The K-12 Classroom Dojo

November 6, 2014

For the past 12 years I have maintained a practice in Aikido. We learn Aikido in a ‘dojo’ which means “place of the Way”. What would it look like if we structured each of our classrooms like a dojo?

Aikido is a Japanese martial art developed by Morihei Ueshiba as a synthesis of his martial studies, philosophy, and religious beliefs. Aikido is often translated as “the Way of unifying with life energy” or as “the Way of harmonious spirit”. Ueshiba’s goal was to create an art that practitioners could use to defend themselves while also protecting their attacker from injury.

First, there is a teacher, the sensei. Sensei is one who has demonstrated his mastery and continues to study and practice his subject. This is similar to the traditional teacher in our classrooms today.

The pedagogy is simple and direct. The teacher demonstrates a technique with a partner chosen from the students in the class. He generally chooses a senior student called a sempai. Sensei does not usually over explain the technique. He illustrates it by performing it with his partner. After a showing the move a few times, the students in the class begin practicing it.

Students of all ability levels take part in the same class. This is a throwback to the one- room classrooms of 19th century America. Senior students train with the newer students, and assist them in perfecting their technique. This is beneficial to both the new student and to the sempai, who by helping in this way, become more aware of the nuances of each technique themselves.

Sensei moves about the dojo, observing students at their practice. He may stop someone to show him how to improve a particular part of his move. He may provide encouragement to someone who has done something well. He may step in to work with someone individually, or to stop all the practice and re-teach the move, focusing on some point he feels the students are missing.

The key point here is that students are learning by doing. The amount of time sensei spends instructing in front of the class is minimal compared to the practice time of the students. All instruction from that point on is specific to the individual students and their needs.

Aikido training is structured for students to obtain mastery. What does this mean? There are basic techniques that are foundational and practiced nearly every day. No matter how basic the move may seem, there is always more to learn, and more to master. For example, a beginning student might be learning the footwork of the move, an intermediate student may be doing the same move but learning more about proper spacing, and a senior student may be focusing on feeling the energy of his attacker and maintaining a steady flow of movement and breath.

This is unlike our classrooms which focus on checklist type learning. “I took that already.” I already learned that.” This type of learning fades away into oblivion over the years, because it was never really ‘learned’, only memorized.

What about testing in the ‘Classroom Dojo”?

Sensei is always watching his students. When he feels one has reached a certain level of competency, he asks the student to ‘test’. When sensei asks someone to take a test it’s safe to say that they’ve already passed because he would never ask a student to test if they are not ready. Some students learn quickly and move through the ranks relatively fast; while other students move more slowly…always at their own pace. It doesn’t take long to realize that it is not helpful to compare oneself to others in the class.

The test itself is a chance to demonstrate the student’s level of mastery to the rest of the class. A student isn’t tested on what he knows; but on what he can “do”. Learning in a dojo is never about what one says, thinks, or believes; but it is more about what new actions one is able to take.

What if the ancient concept of the dojo were adapted to our educational system?

Could we find a way to group students that wasn’t solely based on age or ability level?

What would it take to create a culture of learning based on Mastery?
Is it possible to re-define learning from an abstract knowing to an ability to do something with what we know?
Could we create classrooms built on practice?
Might it be possible for students to learn from each other?
Could testing become a ritual meant to demonstrate what one has learned after one has already satisfied the teacher?

I’ve found my years in the dojo to be an incredible and affirmative teaching and learning experience. I still maintain a ‘beginner’s mind’ and do my best to stay on the road to mastery because it’s a lifelong journey. My hope is that every K-12 student find a classroom/dojo, and a teacher/sensei who can help bring subject matter to life and arouse their curiosity and passion. Done well, learning can be the adventure of a lifetime.

pete


Relationships, Relevance, and Rigor: The Keys to Classroom Effectiveness

October 28, 2014

I agree with Willard Dagget, founder and President of the International Center for Leadership in Education, that the keys to classroom effectiveness are the three R’s…Relationship, Relevance, and Rigor.

Daggett’s point about relationships is that learning is personal. When teachers have strong, trusting relationships with their students, they work harder and achieve more. We may have lot’s of ideas about what we’d like to do and teach in our classrooms; but without trusting relationships, we’ll find ourselves charging up San Juan Hill…alone!

It’s not unusual for us (teachers) to get excited about what we teach. For many of us, sharing our passion is why we entered teaching in the first place. The challenge comes when we’re so enthusiastic, we plunge right into teaching without building strong foundational relationships with our students.

There are lot’s of ways to build trusting relationships with our students (we won’t go into those today), but the most effective teachers go about creating it consciously and deliberately. It takes a little time, usually early in the year, but once trust is established and relationships are strong, teaching and learning are much less stressful. After all, students work harder for teachers they trust and respect. Teaching is more difficult when kids hold back because they don’t trust the environment enough to participate, or because they feel disconnected…their needs pushed to the back burner.

After we establish Relationships (trust) we can move to Relevance. The more students understand how what they’re learning is relevant to them, to their community, or to the world at large; the more motivated they’ll be to learn.

As teachers it’s important to create narratives that address Relevance. The most powerful narratives address Relevance in two ways: 1) How is this new learning or way of doing things going to benefit YOU, as an individual? and 2) How is this new learning or way of doing things going to benefit the world outside yourself?

Teachers who can create narratives that express the ways learning will take care of the students’ personal concerns, and at the same time explain how learning will be making the classroom, school, or world a better place; have set the scene for great things to happen

Relationships and relevance make rigor possible.

pete


Getting Out of the Way and Blending

October 17, 2014

The experienced practitioner of Aikido learns to blend with his attacker. Physically, it involves getting out of the way, then ‘blending’ or ‘shadowing’ (looking in the same direction as your attacker for a moment), while feeling the energy, power, and momentum that they’re bringing to the situation.

Blending allows us to move without direct conflict. We don’t overreact and add ‘fuel to the fire’, but use only the energy and power required for the situation, and nothing more. No one gets hurt. Once again, when we’re in the classroom, ‘blending’ isn’t a physical move, but a psychological one.

Several years ago, I watched in awe as a veteran principal blended with a disgruntled teacher who had been challenging some of the ideas being discussed during his school’s staff development program. The teacher was clearly frustrated, and eventually blurted out angrily,

“I’d like permission to leave. This program is stupid and it’s not relevant. I’d rather go back to my classroom and do some lesson planning.”

The presenter reacted as if he’d been punched in the stomach, and the entire staff looked stunned. The principal, who was sitting in the back of the room, broke the ensuing silence and spoke in a measured and sincere manner,

“We’re not asking for you to adopt every idea that’s being presented in the program. But why not give it till the lunch break and see if there might be a few things that you can use to help you?”

The teacher protested, “I’ve got better things to do with my time.”

The principal continued to blend, “You’ve already brought a lot to the program by challenging some of the ideas (the presenter) has brought forth. I think you surfaced a few thoughts that some in the group may have been thinking about, but weren’t willing to verbalize. We need people like you, with different points of view, to be active and vocal so that the learning here is real. The worst thing that could happen is we leave this session and have the real discussion and questions relegated to complaints in the teachers’ room.”

The principal sat quietly looking at the angry teacher, who was surprised by the principal’s openness. His face began to soften and the moment opened in possibility.

The teacher nodded his head, “If you think it will help, I’ll give it a try.”

The veteran principal smiled warmly, “It will. Thanks.”

I’d never seen a ‘blend’ done so well anywhere outside of an Aikido dojo.

The principal was clearly a master teacher.

pete

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Soft Skills and Personal Development Are Key to Teaching Mastery

August 28, 2014

It should come as no surprise that great teaching has many components, and while schools are good at focusing their professional development efforts on the trainable aspects of teaching…knowledge and skills; the opportunities for us to focus on the more complex aspects of teaching…attitude, self-awareness, authenticity, and trust, are almost non-existent. These, and other personal attributes, are often referred to as ‘soft skills,’ inferring their lack of importance. However, extensive research (as well as our own experience) indicates that it’s our personality and presence that makes the greatest impact on learning in our classrooms. In essence, soft skills are ‘essential skills’, and our development as teachers challenges us to consider personal development as an important component of professional development; part of the path to professional mastery.

It’s who you are, your personality, your soft (essential) skills, that are the keys to teaching mastery; and it’s by bringing your best self to the classroom that you’ll experience the most success. Why? Because, by taking care of your own mind, body, and heart (your inner ‘self’), you’re also taking care of your students. After all, as Parker Palmer says,

“You teach who you are.”

I’ll be writing more about this in the coming weeks.

gratitude,

pete

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A New Focus

July 4, 2014

As you can see by the new header for the site, I’ll be changing the focus of the Ed Tech Journeys blog, from leadership and technology, to the teacher’s path.

At no time in my life has teaching been under such pressure. To me, teaching is more than a job, it’s been a calling. Education has always been about teaching the whole child, heart and mind. The great teachers and coaches I’ve been lucky enough to have in my life have always made me feel special, connected, and loved. They encouraged me, and nurtured me; as they’ve done with all their students.

But times have changed and we’re in the midst of downsizing the educational workforce, while adding the demands of high stakes testing, the Common Core Curriculum, new professional evaluation processes, more mainstreamed students, more paperwork, more angry parents, and more professional development with initiatives from anti-bullying to new technology. Stress levels are at an all-time high. Even the best teachers in the best schools are feeling the weight of an educational environment that is permeated by a culture of scarcity, a fear-based system of accountability, union demonizing, and teacher bashing. Add a growing number of students with emotional, language, and behavioral challenges and it isn’t hard to see why nearly 50 percent of teachers leave the field within their first five years.

We can do better. We can maintain teaching as a path with heart without abandoning academic standards. In fact, the research shows that it’s a teacher’s personal attributes, ’soft’ skills, and presence; not their IQ, that makes the greatest positive impact on student achievement. So, by focusing less time on the external elements of teaching, and more time on the inner life and well being of the teacher, we can create classrooms that produce academic success AND nurture our students’ personal growth and special gifts.

This blog will be the first of several endeavors I will launch to support teachers as they walk the path to mastery. If you’re one of those on the front lines feeling the pressure, hang in there. What you do matters! It’s important…and so are you!

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whispers from your inner teacher

June 30, 2014

The classroom is a challenging place, and it’s easy to find yourself discouraged, overwhelmed, and stressed out. You might even think about tossing in the towel now and then. There’s got to be something easier.

Sometimes all you need to do to make things better is listen to your own voice; the one that’s always there, patiently sharing its wisdom with you. I’ll send you an occasional whisper so that you spend less time frustrated and stressed; and more time teaching from the heart, loving life, and changing the world.

Whispers are free, inspirational reminders from your inner teacher to keep you moving forward.

You have a purpose. You have a special gift. You are necessary, and your work is important. The world, and your students, need that one gift that you have.

I know you’re ready. All the wisdom you need is within you. Choose to listen.

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The Calling

June 18, 2014

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I’m back after several years of an amazing journey. Welcome my friends. I hope you are all prospering, and that you’re letting your gifts shine bright in this world. There are lot’s of changes coming to this blog, but I want to offer you an excerpt from my latest book, “A Path With Heart: The Inner Journey to Teaching Mastery.” I hope you enjoy it, and I hope we get to re-connect soon. With gratitude, Pete

The Calling

Consciously, or unconsciously, when you chose a career in teaching, you chose a ‘calling,’ a ‘path with heart;’ for teaching is an invitation to a world of possibility… for your students, and if you’re open to it, for yourself. Though it may sound grandiose, it’s no less true, that who you are, your personality and character, are at the root of good teaching; for teaching is about big things, not little. And it’s by turning your own promise into practice that you’re able to unlock the potential of your students, and make a difference in the world.

Human beings are born with hearts that yearn for meaning. We want our lives to count for something, and our daily work to provide us with a life, as well as living. The classic story of three stonecutters helps us see that the true impact of our work goes far beyond the day to day tasks that consume so much of our time and energy.

One day a traveler came across three stonecutters working in a quarry. Each one was chipping away at a block of stone. Curious, he asked the first stone cutter what he was doing. “What? Are you blind?” the stone cutter shouted, “Can’t you see, I’m cutting this stupid piece of stone.”

The man walked near the second stonecutter, who seemed a little happier and asked him the same question. The stonecutter replied, “I’m cutting this block of stone so that the mason can build a straight wall.”

Finally, he approached the third stonecutter, who seemed to be the happiest of the three, and asked him what he was doing. “I’m building a cathedral,” he replied with a smile.

Like the third stonecutter, knowing that the work you do can make a positive impact on a child’s life, and sometimes, through that child, on the world writ large, makes your personal sacrifice and toil worthwhile. As an educator, you have the opportunity to build cathedrals, not just chip stones.

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pete


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