Sunday, September 3, 2017

5 Practices To Support Life Ready Learners

Standards... The Beginning of Standardization

Over the last decade there has been much discussion about standards and the impact they have on education. Initially, for me, it was all about the NYS learning standards, specifically in the areas of ELA and Mathematics, which also informed the standardized testing that shaped the learning in Grades 3 - 8. The conversation then went national with the unveiling of the Common Core State Standards for Learning. Again the focus was on ELA and Mathematics but these standards had even greater implications because not only were they linked to high stakes standardized testing but now the tests our kids were subjected to (ridiculously challenging tests that resulted in way too much learning time being lost) became part of the evaluation process for our educators. This is where the problems really began and the Common Core standards quickly became the Darth Vader of education because they had a death grip on our practices! That's right the same standards that were supposed to be saving education were in fact cutting off the air because our educators were forced to address the standards (some of which are developmentally inappropriate) in their daily learning experiences in the hopes that our students would master them and perform well on the standardized assessments that would be used to assess the educators. That, my friends, is a death grip. It feels like there is no escape and there is only one solution... standardizing our practices or submitting to the death grip. 

That's right... we went from educational standards, which had the potential to impact positive change in education if they were done correctly, to standardizing education. In the end, the victims were our students, our educators, our families, our support staff, our Boards of Education and anyone else with a vested interest in our schools. Many schools were hyper focused on meeting standards for fear they would lose state funding, they would receive a low rating or, even worse, be closed down. The standardization didn't stop there. The Common Core Standards also brought with them a standardized end goal for all of our students by normalizing the idea of college and career ready. So, not only were the standards standardizing what we did in our schools, and how we assessed our kids, but they were basically standardizing the profile of our graduates (I realize this didn't happen in every school but it happened in many). "College and career ready" became the "it" phrase in education for a long time. I cannot tell you how much I've heard that phrase over the last decade - from informal conversations to workshops to Twitter chats to school vision statements - everyone was determined to ensure that all students were college and career ready. But what exactly does that mean? What careers are we preparing our kids for when we standardize education? What about the careers that are still taking shape? What about the kids who are choosing a gap year or forgoing college all together? What about life?

LIFE READY: The Birth Of a New Goal & Standard

I recently began the next phase of my professional journey when I was appointed as the superintendent in Hastings-on-Hudson, NY. As part of my work, I developed an entry plan that helped me learn as much about Hastings as possible by interviewing various key stake holders in the community. The process is still unfolding but thus far I have heard from parents, Board of Education members, district administrators, staff members, community members and some students. During these many conversations (there have been over 40 thus far) there was one recurring theme... supporting our students by educating the whole child so they could be ready anything they encountered. The discussions went way beyond test scores, transcripts and college and career ready. In fact, while chatting with one of our teachers, she brought up the question about who our Hastings kids would be after they graduated 12th grade - how much of their identity would be shaped by their learning experiences in our schools and how would they use those to inform their next steps? That is when it came to me - we want our kids to be LIFE READY (this informed my opening day remarks in Hastings and you can check it out here)! We know that each learner is different and that trying to standardize the learning or the outcome is not sustainable. Instead, if we focus on empowering our students through meaningful learning experiences that go beyond the academics and nurture the ability to think critically, be reflective through high levels of self-awareness while also respecting and appreciating others we might just be preparing learners who are ready for life no matter what their college or career choices might include.

5 Practices To Support Life Ready Learners

In order to support and nurture life ready learners and make that the new norm I recommend the following 5 practices, which I have embraced. To be clear, I am suggesting that life ready not only be the goal for our students but that we model these practices as the adults. Here we go...

1) Life Ready is about Relationships! I have said this time and time again but building positive, healthy & respectful relationships must be our primary focus in education. When people feel connected, respected and valued the level of engagement changes and learning thrives. In order to make healthy relationships the norm, we must model that in our behavior through the relationships with kids, colleagues, families and the broader community. And when it comes to our kids, we need to explicitly teach them about how to develop and nurture healthy relationships. We can teach them about everything from the brain research as it relates to relationships and the research around social learning theory, which speaks to the effects of relationships on learning. Relationships matter!

2) Life Ready is about Being Learners First! Relationships and learning go hand-in-hand because relationships impact learning. We know that learning is a social construct and learning generally occurs as a result of experiences with other people. And in the end, learning permanently changes us. If we can understand and embrace this definition of learning we will be able to broaden how we enact learning in our schools and classrooms. Learning is also about being able to critically consume information and understand its impact on a broader scale than just our classrooms. Again, we must model being learners first for our students, colleagues and families. If education is about learning then the educators must be the lead learners within our schools and classrooms. And when it comes to our kids, we need to share our learning with them so they can see us as the models for being learners first. Additionally, we can teach our kids about the concept of learning and how it unfolds in an effort to empower them to track and drive their own learning. Being learners first is how we will change the world! 

3) Life Ready is about Nurturing & Embracing Curiosity, Creativity, Risk Taking and Failing in our Schools! In thinking about this idea I kept coming back to this idea... Curiosity is what piques our interest; risk taking is what inspires our learning; failing is what helps us iterate and creativity is what changes our world! This how our world changes; this is innovation (thank you George Couros for informing my perspective on innovation) - curious people who pursue something and then take risks (and likely failing repeatedly) to creatively address/solve a problem or issue. This is how we could structure learning our schools - solving problems through curiosity, creativity and collaborative efforts (again, the importance of relationships). And when it comes to our kids, we need to model this for them and make it the norm from the day they walk into pre-school. Their lives before school is all about curiosity, creativity, risk taking and failing in an effort to learn. Whether they are learning to walk, talk or ride a bike, it happens because they need to change their world on some level (communicating or traveling) and they will keep trying until they do. We need to build on this natural curiosity in schools, which means a total redo on how we define learning, homework and assessment and shift from a focus on the destination to instead a focus on the journey. 

4) Life Ready is about Having High Levels of Self-awareness and The World Around Us! This practice is critical because it involves both understanding of self and understandings of others. Aside from learning, there are many other social constructs that impact us each day and some of them, such as racism, are destructive and prohibit us, as a nation, from achieving our next and better iteration of self. In order to deconstruct and rebuild social constructs such as racism, we must begin by developing high levels of self-awareness while also understanding people and groups who have consistently been "othered" or marginalized. If we are going to change the narrative in our society we must focus on the power of education, empathy and inclusivity (another reason why relationships are important). And when it comes to our kids, we must explicitly teach them about concepts such as racism, hatred, bigotry and biases so we can inform their perspectives to prepare them to deconstruct long-standing social constructs. This important work starts with us as the educators and we must model high levels of self-awareness and speak openly about how we are changing the narrative. 

5) Life Ready is about Finding The Joy In Our Learning! When we find our joy we also rediscover our happiness and happiness leads to endorphins being released in the body. These endorphins change our experiences in positive ways and they allow us to take our learning to a whole other level. Yes, joy is critical to our work in education for both our educators and our students. Relationships, curiosity, learning and changing should all be sources of joy in our classrooms and schools. And when it comes to our kids, we should teach them the brain research around joy/happiness and the impact of endorphins on learning. We could also empower our students to pursue their passions and interests through sacred times like Genius Hour. As the educators, we should also have the time to pursue our own passions and interests as they relate to our personal and professional development. Finding and protecting our joy will make the world a better place in the journey towards creating our LIFE READY IDENTITY!

In The End... 

We aren't just looking for the next Ivy League grad or Fortune 500 CEO because we know our kids will be prepared to achieve those goals through sound instruction. We are looking for the global citizens who are going to rewrite the narrative through their actions; Who are going to change the world; Who are going to deconstruct and rebuild the social constructs that impede us from moving forward as a society. Racism, biases, hate, and marginalization can only be eradicated through high levels of self-awareness and an understanding and appreciation for the world around us. We are going to make the world a better place because of the explicit and intentional learning that will unfold in our schools. We are going to work together to define what it means to be LIFE READY! 
That is our charge. 
That is our goal. 
That is our future!