January 2018 (Authentic Task #4)

“So you need go have a drink with your girls.”

Oh, how he knows me.  It isn’t even a question.

You see, as I wrote about in last week’s post, There’s this vision for profoundly changing student task in our classrooms that I have been struggling with since the summer change in our district’s leadership.  Please don’t get me wrong, it does excite me.  Several years ago, when I was a content specialist for our district, I advocated that we bring people together less around content areas (reading, writing, math, science, social studies, etc.) and more around a common stance for learning.  I advocated for a common ground around inquiry-based learning, as it seemed that each content team was trying–in their own way–to bring about a similar change in instructional practice.

Inquiry = authenticity.  It is the way that we learn how to do laundry by accidentally putting one red something in with a load of white somethings.  It is the way we learn by playing the wrong notes on our way to plunking out a familiar melody.  It is the way we learn, by doing, and more importantly, by being the kind of learner that seeks out opportunities to fail productively and shape our experiences around becoming better each time we try. Yes, this kind of learning excites me.

It also excites me that we have a leader who is a kindred spirit in the way he blogs, speaks, and listens.  In the way he puts himself and his ideas “out there.”  The vulnerability that this requires is a surefire way to bring people together to have honest conversations about the direction of our district.

So, yes, I am excited for this vision.  But I am also enraged, unsettled, disenchanted.  You see, the way the term “authentic task” is being messaged in this vision is sending the wrong message to our community:

  • To turn computation in a math class into a party-planning story-problem is (1) not something new and (2) not at all profoundly transformational.  We have been using context to bring math problems to life for as long as I can remember.
  • The way the vision is presented pits one teacher against another and the asks the community to choose sides, pitying the “poor saps” in the classroom where they are stuck doing worksheets and preferring the class where kids are using the same math to plan a party.  The truth is, as a teacher, I have both kinds of moments, sometimes within the span of a single lesson.  And even more true, is I have students who could benefit from both approaches.  The key is not to polarize the issue, but to elevate and enhance the stance that grounds the design of our students’ learning experiences.  This is something I will talk more about as this series unfolds.
  •  There are classrooms all over our district where teachers are dedicated to facilitating authentic learning experiences already.  The message to our community, though, is that this requires a “profound change.”  Those who are on the cutting edge of this work, the ones who this vision seems to ignore, should be recognized for their leadership in growing our profession in the absence of a vision like this one.

“So you need go have a drink with your girls.”

Again, it is not a question.  You see, every professional breakthrough I’ve had over the past several years has started out this same way, with a sense of disequilibrium that demanded attention.  When we couldn’t agree on a framework for shared reading, we brought our ideas, our mentors, our questions to the table and hashed and rehashed until we could make our new thinking visible.  This became a new framework for whole-group reading instruction that I will be presenting about at next week’s CCIRA Conference.

When we were asked to present to our district’s leadership on the concept of “rigor,” we were unsettled by the idea that a definitive answer existed, so again, we brought ideas to the table and caressed them into something that was more than the sum of its parts and created a learning experience that asked all involved to participate in curating a definition that would lead our district forward.

I describe this to my husband: “I need to sit ’round the table with my team, a Sharpie in one hand, a blank white page on the table, and an idea that has yet to take full shape.”

It was this declaration that brought me back to Blade’s story (as each post in this series has and will).  Having realized that his parents are not who he thought they were, he spends more than a hundred pages in an angst so complete that readers are left wondering if he’ll even get out.  Sound familiar?  Then, a change, a decision, a turning point:

Day 7…

Solo Day 7(Solo, page 172).

And for me, the same:

January 2018

I finally look

ahead to our future,

seeing this vision

take shape the

way so many

others have before.

It’s time to

have a drink

with more than

just my girls,

to see the

vision through

more eyes.

I’ve decided to

tackle this topic

openly and I’m

not sure what

direction we’ll take

or how we

will grow these

ideas together.

But we’ll start

with what

we know.

This post is the second one to capture the experience of the #JCIRA18 Winter Gala in this “Authentic  Task” blog series.  You’ll notice this one continues the tone of healthy disequilibrium from last week, the excitement and the incitement that this vision has brought forth.  As is true of authentic learning experiences, I could not and cannot predict the outcomes of this conversation. We can put ourselves out there, but the rest is up to the collective experience of the learning community.  Katie Wood Ray describes it this way:

Making Space IconImagine what it would be like to go to school every day… and to know how important your thinking is to what will happen in the classroom that day.  To know that your teacher is waiting there for you and your classmates, and that her lesson “plans” for the day have huge spaces in them that she’s waiting for you to fill with your thinking (Study Driven, 2006, p. 33).

Be sure to check back each weekend as we layer on the learning.   Next week, we pursue the idea of starting “with what we know” and look at this journey through the theme of this year’s CCIRA Conference: Literacy Renaissance. 

Until next weekend, consider the following and leave your comments below:

  • What are your thoughts about authentic tasks in literacy instruction?
  • Think about the vision: What excites you?  What unsettles you?

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