Start With The Kids

School started for us at Anastasis Academy last Wednesday. We’ve had three days with our classes so far, and I’m so excited about all the possibilities in store for our students.

My students on the playground (c) Michelle K. Baldwin 2015

My students on the playground
(c) Michelle K. Baldwin 2015

I have nine kids in my class this year, four of whom were with me last year, too. They range in age from 5 to 7, and watching every little aspect of the school day through their eyes is an incredible experience already.

I should back up a bit and explain that we have meetings with each child individually before the first day of school. We call these meetings “Learning Profiles.” We ask the kids about themselves, their favorite movies, what they like most about school, their best vacation ever, etc.

One of the questions we ask is, “If you could change anything about yourself, what would you change?” Every single one of my littles replied with either “Nothing!” or “I don’t know… probably nothing.” (Wouldn’t it be awesome to go back in time to that place when we really liked exactly who we were?)

I always enjoy these learning profiles so very much. The kids make me smile, laugh, and sometimes even cry. Most importantly, I get to know quite a bit about these little friends before they join the rest of their classmates for their first day.

Before school even starts, we spend time getting to know each child… even those we’ve had in class before. We start with the kids.

Not the curriculum. (We don’t have boxed curriculum at Anastasis, but even the thoughts about what we want to do with our students come later… after we actually know something about the kids in our care.)

Not the rules.

Not the routine of each day.

Not which gimmick or trendy education panacea will be best for our students and help raise their test scores.

We start by having conversations with every single kid and really listening to them. And these kids have a lot to tell us about what they want to learn about, how they like to learn (spoiler alert: none of them likes to sit still all day!), etc.

Our school’s founder, Kelly Tenkely, often talks about how she started our school with specific kids in mind. That these are “kids with names.” That kids are more than test scores. That children are NOT data points.

As a teacher, I think very intentionally about every single child in my classroom… and I start truly considering what each of them needs.

Many of you reading this post know I’m a connected educator. I believe very strongly in connecting my kids with other classrooms, educators, and experts around the world to learn from them and share what we’re learning with them. I love bringing other connected friends into my classroom, either in person or virtually, to expand our learning beyond our classroom walls.

But I don’t start with those connections.

At Anastasis, we like to get our kids out of the classroom to other learning experiences – museums, performances, and service learning opportunities –  just to name a few.

But we don’t start there.

We start with the kids. If any one of us thinks we know what’s best for these children BEFORE we get to know them, we are doing a huge disservice to those in our care.

My advice to you as you continue with your newly started school year or before those kids walk into your classroom for the first time in 2015-16:

  • Forget the gimmicks. These are not the things that are going to help your students learn.
  • Forget the outside connections for a while.
  • Take the time to get to know your students. (I know that many of you are in situations where you have two or three times as many kids in your classes as I do. I also know that you’re not able to have Learning Profile meetings before school like we do.But that doesn’t mean you can’t get to know your kids before everything else grabs your focus.)
  • Take the time to ask them about themselves.
  • Give them a reason to open up to you, and then keep that privilege sacred. When a child trusts you enough to share something personal, show her that you value her and what she has shared.
  • Ignore the advice from your undergraduate training that told you to hide your “humanness” and to be the “firm, but fair” teacher. Instead, show the kids you really care about them (not just their learning).

THIS is where you start when you want to improve a child’s education. It always starts with the kids.

 

The Pinterest Mentality

I’m not knocking Pinterest. (Please, no hate mail.) The tool is not really the problem. The mentality of how people thoughtlessly and mechanically use this tool IS the problem.

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[CC licensed photo “3D Broken Copyright” by StockMonkeys.com]

 

Many of us work really diligently to teach our students to be digitally literate: navigate digital environments, think critically, access and analyze digital information, and produce creative and relative digital content.

Part of digital literacy also includes digital citizenship and understanding intellectual and creative property of digital content. You see a photo online? Someone took that photo, and THAT person owns the rights to that photo. You do not have the right to use that digital photo. Same thing with music, art work, writing… we know this. It’s not okay to use someone else’s work without explicit permission. Even WITH permission, there are still  restrictions on how and when you can use that work.

Creative Commons provides licensed work (photos, music, video, etc.)  with options to use freely. **If you don’t already know about Creative Commons – take time to do so.  I license a lot of my photos and even this blog with a Creative Commons license. Feel free to share, but be sure to post proper attribution. (The photo in this post is a Creative Commons photo with attribution specific to how the creator wanted to be credited.)

So, back to Pinterest. Pinterest is that tool that allows you to easily (too easily, in my opinion) curate sites you want to save: recipes, fashion, quotes… you name it. When you save a pin, it scans the website for all photos to use as the “face” of that pin. In the case of a photo, the photo itself is saved as the pin, but the OWNER’s information is not saved with the pin.

And then the photo is repinned. And repinned again. And repinned again. The 500th person to repin that pin may or may not have access to the original site where that photo was posted. There is absolutely NO trace back to the owner.

Two years ago, I found on Pinterest an education poster that I wanted to revise and use in my classroom. I spent DAYS trying to track down the original creator of the poster to no avail. You can read my post about the need for ATTRIBUTION and the rest of that story here.

To this date, I still do not know who created that poster. 

And guess what? My version of that poster- the one that I drew based on that original poster? Now MY POSTER is being shared, reshared, and pinned without attribution. We are two levels deep in sharing without properly crediting the work that was created.

This is the Pinterest Mentality. We don’t even think. We pin. We retweet. We don’t stop to make sure that someone’s intellectual and creative property is respected enough to ask permission to use OR even to include the creator’s name with the work. And I hate to even type this, but educators are some of the worst offenders. Fair Use does not exempt us from all copyright restrictions. “It’s for education” is not an excuse.

Pinterest (and tools like it) makes it really easy to ignore the owner of the “work” being pinned… but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done.

Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.

If you teach your students not to plagiarize, they should also be learning that they can’t use creative works without permission. The adults need to learn this, too.

Model appropriate use and respect of the work of others. If you want to share something (or repin), be sure to add attribution somewhere in the description of what you’re sharing.

Digitally literate and respectful educators shouldn’t be the exception… we should be the norm.

Dreams Fulfilled

As the school year came to a close for us this past May, I realized that I had just finished my 20th year in education: six years in 7-12 vocal music, eight years as a technology professional development coordinator, two years in elementary general music, and the last four as a teacher at Anastasis Academy.

At each stage in my education career, I have loved working with my students, both children and adults. But somehow, I always felt something was missing. I didn’t always like that students were required to learn a certain way or a pre-defined set of skills and concepts… and that I was required to teach in a certain way. It didn’t seem like real learning to me.

A good friend of mine, Sharon Comisar-Langdon (who just retired after 34 years!) visited Colorado a while back. It was great to catch up with Sharon and her husband, Randy. I found myself going on and on and on about how much I loved Anastasis and the incredible opportunities we have for our students. At one point, Sharon remarked, “Michelle, what you’re doing at this school is what we ALL went into education to do.”

That statement has stuck with me since that time, and she was right. I have never been happier as a teacher than I am now – watching our students at Anastasis grow in their confidence, ask amazingly deep questions, and become excited about learning! This is a place where students LOVE school. This is a place where teachers love school!

I watched a lot of my teacher friends post countdowns to summer break on Facebook and other social media sites a few months back, and I realized at the time, I had no idea how many days we had left. As much as I enjoy sleeping in occasionally during the summer, I’m not excited for summer break anymore. I miss my students! I miss the joy of learning I am so privileged to witness in those children every single day.

I didn’t mean this to sound like a commercial for our school, but more a testament to what happens when you stick your neck out and do something DIFFERENT. Anastasis is different.

To Kelly Tenkely (who is actually celebrating a birthday today), I express my profound gratitude. Thank you for thinking, “why not me? Why shouldn’t I just start my own school?” Thanks for writing a blog post that started Anastasis. Thank you for making a place where people WANT to be – what I have always loved about teaching and learning happens because of your dreams and drive to make them happen.

This also makes me wonder… why don’t more of us do this? Why don’t we stand up to the lawmakers, those who make and enforce policy, and demand what’s best for kids? Why do we insist on “fixing a broken system” with more of the same things that make kids unhappy? Learning should be an experience that is enjoyable, challenging, and based on the needs of each child. I don’t see that happening in most places.

My friend, George Couros, often asks, “Would you want to be a kid in your classroom?” I can truly answer an enthusiastic YES to that question now… and I wish my own children could have experienced learning in this school as well.

As a child, I knew that I wanted to become a teacher, because I love learning… and I wanted to share that love and joy with others. As much as I enjoyed my previous experiences, there was always something missing. Teaching at Anastasis is not just a job. Now I am able to share my passion about learning with our students. As Sharon noted, I get to do what I always dreamed about doing. The smiles on their faces, the realization you see in their eyes when they learn something on their own terms, the pride they feel when they see their progress, and the joy they experience because they know they’re in a place that honors them as unique individuals – THAT is what I wanted to be able to experience when I dreamt about going into teaching. Dreams fulfilled.

Hurry Up and Learn

I just finished my 20th year in education: 12 years in a classroom and 8 years in technology professional development (with about 3.5 years in corporate technology in between).

As a teacher of children, I’m patient. I see the look in the eyes of the children who don’t “get it” yet, and I am able to work with them until I see that lightbulb go off. I never want my students to feel rushed or hurried in their learning, because that’s not what learning is about. “Hurry up and learn” makes absolutely no sense.

With adults, I haven’t always been as patient. I will admit to listening to people talking about education and thinking, “come on already!” But just as it is detrimental to students, this lack of patience can be harmful to bringing along the adults, too. I’ve learned to be more patient as I’ve gotten older and seen that same look in the eyes of adults.

When I was in tech PD, I was responsible for a lot of different types of training, including those that were program or tool specific. My favorite sessions to write and help lead were the sessions that were more about philosophy, pedagogy, and modes of learning… and then looking to see which tools we could use to help accomplish the goals. I’m very curious by nature, and when I don’t know how something works, I teach myself. Over the years, I’ve learned that not everyone is like that, and that’s okay.

What I continue to remind myself is that, regardless of where I am in my own journey, there are many others still at the beginning. Step one. If I’m impatient with them, then my goal of helping others to move forward breaks down… and those people are discouraged.

I don’t want to be that person who turns someone off from new ideas or trying something for the first time, yet I’ve seen this happen (often) in our network. Shaming another educator (or parent or student or whomever) for not knowing what everyone else apparently already knows is not okay. It doesn’t make you seem like an expert… it makes you seem like a jerk. Think back to your best models and teachers. I’m guessing they weren’t jerks.

Sometimes the people around you who are the most resistant to learning something new are the ones who are the most insecure about their learning. People used to ask me what I thought the difference between teaching children and teaching adults was. I always responded, “Adults are more challenging, because they don’t give themselves as much grace as children do.”

Finding a safe place and a certain level of comfort is important to help cautious learners take risks. That can look different for everyone. Some prefer to tinker independently, and others need a helping hand.

If you go to a conference, hopefully you’ll find sessions that meet your needs. Personally, I learn best in sessions where I can participate and discuss. I like to verbally process what I’m learning and doing.

Some people like great storytellers. Keynotes and lectures- the good ones, anyway- can be great for a lot of people. A good storyteller wraps you up in her story, shares the emotional connections to the learning with you, and makes you feel the learning. Lectures aren’t for everyone, but I don’t think we should throw them out completely just because some people don’t like them.

For the record, shaming a mode of how information is shared isn’t okay, either. I’ve seen a lot of backlash toward keynotes and lectures at conferences. Yet, the good keynotes are often packed. Ignite sessions are always packed. This tells me SOME people still find them useful. If you don’t, then don’t go. Seems like a simple solution.

The point of this I guess is simple: find what works for you. Ask for help when you need it. Mentor others who are just beginning to learn things you have already learned. If you don’t like lectures, find something else. If you prefer someone showing you step-by-step how something is done, look for a workshop that caters to that need.

Most importantly, be encouraging. Check your snark level. I love snark more than most, but I’m learning to hold back… because what I might think is old news or something we all SHOULD know isn’t necessarily the same for someone else.

We’re all at different levels in our learning, and we learn at different paces. If we truly below that we should honor those differences in kids, we should honor that in the adult learners, too.

Guest Post – Addressing the Viral “Epic Dad Response”

My friend, Nolan Schmit, is a teacher and composer extraordinaire. What I know most about him is his commitment and dedication to the students he serves.

Today, I read a post that Nolan wrote in response to this viral story: Abington dad’s letter becomes matter of principal. (I purposefully chose THIS link, rather than the other incredibly sensational posts I’ve seen about it.) As is typical of stories that elicit an emotional response, it was shared widely, and outrage grew as quickly as the story made the rounds.

My first thought after reading this story was: Yay! Parents who want to (and can afford to) take their children on learning trips are awesome!

My second thought was: schools don’t always have the option of defining “excused” and “unexcused” absences on a per case basis. It doesn’t mean that those types of family trips are discouraged… just that it’s how they’re defined. I know this all depends on the school and district.

Nolan didn’t leave it at that. He responded today with what I think is a justified perspective, and I wish that those who are seething with outrage would consider the position that schools are in when it comes to students and absences. I asked Nolan if he would consider reposting/guest blogging here, and he agreed.

Nolan Schmit - nolanschmit.com

Nolan Schmit – nolanschmit.com

Nolan’s response:

OK. I’ve got to say something. It doesn’t take a lot to get me fired up, but it takes a lot for me post something like this. I feel the need to be an apologist for public education, especially when misinformation is floating around.

I posted part of this on a friend’s page, but am reposting it here.

There is a photo going viral from a guy named Mike Rossi who is upset with his kids’ school because he took his kids on a vacation during the school year and the school wrote him a letter saying the kids’ absences are not considered “excused” absences. Rossi wrote a letter back to the school to “slam” the school for being so rigid and to tell them how educational and valuable the trip was. Many people are treating Mr. Rossi like a hero for “sticking it” to the school and, by extension, the government for being too intrusive.

Let me first say I am in favor of kids having these types of experiences, because THEY ARE VALUABLE and open up the world to kids. Travel and other opportunities for enrichment are needed, desired and invaluable. As Mark Twain said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” I’m on Mr. Rossi’s side on this part of the issue.

To be fair, though, he can’t blame the school. Public education has been under fire for decades and people have DEMANDED that there be accountability. Because of these outcries and the subsequent results at the ballot boxes, we ended up with NO CHILD LEFT BEHIND.

The good part of NCLB is that it has encouraged improved practices in the classroom and has made teachers much more aware of how to reach ALL kids. I’m a better teacher now than when I started and it is not simply due to experience, but some great professional development that resulted from the mandates of NCLB.

The bad part is that schools are put in an impossible position on several fronts. First, it is impossible for 100% of students to achieve the same level of proficiency on any skill or topic on a given date. Punishing schools for this is beyond crazy. That’s like firing your kid’s coach for incompetence because she was unable to coach your kid to run the 400m in under 52 sec.

Second, TODAY the measure of success established FOR schools, right or wrong, is standardized testing. Kids pass the test = good teaching. Kids fail = bad teaching. We take no mitigating circumstances into account. For instance, a child can arrive from the Ukraine with NO ENGLISH skills in third grade and are expected to be at the same level of proficiency as their English speaking peers by fourth grade. This is INSANE. There are many teachers fearing for their future, because when a kid misses school, they miss the content being covered. While the trip may be invaluable, the content covered in class is the ONLY content over which the students will be tested and, in some districts, the only measure by which teacher success is determined.

I empathize with schools, because they have a job to do. Schools don’t have the right to tell parents what to do with their children, but how can schools do the job of educating when kids aren’t in class? You can’t say, “We demand that our kids score well on these tests, will fire you if they don’t, and we can pull our kids out of school as much as we want. If they don’t learn, it is STILL YOUR PROBLEM.”

You can’t have it both ways.

If you vote people into office who have no clue how to craft legislation as it relates to education, this type of thing is the result.

I’ve been in public education for 22 years. I am not a stereotype. I am not owned by a political party. I don’t hate home-schooled kids. I don’t hate private and parochial schools. My liberal friends would call me conservative. My conservative friends would call me liberal. I care about one thing and one thing only. I want every student that comes into my classroom, no matter what their background, beliefs, skin color, religion, life philosophy, culture, race, sexual orientation, economic status, skill set, degree of physical and mental wellness, talents, limitations, interests and ambitions, to treat others with and be treated with kindness and to be able to learn to the best of their abilities. That’s it. I am not unique in this respect. The vast majority of my colleagues feel the same way. Kids are why we got into this profession. We want to give children the tools to live a rich, fulfilling, healthy, purposeful life.

I would prefer that schools were free to allow more opportunities for enrichment, but enrichment now takes a backseat to test scores. We’ve voted, we’ve made our beds and now we have to lie in them.

Our society has put all the educational eggs in the assessment basket and forgotten what constitutes real learning and the impact other life experiences have on the total education of a child.

Thanks for letting me ramble, but when I see or hear misinformation being spread, I feel obligated to stand up for truth and facts.

Peace.
N

We Are More Than Our Mistakes

I was reading an article today about influential people, and one specifically caught my attention. Serena Williams had written about Bryan Stevenson, Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative,  and she mentioned Stevenson’s beliefs that “every person is more than the worst thing they’ve ever done.”

There are those who believe in “justice” as punishment and shame… as if those are the deterrents to future mistakes or crimes. In my experience (personally and with others), shame doesn’t prevent someone from choosing the wrong path. It only serves the desire to avoid getting caught. Shame doesn’t necessarily lead to better actions or choices.

What has helped me as an individual to avoid repeating mistakes is grace, forgiveness, and compassion from others and from myself. When I realized that my mistakes weren’t part of my identity, and that I could learn  from my mistakes… THAT was a time when I experienced true growth.

I grew up in the religious dichotomy of “an eye for an eye” and “forgive others as you have been forgiven.” As a young kid, that was tough to reconcile. Personally, I viewed punishment as something to avoid at any cost, because I wasn’t certain about forgiveness. Again, that didn’t always translate into doing the right thing.

As a parent and an educator, however, I see the cost of a punitive society on our children… children who grow up to be our neighbors. I often ask myself why we, as a society, tend to enjoy the suffering of others so much. If we didn’t, people like Jerry Springer and Maury Povich wouldn’t have careers or celebrity. This is nothing new, though. For centuries, audiences have reveled in the “delights” of others’ suffering. Schadenfraude can be fun, right? A little snark never really hurt anyone, did it? When you’re the recipient of people shaming you, it does hurt.

Decades ago, a person with a past could move to another city or across the country and no one would have a clue. That’s impossible now. A single mistake can now be broadcast in real time and shared with millions within seconds. How does this allow us to learn from mistakes, especially in our youth? Even worse, what if our “mistake” didn’t really happen, but someone with an audience said it did? How does a person recover from that? Beyond the internet trolls that will pounce on anything, how do we shape our own reactions when something goes viral now?

In her TED Talk, The Price of Shame, Monica Lewinsky says, “Public shaming as a blood sport has to stop.” I think often about this young woman who has felt the wrath of shame to a degree that most of us couldn’t ever imagine. Was she shown grace and compassion?

How does all of this translate to children? How are children treated in their schools when they make mistakes? How do we as educators react to those mistakes?

I can’t imagine who I would be today if every mistake I ever made was broadcast far and wide for anyone to see. And I doubt many of you reading this would be able to fathom that kind of public attention. It’s not enough for us to tell kids to avoid social media or posting everything in their lives. That’s not the world they live in today.

What we MUST do is become the models of grace and compassion OURSELVES. We must show them what it looks like to forgive. That even, in the midst of a seemingly unforgivable offense, that we can show compassion. That all human beings are worthy of grace, even when we hate what they might have done against us.

Again, back to my upbringing… I remember learning “love the sinner while hating the sin.” There are a multitude of sins that might be considered heinous (and I am not the one to define what is considered a sin and what is not), but if I don’t have room in me to forgive and give grace, then how can I expect forgiveness and grace for myself?

I’ve also been thinking about Marilyn Zuniga, a teacher who was suspended because her students wrote get well letters to Mumia Abu-Jamal. The reaction to this news was swift, intense, and full of outrage. This story went viral… yet I wonder… what lesson about compassion does this really give to kids? If we teach children to be forgiving and compassionate, shouldn’t we be less concerned with who deserves their forgiveness and compassion? Is “forgive others as you have been forgiven” only reserved for those whom we deem deserving of forgiveness and compassion? Or are we back to “an eye for an eye?”

As an adult, I find this all troubling and extremely confusing. I can’t imagine what kids are trying to glean from our examples.

I remember reading articles about restorative justice in schools, specifically about how damaging zero tolerance policies are to students (this one is very good). In my experience, those who advocate for zero tolerance generally don’t want to apply the same types of policies to themselves or their own children, yet it’s ok for “those other kids.” In our school, I love that we don’t have blanket policies regarding student behavior and mistakes. Each situation is unique. Each child is unique. A standard policy cannot possibly account for every situation, nor should it.

With my students this year, we have looked at what apologies are, and how our mistakes are ours to own. When one of my students apologizes to another, the last thing he asks is, “will you forgive me?” We are prepared to understand that we don’t have to be forgiven… yet my students always answer “yes.” When I asked them why they always agree to forgive, one little guy responded, “because I want to be forgiven if I make a mistake.” From the mouths of babes…

I always want to strive to be the person who considers that there is good in everyone, and that all are worthy of being more than their mistakes. As a teacher, I HAVE to be that person; otherwise, I have no business working with children.  I want to be the one to reflect on my own reaction to someone else’s transgression, real or perceivedand be the first to offer grace and forgiveness. I haven’t always felt this way. It’s been a personal journey of several decades, and I wish that I could go back to the students I had when I first started teaching to apologize for my lack of compassion. I wasn’t that person yet.

Who will you be?

 

Yes, Motivation DOES Matter

I teach in a school where I get to see children excited about learning. Every. Single. Day.

Is it always perfect? Of course not.

Do the kids sometimes get frustrated when they’re challenged with something difficult? Absolutely… but (stealing Tom Hank’s line again from A League Of Their Own) the “hard is what makes it great.”

When a child learns something new and rises up from a challenge, they find so much about what’s inside themselves. (We all know this. Should know this.) As a teacher, there’s nothing like seeing the satisfaction and joy on a child’s face when he/she has accomplished something that initially seemed too difficult. I love seeing how motivated my students are about what they want to learn.

Important to note… we don’t do traditional testing. (or grades, or homework, or grade levels, etc.)

This morning, my friend John Spencer shared an article and asked for thoughts: Does Student Motivation Even Matter? 

The article goes on to note that students actually perform better on tests when they are not motivated… as if this information should tell us something valuable. Students who are motivated to learn do not perform on tests as well as their peers who aren’t motivated.

Does student motivation even matter? Seriously

Do you care if kids care about what they’re learning? (Not what the curriculum tells them to care about, but what THEY actually care about.) Do you care if they are bored out of their minds? Do you care if they wake up in the morning and groan about going to school?

Do you care that they forget most of what they have memorized for a test after the test is over?

Do you care that we are producing automatons who have learned more about being compliant and filling in bubbles than about thinking deeply?

Do you care if these CHILDREN are basically little hamsters hopping onto their wheel to perfunctorily execute the “same old, same old” day in and day out?

I care, and I’m horrified. Have WE become those hamsters spinning the wheels in our own lives so much so that we don’t care if we suffer others to the same fate?

The homework battle, the incessant testing… these kids are becoming drones, and does anyone even care?

I don’t want that for MY life. Why would I even think that this would be ok for a CHILD?

Children should be running. Playing. Discovering. Examining. Creating. Singing. Dancing. Making mistakes with the freedom to learn from them… and that won’t go on a record to haunt them from one level to the next.

And for the record, when I write “children,” that doesn’t mean only primary aged kids. Have you talked with a high school kid recently? Some are so serious and stressed out all the time. Why do we do this to them?

As for me, I don’t want the kind of life where I am not learning something new and exciting every single day. I don’t want drudgery. In my current position as a teacher at Anastasis Academy, I’m extremely fortunate in what I get to do. I LOVE going to work every single day. I don’t wake up dreading the routine, because it’s different every day.*

That is what I want for my students… and for all children. I want them to find something that makes them happy. I want them to find and enjoy their calling. Not their job. Not their “have to.” Not their hamster wheel.

Too many kids associate “learning” with “painful,” something they must suffer through. Why have we reinforced this? Why have we allowed people who don’t have an inkling of what true accountability means to define it for us? For our children?

I want all kids to be able to experience learning the way that my students do. I want kids to care so much about the things they learn, that they begin to think deeply and ask questions.  I want all kids to be excited about learning something new and to know that school is a place where that can happen.

So, yes. Motivation DOES matter… but not if you think learning is something you could even begin to measure with a test.

 

 

*A lot of people will argue with me and say that my traditional schooling is what led me to the opportunity of finding my calling. Not true. I was one of those really fortunate kids in school, because I have a freakish memory. School was incredibly easy for me. I was able to learn beyond what was expected of me, because of my freaky memory. While other kids were forced to practice and drill facts over and over again, I was allowed to hang out in the library and read whatever I wanted. I was allowed to create art work for my school. I was allowed to spend time in the music departments learning more about music. As for my work as an educator… I had a lot of UN-learning to do to get to where I am now. An upcoming blog post will delve into this more. 

It’s All About Context – Part Two

This is part two of a post I wrote about the importance of context in learning.

Last month, my 5 and 6 year old students listened to and discussed “The Dream Keeper,” by Langston Hughes. I wrote it for them on the white board, and we left it up to display for the whole month. We talked about who Langston Hughes was, who might be the voice in this poem, what our dreams are, what our heart melodies sound like to us, and why “the Dream Keeper” would wrap dreams up for someone, “away from the too-rough fingers of the world.” Their responses were typical for 5 and 6 year old children.

One day, we drew what our dreams and heart melodies looked like for us. Each student imported a photo of the drawing into our Explain Everything app, and then recorded an explanation of what his drawing was about. On the next slide in the app, each boy typed the full poem and then recorded himself reading it – this activity was their decision. They wanted to have a typed version of the poem somewhere in this project file.

Somewhere along the way, the boys memorized the poem… completely unbeknownst to me. I only discovered this fact when we went to visit our “grand-friends” to make Valentine’s crafts with them right before Valentine’s Day. I mentioned something about our heart melodies, and the boys started reciting the poem. My jaw dropped! We never practiced memorizing the poem. We never practiced reading it aloud together, and they’re all at different stages in their reading. There are quite a few words in this poem that are challenging for many of them!

Why, then, did they memorize this poem? It was meaningful to them. They had some context of what the words meant, why someone might want to protect the dreams of another person, and how the world isn’t always kind. Every single one of them found some connection to this poem and their own dreams and heart melodies. Even now, a month later, they want to talk about that poem.

Did they learn about Langston Hughes and the Harlem Renaissance? A little. Do they know the connection to Hughes’ Dream Variations poetry and the structure of blues music? Not really, although they did notice it “sounded like a song.” Someday when they’re a little older and come across this poem again, they will already have a foundation to build upon. They have SOME context – in this case, an emotional connection – now for some very complex ideas.

Can you imagine what they’ll be able to do with this poem when they’re older?

I can’t always guarantee that each of my students will have an instant connection to what they’re learning. What I CAN do is help provide some context for each student… and that will look different for each and every one of them.

Most importantly, I think, is to remind ourselves (often) that memorization is NOT the most essential aspect of learning. A small step, yes; but as I mentioned in the previous post, a small child can memorize their ABCs. That doesn’t mean they can read or even tell you what sounds each letters make.

I always get a lot of pushback when I bring this up, but I’ll debate this with anyone. Yes, some foundational facts must be memorized in order to move forward with more advanced concepts, but memorization cannot be our only emphasis in learning.

So… in your school, where does most of your students’ time fall? Creating? Discussing? Evaluating?

Or is their time mostly spent on recalling information that someone has told them is important?

We emphasize to our students that which is most valuable by what we spend time doing with them.

Children Are Not Data Points

I can’t read one more post or tweet about data-driven instruction today. I CANNOT.

What most people attempt as educational reform is like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. You can make the round hole bigger, but the square peg will just fall through. It doesn’t fit, and neither does the system.

Today, I read a wonderful post by my friend Eric Johnson – “Fighting For Their Lives.” Does anyone actually think kids like the ones Eric describes are able to do their best on a test that measures the most narrowly defined (and least important) part of what learning actually is?

Yesterday, I read a great stand by a teacher who is first and foremost a parent. Karl Fisch posted his letter to his daughter’s high school, which is also the high school where he works. In this incredibly well written and passionate letter, Karl and his wife, Jill, explain why they are opting out of the PARCC test for their daughter.

Two weeks ago, I was on an emotional and professional high with visitors to our school exclaiming their amazement of what our kids are able to do. They were pleasantly surprised about how much and how well our students of all ages can articulate what they’re learning. They saw examples that demonstrate how much these kids are learning, and they heard Anastasis alums talk about how their learning at our school prepared them for what came after.

The best endorsement I have from the educators who attended our conference is the number of times I heard, “I want to enroll my own children in this school RIGHT NOW.”

But yet, we don’t give homework at Anastasis. We don’t give standardized tests. We don’t give grades. We don’t rely on traditional data* to inform and shape our instruction. (No standard curriculum. No standard grade levels. We don’t do anything standard here.)

So obviously, our kids aren’t really learning, right?

WRONG.

There is no sound bite in the world I can give you to explain what happens in our school.

There is no blog post that could ever adequately explain and describe how deeply our students think.

I know that Anastasis is not the perfect world. There is no such thing. But what I know is this…

CHILDREN ARE NOT STANDARDIZED.

CHILDREN ARE NOT MEANT TO COMPETE AGAINST EACH OTHER IN LEARNING. (I already wrote about that before.)

CHILDREN ARE NOT DATA POINTS TO BE PLOTTED ON A GRAPH. (Repeat this one over and over and over.)

If you want to truly reform education, stop trying to make kids fit into a standardized curriculum. Stop testing them over things that should never define who they are. Stop treating children as widgets the minute they walk into the door of their school. They are not packages rolling along a conveyor belt with a barcode affixed to their foreheads. You want to talk profits, inventory, and sales? Standardization is great for that… but our children do not deserve to be treated as such.

You want to reform education? Stop standardizing everything, and look at the amazingly wonderful and unique human beings who walk into your school. As Eric said in his post, for some children, school is the safest place they will encounter on any given day.

Help them feel safe.
Help them feel nourished, both physically and emotionally.
Help them feel important and valued.
Help them feel loved.

THAT is how you start to reform education.

It is about the KIDS. Anything else is a cheap, tired, and overused excuse.

And if you use the word, “accountability” when you try to debate this issue with me, you’d better be certain you can answer this question: how are you accountable to the children you serve? 

Do they feel safe? Nourished? Valued? Loved?

I can answer that question at our school, because that’s how our school was started– with the children at the center of our focus.

How does this play out academically? Come visit our school. Seriously. We have visitors all the time. Or go visit Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia. Kids know they matter in these places.

And on that visit… don’t talk. Watch. Listen. Ask questions. Reflect.

 

 

*By “traditional data,” I mean test scores. We use data at Anastasis all the time… it just doesn’t look like most schools’ data.

What Spock Taught Me

The thing I loved most about Spock on Star Trek is that, occasionally, his human side would show through. He was that logical being with no emotion for most of the series; but as the movies came out, we saw a side of Spock rarely, if ever, seen on tv.

Growing up, I was an extremely emotional kid who saw my sensitivity as a weakness. In school, the other kids called me “the smart kid.” My ability to be (seemingly) logical saved me many times from breaking down in front of other kids or teachers. Every once in a while, it would still happen, but I learned to keep those emotions in check for the most part. Spock was my model. Stay logical.

Over time, Spock’s character explored more of his human half. As I watched the movies, especially the ones where they spent time on the friendship between Kirk and Spock, I noticed how much wiser and “complete” Spock seemed. He was happier, even when his emotions caused him distress.

For so many years, I hid the part of me that feels too much. Sometimes, the world is a very overwhelming place when you allow yourself to feel.

But Spock seemed better when he allowed himself to feel, even though he was often ostracized by the other Vulcans because of it.

As a new teacher, I learned to distance myself from my students and show that tough, outer shell. That’s how I was taught to do it in my education methods courses. “Don’t let them see you be human.”

Is there worse advice for a teacher?

(Do you ever feel like you’ve “grown up” long after you’re considered a grown up?)

As a more experienced teacher, I now know I’m better when I show how I feel and allow that human-ness to shine through. I feel wiser. More complete. Just like the older Spock.

I don’t know how much actual influence Leonard Nimoy had on the evolution of his character, but I read somewhere that he wanted a chance for Spock to be able to explore his human side. I’m grateful for that, because somewhere along the way, Spock showed me the way.  The scene where Spock dies in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan was sad and serene for me at the same time.

Leonard Nimoy was a very interesting person, and the more I read about him post-Star Trek, the more I appreciated his intellect and humanity. While many actors tend to rebel against their “defining” roles, he came to embrace Spock more and more, especially recently with the retooled Star Trek movies and his guest stints on Big Bang Theory. I’m grateful for the man as well as the character he cultivated.

Live long and prosper, indeed.