Doc Z and I presented yesterday at the Colorado Language Arts Society conference on getting away from grading, and using feedback to teach/encourage reflective practice in our students. We packed a lot into 75 minutes, and the teachers in our session asked some really terrific questions that, at least anecdotally, indicate that the shifts we are making resonate with lots of teachers.
Underneath all the really terrific questions people asked is one big underlying question, or maybe it’s just an emotional reaction. When presented with the possibility of radical change, which is what we are discussing, the normal, appropriate, and understandable reaction, is to feel immediately overwhelmed and lost. And since a lot of teaching is feeling that way anyway, having more of that feeling thrown at you doesn’t always feel good.
After the presentation an attendee asked me how I manage to do conferencing with my students- given that like her, I have 25+ students in every class, and they are ninth graders, and if I’m in a focused conversation with one student, that’s maybe 24 other students (or more) who are maybe not on task, or getting into trouble, or need help, and if it takes 10 minutes to conference with one student, and that makes about 250 minutes to have a conference with each kid in the class (or more, lets be real), and there are only 240 minutes in my class week, and there are other things I’m expected to do, and, and, and, and, and…
You get the idea.
My answer comes in two big parts.
First- I was at a presentation some years ago by Mark Overmeyer, who is a terrific resource on conferencing with students. A teacher asked a version of the question posed above, and ended with “if I get to one writing conference a semester with my students, I feel like that’s all I can do.” Mark responded, with zero time to think, “and that’s one more than you ever got, isn’t it?”
Second- Rome wasn’t built in a day. I say that a lot. The stuff Doc Z and I are talking about is the far end of ten solid years of thinking, writing, experimenting, failing, trying again, iterating, tinkering, guessing, following dead ends, and making u-turns. We didn’t start this yesterday, and we in no way have it figured out.
This is not about being ‘perfect.’ Ever. There is no finish line, no medal, no having it down and doing it that way for the next 20 years (in fact- teachers who teach like that, if I may be frank, suck).
We’re just trying to do it better than we did yesterday. Most of the time we run on intuition and guesswork. We live with ambiguity and uncertainty. We work with some of the most talented teachers I’ve ever had the pleasure of talking to, and they help us figure things out every day. We do conference presentations not because we think we know what we are doing, but because doing a presentation a) forces us to be reflective and articulate what we are thinking as clearly as we are able, and b) allows us to talk to more people, which generates more thinking and a larger sense of professional community in which we can continue to innovate, experiment and iterate.
Change takes time, comes slow, and involves a lot of messing around. We figure out how to overcome one obstacle at a time. Usually, when I think I’ve got one thing figured out, something else that needs to be figured out rears its head. The question is never ‘how can I change everything I’m doing,’ because you can’t. But you can take one interesting idea and try it next week. And see what happens. And they try it again in a slightly different way. And if you keep doing that, and you work on finding a supportive community for thinking about these ‘experiments,’ I promise you that ten years from now you will be radically transformed.
And one of the transformations will be to see that there is no ‘there’ to get to. If I’m still teaching in ten years, I hope I will be a totally different teacher than I am now. If I’m not, I will be both bored, and boring, and really bad at my job. Living things grow, or they are dead, and no longer living. Us, our students, our institutions, are living. They need to be growing, or they die.
Rome wasn’t built in a day. It grew. Over centuries. And then something else replaced it. And grew. And was replaced.
We are always learning and changing, and growing. It’s what living things do. But we don’t always do it quickly. That’s okay. As long as we are doing it.