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Tearing Up Friday's Lesson Plan After Learning 2030

Thursday, October 10, 2013

By Mike Maccarone, Learning 2030 Contributor

Image © WGSI/Brian Emery

Fifteen months ago, I ended an eight year stretch of teaching in a public high school in Newark, NJ.  In that span of time, I offered courses in physics, chemistry, engineering, electronics, architecture, algebra, and led advisory groups, a national honor society, and after-school study programs. 

After eight years of joys and frustrations, feeling empowered by my successes in the classroom and exhausted by my fruitless efforts to change a broken system from the inside, I took an opportunity to try to help build a new school from the ground up.  The venue changed, the faces changed, the mission changed, and the funding changed, but one thing remained the same throughout all of my experiences: I teach students. 

Teachers as students, students as teachers

The delicate dance, the art and science that is the practice of teaching is one for which I have the utmost respect and appreciation. I've spent countless hours learning and improving my craft, and countless more observing other teachers doing the same. Any teacher will tell you they learn as much from students on any day of the week as the students learn from them.  

As a practice, I have spent more time in the second half of my decade in schools collaborating with other teachers. I can't claim to have the voice of thousands, but I do have a vested interest in improving teaching and learning, and have been lucky enough to hear from a diverse group of teachers with a vast range of ages, ethnicities, and philosophies, and I carry
those conversations with me through all of my work.

Spinning our wheels?

When I arrived at Equinox Summit: Learning 2030, I expected to hear from other educators and to carry on conversations like those I've had so many times before at conferences around the world. To be honest, I expected the same old recycled conversation of complaints and wheel-spinning I have been subject to for a tenth of a century, and which drives most teachers (myself included) to wit's end in faculty meetings, conferences, and professional development seminars. A wise mentor on the brink of retirement once told me that educators are always in the second year of a five year plan. I've become accustomed to this 'here it goes again' mindset.  

Image © WGSI/Brian Emery

Once a teacher, always a teacher

When I arrived, I was caught off guard.  The forum, comprised primarily of students, all of whom are recent products of diverse education systems, brought a unique, direct, and vital perspective of their experiences to the first day, during which we worked to identify some key ideas (curriculum, instruction, assessment, and collaboration) that might emerge over the week and to establish some perspective on the experiences of one another.  Our first panel discussion, led by Dr. Michael Brooks, included Jennifer Groff of MIT's MediaLab and Andrew Chandler-Grevatt, a science curriculum writer from the UK, both teachers themselves.

 

 

I was immediately drawn to both Jen and Andy as they shared their experiences in education, their philosophies toward improving a static medium, and their thoughtful approaches toward their craft.  Each carried with them an expertise informed by classroom experience, and I felt challenged by their ambitious ideas and realistic approaches to the summit. Here were two experienced teachers with connections to a more global network of educators from whom I could learn over the course of the week.  I would be lucky to have them around.  

All by myself?

Image © WGSI/Sam Saechao

When the quorum introduced themselves the next day, I found myself surprised to be the lone active high school teacher among the group.  Again reverting to my baser instincts, I immediately fell into defense mode, now feeling charged that I would be the lone teacher voice in the room, and that I would have to be louder, more assertive, and stand up for teachers.  The next five days would be exhausting.  As one among 40, it would be hard to fight off the inevitable attacks on teachers, the obvious targets who would be tossed aside and criticized, shouldering the blame for the last 100 years of ineffectiveness and inefficiency in schools.  And once again, I found myself surprised. 

 

Not your average faculty meeting

To hear from a high school principal from Singapore praise his teachers for their innovation, teacher trainers from Finland and the UK applaud the efforts of their colleagues and peers, representatives from Uganda, Nigeria, Brazil, Qatar and other corners of the world share incredible practices of teachers raising the bar for their students, setting high expectations and then carrying their students beyond those expectations, and, most importantly, students from Massachusetts, Ontario, and Virginia, to name a few, laud their teachers and the experiences they had in and out of the classroom because of these mentors … this was a very different group of concerned citizens than you'll find at your average faculty meeting.  And that was a very good thing. 

If at any time during the summit I felt concerned that teachers were being underrepresented or unjustly criticized, lumped into that all too common stereotype of "those who can't do, and who love their summers", I would have intervened.  Perhaps the only time I began to feel that sentiment was from an audience question asked to a panel during a taping of TVO's The Agenda.  And the criticism was immediately, and thoughtfully, deflated by every summit participant given the opportunity to respond.  Rarely in my profession have I felt so much appreciation for my work, so much support for my ongoing efforts to remain connected to the classroom, so much value in the role of a teacher, and so challenged to be better. 

It starts today

I left Learning 2030 renewed, inspired, and transformed by the connections I made, the ideas I was exposed to.  It changed the way I held my class on Friday.  It changed the perspective I brought to my department and division meetings on Monday, and the way I prepared for our Wednesday faculty meeting.  As a result, I've invited students to participate in the schedule design process for next year. I've pushed students to ask for time at our faculty meetings to open up the conversation with teachers. I've included 3 students in our elective-planning team for an ambitious new project we're embarking on in the next few months, and we're meeting with them as part of our group today.  The lessons I learned from Learning 2030 reminded me that we are all students of the world, especially if we're paying attention. And I suppose that means we are all teachers, too.  

Mike Maccarone is the Science Curriculum Specialist (Upper School) for Avenues: The World School in New York City.