Monday, December 5, 2016

It's About Them

I watched “A Very Merry Mix Up,” one of those Hallmark Christmas movies, last night. I can tolerate them, but my wife absolutely adores them. In this particular movie, Alice was engaged to Will because their partnership was convenient; they had a similar vision of where their lives were headed. Through a strange twist of fate, when this woman traveled to visit his family for the first time for the holidays, she ended up at the wrong house and met another man, Matt, with whom she truly fell in love. The moral of that movie is that love is all about timing. When Alice broke up with Will, he said he knew it was coming because something didn’t feel right; their timing was off.

Like Will at the end of this movie, something doesn’t feel right to me in the field of education. But it’s not just me. Other teachers feel it, too, and so do the students. We’re all in a partnership together because of convenience. Entire groups of students graduate together because they were conveniently born in the same year and go to the same school. I happen to work at a particular school, which means that I teach this group of students. I’m not chosen to be their English teacher because of my specific interests, skill set, nor my extraordinary teaching talent; I’m their English teacher because I am in the right place at the right time.

Will Richardson, a former English teacher turned speaker and school consultant, at the 2016 International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) conference said that “We are at a point in schools when we have to change our internal reality.” The current reality is that teachers attempt to find new ways of doing the same thing that they have done for years, and a standardized test is given at the end of the school year because it’s an easy and convenient (and unreliable) way to measure students’ growth and, in Tennessee, teachers’ abilities to create that growth.

So what would this change in our internal reality look like? It has to begin and end with the students. At my high school, they go to seven classes a day and experience seven teachers with sometimes complete opposite teaching styles, teaching philosophies, and academic expectations. This student experience is common across the country, and it results in students nationwide being sent the message that the school experience isn’t created for them. They’re correct. It’s interesting, and somewhat amazing to me, that high school graduation rates in Tennessee and across the country continue to climb and are at an all-time high. I wonder if the high school diploma means that we have successfully met the needs of that student, or if the student has done a good job of complacently jumping through hoops. My hunch is that the honest answer is somewhere in the middle.

In any case, we are teaching a millennial, “it’s all about me,” generation and if public education is going to thrive in the future, then we have no other choice but to adapt and meet the needs of our students. Instead of teachers finding new ways of doing the same things they’ve done before, more of us really need to try new things. Some will work, and some won’t, but then the students will see that we’re learning with them. The answer to the question “How do kids learn best?” should drive everything we do in our classrooms. When students ask “Why do I need to learn this?” then the relevance of the lesson isn’t clear, and the teacher should be able to explain it. Since I’m asking questions, I’ll throw one more out there. It’s good practice, I think, for teachers to ask themselves, “Would I want to be a student in my own classroom?” I frequently think about my daughters, who are 11 and 6, when I ask myself this question. I give the great Dave Burgess credit for planting that last question in my brain.

Providing a quality education is not necessarily convenient. Returning to my original analogy: in the education field, it feels like our timing is off, like we’re merely going through the motions. At the risk of sounding cliche, life really is all about timing. It’s time to reduce or eliminate standardized testing, because there’s nothing standard about the students I teach every day. It’s time to reinvent our lessons and try something new. It’s time to put students at the center of our lessons and learn with them.

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