Friday, 3 April 2015

Rediscovering Grace Under Pressure, with thanks to Dave Cormier

         What? No curriculum?  When Dave Cormier explained to our #tiegrad cohort that he teaches his university course(s) without a true curriculum my initial reaction was, “You can do that?!” In the days that followed the Cormier Session, I kept revisiting this detail. How does it work? How could it work? How would students react? What would their parents say? How would my peers respond? ¡Ay! Caramba!
         This particular blog post has been overwhelming for me to tackle, as there have been so many aspects and significant moments of the Cormier Session that resonated with me.  I've actually had to force myself to keep coming back to this post, as the overwhelm gradually began to evolve into avoidance. There were big ideas shared in this session, and by big, I’m talking transformative big, mover-shaker big, B-I-G Big.  Finally, after an encouraging post by Melody Watson and brief exchanges with Trevor MacKenzie, I decided my strategy would be to hang on to just one of Dave’s many inspiring comments, process it, reflect on it, and elaborate on my very many mullings and musings.
         Since our session, my thoughts have turned to the many times over the years that, as a parent, I would exclaim to my husband, “Don’t these teachers ever TALK to each other?!!”, as I watched one of our four kids crumple under the stress of multiple project and papers all with (fairly inflexible) due dates.  To make matters all the more frustrating, these projects and papers usually had widespread potential for overlap.  From the teacher perspective, I wonder why we are so reluctant, as a collective group, to encourage students to reuse, resubmit, or “double-dip” their efforts for different courses.  As an example, in his grade 11 year my own son had to write several  Social Studies papers, create a major project for his Integrated Studies course, and write multiple English essays.  This would seem a fantastic opportunity for the 3 teachers at the helm to work together, offer up one (or several) shared project(s) for the learners that could support meeting learning outcomes in all three courses. Why don’t we model working smarter, not harder and support, heck, require kids to do the same?
         As kids move through the different levels of school—elementary, middle/junior, and secondary—the lines between subject areas become more fast and firm;  the opportunities to develop their creative talents and their problem solving and communication skills become more prescribed (possibly even less valued if we consider shifts away from “play” and “making”).  There can be a lot of hoop jumping for kids in the middle and secondary years and they know this. What is the value of curriculum if we can’t deliver it without redundancy?  Recently, for example, I have been witness to a Gifted learner (not that that should even matter), basically avoiding or, perhaps refusing, to submit his Math homework packages, yet completing each unit test with sound results (90-95%-ish). Typically he would complete the homework packages just enough to “get it” and then cease working on them.  His teacher demanded that he go back and complete all of the packages, work that counts for “completion” marks only. Why?  The response:  “I can’t give him special treatment.”  This mentality has to change. Each learner is an individual, with distinct needs and strengths, unique circumstances, and a very personal learning profile. 
         We shouldn't be treating all students in any given class the same. Dave Cormier said, “What you can assess is how hard they are working and how far they have come.” A highly capable student, such as the gifted learner in the example above, would be considered to have made minimal effort and, quite possibly, demonstrated minimal growth, even though he has mastered the concepts and skills. Another student in the same class, for whom Math is very challenging, may have demonstrated significant learning and effort. Wouldn't it be awesome to offer all learners the opportunity to access learning at their instructional level so working hard was an authentic process and subsequent growth was inevitable?  
         I often tell my own children the rules in our family are potentially different for each of them. For example, a curfew of 11 pm may be needed for the one who never texts to tell us where he is or frequently misses the last bus home, while another may not need a curfew at all as a result of his “by the book” approach to most aspects of his life. The idea of integrating coursework and even subject areas in middle and high school is, of course, daunting to many educators who have never done it this way. Cormier encourages us to create opportunities for students to be creative, learners who can deal with an uncertain world and a capricious life. Why would we ask them to show us (in a homework package, for example) what they've already demonstrated (in a unit test)?  
       In her blog post on the Cormier Session, Melody Watson says, “Life is messy and full of uncertainty. Learning needs to be messy too…I think we need to get more comfortable with letting kids struggle.”  I would take this a step further to say that, as educators, we need to be personally modelling this willingness to get our hands dirty, make mistakes, and struggle to our learners.  GeorgeCouros, in his recent blog post, 3 Important Shifts in Education, says: “Listening to students is not enough; we must bring them into the change process”. Along these lines, Dave Cormier, shared his curriculum-free syllabus with us; in looking at this document, I am reminded of the importance and value in inviting encouraging, or requiring students to participate in their learning plan, to support their excitement, curiosity, interest and desire to learn. In thinking about a curriculum free approach, I have to tell myself, “You don’t need to throw out the entire curriculum today, but find a spot where you can break down the walls a little bit,” which helps the subtle anxiety to dissipate.
         In my years as a rower, one of my coaches relied on idiomatic language and cliches to carry many of his inspirational pre-race chats with our crew.  He regularly referred to the dangers of “reckless abandon”—so much energy spent and so little to show for it—and emphasized the importance of being able to go all out with control; he used the term, “grace under pressure”.  In my #tieyoga videos, one yogi refers to this same idea as “joyful discomfort”.  I often think of these phrases in the context of education and shifting teaching practices. We need to be able to support learners to be able to experience the messiness of learning, the pressure or discomfort of it, with support garnered from elements of structure and guidance, ultimately yielding the "grace" or joy we want for all learners, ourselves included.  Similar to my rowing experiences, part of mastering “grace under pressure” requires occasionally embracing “reckless abandon”. To be able to push ourselves and our boundaries as learners (teacher-learner or student-learner), we need to know where the edge is and occasionally fall off of it. If we want learners to find their “flow”, the sweet spot or spark, they need to know where their near misses take them. Confidence in our abilities is gained through these experiences and in knowing there are some parameters that will help us make our way back on course.
         My Cormier Session take-away is something that I actually already knew, but didn't fully recognize as relevant to education.  Dave reminded me to be brave and bold, the importance of letting go. I learned as an elite athlete that If I'm not able to let go, I won't ever reach my maximum potential; further, as we grow, our maximum potential continues to change and expand. Our #tiegrad session with Dave made me realize that "grace under pressure" holds true, regardless of the context. Even if it’s what feels like the smallest change to my practice, I need to keep pushing.  A prescribed curriculum leaves little room for getting messy, be it gracefully or recklessly. Ticking the boxes and jumping through hoops seems to be producing learners (and, perhaps, teachers) who are uncomfortable taking risks and who just want to be told what to do, if they haven’t already checked out altogether. The Cormier Session helped me to extend an aspect of my own value system to my approach to learning and teaching; I want to walk the talk, toe the line, and approach each day as an educator seeking joyful discomfort and exuding grace under pressure. I hope, through sharing my process and allowing peers and learners to observe me in the occasional state of reckless abandon, I can inspire others to do the same.

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