Catching FIRE this July


Midsummer: An informal milestone for many teachers for whom “last year” is ebbing further away, while “next year” is swiftly becoming “this year.” Although we still have plenty of time to relax and recharge, it is important for me to keep my pedagogical gears turning. How can I plan a positive kickoff for a fresh cycle of learners, collaborative experiences, and unforeseen challenges?

As part of my ed momentum maintenance strategy, I recently attended the ISTE 2015 conference in Philadelphia. I was eager to chat face-to-face with members of my digital PLN (professional learning network), tinker with new tools, and attend professional development sessions that could enrich my edtech skill set. For me, some of the conference’s most inspiring moments occurred during ISTE Ignite, where educators with myriad backgrounds were each granted five minutes to share what fuels the passion behind their practice.

During the long bus ride back to Maine, I contemplated the relationship between my own inspirations and passions, evaluating the degree to which they inform - and hopefully improve - my practice.

Last year, my grade level transitioned to a proficiency-based model. As expected, much of August and early September was spent conveying the change rationale, articulating new policies to students and parents, and mitigating the expected challenges of a significant reform.

While I believe those goals were ultimately met, I humbly accept that the change process slightly muted an essential component of my classroom environment. As next year approaches, I am identifying specific behaviors that cultivate an energetic climate - rooted in curiosity and reverence for learning for the sake of learning.

In the transition to proficiency-based practice, there is extensive professional development time spent refining hard skills: identifying clear learning targets, mindful backwards planning, fine-tuning the connection between formative and summative assessments. But what about those soft skills? Do we, as teachers, take enough time to cultivate our own grit or awareness of others’ perspectives? Perhaps that is what summer is for. Thus, I’ve identified character traits that I’ve deemed essential to model and around which I have crafted goals for next year. I think of this as sort of my own teacher version of “Habits of Work” - things that affect my practice separate from, but in support of, my content knowledge.

A sound Habits of Work rubric contains indicators that facilitate goal-setting and progress monitoring around time management - “I can complete tasks in a timely manner” or “I can resist distractions” - certainly both areas where I could set some professional goals (try writing a blog post during a glorious Maine summer day!). However, my focus here is on four trickier-to-define-and-measure characteristics of healthy learning and collaboration: Flexibility, Inquiry, Reflection, and Empathy.

What do these qualities look like and how can mindful growth in these areas help me better engage in my learning community?

Flexibility: Many contributors to this blog have written widely about the challenges of the change process. (A great example of how flexibility is essential to reaching a successful proficiency-based learning environment is captured in Melissa Authement’s recent post.) Sometimes, policies or assessments that seemed effective following thoughtful, informed planning may not, in fact, be as effective when road-tested with actual students. This can certainly be stressful for teachers but is also potentially stressful for students - especially if we do not model flexibility. There is a more valuable lesson conveyed in recognizing that something didn’t quite work, identifying areas of improvement, and adjusting accordingly. This fall, I will strive to be less attached to my own ideas and more open to the ideas of others. This is not to say that I’m going to cease to ask questions or advocate for my students. However, if I want to be part of a community where risk-taking is embraced and encouraged, then I must also be open to having my own opinions challenged and potentially changed through conversation and collaboration.

Inquiry: We encourage students to become explorers; we garner a cache of information about student interests to tailor instruction to their individual curiosities. Yet how often do we take time to nurture our own inner explorers or pursue our idiosyncratic interests - outside of our content areas or requisite PD? During a recent dinner conversation, I realized that I know very little about Iceland. From this topic spurred countless other avenues of inquiry, cross-content curiosities that yielded some Googling for answers and lots of questions. I wonder how often (despite immense professional learning) my own “personal learning” falls to the wayside. This year, I would like to incorporate a Genius Hour-type time in my classroom where not only students explore and reflect upon their own “passion projects,” but where I also investigate and share as well. Not only would this model how to respond to the thirst for knowledge with the acquisition of knowledge, it would improve my practice by bolstering the valuable context needed to draw connections and facilitate transfer.

Reflection: The value of reflective practice is nothing new. It is also essential to the change process. However, the change process is also packed with additional demands on our professional and, at times, personal schedules. Between curriculum design and community forums, carving time for meaningful reflection can be difficult. Yet to facilitate the flexible and inquisitive approach to teaching outlined above, we must pause to glean feedback from the learning community. Collecting feedback extends beyond issuing exit slips or computerized surveys - the heart is in the resulting dialogue. Then, upon thoughtful consideration, modify units, rubrics and/or policy accordingly. This year, I want to follow through with my oft-articulated desire to maintain a reflective blog and encourage students to do the same.

Empathy: Empathy is central to developing strong relationships with students and facilitating collaborative bonds between students. It is also essential for collegiality - especially during the change process. Just as students bring vast learning styles, talents, and anxieties to the classroom, teachers possess diverse experiences as well. For professional collaboration to be meaningful - whether that is nurturing buy-in for change or designing common assessments - we need to be authentic when engaging in dialogue. There is a profound difference between hearing somebody and the speaker knowing that he or she has been listened to. As I approach another year of collaboration, I want to be more mindful of each “person behind the practice,” more aware of moments where sensitivity, compromise, and patience are necessary for our school to grow.

I have stumbled upon my own edu-acronym. Flexibility, Inquiry, Reflection, Empathy: FIRE. At the risk of sounding cliche or contrived: I did not first think of a clever acronym and then brainstorm fitting behaviors. Rather, this throughline emerged when seemingly-disparate experiences (casual conversations, conference sessions, jotted notes) coalesced in a meaningful manner. This is exactly how I want my students to synthesize cross-content learning. It’s a little bit “connecting the dots” with a touch of revelation. Like the mnemonic’s tangible namesake, without elemental balance, the desired outcome won’t occur. When thoughtfully modeled, these qualities will yield discovery, illumination, and progress. How will you spark your next year of teaching and learning?

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