Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Life Lessons: 2013

It's time, once again, to reflect on the things I've learned this past year, both in teaching and in life. 

In 2009, most of my learning was about the corruption and disgusting nature of gritty inner-city politics. In 2010, I spent a lot of time reflecting on what constitutes real, valuable, meaningful knowledge and how we go about acquiring that and passing it on. In 2011, my learning seemed to be all over the place - although much of it was about finding success in schools and democracy. And last year (here and here), I learned a lot about identity and how it influences the way we learn.

This year, much of my learning has been around health, creating healthy school environments, identifying the markers of unhealthy environments, and seeking to remedy them. 

Here they are:

1) "You cannot have an atmosphere of respect given an impossible task."

At the CES conference this past November in San Francisco, my colleagues and I were listening to Deborah Meier talk about the state of schools today. At one point, she noted, "You cannot have an atmosphere of respect given an impossible task."

Ms. Meier is right.

Most public education workers have been given an impossible task. It is easy to hide that it is an impossible task because most of the American public is unaware of what's being asked of those who work in schools. But, as I discussed in more detail in a previous post, the sum of tasks expected of the public school worker (from teacher to principal to paraeducator) is, to put it both bluntly and accurately, absurd.

How do teachers respect administrators or district officials who continually ask that teachers do more when they are already overwhelmed? How does an administrator or district official respect a teacher who they don't feel is pulling their weight? And it works the other way as well, given that administrators and district officials are also often overburdened and rarely capable of keeping up their end of many bargains. 

All of this erodes the amount of respect one can have for oneself and one's colleagues in schools, and thus creates a less healthy environment for everyone involved.

2) "We have to be willing to be fired."

At the same conference mentioned above, San Francisco USD Superintendent Richard Carranza railed against the misguided educational policies du jour: mainly high-stakes testing. 

He made it clear that he thinks misunderstandings about race and culture play a far greater role in the success and failure of so many students in public schools than we like to acknowledge. He said that if we really want to do what we know is right for our students, then we have to be willing to be fired, because it is often at odds with what we're being told to do by our superiors.

This idea crosses my mind every time I'm presented with some outrageously time-consuming activity (e.g. documenting everything I do for my end-of-the-year evaluation or sitting through another meeting on how to implement Common Core Standards into my instruction) that I know will have zero impact on students' educations. I fantasize about just saying no, and accepting being fired. 

3) An overemphasis on standards murders a desire to learn.

I am really tired of being expected to make Common Core the essence of everything I do in instruction. Why? Because it kills any opportunity students' might have to actually enjoy school. 

What do I mean by this? 

Around the country, many teachers are being trained to "unpack" the standards, not only among themselves, but with students. It is deemed a worthy classroom activity to give students the standards and spend time going through them as a class.

"Okay class, open your Common Core Standards to page five. This unit we'll be working on Common Core Standard 8.1. It's about citing textual evidence that most strongly supports an analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text. Why don't we all break up into groups and try to decide what the hell that means?"

Doesn't that sound engaging?! 

Teachers are actually being trained to teach like this. After having the class break the standard up and analyze it, they do an activity and reflect on how that activity helped them move toward the standard.

I'm sorry - but this is not how engaging, authentic, valuable learning happens. This is test-driven, dull, and ultimately ineffective. It's not inspiring; it's not equitable; and it's inhuman. Humans have learned just fine for millennia without anyone articulating their learning goals for them.

It's not that I don't think teachers should have learning goals. But most of what we learn, especially at younger ages, we learn unconsciously. And most of that comes out of experiences we have that engage us - things that make us go, "Wow! That's interesting!" It's why some students perform poorly in school yet excel in sports or computer hacking or video games or freestyle rap (contrary to what many of us assume, those endeavors require significant intelligence too).

Ironically, when you make the skill you're trying to teach explicit and uber-conscious, it can deter a person from developing that skill. This is particularly true when the language articulating that skill often makes no sense to the student until they actually start to catch on to what the skill is through modeling and doing it themselves. Students become overly focused on trying to produce what they think the teacher is looking for and avoid many of the natural steps that often occur when one picks up that skill naturally.

I often think those of us who've matured and been to college have an unreasonable expectation (one might call it a post-college bias) that verbalizing all skills and making them explicit to students will naturally help them learn better. But it's clear that students can learn a great deal of skills without ever being aware they've acquired them. Grammar is a perfect example of this. Most students progress in their grammar without having any knowledge that they were improving. Once you start throwing out words like object and predicate, there's a good chance you'll loose the majority of students at a young age. And it's totally unnecessary, since these terms really just exist for grammarians who endeavor to analyze language at a post-secondary level.

Expressing an idea or skill in language is often the last step a person goes through as they learn something. And language can be both a very blunt tool for communicating something very precise and confusing when it's written in the obfuscating style of language most standards are written in. So we take the last step and give it to students first? - and then expect that a tremendous emphasis on this is going to help students learn?

I don't think so.

Teachers should have learning targets, and they should be shared with students when appropriate. Not all students benefit from them. And some students benefit from them at different stages of the learning process. We should also keep in mind that any material or activity presented to a group of people will affect each of them differently. They will all make different connections and learn different things. It is likely that many will learn things from a given unit of study that the teacher never imagined as she crafted the learning goals. It doesn't mean that unit of study wasn't valuable.

Rather than rally students around miserably boring sentences expressed in language lots of people struggle to understand, teachers should rally students around fascinating ideas, questions, projects, and activities. Teachers should help students achieve their learning goals, but they should remember that not all students benefit by having them shoved in their face every lesson. We should be more savvy than that and integrate them seamlessly, without students' awareness when appropriate. 

4. Our unconscious mind has a great deal of control over our behavior and emotions, and some people are more unconscious than others.

Ever get that feeling that something's wrong, but you can't quite put your finger on it? It might be that your unconscious mind has identified a threat that your conscious mind didn't have time to pay attention to.

This year I spent a great deal of time reading and learning about the unconscious. It turns out that what we experience, from sight to pain to hearing, is interpreted and presented to our conscious mind by our unconscious. It also turns out that the way we experience things has a lot to do with our emotions.

All this to say that our perceptions of things can often be really off. We don't just remember things differently than they happened (eye-witness testimony is one of the least reliable types of evidence in a courtroom), we actually perceive them differently.

I value these insights because of the way they affect my demeanor in the classroom. Armed with the understanding that I am tremendously fallible, it makes it difficult to get too heated about any given classroom mishap.

I've also learned that maturation is tied closely with becoming more conscious about what drives you, how you react to certain things, and what's going on with your body.

Try checking yourself right now. Is your jaw tight? Your shoulders rolled forward? Are you fidgety? We do most of these things unconsciously, and they are likely manifestations of stressors our body is dealing with. The more you become conscious of these things, the better able you are to control them. This is useful knowledge for anyone who deals with stressful situations on a regular basis (like teachers!).

Because, at half my age, I suspect most of my students are significantly less conscious of themselves than I am of myself, it allows me to have greater compassion and understanding for some of their behaviors. It also allows me to more fully value many of their extremely endearing qualities.

5. Balance is often a synonym for health.

This year, I became certified as a personal fitness trainer, and I've been spending a lot of time learning about health, fitness, and diet as a result. I've learned that health is really all about maintaining a proper balance in the activities you do, the emotions you feel, the things you eat, etc...

Given this definition, it's clear to me that many of the schools in our country are extremely unhealthy. They are entirely out of balance. We spend FAR too much time testing, dealing with discipline, and chasing our tails around talking about standards and data. We spend almost no time creatively collaborating, teaching our students how to work together or find a passion for learning or how to play a flute, or.....well, you get the idea. Instead, our students get math, science, reading, writing, and tests; math, science, reading, writing, and tests; and then more math, science, reading, writing, and tests - and finally constant reminders that if they don't fall into line with this prescription, they can forget about college and a shot at a decent future. How unhealthy and unnecessarily stressful.

6. My students love being mindful.

This year, as a result of what I learned above (about health and balance), I began teaching my students about mindfulness and meditation after coming across a number of articles and presentations discussing the benefits of these practices for students who experience stress - i.e. all of them.

In advisory, we learned about stress and the biochemical reactions induced in our bodies by stress. We also learned about lots of recent research suggesting that mindful practices (including meditation) can reduce stress and make us healthier humans.

At first a few of my students were reluctant and made some jokes about it, but after a few times practicing, most of my students began requesting that we spend more time meditating. A number of them dropped by after school to say something to the effect of, "You know, Mr. Boutin, at first I thought that meditation thing was silly, BUT IT REALLY WORKS!"

This is one way we can help create healthier schools. But it's not just students who need this. I often wonder what the point in having a staff meeting after school is when all of the people in attendance have had their brains completely fried by the end of the day. The more opportunities we take to be present in the moment, and slow down the million-mile per hour pace at which our brains often move, the better we'll be able to compassionately serve our students and families. Healthy staff provide better service, which leads to higher student achievement.


  1. speaking of healthy and unhealthy school environments Diane Ravitch posted a long essay on the unhealthy environment created by ed reformers in NYC with many suggestions for the new mayor http://dianeravitch.net/2013/12/20/tweed-insider-where-the-bloomberg-administration-went-wrong-on-education/