I just returned from a 6 day trip to Orlando, Florida with my high school band. I am exhausted and by all indications, they are exhausted. We had a lot of fun in Orlando and we also did some musical work in Orlando. My band also faced real suffering as we traveled to Orlando (as laid out in my previous blog post). Now that the trip is completed I think that it is important to take a step back and ask the question, “what did they learn?”.
I’m not sure that is a question I bothered to ask after previous trips. But this year I have been able to devote much more time to studying instructional practices and learning strategies. I have read about high yield instructional strategies and I have observed some great teachers create outstanding learning experiences for their students. Most importantly (to me at least) is that I have become much more reflective about my own teaching. I have a well respected colleague who has asked me to look for “moments of learning” in the classrooms I visit. What I have really tried to do is look for moments of learning in my own classroom (which happened to be in Orlando, Florida this week). Some days I have to really struggle to find those moments, but this week they were all around me. One of my earlier blogs was about the idea that we should evaluate students more on whether what they are doing is interesting rather than if it is good or bad. This week my students learning experiences were interesting. We played concerts in an exciting outdoor environment that was very interesting. We attended a clinic with composer/arranger/teacher/musician Allen Gray that was incredibly unique. I watched my students create new social groups in order to be more inclusive. So, the answer to the question, “what did they learn?” is that they learned a lot.
The next question that might be logical is how could I measure what they learned? That’s where I often get stumped. Teachers, students, and parents have been conditioned to want to put a label on what has been learned. Usually that label is an A, B, C, etc. But the best teachers and students, I think, will tell you that those letters don’t usually end up meaning very much. We have to continue to work to engage all of us in our school communities (teachers, students, parents, administrators, and our larger communities) in conversations about how we can best share with each other about what our young people are learning. A’s, B’s, and C’s just don’t seem adequate to reflect what should be going on in our classrooms. Traditional measurement strategies surely have had their place and maybe they still do, but we have to look for ways recognize that all learning doesn’t fit neatly into our traditional model of measuring student achievement. We must help our students own more of their own learning so that their motivation for learning and growing is more intrinsic than extrinsic. This isn’t easy. We are fighting many years of institutional entrenchment in a system that our students, parents, and communities “understand”. Teachers are spending more and more time talking about new ways to measure our students and I can promise that I have observed many classrooms this year in which the learning and the measurement is unique and exciting.
I teach in a great school. Further, I teach in a subject area in which I get to accept actual applause for the work that my students do. I am also incredibly lucky to have students and parents who regularly thank me for the experiences that I am able to help facilitate. I don’t have a typical teaching job. The truth is that my colleagues who are using group work to make math more accessible deserve applause, that my colleagues who create projects in which students work collaboratively and create unique products to demonstrate learning deserve applause, and my colleagues who spend hours creating alternative assessments in order to differentiate learning styles deserve applause. We are all asking the question, “what did they learn?”. We also look hard in the mirror when we don’t like the answer to that question.
Teaching hasn’t become easier in the last 25 years (the span of my career). We are asked to do more with less. I am working in a state where many of our legislators don’t respect the work that me and my colleagues do, which is fine. I work in a state where the state’s largest newspaper regularly writes opinion pieces that diminish the work of teachers and schools. I work in a state that where the Governor’s “educational adviser” has never spent a day working in a public school. But, that’s OK. My colleagues and I are going to continue to work hard to make our schools better. We are going to work hard so that the answer to the question, “What did they learn?”, will be much more than things that show up on standardized tests or be reflected in a grade point average. We are going to be sure that the answer to that question is that they learned how to be more curious, they learned how to advocate for themselves, and that they learned more about what it is they are passionate about. I like it when those things are the answer to the question, “What did they learn?”.