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Why Wait?

I have the honor and privilege of serving as a mentor for new administrators in the district I retired from. My mentees are an impressive group: full of vision, enthusiasm and hope. With any luck, the perspective of my experience will afford them the support and encouragement they’ll need as they grapple with the yet to be discovered complexities of school administration.

I had several getting acquainted meetings last week. One of the topics of discussion was the predictable question: what drew you into administration? The answers were as sincere as the respondents themselves. One inspired the topic of this post.

This young man fondly remembered a teaching experience that he suggested was the highlight of his years in the classroom, so much so that he felt, as an administrator, he might be able to expand his experience to touch the lives of many teachers and students. He described to me a Senior Seminar class. He had a shared collaborative responsibility with another teacher to engage approximately 80 high school seniors in an integrated and reflective exploration on a variety of contemporary themes, including social justice and civic responsibility.

This was an elective class, which drew the participation of a wide variety of students. There were honor roll students, those aspiring to be valedictorian, who felt this would look good on their transcript. Of course, for those kids, acquiring a good grade was foremost on their minds, prompting the immediate question of “what does it take to get an A in this class?” There were also students who had no idea what they were signing up for, but they had a hole in their course schedule and this class was meeting at the right time. And then there were those kids who were just plain curious and were open to something that sounded different from what they had experienced in their other courses.

By this young administrator’s report, all of the students flourished, regardless of their initial motivation or interest. The discussions and discourse were rich in their content, scope and inclusivity. Students began to look beyond their siloed experiences and discovered patterns and connections. By “connecting the dots,” these kids engaged in authentic inquiry and critical thinking, assessing and questioning assumptions. They collaborated in the development and execution of an action plan to the benefit of some aspect of their community. For this administrator, then teacher, the experience was more than gratifying. It gave him hope as he played the critical role of facilitator of self-discovery for his students. It was a deeply satisfying experience.

Kudos to school systems who afford this type of authentic learning to their students!

However, before we get too carried away extolling praise, I have a couple of questions.

First, these two collaborating teachers taught a single section of this course to 80 students. He told me that there were approximately 400 members in this senior class, prompting my question: “What about the other 320 seniors?” Only 20% of this class of students were able to benefit from this rich experience. In some cases they stumbled into it by shire accident. Aren’t we overlooking an opportunity?

In my last school, we required every senior to complete a Capstone experience. With the support of a faculty advisor, each student wrote a paper that was part research, part reflection and part addressing a Central Dramatic Question that focused on their aspirations. They also were required to integrate a creative or artistic component into their work and then reveal their product in a public presentation before an audience that included parents, faculty, community members and/or peers within the student body. We were attentive to the individual needs and degrees of confidence among the students. It was certainly an ambitious undertaking; one that many students dreaded going in to it, but found exhilarating and life altering once it was completed. But, 100% benefited from the reflective challenge that this culminating experience offered them.

Even the bragging right that comes with the participation rate of our seniors does not address my second question. “What took so long? Why wait until their final year to compel students to really think and make meaningful connections?” Talk about overlooking opportunity . . .

In a 2015 report titled “A New Vision for Education,” the World Trade Organization listed key characteristics and attributes that all students would need to possess to claim a successful role in a 21st century global economy. In addition to literacy in each of the traditional core content areas (language, reading, mathematics, science, history), students must also demonstrate:

  • Critical thinking

  • Problem solving

  • Creativity

  • Communication skills

  • Collaboration skills

  • Curiosity

  • Initiative

  • Persistence

  • Adaptability

  • Leadership

  • Social and cultural awareness

Those skills, those habits of mind, cannot be acquired in a one semester course titled Senior Seminar. I don’t believe it’s even reasonable to think that they can be learned within a few years. These skills and attributes need to be teased out with frequent opportunities over extended periods of time.

A curriculum that is focused solely on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) falls short. Even a STEAM curriculum (adding the arts to the equation), while better, doesn’t cut it. We must (I can’t over emphasize the word “must”) be deliberate in making certain every child has ample opportunity to develop, and master, these additional skills. One cannot learn how to take initiative or demonstrate leadership unless they are afforded the chance. Persistence and adaptability are the byproducts of failed attempts and discovering new approaches. Kids bring curiosity and creativity with them. We must allow them the space to develop these traits fully.

Again, praise for opportunities like Senior Seminar. But, let’s get an earlier start on kids’ abilities to connect the dots of their learning, to construct understanding through critical thinking and problem solving, and their discovery of what has made the experience meaningful and relevant in the first place.

I’m thinking around the age of five would be a good time to begin acquiring these essential skills that will take many years to master. But, regardless of when we start the process, we need to intentionally reinvent the enterprise that we call “teaching.”

My thoughts on that topic will consume next week’s post.


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