Classroots Manifesto

The following post originally appeared at The Edurati Review. Thank you to Chad Ratliff for the cross-post.

Edustat Reflection: The Nouns and Verbs of Ed Reform
By Chad Sansing
@classroots on Twitter

“#edustat singing right reform song,” @flemster via Twitter

Current state and desired state. The stuff and why the stuff matters. Nouns and verbs. Receiving and producing. Teaching and learning. Grades and learning. Access and achievement. School work and real work. Failure and aspiration. This year’s EduStat University sprung from the tension created by these pairings, as well as from THE question:

Can you call it “reform” if it’s not scalable for the entire system?

That’s a tough question, a gut-check question, posed by Andy Rotherham of Eduwonk and other attendees. Can we grow out programs like Expeditionary Learning? Can we make sure every teacher sees Marco Torres teach? Will national standards be performance- and mastery-based and assessed by portfolio? Are we ready to say, as an educational system, that despite the shortcomings of NCLB, we wouldn’t be looking at other sobering and compelling measures (like minority graduation rates from 4-year colleges) without it? Are we ready to admit that we’ve had 21st century skills for millennia, but haven’t begun to teach them systematically? Are we ready to act? That’s not rhetorical.

For educators, these questions reverberate. They are the essential questions in the backwards design of reform, the motivating discontents of our best selves, the questions that keep us wired, driving or flying home through the night from summer conferences. These are the questions we keep answering an hour later, the next day, the next week, revising and revising until we feel like we’re at the cusp of an almighty, transcendent apotheosis of educational practice that will forever change our students, schools, the fabric of our society and its view of teaching as a profession. It’s all so clear and compelling.

And then for us, the desperate mass of teachers, school starts. In the face of the system and its inhabitants – administrators, colleagues, and kids – old habits return. The pressures mount: peers, policies, tests, and that one kid you can never reach, the kid whom no one ever reaches. We revert to teaching as we have taught before, or as we have been taught before. We engage in our PLC work to improve the test scores that we’re encouraged to see as the ultimate measure of student achievement. We hold ourselves accountable to the system. We engage in school work right there in front of the kids. What are we teaching them? What are they learning from that? The student panel at EduStat said kids learn that the further you go in your education, the more grades matter, while learning matters less and less.

Say it with me: it’s not our fault. We have all worked with incredibly driven, dedicated people who make students’ achievement their first priority, but so long as we measure achievement by the current testing model, we’re hamstringing our colleagues and our kids. I wish I had the skills many of my peers and mentors have for improving student achievement. I also wish we were all expected to offer students more than the “hope” of passing a test.

So, how do we scale up reform? Well, how do you scale up engagement? Marco Torres said it’s our job to make sure kids want to come back the next day. How do you do that? How do we teachers accomplish such a feat without control of the big picture, the policy-level, budget-driven levers? Can we all equip our classrooms as filmmaking studios? Can we design the new school or addition to create flexible, social spaces for learning? Do we have the money on hand to bring in a program, a consultant, to push a new paradigm into our neighbors’ classrooms?

Yes and no. Like so much in education, reform exists in a quantum state. It is a systemic need, but it relies on individual action. Reform is an emergent, complex behavior that depends on teachers’ practice to move from noun to verb.

But how about this? How about we scale up student achievement in our classrooms? How about we find what really engages each kid instead of using those “standardized” tricks of ours that “engage” the “kids who want to learn.” Every kid wants to learn. As Tony Wagner said, our kids are motivated to learn, but they’re motivated to learn differently from us, as well as from one another.

How do we scale up engagement in our classrooms? In teaching about schooling by design, Jay McTighe said to start small, with the people already doing the work. So start small.

Start with yourself and maybe a trusted colleague or Twitter friend. Stop thinking about what’s engaging, and look at what engages the students. What media are they using? What learning are they doing outside school? As Wagner and Torres said, ask which skills students turn off during the school day, that they could be using in your classroom. Build with inquiry in mind. Find which of Schlechty’s dimensions of engagement work and use them regularly. Read Sullo on what motivates these students. Design your classroom space so there’s a campfire, cave, and watering hole – areas for instruction, reflection, and social learning (via Bob Moje, VMDO architect). Stop measuring yourself against what good teaching looks like and consider what learning looks like. Students want to produce and collaborate; don’t stick to lessons and rules that get in the way. Create structures that promote inquiry and provide students with chances to show you what they learn. Facilitate students’ learning; don’t deliver content or teaching.

Or start ever smaller. Pick a goal – a lesson, a unit, a class – and ask yourself what it would look like if you and your students related to one another as human beings learning together instead of as teacher and students. Engage students in human relationships and you will learn how to make class relevant to them. The work you provide, the rigor, will reflect how positively you view every child, and the kids will read your passion and care through your work. EduStat student panelists were very frank: students can tell how the year is going to go in your classroom in the first 5 minutes. With that in mind, what should your room look like, how should the learning be designed, and how should you relate to your students? What kind of learning will make them want to come back the next day? Find your vision and act on it; persist and revise and accept some failure as a necessary part of positive change. Work with your administrator so you both understand the nuances and larger context for your vision, then agree on measures of accountability on both sides.

Most importantly, ask your students to do real work. There’s no more powerful sign of your willingness to form positive relationships with all your kids than trusting them to create work affirmed and evaluated by an audience beyond your classroom. Whether your class follows the Expeditionary Learning model and crafts a publishable field book of local habitats, or produces a series of history podcasts or plays for third-graders, make your students accountable to real-world measures of success. Connect the stuff and why students are doing the stuff. There is evidence everywhere of students mastering standardized content through authentic work on the ‘Net and in our backyards. We can do this.

Yes, we can reform education in our classrooms; no, we can’t scale it up on our own, but it takes individual action to cause change. Imagine if we held ourselves accountable for our classrooms and for working regularly and intentionally with peers engaged in the same work. Imagine class roots reform. On our teams, in our grades, in our schools, we have enough influence to make learning better for kids, and our students’ expectations of learning will change and follow them from class to class, influencing what they ask of others and making them less satisfied with the status quo, including the status quo of the work they do just to get by or to get an A.

The reform song is written; it’s time we started singing – accepting as fact that the first time we sight-read it, we’re going to be off-key. The song isn’t anything without the singing, and we won’t ever build a choir if we don’t start practicing our parts.

Let us know how you and your colleagues are reforming classroom practice this year to connect kids and learning at school. Please follow and contribute to a conversation on authentic engagement on twitter with the hash-tag #AE