After a five year hiatus from the classroom, I recently had the opportunity to long-term sub for one of our teachers. I can’t say I felt like a first-timer again, but my sleep was punctuated by those teacher dreams usually reserved for mid-August and Sunday nights. You know the ones... you’re standing in front of a few hundred teenagers with no lesson plan or curriculum. You peek to the back of the coliseum-sized classroom only to note your principal furiously scribbling performance notes on a Danielson rubric.
Despite the interrupted sleep, returning to the classroom felt like a homecoming following an extended absence; the places and patterns reassuring but strangely foreign seen from a new distance. Of course, the central questions I needed to ask were utterly familiar: What am I teaching? What have the students learned thus far? Who is in my room? How do I help each student grow? And while I had changed since my first years as a teacher, the system had changed even more thanks to PBL.
In the summer of 1999, I prepared to teach my first ninth graders. I was handed Gilgamesh, Night, Romeo and Juliet, and The Odyssey. Nothing was mentioned about the skills, nor the important understandings we hoped to grow within our students. There was no explicit discussion on how to measure progress or how to prepare to meet the needs of heterogeneous learners. Instead, the system assumed I had learned this in my college preparatory program--as if there was a standardized curriculum across the multitude of universities and colleges in the US.
Of course, that autonomy wasn’t all bad. I had almost complete say over what and how I taught my kids. I took ownership of my classes, and my growth as a teacher was prolific and organic. It’s just that organic growth, like a garden gone feral, results in widely varying outcomes for students and young professionals. And as a new teacher I internalized two dangerous implicit messages: first, I saw the students as mine, not whole individuals in a larger collaborative system; second, when simply handed texts, I was led to believe that a student’s understanding of the material was pinnacle. Trust me, I can give a hell of a lecture on Gilgamesh or The Odyssey. Telling stories is fun, and as a youngest sibling, I don’t mind being the center of attention. And while storytelling is a great tool for a teacher, over-reliance on it grows some funky habits in our students. What exactly are they practicing? Listening? Passivity?
Those first experiences as a teacher were firmly in mind over a month ago when I began subbing. With only a day or two of notice, I had to get up to speed quickly while figuring out how to balance my normal responsibilities as a principal. So, twenty years later, I asked the same question I had in the summer of 1999. I reached out to the teacher and an instructional coach and asked, “What am I teaching?”
What a difference twenty years makes!
Within a few minutes of asking the question, one of our coaches was able to provide a shared Google doc featuring the learning targets and scales associated with the class. The targets had been pre-entered into our tracking and reporting software, so I could see previous formative assessments. Not only did I know how students were progressing on the standards of the course, but I also had a vision of how those scales fed school-wide graduation goals. The implicit message? I’m part of a larger team pulling in the same direction; these kids are our kids, not just my kids. I knew where they had been and where they needed to go next.
Of course, I did need to calibrate my understanding of the scales with the original teacher’s understanding, so I gave an assessment on the first day to see how well they established purpose in their writing. To allay students' fears that the assessment would impact an overarching grade, I simply told them it was formative. They immediately knew the assessment was practice for them (and for me). Guess what I discovered? The students were in varying places with their ability to craft a thesis, but there were patterns to their strengths and challenges. So I didn’t put a mark on their papers (Papers is a bit of a misnomer here as I was using Google classroom...which, for a guy who used to always lose paper, is an awesome tool!), knowing their learning process would be impacted the second they saw my evaluation. Instead, I grouped them by pattern and asked, Can you figure out why you’re together? I also gave them a variety of examples a fellow teacher provided for me. Each group was able to correctly identify problem areas and how to improve.
While only one small lesson in the scope of the course, it provides evidence of how far we’ve come since 1999 when our system only asked us to communicate through aggregate grades. I don’t think I ever realized just how powerful the outcomes are in defining how we see ourselves as teachers. If I am only asked to communicate results as an ABCD or F, I am unlikely to provide the information that matters to students, to colleagues, and to parents. Another surprise was where I was able to focus my creative energy and exercise my autonomy: finding rich and complex content that would inspire students to engage with the course--and more importantly--each other.
We have a long way to go as a profession, but as I reflect on the students I first taught, and for whom I principaled (yes, it’s a verb), I wish I could have provided as cohesive a learning experience as our kids now have. How many times did I watch a kid walk across the stage at graduation knowing they had achieved all the necessary credits but still lacked some skills to ensure success in their next endeavor? Why? Lots of reasons to be sure, but some of the answers reside in what PBL attempts to address: namely our inability to effectively communicate with one another... to redefine teacher from independent contractor to systems thinker.
I never appreciated that there might be small gifts in taking a break from teaching. The hiatus allowed me to skip past the cognitive dissonance that surely would have had me resisting PBL. I didn’t have to wrestle with the odd guilt that new paradigms can inspire as we contemplate our past practices. We know that our own dissonance is our profession’s worst enemy and the discomfort that may inspire the greatest change.
Adam Bunting (@abuntcvu)
Principal of Champlain Valley Union HS