Monday, August 25, 2014

Superman does not exist and great teachers need to stop waiting for him

Last year was not a great year, I am not even sure I could count last year as a good year.  The public school teacher in me feels shame, heartache, a need to hide the fact that for one year I was not the best teacher I could be.  But the public servant in me feels the need to open a dialogue about it.

The excuse list is long and the more frustrated I got with myself the longer the list of external reasons became.  But somehow in the dawning light of this school year, this year that somehow just feels right already,  I can see that the long list of external reasons for my problems last year all rest on the foundation of what was internally not working.

I can see it, and I feel compelled in the seeing to share.  I wanted so badly for there to be an external fix, last year.  I was giving all I had, or so I thought. What I was really giving was all I could because I was waiting for someone else to swoop in and fix it.  I had more to give, but I did not believe that what I was able to offer was enough or the "right" thing, so I did not offer it.  I wanted to offer super heroic fixes to make all the problems resolve.  I wanted to offer stimulating lessons that would reach all my students.  I wanted every kid to walk away smarter, more confident, more engaged in their own existence.  But it doesn't work that way.  You can't just want, you have to strive and you have to accept, and you have to believe in your own capabilities. To do that you have to understand your own culpabilities, too.

The great downer, culpability.  Literally: one's own responsibility, fault, or blame for a wrong.

Heavy stuff, culpability.  Even heavier is capability.  Because with capability comes responsibility for a right, even if that right is different than the right being assigned from another: be it an administrator, a teaching partner, a curriculum, or an inner sense of super-heroic responsibility to solve all the problems presented to one's attention.

I'm not Superman, I don't even want to be Superman.  I mean, I want to be a super hero: I want to be able to anticipate all the problems there will ever be; and have at my ready the answers, and the solutions, and the magic fix, and and and. . .

But I also want to be realistic.  I want to be me.  I am capable of what I am capable of and to do that to my best ability is truly amazing--but only if I do it.  And last year, I didn't.  I did my job, I worked to meet the diverse needs of a 50% brand new staff, and I worked to teach a diverse student population in my classroom.  I worked to find connections and harmony. I made it through the curriculum and I made it through the year.  But it was not me, I was not happy.  It was not my best.

I was not doing what I was capable of because I kept telling myself there would not be problems in the school if what I was capable of worked. You see, for 6 years I had been doing what I had been capable of and there were still problems.  Problems so bad they interviewed the whole staff to see who was going to stay and who was going to go. The district then flipped half the staff out of the building, brought in a new administrator and 50% new teachers.  I felt culpable. I felt lost. I felt numb.

What I saw at that time was an interview to determine my culpability and I carried that burden all year. But over time that numbness has worn off.  After deep (dark, horrible, gut wrenching) reflection I realize now that it was an interview to determine my capability.  The interview was designed to determine who stayed, who was capable.  And THEY CHOSE ME TO STAY.  It's time to trust in that, it's time to act on that. It's time to be the teacher that I know I am, that I have been, and that I will be again.

I was culpable, but not for what I thought I was, I was culpable for losing sight of what I was capable of.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Final Paper for ED 585


Where Do We Go From Here
Diana Mitchell
University of Portland

Ian Diamond (2007) put the challenge that we all face in this light, “Attempts to introduce neuroscience into the classroom have to date been of mixed quality.  Often they have relied too little upon research evidence and too much on impressive-sounding but scientifically questionable formulae.”  My reflecting on this quote, throughout a period of further research and evaluation of course readings and discussions, led to the idea to design better staff development around classroom practices.  In simple terms, the staff development can be considered defend and refine.  This is a model wherein educators meet on a regular basis to use their professional knowledge, along with the knowledge of their colleagues, to defend practices they deem effective and refine practices that are ineffective.  Colleagues will be paired with educators from a different background in order to defend, refine and jettison practices.  Some examples of pairings: more experience in the classroom with more recent university training; cross-disciplinary pairings; early childhood-intermediate educator; resistant to change with changes too often; among others.
    This practice begins not with changing immediately what the students do, but rather what our colleagues and ourselves use to decide what we bring for students to do.  School personnel are reticent to let go of old practices.  Worse at times, school leaders bring in and jettison practices before they have been proven to work or not due to popular trends in education.  By implementing a defend-and-refine program, school personnel get a chance to put their own collective knowledge into practice by defending practices they want to add or keep while at the same time refining practices known to be partially or completely ineffective.  Through this process, personnel can come to better understand and articulate the inner workings of programs, strategies, instructional design and the student as learner. Ultimately, they gain confidence and knowledge as educators to make informed choices about their teaching.
    When something works for students, it needs to be considered as a valuable tool—but it has no value if we do not understand how it works.  This is where the defend part of the innovation around staff development comes in.  This practice would require staff development to utilize discussion and defense of current practices in order to maintain the practice. In schools, educators are able to take the long-term knowledge of experienced staff and combine it with more newly acquired knowledge of younger staff in order to ensure that practices that are being kept are truly beneficial. Ideally, combined with the more up to date educational training of newer educators, older practitioners will be educated through their own defense and the defense or refute/refining of the younger educators.
        Not all known ineffective practices are truly horrific, and many partially work, but it is important to understand why they work and don’t work in order to make strategies the most effective for the learner.  Thus, it is important to not just defend but also be open to the refine part of the practice.  When a practice is ineffective it is important to understand what about the practice is not working prior to throwing it out.  When educators don’t learn from their prior experience they repeat the same mistakes when utilizing new resources.  Further, the refining part of the practice allows educators to take what they know in order to make sense and practical application of the strategies they use.
Hook and Farah (2012) note that educators are vulnerable to misinformation from curriculum creators. Teachers’ quest for innovative teaching methods often leads to a susceptibility to unrealistic promises of the potential of a certain strategy.  Rather than letting profit based business dictate what happens in the schools, educators need to rely on their professional education and knowledge to determine what they do in their classrooms.  Often administrators, far removed from practice and current training, are the decision makers.  By removing administrators and curriculum trainers from delivering staff development—and putting this practice back in the hands of the trained professionals—we utilize what we know works for learning, the synthesis of known information with unfamiliar information to form new understanding by the educators themselves.  Discussion and sharing one’s own thinking in ones’ own words with others through defending and refining one’s practice is what we seek for our own students; this same practice is the starting point for ownership of best practice and implementation of what will best help students on their own journey.  
    Howard-Jones (2007) notes that while many old ideas regarding the brain in education are at odds with current neuroscience, they are not in complete disagreement.  Rather, if something is working, the basis for that effect should be researched further to support improved understanding and practice.  Educators don’t have the research laboratories that scientists do, but they have something even greater—actual students and each other.  The refining part of the staff development comes from discussing what is working and determining why based in current science and pedagogy findings.  This is where the discussion with a variety of colleagues is so important.  Utilizing the training and knowledge of more recent education graduates allows the experienced staff to build and refine their own knowledge while imparting their experience of what works and doesn’t work to those who have not had the chance to experiment.
    Schrag (2013) equates the attempts at bringing pure neuroscience into the classroom as similar to bringing only knowledge of the neuromuscular system to athletic training.  She argues that educations, like athletic contests, are the makeup of more than just the physical; there are cultural norms, equipment, rules, etc that create the whole of education and athletics.  Integrating educator knowledge of students with current training in neuroscience and education creates a whole picture from which to base pedagogical decisions.
    Educators need to be allowed to make these decisions through dialogue.  Defending one’s practice with the thought on improving, not arguing, is critical to educators’ own learning—and doing what is best for their students.  An openness to refining as new knowledge integrates with prior knowledge will be critical.  Dialogue needs to happen between educators and neuroscientists in order to create educational programs based on sound science. (Howard-Jones 2007)
    Critical to sound teaching is the debunking of neuro-myths and the understanding of what “works” means.  Bruno della Chiesa (2009) cautions that these neuromyths are often founded on misunderstandings, bad interpretations, and distortions of research results.  Discussion, defense and refinement, by cross curricular and diversely experienced staff, will open the door to debunking what is myth and finding what is real only if universities continue to evolve and educate based on current scientific findings.  By requiring practitioners to defend and be open to refinement of their work in open, neutral collegial dialogue an atmosphere of questioning and answer seeking is created. This openness to questioning should lessen the ability for neuromyths to take strong hold before being refined to fit with true scientifically based methods. della Chiesa stated that transdisciplinarians would be required to bring neuroscience to the classroom.  But just bringing in newly trained teachers will not be enough; those teachers need to be able to share their knowledge with the other educators in the building in a way that integrates their training into the teaching done by others so that sound neuro-based teaching is incorporated throughout the schools.
    Willingham and Lloyd (2007) were unimpressed by early attempts at bringing neuroscience into the schools.  Their concern was that while there were 4 distinct ways to connect neuroscientific findings to cognitive theory, the connection to educational theory wasn’t as straightforward.  Scientists, both neuro and cognitive, need to work with educators to create and refine best practice.  The transdisciplinarians that della Chiesa spoke of are the bridge between the two worlds. Based on Willingham and Lloyd’s research, the initial transdisciplinarians should come from special education departments.  Certainly educators trained in special education should be at the forefront of neuroscience research and integration within the schools, but they should not be an island and separate department.  Rather, they should be a part of the greater dialogue and through their defense and refinement practices be a model for others.
    The specialty of Special Education within a neuroeducation lens has great power in the lives of all students.  There are two findings within neuroscience that could have great impact on special education but can also shed great light on instruction for all learners: first that learning changes the brain, and second that the brain structure itself influences learning (Masson 2013).  Both these findings impact how we define learning disabilities and can also impact how educators defend-and-refine practices that focus on learning abilities.
    Masson (2013) cautions that the first step in any implementation is incorporating a university requirement for all educators in the area of neuroeducation.  In this plan, the same requirement would be necessary.  Without the new scientific knowledge, the dialogue around educational practices would not be rich.  As well, defense of practices would be stuck in old thinking.  The premise of this staff development idea is that the newfound knowledge would be brought into whole school practice through dialogue and that new practitioners would gain insight from experienced practitioners.  
Another impediment will be administrator buy in.  Many school principals cling to their power structure by having the answers and knowledge to hand to their staff—much in the same way they expect teachers to instruct their students.  The defend-and-refine practice requires professional trust and acceptance of a new model of instruction and learning.
Ultimately, the most difficult buy in will be the teachers who have been practicing for a long period of time.  The idea of being able to defend one’s teaching requires an openness to disequilibrium, confusion and the potential of needing to let go of one’s static former thinking in order to build new dynamic thinking.  This is at the heart of learning. This practice depends on educators’ openness and desire to explore and learn alongside their students.
Implementing this defend-and-refine practice could be as simple as allocating staff development time to learning about what “defending” means.  Stressing that it is not a prove your technique works, but rather an open dialogue about the reasons it works with an eye for clearly defining the connection between just working and being able to discuss why it works.  As well, openness to refining through dialogue with colleagues who are different than each other will need time to incorporate itself into school culture.  
In schools, we see grade level, content specialists, and other biases in which colleagues choose to trust or mistrust. Breaking these cultural norms will require a bit of a training period.  Bolstering the courage of newer staff to speak up and encouraging experienced staff to be open to contemplation about their practices in light of the new information.  After this period of disequilibrium, staff will be better able to deeply self evaluate and analyze their teaching.  At this point, school administrators will need to allot regular time to dialogue about success, missteps and any new curriculum in order to evaluate its’ potential benefit from a neuroscience and pedagogical experience lens.
           As universities add neuroeducation programs, and many top research universities such as Johns Hopkins and Harvard, along with other non-research colleges such as the University of Portland have, staffing at schools will increasingly have updated and continued knowledge in the area of neuroeducation.  Continuation of universities adding neuroeducation courses is needed to make this a sustainable innovation in education that evolves on its own alongside research findings. The success of the program of defend-and-refine will be evident in not only the willingness of staff to listen to new educators, but also when staff openly and excitedly defends the practices they have using the language of neuroscience and the practiced experience of having implemented the strategy.
           Further, in current practice administrators defend with stoic assumption of authority their programs and teacher practices.  When a dialogue that institutes defend-and-refine practice is fully implemented, it would be expected that administrators encourage any inquiring mind to talk with an educator in the building about practices.  Educators should be able to defend their own practice, and because they have constant deep dialogue, their colleagues should be able to explain others’ practices with clarity as well.
Ultimately, the ability to describe what one does, defend it and be able to refine as new knowledge comes to light requires truly understanding it. This innovation requires using science-based knowledge and an openness and active participation on the part of educators and administrative staff to making changes.  If these changes are made based on this process, it is proof of success.

Nonlinguistic representation

della Chiesa, B. (2009) Beginning in the brain: Pioneering the field of educational
research.  Harvard Graduate School of Education. Learning and Development. March 2009.
Diamond, Ian (2007) Neuroscience and Education Issues and Opportunities.
Teaching and Learning Research Programme. Economic and Social Research Council.
Hook, C. J. and Farah, M. J. (2012) Neuroscience for educators: What are they
seeking, and what are they finding? Neuroethics. Published online DOI 10.1007/s12152-012-9159-3
Howard-Jones, P. (2007) Neuroscience and Education Issues and Opportunities.
Teaching and Learning Research Programme. Economic and Social Research Council.
Masson, S. (2013) Neuromyths are a barrier to changing education.  Canadian
Educational Association.
Schrag, F. (2013) Can this marriage be saved? The future of ‘neuro-education’
Journal of Philosophy of Educaiton.  Vol. 47, no. 1.
Willingham, D.T. and Lloyd, J.W. How educational theories can use
neuroscience findings.  Mind, Brain and Education. 2007. vol 1, no 3. p 140-149.

Preferred Instructional Strategy


Required Instructional Strategy


Monday, October 21, 2013

Brain Gym Claims of Academic Improvement: Neuro-myth not Neuroscience

Introduction to Brain Gym

The founders of Brain Gym set forth a plethora of wide reaching aims that their exercise-focused therapy will allow children—and adults—to accomplish once they have used the program. According to the program, Brain Gym is a set of exercises designed to open the awareness channels of the brain allowing the areas of the brain devoted to knowledge attainment to freely focus on academic learning presented after their use (Dennison and Dennison 2010).

Misconceptions of teachers

Brain Gym creators Paul and Gail Dennison (2010) state several benefits to using this curriculum bought by educators around the world. It reduces stress and performance anxiety; it develops key sensorimotor abilities or readiness skills to make learning easier and more pleasurable; it encourages flexibility, eye teaming, and hand eye coordination allowing learners to thrive in the classroom, and live happily and creatively. Ultimately the movements, “make all endeavors easier, and are especially effective for academic subjects” (p.xv).

Assumptions about the source of language ability

According to Keith Hyatt, a professor of special education and educational researcher from Washington, Brain Gym assumes that the brain develops academic skills only when the sensorimotor is fully developed. Following this school of thought, students who didn’t crawl surely must not fully grasp the walking they do and can’t access grade level academics because of this. “The child would be taught to crawl, with the idea that this would repattern the neurons, leaving the child neurologically intact and ready to acquire academic skills” (p. 118). Further, Brain Gym assumes language skills can be acquired by integrating perceptual motor training into the academic day in order to allow the student to overcome learning problems.

Sam Corner: proof positive

Many of these beliefs come from testing on students who exhibit delays based on Western Cognitive Psychology. Because the assessments are based on current educational thinking, the therapies are based on this same bias.

Academic claims of Brain Gym and a neuroscience refute

The allure of Brain Gym’s focus on modality instruction as a form of intervention is due to the claims of brain based research they make. However, the reality is that the idea of whole brain learning through Brain Gym exercises—purportedly improving cerebral dominance, neurological repatterning and perceptual motor training—has not been shown to have basis in neuroscience.

Bristol University cites lack of evidence in neuroscience research

If these kids are learning, why are they using their teacher's language?

If kids truly "know" something, they will put it into their own language. Mirroring the adult language around them merely points out the lack of true understanding. This teacher's assumption of her students' ability is based on her belief that if they use her language they have language.

Brain Gym claims vs. neuroscience research

We should all be weary of using something that we don't understand—or worse that we question in good faith. Blindly following "proven highly effective teaching methods" is not teaching. Using our own knowledge of learning combined with the tools presented to us leads to thoughtful, effective teaching and ultimately true learning on our students' part.

Friday, October 4, 2013

It was the Cookies that did it

And we are off and running.  A much calmer run than the past two years, but the heart rate is up, the endorphins flow and ebb, the end is far and the starting line is beginning to fade into hindsight.  The class this year is 10 students smaller and exponentially sweeter, gentler, and kinder than the past class. On day two I realized they may become one of my favorite classes ever, the one that I remember in the future as being a time of joy of being together and loving learning together, and standing up against the bad times together.

It all seems sappy, I know.  But it was the cookies that did it.  I got cookies today--a month into the school year.  An entire tube of girl scout peanut butter sandwich cookies.  They were on my desk when I returned from the morning rush of high fives and I forgot my homeworks and it's Friday Ms. Mitchell! and, and, and...there were cookies.  I asked who gave them to me as we lined up later and no one took credit.  Well, one kid did but he was teasing.  Then a shy little hand went up and the girl attached to it said it was her.  I thanked her and quickly calculated if I could split 10 prepackaged cookies into 29 parts to share as a whole community...still working that calculation out 2 hours later as tears welled up in my eyes.

The cookies, it's the cookies making me cry. The sweetness of the gesture is touching, but the tears are because the cookies mean more than 10 carb laden treats given from an average student to an average teacher. They represent a beyond average little girl.  She is a bright, amazingly respectful, caring child who comes from extreme poverty--she takes a school provided food box home with her every weekend.  Her family receives help from the community resource office at their low income apartment complex to provide enough staples to nourish them.  There are no cookies or sweet treats in those food boxes or community room food pantries.  And this child got some cookies from somewhere.  And this caring child wanted to share her fortune of sweet treats with me, her teacher, on a sunny Friday after a week of rain. 

So, I sit here eating my leftover mac and cheese staring at the cookies and thinking how to share my good fortune with all of my students. So, today's math lesson is going to be how to divide 10 cookies into 29 parts--cause the best fortune (and sweetest treat) I have to share with this class is learning and this little girl and her classmates are going to get their fair share.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

One of those "just the right moment" moments

I have to go to work tomorrow (most of us do, really there's nothing special about it). But I don't want to. I don't want to commit the energy to getting up and making it a worthwhile day for all involved.  I'm still a bit bummed about the general state of education, etc. etc. etc.  But I just stumbled upon this article:
Drop Out Has Thanks, Not Blame for Teacher and I am feeling a bit better.  Still deflated, but maybe not as weighed down by guilt. I love those moments when what you need finds its' way to you unexpectedly and unsought.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Teaching Numb

I'm detached.  Nothing that the students do phases me.  I'm teflon. It sucks, because while it is fabulous with the "bad" behaviors, I find myself distrusting the "good" behaviors.  Children who seek my favor out are just kids who would do that for any teacher.   Students who work hard to please me would work hard to please any teacher.  2 students wrote me private notes today and I responded knowing full well that they would have written any teacher a private note, it had nothing to do with anything "me".
I showed up, I taught, I did my job and I left.  I didn't feel like I had made an error and I didn't feel like I had made a difference.  I felt indifferent--like I had done a job.  Teaching is not a "job."
Teaching isn't supposed to feel like that.  I know what teaching feels like. It feels like heartache.  It feels like elation.  It feels exhausting and invigorating.  Teaching feels.  But I'm numb. 
I'm torn.  Numb is good.  Numb doesn't hurt. It doesn't anger. Numb doesn't.  But because it doesn't feel,  it doesn't light that fire that gets me out of bed extra early.  It doesn't recharge my sense of place in this world. 
I hate numb.  I prefer defeat to numb.  I want victory, but I'd take anger.  I might even accept sadness.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Loss of a Runner

It is with great sadness that I write this post.  I got the news today that I lost one.  Truly and completely lost one. Potential gone, hope gone, belief that it's all worth it gone. I want to quit (and frankly lately I want to quit a lot) truly and unequivocally quit, change jobs.  Throw in the towel, crawl into a dark hole and recognize that I will never make a difference and even if for some strange shining few years it appears that I did--know that it won't matter, in the end it won't have mattered. Because I am not that great and I can't overcome any struggles the kids have.  Life is real--their time with me is fleeting and I am not actually that good. My students' successes are not due to anything special in me, my claiming of any role in my students' successes are mere stealing of another one's actual success.
I'd like to end this with hope, with redemption.  But for now I don't feel any.  I feel defeated.  I feel deflated.  I feel like I have to get up again, convince my students that I believe it'll be different for them.  That they won't give in to the world's vices around them.  But I don't feel it tonight. Because tonight I go to bed knowing that I've been wrong.  For the past 5 years, I had a former student I thought of on my hardest days, the student that I remembered whenever I had a moment where I thought I couldn't go on, the student who came in had an amazing growth--went from throwing desks to student body president, the student who made me believe in myself.  Well, he was a lie because in the end the lure of drugs, the lure of a different outcome--well, that won.  And I lost a runner.  I lost THE runner. And for now I've lost myself.