Sunday, March 4, 2012

Focus On the Learning!

I really appreciate the phrase “student learning.”  Unlike “student achievement” or “student outcomes” it has not yet become a euphemism for bubble test scores.  I appreciate student learning because it enables me to imagine a range of indicators for success in the classroom: true multiple measures.
What can student learning look like?  When you leave my classroom after music class, I hope there is something you can do, think or remember, something that you couldn’t before you walked in.  Perhaps you can perform a song, or you can play a simple rhythmically independent accompaniment; perhaps you made a connection to prior knowledge, or have deepened your understanding of some concept, such as tempo or dynamics, and demonstrated that deepening by using that concept to create a short musical piece.   Perhaps you can finger a new note, or have just acquired some fluency between fingerings that leaves you feeling successful.   In any event, my aspiration as a teacher is that you leave my classroom having grown in some small way as a creative person, as a human being.
I acquired this focus on student learning by going through the National Board Certification process.  This demanding process requires around 300 hours of work at minimum.  You produce a video portfolio and take a tough six part exam on your knowledge of content and pedagogy.  It was in the portfolio process that my brain got reprogrammed to focus on student learning.  I had a candidate support provider who helped me go over my portfolio with a fine tooth comb.  At each stage Dan would ask, “What does that have to do with student learning?”  Eventually it became my mantra.  It has an annoying tendency to slip from my mouth during faculty meetings.  Even if it doesn’t slip out, it certainly echoes around the inside of my brain.
As a union activist, I experience a similar echo effect inside my head as we operate the levers of union influence: negotiations, grievances and so forth.  Our recent foray into Interest Based Bargaining is hobbled by the fact that we are not yet focused on student learning.  Unlike districts that truly achieve Labor Management Collaboration, our contract talks still focus on adult issues, and not student learning.  In the most progressive districts, the adults strive to make the collective bargaining agreement into an education improvement plan.  In my district we have yet to cross that threshold.
In this sort of context, things like behavior and climate become ends in themselves.  We do not want good behavior in our classrooms or great school climate because it’s nice to be nice to each other; we want it because behavior and climate are necessary preconditions to great student learning.  We do not want great working conditions and competitive pay because teachers “deserve it;” again, we need these things to the extent that they promote conditions of maximum growth for students by creating supports for the best teaching and by removing distractions.  Without that focus on the learning as the most vital institutional goal, the school drifts, and climate and behavior, working conditions and pay, deteriorate anyway.
Why is a laser-like focus on student learning beneficial to children?  It is the best way that educators can express that they care for the students.  If we expect that our classrooms will be incubators of intellectual, artistic and ethical growth, this indicates that we want the students reach their potential.  We all arrive at school with baggage.  To focus on behavior or pay as an end is to get mired in the baggage – all the reasons that we can’t treat each other well.  To put the learning at the center of the institution is to put the student at the center in a truly profound way.
How does this express itself in actual classroom practice?  In the planning process the teacher keeps standards and curriculum in mind.  Not that binder on the shelf, but living curriculum which has been internalized.  I strive to make the constant connection between the activities I select, and the things that are appropriate for a particular cohort of students to master.  For example, I might look at a group of sixth graders and see that they need some conscious experience of 6/8 time, so I plan a series of lessons culminating in an opportunity for them to improvise and/or compose a piece of music in 6/8 time.  I love using a creative act for assessment – to me, it demonstrates true understanding.
Without a focus on standards and curriculum, the focus becomes the activities themselves, and the question becomes not what the students will learn, but what the teacher will do to entertain in order to get through the day.  An activity centered classroom is a teacher centered classroom.
It may seem ironic that the direction of institutional attention to student learning, seemingly external to the self, can have such a salutary effect.  To lose that focus, however, is to lose the soul of the school, and cripple us in the muck of the psychic baggage we carry.  To lift one’s eyes, to see that we can be better than we are, is to express faith in ourselves and in our students.  From time to time we may fail, but it is in the relentless movement towards growth that the members of a school community best express their humanity.  This is why we need to focus on the learning.

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