Schools Are Amazing Places

“Practice kindness all day to everybody and you will realize you’re already in heaven now.”
Jack Kerouac

School are amazing places. You wanna know why? Because they are filled with kids. And people who love kids and want to give them awe-inspiring experiences. Schools are places where teachers create rock shows and magazine launches. Schools are places where kids can be athletes and scientists. Schools can be places where kids are challenged to question and research and explore and wonder. Schools are places where kids dance and plant trees and hike and run meetings. Schools are places where kids build friendships, identifies and #-D printed design projects. It’s where they write poetry, solve equations and fall in love for teh first time. School is where kids find themselves one year only to lose themselves a few years later. School is where kids find confidence and take risks. It is where they test out their jokes and command a stage for the first time. A school is a place where they can leave the orbit of their parents for a few hours a day and see which other galaxies they might find themselves in. Schools are places where kids skin their knees, break their bones and learn to get back up. It’s the place where kids have to learn to fight back or to resolve conflicts between friends. Schools are where kids learn how to socialise around a meal or how to eat alone. Schools are places where kids shred a guitar solo or forget the lyrics of the third verse. Schools are places where kids roam the halls looking for friends. It’s where they stand up to bullies, learn to talk to adults to demand their rights. Schools teach kids how to be activists, citizens and free-thinkers.

I am here tonight to challenge the narrative that schools are broken. I am tired of constantly starting every conversation about how schools are places in need of drastic change, disruption or re-imagining. Before I continue, I want to acknowledge that I realise that I am blessed to work in a well-resourced school. I work at a top internationals school, where we are wanting for little. I want to be sensitive to people who might be reading this post who work in schools that are structurally damaged and morale vacant buildings. I have worked in such schools and I know it is hard to do your job in such environments. But even in such places, I refuse to continue to start every conversation about school that highlights the conceptual idea of school as a place of deficit. I’ve heard all the complaints. Hell, I have lobbed many of them myself: The curriculum is too intense, too much content, too many skills, too many tests, not student-driven enough, not enough tech, too much tech.

When we spread the narrative that schools are inherently broken we discredit and disrespect the two most important things that make-up schools: Kids and teachers.

I have spent the majority of my life in schools. And for all their faults, I still think they are amazing places. I still remember the rainy day afternoons in Mozambique waiting for the rain to stop so we could carry on because the floor had flooded for lack of windows. The fact that kids didn’t have shoes or books or pencils didn’t bother us none. The fact that I barely knew what I was doing didn’t seem to matter either. We are looking at the lyrics of Africa Unite by Bob Marley as a way to learn English.

All you need to run a school are kids and teachers who love kids and want to create awe-inspiring experiences. You can take all the iPads and 3D printers and everything else and chuck it out the window if you have love in your building.

Tonight I was at Sound Asylum which is or annual MS rock show run by the music department in a constant state of goose-pimpled skin. I watched two hours of talented kids be rock stars. The team had created an opportunity for these kids to stand on stage behind the lights and the smoke and in front of their peers and live out a dream.

It is not fair to kids if their teachers are constantly focused on looking a the problems of their school. We owe them more. Take a look at your school and ask yourself how you can create opportunities born of your love and passion- opportunities for your students to be inspired. If your curriculum has you down, or if you are buried under mandates of which you have no control, find other ways to build a culture of wonder in your school. A poetry reading, a jacket ball league, a hands on science club, a coding club, a rock show, a magazine launch, a place to knit, plant a garden.

We don’t always need to look to new ways to re-build our schools. Let’s change the conversations and focus on the fact that schools are places to help kids become loving, kind, creative educated citizens. You can do it.

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Resist Teaching

I’m sitting near a smouldering fire leftover from the night before. Behind me the Mae Teng River unwinds like a dropped spool of yarn, slowly passing Pok Koh Lam- a small Karen hill tribe village in northern Thailand. I’m talking to Jen about crippled butterflies, teaching and learning, the power of letting go and trusting kids. We are waiting for the group of students that we have both been teaching for the last few days, to show us that they have indeed learned the lessons we’ve been teaching them all week.

“You’ve never heard the story of the cripple butterfly?” She asks as I poke the ashes with my foot, hoping the red ember might catch alight and stop smoking. The morning is brisk and I am ready for the day of rafting that lays ahead. I shake my head no and look forward to listen to what she is about to tell me. I am hoping the tale will match the philosophy we both share when it comes to teaching kids how to be independent.

Well, there was this young boy who really loved being outside and alone. He would playing in the creek and the woods and gather the flora and fauna and keep meticulous track of it in his home. He was a young scientist of sorts. One day this boy found a cocoon of a butterfly, and the next day a small opening appeared. He sat and watched the butterfly for several hours as it struggled to force its body through that little hole. Then it seemed to stop making any progress. It appeared as if it had gotten as far as it could, and it could go no further.

So the boy decided to help the butterfly. He took a pair of scissors and snipped off the remaining bit of the cocoon.The butterfly then emerged easily. But it had a swollen body and small, shriveled wings.

The boy continued to watch the butterfly because he expected that, at any moment, the wings would enlarge and expand to be able to support the body, which would contract in time. Neither happened! In fact, the butterfly spent the rest of its life crawling around with a swollen body and shriveled wings. It never was able to fly.

The boy asked his dad what had gone wrong and the father told him in his kindness and haste, the boy did not understand was that the restricting cocoon and the struggle required for the butterfly to get through the tiny opening were a way of forcing fluid from the body of the butterfly into its wings so that it would be ready for flight once it achieved its freedom from the cocoon.

Jen finishes her story and the kids start to make their way down to the rafts and soon we are on our way down the rapids, but this story which I have upon some research learned is a Muslim fable, stayed with me.

It has had me thinking, not only about outdoor and adventure experiences, but it also about parent my own kids and how I teach the students in my classes everyday.

How often do we let our students make their own way from their cocoons?

How often do we give-in to the urge to cut them free?

Let me share another story from the last week I spent in Chiang Mai on our school’s annual grade 8 advent trip to Chiang Mai Thailand, where our kids among other things: trek, cave, river raft, set up their own shelters and cook their own food. They start the week as helpless children and with some coaching, teaching and scaffolding, the idea is that by week’s end they are self-sufficient.

Pok Koh Lam is a test of sorts. It’s the night where the students are left to their own devices to set up camp, cook food, clean up and go to sleep. Only to wake up the next day, with a letter of instructions telling them to be down at camp ready to go the next morning.

My story began, with Jen and I, waiting to see if our butterflies would make down to camp without us cutting the cocoon, because we both share the philosophy that for kids to learn teachers must resist the urge to constantly step in.

In outdoor this urge to fix and help is pretty obvious. You observe a group of students arguing about how to scramble eggs, you being an adult and knowing how to scramble eggs, walk over and show them how to do it. It feels good. You are a teacher and this is teaching. Right?

But what if you had already shown them how to scramble eggs a few days ago, and now you just wait to see how they might resolve the issue on their own? This is what it means to resist teaching, when what you really want is for kids to learn.

Sure the eggs might turn out badly, and yes a terrible fight might break out, the list of things that could go wrong are limitless, but what if you weren’t there at all and left the kids to sort it out on their own?

Time and time again on these trips, under Jen’s tutelage I have learned that letting go and trusting that the kids will work it out,  through the process of being left alone, is when they they will do their best learning. Three years running on this trip and working with Jen, and I am amazed at the growth of my kids show at the end of the week. When we set the challenge and give enough support and scaffolding when they need it most, usually at the start, the kids step up to the challenge and break free of their own cocoons and are able to fly in the end.

Where else can we apply this philosophy?

I’m going to mix my metaphors , so please stay with me. Sometimes, usually, there is a bit more nuance between helicopter teaching and a no-hands on approach, especially with middle school learners. Kids between the ages of eleven and fourteen need a sort of manual clutch system of teaching and learning.

Think about driving a manual transmission car- there is a sweet spot between pushing the gas and lifting the clutch. A moment when the car is engaged and ready to move forward and the gas allows it to accelerate.

Middle school learners need this level of support and teaching. If left on their own too many times when success is not possible, they will lose motivation and will not be able to free themselves from the cocoon. If, however, they are given too much teaching, hovered over and not allowed to fail they will expect a teacher to always be there and never be able to fly on their own. They will not learn.

The secret is knowing how and when to administer just the right amount of teaching and when to lay-off and allow them to accelerate. (Fly? now I am getting confused)

In the jungle, I wanted to jump-in every chance I had, but Jen would remind me to trust the kids and our own teaching and to leave them alone. “Let me go see how the cooking is going, let me give them some advice on the bivy, let me, let me….” What I wanted to say was- let me do it for them to make sure it is done right. But doing it for them is not teaching.

Now that I am back from the trip, I am left asking myself how often am I over teaching and getting in the way of the learning? How well am I driving this car?

I am grateful that the workshop model meshes well with the cocoon philosophy- teach the kids early and a lot. Then later confer and see how they are doing and customize your teaching to their specific needs. But even in conferences, so many times when a student is silent or thinking or unsure, I just want to jump in and teach them rather than let them take their time to learn by doing it themselves.

Not sure if this post had a point, but it has been on my mind since the trip and I would love to hear your thoughts? What have been your successes with letting go and trusting kids? What have been the disasters from this method? Or have you had success proactively teaching and guiding students to success?

Please share your your thoughts and stories in the comments below.

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Listen Up Gentlemen!

Spent Saturday and all day today at a Literacy Exchange at our school. We are working with Singapore American School and The Jakarta Intercultural School to compare our experiences with the Teacher’s College Reading and Writing Program.

On a side note- Thanks to Anne Marie​ Chow and Scott Riley for a facilitating a seamless learning experience.

But what I found most fascinating, and the big idea behind this post was- who spoke the most, when and how often. The majority of the participants were women. I would say about 90%. I noticed because there were very few men in the room and it felt a bit strange.

However, despite the lack of numbers the men seemed to always speak first, whether it was at small tables or in whole class sessions when the facilitators were eliciting information.

After I realized that I too was always one of the first people to speak, I tried a little experiment- I would resist the urge to speak first. I am not sure if this is a gender thing or just a personality issue, but I noticed that when I resisted the urge to always jump in, the other members in my group, mostly women spoke more often. It helped the flow of conversation when I listened more often.

And as I resisted the urge to always talk first and became a better listener, I began to notice how often the rest of the men in the room filled the silences and spoke at length sharing their ideas. Two questions arose for me:

  1. Why do men feel the need to be heard so forcefully and so often?
  2. Why do women tend to wait until the moment is right?

Creative Common Image by KeithBurtis

The implications are two fold, I suppose. Firstly, how often does this gender domination happen in our classrooms? How often are boys encouraged or allowed to speak their minds, (Even when they don’t really have anything to say), while girls hold back and wait their turn? How often do boys feel the need to fill silences and be heard, when it might be best for the group if they simple waited to speak and listened more?

Secondly, as men on staff in schools, how aware are we of our desire to be heard, to fill silences, and to interrupt? I have been very cognizant of my role on my team this year, and I have been making an effort not to do those thing, even thought they feel so natural.

Is my need to talk so often at the expense of others part of my personality or does it have something to do with how men are taught and encouraged to be dominate?

I would encourage any men reading this post to listen more and talk less and see how your interactions, in groups where women are present, change. It was eye opening for me. And for the women reading this post, am I right about this? Or are you constantly waiting for the dude at your table to shut up so you can speak or do you jump right in? I am curious about your thoughts on the questions I have raised.

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Assessment That Works (Or at least seems to be working)

Ever since our Middle School English department began using the Teacher’s College Reading and Writing Workshop model, #TCRWP,  as a way to teach our curriculum, I have been torn about ways to “authentically” use technology in everyday practice.

I wrote a while back about my excitement about charts and notebooks and books, and have been struggling with how to use tech in ways that make sense to my classroom. However, much of my focus has not been on technology, but more on conferring and finding my way around workshop.

As we start our second full year with the TC units, I am starting to feel more comfortable with the structure of workshop. The mini-lessons, checklists, and the run of the class are becoming more and more familiar.

So this year, I have two new goals: continuing to hone my conferring skills. I am working with our literacy coach to get the most out of each conference. We are recording my sessions and debriefing on what I am learning, but that is a whole other post and I will share videos and ideas soon.

The second goal for our team is assessment. How do we gather the data we need for the most effective teaching? We want it to be formative, have little to do with grades or evaluation and allow us to offer timely individualized feedback to match each student’s needs.

Although the year is still young, we just went through a powerful and effective assessment cycle with our first reading unit. And I want to share.

Basically, we wanted to get a peak into our students’ notebooks. When explaining the system to the students, I used the analogy of checking the oil of a car. I spoke to my class in depth about the purpose of this type of assessment and worked diligently to detangle assessment from stress, anxiety and grades.

The idea was simple: show us your understanding of each skill, show examples of these skills from your notebook and discuss what you still need to learn and ask any questions you might have.

I explained that assessment is just as much for the teacher as for the student. That by sharing what you don’t know and asking questions, you are showing your teacher what to teach you next.

I am not sure if what we came up with is “authentic” use of technology, but it got the job done for us, felt natural and ubiquitous, and allowed us to give feedback back to kids quickly and gather the data we need to teach.

The photos are pretty self-explanatory. Take a look:

Students used their devices and google docs to show snippets of their work and show their understanding of the skills.

Then I used my hybrid-data-collection-system to monitor their learning, take notes to inform teaching and send them timely feedback. The program you are seeing on the iPad is called iDoceo.

Here is a video that walks you through the “marking” side of this process:

There is no perfect model and every school and every teacher needs to find their own systems, but this seems to be working for us at this time.

Do you have any questions? Any suggestions?

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What does love mean in the context of a school?

We had our Moving On Assembly for the grade 8 classes today. I had a very special group this year. I will miss this class something fierce.

Here is the speech I gave. (We all raised plants this year, hence the reference to plants.)There are many variables to consider when helping a seed to grow into a fruitful, viable, living plant.The obvious things are water and sun. But you have to be sure that the soil has nutrients. It can’t be too wet or too dry. You have to place the pot in a place where it gets optimal sun but not too much.Sometimes the pot needs to be rotated. Sometimes the plant must be pruned. Sometimes you just leave it alone for a few days and trust that it will be fine. Other times it needs constant attention.

Raising a collection of different plants in one setting adds even more complexity. Some plants need water everyday, while others prefer drought. Some plants will vine and weave and grab onto anything they can attach to, while others prefer to grow alone in their pot. Some plants will wither with the slightest neglect, and will spring back to life with a little attention, while others will ignore everything you do.

There are many variables to consider when helping a teenager grow into a kind, independent, expressive human being.

The obvious things are food and electronic devices. But you have to be sure that their classrooms are nurturing. They can’t be too hands off or too smothering . You have to place the kids in a place where they get optimal mentoring but not too much.

Sometimes the student needs to be reminded about manners. Sometimes the kid must be reprimanded. Sometimes you just leave them alone for a few days and trust that they will be fine, other times they need more constant attention.

Raising a collection of different kids in one classroom adds even more complexity.

Some students need attention everyday, while others prefer to be left alone. Some kids will make friends and be social and grab onto anyone they can get attached to, while others prefer to grow alone in their skin. Some students will clam up with the slightest neglect, but will spring back to life with a little attention, while others will ignore everything you do.

But one thing I have noticed is that both plants and students need love grow. Love is word we don’t use enough in schools. We love our families and we love music and we love food and we love boys and we love girls and of course we love books, but for some reason it feels a bit strange to say you love your teacher, or for me to say I love my students. Maybe it is because the word love is such a tiny word for such an immense emotion. But I am here to take it back.

What does love mean in the context of a school? I think it means kindness, honesty, respect, taking risks and allowing for vulnerability in order to feel safe. I think love in the classroom means that everyone feels like they belong. Everyone feels heard and attended to. Everyone can be themselves without having to change for others. In short, people enjoy each others’ company and feel happy to be with others. When you love your peers, your teacher or your students you want to see them everyday and their energy and your energy are no longer separated.

I want to share a quick story to help you visualise what this love looks like. Last Friday night, I was with 8JRa and all their parents at our year end class party. We had eaten and the music was loud. Before I knew it, I looked up and saw us all dancing and smiling. Yes, there was a conga line around the room. Kids, parents, teacher.

In my 15 years of teaching, I have never seen anything like what I saw last week at our class party. I have taught my share of kids. I have raised my share of plants. But sometimes, the stars are aligned and a classroom and the teacher and the kids, and let’s not forget about their parents, create a situation so we all love each other. These bonds. These classrooms are special. Don’t take them for granted. They don’t happen very often.

In closing, I want to say goodbye to 8JRA for this year. I hope you will come and visit and stay in touch in the future. I hope you cherish what we built 8JRA. It didn’t happen by accident. Kids, Parents, Teacher- we all did our part. We had a good run. I hope you will look back on this year and think about the things we learned together and that you smile fondly. This class will always have a special place in my heart.

Thank you. I love you.

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