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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

I regularly set intentions before a meeting or before teaching a class, or at the start of the day. Declaring my intentions (sometimes in writing, sometimes spoken to someone, sometimes only articulated in my head) helps me set a direction for how I would like things to go. I find that when I set an intention, my actions and words are more likely to follow that intention, even when I've consciously forgotten about it. So of course, I set intentions at the start of the year -- both the academic and calendar year.

In 2011, I intend to focus more on what is working in our schools. This is a practice that I cultivate; it's like eating well. I know I need to do it, and yet I constantly find myself slipping into obsessing over the gaps and holes, the everything-that's-not-done, the learning or teaching that isn't happening.

Randy Taran, a blogger for the Huffington Post, writes in a recent post, "What we pay attention to grows." I know that, but I forget. So my intention: focus on the positive, focus on what's working.

In the Classroom

When I taught, it was critical that I did this. I had to find my students' strengths and skills. I had to make those public and then build on them. And then I carefully and strategically introduced missing skills.

Eddie (a pseudonym) always comes to mind when I think about doing this. When I met him at the beginning of sixth grade, he hated reading and read at a second grade level. He rejected anything "academic," refused to do homework, and was often off-task and goofing around. He commanded a presence and could easily get his peers distracted; he loved the attention.

I gave Eddie opportunities to perform for his classmates and be on stage. He actually had some talent in this area. I used a structure called Readers' Theater where students dramatically read the dialogue in a story aloud in front of the class. In order to play this role, they have to prepare: they have to read their lines at home beforehand, paying close attention to rhythm, tone, intonation, etc. Students need to understand the character's context, the setting, and the subtext of the story. They also need to be able to read fluently.

Eddie loved this structure. He thrived on the attention and as a result, did the required reading to prepare for his performance; that is, he did his homework -- without any threats or promises of rewards. Later, when I led my students through an intensive study of medieval Europe, I lured Eddie through the learning with the promise of an acting opportunity in the end. It worked. He came along and learned and then performed for an audience of hundreds. (See my blog post here to read more on this.) I know how it worked with kids to focus on strengths, on what was already there.

Focus on What Works

What does it mean to me now to focus on what's working? I work as a coach with leaders -- principals, central office administrators, and teacher leaders. I work in schools that have long struggled and communities in crisis and with people who are sometimes pushed into roles for which they have little preparation. It takes effort to find the functioning components, but it's critical, because we have to build from what's working, and it's those spots that motivate and inspire and energize and remind me that we can transform public schools.

But I also intend to hone my observational powers to keep uncovering what's working in our schools because I simply feel so much better when I do. When I was a teacher, I often left school at the end of the day feeling that I hadn't done enough and students weren't learning fast enough. I felt drained and depleted if I didn't intentionally focus on what I had done well and what students had learned. Focusing my reflections on what worked motivated me way more than obsessing over my failures.

So next year, I will look for all the shiny bright spots in our public schools and I will do what I can to make them visible (including documenting my discoveries on this blog) and I will guide principals and teachers to do the same. I'm looking forward to that.

Edutopia community, what intentions (or resolutions) do you have for yourselves as educators in 2011?

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