The thunder clap makes all of us stop. It’s one of those loud, long, rumbling ones, the kind that rolls around in your belly like when you hit one of those hard, deep potholes in your car. It shakes the window panes in the old house, and in that initial crack, we all duck into ourselves a bit, feeling that split second of doom that big summer storms in the Georgia countryside often cause. My kids are throwing the Frisbee in the downpour, and they freeze for an instant as well. I start to tell them to jump inside, here under the porch and wait it out, but before I get the words out they’re leaping the puddles, heading in my direction. Smart kids.
The weird thing is that on every porch that I can see on the block, people are out, watching the rain, listening to the thunder. I don’t know if they’re passing time or just immersing themselves in the strange beauty of the storm, the sheets of water, the muted light, the heaviness of the air. But we’re sharing it, my wet, dripping kids, the dog across the street who’s sticking his nose out from under the tar paper roof of his doghouse, and the old black man on the opposite corner, folded into his porch swing, puffing on a pipe. We’re all watching, and waiting for the break.
Eventually it comes; the thunder rolls are farther away, the rain abates. We pick up the conversation that the noise silenced, the one about our kids and their schools. Miss Frances isn’t listening too hard, I can tell, as she gently glides back and forth on her own porch swing. At 91, her concerns are elsewhere. But her son Mike is deep into the troubles of the school system. “They had to cut 15 days out of the school year ’cause they run outta money,” he says as he lifts up the brim of his dirt-stained John Deere hat. “They’re gonna keep the kids longer during the days, but they just can’t afford to keep everything running on those other days.” And before he says it, I know what’s coming next. Not that it means less educational opportunity for his grand kids. Not that it’s a shame to cut the art and music programs to save the football team. Not that there will be fewer teachers, less technology, less learning going on in school this year. Mike runs his hand through his hair.
“I just don’t know what we’re gonna do with those kids for those extra three weeks outta school,” he says.
There’s no doubt, I’m not from around these parts. I’m just looking for a pack of gum at 7:45 in the morning in Sidney, Iowa, and as I drive into the center of town, in my white Hyundai rental, I’m not seeing a lot of open stores to choose from. It’s one of those old, small Midwestern country towns, one with the “we-really-mean-it” city square built around the county government building smack dab in the center of town. I’m looking for some signs of activity, and as I start to curl around the courthouse I spy it; a line of pick up trucks outside a small gas station-convenience store on the corner. I zip into the parking lot and, not seeing any spaces, park awkwardly in front of the double glass doors. I’m running late; I’ll only be a minute.
As I get out of the car, through the windows, I see them, a line of men, most north of 60 I’m guessing, coffee cups in hand. They’re regulars, no doubt, and before I even step inside, I feel their gaze. They’re all jeans and caps and country, and I’m beige khakis, golf shirt and a pony tail. A couple of them nod kindly as I give my own silent, demure “good morning,” and after a couple of heartbeats worth of pause to take me in, they go back to their conversation. “It’s the schools that should be doin’ that,” one is saying, and all of a sudden, I’m tuned in, listening over my shoulder as I reach for a pack of Dentyne Ice from the candy shelf beneath the counter. “They’re just not teaching it as much as they should be.” I step away from the counter, buy a little time by pretending to look closely at the chocolate bars down below, wonder what the system is so deficient in, wondering, maybe…
“These kids just don’t know nothin’ about managing money,” he says, and I hear various sounds of assent from the others.
So here’s the deal with the change that many of us in this conversation are clamoring for in schools: we’re about the only ones talking it. The townsfolk down at the corner store aren’t demanding “21st Century Skills,” technology in every student’s hand, an inquiry based curriculum and globally networked classrooms. By and large the parents and grandparents in our communities aren’t asking for it. The national conversation isn’t about rethinking what happens in classrooms. No one’s creating assessments around any of this. And in fact, outside of the small percentage of people who are participating in these networks and communities online, the vast majority of this country and the world doesn’t even know that a revolution is brewing.
And, while it’s no shocker to say it, that’s what makes it really tough to be a leader in schools right now. Because if you’re doing your job, you’re thinking about doing things that no one out there is asking you to do. Which is, after all, what leadership is all about, isn’t it? I love Seth Godin’s quote from Tribes: “Leadership is a choice; it’s the choice not to do nothing.”Especially if basically standing pat will get you by.Â Given the current expectations for “student achievement” and adequate yearly progress, most school leaders can continue to get away with tinkering on the edges and not do anything to really upset the chalk tray. You want to make it into Newsweek’s top high schools list? Just keep pumping those AP courses and prepping those test scores. Constructing “modern knowledge” and sharing it with other global learners online? Not finding the check box for that.
I’ve said it before, you want to lead right now, as an administrator or as a teacher? You have to do both: you have do all of those things the parents and the town fathers and Newsweek (well, maybe not Newsweek) want you to do, but you also have to start shifting and seeing what the future holds for the kids in your schools, regardless if anyone else can see it. You have to, as the superintendent at my old school Lisa Brady has begun to do, lead your staff and your school community to the place where they understand the need for change as well, a place that’s not just about test scores and AYP, but that’s about student learning and literacy in new forms, forms that look much different from our own but that will be crucial to our kids’ success. You have to be an advocate, wherever and whenever you can, to convince people that while doing both is hard and takes time and effort, that it’s worth it, that it’s the right thing to do for the kids in our schools.
Because if you’re waiting for the conversation in the coffee shop and the porch swing to act, you’re going to be waiting a long time.
Chris Lehmann says
Point is… if we start asking those questions in our schools, parents will come with us… and eventually others will too.
No one was asking for a technology-infused, inquiry-driven, project-based school in Philadelphia… until there was one.
We have to help people realize a vision of what can be, and then they will demand it. That might be the single biggest lesson we’ve learned at SLA.
Will Richardson says
Thanks, as always, for the visit Chris.
I know you take the time at SLA to make sure your kids “pass the test” and that you need to make AYP. If by every SLA measure your kids were successful but they failed to pass the test, I’m wondering what the reaction of the parents would be. My point is not to challenge the vision of SLA, but to push the question as to what parents are demanding. Thoughts?
Chris Lehmann says
I think we would still have a very significant population of folks who would want SLA for their kids. In our urban districts, I think there is more push back against “the tests” than in other places. For us, we care more about the SAT than the PSSAs, because SATs matter in a kid’s life in a way that the PSSAs do not. The PSSAs matter, because they are how the school is judged by the district, and we need the school to continue to be allowed to do what it does. But I don’t think that’s what parents worry about first. They care about their kids… and I think when we, as educators, can show how a test score is but one measure of a kid’s success, we can help parents find other ways to talk about education.
Bill Fitzgerald says
This is a nice frame for what change can look like, and some of the issues that face us as we advocate for it.
And for what it’s worth, people who feel that schools are doing a poor job teaching kids how to manage money don’t really seem to feel that getting kids to score higher on standardized tests is the answer.
And the answer (if there even is a *single* answer) lies somewhere between better test scores (and results from a well designed assessment can be valuable), an emphasis on practical skills (which are pretty timeless) and the beauty that can be seen from a clear vision executed well (as is the case with SLA).
Leadership now means the ability to execute on your vision, while not losing sight of the validity of opposing/differing viewpoints.
This is fresh in my mind as I write this, as I have been thinking about this thread, at this writing with 55 comments and counting: http://takingnote.learningmatters.tv/?p=4433
We have some good, committed educators in this thread, arguably some of the leading minds in the US, and many of them are doing little more than staking out their section of turf. What does leadership mean against a backdrop where many of the potential leaders aren’t leading?
And maybe this is the point (or possibly a conclusion to draw): the people that used to be known as the leaders aren’t leading. It’s now our responsibility to take the best of their ideas, and infuse them into what we do, what we plan, and what we advocate for on a daily basis.
Will Richardson says
Great feedback, Bill. That thread at Learning Matters speaks volumes, I think.
I think you’re right that leadership is about executing the vision, but the problem is that “do both” vision doesn’t exist to any great degree right now. And it’s tough to step up to that when no one is calling for it.
Alex Ragone says
One of my favorite administrator quotes is, “I’m not that concerned about the kids who are graduating this year. I’m thinking about our kindergartners who are in the class of 2023. What type of education are those kids going to need when they graduate?”
That’s what we all have to be thinking. Struggling with these great questions.
Thanks, as always, for keeping us asking the right direction, Will!
Ric Murry says
Forgetting the content for a moment, this is just beautiful writing Will. Great storytelling.
Now; It is about leadership. No one knows what they want, they only know what they don’t want, until they know what is possible, available, and achievable. Which I think is akin to what Chris said above.
Until those who think ahead are willing to sit on some porches, hang out at the coffee houses, dare I say, share a Happy Meal (sorry Will) with the parents, grandparents, and students to show we care about the future of their children the happenings of the schoolhouse are issue of contention and debate within the community. It’s not an issue of either/or with things like money management and global communication networks, it is a both/and world.
Thanks Will. I needed your words today.
Karen Szymusiak says
Loved the post because in such carefully chosen words you tell the story of the vast chasm between the status quo and a vision of what learning can be. It calls us all to action.
Wise words we all need to think about.
Brian Crosby says
Summer is a cruel mistress I concluded. I’d been distracted from my school year planning for the up-teenth time by the breeze, the hot sun bearing down on my legs, the birds flitting in and out of the trees to splash and drink and revel in the cool water creek running through the yard. I’ll just “quickly” check my reader was my excuse.
The motivation to stay focused evaporated as I … oh forget it, can’t keep this up! Really enjoy your narrative style lately though!
Will, I know for a long time I was adverse to speaking up, pointing to my students work (and a few other teachers’ students) as examples of what I was learning and realizing was powerful learning using a new practice, a new pedagogy. I was worried that others would perceive it as just blowing my own horn. I think teachers might be as a group, and elementary teachers maybe more so, not generally comfortable drawing attention to what they are doing, especially in this age of test scores and programmed learning and doing what you are supposed to.
We’ve seen teachers get reamed for not “doing the program” no matter how powerful their alternate to it had been. I’ve been inundated by positive reaction to the TED preso I did, but I’m not making the higher ups in my large school district aware of it because it shows me being “off program” at a time when we have a new, very popular super that I can’t read yet (for all I know they may be aware of it though).
Having said that I think you are right. Gary Stager admonishes educators constantly in that supportive, kind way he has, to push back and be the example and make some noise. I think more teachers are finally ready for change … maybe enough teachers are ready, but parents and others are not. Chris Lehmann says to “be the change you want others to be,” or something like that. I think this community has to be that change, but also talk the change. Tell parents, other educators, the press, influential community members, Arne Duncan … hmmm, maybe a lost cause … why change … tell your story because the passion will spill out and that’s what gets people onboard.
I wish beyond blogging about it there was a substantial way to jump start a movement like that. I see more pushback and comments on blogs, and news stories about this and I see it having effect … but we need to keep it going and more of us have to jump in so that we have lots of strong voices.
Then he was reminded that he was not here to comment on blogs. He was supposed to be working on a much higher and more important calling. Planning and scheming, yes scheming about how to pull the coming year off so that his students would not be shackled by the old ways.
Will Richardson says
Thanks for the comments, but I have to say, this saddens me, and I think, makes the point. The idea that you can’t be proud of your TED talk with the administration at your school just speaks volumes. You are an amazing teacher, and if what you are doing is “off program” then the program needs revision.
Dar Hosta says
Brian, I just watched your TED presentation and just had to tell you how moved I am by what happens in your classroom. It is 17 minutes of proof that when effective teachers do what they love with their students, share what excites the kids and build creative, collaborative projects out of questions and wonderings, the standards will be fulfilled.
When we approach learning through the portal OF the standards, the vision is narrow and the experience is limited.
I’m so glad I watched that. You should be very proud. Your students should be proud. And your administration SHOULD be proud. I know that I want to share what you do with lots of people.
Tania Sheko says
Will, I was captivated by your storytelling; very effective.
Thankyou for a powerful post, as are all your posts, pushing that little bit further in the same direction.
Personally, I constantly feel weighed down by the chasm between what we as educators see as a necessary overhaul in education and the general opinion of education in the community outside school. Sometimes I wonder why I spend so much time and emotional energy on pushing changes that so many don’t understand or value.
On a good day, however, I hear Australian people talking about bringing back tech schools, and I know that there is a realisation, at least, that education has strayed from what’s relevant in the world.
On a good day I try to connect students, teachers, principals, parents and others in the community by making the learning transparent and opening up discussion.
If it wasn’t for global connections – online discussions and blog posts, I’d feel very isolated and probably feel like I was going mad, or at least that I was in the wrong profession.
Will Richardson says
We’re watching Australia more carefully because of the infusion of tech there. We’re hoping you’ll show us in some real ways what has to change when you put technology into every student’s hands.
Here’s to more “good days.” ;0)
Your vivid images of Sydney make me nostalgic.
The most encouraging message of your observation is that everybody talks about schools. Education matters to everyone for whatever reason–even if school is just a place to keep the kids occupied.
Leadership happens when a perceived need meets up with a good idea. Leadership recognizes the congruence of the need and the idea, and voila–the community will notice.
I was enjoying the wonderfully told tale – loved the description of the town square – and then I found this:
“…if youâ€™re doing your job, youâ€™re thinking about doing things that no one out there is asking you to do. Which is, after all, what leadership is all about, isnâ€™t it? I love Seth Godinâ€™s quote from Tribes: â€œLeadership is a choice; itâ€™s the choice not to do nothing.â€Especially if basically standing pat will get you by. Given the current expectations for â€œstudent achievementâ€ and adequate yearly progress, most school leaders can continue to get away with tinkering on the edges and not do anything to really upset the chalk tray. You want to make it into Newsweekâ€™s top high schools list? Just keep pumping those AP courses and prepping those test scores. Constructing â€œmodern knowledgeâ€ and sharing it with other global learners online? Not finding the check box for that.”
…to be so true.
Wondering about the toll that takes on some school people – to be caught in that vise. But for those who see this – there is no choice. It’s about the attempt and the effort to do the right thing.
Dominic Giegerich says
If you talk to people with students in elementary, middle school or high school, you’ll find they are supportive our school’s third year of one-to-one. They’re just too busy to stop long enough to be heard.
More and more I hear it, “At least you’re trying to improve education,” or recently, “I don’t know what you’re doing but My kid can’t wait to get to school.”
At a community development meeting I about fell off a chair when someone that could have blended into the Sydney coffee shop (he’s in his 80s) talked about all the collaborative work that was being done online and how we needed to start meeting like that weekly, rather than just our monthly face-to-face.
No one’s really asking, but no one’s objecting. In Anita Iowa we call that “silent affirmation”.
Sean Nash says
Ahhhh yes. Only now does the rapid-fire of fifteen new Twitter followers from Sidney, IA last Friday make sense. Oh the trails we leave… weave?
I love the format here. Way to kick it back to just spinning a simple story. The second story here had me reliving childhood Saturdays of rolling into any number of Iowa or Missouri towns at the crack of dawn trying to find the school so we wouldn’t be late for weigh-ins at the wrestling tournament.
I do agree that schools should be mirrors of the community’s values and expectations. And yet, that exchange must be a two-way street. I believe that in many respects, the wider community cannot hope to know what it is they want for their children without seeing the options available. If something new has perceived value, it should first be modeled on a small scale, placed in a fishbowl, and studied for what it can add to the lives of all involved.
Recently I’ve been in the market for a major renovation with my roof. I’m using this opportunity to do some stylistically-different things to the appearance. I certainly have opinions about what I want. It’s my house for heaven’s sake. No one else has to live in it besides my family and I.
The roofers, however, are the experts in this area. They have the tricks and tips earned by countless hours and years of practice. They also quickly demonstrated things they could do to my place that should have been done in 1928 when the house was built. It’s my house. I’m paying for the work. You had better believe I have an opinion. And yet, beyond those facts, I need input. I need to see options.
I thought it was all about picking a shingle color/design. I had no idea there were fundamentally different things they could do as well to make my home better. Experts peddle their wares or they become obsolete.
People generally “know” what we do in education. Our communities need also know about what we CAN do for our children.
Wendy Eiteljorg says
I agree that administrators and teachers have to be “doing both” as you say. I think it is part of my job as a teacher and a professional to help parents change the topic of those front porch conversations. As a teacher and I have found that it is effective for me to make some changes or shifts, then explain them a little after the fact. Because parents see their children more interested, more involved in what they are doing, and hear from me about their academic successes (I am in an independent school so the testing is less of an issue), some of them have started to push and change the conversation.
That said, as Brian Crosby mentioned above, I think it can be tricky as an individual teacher. For example let’s say I get the parents from my class on board with a more 21st century focus of collaborating and connecting through blogs and wikis, allowing for independent projects, and moving away from just essay writing to show comprehension. Then they start asking about what happens next year, what kind of blogging will there be, how much backchannel chatting happens, etc. Then, let’s say the next grade teachers aren’t doing these things. . . Now, I’m neither planning on going back to “the way it used to be” and nor am I trying to cause undue problems for my colleagues. Tricky.
I figure I can encourage parents to shift the conversation and begin asking the questions, looking for different answers. And, at some point it’s up to that nimble administrator to balance the gulf between two ends of the spectrum. An administrator can’t sell (in the case of independent school) what we’re not doing. We (school teachers and administrators) have to decide we’re “going there” all the way, get our talking points straight, do some serious “internal marketing” of the message, and then go with it. (Oh, and do everything else we normally do too.)
Ann Lusch says
Let me add my own appreciation for the writing here, for the captivating way you made your points.
When I spend a lot of time online I get wrapped up in the revolution that I think is all around me until I realize it’s only in one corner right now. But as you and others keep pushing, Will, I think it’s going to expand. People might not have the imagination to know what is needed, but I think they will know it when they see it.