Playing school or living learning?

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I was honored to contribute to Amy Sandvold’s Passion-Driven Leader blog. Please visit her blog to be inspired as more educational leaders share their passions! This is the post I shared…

“Playing school” was one of my favorite pastimes when I was a child. My two younger brothers influenced my playtime habits (think He-Man, Transformers, and GI Joe adventures), but I repeatedly subjected them to assuming the role of “student,” sitting attentively in the makeshift classroom in our playroom. My mother would bring home used basal readers or textbooks if she was yard sale browsing. Whenever my teacher was purging supplies, I’d grab stacks of old workbooks and handwriting paper. Our stuffed animals and dolls joined my brothers as pupils. I’d stand in front of a giant chalkboard and review math facts and spelling words. I made worksheets, they’d complete them, and then I’d grade them. I rewarded their efforts with star stickers. We went out for recess. I loved playing school!

Out of curiosity I Googled “playing school” and came across this Wikihow article detailing 17 how-to steps for playing school.  It made me laugh. And simultaneously sad. Here are a few high/lowlights:

  • The sheer ridiculousness of Step 9: Make a misbehaving list. “If the students misbehave, they’ll have their name added to the list, which will result in loss of privileges.” The dreaded list… also troubling is the “I’m going to put your name on the board and put checkmarks next to it with each infraction” visual.
  • And Step 17, that I’m sure this teacher and this principal would really appreciate: Have a reward system. “If your students do good deeds, add a gold star to a chart, or make a special mark by their name and they can get a special treat! And, reward them if they do good with a substitute. And don’t reward them if they are bad.” Note to new teachers everywhere: equip your classroom with gold stars, charts, the “list” (see above), and treats, and you’ll be just fine.
  • Fundamental materials described in Step 6: Get a teacher’s notebook. “You’ll use this for keeping attendance, the timetables, behavior codes and grades. And, you should probably draw out the plans for that day. If you are teaching P.E., track the students’ progress.” So many key essentials in one notebook? I enjoy how the author mentions you should probably draw out plans for the day. Nice to see mention of P.E., though.

The most valuable part of this article is found in the “Tips” section below the step-by-step guide:
“Make sure that the kids have fun. Make it enjoyable for them. Don’t bore them!” Point well taken!

I don’t pretend for a second that the Wikihow entry meant to serve as a resource grounded in educational best practice, or even a resource that anyone is ever meant to gaze their eyes upon, ever, but it does raise some interesting points about the perceptions of what teachers and students do in schools and the purpose that education, and educators, serve.

Unfortunately, playing school isn’t good enough when it becomes our life work. Yet many educators do just that. They go through the motions. Teaching is a job to them. The monotony of the same lessons, schedules, and curriculum, year after year, can gradually cause the passionate spark once held by a teacher or administrator to fizzle. With good intentions, these educators continue with business as usual, because frankly, it is comfortable, and it has worked (sort of) thus far. Adding to the stress of the daily lives of teachers and administrators are the countless legislative mandates, conflicts with stakeholders, dwindling budgets, and attempts to bring change to institutions that are among the hardest to change. The passion that may have once been there, in the early days and years of teaching, fades alarmingly fast.

What is passion? Many things. An outburst of strong emotion or feeling. A strong or extravagant fondness, enthusiasm, or desire for anything. What can we do to avoid playing school in our daily work with students? How do we remain passionate educators?

Some teachers are passionate about their content areas. They have absolute enthusiasm for chemistry and everything it represents and means to our world. They genuinely want students to develop a passion for chemistry akin to the passion they currently possess. I think of Dan Meyer who clearly is passionate about mathematics, but he goes a huge step above and beyond respect for the content. He works tirelessly to ensure his students (and the rest of us) are truly engaged in thinking about mathematics. Without that passion – the passion to craft learning experiences that help his students own their learning, his affinity for mathematics is just that- a content area he thinks is kind of cool.

Some educators are passionate about the shift. They develop PLNs, inspire each other through blog posts, presentations at conferences, and #edchats. They seek to infuse technologies meaningfully into student learning experiences, not for the sake of the tool, but for the sake of learning. They and their students are driven by the desire to collaborate, create, and think critically. Teachers, principals and superintendents are becoming transparent learners as if to say, “We love what we do. We’re so excited about what the future brings! And we want to share that with you!”

Some educators are passionate about connecting their students with the world. They are helping their students reflect on their learning through blogs, involving them in projects that help make the world a better place, and are developing partnerships with schools that are separated by thousands of miles.

No matter which direction the passionate educator takes, one thing is certain. A passionate educator cares about kids. A passionate educator LIKES kids. Every decision made, every action taken, every word spoken, is done so with their best interests in mind. We love working with kids. They touch our hearts with their hilarious anecdotes, determination, imagination, smiles, and inventive spellings. They’re the reason we come to work each day. And if students are not the reasons why you vie for that parking spot nearest to the door each morning, then I might suggest that you are playing school – you are not living learning– and you need to reevaluate your place in our educational system and children’s lives.

Early in my life I knew I wanted to be a teacher. Shortly into my career I was inspired by my fantastic administrators to follow that path. There are days that absolutely drain me, and make me wonder why it is I continue to do what I do.

Then I see two kindergarten students walking hand-in-hand to return books to the library.
And a first grader asks to read me a story. We sit on the carpet and she reads beautifully.
A sixth grader offers a heartfelt apology to me.
A teacher leaves a handwritten note on my desk telling me how much she appreciates my support.
A parent cries in my office about a family situation and asks for our help supporting her child.
I watch a teacher skillfully lead a small group of students in a discussion about the theme of a story and its impact on their lives.
An entire fifth grade class offers to help our custodian put away chairs after an assembly.

Then I realize, I no longer play school.
I live it.

Communities and Networks

I had the pleasure of experiencing our first Powerful Learning Practice (PLP) cohort session today, facilitated by the inspiring Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach and Will Richardson. My teammates are four enthusiastic, elementary teachers who I could not be more pleased to have joining me on this journey, and our cohort includes about 18 different teams from our county and surrounding districts.

I know my work with PLP will inspire many future blog posts, but today I’m going to focus on the questions Sheryl raised early in our session: What is a community? What is a network?

General thoughts about the “community”: Tight-knit. Relationships. Comprised of people that rely on each other. A group who lives, learns, and works together toward common goals.

General thoughts about the “network”: Comprised of people who share common interests. You can choose your network and can’t often choose your community. Larger than community. Not as intimate as your community.

One of my PLP teammates and colleagues, Greg Frederick, simply depicted the community and network relationship as such:

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His thoughts were that our community consists of the core of our social and intellectual interactions, and as we branch out, our network provides us with additional support and information to help us achieve our goals. Our network envelops our work within our community.

Sheryl continued to share with us the definitions of community and network that we would be using throughout our PLP work to develop common language among the group’s participants. One of the most meaningful points of our morning discussion was the point made about collaboration. Collaboration is not about sharing, it’s about FINDING SOLUTIONS together, and about mutual accountability. Networks are created through publishing and sharing ideas and connecting with others who share passions around those ideas and who learn from one another. Over time, that co-construction of knowledge will build community.

There are days when I definitely feel more strongly connected with my network than to my community. That being said, I can’t allow that to continue to be the case. If I become enriched by delving deeply into interactions with my network, I have a duty to bring that knowledge into my community, and vice-versa.

So, where do we go from here? I was totally impressed with my school team today. They jumped into a seemingly frightening world filled with Twitter tutorials, an introduction to Ning and other social networking venues, and a Skype-in from the fabulous Brian Crosby. The “a-ha” moment for us came when my teachers wanted to know, “How can we get our students to make these connections with others?” And, “How can we strengthen how we collaborate with the teachers in our community to really make a difference?”

That is our next step. We need to examine what we are doing in our classrooms and school on a daily basis and rethink how we can better engage our students in their own learning and help them develop essential, global learning networks to extend their thinking and experiences. We need to take a real look at curriculum, what we are asking students to learn, and how we’re asking them to learn it. We need to develop a system for meaningful collaboration among our peers and beyond. I have no doubt that we will begin to accomplish these goals this year.

I’m interested in learning how other schools develop the capacity of your communities and networks. Please share your successes!

I am so amazingly proud of the work we did today.  It’s only going to get better!