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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?

Comments (15)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Carol Parker's picture
Carol Parker
7/8 Drama, Film, Honors & Regular Language Arts

Nothing, absolutely nothing is more important than integrating the arts into every core subject. Kudos to you for recognizing that children respond better to strengths and do not need to be punished if they are not ready for traditional approaches to learning. Theatre is so magical for so many RIGHT BRAIN LEARNERS who are so frustrated and cannot verbalize other than "I hate this."

I use theatrical approaches daily in my classroom. It may not raise scores today, but over the long run, it has a life time effect on a child's life and an adult's happiness to have exposure to the arts. We have to work together to get a curriculum which has Theatre Arts/Drama as a core subject for 7/8 grade, this is the perfect age. Cutting this out has been a diaster for our children and our culture.

I am certain that one of the reasons children are motivated to go to school is because they are in an art, music or drama class. And, we wonder why there are so many children depressed, dropping out and involved in gangs. We owe it to our children to offer the joy of the beauty of art. Why are education classes not requiring more creative courses for every educator in performing and visual arts? It is a shame. Realia just does not cut it. It is a band aid.

Hopefully, you will bring a tiny bit of awareness which will build more. Thank you Elena!

John Bennett's picture
John Bennett
Emeritus Faculty in the School of Engineering / University of Connecticut

My experience is at the college level. But the importance of core knowledge is the same. Building an ever-increasing knowledge package is misguided. I intend to reach out to K-12 to work with them to identify the core knowledge (necessary to gain from conversations with experts as well as finding information - determining whether it is useful for the problem at hand). This will help teachers free up teaching time to be used for inquiry activities that will increase student skills and motivation.

On the author's concentration on what works, that is a great approach - providing the motivation as noted. I would add, however, that everything can always get even better and thus self-assessment must be routine. AND of course, things that are NOT working must be addressed as well.

B R Blanchard's picture
B R Blanchard
4th grade, Massachusetts

We are bombarded by the notion that we are doing poorly as educators, and yet, if we taught from this perspective, learning in our classrooms would be dismal, indeed! It seems obvious that focusing on what goes well is a way to get at improvements that can be made for individual students. Learning is an interactive experience that takes time--which can be impacted in varying degrees, at various times, by a variety of factors. While "core knowledge" is important, even more important is envisioning a diversity of learning experiences and a variety of ways to assess that knowledge.

Matthew Kitchens's picture
Matthew Kitchens
Seventh-grade reading/ELA teacher from Ennis, Texas

I'm going to integrate more technology in my classroom by having my GT students create book review podcasts. View the ones that are completed here: http://www.ennis.k12.tx.us/webpages/mkitchens/mypodcast.cfm.

In addition, I plan on exploring ways Kindle can be integrated into curricula. Check out my own podcasts/blog here: http://www.ennis.k12.tx.us/webpages/mkitchens/myblog.cfm?blogid=4206.

LearnMeProject's picture

1. have fun, it's contagious; if I'm not enjoying the material (novel, whatever) they won't;
2. don't be too controlling, rather let the discussion go in an unexpected direction (I may not have all the answers), rather than too much in a particular direction (it's not all good, the direction has to be productive);
3. less but better, more careful, thoughtful, etc. reading; less but better writing.

http://learnmeproject.com/?p=161

Megan Tschannen-Moran's picture

I really appreciated Elena's reminder to build on strengths. It can be so easy to fall into a habit of focusing on deficits, but we pay a price in our energy, enthusiasm, and passion when we do. My husband and I have developed a coaching model that incorporates a process called appreciative inquiry to guide those who work with teachers to look for and build on their assets. We call our process evocative coaching because focusing on strengths calls for the best from teachers.

Ramon Martinez's picture

Elena, what an inspirational article. I am the principal in a tough urban school of 2000 students. I used this to launch our professional development last week and asked teachers to make and share their intentions for the year. We also expanded on your inclination of looking at what's working and created a list of areas we want to pay more attention to and highlight. There is so much to improve at our school and we talk about those areas all the time. This was a very powerful reminder. Thank you and we'll be reading your blog this year.

Allie Holland's picture

"It takes effort to find the functioning components, but it's critical, because we have to build from what's working..." I love this idea of focusing on the positive. In my second grade classroom, I try to focus on the positive with my students. That idea should be carried over to the teaching staff. All we seem to be hearing these days is everything that doesn't work and how teachers are not doing their jobs. What a wonderful way to encourage educators when all the media is seeming to do is discourage. Thank you for this post! It was quite inspiring!

Trudy Gayle's picture

I enjoyed reading this post. It is often said that the teacher who fails to plan, plans to fail and so I endorse the idea of setting goals and working assiduously to achieve them. The school year starting September 2010, I got a group of students labeled 'slow learners'. I was given the mandate to bring them on par with their peers academically. Between September and December, I was preoccupied with getting them to learn things that I deemed appropriate for their grade level with the hope that come January they would be able to leave the label 'slow learner' in their past. For the entire term it was a struggle and by the end of term assessment and much reflection I realized that I was not doing all I could to help these students because I failed to confront the real problem these students had.
The problem that was debilitating these students was low self esteem. They thought very little about themselves, and believed that they lacked the potential to learn. Realizing this, my mission for 2011 is to tackle the problem of low self esteem with these students. It is my intention to collaborate with the parents, guidance counselor, and other teachers of these students to get them to see the extent of their ability. I know it will not be an easy feat but I am certain that every child can learn and in my class every child will learn.

Deborah Eichel's picture
Deborah Eichel
High School Teacher, living on the beautiful coast of Maine

I enjoyed reading your post, and it seemed to coincide with what I am currently studying in my first class toward a Master's Degree, Teacher as a Professional. This week, we have been looking at professional learning communities, PLC's, their components, what works and what doesn't work, their benefits to the school community, and especially, the benefits to our students.
In a professional learning community, we are taught to work collaboratively with other teachers and leaders to find the answer to the question, "What are our students learning?" It sounds as though you have asked that question of yourself with regards to the intentions you set for yourself at the beginning of the year. I love this idea! I think as a reflective teacher, we do this instinctively, anyway.
I find interesting that you are a coach who works with leaders in schools, principals, central office leaders, and teacher leaders. I would love to know more about your procedure. Do you assist these groups in the formation of professional learning communities to solve some of the problems you mentioned, such as what is working, what isn't, and what are our students learning? Professional learning communities would be a good fit for what you are doing, I believe. Working collaboratively benefits everyone, especially our students. I can see ending a session with the question: What are our intentions?
Thank you for an insightful post.
Debbie

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