Learning by Doing (or What’s Good for the Gosling is Good for the Goose)

Goose & Goslings

I’m a big believer in the idea that what’s good for students is good for teachers as well. If we say, for instance, that students benefit from having choices and a sense of ownership, I think the same should hold true for teachers. If students deserve time to experiment, practice and sometimes even fail as part of the process of learning, then teachers deserve that time, too. And if we think that students learn best when they’re also given opportunities to wrestle with problems in an active, inquiry-based way, then teachers need those opportunities, too, in order to more deeply understand their students, what to teach and how to best teach it.

Supporting and investing in teachers’ ongoing professional development in order to build their capacity as educators is exactly what schools in Finland and Ontario have done to enviable results. And it’s at the heart of two success stories that recently made the news here at home. The first comes from Union City, New Jersey, a community of poor, mostly immigrant families, where three-quarters of the students come from homes where only Spanish is spoken. As reported in the New York Times article “The Secret to Fixing Bad Schools,” Union City made a dramatic turn-around over the course of three years from being a system “in need of improvement” to one whose high school graduation rate rose to a whopping 89.5%, with a vast majority of those graduates going on to college.

Success StoryThe second story comes from New Dorp High School in Staten Island, which again serves many poor and working-class students. As Peg Tyre writes in The Atlantic, New Dorp went from being a school where four out of ten students dropped out to one where 80% graduated by developing an academic writing program. In each case, the change was the result of principals supporting teachers in undertaking an in-depth inquiry into what was holding students back and what the teachers might need to learn and do to address those problems. And in each case, scores of educators have attempted to clone and package what these schools have done–which I think misses the point.

As David Kirp writes in “The Secret to Fixing Bad Schools”:

“School officials flock to Union City and other districts that have beaten the odds, eager for a quick fix. But they’re on a fool’s errand. These places . . . didn’t become exemplars by behaving like magpies, taking shiny bits and pieces and glueing them together. Instead, each devised a long-term strategy . . . [and] each keeps learning from experience and tinkering with its model.”

Similarly, educators Bob Fecho and Stephanie Jones echo Kirp’s sentiments in their response to Tyre’s piece, which was also published by The Atlantic. “When positive change occurs in schools,” they write,

“there is a tendency to want to treat the experience like a controlled experiment in a lab, latch on to the latest innovation at that school, and then market it to schools everywhere. In the case of New Dorp . . . empowering teachers to engage their professional knowledge and intellect and take charge of their teaching and learning is the revelation we see . . . . “

I, too, believe that empowering teachers as researchers and learners is the real secret to student success, whether it’s at the school or district level or, as most happens in my own work, at the classroom, grade or discipline level. And that means that whenever I have the opportunity, I get teachers reading and writing—and talking about their own process—to better understand from the inside-out what they’re asking students to do and how they, as learners, do it.

IRA ConventionThis Friday, for instance, I’ll be in San Antonio for the International Reading Association (IRA) convention, participating in a full-day workshop organized by Jan Burkins and Kim Yaris (of the indispensable blog and website Burkins & Yaris) on ways to revamp balanced literacy to better meet the demands of the Common Core Standards. There, Dorothy Barnhouse and I will facilitate a close reading experience for the participants that will allow them to better understand—and to feel—both what it truly means to read closely within a community of readers and how that enables readers to make deeper meaning of what they read.

We’ll do this not by asking a string of text-dependent questions but by inviting the participants to first pay attention to what they notice and then consider what that might mean—i.e., what the writer might be trying to show them through the details and structure he’s chosen. And if this group is anything like the groups of teachers I’ve worked with before, this will be both challenging and exhilarating—or as a high school student said to her teacher after I’d modeled this same process in her classroom just the other day, “That was hard but fun.”

Book with LightAfter experiences like the one we’ll be facilitating at IRA, many teachers have confessed that they’ve never read like this before—which should come as no surprise given all the different paths people take to wind up in a classroom. Many are also amazed and astounded by how much more they’re able to ‘see’ in a text when they’re given a chance, as well as by the variety of interpretations that different teachers developed. And like teacher Jessica Cuthbertson, who wrote a piece for EdNews about an institute Dorothy and I gave last summer, they often leave committed to giving their students this kind of opportunity, as well.

Teachers also come away from these reading experiences with a deeper understanding of what some of the individual standards mean, especially those in the Craft and Structure band, and a better sense what it looks, sounds and feels like to really engage in that work. And all of this means they’ll go back to their classrooms with a much deeper, more complex and nuanced view of what they’re expected to teach—none of which would happen if they were handed a script, even if it was one that was developed by others who went through a deep learning process.

I’ll be sharing more about what we can discover, as teachers, when we try to write the tasks we assign to students in an upcoming post. But for now I invite you to also take a look at “Teachers, Learners, Leaders” by Ann Lieberman, a wonderful article about the self-designed professional learning projects undertaken by teachers in Ontario, and to remember these words of the Danish philosopher Kierkegaard:

“To be a teacher in the right sense is to be a learner. I am not a teacher, only a fellow student.”

3 thoughts on “Learning by Doing (or What’s Good for the Gosling is Good for the Goose)

  1. This sounds like a fantastic session; I am so proud to know you. Thank you for always being a voice of reason, of listening, and of trust in people. Experimentation and failure are, indeed, an important part of learning. xo, a.

  2. Vicki,
    Love this! THIS is exactly what we strive for in our Learning Through Teaching model at UNH. We work with teachers in a larger group as part of a graduate level course and then individually as teachers set their own goals. We work with and then support those teachers in their goals by meeting with them, modeling lessons, conferring, providing resources, observing etc. I am SO happy you are writing this as you are inspiring me to write about what we do! Here is the catch, not long ago we were in over 30 schools in our state and beyond. Now we are struggling to keep our numbers up as often our work is working against the scripted programs being brought in and so that is where the money is now going. Once we are in a school teachers are desperate to keep us because it is what that article refers to…professional development which is SO different than teacher training or even staff development. Teachers want to have these professional discussions, to think deeply and to ponder, reflect and figure out what is best for their students.
    You are my inspiration this morning as I was floundering in my own writing!
    Tomasen

    • I’m so glad this was useful, Tomasen! Though I’m so, so sorry to hear that New Hampshire is jumping on the scripted program bandwagon. I went to Tom Newkirk & Penny Kittle’s session at IRA on the video archives of Don Graves work, and I was so struck by how similar what Graves and his research assistants (which included the very young Mary Ellen Giacobbe and Lucy Calkins) were doing to what I saw in Reggio Emilia. They were designing opportunities for students to learn and solve problems in their writing then really, really listening to what the students were saying about both the product and the process in ways that allowed the students AND the teachers to learn so very much. And I do think that UNH is the leader in preserving that kind of responsive, empowering teaching.

      I was also struck with Tom’s opening remarks about how we need to remember this history and legacy if we have any chance of not becoming pawns in the corporate play for our schools, and by Penny’s closing comments on the need for a new revolution. And seeing the article in The Atlantic which was going around facebook the other day–“The Coming Revolution in Public Education (http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2013/04/the-coming-revolution-in-public-education/275163/)–maybe, just maybe, it can happen before all the smart, thoughtful, and creative teachers leave the profession in disgust.

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