The Main Thing

from the Virginia Department of Education

We spend a lot of time in education, and as educators, on how we can do a better job with instruction and teaching kids to read, write, do math, think, observe, analyze, etc. I firmly believe that matters. There are powerful ways to teach and less-than-positive ways to do it. (I mean, really, I wrote an entire book on academic conversations. I have strong feelings about how we teach children.)

Who We Teach

However, it is far too easy for us to lose track of the fact that we teach children. We teach them lots of different things (some intentionally and some unintentionally). We teach them.

One of the things that brings me joy at Educon every year (well, prepandemic anyway) is listening to the teachers there tell what they do. “I teach 10th graders English.” “I teach high schoolers art.” “I teach 12th graders government.” The focus is on the students, not on the subject.

I teach third graders.

I don’t have anything profound to say here. I’m just struck, after a couple of days in Williamsburg at the VASCD annual conference, by how important this is. At least, that I think it is. How different could education look if we put students first? If we truly thought about the kids in front of us before we thought about the content requirements?

How We Spend Our Time

We spend meetings as teams unpacking standards to be sure we understand what we are expected to teach. We spend time planning assessments of that content. We analyze the data from the assessments of that content. Then, maybe then, we look at individual students and think about what they need, if they didn’t seem to master the expected content and skills. Are we ending up with a focus on equality rather than on equity?

And what about the who we are expected to teach? Why are the kids last in this process? What could we do to start with our students and then consider the content?

More Questions Than Answers

I am really not sure what this might look like. I think the knowledge we have about social and emotional learning is a part of it. But not all of it. Kids are human beings and they are complicated and layered and full of ideas, questions, desires, and needs. What would it look like to plan a lesson or a unit or a day starting with the kids in our care?

What might professional development look like, if in addition to workshops on constructivist strategies and questioning skills and problem solving ideas, we had workshops about kids? What if you could attend workshops focused on what we know about kids at a certain age or how best to teach students who are quiet in class or strategies for working with students who are people pleasers? Could that be valuable?

Please, if you have any ideas about how this could look (or why I could be totally off base) share them. I am feeling at a standstill and it is immensely frustrating. I would love any thoughts.

3 replies on “The Main Thing”

  1. Jenna Smith says:

    I think one way is figuring out how each of our students learn– i.e. what their learning styles are. We don’t need to differentiate every single activity or assignment but we can make sure the lessons we give and the assignments we give are differentiated so we do a hands on activity, a worksheet, a video, a partner verbal activity, etc. Its hard to do at first– figuring out the different learning styles but I think its so important to tell a student “I know you prefer to learn like ‘this’ and we are going to make sure you are able to show your learning in this way”. Of course thats just a small part 🙂

  2. Jenn, you are singing my song! What if…? Your posts helps me make sense of a recent experience I had when asked to spend time focused on standards and assessment, on the wording and the execution of the appropriate activity that should deliver the desired outcome. I mean, I was literally beside myself! I had to go take a walk to cool off and think about what was making me so angry (tbh) about this trajectory of conversation.
    I understand the need to feel like we need to get the what down first before we figure out how to address the needs of the kids in front of us. Education as a field is increasingly charged with justifying itself from every possible angle. There are few opportunities to pause, observe, repeat and then talk about it and adjust. We are constantly pushed to make what we do appear scientific in an effort to ward off criticism and attacks. In the process, the over-reliance on standardization, has pushed initiatives towards equity into perpetual cycles of dysfunction. (Thinking of Cobb & Krownapple, here.)

    To spend time with case studies of children, to gather for meaningful storytelling about our classrooms and our learning communities turns out to be deeply countercultural. We fear being accused of wasting time when really, such conversations, thoughtfully structured, might in fact provide opportunities for learning and *healing.* The systems we are in, unfortunately, are least interested in helping us recover from and process all the forms of trauma our students and communities experience in pursuit of ‘getting an education.’

    I am here for thinking about different ways to come together in ways that allow us to put our students at the forefront of our professional learning. Let’s talk.

    Thank you for bringing me back to my own priorities.


    • bivey says:

      Sherri! Jen!

      I’ve been thinking for years conferences should build in “connect and reflect” periods. We know as educators that those two things are fundamentally critical to learning. So why not build in chances for this when designing learning for ourselves?

      My friend Chris Toy (consultant and former principal, now retired) would have a session each year at the New England League of Middle Schools conference which was essentially connecting and reflecting together for building leaders. I’ve submitted proposals for a similar kind of thing for LGBTQ+ educators and accomplices, though none was accepted. Could a conference be built around these kinds of experiences? I don’t see why not.

      I had a very similar experience yesterday to what Sherri describes – 45 minutes in Curriculum Committee talking about whether or not to open up running grades in Canvas for our upper schoolers (middle schoolers, as you may already know, don’t have grades). I didn’t walk out, but I was inwardly fuming. Here we were actively (if implicitly) recognizing the harm grades do and spending yet another huge chunk of time discussing the ins and outs and “best” ways to mitigate harm. As I was leaving the meeting, I was talking with the Math Chair who heard me out and said, “So what if we undid the harm in the first place? What if we did away with grades?” We had a really good conversation. Imagine if that had been the whole meeting…


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