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Thursday, September 22, 2022

The Theme of Our Work


I studied math and computer science in college, not literature or writing. I have always loved  reading books of all types, though, and I have more recently tried my hand at writing fiction. 

One concept I hadn't considered much until I began writing is theme. Once I came to understand it better, I realized it was a source of most of my fascination with great stories over the years. It was a subtle, unstated message buried in every scene. It hinted at purpose beyond just the events I was reading or (in the case of my favorite movies) watching.

Here's a definition of theme from literarydevices.net. For our purposes, especially notice the sentences in bold.

"As a literary device, theme refers to the central, deeper meaning of a written work. Writers typically will convey the theme of their work, and allow the reader to perceive and interpret it, rather than overtly or directly state the theme. As readers infer, reflect, and analyze a literary theme, they develop a greater understanding of the work itself and can apply this understanding beyond the literary work as a means of grasping a better sense of the world. Theme is often what creates a memorable and significant experience of a literary work for the reader."

So I think of theme as a message the author is saying without saying it. It's the "why" woven through everything. I particularly like the idea from this definition that it can make a story memorable and give us a better sense of the world.

So when it comes to teaching like an artist, let's think about the theme of our work as educators. If you're a teacher, what is the overall theme of your classroom? If you asked your students that question, would they have the same answer as you do?

If you're a principal, what's the theme of your building? What overall message comes through the day to day routines and activities that take place through every classroom? What would your teachers and students say the theme is?

I would hope the theme of my work is that every learner (including those of us paid to be at the school) should find their passion and purpose, then do their best work from the energy they provide.

Some other questions to consider as we reflect on this:

  • Should we state our theme explicitly? Or should we do our best work and let those who benefit from it find the theme with their hearts? 
  • How can we know the theme we hope to convey is coming through? What indicators will we see and hear?
  • Is the message of my theme for every learner I encounter in my work? Is anyone being left out?
  • If the learners I work with are getting a different message from my work, how can I address that?

Tuesday, July 19, 2022

What Would Be Amazing?


This past spring, I asked if I could change my focus in the district where I work. For 14 years I served as the instructional tech coordinator. I wanted to emphasize instruction more, regardless whether tech was involved. I was glad to find the district administrators were open to the change.

So as I've been planning instructional coaching meetings with individuals, this question came to mind:  What would be amazing?

I have spent most of my career with "doing something amazing" as my end goal. But I learned that everyone in education has slightly to drastically different ideas of what "amazing" would look like.

What are some things that would happen in your district that would catch your attention as amazing? What would happen in your classroom that would make you say, "Wow"? What could your students do that would be labeled amazing?

I want to start conversations with that question. I want to learn if those amazing things they tell me would be done by the teacher I'm meeting with, by their principals, or by the students. Would other people think they're amazing? Would I think they're amazing?

Whatever the answer is, it won't be as important as what it reveals. Such an answer speaks volumes about things like:

  • What does quality work look like?
  • Who's responsible to make amazing things happen?
  • Who has to (or we think has to) do their part before we will move to do ours?
  • What really matters in the job we do every day?
For example, I worked with one teacher who dreamed up an impressive project last year when I challenged her to do something amazing. I fully expected to do all the dreaming myself, but she did research and came up with something that inspired another teacher from another district to do something similar

On the other hand, I've talked with some teachers over the years who imagine an amazing day as a classroom full of compliant students. Or maybe a test where everyone gets a high score. I'm not saying those aren't amazing things, but I'm saying a person's answer to the question speaks volumes about our starting place. 

If we don't ask, and if we don't identify these big differences in expectations, we very likely will assume we're all trying to get to the same place. We'll likely be upset with how poorly one thing is going, when others think everything is great.

So part of my reflection time this summer has been spent answering that question for myself. What would be an amazing result in the first weeks of my new position? What will be amazing at the end of first semester? Or the school year? 

Give it a try and see what list you come up with. Share it with your colleagues, and have them answer it too.

Sunday, February 20, 2022

What Dreams Do We Have for Our Students?

Over the past three weeks I helped our high school principal, Loren Dockins, with a vision setting activity that has been encouraging. I say that based on the responses we received and the excitement we have at continuing the work. We still have a lot to sort through and much work ahead on the overall plan.

I'll share the document we used and describe how we ran it below. I'll also explain why I think the starting point is so powerful. First, here's some brief background.

It's coming up on two years since our district first shut down due to COVID-19. Like nearly every school, the ups and downs of dealing with the virus has made it very difficult to focus on long term goals and overall direction. We wanted a course correction.

Loren and I met with Dr. Scott McLeod at the end of 2021. That led to some rough plans for activities to involve teachers in setting a vision for our high school. Dr. McLeod suggested we look at the Portrait of a Graduate website for ideas. I was particularly inspired by this article, Dream, Don't Fix, which I found on that site.

The article talked about starting with a dream instead of a problem we want to fix. That was interesting enough to me, but what really caught my attention was that dream was not our dream for us. It suggested starting with what teachers dream for their students.

For all the talk I've done the past 15 years about what's right for students, I don't think I ever articulated the dream I had for them. What do I want for the students who go through our school? Not just in some vague sense, but what would I say if I had to state it concisely? What do my colleagues and my administrators dream for them?

So from that article and all our discussion, I drafted three questions and ran them by Loren. We fleshed it out more together, then sent it to Dr. McLeod for feedback. He thought the questions were excellent. He reminded us that whatever we get back from teachers, their answers would help us know where we are at and what our next steps should be.

My suggestion for this activity was to require every teacher to work on it alone. We had discussed similar questions before in groups, but in retrospect, I didn't see much impact of those meetings. Loren agreed we needed to let each of them work alone. He sent this Google Doc (through Google Classroom) to teachers with very little additional information. Loren he only urged them to take their responses seriously. It was important to us that no one felt compelled to give the answer Loren wanted to hear. 

See the document for the exact wording of this questions, but here's a summary of what we asked:

  1. What is your dream for the students who will graduate from our high school?
  2. Considering the state of the world and changes ahead, what skills and knowledge will our students need to achieve that dream? (We asked them to list these things in specific areas, like academics or training, jobs and careers, etc.)
  3. Looking at your lists from Question 2, choose 5 - 10 traits that you think our students need.
  4. Rate how apparent each of those skills are in the members of our current senior class.
  5. What comments do you have about this topic or this activity?

Loren told me he was encouraged and excited by the results he received. I suspect teachers will also be very interested to see what everyone wrote. A lot more discussion is needed, but we plan to use the responses to define work for a committee tasked with setting a fresh vision for the school.

I passed the questions along to our middle school and elementary principals as well. The question will look different for them, but we all agreed it will be beneficial for similar work to be done there. 

I'll follow up with more resources and what we learned as our work continues.