27 June 2011

The art of seeing (Part II) The Practice

part one      part three      afterthought

learning at the Brooklyn Museum - photo: Trevor Little
Last weekend I sat on a plane from Dallas-Fort Worth to Michigan, next to a young (11-year-old?) woman traveling 'unaccompanied' from her new home in Dallas to her old home and her (now divorced) father. To overcome the loud twenty-something women behind us who were declaring the small plane "unsafe" and "very scary," we talked. She loved flying. She was going to watch The Polar Express for the "hundredth time" on her little DVD player. She was looking forward to swimming in Lake Michigan. And Texas schools were both "much much bigger" and "much much easier" than what she had attended in Michigan. "Fifth grade there was the same as third grade [in Michigan]," she declared. "I'd done everything before."

A few days before I'd watched an 8-year-old girl climb a massive climbing wall, bottom to top. It was a dramatic lesson for me in perseverance, in mentoring, in scaffolding, in courage.

Emma's Climb. Copper Mountain, Colorado (yes, the room had only a plywood "Murphy Bed")

And yesterday I talked to three boys hunting turtles and tadpoles along Pine Creek just north of Holland, Michigan. We looked at the tiny legs emerging on the tadpoles, and wondered at how turtles could be both so fast and so slow.

I like to watch. I love to watch children and I love to watch learning. So I watch these things everywhere. At skateboard parks and on summer sidewalks. In parks and along beaches. In stores and on playing fields. In front of houses and in restaurants. Anywhere. Everywhere.

As I said in Part I of this sequence, education and capitalism have worked very hard to stop us from seeing as complete humans. We literally live in a world where "very smart" people go around insisting that they are only capable of single focus - that they cannot walk and chew gum at the same time. "Attention" - in the Protestant, Capitalist, Rationalist world we live in - means staring at one thing, one person, handling only a single idea or experience at a time. You can't - the experts in The New York Times and on NPR insist - love the wind on your skin and appreciate the music of the incoming tide as you read Byron to the one you are very focused on getting into a highly intimate situation with. The brain, these "smart folks" tell you, can only do one thing at a time.

This is, of course, nonsense. It is the kind of thinking which occurs when people fall into the "science" of measurement completely, and stop observing.

When I observe a school I start by watching how I, and how kids, approach it. I watch how the corridors operate, both when filled with movement and (if) when empty. Empty corridors during a school day speak loudly to me. So do classrooms with one kind of seating, one kind of lighting, or one "teaching wall." I watch the feet of kids in a class. I watch them fidget. I listen to how they talk to each other. I need to see cafeterias and gyms. I need to see from under desks. I listen for the roar of air-handling systems and the buzz of fluorescent lights. I look at hallway and classroom bulletin boards to see if student work is student-designed/student-organized or assignment-compliant. I look at things like references to honor rolls and athletics and ask if all kids are honored or "Lord of the Flies" "choirs" are being created. I listen for the noise of learning. I sniff for the scents of physical activity. I, unlike Marzano and McRel, constantly look for engagement.

This multipli-focused kind of observation helps me to begin to deep map a school.

But the linearity and single-focus of traditional education has, perhaps, robbed you of, or severely limited, your human observation skills. Tens of thousands of hours of single subject lessons, of staring at teachers, of conference sessions divided into "tracks," have stunted the human abilities you had before you entered school. So, if you feel out of practice, here are a few ideas:

Eavesdrop: It's a lesson I've used for fiction writing, but it is essential for learning to observe - getting better at eavesdropping. Sit in a coffee shop, a restaurant, an airport, a park, and listen deeply to the conversations around you. This is how I worked on writing dialogue. I didn't want to sound like some authors where characters make little speeches. I wanted to know both how humans speak and what humans know.

So you need to learn to hear students (and teachers, and the community) when they are not speaking to you, when they think you are not listening, especially when you are not framing the limits of the conversation with your questions. And you can go out, have coffee, and practice this summer.

Look for something you haven't looked for before in a place you've been a million times: Avner Segall, a great Teacher Ed prof who I had for qualitative methods suggested this. So, for his class, I spent about three hours one Saturday watching people check out at Meijer. I was looking for how they interacted with the cashiers and with others in line.

This will build your skills for looking for differing things. Suppose you watched a classroom focused on which students were uncomfortable, or which kids were most frustrated with their technology (often their pens, pencils, paper, and books), or which kids didn't rush out to recess? What might you learn?

What is happening here? Really...
Stare: We're not supposed to do this in America, but you really need to learn how. You need to be able to stare deeply at a group of people and pull in all that you see. From clothing to hand positions, from movement to voice modulation, from body language to eye contact. You need to be able to see your students in all of these details, and a million more.

But you'll need to practice this. Perhaps begin in places where anonymity is easy - sport, the beach, a concert. Then move on up to the streetcorner, the playground, the bus or train.

Talk to strangers: Never pass up the chance to hear a new world view. I have learned from many people, perhaps most importantly from my "spousal equivalent" (a Gary Stager term), how to talk to anyone, anywhere. How to really listen to waiters and the people who help me through airports, cops I meet and people sitting nearby in parks, kids I run into and parents I overhear talking about education.

This is essential. We cannot "talk among ourselves" and learn the world. We have to open ourselves up and let the world in.

At EduCon 2010 Pam Moran and I entered Philadelphia's Science Leadership Academy and looked in ways I think many others do not. We did this not because we don't think SLA is a good school - it is a great school - and we did it not because SLA chooses its students when most public schools cannot - there is a place for these "chosen one" schools, from SLA to Bronx Science, however little they tell us about strategies for public education. We did it because everyone in every school needs to do this, because all of us can always get better.

So at SLA we noticed the "Apple branding" of the school. We noticed the "No students on elevator" sign. We asked the very smart white-coated students helping with coffee in the school's library if they had coffee and food in the library during the school day. We talked to students about grades and motivation. We asked why the girls never had time to play on the ping-pong table. We wondered why some of the science equipment looked so dusty and was piled up in big heaps. We wandered through the theatre and asked the students about plays. We asked kids to show us their favorite classroom, and asked why they thought it was the best. We hung out with the student tech team.

Did our survey describe the entirety of the school? Of course not. But I think it did add to Chris Lehmann's deep map of SLA, and for a great school leader, the deeper the map, the better the school becomes.

So we need to see. We need to deep map. And we need to learn to pull the world into our brain in the most "ADHD-way" possible.

And then - next installment - we need to understand how our "educational reformers" are not doing that.

- Ira Socol

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Here's an idea for you:

The reason this 'attention deficit deficit' occurs in schools is very easy to explain.

If you teach kids to pay attention to their surroundings ('deep attention' or otherwise), and thus be informed in their understanding of the world, then you end up learning how to do it yourself.

And if you end up getting better at having a first-hand understanding of the world, you might start having to act on what you know.

And if you start having to act on what you know, you might get In Trouble. You might end up saying something informed and true, but inconvenient. Or you might end up transgressing some rule that really makes no sense.

In this sense, it is very easy to understand why teachers and administrators, some of the most put-upon and scrutinized people in the country, would shy away from teaching kids how to observe their surroundings. They simply *must* ignore reality in order to continue.