in august, when nights get cool and days are crisply blue-skied and goldenrod-hemmed, i may start to get some bad dreams. in august, i have started to plan my first few days of school, and often i am visiting my classroom every day to restore bookshelves, put names on folders, set up crates for storing student work. at night, my subconscious, annoyed with the neat and tidy appearance of my classroom by day, messes with my head.
the terror these dreams evoke always involves being grossly unprepared. for example, there is that classic dream of being naked or dressed inappropriately (pajamas, perhaps) just minutes before i am supposed to walk into my class; or the one where i am at school, ready to teach, but i know in my heart that i have no plans and cannot seem to remember what it is i wanted to do. another places me at home, but not ready to leave, when i know i must be in the car by that time. i have seen variations of these over the decades of augusts.
last night i had a new one, but it was so telling. it reflected a new feeling i've been getting about initiatives our administrators have been pushing. in this dream, i was at school or in a large room like the ones we have our superintendent's day meeting in, but not an auditorium. packets were being given out - the ones that contain payroll forms, substitute call-in information, updates on construction in this or that part of the school district. in this dream, there were also Lego toy sets in clear plastic bags for some reason, and other toys and trinkets.
i knew i wasn't supposed to have a packet, or a bag of toys, because i am on leave and will not be in my usual 8th grade ELA classroom, but i was there anyway. it made me want a packet, so i stood in line. the young girls (probably high school student council members, put to work quite often at conference days of late) didn't realize i wasn't supposed to have these materials and gave them out to me. then we all sat down to learn the choreography for our conference day dance. hmmm, i've been attending these conferences days every september for so many years - never were we made to learn and perform a dance. what a dream, huh?
and yet not so much of a dream. we are asked to learn new dances often. the dances are called by many names: balanced literacy, parallel tasks, RCT, collaborative learning, 7 intelligences, learning styles, APL, no child left behind. the new vocabulary dominates the memos, or emails, we receive for that year. announcements are made at faculty meetings that walk-throughs will be looking for this or that. to many of our staff, the terms are new and strange. they feel like students who have not studied, and start the year with that same uncomfortable feeling that many of our students feel about so much of the material for which we hold them accountable.
in my dream, i felt great relief when i realized i didn't have to learn this latest dance. i was so relieved, in fact, that i offered to help teach the choreography. then i woke up.
for teachers to put best practice into effect, they have to own the process. how often have we made this statement about our students? yet we expect to impose knowledge and practice on the staff of an entire school. garbage in, garbage out. shoving something in by memo, lecture, and one demonstration does not ensure that it will be seen in stellar form in our classrooms. rather, it encourages students/teachers to fight back with passive resistance, working to a grade (hey, my students pass the state assessments; isn't that good enough? why don't they leave me alone?) or sniping at administrators and compliant teachers. not a good way to run a school.
what if learners/teachers met together because they wanted to and were used to such a practice to talk about what was working in their classrooms, what wasn't working, what students were writing and how they were performing, what was new in the professional literature? what if these communities generated the next big push, the next district-wide initiative? what if these communities determined curriculum together?
it's funny, that's what i thought was coming when my district announced a big push, a new initiative, to engage in Professional Learning Communities. it turned out that this variety of PLC emphasized investigation of data rather than discussion of teaching technique. examining data is important, if we remember that its value is limited by the strength of the assessment that gathers it. the more important discussions, of teaching method, of points of emphasis, never got the time they needed when we were all focused on entering numbers into Excel spreadsheets.