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Reflections on Transformations

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I helped to bring the IB Middle Years Programme (MYP) to John Glenn Middle School of International Studies in Indio, California, so I saw the impact that an IB education could have on our students. But it was not until I taught a European history advanced placement class to sophomores at a non-IB school that I realized what a change had taken place in me as a teacher, as a life long learner. My life before the MYP had been about teaching different subjects as series of facts in a relatively two-dimensional model. My focus had been centered on content, content that would be typically forgotten by my students because they could not see the relevance to their lives. I cannot imagine teaching that way again, and I was not able to teach that way even when I was employed to teach advanced placement at a non-IB school in my last teaching job. The MYP had changed me. I now work as a consultant for public and private schools and I continue to help others see the value of an IB-educators’ approach to teaching and learning.

It is said that you never really know anything until you teach it. Had I not had the opportunity as a coordinator and then as a workshop leader to teach other adults, I do not think I would have come to appreciate just how much the MYP helped me to grow as a teacher. As an MYP coordinator at John Glenn, I witnessed teachers doing amazing things with their kids. With just a little encouragement from me, I saw them employ strategies that I had never dreamed of during my first years of teaching. All of a sudden we were sharing ideas because the MYP was also changing the way we talked to each other. As coordinator I explained to our staff that the MYP mandated that teachers talk about curriculum with other teachers, and that we not only talk about our kids but also take action to make sense of their days by planning engaging and rigorous units. We had to make sense of their day mapping out our curriculum both vertically and horizontally. The MYP challenged us to be more professional. Rather than our talks centering on content and test scores we began to look at student engagement and relevancy. When I became a workshop leader for the IB, I taught heads of schools and coordinators about the backwards by design approach to unit planning, and that the unit planner was not just a series of boxes to be filled in but a set of connected thinking steps to plan formative experiences that would support student success at a rich and engaging summative task. I hoped that my workshop participants understood the importance of formative assessments that they are more about giving feedback and guidance to help kids do better, that they should set kids up for success at a summative task. I shared with them that by using a criterion related assessment model; both kids and teachers could work together to recognize the skills necessary for kids to succeed at each level of the rubric not just the top. I tried to help them to see the importance of process as well as product, and the necessity for kids to see failure as part of success. And of course I shared how important it was for us to help kids look at and take action in their world from a more global perspective. My examples were not only about the wonderful Personal Project as a culminating experience for all MYP kids but that in each and every unit we plan we should recognize the importance of student engagement. I found that as I taught others the value of shifting our teaching from a two-dimensional to a three-dimensional model that I was also convincing myself. I was even coming to realize that the adversarial relationship between teachers and students could melt away if we were no longer planning for a gotcha at the end of a unit!

If teaching others helped me to reconsider and reflect upon my old practices then I had to take a long hard look at those old practices and find new ways to improve myself. Working with teachers to help them use the MYP unit planner forced me to question “the boxes and arrows.” What were those boxes framing? What were those arrows implying? So, I became an inquirer. I wanted to understand more about the importance of having concepts in a unit of study. And why was it so important to put it in a global context? I wanted to know who was writing about inquiry and conceptual understandings and were we just talking about it as a strategy or did we really have some strategies for teachers to use when they got back to school on Monday? So I began to inquire into authors who dealt with these ideas. I read Wiggins and McTigh, Lynn Erickson, Freire, Wagner and Daniel Pink. From understanding how hard it is to really set up an environment where we optimize cognitive transfer to the importance of merging key and related concepts, this “good teaching” was all coming together. Tomlinson taught me to separate behaviors from skills. They were all writing about some of the same things, about how we as teachers can optimize student success if we plan for it with the child at the center. These were things I had not even thought of before. We teachers had never been taught to be designers, but that really is what we were being called to do in the MYP, to design units of work that would engage kids at an age-appropriate level. I had rarely questioned what I taught or how I taught before this. I was pretty much doing to them what was done to me, unloading content, day after day, and rarely wondering if it was “sticking,” but often feeling that it wasn’t when it came time to assess them. The MYP was not only about planning good units in a backward design, it was about merging the conceptual big ideas with the content and putting the whole unit in a relevant context to engage kids.

I could have written about the many students whose lives have been changed by the Middle Years Programme, but I’ve chosen to write about my own experience and how the MYP has changed me as a teacher. After all, I had wanted to be a teacher ever since I could remember, since I was in the first grade. I was a good teacher or so I thought. It wasn’t until I was introduced to the IB Middle Years Programme that I realized just how isolated and complacent I’d become as a teacher. The IB MYP empowered me to think about why and what was important in educating young people and talk to other teachers about what worked and what did not. It forced me to inquiry into new ways to teach. It asked that I clearly communicate my expectations and to be caring and knowledgeable in what I present to students. It required me to be reflective about my practice and open-minded to new ideas and strategies in a world of rapid change. The attributes of the learner profile not only apply to IB students, but to IB teachers as well. The IB MYP had affected me in a way that we, as teachers, hope it will affect our students– it made me a life long learner.

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Let’s get our words right: what do we mean by “failure”?

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I am a teacher. Have been since middle school when, under the watchful eye of the intrepid Wilberta (Bert) Lipps, who had been my grandmother’s swimming teacher some five decades earlier, I taught five-year-olds to swim and helped the over-65 group to stay fit in early-bird swim sessions. Since then, I have learned that being a teacher – no matter where you are – is not easy.  I continue to see this today each time I work with dedicated, hard-working teachers in my role as consultant for Cornerstone Educational Consulting.

Bert was at least seventy years old by the time she was my swimming instructor. She worked us, lap after lap, satisfied only with my personal best. She was honest with me, clear when I hadn’t reached expectations (I knew what she expected and I will swear to this day that she had eyes in the back of her head), and not once did she do the work for me or tell me I had failed and she needed to move on.

Recently I ran across a blog post that expressed honest concern about failure, from the perspective of a teacher and a parent. I thought Of Bert.

Josh Stumpenhorst (http://stumpteacher.blogspot.com/2015/01/failure.htmlrightly worries about trends in some arenas toward sugar-coating what kids don’t know. He is thinking through our responsibilities toward learners for helping them know how to cope in the face of failure. I whole-heartedly agree that we should not tell kids they are performing better than they  actually are, though I do think that this communication needs to be delivered in a manner that encourages learners to try for more – to do better.
Bert was harsh sometimes, true. But it never occurred to her that I wouldn’t reach my personal best. It therefore never occurred to me.
 
First, it isn’t about making kids feel good about themselves; it is about helping kids learn by the very act of being honest (not brutal, but honest) with where they are in their learning. If they don’t have an accurate picture of where they actually are in their learning, kids – any of us really – are misled and uninformed. Not good. Not productive. Telling them where they are in their learning is not looking at them and saying, “you Failed.”  It IS helping them understand what they need to do in order to do better. 
 
Second, celebrating failure? Where does that come from? As teachers and parents aren’t we duty bound to actually help kids learn how to do things better? That isn’t celebrating failure – that’s ensuring that they know what to do next when they haven’t reached a temporal goal. Again, the rule ought to be don’t lie; it also ought to be not to hang learners over a cliff making them guess blindly what they could do to be better. 
 
The problem, I think, is two-fold. 
 
Begin with how we define failure. The word itself suggests that what’s done is done and there is no going back. And that is just not how life works. Think about it. As adults, excepting death of course, we nearly always have an opportunity to try it again – though we don’t always take up those opportunities. Why would we tell kids such opportunity is past? Don’t we teach them the wrong things when we don’t help them progress?
 
I’m reminded of the root of the word assessment – from assidere, meaning “to sit beside.”  If what we are discussing is learning, then assessment should be treated as a means to show someone, honestly and in a manner that can be understood, how to proceed. It is in the process.
 
Failure is a loaded word; as such, it can distract even the most dedicated of parents and teachers from discussing what we really need to be doing to increase learning. The word failure is, according to Webster, “an abrupt cessation of normal functioning.” or “a fracture”.  That cessation or fracture is fear-laden – and that definition, when applied to learning, is misleading at best. At worst it teaches unreasoning fear and an aversion to risk, the very qualities we aim to help our students overcome.
 
I wonder if we shouldn’t be more careful with our words. Falling short of something (as we see with students and learning) is a challenge, yes; a deficiency, O.K. But nine times out of ten, it isn’t yet a failure. 
 
If we are truly sitting beside and learning beside kids throughout the process, as Bert did with me in the swimming pool all those years ago, the instances of outright failure will diminish significantly. Let us stop using the mistaken reasoning of teaching kids “how to fail” as an excuse for not teaching them how to succeed.
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