Whose Voice Is It?

bestpicko.com- photo of microphone

CC licensed photo – bestpicko.com

“Student Voice” is a term that gets bandied about by well-meaning educators… and when true student voice is honored, it can make a world of difference for kids!

But what does it mean when the voice coming out of kids sounds more like the voice of the system that tells them what and how to think? Is it really the voice of the student, or is it just the same old, tired lines those kids have been fed since they started school?

Let’s take a step back for a minute. I have long been an advocate of finding ways to honor student voice. I’ve facilitated student voice sessions at conferences and EdCamps. I truly believe we don’t GIVE kids their voice. We get out of the way and then help to amplify that voice. For some students, they might need extra encouragement to share their voice in a way that is comfortable for them. Not every kid wants to stand up in front of their peers, adults – any live audience – and speak their truth, expose their vulnerabilities, and open themselves up to criticism. For educators, we need to help our children find that zone that initially provides some safety for them to open up and share their stories. For some kids, they are comfortable in a public arena and just want a chance at the metaphoric microphone to say their piece. Again, educators need to provide that space, and then get out of the way.

But what happens when that student’s voice sounds like something that has been produced by a system that, by its very nature, wants to deny authenticity of experience? That robs students of choice? That this system is “THE ONLY WAY?” That tells kids, “THIS is what learning looks like; and in order to be successful, you need to do x, y, z in that order, and then you can be successful.”

I stepped into an ongoing conversation this morning on Twitter about non-traditional schooling. Some background on my thoughts of non-traditional schooling:
After 7 years at Anastasis Academy and tours of other non-traditional models, I feel that non-traditional schooling is an area where I have some insight. At Anastasis, we don’t do traditional. Our students (ages 5-14ish) are in multi-age classes. We don’t do homework. We don’t do testing. We don’t do isolated content areas. We don’t do grades!  We DO encourage independent thinking. We DO learn through inquiry, a lot of hands-on activities, getting outside the classroom and into learning experiences where we can see firsthand what we’re studying. We DO experience service learning. We DO ask our kids to learn about themselves, each other, and the world- often in ways that challenge what they think they already know and believe. We want our students’ educational experiences to be more than just a boxed curriculum. We want them to learn how to manage their own freedoms, and we want them to think for themselves.

Back to the Twitter conversation… One educator* noted that he hears students specifically ask for traditional schooling, because they feel it better prepares them for high school, testing, and for college. I said that we owe it to kids to challenge that notion, and he replied that we should honor their “student voice.”

A lot of our students at Anastasis have come to us from more traditional schools, and sometimes, they ask us, “What do you want me to write? What do you want me to say?” They just want us to tell them what to do. They sometimes become frustrated with the process of learning. They ask for and welcome worksheets and tests…

Why? Because this is what they have been conditioned to do since they first stepped foot into a school.** Even though they sought something different… traditional schooling wasn’t working for them… they still often yearn for the familiar.

Worksheets and tests are familiar. Sometimes, worksheets and tests are easier, because they don’t often require you to think beyond a simple answer.

Maybe you know people who learned how to play the game of school very well. Those same people can tell you that they didn’t really learn much… they just memorized what they knew the teacher wanted them to answer. After the test, that information was conveniently forgotten so that they could move on to the next part of the game. For some people, they still play the game – in their jobs or whatever vocation they have chosen. Some people will argue that learning to play the game is what it’s all about. I disagree wholeheartedly.

In non-traditional models that require kids to think for themselves, kids can safely struggle, but they don’t always recognize what this type of struggle is. They can become frustrated more often. Sometimes, they just want someone to give them “the” answer.

Of course they do! 

I’m not saying kids are lazy… not at all! But when faced with a choice of just doing what your teacher wants you to do versus thinking for yourself – sometimes, it’s easier just to play the game. This is especially true when you look back at what the system of schooling was intended to do!

Traditional schooling encourages compliance, assimilation, deference to authority, and very little time for true questioning. A “Do what I tell you to do” environment. This isn’t learning. This is TRAINING.  We have trained kids to believe that learning is limited to one right answer, one “true” perspective and point-of-view (aka whatever POV is in the textbook)… and that learning is finite at each level.

Luckily for some kids, there are many wonderful, amazing teachers in traditional models who can help counteract the effects of the system. They inspire kids to think differently. They help kids love learning for the sake of learning. They encourage kids to discover passions they might never have known to explore. They might even show kids how to play the game, but to recognize that the game is not the focus. 

Not all kids are fortunate enough to have these amazing teachers every year throughout their education, though… and some kids never even get that experience at all. (So do we just hope for the best for each kid, or do we say enough is enough and reject the system?)

So-called experts tell kids that they need to start preparing for this in primary levels (read here: “college and career readiness beginning in Kindergarten”)… that each level in school is only there to prepare you for the next stage in your life… and that you must have good grades in school to get into a good college so that you can then have a good job. There’s no joy in learning for the sake of learning. There’s no point in thinking about the process, because the end goal is always about another level. There’s no time for reflecting upon what we have learned, how we learned, and most importantly, WHY. The system was never intended to create independent thinkers, because independent thinkers are unwelcome. We tell kids that their dreams and passions aren’t important, because all of this “stuff” in the curriculum matters more than that. That, if you do well at each level of schooling, you WILL be successful.

We have to stop lying to children.  Because, for a huge number of children, the system is designed for them to fail.

Look at the kids that the current “traditional” system leaves behind in the dust. Kids who don’t learn in traditional ways – kids who have difficulty communicating in a way that pleases a teacher – kids who fail within a system that was never designed for them to succeed in the first place – kids whose lived experiences are different from the narratives in those narrowed POVs in textbooks. If the current system was truly the key to success, it would work for ALL kids. We know it does not. There’s another whole discussion here about the issue of traditional schooling, how racism and other-ism are defining characteristics of the system, and who is promoted as successful or not. It’s vital to how we perceive student voice as well.

Considering all of the above and why I initially began to write this post…  Are we still going to say that we should “honor” student voice when the voice is asking for more of this traditional system? Is it “honoring” to validate a child who parrots something that was intended to keep them from questioning the status quo? Or are we going to be the educators who recognize that this type of “student voice” is corrupted by a system that has been dictating for too long what kids should do, say, write, and THINK?

I honor student voice by listening and amplifying.  But when kids tell me they want more of the system they came from before… I dig a little more deeply. I ask why. We talk. We think through what they’re saying they want. Then I ask them what they REALLY want. If we can get to this point of a discussion, trust me… they don’t ask for more tests and worksheets. It’s not more traditional “sit and git” and “just tell me what you want me to do.” When they know I’m there to help them, guide them, and support them in their learning struggles, they find what they want… and they want to face the challenges they found frustrating and difficult.

When kids are allowed to share their TRUE VOICE, it won’t be that they want to be trained how to take a test… because they know that doesn’t prepare them for anything but taking a test!

So let’s not kid ourselves into thinking we’re honoring kids and their voices if those voices are just echoing what the system tells them is important. That’s not really student voice… and, deep down, I think we know that. 

I’m not waiting for higher education or even secondary education to change. I’m going to keep fighting that “traditional” system, because I’ve seen what an identity-honoring education does for kids. I’m going to continue advocating for ALL kids to be able to learn in a place that focuses on the student, not the teacher. Not the curriculum. Not the “this is just the way we do things” mentality.

I will keep lifting up the teachers who, regardless of WHERE they teach, lovingly inspire their students to know themselves, think differently, and to use their voices to make change happen.

If you’re an educator, you should expect and encourage student voice that differs from your own. You should honor student voice, even when you disagree with what is being said. However, if you recognize something in that student voice that sounds like it’s nothing more than an echo, dig a little deeper. Ask more questions. Help the student to question the WHAT and especially the WHY of what they’re saying. 

I think we do a disservice to kids if we don’t help them question a system that dictates to them what they should think.

 

UPDATE: Please also read this post by Aviva Dunsiger about the social construct of SCHOOL! 

* I’m choosing not to name the educators in this conversation, because I’m not intending this as an attack on their perspectives, nor am I asking for people who agree with me to pile on in additional debate with them. Feel free to comment here on my post. My comments policy is noted in the sidebar.

**One of the most interesting things I’ve witnessed as a teacher at Anastasis is observing students who have never been to a traditional school. They started as “littles” at Anastasis. These kids flourish in learning experiences where they can dig in, ask a ton of questions, use their hands to create something, ask MORE questions, and then talk a LOT about the process. When they go on learning excursions, they are not your typical school children on a field trip; and usually, the adults who are leading the tour or experience are thrown for a loop. They don’t know how to react to 5-6 year olds who ask really in-depth questions. When these kids create projects that fail, they don’t worry about a bad grade, because they don’t know what grades are. They start looking at each step in their process, ask more questions, and then reflect on what they could do to improve. These kids ideate and iterate in ways you don’t typically see in more traditional models… because this is just what they do. They have never known any other way of learning in school. I don’t worry about them not being prepared for the next level of school. They know how to learn and advocate for themselves. I worry that the next level of school is not prepared for THESE KIDS!

A Culture of Reading

I had a great conversation last night on Twitter about “silent reading” time. Some teachers feel it is a waste of time… that kids are more likely to become discipline problems during this time… that they’re not really reading… or that they’re not comprehending what they’re reading.

I disagreed. And now, as I think about it, I can disagree because our school values and intentionally cultivates a culture of reading. This culture provides time, choice, modeling, reading aloud (for all our classes, not only our “littles”), discussion with peers, options in how/what/why they read, but most importantly that reading books is something we ENJOY. Books are gifts. Books are treasures.

Some of the things we don’t do: reading logs, forced leveled readers, reading tracking programs, prescriptive reading lists, required reports/discussion/book conferences for every book a child reads, etc.. (Basically anything that takes away choice from kids.)

In my opinion – and 20+ years of teaching experience – those things kill the joy of reading. Those things tell kids, “Hey. I don’t trust that you’ll actually read this book unless I force you to complete something that proves you read it.” Those things don’t honor a student’s choice in what she wants to read. Those things tell kids that their reading is only valuable if they can talk to a teacher about what they just read. 

THOSE THINGS ARE ABOUT THE ADULTS IN THE CLASSROOM… NOT THE KIDS. If we control their reading, they are not going to want to read.

In my classroom… Do we sometimes read a book together as a class and then discuss? Of course. Do we sometimes read books and then talk with a partner or small group about what we just read? Yes! Do we have book conferences? “Speed booking?” (like speed dating, but with books!) Do we discuss reading strategies, elements of a story, reading for entertainment, reading for information… YES. ALL THE READING THINGS!

 

But to me, it is vital that kids ALSO have time provided for them to simply read freely – with no expectations of the how/what/why.

One of my favorite days of our school year is called StoryLine. All the students share the work they’ve created throughout the school year and show their learning progress. Most of the kids like to include books they’ve read in this “display,” and when I visit other classrooms, I love to ask them why they selected the particular books in their display. I don’t hear, “Mrs. X said I had to include this book” or “Well, we had to read this as a class” or “I talked about this book in a book conference with my teacher.”

These kids say, “These are my three favorite books I read this year!” and “I read this book, and I really identified with what was happening with the characters in this book!” and “I had a really hard time picking favorites, because there were so many great books I read this year!”

As I was thinking about how to write this post, I found another post by my friend Pernille Ripp – and you should definitely read it. https://pernillesripp.com/2017/06/09/does-reading-for-pleasure-in-schools-really-make-a-difference/

Pernille is an extremely valuable resource for any educator, but she is also on of my list of “go to” teachers for anything having to do with reading and books.

So I wrote THIS post, because the “waste of time” comments regarding silent reading really struck a nerve within me. And I think the biggest takeaway for me after doing some processing and reflecting upon my own practice and reading habits is this:

If silent reading is a waste of time in your school, maybe it’s a CULTURE problem, not a KID or READING problem. And I would offer the following questions as thinking points – just something to consider:

  1. Do your students have choice in the types of books they read?
  2. Do students in your school have access to multiple genres? e-Books? Graphic novels? Comic books? Poetry? Picture books?
  3. If a student starts a book and doesn’t like it, does he have the option to try something else?
  4. How do the adults in your building model their own reading? Do the students SEE you reading?
  5. Most importantly… have you asked the KIDS how they could make silent reading a more enjoyable time?

 

When you see statistics like these gathered from Pew in 2015, as educators, we should be doing everything we can to help foster a love for reading. I’ve been a lover of books from a very early age, but I was happiest when I had choice, options, and access to what *I* wanted to read. When teachers gave our classes silent reading time with choice, I was a happy camper… AND that freedom made me much more likely to want to read the books they wanted me to read, too.

Books are gifts. Books are treasures. If your students don’t feel this way, this says more about the culture of reading in their environment than it says about them.

Thanks for taking the time to read this post.

Thoughts on Motivation

I had a Twitter conversation last week about motivation for teachers. Since then, numerous posts, tweets, and situations have popped up right in front of me, and I knew I needed to write about this.

The gentleman¹ I was debating on Twitter (the actual thread isn’t important to recount in its entirety) about motivation was correct in his statement that motivation is intrinsic. I can’t truly motivate another person to change behavior. I can, however, provide an environment that helps to inspire, challenge, and provide opportunities for autonomy and creativity. That was my point in the debate. When the environment is lacking, it’s difficult to stay motivated. We can’t and shouldn’t always blame an individual for a lack of motivation.

Since that tweet thread, I read tweets from an account called AnonymousProfessorAngus Johnston quoted this one and added his own thoughts:

This resonated with me and led back to the conversation I’d had earlier. How do we expect students to be motivated when they’re treated as adversaries? Even if the kids aren’t treated in that manner, they still sense it. Kids are entirely more perceptive about their teachers than most people believe.

This goes for teachers and administrators also. If the environment in which we learn and work stifles who we are, how we learn, how we help others to learn, it is very difficult to be motivated. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but day after day, month after month, the drudgery wears on a person’s ability to remain motivated. In some instances, it’s quite soul-crushing.

I read another post on Facebook this morning by a former teacher who watched a video of a guitar-playing youngster on Steve Harvey’s show, Little Big Shots. His comment with the video was something along the lines of “I wish some of my former students had shown this kind of drive.” My first thought after reading that was… what did YOU do to help those kids recognize their own passions? Knowing this person, I’m sure he did a lot. He was a fantastic teacher… but this comment still wore on me.

Do we recognize and honor our kids’ passions? What could they be excited about and want to learn more? Because the drive to excel at something is personal, we have to ensure that kids have the opportunity to show us those things that excite them! Additionally, we have to help introduce concepts/skills/topics to kids in a way that might create a new spark. If kids don’t know what they don’t know, how can we help them explore new ideas that might generate a new passion? This is all about the culture of learning in our schools. Is the culture in YOUR school open to these ideas to help kids explore their own interests, or only that which is in the written curriculum?

Drive… motivation… whatever you want to call it. You can’t be motivated about things that aren’t interesting to you. You might summon up some willpower to trudge into the things you just have to get through, but that’s not motivation.

I don’t want kids to have to see learning as something to suffer through. I don’t want classroom teachers to feel like they just have to make it through until summer break… or worse, until they can retire. In either case, for students and teachers, that’s a lot of years to go uninspired.

I get it. We are human beings. We’re going to have ups and downs. If I’m in a classroom (which I am currently), it’s up to me to stay motivated for my students. And I’m not a superteacher… I have my sucky days like anyone else. Where I’m fortunate, though, is that I am in a learning environment where I have autonomy and room to be who I am… to teach in a way that suits me, but also inspires my kids.  I am inspired daily by our school leader and my colleagues, and we have each others’ backs. Our students benefit from that, because that’s what we hope to provide for them as well. But not everyone has that type of environment.

So what can we do? Collectively, there are ways to help.

  1. Recognize and be aware that some people – students and teachers- go to school/teach in a place that wears on their emotional well-being. It’s not always a matter of “just suck it up.” You can only do that for so long.
  2. LISTEN. Don’t interject ideas of what they could do better… just be a listener. Sometimes people who feel they are trapped in a no-win situation at a school just need a friendly ear. Yes, it’s probably going to be negative, but just be there for that person. Use supportive phrasing, such as “I can imagine that would be very difficult,” etc.
  3. Instead of giving them platitudes, motivational memes,  or “go get ’em, tiger” suggestions, ask them how you can provide support.
  4. Probably the most important: If YOU are in a place to help change the surroundings, DO IT.
    • If you’re a teacher with students who don’t seem motivated, don’t blame them. Look at yourself and make the changes your students need. ASK THE KIDS ABOUT THEMSELVES. <– This is a good place to start.
    • If you’re an admin, and there is a morale issue in your building, that’s on you to help change. Enlist some people who are willing to step up and help you turn things around. Change “business as usual” by asking for input, and then actually read it and implement some new practices.
    • Ask for help. Ask other people what they do to inspire.
    • Find someone who inspires you, and then model some of those same practices in your own leadership.

I think the most important way to help another individual to be motivated is to look around, reflect on the surroundings, and be brutally honest with yourself… how are you contributing to a place where it’s easier to be complacent or just go through the motions? I know from experience how hard it is to admit that YOU might be the problem… but YOU can also be part of the solution.

Thanks for reading.

 

 

 

 

¹I’m not sharing his name here, because this post is a) not about our debate, b) not a wish to prove him wrong, nor c) an attempt to out or shame another person in any way.

² This account makes me embarrassed for the people who contribute and for those who like/share its contents. This is a shameful practice for educators, and you can #dobetter.

Learning vs Teaching

Do you ever write a blog post and leave it in “drafts” for so long… you forget your wrote it? That happened with this post. This post was initiated last spring and completed today with some additions.

For too long now, we have equated “learning” with the “result of being taught.” I’m not refuting the fact that we can learn from great teachers… in fact, that’s not my point at all. Teachers make a significant impact in whether students have an opportunity to learn or not in a school environment.

Rather, the point I want to make is that, for too long, we have equated learning with consuming what has been delivered TO learners. Traditional schooling has tried to make learning a passive activity, and I feel the damage we’re doing to children is resulting in generations of people who cannot think for themselves. Additionally, they have a difficult time learning anything that is new or unfamiliar – if a problem is put in front of them that doesn’t resemble a problem they’ve already seen, most students will struggle.

Recently, I’ve noticed a lot of educators talking about how we need to help students learn “how to learn.” I vehemently disagree. Children come to us as innate learners. If anything, most schooling conditions children to turn off their learning brains and substitute with their compliance/consumer brains. If you think you have students who need to be taught how to learn… you’re wrong. They just need help reprogramming themselves to actually learn, and that requires removing almost everything they have been conditioned to do in a traditional school environment.

Learning isn’t memorizing something and then performing on a test. If you disagree with me, pull out a test from one or two months ago and give it to your students. Most of them will not be able to pass this test, even if they aced it before. Now, if those same students created something through building, baking, composing, painting, etc. – something where the learning was meaningful, my guess is that they would be able to replicate (and most likely improve) their creations over and over again.  

When I speak to other educators about learning, they usually agree… except when it comes to facts and skills they strongly believe must be TAUGHT.

EXAMPLE: I am constantly asked how I TEACH my students to read, considering I do not focus on teaching and drilling sight words, phonemic awareness, etc.
 
I usually answer, “I don’t TEACH my students to read.”
 
I get the same questions when it comes to math… “How do they learn math if you don’t practice math facts?” *
 
And the question, especially from other educators, “How will your students learn to read, learn their math facts (etc.) if you don’t TEACH them?”
 
Yet… my students DO learn to read. They do learn their math facts, and so, SO much more!
 
How is it at all possible that the students in my classroom are reading, are applying math facts to actual math problems that they find (not necessarily problems I give them to solve)?
 
The answer is simple, and it’s one we’ve forgotten over years – nearly a century really- of delivering information to kids to “learn.” Consuming information that is delivered from a teacher is not LEARNING. 
 
When I memorize a bunch of stuff that someone else decides is important for me to know, that process takes one of the most important facets of learning out of the learners hands– the agency of the learner.
 

Human beings learn about the world around them when they’re curious… when they see a need to know and understand something… and then want to USE that newly found knowledge/skill. Good teachers know this and help provide an environment where kids are able to learn and pursue those things that make them curious. Master teachers know how to expose children to new experiences – those they may not discover on their own – to create new opportunities for learning to occur. 

Inventing, planning, and building a new form of mass transportation for water.

Inventing, planning, and building a new form of mass transportation for water.

 
When WE (educators) decide what students should learn, it becomes a chore. Curiosity lessens. And the opportunity to actually use that new knowledge is rarely provided outside an artificial environment.
 
Case in point… I have observed years and years of children sitting in science class “learning” from a textbook. THAT is not science! That’s reading comprehension. When you have never practiced actual science and only read about it… that is not learning science.
 
In discussions with other educators, I often hear things along the lines of “Well, if I don’t explain it to them first, how will they learn it?” This line of thinking misses the beauty of true learning. Ask any adult what they remember the most from high school. I guarantee it won’t be anything they were “taught” and memorized for a test. Delivered information resides in our short-term memory if we don’t do anything beyond memorizing it. We KNOW this… it’s not new to teachers. We learn that memorization is the lowest order of thinking. So why do we still concentrate more in this area in education than the others? Short answer: it’s the quickest and easiest to test. Efficiency for the win (or not). The longer answer is much more complicated.
 
I’ve written several posts like this before with explanations about what learning IS and what it IS NOT.  So have a lot of other people. I’ll add some to comments and welcome your additions as well! 
 
So to get back to my original example (and reason for writing this post)…
The answer to the questions I get from educators who see what we do at Anastasis Academy  – and wonder how on earth my K/1s learn how to read, write, understand math, etc.  -without teaching via traditional methods educators are used to seeing –  is THIS:
 
I don’t teach kids to read.
I don’t teach kids to write.
I don’t teach kids to memorize math facts… or vocabulary… or any of those other delivered items/standards to which we have clung so tightly in traditional education.
 
I facilitate a learning environment where they are curious.
 
I facilitate a learning environment where they want to learn to read.
 
I facilitate a learning environment where they want to make sense of numbers.
 
(I could go on, but I think you get the picture.)
 
We do not drill phonics or math facts. We read all the time. We talk about letters, sounds, word endings, rhyming words, patterns, etc. IN THE CONTEXT OF WHAT WE ARE LEARNING. Always.
 
Let me emphasize that…
Yes, sometimes we’ll stop and talk about how verbs in the past tense sound like they end in a “t,” but the patterns we see in our books are “-ed.” We remark about this pattern every time we see it, and then we also start noticing it in our writing.
Pretty soon, the students start to think and edit themselves in their writing of past tense verbs. It makes sense to them, because it comes up in the context of what they’re already doing. These types of little mini or “pop out” lessons happen all the time, but the most important part is this: it’s always in the context of what we’re learning. I cannot stress this enough.
 
So if you ask me how I teach my kids to read if I don’t focus on all the traditional 20th/21st century methods of teaching reading, I will tell you…
 
I don’t teach them to read. They LEARN to read.
You can substitute any other concept/skill in the above sentences, because the emphasis is always on LEARNING, not teaching.
 
 
 (My class and I blog at architectsofwonder.edublogs.org… we share a lot of what we do and how we learn there. We also tweet from @TeamBaldwin and would love to hear from you!)

*Two of my “learning and math” posts that are relevant:

We Don’t Need Badges for Reading

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(c) 2016 Michelle K. Baldwin (all rights reserved)

My students love to read… and I don’t exaggerate when I say “love.” They adore books of all kinds, and they are excited for any time of the day that includes a book. This love for reading has come from a very carefully cultivated classroom environment where they have access and abundant choice in reading. (I can’t take all the credit, though. For many of them, that love of books is also nurtured greatly at home. My goal as their teacher is to help that love continue to grow.)

When I want them to do some research about the topics that interest them, I pull as many books as I can from our own little library and spread them across the tables in our classroom. We read picture books together. We read books with accompanying CDs and songs. There’s a great mix of non-fiction and fiction available to them. Reading is not a chore in this classroom – it’s a right that feels like a gift.

My emergent readers have access to the same books that my developing and fluent readers have. Sometimes they choose books that they cannot yet read (emphasis on “yet”), and sometimes they choose books that might be considered too easy. What I see is a continued love for books and continued progress in where they started when they first came to this classroom in the fall.

Earlier in the year, we were very excited to get an app on our iPads that brought us access to even more books. The kids could search for a keyword, and many titles showed up in the results. When we needed to do some investigating in our inquiry block and didn’t have enough books on each topic for individual research, this app helped fill a void. I was very pleased and often tweeted about how happy I was with this app*.

Then something changed. All of a sudden, my kids wanted to read on this app all the time. They were quietly chattering amongst themselves about how many books they had been reading, how much they read over the weekend… but something seemed “off” to me.

This past Monday, one of my little girls was in tears. I couldn’t figure out what was wrong until she was finally able to tell me that she didn’t get the Mother’s Day badge. I asked her what she was talking about, and the other kids showed me their badges page in the app. Sometimes, you get a badge just for reading on a special day. I explained to her that it was ok that she didn’t get a badge for reading on that day… and that the badges don’t matter at all to me. She told me that she had spent the day with her family and not on her iPad… and I explained to her that it was a better thing to be doing than reading for the purpose of getting a special badge.

On top of that exchange, I heard my students’ conversations change. Instead of being excited about what they had learned from reading, as had been the case before, now they were all talking about which badges they received.

I brought them all to the center of the room and asked them what was going on. I questioned, “Why are we reading books?” Some of them answered, “because we like reading and because we learn a lot.” But then the responses changed, too. They started to talk all about the badges- how they liked getting more badges and how important that is. One of them even mentioned how you can page through all of the books in the app to trick the app into thinking you’ve read the book… and then you get MORE BADGES.

They could tell from the look on my face how disappointed I was. There was a bit of silence for a while, and then one of the 7 year olds started to say, “Guys, I think we forgot about why we read. Badges aren’t important.” Not everyone agreed with him. My solution was to tell them that we will continue to use the app for research, but that’s it. If we’re reading just to get a badge, then we’re reading for all the wrong reasons. If the badge mania continues, we’re going to delete the app. 

Just like that… my students’ motivation to read – because they love reading and want to learn more – flipped like a switch. This is what happens every single time we apply extrinsic motivation to something we want to encourage. EVERY. TIME. I’ve taught long enough to see cycles of rewards for reading… or learning to play the recorder… or learning multiplication tables… whatever you want to add to the list. You might help a kid memorize something or change a behavior, but extrinsic rewards always fail on a long-term basis.

I’m not the only person to write about this…

Pernille Ripp has written extensively on reading motivation here, here, and here – These posts are very specific to reading logs, but make a similar point. (If you’re not reading her blog, please do. The posts on reading instruction alone will be well worth your time.)

Alfie Kohn wrote a great post (amongst many) about The Risk of Rewards… but most directly about this topic in A Closer Look at Reading Incentive Programs.

As I spoke with Kelly Tenkely this morning about this blog post I needed to write about reading incentives, she recommended a book called Readicide: How Schools Are Killing Reading and What You Can Do About It by Kelly Gallagher. I haven’t yet read this book, but I can guarantee that badges (or pizza coupons) are not going to be the solution to what’s happening in reading instruction and motivating kids to read.

Larry Ferlazzo has an entire curated list dedicated to posts he and others have written about the failure of extrinsic rewards in education. Take the time to read these!

Honestly, I could have just posted links to the above posts and the book recommendation and not even written THIS post… however, there’s a story here. I saw firsthand what happened to my littles when they were incentivized with something other than reading itself. They already loved reading… but then their focus changed for the worse. I have some “badge damage” to undo with a few of my kids.

*I’m not blaming the makers of this particular app, and I’m not using this blog post to call them out publicly. They are providing what scores of other teachers (unfortunately) want.

Here’s what I want:

  1. Get rid of the badges. ENTIRELY.
  2. Create a graphic of a bookshelf within your app to show kids which books they’ve already read (I know there’s a scrollable section where they can see what they’ve read, but the virtual bookshelf would make it easier to see the sum total.)
  3. DO NOT CREATE POINTS OR BADGES FOR THE NUMBER OF BOOKS ON THE VIRTUAL BOOKSHELF.
  4. Continue to provide great choices for the kids to read… because ultimately, that’s what will keep us reading.

If none of my suggestions are possible, then consider giving teachers the option to turn off the badges. We don’t need them, and I’m not putting my students in a situation where badges are an option anymore.

Thanks for taking the time to read this. If you made it all the way to the end, you can give yourself 10,000 make-believe points as a reward. *wink*

Standing Desks Are Not Innovative

Standing desks in a classroom– whether they’re for students, teachers, or both — are NOT innovative. It is not changing how kids learn, no matter what some advertisement is trying to sell you.

Standing desks are not going to change the classroom environment for the better, especially if the “tasks” the students are doing don’t change.

If you don’t feel you have the power to change the “tasks” the kids are all doing in the classroom (you do, but we’ll debate that another time), let’s first discuss the the problems with promoting this type of  “innovation” (that is not really an innovation):

  1. If you remove all the traditional sitting desks in a classroom and replace them with standing desks, you still have a problem: All the kids are still physically doing exactly the same thing, and you’re making the assumption (consciously or not) that all kids need the same thing.
  2. Kids need to MOVE. The research is still unclear about whether sitting all day or standing all day is worse for you. Research about movement for all ages, on the other hand, is VERY clear. Kids of all ages need to move. (I only added one article on movement here. There are MANY. Search for “why kids need to move.”)
  3. Multiple options in a classroom will always be better than one option. Why not have some places where kids can stand, some places where kids can sit, some places where kids can be together… I think you get the picture. I have different options in my classroom, and the kids choose sometimes to simply sit on the floor with no furniture. When I taught high school students, it wasn’t any different. Kids need choices of where to be, and those choices should be determined by the kids… not by the adults assuming they know what the kids need. Multiple options are especially helpful in cramped-for-space classrooms.
  4. It’s really difficult to collaborate with other students when they’re all standing at individual desks. Humans are social learners, and they should have options to group up and discuss.
  5. Could we also talk about how “ableist” this “standing desk” assumption is? Not everyone can stand. Not everyone can stand for an entire school day… and that goes for adults as well as kids. I’m not going to use this space to rehash my own health issues, but I would be an absolute wreck if I had no place to sit during the day. I don’t sit there all day– I teach 5-7 year old kids. That would be impossible. BUT… my body tells me when I need to sit down. I need options, and so do my kids.

So instead of advocating the “latest, greatest” fad in standing classroom desks — or pedal desks (seriously?), why don’t we stop and think about advocating BETTER options altogether?

Provide spaces where kids can be comfortable.

Provide options for many different types of spaces in the classroom.

Provide for more movement throughout the day (sorry, Florida. BIG FAIL on the recess issue. Kids need to be moving outside every single day!). Hands tied on giving the kids more recess? Then do something, ANYTHING to help those kids move around in their space. There are yoga videos on YouTube. You can have a dance party. Just help them to move in whatever way they can.

Your best bet? Ask the students what THEY want and empower them to help make that classroom design happen. Flexible spaces can be significantly less expensive than one desk for every student. Get creative. When you involve students, you may have to help them through the creative process more than once. Make sure they “shoot for the moon” in the design process, because they might stick with the only thing they’ve ever known.

Then… make it happen. I know this is possible, because I’ve been in places where it’s changed, even this late in the school year. A teacher from Texas came to our 5Sigma Educonference (at Anastasis) in February. When she returned to her school, she shared with me,

“I came home from Denver and completely gutted my room. All desks gone including mine. Changed the mojo completely! We got tables. We are also starting our mornings with a group activity rather than desk work. So far we are loving it.”

Don’t let advertisers tell you what is best for your students. Ask the kids. Read the research… and then make it happen.

Thanks for reading.

The Lie of Busyness

Over the weekend, our school hosted our 2nd annual 5Sigma Educonference (a reflection post to come later). Because we roll over learning excursions for the conference into Sunday, Kelly schedules a “no school” day on the Monday after the conference for a much-needed day off.

I do not do “days off” well. One of two things generally happens when i don’t have a work day: 1) I schedule it chock full of appointments and errand running, or 2) I’m so exhausted, I sleep through the entire day and practice my bump on a log impressions. If the latter occurs, I spend the rest of the week feeling so guilty about wasting a precious day, and any restful benefits from doing nothing wear off immediately.

cc licensed photo by Jeffrey Putnam

cc licensed photo by Jeffrey Putnam https://flic.kr/p/e9pSi4

What is about American culture that makes us feel guilty about doing nothing? (I’m sure it’s not entirely exclusive to Americans, but…) We’re constantly describing people as productive or as lazy. The cultural disapproval of one who is seen as lazy or unproductive is everywhere. We even do it to kids as young as five. If they’re not “on task” or taking their academic progress seriously, we start looking at disorders and how we can FIX them*. The message we send children, by example and by directive, is that we must always be ON and working.

What we have created is a culture of highly anxious, stressed out, and wellness-deprived people.

For some, being “busy” all of the time is worn like a badge of honor. My friend, Dean Shareski, wrote about that in “Let’s Stamp Out ‘Busyness.’” Dean also talks in this post about how being busy is used to feel superior to “less busy” people. I witnessed examples of this on a trip to Maui once. Maui Time is a thing. If a business says it opens at 9am, don’t expect anyone to be there at 9am. They’ll get there when they roll in. I knew this before I arrived, but it was interesting to hear the tourists complain… lots of people talking about laziness: “how can they possibly be expected to make a profit if they’re so unproductive,” and “I do not have time to wait around for someone who doesn’t care about my business,” etc. What I noticed was happy owners and employees who didn’t really care what anyone else thought.

On the day-after our educonference, I scheduled a few hours at a local spa. My class and their families had graciously given me a gift card for Christmas and my birthday, and that paid for my entire time at the spa. As I sat and relaxed, it got me thinking about how needed this day was due to the road runner-like pace of the last few months. (I’d started noticing that my heart rate was elevated, even when I sat down. My anxiety about checking off things on my to-do list and planning the minutiae of each day was causing my heart a little stress, too.)

While I was on my way to the relaxation room, I was tempted to bring my phone with me, but decided against it. My husband knew where I would be and knew how to reach me in an emergency. There was nothing else that needed my attention on that phone.

Instead, I brought my journal and a book. I started with a short meditation, and then began reading Paulo Coelho’s Like The Flowing River. In this book, Coelho shares thoughts and reflections in his usual style. This man can craft a metaphor and such incredible imagery… it often leaves me breathless as I read his writing. In one of the first sections, he talks about seasons of our lives and how they mimic seasons of our planet. Even Nature knows when to go dormant and rejuvenate.

While I was reading, I was reminded of a time when I heard a very insightful, yet simple comment. Dr. Martha Bruckner, currently superintendent of Council Bluffs Community Schools in Iowa,  said something once that has since stuck with me (and I’ll paraphrase here):

Sometimes, you just need to go sit under a tree.

cc licensed photo by Laura Gilchrist https://flic.kr/p/cayGbQ

cc licensed photo by Laura Gilchrist https://flic.kr/p/cayGbQ

Schools (and school districts) can often operate like speeding trains… go, go, go. Move, move, move. Don’t sit still; we don’t have time to be unproductive. We must remain busy, busy, busy.

What I’ve found is that you miss so much of the scenery every day when you’re on that train. The speed of the train blurs out really important things… things that matter. Often, we’re on that train for so long, we’ve forgotten everything else around us.

Busyness does that to a person. It lies about how important it is… and even how important we are. It lies to us about the people who do know how important it is to just be still.

Sometimes, sitting under a tree is exactly what we need. A person can see so much from that perspective and view, and it’s not at all blurry. Everything seems to be light and clear.

Our bodies, minds, and souls need rest. They need days when we do nothing. They need days when we just take the time to recuperate.

As always, I think about the lessons I’m learning, and how I can do better for the children I serve. My little students love learning, and we’re always excited to do more! But then I remember that they also need rest. They need time to play and just be little kids. They need time to sit under actual trees. I know I’m responsible for these children for many hours a day… and while their learning is a part of that responsibility, so is their wellness as human beings.

Tomorrow, the weather forecast is sunny and 52º F. We’re going to make time to just go sit under a tree.

 

 

 

Note; As I edit my writing in this post, I acknowledge the HUGE amount of privilege I have in occasionally seeing a day off and being able to make time to rest and relax.  There are many who do not share in such a luxury. I want to help make that a possibility for all of us, not just a few. If you have ideas about this, leave suggestions in the comments section. 

 

*We’ve started getting phone calls at Anastasis from parents who are interested in our school because family physicians recommend our school in place of anxiety medications. This says a LOT about the culture of busyness in most schools… and what it says truly breaks my heart. We have to do so much better for kids.

He Had A Name

As I read about the death of my friend, Deven Black, something stuck with me… and I couldn’t let go of it.

The headline read, “Homeless man dies…”

Not “Former teacher.” Not “Friend of many.” Not any other label that would have said more about the man who lived on this planet for 62 years.  Not “Deven Black.” There it was in stark contrast to the human being behind it. “Homeless man.” *

I wanted to scream, “HE HAD A NAME!”

I’m not just writing about this, because Deven was my friend. I’m writing this, because this is how people are labeled… as if there is nothing more descriptive about them when it comes to news. This is how we describe human beings.

I’m not going into detail about what happened to Deven in the last few years. That’s not my story to share. What I will say is that I know Deven had a mental illness. That some of the things that happened – or things that he did – were not characteristic of the Deven I knew. Mental illness does that. It takes away the person – the husband, the father, the friend, the professional – and turns him into someone else. Sometimes, that person is barely recognizable to those who knew him best.

As I’m writing this, so many other people… people with names… come to mind. I doubt there’s a single person reading this who hasn’t had some experience with mental illness in their circle of friends, family, or acquaintances. Maybe you, dear reader, have fought your own battle with those demons. I don’t know.

What I do know is that our nation treats people with mental illnesses abominably… like it’s their fault. As if they could just will themselves to be better. “If you try hard enough, you can NOT be mentally ill.” No one would say that to someone going through another type of illness, most especially a terminal illness. And mental illness can be just that – a terminal illness – if it’s not treated properly.

Mental health care is expensive. If you don’t have the money, your mental illness does not get treated. We have basically doomed a very large percentage of our country who cannot afford the proper mental health care. Those people – people with names –  many of whom are living in poverty, have little to no chance of living with a mental illness.

In Deven’s case, someone else’s mental illness was the cause of Deven’s death. I don’t want to go into that right now. I can’t go into that right now. The system failed that young man, too.

What I do want to think about is why Deven was in a homeless shelter in the first place. How someone who fell through the cracks in the system had no other options but to be in a homeless shelter… that’s what I can’t let go of. I can’t let go of the fact that so many people who are living on our streets in this country are not there by choice. And that many of us look the other way and “comfort” ourselves by thinking that their “bad choices are what caused them to be there, so really… what can I do? If they would just try harder and make better choices, they wouldn’t be in that situation.”

It’s really easy to look the other way when you assign blame to someone else… then you don’t have to do anything.

Deven isn’t the only person who becomes a statistic. There are others who suffer every day. People with names. This is someone’s child. And now… that person is another nameless statistic. These statistics are staggering… and if you’re living in poverty and a person of color, the statistics are worse. 

The “solution” for many who are homeless is prison. I’ve heard politicians say, “Well, at least they’re getting the health care they need now.” Really? That’s the best we can do??

We have to speak up. We have to tell our government leaders that we can do better… that we must do better. How many others like Deven have simply disappeared? People who have so much to give to the world around them. If we raise our collective voices, we can’t be ignored. When a significant percentage of our population is affected, we can’t turn around and ignore them. Use your voice. Tell your representatives that this is unacceptable. Those of us who are able must speak up for those who are not.

It’s ironic that Deven died on the day Canadians were tweeting with #belltalks – Mental Health issues were being discussed all across their nation. Their national and local leaders were involved. That’s a start for people who are often ignored and forgotten.

Speak up. Be loud. We can’t afford to forget those who are ignored. We can’t afford to forget their names.

His name was Deven, and he was my friend. I’m not going to forget him.

 

*A couple of articles later updated their headlines to say, “Homeless ex-teacher.” I’m not sure it’s any better, and I’m not linking to them.

5Sigma Educon – Pay-It-Forward 2016

Last year, Anastasis Academy held its first annual 5Sigma Educonference. We were incredibly happy to share what our students do, meet new friends, and learn along with our keynote speakers and many wonderful session facilitators. If you were in attendance, we thank you for joining us!

Something we established last year to help educators attend 5Sigma was the #payitforward 5Sigma Newbie. Some history:

A few years ago, our friend Beth Still wanted to demonstrate the power of social networks and PLNs while also assisting a “newbie” in attending ISTE. The ISTE Newbie Project was born! Beth asked people in her network to consider contributing a small amount of money ($10, $25) to help pay for the travel, registration, and hotel costs for someone to attend the international conference for the first time. Each year, over $2000 was raised to cover the costs for that year’s newbie. The beauty of this project, however, was that many people contributed relatively small amounts. Because our networks are growing, it was easy for an individual to only donate $10 or so, yet the project could be fully funded. This was that power of networking that Beth wanted to illustrate!

For 5Sigma, we thought it would be great to continue the idea of helping to crowdfund travel expenses for someone to attend our conference. Last year (February 2015), Eric Johnson (@yourkidsteacher) was the first 5Sigma Newbie.  Eric wrote this post about his experience: EduConferences, Woodstock, & Physicists.

We are thrilled to announce that our 5Sigma “Newbie” and Pay-It-Forward recipient for 2016 is Inge Wassmann from St. Stephen’s Episcopal Day School in Coconut Grove, Florida!

IngeProfileBioPic

Inge’s bio:

After teaching PreK, JK, Kindergarten, Grades 2 and 4 for 12 years, it is Inge’s forward thinking in learning that led her to the Tech Team at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Day School in Coconut Grove, Florida. Inge works relentlessly with faculty and students to innovate learning at all levels; from integrating technology, implementing student-driven curriculum, fulfilling character education both in school and online, to creating digital portfolios to show reflective learning.

Inge is a 2014 NAIS Teacher of the Future and received the Joanna Naclerio Educational Excellence Award in 2006. She presents at several conferences and provides training for faculty at different schools.

If you want to find out more about Inge:

inge.wassmann.me

@ingewassmann

A note about Inge from Felix Jacomino, Directory of Technology at St. Stephens Episcopal Day School:

Inge Wassmann is a natural innovator. She is also inspirational to those around her. Those qualities make Inge the kind of teacher students want to learn with and along-side. Her students understand she will give them choice and allow them to be the masters of their education. St. Stephen’s Episcopal Day School is extremely fortunate to have her on the faculty, where her colleagues also look forward to collaboration and sharing of ideas with the Wonderful Mrs. Wassmann!

We’re hoping to crowdfund Inge’s travel expenses and hotel accommodations. Last year we were able to raise $500 to meet our Pay-It-Forward goal. Please help us match that total this year for Inge Wassmann!

If you would like to donate, please visit the cross-post at http://www.5sigmaeducon.com/#!pay-it-forward/c34c .