Saturday, November 7, 2015

Learning by Doing: Teacher Edition

I’ve been power-pointed to death. My personal least-favorite professional development day is to have presenters read powerpoint screens to me as their presentation. Inevitably, the screens are jam packed with words, quotes, and data, and the participants are expected to sit as passive recipients of the eloquent reading of slides by the presenter. Oh, and it’s even better (read worse) when the presenter is kind enough to print out all of his or her slides in a single-sided stapled packet, so we can read ahead on the magic that is to come. I loathe these meetings. I’ve got one on Tuesday. It’s an 8:00 AM to 5:00 PM Principal meeting with one break for lunch. That’s it. The rest of the day I will receive information and I’ll walk away with multiple powerpoint packets of paper that I’m likely to never look at again. Frankly, I’m dreading it. I’ll settle in and do my best to be respectful of the presenters and their message, and the content they are imparting, but it’s awfully difficult to pay attention and stay engaged as the receiver of information for nine hours minus a forty-five minute lunch break.

But I also know that as I write this, one or more of Tuesday’s presenters are currently agonizing over how best to deliver their important information to us. There are 100 principals in our district; new, veteran, struggling, and expert. There are elementary schools, high schools, schools with academic application requirements, programs for English Language Learners, and on and on and on. There’s information we have to know from the district and the state. And there’s no guarantee that my principal colleagues and I will read and understand every email sent to us with this important information. So there are nine hours once a month to deliver the content we need. I get it. And I hate it. My Tuesday presenters aren’t saying it, but their actions scream… THERE JUST ISN’T TIME TO BE ENGAGING. So we’re expected to be adult learners and know the content is important and accept it. So I do and I will on Tuesday. And next month too, and the month after that.

Except for one thing. I have to offer professional development to my staff. I stopped calling it professional development (PD) years ago, and I call it professional learning. I’m not so arrogant to believe I’m developing anyone. Let’s professionally learn together. I shifted my language four years ago, and I’m not sure my staff has noticed yet. So clearly I’m doing an awesome job of creating an adult learning environment. I want to be engaging. But there’s so much we have to get through and so little time to do it. And there’s so much my teachers need to know. Now I don’t make power points, because I hate them, but I can deliver a seriously entertaining lecture filled with the information my teachers need. And of course, they hate it. And they show up this week, and next week, and the week after that. And I watch them laughing and talking with each other about their days and their students and their lives, right up until I start talking, and then the haze descends upon them. All except for the group texts they send back and forth to talk about how lame this PD is again. I’m guessing it’s similar to the group text I’ve got going with my like-minded principal colleagues at our monthly meeting. I hate our PD. I hate that it’s not professional learning, and I hate that THERE JUST ISN’T TIME TO BE ENGAGING. Why can’t my teachers just be adult learners and know the content is important and accept it? Especially because we all know that if I’m not there to ensure they do the work, they simply won’t.

As I write this, I’m reminded of Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. Just take out Day and switch it to PD, or Professional Learning to make yourself feel better.

The 2015-16 school year at Design Lab Early College High School is about learning to Learn by Doing. My colleagues are doing an amazing job of writing about our work so far. Check out Teaching Humans for great posts about our work to date. This post, written by Meghan Paris, my new 9th grade History teacher, might be the most open and reflective piece I’ve ever read. Because I’m not yet the principal I want to be, it didn’t occur to me until October that if I want all my teachers to have our students learn by doing, then I need to model learning by doing with my teachers. And if I’m going to model learning by doing with my teachers, I can’t worry about the time it takes and the content they have to learn. That’s just not how Learning by Doing works. And if I can’t model that with my staff, how can I ever expect them to ask our students to Learn by Doing?

My new partner in this work, Sean Wheeler, and I have settled on fifteen verbs to guide our practice.
They are a combination of Jim Burke and Marzano’s thoughtful works and we’re figuring out how to apply them to our practice at Design Lab. These verbs are omnipresent in the common core standards, state standards, the PSAT, the SAT, and the ACT. But more importantly than all those; we believe these verbs represent real learning across and within content. If a student understands how to analyze something in our Makerspace, then she can analyze in World History and in Algebra 2. If a student can Imagine in our audio production studio, then they can imagine in Biology and Art. If students can transform pallets into aerobic steps, (as our 9th grade has already done), then what can transformation look like in English and Geometry? We believe the application of these fifteen verbs is learning. If students understand the verbs in action, and are aware of them across their classes and how they are embedded in our projects, then they are actually learning. These verbs also can anchor the work for our teachers. Currently I hear teachers say, “I teach Biology, not Reading. What do I do with a student with low reading skills in my Biology class?” With our verbs as the anchor, our teachers can learn to say, “We all teach students to Evaluate. How does that look different or the same from your class to mine?” When teachers are applying these verbs to student projects that are about real problems to be solved, then our students will really be learning.

But if I’m going to get my team there, they have to practice the verbs too. And we can’t just talk about it. I can’t just create a different power point slide for each verb. My teachers have to learn by doing. So I’m shifting our professional development. We started this a few weeks ago, in our time after school, but Election Day was the first opportunity to put my new thinking into practice in an “Let’s totally do this differently” kind of way. There was no school for students, but teachers had a required day of learning. Guess what? It was six and half hours, minus forty minutes for lunch that I get to control. Not quite my nine hour marathon, but still plenty of time for boring slides and nasty texts. But I committed to Learning by Doing. I committed to giving up any traditional structure in the day and I committed to my teachers having the opportunity to apply our verbs in their practice.

I had one goal for the day, with two avenues to achieve it. The goal: Give teachers the time, space, and opportunity to apply our fifteen verbs in their own learning and practice. We had two pathways to do so; the first a morning activity applying our verbs to our thinking about college readiness and how we get low-skilled inner city kids to be college ready. The second, the rest of the day in our Makerspace, designing and making projects for teachers. What followed was the most beautiful day of teacher engagement, participation and learning that I have ever been a part of since becoming a principal.

I can’t do justice to all the learning that occurred. But here are some pictures and videos to tell some of the story. We are fortunate to be partnering with Pete Debelak, the owner of Soulcraft Woodshop. His guidance and knowledge helped my teachers in their making throughout the day. I watched one group of teachers begin to build screens to convert recycled paper into usable paper for art class. Two other groups imagined and began building stands for laptops and projectors.
I watched my guidance counselor, who had never set foot in our Makerspace learn how to do incredibly complex joinery. Most importantly, I watched teachers collaborate, listen to each other, and support and congratulate each other.
Together, they analyzed, argued with purpose, compared and contrasted options, described their intended outcomes, showed determination when faced with adversity, evaluated decisions and errors, and interpreted data. They began the process of transforming wood, and organized materials. They wondered, discussed, laughed and got covered in sawdust. They had ideas for common tools to use to articulate our verbs coherently to all students in all classrooms. And they had fun. They were engaged.

And they were learning. And did I mention they had fun? And we blinked, and the day was over. There wasn’t time to text because their hands were filled with tools. There wasn’t time to zone out because who wants to lose a finger to the scroll saw?

At the end of the day, teachers took a few minutes to reflect in an open-ended google form I created. And it’s all there-the foundation for Learning By Doing. They reflected about how fun the day was, how scared they were to use the tools, how much they learned together. Are they ready to transfer one day to their own practice with our students? No way. And to expect them to do so right now would be unrealistic and absurd. But they clearly showed me the only pathway to engaging students in this manner across our school, is to consistently engage teachers in this manner at every opportunity. At the end of the day, I realized other than kicking off each activity, I had hardly said a word. And the professional learning, (not development) was off the charts. All that was missing was me working on a project of my choosing, applying the verbs and learning with and next to my teachers.

On Tuesday, while I try my best to receive the content from the presenters, I’ll be planning Learning by Doing sessions for our staff. What does applying our verbs as staff look like long term? I’m also trying to get the nerve up to make a coffee table. It terrifies me, but I have to do this work with my teachers. Otherwise I’m just the guy who tells everyone else to learn by doing.

There isn’t time to waste in our school. Our students are on average three years behind in all academic content. But if talking faster and giving them more content to memorize were going to work, it would have already. Design Lab Early College High School is becoming a school where students learn by doing. High School doesn’t have to be preparation for real life, it is real life. At our school, student learning begins with an actual problem to solve, and ends with making a difference to a real audience. We’ve begun this in the 9th grade. And it’s a struggle. But it’s working. To build this program school-wide, teachers must have the opportunity to actually learn and do this work themselves. And so, we continue in our makerspace, with our teachers learning by doing. I can’t wait to see what happens next.