Why Change When We’re Doing All Right?

It’s a fair question. We’re busy people. Busy teachers, busy administrators, busy staff. Change takes time and effort. Change can be scary and change can result in failure.

But if we don’t change, if we don’t ask ourselves what we could be doing better, we start to stagnate. Things around us are moving. And if we let the busyness consume us, we may turn around and find, perhaps years later, that things weren’t as all right as we thought they were. If we don’t change, we avoid risk-taking and in the process lose out on an opportunity to model risk-taking for our students.

I think the question of “Why change?” can be an especially tricky one for many independent schools. Because of our resources and traditions, it can be easy to tell ourselves that change is unneeded or perhaps even dangerous. The recession and a decline in enrollment pushed some schools to consider change, but the best time to think about change is when it’s a choice, not a necessity.

In the Discussing Change in the Well-Functioning School session at EduCon this morning, there was great discussion about how to lead conversations about change in places where things are basically alright. Sometimes that change is imposed from an outside entity and sometimes a leader or group is looking for a way to nudge change from within. Participants shared a host of questions, suggestions, and thoughts related to the opportunities and challenges talking about change can bring. 

Talking and thinking about change, on a personal or school-wide level, starts with reflection- What are the strengths of our school community? In what ways do I feel most alive as a teacher? In what areas does our school least reflect its mission statement? What are the unspoken assumptions we make that may or may not be true? In ways do I stand in the way of my students learning?

(De)Constructing Texts

Over the next several weeks, students in my Upper School class will begin teaching the class on their self-selected topics. Teaching the class is part of the cumulative project for the class. Students have been researching their topics and interviewing an expert about the topic. One of the challenges of asking students to select topics that interest them is to help them incorporate not only current controversy and their personal opinions/experience, but also dig into the history of the topic and view it with an analytic eye.

Before students began teaching their lessons, I wanted to have a discussion about the types of topics they’ve chosen and their place within what has traditionally been thought of as material integral to history courses (aka what gets covered in textbooks). This year students’ topics include the history of…

transportation and commerce
collegiate sports
role of firearms in war
government involvement in healthcare
organization of political parties
race and sports
religion’s influence on political issues
popular literature’s reflection of culture
blood donation/supply
cancer treatment
sports and the economy
information sharing, storage and usage
advertising strategies
medical technology
race and film
(tap) dance
regulation/safety of household products

I distributed a set of US History textbooks, which provoked surprised exclamations from students, since we’ve yet to touch a textbook up until this point in the year. I asked students to use the index and skim to see how much coverage their topic was given in the textbook. Afterward, we used todaysmeet to have a conversation about how much discussion there was on their topics in the textbook and what the reasons for that might be. It led to some useful reflection on how historical importance is assigned to various topics and the point of view of textbooks. You can read a transcript of the discussion here.

When I was in high school, I so desperately wanted to keep my US History AP textbook that I reported it lost and paid for it to avoid having to return it. It wasn’t that I didn’t have plenty of access to books. We even had the internet at our house, despite it still being a bit of a novelty. But I wanted to keep my textbook because to me it represented order, 300 years of history neatly explained and bound.

My high school history textbook

My high school history textbook

Now that I teach history I struggle every day with the messiness of it. I worry that I don’t bring enough voices from the past into my classroom and that I’m not giving students enough since of the variety of perspectives. The next day I worry that I’ve overwhelmed students by not helping them develop frameworks to think critically about the variety of narratives that I’ve brought into the classroom and that they’ve explored in print and digital resources. Even though we don’t use a textbook in our class, we are constructing a text, and I think it’s just as important to be self-reflective and critical of that process as we would be of a hardbound book.

(Thanks to the Unraveling the Textbook session at EduCon for spurring me to think more about textbooks.)

Is Clean Up As Important As Crafting?

This weekend, I’m facilitating a conversation at EduCon, with Karen Blumberg, about Crafting Character. We’re hoping to have some discussion around how educators can reinforce students’ appropriate use of technology outside the classroom.

Here’s the thing- I think educators can reinforce appropriate use, but the kids aren’t always going to listen. Kids mess up. (Adults mess up, too.) And because they’re living online, they’ll mess up online, too.

Online mistakes have the potential to be harder than other mistakes. They’re the whack-a-mole of mistakes. I think we’re nearing a time, though, when many (most?) mistakes will be online. Someone’s always got a camera. Maybe kids will change their names to try to rid themselves of these mistakes once they enter “the real world” or maybe not.

So, I think equally important as the conversation about how to help kids make good choices, is how to help them cope when they make bad ones. What do you say to a girl who texted a topless picture to a friend that’s now all over school? How do we help kids develop the resilience that they need to face the experience of being bullied or the aftermath of being the bully? How can students narrate past digital lives they’re not proud of to employers when they hit the job market?

I’m hoping we get to talk about that, too.