Final Reflection
     After twenty years of teaching middle school for San Diego Unified I was wilting.  District mandates and the pressures of high stake testing had made me second guess my educational philosophy and chipped away at my morale.  Was I one of those burned out teachers you hear kids and parents talk about?  Was I saying things like, “When I was a kid…  Coincidentally, at this time, an email appeared in every staff members’ mailbox with the subject line, “High Tech High Graduate School of Education.”  I could have easily deleted the message without reading it, but the words “High Tech High” jumped out at me and I double clicked to open.  As a neighbor to the school, I had heard that High Tech High was an alternative to traditional schools, and maybe, just maybe, this would offer the tune-up I felt I so desperately needed to get my groove back.   As I look back at some of the application pieces I submitted I see this clearly.  In one piece I wrote, “I believe that this program will provide me with the fuel I need to keep my passion as an educator alive and kicking.  It will also be an oh so important weekly immune booster against the plague of complacency.  All I have ever wanted to do is teach and I believe the HTH GE courses will renew my dedication to the profession and to my future students.”  Two years later, I can firmly say that the Teacher Leadership Program of High Tech High Graduate School of Education has kept me from wilting.

There were many ideas I considered for an action research question, but what I always came back to was beautiful work.  I heard the words beautiful work the very first night of graduate school.  Stacey Caillier, Director of the Teacher Leadership Program of High Tech High Graduate School of Education, remarked to another GSE student that one of her passions was supporting others in their effort to do beautiful work.   When she said this, I thought to myself, “That’s what I want to do!”  The fatigue I was feeling as a teacher was due to battling a race of coverage, coverage, coverage and the result was that I wasn’t doing beautiful work with the treadmill of assignments I was dolling out.  My initial research question was:  How can I use critique to help students create beautiful work?  I was really interested in using the instructional and peer critique models Ron Berger writes about in his book An Ethic of Excellence (2003).  I was excited about this question, but during my Presentation of Learning after the first year of graduate school my panel probed me to think deeper.  Dean of the Graduate School of Education at High Tech High, Rob Riordan pointed out that critique was just one tool used to create beautiful work and that maybe what I was after was something much bigger, something called culture.  At first, this came as a shock to me.  I was married to my question.  Although I superficially understood Rob’s thinking, the word culture simulated cerebral hemorrhages in my psyche.  Culture?  What did that even mean?  I didn’t even know how to define that word.

I immersed myself in literature, and after lengthy battles in my head debating the merits of my initial question and the question that emerged from my Presentation of Learning, or POL, I began to see that clearly Rob Riordan, in his ultimate wisdom, was right. What I was after was much bigger than just peer critique.  What I was after was indeed a culture, or a way of doing things, that valued beautiful work. 

I can honestly say that once I did the hard work of research my commitment to this question never faltered.  Let me put it out there that researching the literature and connecting it to my evolving thinking was a challenging task.   I spent my summer hours, days and weeks reading, highlighting, flagging, and taking notes.  It was a lonely endeavor.  While reading I would see something that validated my thinking or connected to something else I had read.  I would become completely manic, eager to share my ah-ha with someone, only to find the person next to me in a lounge chair tuned into an iPod and looking nothing like a teacher buried in tea stained stapled articles, books, highlighters and post-it notes. 

While I stayed true to my question, and my goal to cultivate a classroom culture that valued beautiful work, I was often overwhelmed with the enormity of my research question in comparison to other teacher-researchers past and present.  After all, I wasn’t just implementing peer critique, literature circles, or learning stations, I was cultivating a mindset, developing new curriculum that was student-centered, and implementing instructional and peer critique.  It was this HUGE thing that permeated the whole of my classroom and I often felt alone.  My daily and weekly routine that had become somewhat second nature was in transition and in the midst of all of this I was attempting to conduct and document what was happening, sometimes wondering myself what was happening.  Finding the time to do all of this was the most challenging part of my research.  Initially I kept a blog and recorded daily reflections, but even that became too much.  In hindsight, I wish I had found the energy to continue my blog reflections as the ones I wrote served as an invaluable resource while I was writing my findings.  As you may imagine, it is difficult to write what you found months after it happened.  In hindsight, cataloging what happened, when it did, and reflecting on it soon after are things I wish I had continued to do through the course of my research.  So, if I were to do this again, which I might, I would force myself to document what happened and reflect for ten or so minutes a day at lunch, while kids are writing, or right after school. 

Throughout the research process I have been struck again and again by what my students wrote on exit cards, surveys, reflections and evaluations of their work.  Unfortunately, because of time constraints, I sometimes did not read all of my students comments and then after the fact, when I was working on my findings I saw statements that I should have followed up on, could have been used to scaffold a lesson, or could have prompted a class discussion.  This is definitely something I will take into next year and beyond—student voice.  What my kids wrote on exit cards, surveys, reflections and evaluations put my finger on the pulse of the classroom and led me to the next steps of instruction. 

One thing that I did not expect to come up in my action research was academic grades.  Because I gave students a voice in generating the criteria for beautiful work, giving feedback, and reflecting on their work, I also asked students to evaluate their work and explain the grade they believed they earned.  I saw that the majority of the time, students’ evaluation of their work was on par with my own.  I believe that critique led students to internalize the standards and so they knew by the final draft what criteria they had met.  I began to wonder, “Who should determine grades?”  So, I posed this question to students.  The majority of students responded that the teacher should because she knows the requirements, but at least a quarter of the class said that the teacher and the student should determine the grades.  This is something I would like to delve into deeper next year.  How can I work with students to jointly determine their academic grade?

One of the biggest delights I had was when students would approach me to ask if we were going to do peer critique on an assignment.  When I explained, “No, we aren’t taking this through critique, it is only meant to be a quick draft, get down your thoughts,” I often heard, “But, I want to make this beautiful and I need some feedback on this.”  The fact that so many of my students were using the words beautiful work and saw each other as resources made me feel like I had made some progress.  The possibility that my students are moving into distant, far away classes where they will not have a say in what makes a piece of work exemplary, and that a checklist may be all the feedback they receive, makes me sad.  Sometimes I think, “What have I done?”  Sometimes I wonder, “Where do I fit now in the realm of ever changing traditional school dynamics?”

It is easy to think you may light a fire or even just ignite a spark.  Teachers are busy and often overburdened.  In our current political and economic situation where even more is being blamed on educators I’ve found that my colleagues have become an increasingly distant planet when I attempt to introduce a new idea, strategy or way to do things.  I’ve relied on the mantra “Find the Bright Spots” from the book Switch (2010) by Chip Heath and Dan Heath.   I have a few bright spots that I can go to on my campus, but I find that my biggest bright spots are my students.  When I am with them I know that beautiful work matters.  I see that my continued quest in cultivating a culture that allows them to develop their voice and create meaningful work will help them grow wings, just like Austin’s butterfly.