that students will use technology to help them learn? Sure, but it means a lot more than that. Her school will be open seven days a week, 12 hours a day, so students can have flexibility in their schedules.
  • She said her school will not lower its expectations for any learner. The standards they set are non-negotiable. But she also talked about the social-emotional cognition and development having as much importance as any other goals.
  • Where is this school? No one knows yet. So far, no building has worked out, either due to finances, or zoning, or unexpected issues. She remained unfazed. “If I have to get a trailer, I will, but we are opening a school in September.”
  • Has she hired her staff yet? No. When she does, though, they need to know they need to do a month of professional development. In the summer. What will they do? They will start by learning together, and doing some of the very same activities they will be asking of the students.
  • During the induction of the first class, all students will write poems about themselves. Each year, they will revisit their poems, and revise them.

Why didn’t they have high schools like this in the 80s? I would have loved it.

I went to elementary school in the 1970s.

From my perspective, I had a more innovative education that my seven-year-old, and than too many other kids today.

Yes, these kids have iPads. But if all they do is math drills, they’d be better stepping back in time to my childhood, when my teachers let us invent our own games.

Yes, today’s schools have the Internet. If they never connect with anyone outside their own walls, my former teachers could give them a lesson on the power of pen pals.

Twenty-first century teachers often have projection tools to showcase the presentations they make. In fifth grade, Mrs. Moeschler gave the task of presenting to kids, whether it was through shadow stories on the wall, poetry performance, making speeches… and she gave us choices. I struggled with something, and she assigned me a peer helper. I worked above grade level in reading, and she let me design my own classroom lending library in an expansive walk-in closet during a unit she felt would not meet my needs.

I see amazing innovation going on in education around the country. I am blown away by some of the examples. I joyfully follow the innovative work of dedicated educators through journals, Twitter, conferences, and face-to-face connections. These change agents fight an uphill battle. It’s hard to understand why, on the most essential level, without pointing at a million excuses — and I refuse to get political about it today. I just want to go on the record and say we need to fix it. Now.

I believe in innovation. Not just edtech or technology; I lobbied for years to take the word “technology” out of my last title. I believe in the power of innovation to help remedy the giant disaster that I see in too many schools. I want to be part of the change. I want to make today’s schools more innovative, more successful, for my kids and their generation than even the quality schools I attended in the 70s and 80s. Who is in?

Last week, I attended a conference hosted by USC’s Center for Enrollment Research, Policy and Practice. The focus was 21st Century Skills and Knowledge: The New High School Curriculum and the Future of Assessment. Presentations from educational leaders in higher ed and K-12, as well as from the College Board, Educational Testing Services, International Baccalaureate, and University of Cambridge International Examinations, discussed the need for rethinking the way we assess learners, including both cognitive and noncognitive approaches. While promoting Common Core, even the large testing agencies expressed the importance of collaborative learning, complex problem solving, critical thinking, and multiple measures of assessment in developing 21st century learners.

Let me be blunt: I think many of our K-12 schools are failing at this. As a parent and an educator, I do not see enough attention to collaborative learning, complex problem solving, critical thinking, and multiple measures of assessment in developing 21st century learners.

Some of my favorite take-aways and reminders from the conference:

* It is wrong to focus on students growing up to become taxpayers. We need to focus on helping them become responsible people with wit and humanity.

* An important life skill is knowing how to concentrate on an unwelcome activity for more than a half an hour.

* The whole point of assessment should be on improving education.

* When you single out to educational elements to assess (such as math and literacy) you run the grave risk of excluding other essential elements.

* “Do not confuse motion with action.”

* Twenty-six percent of American k-12 kids go on to get a degree.

* There are 3 million teachers in the United States. Professional development is crucial. However, no one wants to fund teacher education research.

* Rod Chu said, “Educators seems to be like those who deny global warming is occurring. Where is our union of concerned educators crying for action by our own educators to rescue our future?” He also said, “If indeed it takes a village we need to get out of our ivory towers…We need to get beyond eduspeak and express cognitive and noncognitive standards in a way our students and their families can understand.”

* Someone said that trying to change education is like trying to turn the Queen Mary. You need to start five miles ahead of time.

* It is wrong to see technology’s advantage as being in cost-savings. Even if the tools are not expensive, effective use of technology does not come with a tiny price tag.


I recently attended a compelling conference called Technology, Knowledge and Society, hosted at UCLA.

At one session, BYU professor Brent Adams talked about how much his practice changed after a study about graduates in the work force revealed these perceived weaknesses:

  • they had no understanding of quality
  • they had weak communication skills
  • they had been taught to work primarily as individuals, and not as groups

Now, his students work together for a year to make a movie. They rely heavily on a software that they learn about largely through online tutorials, they vote one student to be the producer, and they collaboratively generate about 2.5 million files. They leverage social media tools and wikis to communicate and collaborate, used available online tools for software training. Every Wednesday, the students meat online in raltime with three or for people from Dreamworks for a half an hour by video conference. “As a professor, I don’t know half the stuff they are doing, and that’s okay,” he said. Adams doesn’t grade anymore either. Students give themselves grades. He will intervene if he really disagrees.

So much of what he said resonated for me, and fits with my notion of authentic, student-driven, 21st century education. They weren’t new ideas to me, they just exemplified how successful students can be when these ideas are put into practice; Adams’ students have won eleven student Emmy awards, and four student Academy Awards, among other higher honors.

The thing that Adams said that struck me as most novel, put in a way I hadn’t thought about before, had to do with cheating. “There are two ways to cheat in my class,” he said. One is to take credit for someone else’s work. The other? To have knowledge that would help someone in the class, and not offer it. As I thought about this, someone else pushed back and asked why that is cheating. Adams answered, “It cheats society.”

I’ve been contemplating this notion ever since.

What more can you ask for from a conference session than that?

 

I believe that schools exist to help learners understand themselves as learners, and to prepare them to learn and work independently, collaboratively, and interdependently.

While I believe there is some importance to what subjects are taught, I do not believe the subject matter is as important as the process of learning, the interest in learning, and the skills of learning, which are crucial. Our society needs learners who know how to think analytically and solve problems. In Curriculum 21, Heidi Hayes Jacobs describes a much-needed mind shift that needs to take place in education: “FROM knowing right answers TO knowing how to behave when answers are not readily apparent.” I don’t see any way to achieve this in a one-size model. By definition, metacognitive education requires differentiation, because we do not all think or process the same as one another.

I also believe that a crucial purpose of schooling is socialization and the development of interpersonal skills. All people are unique individuals, and they vary tremendously in their talents, interests, and styles, but they can learn through education how to work together for the maximum benefit to all.

Differentiated classrooms do more than teach each individual in a way that resonates; differentiated classrooms afford a model in which learners discover crucial truths about a differentiated society, and how to be part of a community.

I have always like the tag line Kathie Nunley uses with her Layered Curriculum: “because every student deserves a special education.”