when I decided not to return for another year in my current teaching position, a decision about which I previously wrote here.
The senior students in our STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) program were supposed to participate in a poster session where they shared the results of their Capstone final projects. Certain projects were to be given breakout sessions where they had a chance to do presentations beyond mere brief explanations while standing with their posters.
We were not given much lead time as to format of posters, but 16 of the 18 seniors in my two capstone classes submitted posters and abstracts and I passed them on to the school system's STEM office for the event this past Wednesday. I also selected the best presentations from each class - one each from Environmental Media and Research/Data Analysis - for the breakout sessions.
Then all hell began breaking loose, culminating in my arriving on site early (fortunately) to find that 4 of the 7 posters (most of my students worked in groups) had not been posted and one breakout session had been canceled. While eventually all posters were up, and both of my breakout sessions were held, by then I had no doubt about my decision.
So let me give you some background context below the fold. Then I will return to what happened.
Last October I was one of about a dozen teachers from around the country who participated in an important conference organized in part by the National Academy of Engineering on Innovation in Education. One key concept I heard over and over again at this conference - which included university faculty and administrators, entrepreneurs in STEM related fields, etc. - was the wrong direction of much of our education. What I heard especially was that we needed to teach our students how to fail. That is, how to take appropriate levels of risk to push the envelope, then to be able to step back and evaluate where they had gone wrong and why, and to learn from that process.
I also heard repeatedly the importance of having students own their own learning, which in project-based learning meant they had to have a personal interest in the projects on which they worked.
I shared what I had learned both within the building and with people in the central office.
I determined that I would follow that approach with my seniors.
I had seven students in Environmental Media, continuing work on two projects they had begun as juniors and for which they had received funding as a result of a national competition. Their capstone projects were to be media campaigns related to the environmental projects they had developed.
I had 11 students in research, three working as individuals, 8 in pairs, all of whom struggled with various ideas early in the year that they could not formulate into appropriate projects. I did not mind, merely requiring that they carefully document their endeavors, including analyzing why things had not progressed and what they had learned from the experience. Periodically we took time in class for them to share and to receive feedback and answer questions, often more from their peers than from me.
I put them on notice that if by the time they had returned from Thanksgiving break they had not come up with projects that engaged them, I would assign them projects I knew they could finish by the end of the year. That became unnecessary.
Here I need to step back and offer several observations.
First, I saw the students grow as they learned to accept their struggles and for the most part find ways to work around them.
Second, there were major issues in access to information. Far too often when students tried to research using computers in the small lab next to my room, they were blocked from sites by the school system's filter, which screened to an absurd level. Let me give two examples of that absurdity
1. Students could not do little research related to pharmaceuticals or medicine because the word "drug" or its plural "drugs" was a banned word
2. Once I was trying to share with my AP Government classes an article about the former Vice President of the United States who uses the short form of his name and I was blocked because the word "dick" is a banned word, even when offered in the form of "Dick" as in a proper name.
I spoke about this issue with the Assistant Superintendent who oversees advanced and special programs, and suggested that teachers not be blocked so we could use our judgment about what was appropriate for our students and the central office could selectively check what sites were visited under our sign-ons to ensure we did not abuse our access. She informed me the Board of Education had approved such a policy and it was supposed to be implemented. It is now more than 7 months since that conversation, and the policy has still not been implemented. I remember one of my Research Students getting increasingly frustrated while he made attempt after attempt to look up things and each time got the dread yellow triangle announcing the filter was blocking him. On one occasion that happened more than 30 times in less than two minutes as he worked down a list of links he had developed as the result of a search.
That was one obstacle students encountered.
Of my two projects in Environmental Media, one ran into legal problems that could not be overcome, and had to totally rethink how they were going to stay within the framework of their grant. The other first got blocked from part of their endeavor by bureaucratic issues within the County department that controls parks and recreation, then delayed on the other part because school system personnel erred badly in installing some bike racks, the concrete bases had to be fixed, and that was not done in time to have the media roll-out of their project before testing took over the school year. In both cases, the teams of students had well-designed media campaigns that could not be implemented.
The group from Research whom I had selected for the breakout session had an idea for a new kind of yoga mat, in part because of their personal experience - one of them took up yoga because of a back injury. Their design was intended to be both environmentally friendly (many yoga mats are made of materials that are not) as well as providing a base that cushioned impact while keeping one connected with the floor. Their design intent was well-thought out and well-researched. But the first company they approached for one key material hung up the phone on them, and the second took longer than expected to get them their materials. They were able to make a small prototype mat, but not in time to do what they had originally intended, which was to have me share their design in a full-size implementation with several dozen yoga teachers and students where I practice to see what the interest was and to evaluate based on that.
Other projects were well researched and thought out, but too expensive for students to actually build.
Thus there was little "data" that could be statistically analyzed, but there was a great deal of learning that took place.
One group, the yoga mat, had technical issues on short notice getting a high quality poster to the central office to be printed. Here I note that how the poster and accompanying abstract were to be submitted changed several times. I was able to get all submitted materials except the yoga mat poster to the central office on Monday, and the yoga mat poster in time for the presentation - although the print shop already had a version that was adequate but not of high quality (there were technical issues including an email program being used by a student that was surprisingly not allowing her to email a large file).
We started hearing objections on Tuesday that there was not sufficient "data" on some of the posters. I explained to one person from the office why. Apparently along the way one person from the Central office informed out principal that what was being offered was of insufficient quality to allow it to be presented. On Wednesday morning I had a phone conversation with the system wide STEM coordinator who raised that specific issue about the yoga mat project. I pointed out the various problems they had had. She wondered why they had not asked to see if the school system could have intervened to help them get their materials more quickly. I responded that the students had wanted to own the process themselves and I had decided to let them. I thought that issue had been resolved.
Then I arrived on site early Wednesday evening. I will not go through everything that happened.
I will say that with some negotiation from our school's STEM coordinator and to a lesser degree myself we got approval for most of the posters to go up, but apparently not the yoga mat poster, nor was that breakout session listed. When I finally saw the Assistant Superintendent she said they had not completed the project. I told her they were coming with the yoga mat. She said it the mat was not on their poster (that was because they were still working on manufacturing it when they did the poster the previous week, and did not know whether it would be successfully made - remember, this was in the midst of the AP testing). She decided to let it go ahead.
Then things began to get seriously ridiculous.
The breakout group from Environmental Media was asked where their data was. Their project was to reduce carbon emissions by making it easier for students to bike to school. But their project was supposed to be their media campaign promoting the use of bikes, not an analysis of how much they reduced carbon emissions.
All of the students were told to not focus that much on the difficulties they had encountered and overcome. At least, that is what they were told in my presence.
But then someone from the central office went down to the breakout room where my students were and told them they were not even to mention their difficulties, that this was supposed to be a celebration of success.
Not all of the students were there on some projects, including one breakout group. That is because by the time the central office got around to scheduling this event, our school's annual athletic banquet was already scheduled, and many of my students were athletes, some of whom were attending because that was an important part both of their own high school experience, and because they were receiving awards. For that one group, originally only one student was going to present, but another gave up the banquet so that her partner would not present alone. The day before a person from the Central office asked if the student who would be at the banquet would be okay at receiving the grade from the Central office for their poster and presentation and she said she would. But then no one from the central office even attended either of the presentations.
There were at least three people from the central office there.
There were three breakout rooms.
Only one person stayed beyond the first of three time slots.
Still, one might have expected one person to have come into each room.
We had told the central office that one of our breakout groups needed technological resources. That was true of two groups from another school. In one case people were assigned to a room with no technology, in the other the technology would not work and we had to change rooms.
I am proud of my students.
I am can be a momma grizzly on their behalf if I think they are being treated unfairly.
Not allowing them to present or put up their posters would have been unfair to them. if there were something unacceptable, take it out on me because they did it under my supervision.
Except I note the following:
1. People from the Central office have informed me how pleased they were at what they had seen from what I had done in my other, non-senior course, STEM Policy.
2. The Assistant superintendent had talked with my Environmental Media students when they were in the early stages of working on their projects.
3. She had had several additional conversations with me during the year where she knew the approach I was taking, particularly after I had attended the conference on innovation in education.
4. The expectations for and scheduling of this poster session were not communicated in either a clear fashion nor on a timely basis.
What I had not told anyone, including my wife, is that when I arrived at the site and found out what was happening I was prepared to resign on the spot in protest, even though that would have cost me my teaching certificate and thus my employment for next year.
Both at the system level and in the impact in our school, I had at the time I made the decision not to return next year, already seen enough to believe I could not do my task of teaching with the degree of integrity I thought necessary. It had been a painful decision, because I love my students, and I am sorry I will not be able to continue as I had hoped with those I would have had again (and again - my advisory is freshmen, Government is sophomores, STEM Policy is juniors, and the two CAPSTONE projects are seniors, thus I had the rare opportunity for ongoing teaching of the same students), but after this past week I have no doubt that my decision was the correct one.
Some might say I should not be so candid about this.
To which I respond that when I was hired people knew I wrote about what I do.
I try hard not to be critical of people with whom I work while I work with them.
I do my best to try to fix things internally.
But I still teach in my late 60s because I am trying to be of benefit to my students.
I follow the principle discussed at the forum on innovation in education - I take risks to attempt to achieve results. Not everything I try works, but I adjust based on the experience.
In other words, I model for my students what I expect of them.
It would be patently unfair to punish my students for what my superiors MIGHT consider my failings.
They chose to give me great latitude in how I approached my responsibilities.
if they had concerns, they had every opportunity to check on me from time to time and if not happy seek to make adjustments. They did not.
I saw where my students were struggling, and offered support insofar as they wanted it.
From my discussions with them the vast majority of them appreciated the approach I took. One of those who failed to produce a poster (but nevertheless successfully completed all the other elements of the project quite well) told me he had enjoyed this class most of all because he was treated like an adult, and thus got to learn a bit of what it means to operate with adult responsibility.
I have managed in the private and public sectors, served as a department chair in a school, coached athletics, headed committees and task forces in school, served as an officer of non-profit organizations and on national committees for a religious organization and a non-profit.
In all my approach tends to be to empower others, to give them credit for their successes and where possible to shield them from consequences of honest failure from which they learn (when they refuse to learn or listen, that is a somewhat different situation).
When I was hired for the position from which I am leaving in about 4 weeks I made all that clear.
That is who I am, and how I operate, as a person, a teacher, a mentor.
If after hiring me you are not happy with the results, feel free to let me know, even to discipline or discharge me.
But do NOT take it out on my subordinates or my students.
Or you will discover that this intense but usually mild-mannered Quaker turns into as fierce a Momma Grizzly as you can imagine.