Words Fall Short (Reflections on PoCC17 in Progress)

Words can do a lot. Or, I should say we can do a lot with words. And still they fall short.

Which words would I choose to tell you about my day?

I would start with beauty. Human beauty in so many hues, tones and shades. An unyielding variety on which to feast the eyes that didn’t realized they were starved.

I might continue with brilliance – the kind that comes in a warm smile of greeting, the kind you hear in a voice that is both clear and rich and needs no mic.

But also a brilliance of presence – to hold sway with an audience of thousands through song and movement, in chorus and in the spirit of freedom.

And of wit…to tell the familiar truths in the charm of Disney’s favorite fairy tales and allow us to laugh when our response under different circumstances could just as well be to weep.

I might use bravery – some of my own and really that of others – especially those who invite us to learn with them; who stand at the podium encouraging us to turn and talk, connect and commit.

I’d have to say ready. Ready in the sense of prepared, hungry and waiting for this moment to finally, yes finally, say what needs saying without sugarcoating, or toning it down and be heard, heard, heard. So very ready for exactly that again and again.

Fierce in our love for one another, for this particular space and time together. Fierce in our understanding that even if we do not see eye to eye, we see and acknowledge each other and the sacrifices we have each made to be here.

Responsive. Oh these snaps and praise hands and nods and shout outs – that kind of real responsiveness. Call and response responsiveness like in church. A hug, a touch, a moment, a shared silence – ways of responding we find for each other.

I cannot report well what was said and how it was received. I have just these impressions of

colleagues and kin, folks and friends

some people I’ve never met and may never know

but I saw them and they moved me

each magnificent in the singular, breathtaking as a body.

This is PoCC for me. People of Color Conference. Where I can be

Black (with a capital B), Woman in all the ways I choose; teacher, learner, listener, facilitator, space maker, collaborator, blogger, tweeter, note taker, observer, participant, ally, accomplice, friend, sister, colleague, dancer…

Me.

Preparing for #NAISPoCC 2017

nature-2746726_1920

This year I have a head start. A couple of days to adjust to a 9 hour time difference and some good solid thinking time before the start of the National Association of Independent Schools People of Color Conference. The pre-conference seminars will be in session on Wednesday and the official conference opening will take place on Thursday morning. On the PoCC website and in the conference program there are plenty of tips about how best to get ready for three jam-packed days of workshops, affinity group meetings, informal networking and social events throughout.

Thinking about my own insecurities and question marks heading into this good-sized event that is not like any other education conference I attend, I came up with this alternative list of points to consider.

  • Expect to arrive more than once.  PoCC as an identity-based conference means that beyond managing the usual scheduled sessions and social gatherings, “showing up” takes on a whole new meaning. From one hour to the next, I have found PoCC to be flurry of shifting contexts which means that we can and likely will arrive multiple times in different ways in the course of the next days.

 

  • Consider your why before you jump into the stream. Try asking yourself some of these questions before you start your conference days: What brings you to PoCC (again)? What are you looking forward to? What kind of connections are you eager to make? What kinds of risks do you anticipate for yourself? How do you want to leave the conference? Any chance to reflect in advance can help smooth our transition from fresh arrival to fully engaged contributor.

 

  • Allow space for disorientation and emotionality. PoCC is designed to provide a crucial space for educators of color to look at who we are and explore what that means for our practice. The conference is a rare and precious opportunity to do this in community of various configurations. It also means that we may find ourselves touched in deeper ways than usual, that we see ourselves in a different light or that we share stories we don’t even remember holding. All these things are possible. And it is precisely in these moments that each of us makes the conference our very own. That’s powerful. And it may also be intense or draining or overwhelming at points, hence one final suggestion:

 

  • Carve out some alone time if you need it. Don’t feel that you need to make every session. Do what you can and when the time comes, rest. Walk outside or continue the deep conversation you just started. This is also critical to being at and creating PoCC – taking care of ourselves and each other along the way.

PoCC offers us so much and also demands a great deal of us professionally and personally. Liza Talusan who, like me, will be blogging during the conference captures the spirit of what makes PoCC a key experience for many independent school educators of color. She writes:

At PoCC, I get to be myself.

I get to be in community of other people of color who, too, are tired of making themselves smaller, invisible and palatable for others. I am surrounded by people who wait an entire year for PoCC just to be heard and to be in the majority. I am in the presence of brilliance at PoCC.

For me, attending a conference whose membership numbers more that a couple thousand produces more than a little anxiety. I love people but try as much as possible to avoid crowds; I enjoy talking one-on-one but tend to go silent when so many are gathered together. Even knowing that I am ‘among friends,’ the degree of isolation I can experience when we are all assembled in a large hall often surprises me anew. So as I post these ideas for others, I am also writing them very much for myself.

More than being at PoCC, I look forward to showing up, fully and unapologetically me, and building that crucial community, one connection at a time.

 

If you’re at PoCC and you’d like to chat about blogging, or Physical Education, or teaching abroad or digital privacy/security/surveillance or any other topic under the sun, please come find me. I’ll be presenting a session of building and sustaining community with the fabulous Min Pai on Friday 11:15-12:15  Room 209A. You can also find me on Twitter, @edifiedlistener

image via Pixabay.com CC0

That Time When It Didn’t Work Out

class-1986501_1920

I had an idea and shared it. The idea became a collaboration. The collaboration became a proposal. The proposal was accepted. The three of us rejoiced and shared the news in our networks. Friends congratulated us, offered us virtual pats on the back. We continued talking, refining our plan. We booked our travel and registered for the event. We were so excited to be sharing the stage, pooling our expertise, involving our audience, setting the world on fire, to be honest.

And then we got word. Not enough people signed up. Get more people and it can still run. We tried this, tried that. Reached out here, reached out there. It did not work. What we had was good but no match for the 14 other pre-conference offerings. We lost out to we don’t know exactly how many others. We only know that our gig is up; meaning cancelled. In the final program, erased, I guess.

That’s not what we planned. That’s not at all what we envisioned. But it is what happened. My colleague reminded me to not take it personally; to understand that big conferences operate this way to attract the maximum number of extra payers with minimal sacrifices. Our session was one such sacrifice, I guess. While I’m trying my best not to take it personally, that doesn’t make it easier to take.

Travel plans were cancelled. Now I will be a party of one instead of a member of the triumphant trio. At this conference we won’t be involving our audience or sharing the stage. We won’t be hearing the excellent keynotes together or wander from one lit reception to the next. No, it won’t be at all the way I had hoped. And I am just getting over that.

There’s no blame to lay. I feel like I was naive and lacked insight into the conference organization process. I’ll know for next time and think carefully about how to invest my energies into this event. Burned once and you learn, right? And to feel burned by an event I actually love and care for, that is especially bitter.

This is just to say

that not all the things I try

work out

the way I want them to

and I can grow to accept

that this is true for everyone

at some point

but it’s also true

that right now

it really just sucks.

 

 

The Whiteboard Speaks

In my classes I rely a lot on my whiteboard. I put up an agenda for each grade level. Maybe agenda isn’t quite the right word. It’s a list of what I have planned. It’s some words and sometimes a few numbers that lets kids know what they can/should do, what’s next and what comes after that. Even my very young students learn to recognize “Tag” or “Awesome Gym Day” pretty quickly.

I use the whiteboard plans for a few reasons:

  • My students feel informed.
  • Having a written plan keeps me on track. (Even if I change my mind about something, my students can call me to account.)
  • Both I and my students do better with a common structure as a reference point.
  • I can assign independent activities.
  • Written directions keep me from talking too much.

Today in 4th grade I had the following on the board:

Jog 2 laps

Long Jump rope warm-up (4 per rope)

Stations: 1. Balance beam, 2. Climbing wall, 3. Ball balance, 4. Cartwheels, 5. Bear walk/forward roll

That means students arrived from the changing room, read the board, jogged the 2 laps and then looked for a group to begin jumping. Later arrivals may have needed a reminder to read the board and to do the jogging first but easily found their way. Groups formed, long jump ropes were turning, kids were jumping and I had said very little. We were 15 minutes into our 40 minute class before I called them all in to talk a bit about jumping in the rope. I gave each group the assignment to see that each person in their group jump 10-15 jumps in the rope to get a sense of where we are. They completed that task, put orange tickets in if they completed the assigned number (or more) and we moved on to the stations.

I don’t think there’s anything revolutionary here but I experienced this lesson and others like it as a tremendous relief to have helped students (and myself) through a lesson where I didn’t need to talk that much. And even better I think my students appreciate it if I keep my whole-group word interventions down to a minimum. This system allows us both more mental bandwidth for action, observation and individual exchanges which typically feel much more rewarding and valuable.

I guess this is part of a longer process in my teaching journey – learning to turn matters over to my kids. Most often they get it. They have fantastic ideas, creative and unusual ideas and they need space and opportunities to test them out. When I remember to open up that space, the results speak for themselves.

We started basketball in 5th grade this week and after having kids arrive, do some dynamic flex drills and shooting on their own (for about 10-15 minutes) I called them in and asked them what they wanted to learn about, what they considered most important to cover in this unit. Of course they were on it! Shooting, ball handling, how to defend, lay ups, rules… Based on that I then suggested that we focus on one of their priorities first (i.e., lay ups) and then return to mine (chest passes) a little later.

Afterwards I realized that I simply don’t do this enough. And that led me to this tweet which sprang from a challenge to capture our pedagogy in a haiku:

I definitely do not have this teaching game figured out. And that’s also the fun part. Me talking less is a plus. It appears that making space for student input is never a mistake. Student independence in class is worth cultivating.

Odd to put the whiteboard out there as my go-to teaching resource. It’s not an app, doesn’t require a subscription or even electricity but for my purposes it works a charm.

 

 

Keeping Kids in Mind

children-2426078_1920

Two posts I want to recommend off the bat:

Jesse Stommel: Why I Dont’ Grade

Pernille Ripp: A Call For Common Sense Reading Instruction

Teachers who actually teach and also engage on social media often have plenty to say about what they do and how they do it and also why. There is no shortage of resources in the form of tips, videos, or printable lesson plans to choose from.

Not so long ago, blogger Jon Andrews raised this question on  Twitter:

I am still thinking this over. I read a lot but this question asks about what happened as a result. This question reminds us as educators what purposeful reading can do for us. I have yet to respond directly to Jon’s question but the responses generated are a fantastic starting point for fresh perspectives.

When I read Jesse Stommel’s essay on why he doesn’t grade student work I found myself both nodding in agreement and pausing to ask myself how much of this I can/would/try to actually practice. Grading is a practice we teachers tend to assume to be a non-negotiable in schools at all levels. Thus, the very suggestion that we can leave this practice behind sounds radical which Jesse insists that it “doesn’t feel like a radical pedagogy for me.”

Well, that’s fine for Jesse, you say, but listen up (and please read the entire post):

I have previously condensed my own pedagogy into these four words: “Start by trusting students.”

My approach to assessment arises from this. While I’ve experimented with many alternatives to traditional assessment, I have primarily relied on self-assessment. I turn in final grades at the end of the term, but those grades usually match the grades students have given themselves.

If trusting your students sounds radical to you, then there’s a different conversation we can have at a later date. If, however, you take it upon yourself to first know and then learn to trust your students in the space of a semester or year or years, then perhaps the idea of engaging your students directly in the conversation about their work does more than appeal. Perhaps the option of not grading or using alternative assessments emerges as a real-life, can-do-in-many-little-ways-that-really-add-up possibility.

In response to Jon’s query I see that Jesse’s essay invigorates and bolsters my own thinking about the kinds of learning experiences I am creating and designing for my young students (PK-5th grade). And it opens me up to investigate new territory – handing more of the assessment process over to my kids.

Next, I happened upon a wonderful post by Pernille Ripp who has a significant body of work advocating for developing joyful readers and willing writers. A tweet by John Spencer, who moved from middle school to higher ed teaching, drew my attention. I mention this because these connections matter. How we come to read a blog post or article often has a lot to do with who is referring whom. Here are 2 edubloggers I have come to trust and who, despite growing audiences, have remained true to some fundamental messages about what matters for the kids we teach.

picture-108539_1920

It’s interesting to read a call for common sense in education practices that in the current political moment almost sounds anti-establishment. Pernille laments the degree to which we seem to have lost our way as profession to do what we know works well for and with children:

It appears that in our quest to make sure students can comprehend what they read that we have lost our common sense. That we have started listening much more to programs, politicians, and shoddy research than the very kids who the programs are happening to. That we have pushed the ideas of teachers aside, of best practices, and solid pedagogy, and gotten so lost in the process that we turn to more experts to tell us what we used to know.

In this eloquent post she offers us reminders of “what we used to know”:  that students, all students, need choices as to what they may read, and time to read in class; they need access to books in their classrooms and those books should offer the representation of diversity that exists in the world at large. She encourages us to get to know our students as the readers that they are rather than as the readers we tell them they ought to be and to trust them when they tell us what and how much they’ve read (or haven’t).

We have reached a point in time where advocating for student agency and choice have become radical ideas in education. Even if you don’t inhabit that mindset, rest assured there are plenty who do and in Western late capitalist societies, the likelihood that those who hold these beliefs also hold the primary purse strings and political power is high. Do not underestimate their will to counter and muffle these initiatives where they crop up.

Resistance means finding ways to help our students take themselves seriously as advocates and partners in their own learning. What both Jesse and Pernille offer us are avenues for making that happen all along our students’ paths. There is no single method. As teachers we can cultivate our ability to see varied options and recognize that our students have ideas. We need to be brave enough not only to ask them but also to listen.

children-studying-670663_1920

In closing, Pernille gives us this piece of wisdom that is worth holding onto:

Ask your students how you can be a better teacher for them. Ask them what makes reading amazing and what makes it awful. Question your own practices and admit when you need to grow. We are only as good as our last decision to change.

This is what our education world can look like. And we need to make those decisions to change – always keeping our kids in mind.

 

Stretch Yourself

It’s surprising but I have more to say about my teaching this week. Well, perhaps not exactly about my teaching, rather more about my students’ doings. I guess this is likely going to be a post about what students do with the directions I give them.

Typically, in most of my physical education classes we spend a few minutes on stretching – hopefully building our flexibility and movement vocabulary as we go. At the beginning of the year my colleague and I usually introduce this routine in a traditional teacher-at-the-front, all-kids-follow-along arrangement. That’s fine for getting things started, for setting up routines and providing everyone with a basic stock of stretches they can use. But it doesn’t take long for this ritual to become boring for a number of kids.

(This is also a fine opportunity to discover who my more divergent thinkers in the group may be – they tend to resist teacher-led whole group stretching with remarkable consistency and I get it now.)

So within a couple of weeks we try to release kids to lead their own stretching in a few different ways:

  • in 1st grade selecting 3 leaders who each share 3 stretches with the whole group
  • in 2nd – 5th asking students to make small groups of 4-6 and be responsible for completing a total number of stretches (8 -12).
  • At any grade level, partner stretching for the length of a song. (We use a lot of Kidz Bop).

IMG_1950

The main thing is that kids learn to organize themselves. They decide who will begin, they learn to offer each other ideas, and sort out their own disagreements. It also means that I can step back and observe, give pointers and a few reminders. They are not reliant on me to deliver ideas but I’m visible enough to provide the occasional nudge.

The quality of the stretching can vary widely which it would in any case, I suppose. But I no longer get hung up on those kinds of details. I may temporarily join a group and demonstrate a more accurate version of a stretch rather than say something. More important is that students can show me that they understand what kinds of movements count as stretching, that they have their own internal repertoire of these movements to draw upon and can work with others safely and cooperatively.

My colleague have been using this method for a few years now which means that we also have an increasing number of veterans who take up a lot of the slack in helping new students figure out how it all works.

Again, stretching is just a short episode in a whole lesson – maybe 5-6 minutes tops. At the same time it’s another space for student choice and autonomy that still requires negotiating with others! Every time I watch a group of 1st or 2nd or 3rd graders accomplish this task successfully, I imagine one less soft tissue injury in the world is suffered on that day. And my teacher hear does a little victory dance to Kidz Bop tunes.

Catching Standards

I had a talk with my 4th graders about tossing and catching. We were also talking about grading and report cards and what those things mean.

Yesterday when I presented them with an obstacle course which included some benches, speed ladders (the flexible kind you put on the floor), a couple of mat spaces, a few micro hurdles and a low Swedish box, I didn’t instruct them on how to travel. They made it up as they went and showed both creativity as well as control. One or two students asked me: Is this going to be on the report card? I frowned-smiled and shook my head, “no” wondering where on earth that question had come from.

Today I took the opportunity to ask them.

Me: How could I put an obstacle course on the report card?

You could write it in.

Me: And then say what?

If we were good or bad.

You could say if a person could do the moves.

Me: Aha, so being able to do the moves would be good and not being able to do the moves would be bad?

But maybe someone could practice and learn how to do the moves.

Me: Practice sounds like a good idea.

Me: Well, what about catching today? I notice that everyone is working with a partner, there’s lots of tossing and catching but I don’t see very many orange tickets yet. (Students put in orange tickets for doing 30 catches in a row with a partner.) Why is that?

*A brief hush and several looks over to the white board where this is written down.*

Me: I believe that you are all capable of doing 30 catches with a partner and there are lots of ways you could do it. You can decide how far apart you want to stand, you can decide which kind of thing you want to toss – a beanbag, a ragball (like a small soft football) or a letter ball (volleyball sized foam dodecahedron (12 sides)). But this is also a chance for me to see how you will challenge yourself. Are you going to stand super close to each other like playing hot potato? Or what if you stand way across the room from each other, how long do you think it might take you to get to 30 catches?

IMG_20171005_144157

Catches were made, orange tickets added. (c)edifiedlistener

The conversation was illuminating. I see that my students have a lot on their minds in the gym. And I’m pretty sure that grades and skill performance are not their first priorities upon arrival. At the same time, after they’ve found a friend to work with and determined which part of the lesson they are psyched about, they do care about succeeding. They want to be seen as “good” at something. They try to avoid looking “bad.” They want to have a good time and experience some level of satisfaction. How each child goes about achieving this can look wildly different, even within the same assigned task. This is what makes teaching and learning in groups, in classes, in schools unbelievably complex and ultimately difficult.

I tell my kids I am focusing on catching. That’s what I am planning on assessing. But there’s so much else going on: long haul throws that overshoot the mark, extremely creative attempts to change things up – by twirling, bending over, tossing under a leg; there are a couple of students who need half the time to locate a new partner and then to get restarted; equipment gets lost in the rafters and student lose a couple more pieces trying to knock the first piece down. They are catching and tossing and throwing and missing, dropping and pitching. My students are showing me a host of behaviors, affinities, capabilities, weak points. And I’m trying to focus on catching.

I repeat this exercise over several lessons. I’ve taught the major skill points. We know that catching involves more than just trapping an object between our hands. The point is, that students, as young humans, inevitably are going to show me more than the skill itself. They will demonstrate the art of the catch. Their art of the catch. And over the years, this is the part that I seem to be able to see better and often more clearly than the catching itself.

According to the standards, most of my students meet the grade level expectation for catching. Some students also exceed the grade level expectation for catching, while others are approaching the grade level expectation.

Thankfully for my students and me, we can have space and appreciation for all the things that are going on in class that do not belong to assessments or grading. Sometimes we’re  practicing. Sometimes we’re experimenting and trying out our ideas. We’re trying to be nice to each other. We play old games and make up new rules. We lose track of time. We talk to each other. Many of us believe running and screaming are inseparable. We are in a hurry and some of us have all the time in the world. We’re getting stronger and more flexible. We’re singing and dancing because we know these songs. We freeze when the music stops. Or not.

It’s all happening. These moments of happenings make up the fabric of my teaching days. Altogether it’s far too much to register, note, document. But the impressions they leave are real and substantial over days, weeks, months, years.

I rarely remember what a student got on their PE part of the report card years after I have had them as a student. I can usually recall, however, what she liked, where he struggled and what we discovered in our time together.