Hide and Seek: On Kids, Power and Resistance in Education (OTESSA 22 Keynote)

Image by S. Spelic

Below is the text of my keynote talk for the Open Technology in Education, Society and Scholarship Association given on Tuesday, May 17th, 2022. A recording of the talk will be published later. The slides to the talk are here.

Welcome

I’m truly honored to have this opportunity to be in community with you today. I want to thank the OTESSA organizing committee of Valerie Irvine, Terry Greene, Aras Bozkurt and Kathy Snow for the kind invitation to speak.

Getting to this moment has been a process. Not just for me, I imagine, but for all of us. What have we each done and needed to do in order to be here, be present, right at this current moment?

Pause for a minute and consider all the actions you and I have taken to be in the same time and space together. I’ve closed my door, arranged my lighting and tech set-up, cued up my slides, turned my phone off, closed up all those precious tabs in my browser, had a glass of water… and that’s just within the last hour.

Let’s take a moment to acknowledge the fact that however we got here, we relied on other people in ways large and small to make it possible.

Introduction

I chose this topic or perhaps I should say the topic chose me. Around the time that I proposed the title I was faced with a problem: several of my students were resisting my instruction in a lot of different ways. And truth be told, I was struggling in deciding how to deal with it. 

So, this title alludes to not only my specific situation but also the never ending context of teaching and learning systems. Even as we pursue our interests and attempt to satisfy our curiosity as learners, we are also negotiating power dynamics. As educators tasked with the responsibility of conveying knowledge and engaging students’ thinking, it’s very common for us to experience learners who resist our pedagogical offerings. There’s hiding and there’s seeking. There’s movement and there’s stalling. There’s clarity and there’s confusion.

What I hope we can do together is consider several of the ways we interpret learner resistance and also acknowledge the both helpful and hopeful means we have to lessen its reach and impact in the classroom without diminishing the personhood of our students.

A necessary digression

One of the miracles of this particular interaction – that is, me, an elementary physical education specialist addressing you, an international audience of educators, scholars, thinkers with a particular interest in open technology and education – is how unlikely it is and would have been 15 or even 10 years ago. 

I am here in no small part because of a collection of networked circumstances that flow through one specific digital platform: Twitter. Without Twitter, I doubt that I would have found the types of audience and community for my writing and thinking that have enabled me to appear before you now as a keynote speaker. This is not simply about follower counts or a niche form of mircocelebrity. Rather, my engagement on Twitter has been life-altering, life- enhancing and often life-giving. The friendships, deep conversations and ongoing connections that have arisen from showing up, showing myself and showing care mean the world to me. These are the connections that I bring to bear here, today. My intellectual world is broader, brighter and emotionally sustaining because of so many connections made on a certain bird app.

That means that the recent talk of new ownership has felt threatening and surprisingly personal. Without knowing exactly what’s ahead, recognizing the frailty and vulnerability of the neighborhoods that we’ve built online has been deeply sobering but not entirely surprising.

I say this as a Black educator of young children.

I say this as a Black American woman writer who no longer shies away from the mic.

I say this as an elementary educator who has formed deep, meaningful connections with colleagues across a spectrum of institutions and disciplines.

I say this as a middle-aged Black American woman contemplating the loss of a well curated, life-changing platform.

We can all still watch, wait and hope and against hope that the worst does not transpire. At the same time, let us have no illusions about the durability of for-profit platforms as reliable containers for our dreams of social justice.

I mention all this to situate my talk in a larger, yet distinctly personal context. While we contemplate learner refusal and resistance, I am also considering my own instances of resistance and willingness to adapt to new situations. 

Throughout this talk, you’ll notice that I have feelings about all of these things.

A note about the images on the slides: several of these are photographs that I have digitally altered with LunaPic to offer an artistic flair and also to preserve the privacy of my students. It means a lot to be able to share my students and our spaces with you in this way. 

About me in PE

As you’ve heard, I am a PE specialist at the elementary level. Telling you about my context must also contend with the overt and covert associations happening in your mind with regard to the topic of “elementary physical education.” Consciously or not, a compare and contrast machine is running in the background. Our sense-making relies on calling forth whatever resources our minds have to offer at the moment. Before I continue, I want to ask you to please respond to this prompt: 

What comes up for you when you think back to your own childhood experiences in PE? 

If you’re willing, please share your reflection in the chat.

Asking adults this question is often fraught. Elementary PE can bring up really awful things for some folks, I know. I regret that but it is a frighteningly common reality: humiliation, physical injury, significant emotional damage. At the same time, it also illustrates a teaching and learning dynamic characterized by deliberate power imbalances, a frequent focus on competition and ranking, and a potentially widespread dismissal of students who do not conform to a specific athletic norm. Of course this is neither the whole nor only story, but it’s the one we are more likely to hear in the public sphere and that matters.

Physical Education as a field has come a very long way and the current mission statements, national standards and recent research, the emphasis on healthy social emotional development within and alongside physical development has become commonplace. Cooperative, team-building activities are firmly embedded in programs around the world. Wider ranges of movement options are being offered to students in the hopes of encouraging lifelong physical literacy and engagement.

The key here and in any conversation, really, is to make space for whatever ideas, perceptions, emotions we may be bringing to a topic first.

My students tend to do this automatically:

Me: Friends, we’re starting our soccer unit…

Them: “ Oh, I hate soccer!” 

“Yay! Can we play a match?”

Add to that the various body language expressions of dread or exuberance. Their messages in such situations come in loud and clear.

That said, it’s important to understand that my students share a few fundamental priorities when they come to the gym. They have expectations and standards.

  • They arrive looking for fun.
  • They want to play with their friends.
  • They want to challenge themselves and be challenged to varying degrees but in the right measure.

[Repeat each with appropriate image]

As their teacher, I of course have choices:

  • I can focus on planning in ways which incorporate these priorities.
  • Or not.

I have learned, often the hard way, what happens when I do not take student priorities into account:

They resist, they refuse, they avoid.

Examples of student resistance

Let me give you a couple of examples:

Several years ago when my training as a coaching professional was still fresh, a group of first graders were sitting on the gym floor watching me put down markers for our next activity. The longer I took, the louder they became. I stopped what I was doing and asked: You all just got very loud while I was setting up, what is it that you want me to understand?

They responded rapid fire: We want to have fun! This is boring! We want to play!

“So with your noise you’re telling me that I’m taking too long, I’m keeping you from having fun. I’m sorry. Let’s fix that!”

I remember the situation so clearly because it may have been the first time that I had ever asked students such a question and actually heard their response on a visceral level. I literally ‘stood corrected’ and we were able to proceed.

More recently among my youngest learners I was finding it hard to get them to participate in concert – meaning that they were all over the place. Herding cats syndrome. Also, my responses were not always helpful: frustration, exasperation, anger. So many individual cases of resistance and outright refusal. 

I clearly needed to rethink my approach.

That’s how I landed on obstacle courses as a possible remedy. I created them for nearly every lesson. Obstacle courses satisfied several criteria:

  • They are fun and exciting.
  • Students can move through them autonomously for the most part
  • It’s a recognizable pattern students can quickly make sense of
  • They provide lots of practice of different movement skills

 Watching students line up on their own without a struggle was the telltale sign that I was onto something.

In that same group I also made story time a fixture at the end of class. I read one or two picture books that I select from the library. Of all the things that I offer these learners in my PE class, nothing has been as reliably unifying and compelling as the read-aloud. I mean, who knew?

Accepting Resistance; Working Around and With It

What I’ve learned from students and experience is that resistance is part of the bargain we enter in education. 

  • Students resist things that they fear, dread or feel they cannot handle.
  • Students resist not being regarded as individuals
  • Students resist when their contextual priorities go unacknowledged.

Now, I’m going to repeat those statements, but replace “students” with “educators”

  • Educators resist things that they fear, dread or feel they cannot handle.
  • Educators resist not being regarded as individuals
  • Educators resist when their contextual priorities go unacknowledged.

See what I did there? I’m talking about student resistance, yes and, I want us to also consider our own instances of resistance. There’s a connection. Just saying.

Please keep that in mind as we go.

But now, back to students.

Resistance (and refusal) are forms of power at our disposal. Children use resistance frequently in my classes. There are plenty of things they are asked to do which, in the words of Bartleby, the Scrivener, they would “prefer not to.”

Their resistance is both physical and metaphorical.

  • When asked to make all gender groups, they drag their feet.
  • When asked to create groups that are balanced in terms of skill and enthusiasm, they take their sweet time.
  • When asked to replicate a skill as demonstrated, they reinvent the wheel.
  • When asked to hustle up and get started, they dawdle …

We have on the one hand, the adult-teacher demand and expectation of certain responses and on the other hand, we have students demonstrating, well … if you really think about it: 

Will, Autonomy, agency, creativity

And it drives us nuts? (ok, drives me nuts)

What I mean is, it rubs my ego the wrong way. What I mean is, I want to have things my way. I resist their resistance. There’s power and we struggle over who gets to hold it.

Let’s take a step back. I offer you this poem to illustrate.

What Is Going On?

Refusal in a world where choices are few
Or not obvious
To say no
To rather not/ also to choose otherwise
Where choice exists but is not advertised.

What happens?
I/we ask
What is going on?
There’s a confusion

An assumption or series of assumptions
Dictates
Our response
Which is an active interpretation of what we believe
We’re seeing
Measured against 
What we thought should be happening.
Ah, a disconnect.

We ask about/for understanding
We are seeking clarity
A way out of the confusion
A way out of the cognitive mismatch.

Again,
What is going on?
A way of asking
Why
Are you not doing what I expected
In the way I expected?

Why 
Don’t your actions correspond to the 
Picture in my head?
Why, I am asking,
Are you not reading my mind
Correctly?

Why 
Are we visibly at odds between
My thinking and your doing?

Why 
Is your aim to be more you
And less me?

Let’s pause here. What do you notice? What do you wonder?

I penned this poem while asking myself what it is I really want to get across during our time together. I’m asking myself (and by extension, us) to take another look at the student behaviors we typically identify as resistance or refusal.

I often ask students: What is going on? 

When I might do better by asking: What is it that you want/need me to understand?

And I would probably do well to ask: What else can I see in my students’ behaviors? 

Towards an Irresistible Pedagogy

Thinking about and through all of these questions has helped me recognize what I’m trying to do in my classes. Some kind of resistance will always be there. What can I do to make this (lesson, class, experience) irresistible to students?

I use “irresistible” as aspirational rather than as fact.

Here’s what I’ve figured out so far:

  • It is deeply relational and requires being our whole selves 
  • It is visibly responsive to student priorities
  • It includes apologies where necessary
  • It is inherently adaptive

Let’s talk about those in turn:

Relational – 

I have to develop some kind of relationship with each of my students. It begins by learning their names and how to pronounce them correctly. I observe them carefully in order to notice their unique access points. This one loves cartwheels, while that one fears balls; another one tends to blurt out during instructions, while their classmate will hardly say “boo” in class. These details form the basis of our year together. At the same time, my students get to know me. That I’m kinda strict, I remember names and I can do a pretty good cartwheel.

Relational also means that I think about my students when choosing my attire for the day: fairy tale hoodie? Fruit shaped earrings? Broccoli or strawberry socks? These details matter. Changing my hairstyle or shoes can never go unnoticed. These can be great conversation starters or just reminders that I’m a person with particular tastes. These are more crumbs on the path of getting to know Mrs. Spelic.

Visibly responsive – 

Along the same lines, I try to plan activities that will appeal to my students. I only make promises that I can keep. Although students will ask me every lesson if today is Awesome Gym Day, they know that it will happen and I’ll give them ample warning. 

It also matters how the gym is set up, what’s written on the board, which equipment is in view? These provide clues that students parse like expert detectives. Reading the agenda on the board allows them to confirm their suspicions.

And of course they press me with further requests which I most likely cannot accommodate on the spot. I note their requests, however, and hold onto them for future lessons. And when I say no, I can cite a good reason.

Includes apologies

The most common injuries in my classes are hurt feelings. When students come to me to share a complaint about a classmate, I often ask if the other person already said sorry. The response is usually “no.” 

Irresistible assumes that we’re going to make mistakes and fall short of our proclaimed goals. 

It means that I model using apologies to start over and acknowledge doing the wrong thing. My students learn that we’re not in class in pursuit of perfection. No, we’re in class to build something useful and interesting with each other. To do that we have to be prepared to stop and unpack what went wrong. And we all practice listening, even when it may feel like the hardest thing to do.

Inherently adaptive

Of course, my students and I have to be prepared for changes during our time together. We may run out of time to do all the activities written on the board. Or discover that we’re missing the skill level to play a certain game. Also no two groups, even at the same grade level are ever the same. Above all, it has helped to let go of my expectations of stasis.

There are some things I can relatively easily identify as “irresistible” for the vast majority of students:

  • First and foremost, Awesome Gym Day,
  • But also the team building activity, Bridges.
  • Choosing their own partners and groups
  • Having music on in class
  • Fun on their terms,
  • Being heard, seeing their ideas put into practice
  • When I wear my Lego earrings.

To capture the conundrum of sharing all this with you while also wondering if it even makes sense or holds value, I offer you another poem: 

“What I mean by irresistible”

Look at me, look at this
Me trying to tell you ‘bout something irresistible
A pedagogy of all things! Pathways to learning, 
Means of instruction
Irresistible, my foot!

On the other hand,
What you know about kids
And movement and play?
Given the chance, kids can make
Nearly anything a game.

What I’m saying, what I’ve learned is
Just not to mess it up
Irresistible respects desires
Irresistible salutes the right challenge
Irresistible knows how to kick it
And have fun

What I’m saying, what I’ve learned is
We make awesome the standard;
We are always aiming 
For satisfaction, this way, then that
Sometimes we make it, sometimes not

Make awesome the standard
So we know what to do with choice
When we have it
 know how to pursue our heart’s desire
Even going solo
We learn how to try and fail
And try again

Irresistible means I have to let go
 means I have to stop resisting
means I have to acknowledge the wealth
Of drive, creativity and self
Running wild across the canvas
Of our class

Irresistible is about making options 
Visible, legible, real
Irresistible is about discovering possibility
In the tiniest thing
Irresistible is about learning the truth
That control is rarely a monopoly

So, no, it’s not an answer
Or a solution, please note.
It’s an aperture to look through
Once, then again
A flight of fancy disguised as work
A chance to see
 as if you hadn’t been looking
All along

What might “irresistible” look, sound and feel like in your context? 

Space for negotiation in our pedagogy?

Irresistible pedagogy has no interest in perfection or some (marketable) manufactured ideal; rather it’s about discovering the things, the conditions that keep us in the game; that keep us wanting to come back and practice a little more. Just enough of the right stuff and close watch on avoiding the worst stuff. From all sides.

Just enough of the right stuff – for our students, for ourselves, for and also from our institutions

A close watch on avoiding the worst stuff – especially in our institutions as well as in our practices.

Irresistible pedagogy tries to hold breathing space for change, adaptation, and sharing power.

As illustrations I want to share two very special valentines that I received from students last year and this year. The first from a 4th grader reads: “Dear Mrs. Spelic, thank you for sharing all the power with me!” 

And the second, from a 5th grader: “Dear Ms. Spelic, You are a great PE teacher and make the best out of terrible situations.” 

These both remind me of the work we, my students and I, are doing with and on each other. Reading each I feel seen, known and utterly understood. I mean, “make the best out of terrible situations…” 

Troubling the waters before we go

Take 3 minutes to think about what we’ve talked about so far. How is it landing? What questions might you have?

One of the questions I have to ask is: Does my notion of an irresistible pedagogy assume a certain level of privilege? Given my particular context and relative positionality, how can it not?  I am a veteran employee in a well resourced institution. I enjoy considerable professional autonomy and feel trusted to use my judgment in implementing our curriculum. I have the space and freedom to engage students in ways that highlight their agency and decision-making capabilities. And this approach is supported in my particular setting.

What if I were not party to these several advantages? Would I still be as open to sharing power and fostering student choice as much as now? I wonder and I cannot say. 

Could it be that it is easier to share power when you feel you have some power to begin with?

As I’ve offered stories from my own experience and attempted to bundle them into a way of looking at my work, these questions about the role of privilege have needled me throughout. It’s no coincidence that the title includes “Hide and Seek”. However compelling the idea of an irresistible pedagogy may seem, we need to be clear about the conditions that support its pursuit and sustainability. What might an irresistible pedagogy hide or obscure? Who is at liberty to seek out or provide what could be deemed irresistible by students or teachers? What happens if hide and seek is not a game but a survival strategy? Does “irresistible” stand a chance?

What if hide and seek is what is required of you to keep your job or to protect and serve students? What good is an irresistible pedagogy then?

Never Done, Always Beginning
What I’m learning, what I’m seeing is that
Just one thing 
Is hardly a thing
Because it cannot serve
All of our needs today
Or tomorrow

Just one thing
Is hardly a thing
Because we need more tools
For many tasks
Both seen and unseen

If I try to build something
I hope my students will want

It doesn’t mean that they 
Should never learn to struggle

It doesn’t mean that they 
Should never learn to protest

It doesn’t mean that their
Wants won’t change shape or direction

If I try to build something 
I hope my students will want

It means I’m striving to
Champion their independence

It means I’m striving to
Help them choose wisely

It means I’m striving to
Let go of my need to control the outcome

If my students and I build something
We find useful

If my students and I build anything at all
We must build imaginations

If my students and I build 
A city of care

A province of justice
A nation of acceptance

We are never done 
And always beginning.

The End

I’m going to stop here and encourage us to rest. I hope that I have sparked your imagination and offered some nourishing food for thought. The theme of the Otessa Conference is Critical Change. My students are living exemplars of critical change. They demand change with their needs out front. They use questions to investigate ideas. When they resist, avoid and refuse instruction, they usually have cause. 

If my aim is to build something irresistible for my students, it is clear that I must also do that with my students. They are fierce, savvy and also caring negotiators. 

If the notion of “irresistible pedagogy” seems far-fetched or unrealistic to you, I imagine that you have reasonable cause. Which is why it is key to interrogate what this concept might be hiding or obscuring? How might irresistible pedagogy be understood as less than inclusive or just?

I raise these questions at the end again as reminders that like our learners,

We are never done 

And always beginning.

Thank you.

Two Words: Snow Day

The view today

A snow day is a gift, rare and unexpected. It’s an opportunity to pause, breathe, not go anywhere. I am at ease and grateful.

Lots of things have happened since the last time I wrote. I’ve participated in two large virtual conferences, published a newsletter, helped coordinate the launch of regional accountability and affinity groups, made the first batch of bourbon balls, and finally discovered the secret of speedskating. A good bit of growth for a short stretch of time.

The two big conferences were first the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) Annual, Nov. 18-20 and the National Association of Independent Schools People of Color Conference and Student Diversity Leadership Conference (NAIS PoCC/SDLC), Nov. 30-Dec. 3, 2021. As member of a substantial contingent of educator-writers from the #31DaysIBPOC project, I joined a session co-hosted by Tricia Ebarvia and Dr. Kim Parker: “We Teach Who We Are: Unpacking Racial Identity and Literacy.” The title rings academic but the experience felt like a reunion, a revival, a rest stop. To be in the same room with so many folks I admire and cherish, both up close and from afar, almost undid me. It was not the words I remember as much as it was the love, the warmth, the care – the reasons I said yes, when the invitation was first issued the year before.

It was Tricia and Kim’s invitation that brought me to #NCTE21. But, as much as I love literacy and how it comes to fruition, I cannot call myself an English teacher as it is suggested here. That said, the conference focus on “equity, justice and antiracist teaching” produced a lineup of speakers and workshops that captured my interest on multiple levels. I felt more at home than I anticipated, more in my element that I imagined possible. As a run-up to PoCC, #NCTE21 felt just right.

At #PoCC I had the honor to offer a pre-recorded workshop with my dear friend, Minjung Pai, “A Love Letter To Women Of Color.” Min and I have only seen each other in person a handful of times and always at PoCC but our sense of sisterhood across continents and time has remained remarkably steady and deep. When we collaborated on the proposal back in the spring, we were envisioning a room full of women of color holding space for each other, celebrating the fullness of our gifts in an atmosphere of unconditional love. Then we prepared to bring that atmosphere to life via zoom and then we learned that our session would need to be pre-recorded. Although disappointed about not being able to deliver our session live, we created a presentation that felt meaningful for the two of us, and agreed we would make the most of the chat box when our session was aired during the conference.

Well, friends, again I learned: You don’t know what you don’t know. Over 160 folks turned up for our session on the platform and the engagement throughout exceeded our wildest dreams. Folks were not just watching a presentation, they were feeling it! And letting us know! It was humbling, astonishing and one of the most incredible online experiences I have ever had and I would not have had that possibility without Min!

The rest of the conference held mighty surprises and highlights. Teacher/librarian and activist, Liz Kleinrock, gave one of the best keynote talks I have ever heard at an education conference. I mean, she took us to church! This tweet from Jonathan Ntheketha captures the mood so well:

Having rewatched Liz’s keynote and the Q&A that followed, there were simply so many moments of connection. I also was deeply pleased with Kalea Selmon as moderator who kept it real and brought her full self to the conversation. The fact that Liz has consistently worked in schools, and continues to deal with all the aspects of navigating an institution at the faculty level gave her message a sense of proximity that I often miss in mainstream keynotes. I felt seen, heard and genuinely understood.

Kalea Selmon was the perfect vis-a-vis for the Q&A session with Liz Kleinrock.

At one point Liz asked: “Thinking about professional development and learning this year, what does that even mean in a pandemic?”

I’ve been thinking about that ever since.

What Liz also did in this talk was differentiate particular pieces for specific audiences: white folks, BIPOC, and school leaders, for instance. That’s not as common an occurrence as one might expect among speakers. She asked school leaders, “How have you redistributed power since spring of 2020?” and suggested that if various members of their school community cannot name what has changed as a result of any anti-bias or inclusion or equity initiative, then they are not being fully honest with themselves or their communities. *mic drop* Meanwhile, BIPOC were encouraged to build in cross-racial solidarity as she offered multiple historical examples. Further, she insisted that white folks get used to holding two truths simultaneously, to let go of the tendency to buy into either/or binaries.

As Jonathan’s tweet makes clear, there were many more gems in the 76 minutes we got to spend with Liz. I’ve wanted to write about it for a while, just to be able to hold onto those gems beyond the immediate post-PoCC afterglow.

Which brings me to a final thought about all this professional and personal learning-to-go or on-the-go. On the one hand, there’s something very humanizing and grounding about spending time with folks speaking from their home and office spaces. Picking up on details in the background – bookshelves, pictures, posters, furniture – helps us see each other often as the real and regular folks we are with lives beyond the topic in which we’re engaging at that moment. On the other hand, we’re delving into themes that demand more of us than passive listening. At an identity-focused conference we are asked to show up differently than within the framework of a traditional professional learning event. In nearly every session at PoCC I was encouraged to bring my full self into the space, to take risks, to engage honestly and thoughtfully with fellow participants. And in many cases I did that to the best of my ability.

PoCC has always meant more to me that attending a conference. And particularly in these virtual renditions, I have felt both a need and responsibility to contribute what I could to help the event live up to its vision of being a true oasis for BIPOC at independent schools and in related organizations. As I carve out time to watch or even rewatch sessions that intrigued me following the live event, I am asking myself some key questions:

  • What am I trying to hold onto from this experience?
  • What are my key memories and how do they make me feel?
  • Where and when did I contribute to making the conference meaningful for someone else?
  • What can I let go of without fear or worry?

These allow me to center my experience as a whole person, complete with the full range of emotions that that entails. Clearly, I’m a feeler. I take lots of things to heart. I’m trying to do stuff with what I’ve learned – not necessarily to suddenly toss these ideas into my classroom – but allow them to work their way through my consciousness, to let them bump up against previous instances and find a place to settle for a time. This is what the writing of it is for.

Of course, the snow day I had when I started this post is a few days old. I’m well into the following weekend and still surprisingly deep in my feelings about all the things mentioned. That’s the news, and it’s good.

Teaching Outdoors and Incomplete Pictures

So many leaves! (image via Pixabay.com)

Late October/ early November of a (N. Hemisphere) school year – by this time we know some things: about our students, our schedules. We may have a sense of the way things might go for the year. Or, we know that so much is up in the air it would be absolute folly to try and predict where things may end up. I’m at that stage in the school year where I’m beginning to hit my stride; where my routines with students are familiar; we may even have a rhythm.

Here we are (in Austria, mind you) holding regular school in the middle of a pandemic. As a learning community we’ve been blessed with very few cases, all of which could all be traced to contacts outside school and turned out to be asymptomatic. Every week without a significant change in the building’s population has felt like a victory. We seem to be getting things mostly right.

Among the adaptations my PE colleagues and I have had to make is shifting to majority outdoor teaching. Particularly for me and my team colleague, this has meant truly changing our ‘regularly scheduled programming.’ There’s a lot to appreciate with getting kids outside and taking advantage of different parts of the campus. We’ve gotten both creative and clever in developing plans that get us close to what we have planned in the pacing guide. That said, it has also been hard.

Not hard as in gut wrenching or emotionally draining but mistifyingly frustrating. Yes, my colleague and I have been conducting our PE classes – differently, yes, but still. I even did a kind of question mind-map at the beginning of October to try to help me understand.

Questions to help me think through my challenges with teaching outdoors.

It took me literally until this past week to figure out why.

My colleague commented on teaching indoors due to wet weather and how much easier he found it. “We’re by ourselves, there’s nobody else kicking a ball around … there’s not a leaf, or wind…” Oh my gosh! Exactly when he mentioned the leaf, I laughed out loud in recognition. And then it dawned on me: for at least 2 classes I am outside during middle and then high school recess! I’ve been trying to “teach” my classes next to big kids playing soccer on the field, basketball on the redtop, strolling, laughing, chilling. When I march my 1st graders and Pre-K out to the field and back, it’s a given that someone will be collecting something along the way. Of course! They’re children, they’re curious and all kinds of things can be fascinating: bugs and leaves and big siblings; jackets in the wind and water bottles along the fence.

What’s striking for me is that I couldn’t put my finger on what the real differences were until now. Over 9 weeks in. Instead I focused on what I was doing wrong or that the kids were distracted while functionally excluding the impact of the context we’re suddenly trying to operate in. How could I behave as if teaching next to recess should proceed normally? What on earth would lead me to believe that my students would find having PE outdoors instead of indoors an easy transition?

Here’s my theory: As educators we spend years building (or attempting to build) a positive track record. We develop a sense of what works, what we do well, how we maneuver towards success. When the success doesn’t happen when and where we expect, many of us will attribute that to ourselves. We look first to see what we’re doing wrong. Or, we locate the trouble in our students’ behaviors or histories. The point is, on our own, the picture we’re most likely to create will be incomplete. We will focus on what occurs to us with remarkably little awareness of what we may be missing.

Even under these extenuating circumstances many of us are still very wedded to our sense of “normal” in how we operate. Yes, we’ve changed modalities (multiple times even) and adapted to new schedules, dramatically shifted our approaches to any number of routines and habits – and still, when things go south, go off or don’t go at all – how many of us are quick to blame ourselves? To ask what we did wrong? Our self-constructed picture can easily leave out some little (or big) things that may, in fact, be having a sizable impact on our capacity to do even the least of what we intend with our students.

All this to say, it’s not just us. It’s not just the kids. It is literally EVERYTHING. We are doing the best we can with what we’ve got. The more we talk to each other, the greater our chances of expanding our field of vision for what’s going on both in front of us and behind the scenes. And as I learned, this may take a minute. (9 weeks, y’all, just sayin’.)

Let’s be both gentle and generous with ourselves and each other; with our families and students; with colleagues and neighbors. We don’t need to be superheroes especially when it’s already asking a lot to just be.

How Many Ways To Cross The Gap

Throughout the school year I want students to practice a variety of locomotor movements. From the very beginning in Pre-K we learn to differentiate between a skip and a gallop, between jogging and running, between a jump (two feet) and a hop (one foot). Whether we’re doing a freeze dance, stop and go, or follow the leader, we practice these movements and learn the vocabulary. They show up in just about every lesson. Repetition works.

Image by Zayda C from Pixabay

Outside of my classroom I have other interests. I like to think about education more widely, about inequality and how it shows up in our schools, our policies, our curricula, our educator mindsets. To those ends, I read a lot. A recent blog post by a friend who works in university administration in Canada got me thinking. She wrote specifically about an ethics gap in the way universities procure and deploy educational technologies. While there is a tremendous openness to inviting technological solutions into colleges and universities as forms of innovation, she argues that not nearly enough attention is paid to the real and potential tradeoffs that may work to the disadvantage or even harm of students, staff or the institution. She writes:

It is therefore paradoxical that we have often given more ethical consideration to how we procure teabags than we have technology in institutions. In much the same way as we have considered issues like Fairtrade, living wage and modern slavery when selecting other goods and services within institutions, we need to look at aligning the procurement of educational technologies with ethical practices and principles. One aspect of that alignment must be a consideration of the ways in which companies conduct themselves, and the extent to which that is compatible with our beliefs and values.

Anne-Marie Scott, “Mind The Ethics Gap”

What struck me about this remarkably concise post was the illustration of the ways in which ed tech companies have rushed into a gap in educational structures at every level. While the bounty of services and capabilities available to students and teachers remains impressive, they are not without costs. Concerns about privacy, surveillance, the overwhelming profit motives among others are regularly voiced by scholars and users.

Going back to my classroom example, part of my job involves establishing clear pictures and physical associations between words and action. Running looks and feels a certain way; walking is something very different from running. What would happen if I offered my students new words? What if I asked them to rush? Or race? Or parade? Or stumble? I suspect that many of them would create a corresponding movement. They are familiar with rushing and being rushed. To race they would know that comparison with another student is called for. My students are creative, lively beings. I have no doubt that they could easily show me what it would mean to parade or stumble around the gym.

I wonder if our vocabulary around ed tech tools and associated actions are narrowing rather than expanding. In our haste to respond to (constant) urgency, we leave out critical steps like carefully understanding terms and conditions agreements before insisting that students and families sign on to personally invasive tech tools. We hire one service to address one problem which then creates a host of other problems with its implementation (think exam proctoring software).

Beyond asking what the tool does, we need to ask ‘what does it demand in return?’ We need to be clear about who is profiting and precisely how that profit will be generated; through whose data? As institutions, we need to be concerned with how are students will be protected when we require their use of a particular tool. And we better make space for student questions and objections regarding their use of a mandated tech service. Why are we rushing to adopt this tool? How is this service being paraded in front of parents before teachers have had time to feel confident in its use? How can policy makers be dragging their feet on funding the necessary hardware while touting plans for universal remote learning?

Over the last five or six years, I have found out so much about my teaching by reading about topics that are not in my wheelhouse. After reading Anne-Marie’s post, I’m thinking about expanding my own thinking about locomotor movements, about broadening the vocabulary and lending more creative license to our routine activities. Which, in the grand scheme, is what I want education to be about: broadening, expanding, widening, welcoming.

Practice Over Perfection – A Keynote

NYSAIS Keynote(5)

(Below is the text of my keynote talk from August 18th, 2020 including a sample of responses from participants.)

Thank you, NYSAIS (New York State Association of Independent Schools), for inviting me to spend some time with you today. I am honored and nervous.

Thanks, too, Jane Anne for the very kind introduction!

I want to share some thoughts about our field, PE, and how we can incorporate anti-racism into our daily practices with students.

First of all, I want us to consider a few things:

  • This is my first keynote address.
  • I’m an actual teacher. A PE teacher, in fact, who just finished her first day of classes.
  • I want us to interact, so I invite you to use the chat to respond to a couple of prompts later and we’ll also leave some time for Q & A at the end.

You heard a bit about me in Jane Anne’s introduction. Here’s a slide to go with that. 😉

NYSAIS Keynote(4)

Thinking about what a good keynote should do for folks, here’s what I hope you’ll be able to take away from our time together.

  • I want us to appreciate what’s special about what we do.
  • I hope to encourage us to be braver and more critical observers of our own practice.
  • Help prepare your hearts and minds for the learning ahead.

That’s a lot and think for a moment about our classes: We have students of mixed abilities, interest levels and preparedness, put them all into a class called “PE” and in many cases manage to help those students find ways of engaging, contributing, and applying themselves that can be fun, challenging, awkward, or awesome or all of those, and have most of them leave feeling as good or better than they arrived.

So of course I’ve planned a talk with multiple positive aims!

PE tends to be an all-comers affair, right? and because we as teachers can anticipate that our students will each have their own way of appreciating and/or coming to terms with our offerings, we know that we have to adapt; that one size never fits all. We differentiate and modify our activities. We offer a wide range of movement experiences to give students ideas about the many different ways they can enjoy physical activity. We read up and stay current on new developments in the field and open ourselves to change as we grow and progress. These are the steps we take to be able to serve the remarkable diversity  we find in each of our classes, every time we see them. We also know that no two lessons that we give are ever exactly the same.

Given that, I want us to think about what it means for us as PE teachers to become anti-racist and wholly inclusive in our teaching practices. Now that anti-racism is topping the bestseller lists and making its way into institutional policy and mission statement revisions, most of us are familiar with the terminology and have come to expect to hear about it from a variety of organizations, but what does anti-racism really mean? And what does it mean to teach from an anti-racist stance?

Christina Torres teaches 8th grade English at an independent school in Hawaii. She’s also a prolific writer on education whose thinking I hold in high esteem. She recently published an article on the Teaching Tolerance website that I’ve been quoting a lot lately.

She explains:

“Anti-racist work means acknowledging that racist beliefs and structures are pervasive in all aspects of our lives—from education to housing to climate change—and then actively doing work to tear down those beliefs and structures. Those beliefs and structures don’t just exist in primarily white and/or privileged institutions—they thrive there.”  – Christina Torres, “All Students Need Anti-racism Education,” Teaching Tolerance, July 30, 2020.

Consider, throughout your day and beyond, that last part about racist beliefs and structures not just existing in our privileged white institutions but actually thriving there.

A good part of our work from here on out relies on us

1) Opening our eyes to see those beliefs and structures.

2) Adopting beliefs and structures which demand and support full inclusion.

NYSAIS Keynote

Much of the rest of your learning plan for today with Erica Corbin, Lauren Stewart, Worokya Duncan, John Gentile and James Samuels involves unpacking the specifics of what anti-racism is and is not, how racist beliefs and structures show up in our PE practices and also the ways we can mitigate them. They’re the main event. I’m calling them “The Highlights!”

I’m the warm-up act.

  1. Opening our eyes and ears for equity and inclusion takes practice. And that’s where we’ll begin: with a thought experiment. To practice.

Three years ago I was asked to contribute a video response to a provocation for a workshop my friends were doing at a conference on open education.

The prompt was this: What would you do to create a non-inclusive learning environment?

It is truly a provocation!

I made my response specific to physical education and the result ended up being surprisingly clarifying.

Before I go on, I’d like to ask you to imagine what you would do to create a non-inclusive learning environment in PE.

To do that you need to create a picture of what non-inclusive might entail.

What kinds of behaviors would you encourage and for whom?

Which criteria for success would you set?

Please add some of your ideas in the chat box.

[Reading aloud some of the responses.]

Audition. Group kids by ability level. Assume everyone understands the game. Only focus on the students who need the most skill work. Certain sports for girls, other sports for boys. No positive feedback. Only play “American” sports. All games competitive. PE for athletes only. Group by body size. Make every game about winning. Focus on Win/lose only. Play the game without explaining the rules. Charge for PE participation.

Y’all are great at this!

Now I’ll share my response:

In my own response, I identified three main things I would do:

  • Design all the learning around my needs and preferences
  • Keep my evaluation criteria a secret
  • Be absolutely OK with failing students

“What learns us this?” – this is from an old Austrian friend of mine who remembers using this question learning in English back in the 1970’s. It always makes me laugh to hear it but it also reminds me that learning often happens without explicit teaching. How does the experience change us?

What can we learn from such an exercise?

First of all, what I like most is that it forces us to think in practical terms.  What am I doing in my classes? What does it communicate to students about our priorities?

Second, it can help us see our practices in a new light. We can really ask: where is the truth in the ideas I’ve just put down?  How much time do I really spend on the things that I love versus the things that I like less? Thankfully, at my school my colleagues and I have a pacing guide to keep us on track.

And third, It helps us clarify what the most desirable steps in the opposite direction, that is, towards fully inclusive learning environments, could be. For instance, it has become a much higher priority for me to discuss the assessment criteria with students and agree with them on some of the parameters. Transparency.

  1. Here’s the second opportunity for practice:

NYSAIS Keynote(1)
Photo by Eric Ward on Unsplash

One of the struggles we face as high achievers is the not always conscious striving for perfection. We want to get things right. We want all of our students to get it right. In my opinion, education and educators tend to wear out superlatives, especially “best”: best practices, best scores, best schools. Because in pursuit of those highest achievements, we may lose sight of growth, progress and movement. We get so tied up with the end goal, the shiny results, that we take less time and effort to appreciate and recognize the deep value of the process.

When we talk here about clarifying our practices towards inclusion and even better, the assumptions underlying those practices, my request is that you and I, let go of our need for perfection and instead be deliberate in our process (which I expect and hope will be a long one. :-)).

What that means for each of us will vary. We have unique social identity intersections which will influence our starting points and hold particular meanings in our respective contexts. And this is where we have to be radically honest with ourselves:

we can no longer pretend that who we are does not matter in the school house. 

NYSAIS Keynote(2)
Photo by Arthur Edelman on Unsplash

I am a middle aged Black American woman teaching in a predominantly white American international school. I am cis-gender, straight, of Christian upbringing and the product of a decidedly elite education. All of those things matter in how I show up professionally and personally with students, colleagues and parents. My challenge, our challenge, is to use our experience and expertise to create learning environments that honor the complexity embodied in each of us and in each student we encounter.

Take a moment to identify yourself. Use the chat box if you like. Just say it in your head or toss a few words down in your notes.

[Reading aloud]

Father.  / Black. Cis woman. Mom. Wife.  / White privileged male / Woman, White, Lesbian / black american cis gender male christian from low socioeconomic class / Latino adopted male / White, cis, male, straight, christian, able body – / white woman from the midle east living and rasing my kinds in the usa today / human / white male, older in age (young at heart), blue collar, middle class / Asian, Female, Christian, Aunt, Sister

 

What do you notice when you do that?

[pause]

[Reading aloud some of the responses]

I see that I’m not the only one. Ideas I hadn’t thought of. Diversity of who is here. Identity is more than I think. Hard to decide which comes first: race or gender. We’re all more than one thing. my own definition has become broader in listening to others. you feel pride. What matters? What doesn’t? Complexity. Exciting with so many things that identify you 🙂  I noticed many of us stated our race when defining self.

Thank you for sharing those.

My students can see that I’m Black. How each of them assigns meaning to my being Black will naturally vary. I also know that I might easily be the only Black teacher these students even encounter in their entire school careers. Their experience with me really counts in a particular way and I want us to develop awareness for those kinds of nuances.

Another example: I wonder about how we honor the complexity of gender identity and acknowledge a spectrum rather than a binary. I’ve trained myself to say “friends” and “folks” instead of “boys and girls” or when forming groups ask students to include “all the genders” (which also gives us an opening to talk about what that means).

And I still feel new at this, still very much ‘under construction’ in this area. I’ve had to let go of perfectionism and embrace the process.

When we look at our programs, I see a few areas where identity and inclusion are very much at the center of students’ thinking in PE, whether we acknowledge it or not. During this talk, we’ve practiced thinking about inclusion and identifying ourselves. We can begin to think about how we invite students to identify themselves, the methods we use to form groups, our protocols and norms for class discussions. These are aspects of our field that are familiar and well worn. Let’s take the opportunity to review these habits and see where we can make them more inclusive, more sensitive to and welcoming of difference.

Remember, process over perfection: Make the attempts, make more attempts, notice growth.

Finishing up here… As you begin your new school years under challenging circumstances, I want to remind you and also myself that students are partners and resources in our classrooms. Yes, they learn from us AND they also use all of their powers to teach us. While they are learning about who they are and wish to be, they are pushing and pulling us to be real with them, to tell the truth.

And guess what! You already have all the resources you need to welcome your students as partners and resources in your learning endeavors!

It’s called listening.

I want to share a little anecdote about dodgeball in a 5th grade class which highlights this idea of students as resources. In a nutshell, some of my more dominant boys wanted to make it harder for tagged players to get back into the game. Some girls objected and pointed out the disadvantage it would create for certain players. Another student, a boy, suggested an alternative way to get back in the game by doing some exercises on the sideline. His idea was shot down in a heartbeat. We had a discussion.

I want to read a part of the essay that tells you how we ended up:

While there was much more to the conversation – more voices, more opinions than the ones shared here – the point for me was developing their awareness. We’re talking about a game and we’re also talking about who we are in the game, and who has power in the game, and how the game makes us feel when we play it and according to whose rules. The conversation was not about dodgeball, yes or no, this conversation was about how we play and what we are creating in the way we choose to play it.

And there’s the key – how we – actually they, students, choose to play. What rules can we agree on and how do we negotiate rules which produce fair and satisfying game experiences not only for a few ‘skill privileged’ but for the entire group? These are the questions I want us to wrestle with from time to time. Because the notion that “it’s just a game” strikes me as a cop out, a way of denying how much more we invest in becoming and staying ‘players’.

In closing and with this example I want to emphasize again the wealth of creativity, passion and purpose we have in our students. They are amazing and so are we!

NYSAIS Keynote(3)
Photo by Arthur Edelman on Unsplash

It’s going to take all of us to create learning environments that are fully inclusive, that make space for complex identities and challenging discussions. We have to be able to see ourselves as champions of equity, not spectators. As PE folks we are action and movement oriented, let’s show that in our anti-racist stance. I’m with you.

Let’s go!

We have a little time for questions.

Thank you all so much for having me. All the best for the rest of your learning and for a successful school year!

 

See Sherri Teach.*

4915750A-CA99-4D63-AD63-CDB88BDD2167

Video on. I jog in front of the camera and start the exercise. A bear walk, a crab walk, bunny hops, hopscotch. I jog back to the iPad, stop the camera. Over the course of almost 8 weeks I have adjusted to putting myself, my living room and balcony on display in the interest of teaching and learning. I have tossed, caught and kicked socks, stuffed animals, t-shirts and scarves. I have crawled, rolled, skipped, jogged, hopped and galloped across the floor, the yard, my mat; sometimes smiling, other times, serious. And the constant is that I have to watch myself again and again performing a kind of instruction.

Performing instruction. Teaching by video, in my case, means creating a visual invitation to either join me directly or to watch my example as a template for practice. With video I can show things in a way that encourages imitation. My students and I are currently working with an “I do – You do” model. What we’re missing is the “we do” piece in between. They respond with a video or picture of their own, with a note or a voice message to tell me how it went. I watch, listen or read and convey my approval. I write, use emojis, or speak my appreciation. It’s a transaction, not a dialogue. It’s friendly and there’s evidence of relationship, yet we lack the opportunity to genuinely build on what has transpired. As soon as one lesson has been completed/consumed, it’s time to make space for the next.

At no other time in my teaching career have I ever spent so much time watching myself attempt to teach. And what do I see?

  • I see myself trying to remain familiar and recognizable to my students. I wear the same PE garb as usual. I’m showing the movements we’ve done before.
  • I see a healthy relationship with imperfection. I mess up, I try again.
  • Smiles that seem to come out of nowhere which means I just gave myself the internal reminder.
  • I see a surprising level of flexibility and strength and I also notice my age. Post-video I also feel my age significantly.
  • I see a repertoire of good guesses about what might work and for whom.
  • I see someone who actually enjoys a lot of what she’s trying to do.
  • A manner of presence specific to the particular audience (“Hi Pre-K!”) and not designed for universal consumption.

I’m thinking about what all this “seeing” is good for. How will it change my practice? What’s different already?

I never wanted to be that performer teacher who had all the moves and little understanding of the curse of knowledge. But on video for my kids I may seem like that, which is part of why my misses and flubs need to be in the mix. I also notice how some of my students deliver a kind of instructional video in response to my lesson prompt. Like young how-to youtubers, some will introduce their plan, narrate the steps, and of course, thank me for watching. It’s charming and also a stark reminder of this shared online reality. They recognize platform templates and begin to imitate them. And what I am shown are literally snapshots of effort. I have no control over or confirmation of how long or successfully anyone worked on a given task. So much of this emergency teaching and learning endeavor requires a new level of relational trust. I have to trust my students and they must trust me that we are all doing our best at the moment.

What makes the video “lessons” for my students different from some Youtube PE teacher? It’s the relationship. My students will watch and follow a video by me because we have some history, we know each other. They respond to me personally. What begins as a teacher to class initiative becomes a collection of unique one-to-one exchanges. When we started distance learning, I’m not sure either side, teachers nor students were fully prepared for the oddity of this dynamic. That said, through our individual interactions it’s also true that this is how we remain present for each other; entirely real, the opposite of imaginary.

When I watch my videos it’s also one way to make my efforts entirely real to myself. There I am, that middle aged Black woman moving to and fro, here and there, up and down. Hopefully doing more than entertaining. Ideally, I’m inviting, encouraging, welcoming; offering reminders of what we do and think about in PE even without mats, balls and all of our classmates. Before this I had very little visual documentation of my years in the gym. Tons of pictures and video of kids and classes but almost none of me doing what I do. Seeing myself now, 25 years in and on the daily feels like both a gift and hurdle.

It’s no longer a question of if that’s me, it’s what will I do next to shake the tree of student interest and engagement?

See Mrs. Spelic teach.

See Mrs. Spelic skip. See Mrs. Spelic run.

Watch her jump! Watch her hop!

See Mrs. Spelic turn a cartwheel!

Teach, Mrs. Spelic, teach!

 

*The jury is still out on the title, “See Sherri teach.” I keep asking myself: does showing constitute teaching?

“See Sherri Invite Her Students To Do Something, Anything Related To PE On A Given Day And Share A Response As Evidence Of Engagement” – just not as catchy, right?

image: edifiedlistener

Remote Possibilities: A String of Thoughts

Scrolled learning

Tell me an order – abstract-1846059_1280

  • From top to bottom or
  • is it top down?
  • From beginning to end
  • but the learning never stops

 

 

 

Activity feed

Interactive to-do list

scroll up, scroll down

sideways is for walking

or dodging while distancing

not for this app.

Scrolled learning (resumed)

“Messy learning made tidy!”

“Clear instructions, clear demonstrations, clear outcomes!”

“Turn up, tune in, take off – your learning adventure can begin!”

I think of all the promises

we heard and wished

in our heart of hearts

they could be true.

All the while knowing

that for learning tojapan-956073_1280

take root and become a growing thing

it’s the messy parts

that make it even

possible.

 

App -etite

An app can work wonders with things

count, sort, tag, track and archive –

measure, deliver, broadcast, keep –

link, link, link and link again –

An app can give us the impression of movement

a single stream of discrete activities

flashes and pops as we scroll down;

our learning past:

axe-984008_1920

a straight line collage,

an imagined education

in snapshots and clips,

yet nothing designed

to stick.

For that would halt the

endless scroll

of consumable tidbits.

Because in order to make this all work,

to handle the volume of posts,

it’s important to prune the feed,

to archive the couple days’ old content

and put it nicely out of view.

Out of sight, out of mind –

but here it means

out of the way

of what’s next,

of what’s coming up.

 

What it is not   lumber-84678_1280

An app is not a brain.

Constructed with code; clever.

It tells us which way it will work

and which way it wont.

Brains develop and adapt

That’s what they do.

We can’t pay a platform to adapt,

or

entreat an app to be more flexible.

An app is not a brain.

The platform is not a curriculum.

Robin says, “Modality is not pedagogy.”

But why does it seem like we are just learning these things

right now?

As if this were news?

 

Even this blog frustrates my need to put things side by side

I cannot really compose the way I want

I compose the way the interface allows

We have an agreement:

I will make do.

 

Not A Song, A Dispersion

This is a song (although it’s not)

For all the things we can’t see, hear, catch

of/from our students tucked behind screens.

The motivational battles that rage within

and without,

The confusion that crops up,

the relief when a hurdle is crossed,

the questions that never get asked.

The nail-biting parents aching for a moment’s peace.

The pace of the guide, the scope of the sequence

these become pearls that fall off their string.

Instead of a necklace

we have a dispersion

with no means

to recover the order

we knew.

 

 

Real Talk

Can we be honest and not mistake the clean interface and charming video responses

for deep learning?*

Even if it’s the best we can do for now and doesn’t seem half bad, our kids are learning

all the time

and it may not be that carefully prepared content we’ve prepared after 4 or more video takes

that sticks and stays.

It will be other things: a postcard in the mail, a cat that came to zoom and wouldn’t leave, the way family felt different from before school closed, that time the teacher called on the phone.

The platform does not make memories. That’s something we do. We humans. We teachers, learners, adults, kids. The platform stores our artifacts. We humans, we users, we learners, we are art. We are fact.

Let’s use the apps we need. Rely on the platforms that serve us.

Let’s make our art. Let’s share our facts. Let’s weave our memories and make them count.

 

 

 

*(Understanding, too, that deep learning is not a given in classrooms either. It’s a long term gamble, the thing we hope against hope for but almost never get to witness when it surfaces 5, 10, 20 or 30 years later…)

images all CC0 via Pixabay.com

 

 

 

 

Three weeks in, I’m wondering.

low angle shot of green trees
Photo by Hoàng Chương on Pexels.com 

I went for a long walk this morning and for the first 5 minutes I wanted to cry but the tears wouldn’t come. And what for? What’s there to cry about? It’s a gorgeous sunny day, I can leave my house and walk up into hills with lovely vistas, vineyards covering the landscape. I’m free to leave for an hour or more if I choose. My middle school child can manage his tasks well enough on his own. My spouse is working from home and is available if necessary. I’m not due on a call before 12 and it only makes sense to begin responding to my students’ responses to their posted assignment in the afternoon when most have had time to complete it.

My list of privileges is long. In this time of outrageous uncertainty, I live in a country where social distancing is well established and the health care system is both universal and functioning. My own teaching situation is advantageous to say the least. PK-12 1:1 devices, iPads, chromebooks or PC laptops. At the elementary level, lessons are currently asynchronous. We’re finishing our third week and considering the circumstances, I suppose we’re doing very well.

Nevertheless, as I continue to create short videos for my students encouraging them to stretch, strengthen, toss, catch, jump and balance, after a while it becomes hard not to wonder at the purpose of it all. Yes, it’s meaningful for students to be able to still connect with their specialist teachers in addition to their classroom teachers. I see it in the smiles and exclamation points that come back to me in response to the assignments I post. Yes, it’s a useful pedagogical exercise to consider the best ways to offer physical education activities that are creative yet simple to practice and differentiated for various grade levels. Yes, I’m learning as I go – about myself, about my students, about families.

That said, I’m still asking myself about what I’m doing; what all of this emergency distance learning is.

I create mini lessons that I upload onto a platform. These can be scheduled so that they appear in the student’s feed at the appropriate time. Sometimes I make a video demonstrating the things I want them to try. Other times I may create a slide that asks them to follow a video or two and then tell me which one they preferred and why. I try to switch it up and keep it varied. Novelty and surprise have a new role to play in sustaining motivation to keep tuning in.

What I create is a performance. A performance with an invitation. “Follow along!” or “Alright, everyone, try this at home!” Literally. I am not delivering content, per se. No, I am cultivating relationships with students, often with parents and caregivers, and it’s centered on presenting movement as enjoyable, valuable and familiar. I’m not trying to teach discrete skills. Instead, I set up possibilities for students to practice. In one video I pull out my imaginary jump rope, in another I show 3 kinds of target games that I played with my own son. You hardly see us in the video, only the socks and stuffed animals we’re tossing in our living room towards a laundry basket or bucket. As a response, I asked students to create their own target game and send a picture or short video. (I could not have predicted how much joy I would feel watching some of their game ideas.)

None of this is rocket science. I see the difficulties of my own child navigating this new terrain. Even with the most engaged teaching and class meetings per hangouts, it’s hard to stay motivated. Yes, we want kids to be able to keep learning but how does it not become a differently moderated series of homework tasks? Everything that students do now is homework because home is where we all are and the fact that tasks are completed in response to teacher assignments makes them a form of work. I’ve called distance learning with a device “interactive to-do lists.”  That seems unfair considering the remarkable work I know my colleagues invest in developing lessons that are engaging, topical and invitational. But from the child’s point of view, how does it seem?

I worry about our educator tendency to respond heroically to the storms with which we are confronted. I worry about our tendency to make lemonade out of lemons even if there’s no sugar in sight to sweeten the deal. I worry about the ways we rise to the occasion when we are also carrying our own children, elders, or other major concerns on our shoulders throughout. Our perpetual drive to remain productive poses a real risk to our health and well being over the long haul. These are not normal times. We are not simply having an interruption. The world is fighting a pandemic that ” is deadly, but not too deadly. It makes people sick, but not in predictable, uniquely identifiable ways.

While my own family here seems safe, I worry more about family in the US where medical care and attention can be very uneven and likely, racist. While I think about what good my “teaching” may or may not be doing, there are other, deeper concerns that lurk in my mind. None of this under my control. Whether or not my lessons seem long enough or evoke enough of the right kind of engagement is not what I can or will fret over.

If you’re in a similar boat, and many of us are, let’s agree that we’ll take some deep breaths. Let’s steal some time for exercise in whichever ways we can, ask for help when we need it and even when we don’t think we need it (that second part is hard, I know). Let’s stop pretending that this is an occasion for business as usual. I’m not saying toss out routines or healthy family habits, I am saying please check your pulse and your blood pressure, figuratively and literally. Notice when you’re overwhelmed and spent and know that you have every reason to feel that way. If I go out for my walk and I need to cry, I’m giving myself permission, even if the tears won’t come.

Lost and Found: A Teaching Philosophy

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image via Pixabay

Recently, Amanda Potts asked a few of us on Twitter if we had a teaching philosophy to share. I said, “I’ll look in my files.” Now nearly a week later, I finally remembered to follow through on my promise. I found one. From 2012 and wow, it’s kind of stirring, in its own way. It’s a bit more formulaic than I would like but OK. My beliefs are recognizable and still feel very true. Here it is:

Sherri Spelic

Statement of Philosophy of Education

Connection, curiosity, struggle, and celebration: These are the four elements of my philosophy of education.

All humans are wired for connection with other humans. We are the quintessential social animal. Much of our learning is motivated by our desire to make connections with others through communication. Understanding this principle is central to surviving a room full of chatty 5th graders or squirrelly kindergartners. When children are left to their own devices, they are remarkably adept and entirely prepared to carry out their own versions of psycho-social research. They play tag. They approach and run away from each other. They exchange secrets. They form groups. They select leaders and determine outcasts. They build hierarchies and create rites of passage. They initiate, react, observe, assess and reassess. They are marvels of social activity and organization at every stage of their development.  For this reason, the social life of the child at school becomes his or her bottom line.  Who are my friends? How will I keep them? What do they like about me? What will make them like me more?  These are only a few of the questions which drive children to engage in the types of social “research” described above.

In the classroom, it is important to acknowledge this reality and work with it rather than against it. Remaining sensitive to our students’ needs of connection and belonging goes a long way towards setting the stage for academic learning to take place. Successful teachers are masters at creating the safe, welcoming and encouraging environments which allow children to explore and develop their very individual paths towards friendship and participation in the group.

The second element in my model is curiosity.  Because children are innately curious from an early age, I wonder what we as adults and educators can do to foster and enhance the curiosity mechanisms that are on fire at age four and often seem to peter out by age fourteen. What types of educational experiences help children and adults maintain their natural and very individual forms of curiosity? This is the question that most interests me. And I have no definitive answer to this. What I do have is a deep appreciation for programs in which care and attention are devoted to developing students’ confidence and competency in raising their own questions and where students are also given opportunities to seek and present their own paths to solutions.

Struggle is closely tied to curiosity and stands as the third element of my model. When we are curious about something we are often willing to work to close our “knowledge gap” (Heath and Heath, Made to Stick, 2007).  We struggle to find the answers we feel we are missing: How can I get accepted to the college of my choice? How long will it take me to lose 5 more pounds?  What do I have to do be able to run a half marathon without stopping?  The key lies in the fact that the struggle is specific to us as individuals and its outcome must hold meaning for us. When we struggle with a task, our internal curiosity rises: Can I really do this? How far have I come? How much further do I have to go?

Our students need the benefit of struggle. They need opportunities to grapple with bunches of goal related questions and derive their own responses and test these repeatedly before arriving at one solution or several. In its ideal form, the struggle turns into an experience more valuable and rewarding than arriving at the destination. It becomes the tale we love to tell, the story that leads to new ventures, questions and the next struggle.

The fourth element in my model is celebration. I use celebration to indicate any instance in which we acknowledge to ourselves and perhaps to others that progress was made, a goal reached, a milestone passed. There needn’t be fanfare and champagne, but stopping along our paths of struggle and recognizing the signposts of success along the way enables us to prepare for later successes. If we fail to celebrate our accomplishments both small and large then we cut ourselves out of a significant opportunity for growth.  Indeed, celebration and recognition whet our appetite for more challenge and embolden us to strive towards the next opportunity to flex our struggle muscles.

Connection, curiosity, struggle and celebration are the four critical ingredients I would look for in a classroom, on a faculty, in an administration, in a school community.  Every individual has a need for human connection and belonging. Each of us has a natural, intrinsic curiosity which needs opportunities to stretch and grow. The gift of struggle lies in its capacity to stimulate our resourcefulness, persistence and resilience, while celebration and recognition have the power to stoke the fires of our ambition and spur us on to new adventures.

These four elements of my educational philosophy are interrelated and interdependent.  They begin and end with the experience of the individual, yet they also apply to groups and systems.  Looking back, I see that I have spent my teaching career cultivating these elements in myself and my students.  Mine is an experientially based philosophy and its formulation here confirms my belief that some of my best teaching happens when I step out of the role of knower and become a student again.

 

 

 

November 2012

Landing Space, Post-PoCC

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image source

In the past, when I’ve returned to school after my singular experience at the National Association of Independent Schools People of Color Conference (NAIS PoCC) I’ve written a blog or e-mail to share with colleagues, to let them them know where I was, what I experienced and how it might be of interest to them. It feels like good practice on a number of levels: modeling a means of sharing professional learning after an event, giving myself a space for recap and reflection, providing conference organizers and attendees with one person’s publicly documented feedback. I may do that again this year but it may take a bit more time.

It’s Sunday. The day after the close of an intense four-day professional and personal learning experience. I have a long day/night of travel ahead and the calls of re-entry are already audible through my inbox. Frankly, I’m exhausted. The 9 hour time difference is about to serve up another punch to my somatic system upon returning home, my sleep patterns have been off since I arrived and I maximized my conference involvement by hearing all the major speakers and attending a workshop in every slot. I am deeply grateful for every conversation, shared smile, knowing nod, sudden laughter. This is that conference where I show greedy tendencies: I show up here and there and there because this special opportunity will not present itself again for another year. I am feeding my educator soul for the long season in between when I am not surrounded by colleagues of color and local conversations on justice become rare and hushed.

As I leave this place and the thousands of impressions I am holding, I feel a sense of lonely release back into the overwhelming whiteness of being. I have chosen these spaces. I am fully accustomed to being the only or one of a few. Non-threatening, amenable, easy to welcome. I don’t harp on my Blackness and that seems to make everyone feel more at ease. I’ve said it before: for white folks, I’m a very comfortable Black friend and colleague to have.

What I’m thinking about now as I head back into my life in progress, is not so much about dramatic change in myself or others. I notice that my attention is desperately looking  for a good, solid place to land. A place to process and sort. A cleansing space for feeling the feels without apology; an interior home base to reassemble the pieces of myself I have given more free reign than usual in these four days. There’s gratitude, joy, concern, curiosity, wistfulness, pride, fear, overwhelm, ambition, purpose and wonder to make sense of. What’s next? Who do I need to lean on? Where can I lay some of these burdens down? Where do I need to pick up some slack? Who am I now and what is different from a week ago?

After visiting with my favorite uncle here in Seattle I’m thinking about family history. How do we account for all the unknowns which, in my case, outnumber and outsize the known? How have my ancestors’ sacrifices manifested in my life and those of my children? What does it mean to know, I mean really know, whence we came? The older I grow, the more cognizant I become of how deep these questions run. And then to understand the impact of growing up in a society that told me time and time again that my past didn’t matter. It is at turns physically painful to recognize how that double-edged sentiment has been applied to deny the legacy of dehumanizing racism while uplifting the doctrine of rugged individualism and exclusive self-responsibility. It is a shock to my system to decide post-50 that I’m ready to battle these demons.

So, attending PoCC means that a lot of my thinking has been stirred up; my emotions are hanging about me, still exposed. I am vulnerable and unprotected. To name that seems important. The conference is identity based, identity grounded, identity moving, identity shaping. That’s the wonderful part and also the risky part. I will take my time before I decide what and when to share with colleagues. I will try to be gentle with myself as I return to the ocean of other folks’ expectations. I will give myself time to process, rest and heal even if it means saying no to some things.

There were so many people at the conference who let me know that I am valued, accomplished, welcomed and loved. I am taking these gifts with me and thank you for sharing your time, care and wisdom with me.