Monday, May 31, 2010

At last - a book by an inspirational teacher.

Someone recommended that I ought to acquire and read this book and, in March, through the magic of Amazon , I bought myself a copy. All I can say - it was a great buy. A book that every beginning teacher should read, even just for the honesty about the real life of a teacher. All teachers also would enjoy it as it reflects the reality of teaching - a a change from the academic 'experts' who seem to fly at 30000 feet above schools dropping down their 'researched' advice unable to see the very different experiences of the teachers who have to comply.

This book , written by Julie Diamond, is what it's subtitle says - 'a year in the lives of children'. As reviewer, American Educationalists Deborah Meier, writes . 'A rare and special pleasure to read - capturing as it does why it is that some of us can never get enough of teaching'.

For me it stands alongside another wonderful book, Elwyn's Richardson's 'In the Early world' ( still available from the NZCER). Elwyn's book cover his experience teaching over a number of years in the 1950s. Julie's book, in contrast, focuses on one year in the life of a year one class ( in the USA a kindergarten class).

'Welcome to the Aquarium' is a compelling personal account of teaching full of wise advice on how to set up and maintain an effective and caring classroom. I can't think of any recent book which talks about teaching through the eyes of a teacher. It is wonderful change from the dry academic books on education that are more commonly available;books that develop their 'wisdom' from a safe academic distance.

This is a real story -about the ups and downs, the fun and frustration, of being a teacher working with a range of very different individuals. In such a dynamic environment, as teachers well know, there can be no 'best practice' that can be simply implanted in their rooms.

Julie Diamond is a New York teacher writing her book after twenty five years in a classroom. Some of this time was spent teaching in an alternative school and she has also supervised graduate students in their training. On top of all this she is a writer and an artist. Julie is no Ivory Tower expert -she is the real thing.

It has been a sad comment on education , these past decades, that the wisdom of creative classroom teachers has not been shared with other teachers. Instead schools have been flooded with 'expert' advice 'delivered' by those with, all too often, little knowledge of the real lives of teachers. This book is a wonderful antidote for such thinking.

Real teachers know that each class develops its own personality and that this grows as the year unfolds. Teaching needs to be seen as the ultimate creative activity - a creativity that is dulled by school and Ministry compliance requirements.

Julie's school is called PS 87! 'Primary School 87' with over a 1000 students. Only in America.

Julie states that, for her children, her ultimate 'purpose is to recognise the worlds they live in and create.' She hold a progressive approach to teaching and says 'learning is something a learner does, not something done to the learner.' She want her room to be 'informed by the lives of the children' and a 'place for children's thinking and stories; celebrating their real lives.'

Julie's influences make sense to me. She was impressed with the creative British Primary Schools of the 1970s (as was I) ; the Reggio Emilia schools of Milan, the writings of John Dewey and NZs Sylvia Ashton Warner.

It has not been easy holding true to her beliefs in a system increasingly being standardised and tested. Older creative New Zealand teachers will know the feeling as we have followed the technocratic, and now failing, approaches imported from the UK and the US.

The book's chapters follow Julie and her class through the year beginning even before the children enter her room.

One chapter covers beginning the year where she wants her children to 'feel in their bones it is their room'. She discuses how to set up her room as a 'laboratory workshop' to be 'based around children's intrinsic interests'.This is to be the 'stuff' of her 'emergent' curriculum.

Another chapter covers the need for routines and rituals and developing class expectations, in the children, that they are to be trusted within agreed expectations. Her aim is to develop personal responsibly and accountability - the beginning of class democracy. Important to Julie is knowing when to intervene.

Included is organising the flow of the day.

Another chapter covers the importance of art which Julie values because it develops a child's identity and also that there is no right or wrong answers. Developing each child's personal interests and individuality is an important aspect of Julie's teaching - not covering set curriculum's.

Developing authentic studies covers a further chapter and here she emphasises first hand experiences, children's questions and valuing their own ideas. This is a chapter about inquiry learning. How to help children investigate and represent their findings- and the idea of an 'emergent' curriculum arising from her children's interests. She covers the essence of her pedagogy, her theory of curriculum development, basically the philosophy of co-constructivist teaching. And also the importance of feelings in learning. Evey Friday she sends a letter home to the children's parent outlining all the learning they have done. She also writes insightfully about how she manages to work within the standards imposed on her -a debate New Zealand teacher will becoming aware of! She worries about casualties of the quest for accountability where everything is sacrificed in the name of test scores. She believes we are 'manufacturing problems'. That we are creating school failures.

There is a valuable chapter about literacy and the construction of knowledge. Literacy is woven into her authentic studies; reading and writing emerge from such activities. Literature themes are important to her. She refuses to rename her language time as as a literacy block!! Older New Zealand teachers will see this as what was called a language experience / centre of interest approach. She outlines her approach base on the writings of Ashton Warner. Writing linked to early reading are vitally important. All very reassuring.

One interesting chapter covers 'midwinter doldrums and quarrels' and talks about moments when the class loses focus and how to recover.
Her take on the positive results of conflict is interesting. She writes in this chapter about how to manage a class and about how to develop the authentic authority necessary to being a teacher. This is all about the need to value childhood and the faith needed to believe all children can learn once the right relationships have been established.

Another chapter covers the dilemma Julie faces with a 'problem child'. Teachers with similar children will find this chapter really personal.Problems where no 'expert' seems to have a right answer - it can only be worked in cooperation with the child and parents.And parents aren't always a help, she writes,contrary to current wisdom.

The book includes a chapter about about the end of the year where Julie reflects on the development of her class into a community of confident learners. She talks about the highs and lows, the breakthroughs, and the ambivalent feeling about leaving her class - children that have by now become an important part of her life. All teachers will know this feeling.

The final chapter, a postscript, talks about being a teacher. The feeling about doing something important; the excitement and challenge of being a teacher.

The postscript too full of wise words to summarise. This really applies to the whole book. She writes about the testing ethos and standardized teaching that is taking over teaching in the USA. Such teaching and testing cannot, she writes, reflect the vital aspects of human potentialities; it is, she says, distorting teaching.

She pleas for creative teacher to network with each other, to share their creative ideas, to develop means to challenge the technocratic nonsense that schools are having to face up to.

A great book. It is all about developing a creative culture - one that has implications for the wider society.

It is time we started to value the creativity that lies within our teachers - or to value the creativity within every one of us. The 'experts, have had their day.

Check it out at Amazon.

Better still write your own book.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

We need a new story for our future.

Charles Darwin was one of the first people to make use of 'mind map' to visualize his emerging theory of evolution. When it was finally published it provided a new narrative, or story, about the creation of the world. It changed forever ( except for those who cling to past certainties) how we now see the world - one of continually emerging and evolving. This new mindset has yet to change many organisations, such as schools, established in an earlier age. We all know what evolution can do to seemingly dominant species when conditions change! Are we seeing in our school the final dance of the dinosaurs?

What we need, as we make our way into the new millennium, is a new way of thinking to align our thoughts behind. We need a new story , myth, narrative, or metaphor, to replace current thinking - thinking based on a mechanistic emphasis on economic progress, exploitation and short term thinking.

It is obvious that current thinking is unable to solve the problems of inequality in our society - the gap between the rich and poor continues to grow. Our Prime Minister is telling us not to be envious of the rich as they are the key to our prosperity. Current thinking is also unable to solve the problem of environmental sustainability and our leaders refuse to see the situation as a challenge to make New Zealand a truly sustainable country - to lead the way.

What we need to create in our country is a 'silicon valley mindset' but with asocial conscience. To develop our country as a creative, innovative and caring country - this is the 'new story' we all need to get behind. In such an environment the 'mindset' should be to continually try new things, to keep what works, and most importantly to learn from our mistakes. This is an evolutionary approach; one impossible for the technocrats to measure and assess. It is approach that requires the establishment of the right conditions and faith and trust in people to explore new ideas.

Instead we are becoming increasingly conservative and risk averse. In education, which ought to be the place where such an creative and caring mindset ought to be the number one concern instead, we are moving backwards, introducing standards in basic areas, which will narrow the curriculum and fail to value the innovative and creative . The same conservative and punishing thinking also applies to our justice and welfare systems. All it seems our 'populist' politicians want to do is to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic to get a better view of the icebergs!

We need to move beyond tinkering and need a real transformational shift. We need a 'big bang approach'. We urgently need to establish national conversations, led by respected citizens, to develop a wide range of ideas about all aspects of our society. And, most of all, we need to think about what kind of country we want to be seen as in the decades ahead.

It is time for creativity and imagination - two attributes not associated with politicians with their short rem views and need for popular approval.

Whatever is developed needs to be inclusive and owned by all. This requires a Darwinian shift of mindset and personal sacrifice for the common good. This is not about the rich getting richer - or propping up wounded dinosaurs.

And all involved must appreciate that such a shift, as mentioned above, comes with real pain. Real change is never easy. Self, organisational, and national delusion is far easier! Imagine, for example, changing secondary schools, with their genesis in the past century, into a true creative learning communities dedicated to developing the talents of all their students and ensuring all students leave with 21st century learning attributes in place!

A national agreement needs to be in place to give politicians the necessary courage to act. New structures and regulations need to be agreed to be in place to ensure changes are made. New Zealand could become a leader in developing the creativity and talents of all its citizens? A leader in developing sustainable industries and research. A model for others to emulate.

New Zealand is the first country to see the light of the new day. We ought to be seen, as well, as the country at the leading edge, the cutting edge, of new ideas.

Whatever evolves it needs to deliver to all members of society - change must be worth the pain. There needs to be a consensual understanding of what is required by all. In 1939 t hose living in the United Kingdom had this realisation -even if was only realized at the last moment.

The conservative element in New Zealand is strong but, deep in our collective DNA, we all share the innovative strands of the explorers, Polynesian and European, the colonisers, the immigrants, and the creative that marks out or most successful citizens.

It is time for us all to reach out towards new horizons.

Monday, May 10, 2010

The Blue School

The Blue School in Lower Manhattan was established by members of the Blue Sky Company -a company involved in helping organisations develop creative ideas.They wanted to establish a school that celebrated the creativity and ideas of children - they wanted to establish a school they would have liked to have gone to - a dream school for their own children.

They wanted school committed to keeping alive the sense of wonder, play and joy of young children. The school currently caters for children from 2 to 6. The ideas will not be new to creative teachers, particularly those that 'teach' younger children but their emphasis on making student inquiry central is a challenge to us all in these day of making literacy and numeracy achievement central

If you are interested visit their site.
Their site explains their language and mathematics programmes as well as all other learning areas. All good reassuring stuff.

The latest from the Blue School is shared in their most recent newsletter.

In recent months all those involved in the school have been been involved in discussions and workshops to develop a curriculum model that they feel best represents the Vision,Values and philosophy of their school. These workshops have included input from creativity expert Sir Ken Robinson and advisers from the Emlia Reggio Schools of Milan.

The mission ( vision) of the school is:

'To cultivate the creative, joyful and compassionate inquires who use the courageous and innovative thinking to build a harmonious and sustainable world.'

The curriculum model has at its centre that students, teachers and parents should be inquirers.

The school believes that learning occurs naturally through the exploration of meaningful provocations that are initiated and supported by the interests and experiences of the children and their teachers. 'Research' , they state, 'supports the belief that children learn best when they engage in meaningful activities that build on these threads of inquiry'.

The school also believes in the 'whole child approach'. An approach that values the children's social, emotional, cognitive and physical needs. They believe that 'each child develops across and within the inquiry threads and that every child learns in a unique and individualised way'.It is important for teachers to identify where each child is in order to meet his or her needs and then to scaffold learning in a way to meet educational and life goals.

The inquiry threads, or lenses, are similar to the key competencies of the New Zealand Curriculum and early childhood's Te Whariki. They are:

Hero: the lense of perseverance, commitment and leadership
Trickster: the lense of provocation, innovation and play.
Artist: the lense of imagination, instinct and expression.
Innocent: the lense of emotional awareness and mindfulness.
Group Member: the lense of collaboration and commitment
Scientist: the lense of curiosity, experimentation and analysis.

Blue School believes in an integrated, emergent child-centred curriculum. The school has curriculum essence statements for the usual range of learning areas including language and mathematics. They all represent a creative approach to learning

Curricular 'threads' emerge from the interests of the children and call upon curriculum areas as required as well as meeting grade level agreed benchmarks.

The child centred curriculum focuses on meeting the identified developmental individual needs of the children and learning styles. The teachers are seen as facilitators of learning and the children as active constructors/participants of their own learning. The curriculum 'emerges' from the interests, past knowledge, and experiences of the children and teachers. The schools see the immediate natural and man made environment as an important source of learning and value the use of the senses and curiosity when involved in field trips and creative expression on return.

Motivation is a key component of learning and, as such, the school needs to identify the different learning styles used by each child. All leaning is contextual and makes use of the 'inquiry threads' and the learning areas as appropriate. While all learners are exposed to all learning areas and inquiry threads it is likely , the school writes, 'that they will be each be comfortable and successful with one or two specific lenses.

Teachers at the school build up developmental profiles that drive curricular content, teaching strategies, assessment and differentiating of instruction.

The teachers use these profiles in conjunction with each grades developmental benchmarks to engage in dynamic or ongoing authentic assessment's. This information is linked with curriculum challenges to individualize, design and implement the curriculum that will support and scaffold learning for all the children to meet both individual and grade level goals.

The key thing is that inquiry is at the core of Blue School. By placing inquiry at the centre a flexible and integrated curriculum emerges and teacher are able to personalize or individualize learning for each child.

It is this lesson New Zealand teachers need to gain courage from as they are resist politically inspired reactionary programmes.

Protecting students as creative inquirers is far more important than a narrow focus on literacy and numeracy that our current government is imposing.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Real in depth learning

Too much teacher time and energy ( a teachers two most valuable commodities) are being distracted by the imposition of national standards. So when you visit a school and see real quality learning it is a reminder of what creative teaching and learning is really about - not endless assessments and data crunching.

At Moturoa School, in New Plymouth, native plant are a feature of the school grounds most grown by students themselves over the years. Not only do they propagate a range of native plants, including some species rare in Taranaki, they also study them in class and have made use them as the basis of extensive mural making.

The school is lucky to be able to draw on expertise for both the propagation and artistic expression.For the latter they have the help of an ex art adviser and such expertise makes areal difference.

It is a shame that the early range of advisers - in art, science, music, physical education etc are to be replaced by literacy and numeracy advisers who will, no doubt, be peddling, and imposing, academically devised 'best practice' ideas. Conformity and standardisation, it seems, is to replace creative teachers insight and professional judgement.

At Moturoa the students first collected samples of the plants they wanted to include in their mural. Chosen plants were closely observed and good ideas selected for possible inclusion in the final mural.

Plants could well have been studied scientifically as well in class and this could have well involved pertinent literary and mathematical experiences. The best learning is based around real authentic studies.

After observational drawing decisions and choices needed to be made about placement on the mural.

Observational drawing is a vital skill for all learners as it helps children really see by slowing down the pace and allowing adult helpers to interact so as to provide assistance as necessary. Students who have been help to see closely by making use of their senses, looking for patterns, lines, textures, shapes also develop extensive verbal and written vocabularies.

It is a shame such close observation is not a feature of more classrooms. As students observe their minds can be encouraged to think of questions to research and poetic idea noted to later transform into their own poetry As well the observational ideas are available as the basis for imaginative expression.

When the idea are sorted out the painting begins.The mural are completed with a a range of acrylic house paints mixed to get a range of colours. This painting involves experimentation, perseverance,choice and decision making - all vital competencies for future learning.

The whole process is a wonderful example of the creative process in action.

It is all about doing something really well. The feelings children get in the process are beyond measurement but will stay with them for life. The finished murals are regarded by the artists with great pride and admired by school visitors.

The process can be applied to any animal or plant study, or any study at all, and need not result in a mural - often simply a class display around a chosen theme is enough

Great work!

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Education in New Zealand Corrupted!

There have aways been individuals that have stood up against those who would take society in the wrong direction. Socrates is one such example. Due to the fact he questioned those in authority he was sentenced to death if he would not change his mind. Socrates would rather die than comply and, in those times, he was expected to kill himself, which he did. Today, in education, creative educationalists are in the same position although we need to fight rather than die. Kelvin Smythe is one individual who is apposing those in the Ministry who are corrupting the ideals of education . I am with him. Rather than taking digitalis he continues to write in opposition. So do I. Read his full article on his site.

With the distribution of the 2007 New Zealand Curriculum it looked as if we were at last leaving the technocratic nonsense of the previous decades. Then, just as it was looking good, the new government brings in the spectre of National Standards and, predictably, the Ministry and their contracted advisers all change their tune. Politics trumps integrity. We are now heading back to the past for solutions. As Kelvin writes, our system has been 'captured' and is in the process of being corrupted. Power has now been given to politicians, bureaucrats, and number bound academics, supported by the School Trustees Association and even some misguided principals acting like Judas sheep.

In all this the 'voice' of teachers and children are being ignored. And the fact that school failure is largely the result socio -economic causes is happily ignored by such people as John Hattie; schools are seen as the cause and the solution. And we wait to see Hattie's national assessment agenda unfold. The living example of Orwellian 'doublethink' is John Hattie . He appears to be both a critic and supporter of them. Hattie's concern, Kelvin writes, is not with national standards but that they are not his national standards.' Hattie, Kelvin continues, 'runs with the hares to hunt with the hounds'.

Standardisation is now the name of the game and ERO surveillance provides the fear necessary for schools to comply. Uniformity is to be valued over creativity. All professional development will come from officially approved sources - George Orwell's Big Brother is now in place. Forget the 'nanny state! The only 'advisory' help in the future will be approved and trained literacy and numeracy advisers armed with their 'cherry picked best practices' - reinforced of course by ERO with their checklists echoing government requirements. ERO will rule by capitalizing on principal insecurity. Kelvin suggests it needs to be renamed as the Uniformity Office, or the Imposition Office, or the No Alternative Office. Schools will be controlled by how how well they measure and account for a narrow slice of learning.It will be control first learning second. Schools can do whatever they like as long as it agrees with ERO; The ultimate Orwellian scenario. 'Schools' Kelvin says, 'have to believe in in what the education review office believes in, but also know that what the education review office believes in is mainly baloney'.

The National Standards will have devastating effect on the new curriculum but the Ministry seems to think they're compatible - after all their salaries are at stake. Kelvin , quoting George Orwell's '1984', writes that the Ministry is now involved in 'doublethink'. National Standards will 'stifle initiative, variety and creativity', writes Kelvin.

'Ministry best practice' Kelvin writes, 'means an imagination free teaching zone, skills means abilities stripped of the cognitive and the affective'. 'Competency based learning, performance based education, next step learning, mastery learning, criterion referenced education , feedback ( up, forward, sideways to the left now to the right)and benchmarking, to name few few - means have we gone crazy? and the qualitative academics of certainty are in control.' Hattie's 'visible learning' means only learning that can be measured, learning that can be divided up as exact next steps learning; learning that is like pieces of a jigsaw to be put together by the teacher. Learning that eschews the affective because it can't be measured; learning that is presented as efficient and modern'.

This is the jargon of scientific management thinking found wanting in the business world.The more valuable insights of creative teachers,past and present, is simply ignored. The best professional development is informal - teachers simply sharing good ideas. Kelvin writes that the source of big lies comes from the Orwellian 'academic quantitatives of certainty and their near fraudulent research ' which is replacing reality and teacher knowledge.

At a time when we ought to be acting creativity, valuing imagination, the divergent, and the exchanging of ideas, we are heading back to simplistic failed solutions of uniformity and bureaucratic control. Education is being corrupted. Space for alternative views are simply dismissed as mischievous by our Minister. George Orwell was right, if a bit early, in his prediction of state controlled thinking. In this big brother world ( the 'super nanny state') holistic eduction barely gets a look in.

It is not all bad news, writes Kelvin, there will always be people to challenge misguided official ideology - but they will not find it easy.
Creative teachers, Kelvin writes, need to 'retain the idea that there is a better way. Hold on to the idea that you are only doing some things you do because you have to.'

The attitude of the minister and her bureaucrats, Kelvin writes is, 'derogatory, condescending, resentful and sometimes hostile. Teachers and principals are seen as obstructive to , and obstructive of, their evidence-based plans and certainties.' And of course their downplaying of socio economic issues impacting on schooling which 'lets the government off the hook' by making school 'scapegoats'.

Kelvin believes that things will get worse ( possibly caused by a combination of economic, social, moral, spiritual and environmental issues) as the full standards agenda unfolds. New ideas will be required and teachers and schools need to be ready.

As education is taken down the fragmented pathways devised by quantitative academics and control orientated bureaucrats, the narrow approach to learning that will result will become, Kelvin writes, 'increasingly unsatisfying for both teachers and students'.

Holistic creative and integrated education ideals will be needed. An education premised on developing the diverse talents of all students - a 'personalised' rather than a 'standardized' education. A education where the keeping alive the desire to learn will matter more than endlessly measuring and graphing literacy and numeracy achievements.

As the gap between the rich and the poor widens so will the school achievement gap. Poverty has a flow on effect on education. Current 'scientific management', academic 'expert' approaches, and the measurement based review office ( all left over from the failing industrial era) will eventually make things worse.

This is the corruption Kelvin writes about.

It is a corruption Kelvin continues, 'we are increasingly constrained from challenging or diverging from through fear, power disadvantage', or being too busy to notice. National standards are another diversion keeping teachers from facing the real challenges. Literacy and numeracy requirements have already distorted, or corrupted, and have become ends in themselves - the sole ways of measuring school success.

Those who still believe in creative education need to work away to keep the spirit of true education alive. Schools need to focus on making the best of the new curriculum. Most of all teachers need ,Kelvin concludes, to 'retain control of our professional lives'.
The challenge is to be ready, when the time is right, with well considered ideas.

Until then schools. 'need to do their best to slow down the decline by opposing the characteristics of 'scientific' management by exposing the myth of the academic expert, proposing alternative ways,and campaigning for a fairer society.

Best to read Kevin's full article.

I am 100% behind Kelvin -where do you stand?