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Thinking Big: What’s Next for Teachers?

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This week I listened to an episode of the public radio program “This American Life” entitled “Going Big.” The lead story was about a community organizer in Harlem named Geoffrey Canada, who became frustrated with the lackluster results of his work, and decided a major shift might help. He convinced his organization to launch a major new initiative called the Harlem Children’s Zone. He decided to focus his organization’s efforts on a 24-square block section of Harlem, and work to create a network of supports for the children growing up there, starting as young as he could. He knew from current research that the first three years of a child’s life are the most critical for their future. The group created a “Baby College” to teach young parents crucial parenting and communication skills, so they could nurture curiosity and literacy in their children.

The first generation of those children are now in the third grade of the project’s charter school, and performing at high levels. As the New York Times explained last month, this project is part of a national movement to find creative solutions to the problems confronting us in raising our children.

The idea of Thinking Big got me reflecting on some of the limitations of my own thinking recently. My last couple of blog entries have focused on the flaws of No Child Left Behind, and the havoc wreaked by narrowly focused high-stakes testing. I am going to continue to flog that beast until the rotten carcass is removed. But as teachers, we need to look beyond the confines of the paradigm that has afflicted us for the past decade, to envision the schools and our profession in the ways we would like them to be.

We need to dream! We need to think big!

Here are some of the challenges I believe need the genius and special knowledge of America’s teachers:

What do we, as educators and part of the fabric of our society, truly value in an education, and how can we restructure our schools to better deliver what we value?

How can we connect our K-12 schools to the efforts to strengthen the essential nurturing and learning children need from birth?

How can we reshape our assessment practices so that we, as classroom teachers, have ongoing, current awareness of our students’ strengths and weakness so we can help them grow?

How can we make complex student learning visible to our parents and community, so they become aware of how our students are performing in a deeper way?

How can we reshape the school day so that teachers have time and space to collaborate, reflect, plan together, give one another feedback, and build strong learning communities?

How can we make teacher evaluation a valued means of growth for each teacher, whether beginner or veteran?

How can we as teachers do more to guide our own professional development so that it honors and draws on our expertise?

How can we deepen our ability to connect to students from different ethnicities and cultures so as to build the relationships and communicate the high expectations needed for success?

How can we actively contribute to the body of knowledge regarding our profession?

How can we build stronger connections between our classrooms and the parents of our students, and the community at large?

How can we effectively mentor the new teachers, and build a strong career ladder so that growth is expected and rewarded throughout one’s life as a teacher?

How can we actively engage with the education policy arena so that the wisdom of the classroom practitioner can inform the change process?

I’m eager to hear any big paradigm-busting thoughts you might have about any of these issues. What would you add to this list? What is the biggest challenge you see for teachers in the months and years ahead – and what big idea would you propose to meet that challenge?

1 Comment

I think that the school day itself definitely needs to be restructured. Lunch needs to be longer- at my school now it is 41 minutes but classes are 90 minutes. This is not balanced at all. I worked at El Puente Academy for Peace and Justice in Williamsburg, Bklyn several years ago and the school day was geared toward student & teacher interests. Every Tues and Thurs. after lunch we had "Ed-Ops" Regular classes would stop and we would break into several "interest" groups where the teacher worked on a project with groups of students. For example one year the Art teacher helped the students build the stage for a Hip Hop Showcase.A group of students, myself and another teacher worked with students on a bookmaking project about war and children(this was in 2002). Each year the school had a theme and worked toward a show at the end of the year.To me that was the best time I had seen a public school incorporate students lives into what they learned in class everyday. Students were always engaged and the day flew by. I could go on but I think this is a great example of what a school should be.

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