We Need to Treat Education More Like a Garden

On top of teaching full time and raising two curious, active kids (with another joining us in August!), my husband and I also raise chickens and bees and have a pretty substantial garden. Each year, we add more fruit trees, more blueberry bushes, and expand our vegetable section, and every year, I question if we have the energy or sanity left to keep up with it all. But somehow, every year, it gets better and easier to manage — maybe despite or perhaps because of its size. We know that if we’re going to make it bigger and better for our family, we have to find new and better ways of managing growth, weeds, watering, and harvesting the fruits (and vegetables) of our labor.

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In so many ways, managing this garden is like managing a classroom.

You can’t force a plant to grow in conditions that aren’t suitable for that plant.

I have always loved the quote by Alexander den Heijer: “When a flower doesn’t bloom, you fix the environment in which it grows, not the flower.”  It seems obvious in relation to teaching, and yet every time I read it, it carries new weight for me, both as a teacher and as a parent.

I recently read an article on NPR about a new book by psychology and philosophy professor Alison Gopnik titled The Gardener and the Carpenter. I’ve not yet read the book, but it’s in my Amazon cart because of this description from Sasha Ingber’s NPR article:

“The “carpenter” thinks that his or her child can be molded. “The idea is that if you just do the right things, get the right skills, read the right books, you’re going to be able to shape your child into a particular kind of adult,” she says.

The “gardener,” on the other hand, is less concerned about controlling who the child will become and instead provides a protected space to explore. The style is all about “creating a rich, nurturant but also variable, diverse, dynamic ecosystem.

When I think about those concepts as a teacher, I realize how much I want to be a gardener in my classroom. I think that helping kids find their purpose is the most important thing we can do in schools. Purpose is about finding your place in the world and living your passion, and I can’t give that to a child. What I can do is provide opportunities for kids to find that for themselves in a classroom that supports ALL learners, whatever their current talents and interests.

One of my students, at the end of the year, shared with me that the best thing I did for her and her classmates this year was to give them the space and responsibility to “figure it out.” She said that at some point, there would be a time I wouldn’t be there to answer a question or tell her what to do, and she felt confident now that she had the skills to make good decisions and find the answers she’d need. All I did was provide the soil, water, and sun. She did the growing herself. What more could I want for my students?

You can’t rush (and you shouldn’t want to):

Last night was our first night of a summer that will be filled with picking blueberries, and the thought crossed my mind that it would be so much easier if all the blueberries ripened at the same time. There would be no hunting for the bluest ones through the leaves, I could grab whole bunches at a time, and while it would take more time at once, ultimately, I’d spend fewer hours picking in the heat.

I’m sure you know where I’m going with this.

As educators, we often have this same thought, both as administrators and teachers. It would be easy if everyone “got it” at the same time and in the same context, but it’s not the way it works, and quite honestly, we shouldn’t want it to work that way.

I’m a firm believer that everyone hears a message at the time they need to hear it — or in some cases, when the world needs them to hear it. We don’t know how a stream of thinking will trigger new ideas in another person, and so it’s not only natural for people to learn in different ways, it’s also necessary if we want new, powerful ideas to keep pushing our world forward.

My blueberries get different amounts of water and sun simply because of their circumstance and when each one was pollinated by our bees, but each one will be delicious in its own time, and I’ll be glad to still have fresh blueberries at the beginning of August so that my kids and I can make delicious recipes all summer long. The beauty is not in the ease of the task; the beauty is in the process toward the ultimate outcome.

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If you hover, you block the sunlight.

William Ferriter wrote a really meaningful post recently about helicopter teaching, and how it “strips agency away from the kids in our care, and that’s NOT a good thing.” I am inclined to agree. No, I’m not suggesting we remove all structure and oversight, but I am suggesting that we let kids choose their paths to proficiency and excellence because if we don’t, they won’t know how to acquire new skills when their formal education ends. We might, in fact, be stifling their growth.

In short, channel your inner Elsa and let it go.

I don’t know a single adult who believes they stopped learning when they left school, but I do know a lot of adults who feel like they didn’t learn how to learn while they were in school, and to me, that’s not a problem with those adults; instead, it’s a problem with prescriptive education that assumes all kids can learn in the same way at the same time with the same methods.

If we’re standing over our kids telling them how to do every. single. thing, they can’t stretch to the sun and grow greater than we imagine for them. We need to guide them but also know when to walk away and let them shine. In that same respect, I don’t plant my garden in full shade or full sun. It needs a good amount of both to flourish.

You have to try new things to find better things.

The first year we lived in Illinois and planted our garden, it was a total disaster. We couldn’t keep up with the weeds, everything was totally overgrown, the Japanese beetles took over, and we eventually let the chickens pick through the whole thing.

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This is my oldest with her hens the year the garden went to the chickens.

The next year, we had a choice: We could give up and miss out on the incredible harvest we’d been accustomed to in Texas, we could do it the same way and hope for a better outcome (which is just crazy), or we could try something new knowing we couldn’t be any worse off than we had been the year before. So each year, we’ve taken away something that didn’t work and replaced it with something new that we’ve read online or watched on YouTube. Two weeks ago, my husband looked at our garden and then at me and said, “Did we finally figure this out?” Three years after our initial attempt, we feel confident we’ve found some tried and true tricks, but we also know we’re never done improving, and as climate and pests change over time, we’ll have to keep evolving in our practice, too.

Education is no different. If you always do it the way you’ve always done it, you’re not ensuring success, even if those practices have garnered success for your students in the past. Kids change. Times change. Cultures change. We have to adapt with all of it if we want kids to have long-term success, which is to say that they become lifelong lovers of learning and creating rather than passive consumers of information they don’t quite know how to use for themselves.

Education can’t be a K-12 endeavor where we attempt to manufacture a product to send it out into the world, hoping it won’t malfunction. In that scenario, we’re asking for problems down the line. Instead we’ve got to plant seeds and then help them grow, providing water when it doesn’t rain, and helping the stems stabilize until they can withstand the wind and grow stronger on their own. Eventually, a healthy plant makes its own seeds and grows a harvest more plentiful than one could ever hope to produce.

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The equation I was missing

Reflection is an important component of quality teaching. As preservice teachers, we are trained to think deeply about our emerging and improving practice, all with the expectation that the emphasis on that act will not only become habit, but also will serve as a continuous springboard for growth and change; the intention is not simply to think about it, but also to act on it.

Really, reflection should be ReflAction — reflection + action.

That seems simple enough: think about it and then make a change based on your observations and data. As a preservice and first year teacher, I felt pretty confident in my ability to do that. My mentors told me it was clear I was thinking about my choices and then adjusting based on what I thought was needed. Often, they felt my adjustments helped student learning. Woo! ReflAction expert: check?

Not so much. There was one major problem: I was alone in that RelfAction. I was doing the deep thinking. I was doing the changing — and I was doing it based on “student data,” which told me what kids knew or didn’t know based on what I just taught, but left out why each of them didn’t learn it. I would argue the second entity is just as important, if not more, than the first.

Missing from my ReflAction were the same things missing from my practice: student voice, true student choice, and empowerment. When I started giving the kids a major voice in their learning and asking them for their honest feedback with explanations (and then taking their advice as often as I could), my practice improved in ways I could have never previously imagined because it stopped being my practice — what I needed. Instead, it got to be our practice. What we needed. Together.

Sometimes educators get nervous about giving voice and choice to kids, both in learning and ReflAction. We sometimes fear that means we’re not needed or that we’ll lose any semblance of order. Sometimes we’re scared to hear the reasons kids are struggling in our classes. Those are real fears, and I understand them, but I also think that again, in those concerns, we’re only focused on the teacher. And what I know now that I didn’t know two years ago is that the magic doesn’t happen until we’re a team. The reward I feel as a teacher and the reward a student feels in authentic learning doesn’t happen much without the empowerment. On top of that, kids don’t learn to be self-driven and reflective in their learning if we haven’t made that part of the process for them. Isn’t that the goal?

Reflection(with kids) + Action(with kids) = Magic

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Empowered learners: What a student’s project taught me about education

I co-teach a new, interdisciplinary English III/US history course with my colleague Chris. When we designed this class, we knew our kids needed more than what they were getting to prepare them for a world where critical thinking, problem-solving, computational skills, collaboration, creativity, character, and citizenship are valued far greater than fact knowledge and regurgitation. We knew that research proved that teaching our subject-area content and skills cohesively would be more effective than teaching independently. We knew it would be challenging to create a course that personalizes project-based learning, but we also knew it would be rewarding, and let me tell you: It’s been way more of both challenge and reward than we could have ever imagined. We also knew that we had absolutely no idea where to begin.

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Image from Empower by John Spencer and A.J. Juliani (pg. 7).

But it’s amazing what happens when we give kids a voice in their learning. The longer I work with design thinking and PBL, the more I realize that true, meaningful learning doesn’t really happen without giving kids the main voice in it, and their voices — all 60 of them in one room — have been the driving force behind almost every decision we’ve made this year. And for as much as our kids have grown and thrived this year, I have loved becoming a learner again alongside them. They’re teaching me incredible new skills and content through their projects, but their voices and questions and ideas are teaching me even more about myself, both as a person and an educator.

Our very first personalized PBL unit of the year was American History through Education. The kids thought about problems they saw in education and then created essential and supporting questions that they thought might help them arrive at solutions for the individual issue about which they each felt most passionate. They had one-on-one conferences with Chris or I to help them talk through those thoughts and questions. Once they researched and felt they understood that problem deeply and had thought critically about potential solutions, they created a project proposal that investigated the history of the problem, the type of writing/speaking they felt would best help them share their message (informative, persuasive, or narrative), the medium they thought would best help them deliver this message, and an authentic audience with which they should share this message upon completion. After that conference, they were free to start creating their individual projects.

The following video is one of the projects created through that very first unit. Watch what Emily, a junior in our course, developed to encourage educators to allow student voice and develop personalized learning experiences in schools.

For me, this video is both something I celebrate and something that hurts. I celebrate it because I am proud of the way Emily used the design thinking process to develop the concept and product from start to finish. I am proud of how she integrated research and interviews to develop such a strong message in this project. I am proud that she took a challenge posed and conquered it to share an important message with members of ICE and FutureReady as her chosen authentic audience. But it hurts because the faces and voices on that video are my kids. In my classes. And they aren’t the exception to the rule in our schools. If our kids don’t see value in what we’re doing, and if we can’t offer them the pace and challenges suitable for them, we’re going to have a tough time engaging them in learning and empowering them to take the driver’s seat.

Their thoughts weren’t rehearsed or coerced. Emily simply asked them the question, and their responses flowed so easily and naturally. How often are we doing what Emily did, which is asking our students exactly what they need? When we do, how often are we providing for those requests?

And more concerning to me: Why are they waiting to be asked? Why don’t they feel comfortable telling us without being prompted? Are we teaching kids how to advocate for themselves? To see learning as not only their responsibility, but more importantly, also a passion worth fighting for? Why aren’t they telling us — their teachers — what they need from us? Why haven’t we created spaces where that is the norm?

These are questions with which I’ve been grappling all year, and I can see that our course is giving kids those opportunities to discover and explore passions. But it is one course, and it’s not the only course I teach. I have so much more to learn. I have so much more that I want to improve. I’m so glad the experts — my students — are helping me along the way, using their voices to change the narrative of their educations.

Be the Change for Kids #IMMOOC

The other day, my mom called my daughters and they couldn’t stop staring at the black screen. “Where’s Nana?” they asked. “We can’t see her!” Facetime is their normal. Connection no matter the distance is their expectation. I couldn’t have imagined that as a two or five year old, but I am so thankful that when we lived thousands of miles away from our families, my kids were still able to see and know them with so much ease. This new and better way of communication provides an opportunity for deeper relationships that didn’t exist before.

By George’s definition, innovation is making something new and better, and it is my job as a teacher to learn and try new and better ways to make learning more accessible, applicable, and meaningful to my students and their realities. But I think the real takeaway from this week’s YouTube Live with Jo Boaler is that the process of innovation in the classroom is the part that’s most important, and it’s important for two reasons.

  1. Innovation leads to failure, which leads to deeper learning.  Jo explained that when we fail, our brains actually grow more than when we get an answer “right” or succeed, so we’re learning more from a failure than from a success, and that failure can push us to a more complete understanding and more probable success in the future (not to mention the ability to see a problem from multiple perspectives). It helps us change the narrative that failure is to be avoided, but instead is meant to be celebrated as a springboard for success.  Isn’t that what we want for our kids: to be motivated, learn from their choices, and ultimately be successful and fulfilled in their lives? Isn’t that what we want for ourselves?
  2. Modeling the process makes them more comfortable as reflective learners. Designing new and better ways of learning for my students and sharing that learning (i.e. my planning, experiments, failures, adjustments, successes, and reflections) with them not only provides more opportunities for them to learn content and 21st century skills, but more importantly, it provides them a model for engaging in the process of innovation/learning that they can improve upon and take with them to use for the rest of their lives. Innovation doesn’t just make new and better things; it makes better people.

My favorite part of Jo’s talk was when she said that “learning something new changes your identity.” Of course, I want my students to learn to read and write, but what I really want is to teach them how to be empathetic, thoughtful, engaged, open-minded, and accepting humans through the things we read and write together. I want them to see the struggles of others and jump up to help. I hope for them to solve the problems of the world even if some of those problems don’t affect them very much or at all. I want them to feel deeply that they are needed in this world because so many of them don’t see that yet. A multiple choice test isn’t going to accomplish or even slightly contribute to those goals, but giving them opportunities to impact others in their community and beyond with their thoughts and their words will. Innovation will help them to change their identities for the better. And I know this because that’s what it’s done for me and for every other educator I’ve met who has grown passionate about improving their practice for kids.

Is it always easy? Absolutely not. I will never forget a lesson I planned after starting the first round of #IMMOOC when my seventh graders nearly revolted because I let them choose their path to the product. Some of them instantly valued the newfound freedom that Jo explained this week that teachers and kids all want, and in time, all of them grew to appreciate and crave this type of learning. But kids are the easiest to win over because it’s their education and learning. They are the primary stakeholders. Adults are not as easy, and I continue to have colleagues, friends, parents, and even strangers challenge my change in practice. Not everyone will see the value, and that’s okay, but we have to keep in mind that it is the kids who matter. We got into education to make a positive difference in kids’ lives. It’s absolutely crucial to them that we follow through.

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photo from wikimedia commons

#IMMOOC: The gift that keeps on giving

In my relatively short teaching career, I’ve experienced a lot of changes. Before I was certified, I taught a reading lab at a university in Tennessee, then became certified in Texas, and early in my first year teaching there, I found out my husband had received orders to Illinois. When I started teaching here in the Land of Lincoln, I can’t tell you how many times I said both to myself and to others that I was thrilled not to have to undergo any major changes for a while. Little did I know the biggest changes were yet to come.

Fast forward a year. Our district Instructional Technology Director, Joanna (@joannacarroll96), came into my room raving about this new book The Innovator’s Mindset. She said just reading the intro gave her chills. I believed her, but also believed that if I took on one more work-related thing either my head was going to explode or I might have to reconsider my career choice. It sounded like a great book, but I filed it away into the folder in my mind labeled “Hope to get to; probably won’t.”

Joanna is persistent, though, and she’s good at her job. She made sure to mention it periodically, and when the author, George Couros (@cgouros), announced that he and Katie Martin (also amazing – follow her at @katiemartiedu) would be moderating on open, online course about the book, she not-so-subtly encouraged me to do it with her. I’d join and lurk, I decided, but it only took half of the first chapter to realize that I wasn’t going to be a lurker.

The last week of the #IMMOOC, I blogged that the end was really just the beginning. In that post, I reflected on the change I experienced over those few weeks:

Over the last few weeks, I have noticed a huge change in myself, both as a person and as an educator. It is amazing what fueling your passion can do for all aspects of your life. I have had more energy for my family, for my students, and for myself, and it hasn’t been an energy burst — like the kind I need for a week or two when I have a lot going on. That type of energy isn’t sustainable, and when the busy weeks are over, you’re left feeling empty — drained. The energy I feel now fills me up and keeps me constantly pushing for more. If I was asked to explain what innovation does for a person, that is how I would describe it: fulfilling in innumerable ways.

I had been so worried about what the book study might take away form me: time and energy. Instead, it only gave: fuel for my passion, permission and encouragement to be the educator I’d been fighting to be, a growing PLN to learn from and share with, and an energy I’d never known before. And those gifts keep on giving a year later. Before beginning, the thought of one more change in my life exhausted me. After five short weeks, this was what I had to say about change:

Sometimes we are scared to change our ways for fear that that means we’ve been doing it “wrong,” when in reality, we need to see every iteration of what we do as a step towards something better, even if that something better is always changing. That doesn’t mean we’re “throwing out the book” of our past experiences and successes. It just means that the book is a living document and we get to add to it all the time.

I’m not exaggerating when I say The Innovator’s Mindset and #IMMOOC changed my life, and minus the cost of the book, it’s FREE! If you’re even considering signing up, please read Annick Rauch’s post about what the book study entails (and to answer your question: Yes, I “met” her through #IMMOOC!). If you’re ready, you can go straight to the sign up!

And if you do sign up, please comment to this post or tweet me @MrsKrolicki_phs with your Twitter handle and blog so that I can follow you! I can’t wait to get started on round 3 with you!

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