Thursday, March 13, 2008

I've been thinking...about 21C

I’ve been thinking a lot about 21C. I’ve looked back on a number of great conversations, some cool new tools that were learned, some incredible teachers that I’ve watched and listened to, a couple of great opportunities to discuss the potential for education with peers outside of AHS, and the application of much of this into my classroom. And, for the most part, I look back on a positive three years. With everything good comes struggle and frustration. Otherwise, how would we ever know what was really good?

After Friday’s 21C conversation and some follow-ups with a number of people, I have found myself with lots to say…so I returned to the blog. Before I address the issues and concerns I have, I suppose that I should start with the belief that I am a natural optimist, usually able to find my glass at least half full (of what, others can debate). I try to find the positive in situations that sometimes aren’t. Even if the whole is not positive, I try to fond the pieces that are.

Many people I admire and respect (and some others I know little about) are choosing to not continue with 21C for a variety of reasons. As I listen to their reasons for doing so, I find some things I with agree, some that I understand, and some that I personally have a little trouble with. What I do know is that their reasons are real. It is what they feel, believe, and think. Failure to acknowledge the value of those thoughts might minimize their decisions in a simple manner, but will lead to far greater trouble down the road.

So what have I heard?

  • People are tired and/or worn out. Why? For one, many of those who are part of 21 C are involved in many things. Many are leaders in their PLC. Many are coaches and sponsors of numerous activities. Many are parents. Many are leaders of other groups at school or in life. Some even have a social life AND work out. Our plates are full. And many are prioritizing so that they can be better in fewer commitments. But not all. Many of those people will still implement ideas and tactics in their rooms. Many will continue to have conversations that reflect the philosophies and tactics they liked from 21C as they influence their PLCs, curriculum revisions, etc. Maybe those avenues are actually an appropriate next era for 21C.
  • People are struggling with the 3 hour meeting commitment that has asked them to leave their classes on a somewhat regular basis and sometimes give up a free day. Agreed. Most of us don’t like leaving our classes (which is not necessarily the norm across education if you have friends in many other places). And most of us could probably list the places we wanted to be rather than back at school last Friday after conferences. But few of us were willing to commit to ongoing sessions that met after school either. And few of us have common off-hours. So what were the options that gave the time that many beg for? One of the loudest issues I hear as a negotiator for LEA is “We need time to do things well.” 21C people were some of the few people in this – or any – district that were given time to become better. It was my hope that we would not create a format of 3 hour meetings next year. It seemed as if our conversation ended up proposing 3 hour meetings with 2/3 devoted to an area of interest (a positive move) and 1/3 devoted to whole group or something along those lines. I had hoped to do something with a little more flexibility for individuals to create “projects” around those areas that might allow the 2/3 part to happen at different times, depending on the group they are committing to. I still think there is some value in large group time also. Do I fully understand what this would look like for 30-45 people? No. That would have taken more work. But for some, it might have been a preferred option that would free them up to the larger commitment.
  • People felt that if they were going to miss 3 hours of class, then they needed to leave the 3 hours with “take-aways.” And many felt that there were fewer take-aways this year. Why? Mission-Vision-and-Goals, oh my. I try to see both sides on this one. On one hand, I, too, was completely burned out by the conversations surrounding the DuFour book. To have them in one group is tolerable and usually useful. To have them in multiple groups, often in the same week, became tedious. On the other, 21C needed, in some way, to develop the ideas. Some have said, “Why didn’t we do that in year 1?” Good point, but it was stated very clearly during Year 1 and even into Year 2 that the mission was not yet clear, that the groups would need to develop their mission, vision, and goals rather than just blindly follow Karl or CIT. We had some ideas, but really didn’t know what direction things would go. Year 3 was probably the right time. It was poor timing given PLC work. It probably took too many days. But it produced some good discussions and work. And it did finally put words to what, I think, most felt we had become and where we might go.
  • People seemed to suggest that this year lacked the personal relevance – especially as compared with Year 1. I don’t disagree. Almost everyday during our first year, I felt connected to the topics at hand. I felt the conversations could be directly applied to what I was trying to do. Often, the conversations put words and titles to things I felt I had been trying for awhile. They gave me permission to continue to try things, usually with support from people who study methods. I get frustrated some with this complaint as there have been attempts for two years to try and place some of this responsibility on the whole group (at least for Cohort 1). Yes, people did take on responsibilities of presenting topics or ideas. But rarely did Cohort 1 members demand or request conversations, topics, or tools. Rather than say “this would be valuable to me…can we do it?” it seemed to be easier to let Karl or CIT make the plan. A couple people have said that they tried, but felt shot down when they made suggestions, therefore they stopped. I hope that I never gave anybody that impression if I responded to their ideas. I might not always agree or want the same things, but I hope that I valued their suggestion. I do think that the whole group deserves to share the blame if the year lacked relevance.
  • Our timing of the conversation was bad. Not just because it came the morning after conferences. More because we are in that time of year that I’ve been alluding to in my classes. The school year is like a marathon. Some start fast, some don’t. Some end fast, some don’t. Some compete throughout the race, others choose their moments. Some fail to even start. But all who start tend to hit a wall. While my knees don’t allow me to train long enough to try, I’ve heard that all marathoners will hit a wall (mile 18 or so?). We had this meeting at a time of year where we (like our students) have hit that wall. Some let the pain win and stop or struggle to the end just begging to finish. Others fight through it and finish strong. Many of us are in a fairly negative mindset anyway and spring break can’t happen soon enough. Would discussions and choices be different at some other time?
  • Some have said that they simply want a year to step back, think about what they learned, and try stuff in their rooms. Good. But I do wonder how much easier that can be with a group to help you fight through ideas, figure out the technology, understand the problems, and offer alternatives. Multiple heads tend to outthink the one. What if this intent was honored in the set up we create next year? Unless people intend to completely shift away from 21C ideas in their classrooms, isn’t there some way to get people the opportunities for collaboration that allow this individual need to be honored while maintaining the integrity of the whole?
  • I saved this one for late in the post as this is the one that I’ve had to rethink and am wary of interpretation. But… Some people have expressed the sentiment that 21C has become elitist and arrogant. This seems to be based on the perception that 21C is moving ahead while others are going to be left behind and that, at times, there might be less tolerance for those not willing to move into the 21 century. Some will say that it seems like we are discounting the very good work of those who came before and are insinuating that they were no good. On one level, I find it hard to not conclude that those who fail to change with the times in any arena get left behind and no matter how hard individuals might fight to stop change, change happens. And, therefore, any of us who are still teaching owe it to our students to change with the times. CSAP might not require that our students move into the 21st Century, but life will. Old skill sets that most of us mastered as students and teachers are not the same skill sets needed today. A focus on information (which is quickly becoming trivia) is being replaced with a focus on skill. Methods that were effective for me as a student at Heritage in 1985 reach an increasingly smaller proportion of students. Some say it is the student to blame? In my mind, that only attempts to excuse us from accepting the responsibilities we have as teachers. And in my mind, this discussion does not lead to the conclusion that those methods, tactics, teachers were bad. They were right for the time. Legends in this building were legends because they were the top teachers in the eras they taught. My hunch is that many of the teachers that weren’t legends (or were legends for negative reasons) were probably still teaching to the era that proceeded the one they were teaching in. This is no different from other professions. Would great presidents of other eras be the right candidates today? Would the talents of athletes from past eras translate equally as well into the current game they played? Would an individual like Martin Luther King be as effective if the “perils of CSAP” was his focus? I hope that people interpret this as valuing the teachers of the past. I bet that many of those legends would have relished the opportunity to lead into the next era. My Dad was one of those, but he will be the first to tell you that he would have to be very different today and because of how much work that takes, he is happy to leave it to the next group. Too bad we age and seem to always get replaced by younger people with new ideas. New ideas might be better. And sometimes they aren’t. But new ideas are always needed in order to keep up with change.

This post is probably longer than all of my posts this year combined – maybe even over three years. Many have probably stopped checking to see what I think. I am fully committed to the ideas and goals of 21 C. But I also recognize the very real problems people have with continuing. I hope that those that leave carry some of the ideas forward. I hope they continue to examine whether what they do for students is as good as it can be. I hope their sentiments do not stop new people from jumping in. Most seem to speak of the value of the first year and the challenges that get presented. I hope those that leave will share the value with potential joiners and not just complain with them. And I hope that whatever we create for 2008-09 will give us what we seem to be looking for.