Who Do You Serve?

I’ve shared this story before, but I feel like it deserves to be revisited.

A mother was teaching her daughter how to roast a turkey. In the lesson, the mother removed the drumsticks and wings and re-positioned them in the pan. The daughter asked why she needed to do this. Did it help the turkey cook faster? Did it make the turkey tenderer? “I never really thought about that,” the mother explained “It’s just the way I was taught by your grandmother. We should ask her.” The mother called the grandmother and asked why she dismembered the bird prior to roasting it. The grandmother laughed and explained, “the turkey wouldn’t fit in the pan we owned so I had to cut it up to make it fit.” And so, the family tradition began.

One of my favorite words I’ve learned over the last decade is the word filiopietism, which means an “excessive veneration for tradition.” When I think about the word, my mind always races to the opening song in The Fiddler on the Roof where Tevye sings “TRADITION! TRADITION!”

That’s filiopietism sung in its most artful form.

But filiopietism isn’t just the stuff of religious cultures (or of awesome Broadway musicals). It can describe the blind acceptance of norms or the inability to question established practices. Like the daughters who followed the cooking practices of their grandmother, traditions can unknowingly develop and take root. Some cut apart a turkey before they roast it because that’s what they’ve always did. But is that really the best thing to do? Who knows? It’s tradition! Tradition!

A colleague recently shared a newsletter from Michigan Arts Education Instruction & Assessment (MAEIA). In the newsletter, the author (Heather Vaughan-Southard) asks a simple question: “In your teaching, are you serving the tradition or the people in front of you?” As we approach the ten-month mark of social distancing due to the pandemic in the United States, Vaughan-Southard applies this question to arts education, but I believe it deserves more widespread attention.  In your teaching during these pandemic times, are you serving tradition? Or the students in front of you?

While I’ll let you reflect on that question on your own, I wanted to share an experience that has caused these concepts to burrow into my brain. My son is a student at a high school that moved to remote instruction in early December due to state mandates related to increased COVID infections. Despite these issues, one of my son’s teachers assigned a group project to be completed over the winter break. The project involved my son writing a script and recording a video with five or six other students. The group gathered a few days ago at one student’s house and wore masks as they acted out their parts and recorded their video. When I dropped off my son, I considered the appropriateness of the assignment considering the current pandemic conditions. While I remember my daughter doing a similar assignment five years ago when she had this teacher, was the teacher serving the tradition? Or were they serving the students in front of them? I don’t know.

Just to be clear, I’m not criticizing the teacher’s decision. More than anything, I’m offering a lens for each of us to review our own instructional decisions and to help us identify the decisions guided by tradition and those informed by student-centered perspectives.

Top Posts of 2020 – Part 1

We all know how challenging 2020 has been. The social, educational and personal upheavals due to the global pandemic has created so many challenges for all of us. If you’re an educator, you know firsthand how COVID-19 has impacted your classroom, your students and, more broadly, your institution. Through all of those challenging times, I hope the 8 Blog has provided you with some insight, some guidance and some support. I’m grateful that you’ve joined me through my musings this year. I hope you and your loved ones are safe and healthy this holiday season.

Over the next two weeks, I’ll share the Top Ten posts from 2020. This week, I share posts 6 through 10. Visit back for the Top Five next week.

6. Remote Students Speak – Part 1: In this post from August 2020, I share some survey data from one of my classes. I simply asked the students “Name something that your professors did in the spring that you found ineffective.” Their responses were eye opening and impactful.

7. Check the Snark:  In this post from October, I discuss my internal debate when trying to figure out the best way to communicate with students in need.

8. The Roomers and The Zoomers: From early December, this post discusses the challenges with working with students in face-to-face classrooms (the Roomers) while also trying to teach students participating through Zoom (the Zoomers).

9. Teacher Dreams and Expectations: In this post from August 2020, I discuss my “teacher dreams” in advance of the new academic year and how I’m wrestling with the expectations for my upcoming synchronous classes.

10. Tending to the Garden: This is probably one of my favorite posts from 2020 because I got to bring in my dad’s gardening prowess. Written in October 2020, this post explores specific strategies for supporting students’ social and emotional needs

They aren’t bad students.

In talking with some teacher friends and colleagues, one thing is clear: these aren’t easy days for students. Let me provide some back story.

  • I met with a middle school teacher recently who told me that a third of the students in his school were failing one or more courses.
  • In a conversation with a high school counselor, she communicated that she sent out three times the number of failure letters that she’d usually send out in the first marking period. Additionally, most of the students were being notified that they were failing multiple classes.
  • Personally, I’ve had two students who withdrew from my class with an overall percentage less than 20%. As we enter the final weeks of the semester, at least a quarter of my students are at risk of failing for the semester.

The simple explanation would be to chalk it up to unmotivated individuals who haven’t developed the time management skills to be successful students. They’re simply bad students.

Except they’re not. In most of these cases, they’re just students who have been unexpectedly thrown into online/remote/hybrid learning. Despite their efforts, they’re struggling to keep things organized, to stay motivated and to learn. Add in a global pandemic and the isolation resulting from social distancing and you have a perfect storm for the large-scale academic struggles we’re witnessing. They’re not bad students. The perfect storm has created a bad environment for learning.

As we navigate this challenging time, it’s critical that we as educators try to focus on what’s important and that we work to find additional strategies and opportunities to support our students. Remember, they’re not bad students. The global pandemic has created a bad environment for learning. And that’s going to require some innovative approaches and solutions.

Luckily, I came across The Danielson Group’s Framework for Remote Teaching. If you’re not familiar with the original Danielson Framework of Teaching, it examined 22 different teaching components across four different domains: planning and preparation, classroom environment, instruction and professional responsibilities. The Danielson Framework is one of the most widely used tools for supporting teacher professional development nationally.

But the Framework for Remote Teaching is different than the original Danielson Framework. Instead of focusing on 22 components, the Framework for Remote Teaching only focuses on eight across three domains: knowing and valuing students, building responsive learning environments and engaging students in learning. The Framework for Remote Teaching even provides specific strategies to help teachers better support their students’ learning in these trying times. Besides offering some innovative solutions for engaging students in synchronous and asynchronous spaces, I think the Framework for Remote Teaching also communicates something really important. In this current environment, teachers may not be able to do it all.  Let’s focus on the most important aspects that foster student learning. This change in focus may not help every student be successful in this difficult environment for learning. But the strategies the Danielson Group offers may help us better support our students as they navigate the difficult waters ahead.

Revisiting the Past

I posted my first 8 Blog post in November 2009. The great thing about consistently blogging for eleven years is that I’ve discussed so many topics and innovations over the years that this space serves as a cool time machine for me to go visit the not-so-distant past. While these posts can provide a cool lens for viewing our past, it can also help us re-examine our present. Take this post from 2013. In it, I write about being “a worm in horseradish” and how people have a tough time seeing past the life they’re living. I’m going to reshare the post below, without commentary. As you read, remember this post was written in May 2013, long before remote learning and global pandemics. Enjoy.

Watching some TED videos recently, I came across a Macolm Gladwell video where he discusses the history of Spaghetti Sauce and choice.  In the video, Gladwell talks about how people don’t always recognize their needs or wants because they don’t possess the worldview to see things differently from how they’re experiencing it.  He talks about Ragu and Prego spaghetti sauces and how Prego didn’t gain market share initially because consumers traditionally bought Ragu sauce and weren’t willing to try something different, even though marketing research showed they would prefer Prego over Ragu.  Drawing on a Yiddish saying, Gladwell says “To a worm in horseradish, the whole world is horseradish.”  In this simple quote, he captures that worldview concept.   People sometimes have a tough time seeing past the life they’re living.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the worldview concept and how I’m sometimes “a worm in horseradish.”  This past semester, I had several sixth grade teachers from a local school district visit my class to speak to my students.  After the presentation, the teachers answered questions from my students and one asked about how technology is used in their classrooms.  One teacher responded that the school allows students to bring their own devices to class and that at any given time there might be a handful of students working on Kindles, laptops, iPads or iPod Touches.  Other students may choose to take notes in a paper notebook, he explained, but he allows his students to make their own choices.  The teacher then remarked that he was surprised that not a single one of my students was taking notes on anything but paper during his presentation.  No one was working on a laptop or a iPad.  He wondered whether he was seeing some generational differences between the populations.  One of my students explained that many professors don’t allow the use of laptops or iPads because they find the devices distracting and unprofessional.  The teacher laughed and said that his sixth graders managed just fine.

It’s hard sometimes to see past the world in which we’re working and see how our customs, norms and traditions are different from other places.  We’re surrounded by our institution’s history and work with colleagues who mostly share common experiences.  While newcomers can bring different worldviews and experiences, they can also be swept up into the traditions of the institution pretty quickly.  Take the experiences shared by a colleague recently.  Her daughter just finished her freshman year at another institution but is taking some summer classes at our school to get a little ahead.  On her first day, she pulled out her laptop to take notes and then looked around.  In the large lecture room, not a single other student had a device out.  While no one explicitly communicated that the devices were not allowed, my colleague’s daughter put her’s away before the class even started.  At her school, the daughter explained, she’d be a freak if she didn’t have some device to work on.  At another institution, she was a freak for having one.

My intention with this post isn’t to say that the traditions or customs of one school is better or worse than another or that students using laptops or not using them somehow says something about the university.  The post is intended to shed some light on those tacit norms that impact teaching and learning on our campuses.  Each of us is “a worm in horseradish” in some way.  Maybe the critical lesson to learn is from my colleague’s daughter whose eyes were opened when she traveled outside the world to which she was accustomed.    Maybe we need those new experiences to expand our worldview and see how things are different outside the horseradish.

An Email and A Window

Connor (not his real name) came to class last week, but he wasn’t really there. He logged into Zoom and I could see his name projected in his box, but he was unresponsive to my questions. After multiple attempts to engage him through private chats, I removed Connor from the class. While I did it without calling attention to his removal, it was the first time in over twenty years that I kicked a student out of my class.

Let me start but saying that I don’t know if removing Connor was the right decision. I second guess these decisions hundreds (thousands?) of times. These are the decisions that occupy my time when I stare at the ceiling at 3 AM. Do I worry about World Hunger? Climate Change? Democracy? Sure. But at 3 AM, I replay the recent instructional decisions I’ve made. Should I have asked that follow-up question instead? Should I have organized that lesson differently? Was the feedback I provided effective? These are the things about which I ponder while the rest of my family sleeps.

So, to preemptively quiet my worrying insomniac brain, I emailed Connor immediately after class. I reviewed what had happened and explained my rationale for removing him from Zoom. And then I simply asked:

“What’s going on?”

Connor responded within the hour. In his reply, Connor apologized for being unresponsive during class and then explained that he’s been struggling with the expectations and assignments from his classes. As Connor describes it, some of his classes are being taught synchronously. Others are being taught asynchronously. And one of his classes is being taught entirely through email. The multiple delivery approaches, multiple forms of interactions and the variety of expectations and deadlines were creating tons of stress for Connor. In his email, he writes,

“I’ve been getting hammered and I’m really stressed out. I’m just struggling keeping everything together.”

While Connor and I are going to meet later this week to work out ways for him to be successful in these waning weeks of the semester, I am now reflecting on his email and what it says about our students’ experiences this semester. In a way, Connor’s email provides a window into the chaotic educational world in which our students are trying to live and learn.

I’ve been trying to come up with a good metaphor to reflect the experience as Connor describes it. Here’s my best effort. It’s like Connor is simultaneously living in multiple foreign countries with different languages, different customs, different foods and different norms of practice. While he’s navigating these diverse lands and trying to figure out the norms and customs, Connor is also trying to learn the content we’re attempting to teach.

I still don’t know if removing Connor from the Zoom was the right decision or not. You can email me at 3 AM. Maybe I’ll have a better answer then, but I doubt it.