In the documentary film Sketches of Frank Gehry, he and his fellow architects are considering how to improve a cardboard mock-up of a building they’re designing. Gehry unhappily stares at the model and gruffly declares, “Well, let’s look at it for a while. Be irritated by it. Then we’ll figure out what to do.” He feels that something is just not right. He explains, “I don’t like this side. This [wall] just has to get crankier.” He and his partner fiddle around with some paper, bending and crumpling it, trying it out. Then finally he exclaims, “That is so stupid looking it’s great.”
Gehry, in the stages of early planning, demonstrates a fussiness with the process. For each project he takes on, he is known for constructing at least two early models out of blocks, one large and one small. He explains, “You have to force yourself to change scale and go back and forth. It keeps you honest.”
We as teachers, much like Frank Gehry, design our classroom spaces before we begin teaching. In the best classrooms, teachers consider what materials to make available, how to organize tables and chairs into various workstations, and perhaps how to create nested areas, little nooks and crannies for student to tuck themselves away in to escape the hustle and bustle of the classroom when, for that child, it all gets to be too much. A teacher who considers deeply the design of the physical classroom space typically thinks beyond rows of students arranged facing forward to coldly receive the teacher’s daily lecture. Rather this teacher is considering how to make the classroom one of making and creating, a space for students to work on projects collaboratively or independently.
Teachers also think of design in linear terms, conceiving of the narrative flow of the class from the opening to the closing. This is what I wrote about in my last post about lesson planning. One of my great colleagues, John Hanlon, has taught literature and history for over twenty years. Now, a very experienced teacher, he wrote,
And with regard to your blog post on lesson planning, I have become less structured. More and more, I walk into a class with maybe three balls that I want the students to juggle with, but how and when each ball gets introduced is not planned in advance. Nonetheless, by the end of the class, each of those balls will be deployed.
Lesson planning certainly isn’t the same for all teachers. We all have our unique styles, and, as John notes, what is particularly important is our level of experience teaching in the classroom. John (teaching an advanced high school humanities class) knows that he has three essential ideas, questions, or topics that he would like to explore. For him this is a narrative thread. John’s experience allows him to support the distinct ideas that will emerge from the students. Other teachers might want, or need, a more detailed lesson plan.
One of the reasons Frank Gehry’s process appeals to me is that I see designing classroom environments, both in terms of time and space, as inherently creative processes. In 1940 Ralph W. Tyler published a book called Basic Principles of Curriculum and Instruction. he laid out the idea of “learning objectives.” This was a radical departure from the notion that teaching is determined only by content. He wrote that regarding the student, “”It is what he does that he learns, not what the teacher does.” In the 1980s this model was developed by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe into a system called “Understanding by Design” or UBD—a more general term is “backwards planning.” The idea is that the teacher begins with the larger objectives and then figures out what activities are needed to help students reach those final goals. Certainly not a bad idea overall, and at the time, this was considered a radical departure from the textbook driven way of teaching content, moving from chapter to chapter until reaching the end. Even in 1949 Tyler’s book was a bestseller!
Fast forward to today. Now teachers are often required to write daily “learning objectives” or “standards” on the board of the classroom. These objectives are determined by school districts, states, or today, on a national level, from a document called the “Common Core.” Teachers all naturally teach with a set of objectives in mind. In a classroom for teaching English Language Learners the objective obviously is for the students to learn to communicate in English. A quote often attributed to Antoine de Saint Exupéry notes the power of focusing on the bigger picture rather than only the details,
If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.
One of the problems in educational reform are the lists and lists of learning objectives we give to teachers. I’m not sure why this has always been a part of education policy making. In the twenty-three years I’ve been involved in education, I’ve seen a steady stream of binders delivered in boxes to schools. I suppose it makes committees and administrators feel like they’re doing something. I’ve often written here about the school administrators who perform “walk throughs” of their school where they stop in a classroom for a couple of minutes to ask students “What standard are you working on?” Classroom teaching today is envisioned by policy makers as a clean process: 1) state the objective; 2) plan the learning activities to meet the objective; 3) test the students on whether they have achieved the objective. 4) repeat said process for all given objectives.
As Gehry notes, the creative process is much messier than that. Right now I’m planning a workshop for teachers. I think I’m going to use the amazing book by Jimmy Liao, The Sound of Colors, but at the moment that’s all I’m sure of. Like Frank Gehry I need to stand back from it awhile and get irritated. I’m not sure what the real objective of the workshop will be, what we’ll create together, or whether I’ll focus it on performance, writing, or visual art. The ideas will come, but I need to give them time to percolate.
The best educational programs I’ve ever seen are ones without explicit objectives. Class doesn’t start with the teacher explaining “what you will learn today.” Rather, in my experience, the most effective learning spaces are ones where students are deeply engaged in making things and then sharing them in public settings. But ultimately, the student is on his or her own journey. Teachers might have a sense of the broad goals and ideas—loving to read, learning how to express oneself in writing, or thinking like a scientist—but the meandering paths students take to reach these goals are really up to them.
Teachers need to have the creative freedom necessary to design teaching experiences and our students need the same freedom to create, spaces where they have the opportunity to develop original work, step back from it, get irritated, and then return working with a fresh perspective. Learning objectives and documents like the Common Core are not allowing us to see what is truly in front of us: young people, of every age, who want to be given the space and responsibility to make new things, to wrestle with big ideas, to contribute to the larger community, and most importantly, to have a great deal of fun along the way.
I have a confession to make. When I first became I teacher I didn’t write detailed lesson plans. At the boarding school where I taught, as humanities teachers we were free to develop any curriculum we liked. With our students, we worked through books of literature chapter by chapter with all of the various pedagogical accoutrements you’d find in a traditional classroom: writing assignments, discussion questions, vocabulary lists, and the occasional creative project. In planning for a class, I’d review the chapter we’d be working with that day, develop a list of discussion questions, and then go for it. Generally our students were motivated so they’d enjoy talking about the book and I’d make what I thought were perceptive points. My philosophy of teaching at the time was that if I could model for the students how I was taught to analyze literature in college, then wouldn’t they be able to?
After my first year of teaching I designed and co-taught a humanities class with a colleague of mine, John Hanlon. John taught his classes with a clipboard in hand, the day’s lesson carefully mapped out in his meticulous handwriting. I adopted John’s lesson planning techniques down to the clipboard and the neat handwriting. These were my first forays into lesson planning, and by working with John, I realized several things about the way I was teaching my first year. Here are some reasons why teaching with a lesson plan in hand is crucial if we seek to create student-centered classrooms:
1. Without a lesson plan, I was largely generating my own ideas about literature rather than inspiring my students to think for themselves. Early in my teaching career I appreciated when people described me as a “dynamic,” “energetic,” or “inspiring” teacher. In high school and college I had acted in various theatre productions, so when I began teaching I liked the feeling of performing for an audience; I could entertain the students while sharing my ideas about how to interpret a work of literature. We all had fun . . . or at least I thought we did. What I realize now is that I was the one doing the work of the class. I was putting on my own grand performance that showed how well I understood the text. I wasn’t giving the students enough of a chance to be the performers themselves—allowing them to wrestle with the big ideas of literature.
2. The classes I taught were “one note” classes; they lacked variety and I didn’t plan ways to meet the different learning styles of my students. I had a few ideas sketched out on a piece of paper, but I wasn’t varying the instructional methods. My students didn’t work in pairs, individually, or in small groups. I wasn’t planning how I might mix various literacies together such as writing, reading, listening, and speaking. Nor was I considering the multiple ways we might activate what Howard Gardner refers to as “intelligences.” As teachers we should integrate multiple ways of understanding and communicating into our lessons employing the disciplines of storytelling, visual design, performance, and movement, to name a few. We can think about ways to incorporate project-based learning so that students are collaborating on real products that can even have an impact beyond the classroom. Rather than investigating a symphony of possibilities, as a teacher I was playing one note on one instrument. It occurs to me that I did this because this is the way most of us are taught throughout our school careers and certainly in our universities: read a book, have a discussion, write a paper.
3. Since I was largely improvising my classes, the quality of my teaching would vary tremendously. Sure I would occasionally have a seemingly wonderful class (at least to me—see the first point I make above), but I also taught many mediocre classes as well. Taking the time beforehand to map out the general direction of class and thinking through the class moment-to-moment is more likely to result in a classroom that moves briskly from activity to activity. Even more importantly we can consider how to shape an open question or build an activity to ensure that the students are cognitively wrestling with the course material.
4. Because I was generally improvising, I had no documentation of my classes. I’ve always been the kind of teacher that never teaches the same class twice—I’ll develop a new lesson plan for every class I teach, even if I’ve taught a book or a lesson before many times. I still do this today. The problem back then is that I also wasn’t a reflective teacher. I didn’t look back at what I’d taught before, consider how I might improve, and then make the necessary adjustments. I was reinventing the wheel every class, every semester, every year.
Today, by designing a lesson plan for every class I teach, I have a record of all the past classes I’ve taught. I’m able to share these with other teachers that are teaching the same material, and now when I write lesson plans, I write them as if I am always leaving them for another teacher—I’ll describe each activity step-by-step, even if I know how to teach an activity by heart. I find this level of detailed planning also helps me to fully review the way I need to facilitate the activity before I lead it: to think through the directions, the support I’ll need to provide individual students or groups, and the materials that will be necessary.
An effective lesson plan allows us to consider carefully how we will facilitate a variety of activities in the classroom in a way that will place the responsibility and rewards of learning on the students. Professors Finkel and Monk note that teachers often have an “atlas complex”: referring to the teacher’s need to shoulder the burden of learning in the classroom. Instead Finkel and Monk warn us that,
a teacher who takes responsibility for all that goes on in the class gives students no room to experiment with ideas, to deepen their understanding of concepts, or to integrate concepts into a coherent system.
Shifting the paradigm requires, in educational reformer Ted Sizer’s terms, for the students to become the “workers” and the teacher to serve as a “coach.” If we as teachers feel that we are doing all the heavy lifting in the classroom, then we probably are. It took me many years of teaching to realize that if the students are all wrestling intensely with a project, and I’m sitting on the side of the room trying to figure out what to do, then that moment is likely a moment where real learning is taking place. Today, I love it when I walk up to a group of students to maybe offer a bit of coaching and they all are engaged deeply in debate. As I get closer to them they all look at me, not necessarily with a look of annoyance, but with a quick glance that says “I really hope he doesn’t come over here and interrupt us. We have work to do.”
Rarely have I seen a teacher set up a productive learning environment without a lesson plan. I have witnessed many classrooms, particularly of inexperienced teachers, where the rough idea is good— students will work on an interesting project, write a story, or create a performance—but without a plan as to how the classroom time will proceed from activity to activity, the students often lose interest, and the classroom becomes unproductive for everyone.
My suggestion for beginning teachers is to write as detailed a lesson plan as possible. Plan the exact directions you will give for every activity. Make sure there are many “moves” between group, individual, whole class, and work in pairs. Consider the different ways to integrate the arts into the classroom in order to help students make connections between the various ways we understand our world and to provide opportunity for multiple means of sharing ideas. Set up the activities to inspire the students to do the thinking and creating themselves. And most importantly, ensure that students are given the opportunity to share their thoughts and opinions through publishing, public performances, and exhibits. As teachers we might help chart the course, but in the end, it’s the students who are taking the journey.
Sandra, my two year-old-daughter, has a wooden puzzle in front of her with a series of doors. Behind the doors sit magnetized objects, each corresponding to the image painted on the front: the cow rests in the barn, the turkey cooks in the oven, the bird perches in its cage. Sandra became fascinated with these puzzles when she was about a year old, presenting me with a dilemma: what to do when she puts the object in the wrong box.
I’ve watched many parents over the years play similar games with their children. Generally what I’ve witnessed is the child places the dog in the oven and the parent responds, “No, Carlos, the dog doesn’t go there. Where does the dog go?” The child looks up, hears the word “no,” moves the dog to another location, perhaps the birdcage, and then looks up again to see if Mommy is smiling (she isn’t, the dog belongs in the doghouse).
When I became a parent, I’d previously taught in classrooms for 20 years, so I find my parenting largely informed by the choices I’ve made as a teacher. I’ve always believed we should nurture children’s imagination and help them to see possibilities in their own lives as well as in the world around them. In other words, our work as teachers is about opening doors rather than closing them. Which brings us back to the puzzle. When Sandra places the dog in the wrong location, how do I respond?
There are times in our lives when we do need to know the right answer—which button to push on our television’s remote control to turn it on, for instance. However, we also want to be able to think outside of the box and explore possible options that might be beyond the set of choices that are put before us. Is it possible to have it both ways?
I decided when she played with her puzzle to never tell her she was wrong. When she was one year old, I would play the game with her. As she placed objects wherever she liked, I’d be working on the same puzzle placing them behind their “right” door. But now around the age of two, an age where she understands language and can speak in small sentences, I realized a different approach was possible.
One day, as Sandra began putting all the objects behind various “wrong” doors, I wove an imaginary tale explaining why that particular object, at the moment, is resting in that location:
- It’s nice that you put the lunch in the garage. I’m sure the workers will appreciate something to eat around lunchtime.
- Oh, the dog is going into the barn. He’s a good friend with the cow and I hope they have a nice time together.
- You’re putting the cookies in the gift box. I think someone will love to receive your homemade cookies as a present.
- The dog’s going into the birdcage! Oh no! I hope the bird is somewhere else. I’m not sure if they are friends.
Some might argue, “But there is a right answer. The puzzle came with all the objects in the correct places.” It most certainly did, and my daughter mastered that a long time ago. Now it’s time for the real learning to begin. By putting the objects in a variety of locations, Sandra creates what psychologists refer to as conceptual blending. When the brain is forced to bring disparate concepts together, it must work harder as different parts of the brain are activated. Once you learn where the objects go, it’s quite easy to keep repeating the same activity, but when you place the object in a different slot your brain must think, “Hmm, how can I make sense of the fact that these two images that appear to have no relation are now together?” Now the puzzle becomes infinitely more interesting, even for adults, as we must invent narratives that might explain why the dog is now in the lunchbox. Sandra now enjoys putting the objects in different places and we laugh together at the disjunctive associations.
I arrived at this solution because I simply wasn’t comfortable telling my daughter the dog was in the wrong place. Who determines the right place for the dog to take a nap? Such approaches to the simple dilemma of a puzzle mirror the daily choices I make in the classroom. I have the same hopes for my students and my daughter. I hope they are able to see many solutions to a given problem. I hope they approach the world with a sense of imagination and adventure. Perhaps most importantly, I hope they may see things from different perspectives, and realize that indeed, the dog might be much happier resting in the barn.
This week at Habla we’ve had several extraordinary educators from around the world visiting: Anne Thulson, Arnold Aprill, and Terry Blackhawk. Along with the formal presentations for the community that are part of our “Pedagogy of Creativity” series, we created an informal opportunity for our visitors and local educators to share an “aha moment” over the last year when they deepened or changed a particular aspect of their work. You can read about some of them here on Arnold Aprill’s blog. Here is my story:
In working with teens and adults we’ve all witnessed the post-lunch slump. Our classes, workshops, and meetings are filled with energy in the mornings, with everyone fresh from a night of sleep and amped up on coffee, only to be followed by an afternoon where we can barely muster the energy to offer an idea. We’re all just trying to make it through the rest of the day.
I’ve been facilitating day-long professional development workshops for teachers for many years. In the mornings, my colleagues and I demonstrate how teachers can incorporate a variety of performance activities into their curriculums. We take teachers through an active process of reading, writing, and performing. Everyone is energetically engaged . . . then we have lunch.
In November, Eileen Landay, my coauthor of A Reason to Read, and I presented a day-long workshop at the Coalition of Essential Schools Fall Forum. After lunch we decided the teachers would sit to work in groups and consider ways to take the ideas of the morning back to their classrooms. As they worked I saw the zombie-like stupor take hold. We mixed the groups up again to share ideas, and this helped, but still, it wasn’t the kind of vibrant process we had experienced in the morning.
The next week I was presenting another day-long workshop for teachers in South Portland, Maine with my colleague John Holdridge. I knew we could do better.
When the teachers entered the room after lunch we didn’t let them sit down. John said, “By the time I count to 10 please be in a standing circle . . . 1,2,3 . . .” We introduced a childhood game to get them back in the space and working together. John demonstrated the game Rock, Paper, Scissors to the teachers and asked them to play a version of it in pairs (little did I know about the history of this game and the variations of it but there were several introduced in the room). Then we asked the question, “When this morning did you feel you were most challenged?” They had a quick conversation with their rock-paper-scissors partner and then returned to the circle. We then instructed, “Change places in the circle by the count of 5″ and everyone quickly crossed over and found a different spot. We asked them to find a new partner and play a quick game called “Thumbs Down” (see below). After this we asked, “What was your experience working with the text this morning?” (in the morning we had participated in a process of bringing a chapter of Seed Folks to life with a variety of performance techniques). After this conversation we gathered again in a circle, changed places, and then John asked them to grab a partner, choose a letter from their names they have in common, and physically represent that letter.
We repeated the process several times of a) having conversations in pairs; b) returning to the circle; c) changing partners; and d) playing a quick physical activity.
Some might think playing physical games between conversations is a ridiculous waste of time. But what I found is that when we interspersed discussions with “play”, the room filled with laughter and energy, not just during the games themselves, but also during the task-oriented conversations. The discussions were much more animated as teachers energetically exchanged ideas, a stark contrast to the previous conference’s post-lunch slump.
When it came to more extensive conversations, and planning for classroom implementation, we asked the teachers, in pairs, to go for a thirty-minute walk discussing how they would like to use the set of ideas from the morning session in their own practice. It wasn’t until nearly the end of the afternoon session that the participants actually sat down in groups and planned on paper what they hoped to accomplish in their classrooms.
We spend a lot of time sitting, not just in schools, but also at work and at home. New research suggests the detrimental effects of sitting too much for adults as well as kids. I’m not sure if it’s time to throw out the desks and conference tables, but a little more moving around sure wouldn’t hurt.
Find a partner and face each other arms length away. One partner puts hands out palms up. The other partner puts hands in a thumbs-down position with the thumbs in the partners palms. Everyone begins playing the game where the palms-up person tries to slap the top of the hand of the thumbs-down person before he/she pulls away. Go for 3 out of 5 and switch sides.
What other ideas do you have for “planning on your feet”? Feel free to add your ideas in the comment section. Thanks!
Previously published here on the Harvard Graduate School of Education blog, “Voices in Education.”
Many years ago when I was a student in a teacher certification program, one of our daily requirements was to observe the classroom of a different teacher in the school. Many of my colleagues complained about this assignment—sitting in someone else’s class when you have papers to write, hundreds of pages to read each week, and your own class to teach can seem like a waste of time—but for me this was the most important part of the program. I did my student teaching in a large urban high school, and, like any public school, it had a handful of teachers who were in my view exceptional, many that were fine, and a few that probably needed to be in another profession. I observed them all.
It’s obvious that a young teacher has much to gain by watching an excellent teacher, but what is there to learn from an average or even poor one? I challenged myself to learn one thing that I could incorporate into my own practice from every teacher. When I walked into Nancy’s room, a biology teacher in an urban high school, I immediately noticed the aesthetic beauty of the space: lush aquariums along the windows, lab spaces for the students with all of the proper equipment in place, and a multi-colored agenda of what the day’s work would be. On her agenda the words “lab report” were surrounded with an illustration of an explosion like the “BAM!” in a Batman comic book. When she began the class she announced, “The lab report is your chance to express your ideas, to tell everyone what you’ve learned. You want to convey that ‘aha’ moment to the rest of us.” Today, I still begin my classes with an agenda, and more importantly, I hope I convey the same enthusiasm about my students’ work that Nancy did.
Throughout my now twenty years in the field of education, whenever I have sat in a classroom (whether to coach new teachers or to participate in a professional development workshop offered by a colleague), I have always entered the experience with anticipation. Rather than thinking only of what I can offer as an experienced teacher or, worse, having an “I’ve seen it all before” attitude, I ask, “What stories does this classroom have to tell? What can I learn to incorporate into my own practice?” I approach every experience in my fellow teachers’ classes with a sense of inquiry, and this makes my time spent in educational spaces invigorating because I always have more to learn.
In the last few years, as I wrote the book A Reason to Read: Linking Literacy and the Arts, my colleague Eileen Landay and I applied this approach to writing about education. When we visited schools, sat in classrooms, or taught our own students, we looked for the stories that each group of teachers and students had to tell. Each chapter of the book begins with one of these stories—Flor, who endlessly drew pictures of birds in her English classroom in Mexico; Russell, who wrapped himself up in a stage curtain and wouldn’t come out; Daniel and his students in Brazil, who organized a peace demonstration in their small town of Inhumas.
Stories of success describing real teachers and students provide us with multi-dimensional portraits of what life is like in the rough-and-tumble world of schools, capturing both the beauty and challenges of teaching and learning. As teachers we are inundated by seemingly endless top-down mandates that tell us what we ought to be teaching. What we need much more of is time for teachers to observe and have conversations about each other’s practice. At the policy level we need to dedicate fewer resources to educational experts sitting in rooms developing lists of standards and tests and more toward discovering what inspirational on-the-ground teaching looks like. When Malcolm Gladwell was asked where story ideas for his influential books like The Tipping Point and Outliers came from, he answered that he doesn’t write about famous people or those who hold all the power. He said, “You don’t start at the top if you want to find the story.” The stories that we need to find and tell live in our classrooms. They reside in the daily interaction of students and teachers. If we are to find ways to transform our schools, we must spend more time in our fellow teachers’ classrooms working to understand these stories of true educational change.
Tuesday night's Parent Book Club on "Teach Your Children Well" was so packed with information that Kurt and I decided to cut a part of his terrific essay, "Dance Like No One's Watching." But after re-reading the parts we cut, and talking with my father, who (also) taught public school for his entire career, I decided that these small but important bits are vitally important to another part of the discussion: if we are going to foster true learning and help kids develop a roadmap for authentic success, we're going to have to talk about teaching, too.
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