Sunday, March 11, 2018

44 Practices That Are "Fixing" Education Today

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This year I turned 44. I am 44 years old and I am proud to say that almost half of my life has been spent in classrooms and schools as an educator. From elementary classroom teacher to assistant principal to principal to assistant superintendent to superintendent, my entire adult life has been spent working with students, other educators and families in schools. What have I realized after all this time? There really is no better job on the planet because the rewards are plentiful, the passion for learning is inspiring and the joy is infectious. Is it all sunshine and roses all of the time? Certainly not. Is it easy and fun all of the time? Definitely not. But, is it the most important work that will have the greatest impact on the future of our planet? YES! Does the joy outweigh the negativity? YES! Working in education is all that and a bag a chips (yes, I know I am dating myself but you get the idea). I love what I do and I am fortunate to have a "job" that rarely feels like work!

Over the last several years I have paused around the time of my birthday to reflect on my experiences in education. Last year I wrote a post about the 43 Things We Need To Stop Doing in Education. While the post was well received and the intent was a positive one, I also realized that it may have impacted some in a negative way because it was critical of the practices that are norms in some places. So, in thinking about this past year, I realized I was quite fortunate to have seen so many amazing practices already unfolding in our schools. During my time as an educator I have seen best practices unfolding in various schools. So, while there is no "silver bullet" in education and I believe the whole ed reform movement is flawed, I have seen how education has evolved over the last 20 years. We are in a much better place than we were a decade ago. Do we still have a lot of work to do? Yes. But if people, such as the U.S. Secretary of Education, actually spent time in classrooms engaging with students and educators, I know the progress in our profession would be visible. What are the things happening in our schools today? Here is a list of at least 44 different positive practices (in no specific order - just the way they flowed out of my head) unfolding in education today that I have seen with my very own eyes...

1) Relationships - educators are becoming more and more focused on the importance of relationships in education. Relationships between students and educators; educators and educators; and the institution and the broader community. Relationships are a game changer and more and more educators are being intentional about nurturing relationships that are rooted in trust and respect!

2) High EQ - we are starting to understand the importance of the "soft skills" both in our profession and beyond! Yes, IQ matters too but I am seeing a greater emphasis in our schools on the social and emotional development of our students and educators.

3) Picture Books - more and more educators outside of elementary schools are realizing and harnessing the power of picture books in the learning process! Picture books aren't just for little kids and I am seeing them included in middle and high school classrooms. The great thing about picture books (aside from the amazing illustrations) is that are an equalizer because all learners can access them and the messages are relevant, powerful and meaningful to our students.

4) Diverse Literature - I love that I am seeing more and more schools expand the syllabus beyond the classics and standards to include fiction pieces that feature more diverse characters including characters of color, female characters and LGBTQ characters just to name a few. Educators understand that there literature needs to provide windows (understand others) and mirrors (see themselves) for our students. These diverse texts also help in our efforts to eradicate existing social constructs and systems that are oppressive!

5) Relevant Literature - Diversity in literature is not enough; Jason Reynolds reminds us that kids need to see their world in books too! Whether in the form of characters or in the setting, our students need to be able to see life unfold in the way they are experiencing it.

6) Student Choice - I am seeing more and more educators give students choice in their learning experiences as a way to empower students. This is HUGE because if our students have some choices in the learning, they will then take more ownership and the learning will become self-directed, which is our goal! Self-directed learning is sustainable learning... it is the learning that matters to the heart and mind!

7) Educator Choice - see #6! I love that I am seeing more 
districts and schools giving educators some choice and control over their own professional learning. The research shows that when professional learning resonates on a personal level (i.e. it is self-directed while anchored in a common goal), it is more likely going to have an impact on students!

8) Leadership - more and more building and district leaders are shifting away from just being managers/administrators; and instead they are leaders who focus on building relationships, removing barriers and promoting learning. Leadership has the greatest singular influence on organizational culture and trajectory!

9) Learners First - more and more educators are modeling being learners first in their daily work. Educators understand that if they want to provide the best education possible for their students then they need to be learning about the latest research and approaches that can inform their practice. Becoming an educator isn't the end of the learning journey; instead, become an educator means the learning accelerates and becomes amplified!

10) We teach kids, not programs - Educators around the globe are pushing back on mandates, high stakes testings and scripted curriculum because they know their primary job is to teach the children before them... not teach a curriculum or program!

11) Assessment Evolution - Educators are making assessment an interactive process with multiple inputs including peer and self assessment. Furthermore, many educators are starting to question the purpose of grades/grading and are seeing assessment as an informative part of the journey and not necessarily the destination. Thank you to Starr Sackstein for blazing a trail in this area!

12) Education isn’t just about academics - It is so great to hear more conversations in our schools focused on the social and emotional well-being of our kids. In many schools, education isn't only about feeding the mind but it is also about feeding the heart & soul!

13) Real life applications in the area of mathematics - I have watched so many amazing educators over the years incorporate the many real life applications of mathematics! From "games" involving the stock market to exposing kids to the links between art and mathematics, math is moving beyond the page and algorithm and starting to matter to kids!

14) Family engagement - Deeply engaged communities, as a result of transparent schools/districts, are becoming more of the norm as opposed to the exception. We are breaking down the fortress walls and partnering with families to do what is in the best interest of children. The research shows that strong home/school connections have a positive impact on learning. Thank you to my brother Joe Sanfelippo for modeling this so well!

15) Every child WILL learn - I have encountered many passionate educators who have dedicated themselves to providing every child an entry point for learning regardless of their readiness level. The conversation is no longer about kids who can learn; instead the focus is on the fact that kids will learn! It sounds like a subtle difference but it is a significant shift in thinking and culture.

16) More hands-on learning opportunities- I love seeing things like Makerspaces, Genius Hour and Engineering courses in our schools  because that inherently means an increase in hands-on experiences. The more kids do with their own hands, the deeper we could push the learning!

17) Moving beyond test prep & achievement gaps - Some schools are no longer focusing on closing the achievement gap by raising test scores (research shows no sustainable impact there). Instead the focus is shifting on closing the opportunity gap that exists in our society because of implicit bias, culture incompetence and significant segregation in our schools. 

18) Addressing the systemic racism that permeates our schools - Thanks to social media, I see more and more educators engaged in discussions 
about the oppressive social constructs and systems within our schools (we need many more educators involved but I think the conversation is growing). Many educators are pushing the conversation to go deeper and address the root cause (racism) of many of the problems plaguing our educational system. I am seeing more intentional and explicit education about racism, hate and bias and that is giving me hope!

19) Mental health supports are not a luxury- Yes - we have finally reached a point in education where we no longer view social workers or guidance counselors or school psychologists as a luxury. These supports are necessities in our schools because our kids have suffered so much trauma in the world and if we want them to learn how to read, write and do math, then they need to feel emotionally safe and secure first!

20) It's About Readiness Levels - It is amazing to hear about more learning experiences that give every learner an entry point regardless of readiness level. Educators are now often talking about what a child can do and building on those strengths as opposed to focusing on the deficits. I think the more this becomes a norm, the closer we get to truly revolutionizing education!

21) Collaboration between all key stakeholders - Schools throughout the country are looking for opportunities to partner with the broader community to achieve greater levels of success. Whether partnering with parents or with a local business, these partnerships are creating new and amazing opportunities for schools and students.

22) Teacher efficacy - We know (thanks to John Hattie) that teacher efficacy has the greatest impact on student learning. This knowledge is leading more school districts to invest in recruiting the best candidates and then supporting those educators with various structures (professional learning opportunities, positive working conditions, PLCs, etc.) in order to retain them. We must continue to invest in our teachers because they are the key to successful student learning!

23) Solid instruction rooted in the latest research - Again, based on the exchanges I am seeing on social media and my own work experiences, I am noticing more educators and districts making decisions that are research based and reviewing the research before making decisions. Whether it is about homework or instructional techniques, more and more schools are seriously reflecting on what learning looks like and how it happens in meaningful ways based on what the research indicates. This one dovetails with #22 because its not programs or materials that influence the effectiveness of a school, it is the people and their practices!

24) Mitigating those who create fear, chaos & panic -  We have all worked in organizations that include individuals who create fear, chaos and panic in those around them (I like to call it the "Sky Is Falling" effect). Often, those folks are working from a personal agenda that intentionally disrupts the trajectory of the organization. But this is changing too as more schools and districts are committing to a mission and vision anchored in a shared agenda/goals that mitigates those who foster fear and create chaos.

25) Vision - While many schools have committed to a mission statement (who they are today), I am learning about a growing number of schools and districts that have worked diligently to articulate a clear vision of who they want to be in the future and where they want to go. This vision is rooted in what is best for students and educators and that is incredibly inspiring. This vision is also actionable and conversations include regularly assessing the vision and revising it as the journey unfolds.

26) Vertical and horizontal alignment - When I was a student, I remember never feeling like one year or one class connected to the next; it was as if every educator was doing whatever they wanted. Fortunately, that seems to be changing as more educators are having discussions about the importance of vertical and horizontal alignment for students, educators and families. Alignment, which doesn't sacrifice autonomy, is a critical component to ensuring seamless learning experiences for students that build on each other! 

27) No cookie cutter - More and more districts are moving away from boxed and scripted curriculum because they know those are not the best way to reach and engage all students!

28) Internships - As I have shifted to a district level position, I am excited to learn about the many schools and districts that embed “internships” into the learning experience for kids, especially in high school. I think this can have such a positive impact on our students because it gives them a sense of what they will experience when they enter the real world. It also allows students to explore a specific profession.

29) Public speaking opportunities - Whether this is in the form of an actual class or an after school club, there are so many schools that encourage public speaking experiences for students. This is such a powerful and meaningful way to learn how to frame & present an argument. This is also critical when considering student agency and self-advocacy!

30) Re-imagining homework - Many districts and schools are revisiting the homework conversation. The research is out there and more districts are considering it as they re-examine their homework beliefs. Whether schools are considering eliminating homework or trying to find ways to make it something kids are excited to do, the discussions are actually happening!

31) Identity - As mentioned earlier, educators are seriously reflecting on the importance of culture and relationships within our schools. I am watching more schools that are working on nurturing that positive culture in their buildings as a way to hook students. We know that culture shapes community and impacts the way people feel. So, if our students feel positively towards school, and feel invested in the culture, they will begin identifying with that community. That sense of identity leads to feeling connected & a sense of belonging, which are critical when we think about the high levels of depression and isolation our kids are experiencing today!

32) Sacred learning time - It is so wonderful to hear about more and more districts that are creating sacred time for professional learning opportunities for educators. From teachers to principals, districts are creating the time and space for everything from book studies (virtual and in-person) to Genius Hour for educators to pursue areas of interest. No matter what the format, the important point is that time for learning is being prioritized!  

33) Classroom Redesign - It is so great to see the many images of flexible learning spaces that have flooded the internet over the last several years. Many schools are moving away from the traditional desks and rows (contrary to what Betsy Devos seems to think) and experimenting with classroom redesign as a way to increase levels of student engagement! 

34) Feedback - More discussions are unfolding around the importance of feedback and the impact it could have on our trajectory. Schools are demystifying the negative stigma around feedback (it is not easy to give or receive it) and are recognizing it as critical to our growth and maximizing it as a way to inform blind spots. Feedback, when done thoughtfully, is helping us learn and grow!

35) Reframe problems as opportunities - This is so simple yet so hard because in our profession we are regularly dealing with problems, which leads to frustration and more challenges. Fortunately, our organizations are pausing and instead of seeing the problems as negative (and often personal) attacks, we are seeing these problems as an opportunity to learn, grow & improve.

36) Kids know what they are learning and why - YES, more educators are taking a moment to let students in on the big secret... "This is what we are learning today and this is why it matters to you." Our kids are taking ownership of the learning when we start each lesson with a quick explanation of why we are learning this specific strategy or skill and how it will impact the students!

37) Making room for downtime - more and more educators are openly talking about the challenges of finding balance between our personal and professional lives. This open dialogue is so important because we are inspiring each other with tips on how to manage it all while being successful in our work and still taking care of ourselves. This balance is also a critical thing to model for our students!

38) Making room for fun in school - yes, school is fun and educators are spreading the fun through blog posts, podcasts and live streams from their classrooms! Whether someone is sharing the Lego Wall in their library or the math game in their classroom, we are seeing how learning can be fun! So, even though there are policies and mandates we have to adhere to, we are making the school day fun for kids... and ourselves! 

39) Making room for field trips - it is so great to hear about the wonderful field trips schools are taking (some virtual) because those learning experiences are a wonderful way to enhance classroom experiences! 

40) Superintendents who don't just push paper - As a new superintendent (who still has so much to learn), I am hearing so much from my colleagues and mentors about the work they are doing to help support leaders, teachers and students. I have learned so much from the superintendents who have dedicated themselves to removing barriers so the educators and students have what they need for optimal learning!

41) Technology Doesn't Equate to Innovation - This conversation is happening more and more each day and I think it will be critical to the future of our schools. Innovation is about the way we think and view problems; it is not about an iPad or Chromebook.  

42) J - There is JOY permeating many of our classrooms and schools!

43) O - There are meaningful learning OPPORTUNITIES unfolding for educators, students and their families!

44) Y - More and more districts and schools are embracing a culture of YES so we can continue to revolutionize the educational landscape! Conversations are going from, "Yes, but..." to "Yes, and... "

Is everything perfect in our schools? No. But are things moving in the right direction? Yes! Have we evolved as a profession? Yes! Thank you to the thousands of educators and schools and classrooms that have inspired this post - it is an honor and privilege to be an educator!

So, what would you add to the list?