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.

Let’s talk about fear

Of course the terms I would rather use include trepidation, hesitancy, or reluctance. Fear seems so stark, too strong a word to describe the feeling I get as I marshal my resources, gather my gumption, brace myself and go meet that class.
Fear before teaching? Before greeting a boisterous line of bubbly seven year olds or know-no-patience fourth graders? Fear of children seeking the the things that children seek: excitement, fun, attention, distraction, etc? What on earth is there to be afraid of?

I stopped saying 'practice makes perfect' because nothing can ever be perfect. I know it's just a saying but it's easy to get attached to the perfect part. I've been practicing showing up for kids for most of my adult years and I am no closer to perfect than when I started. I am practiced. 'Practice makes practiced' is true but has no ring. So there I am, practiced and handling my reservations (there's another nice term) like a too hot potato with no one to toss it to. I appear before students, practiced and masked, moderately prepared, while hoping against hope that the worst that could happen, does not.
 
The worst that could happen is this giant unknown - unpracticed, unrehearsed, unpredictable - that travels with me, never fully identified but weighty nonetheless. Visibly invisible, kind of like my fear (there, I said it!), the giant unknown turns out to be a me rather than a you problem. Turns out, the giant unknown is me. I arrive practiced and masked but know, by chance, by circumstance, by 9:45- the mask may drop, and I shall be revealed - the monster within becomes the monster without- and then we have a real problem on our hands.

Routines help. Rituals soothe. Sometimes there's a groove that cradles us all, holds us captive in an engrossing, absorbing kind of way. We run out of time, happily. Sometimes all my practice produces mysteriously inventive interludes; I exceed my wildest expectations. We experience a learning high. We - the kids and I and our ridiculous imaginations - pull it together and pull it off - the impossible possible: A good time, no take-backs.

A balancing act, the act of balancing. but that's exactly not it. Balance remains a myth, a thing we talk about in the abstract because we know it hardly exists in reality. I know no balance. I am present and I am praying. My spirit perturbed and jumpy; vigilant and at attention - time seeps through me from one end of class to the other. Not even the illusion of balance, my body performs a lucid survival ethic. I go down on one knee, I stand on my hands, I do cartwheel of uncertainty.
My education is physical.

Directions, instructions, reminders, requests - a relentless parade of communications. Containers for procedure, often leaky, never airtight. Written, oral; direct, in passing; an elaboration, a gesture. A shopping cart's pile of options, so often an excess. What needs saying can be hard to find. It takes time to dig through all that's there. So I improvise and miss the mark or catch the drift. Hearing and listening are not the same thing. I employ loud music to cover my tracks. What you see is what you hear is what's happening. What is happening?

Hello, experience, my old friend, home of all my educated guesses. Even knowing what I know, having seen what I've seen, when the going gets tough, I'm sure that's when you hide. I become a novice all over again. but not young. No, an old and tired and uninspired novice. How it feels to meet my match, to catch the resistance, to counter the pushback. I throw up my shield and appeal to their better angels. From the outside looking in, I am holding my own. I am breathing through the storm. Disaster averted. Miraculously, we are back on track.

The fear, the trepidation, the dread, the frightful anticipation - These all reside in me, in my practice. 
I recently received the most generous valentine from a students who wrote:
"You are a great PE teacher and always make the best out of terrible situations."
The best out of terrible situations... 
The fear and the discovery, the fear and the movement, the fear and the next time.
make the best out of terrible
make, not take; best out of, not best instead of
make the best out of terrible.
grow alongside fear; change while scared; shift under stress.

So this is what it means to be seen.
Sherri (black woman in a fleece red panda onesie wearing a black face mask) stands in a small gym with equipment set out in an obstacle course with mats, benches, wall bars, low balance beams.
Subject as masked red panda.

Coming Clean

Image by Leohoho from Pixabay (Alt text: abstract photo of orange merging into blue background with raindrops across entire surface)

One of the main reasons I keep a personal blog is that it gives me space to say what I need to say where others can also see it and also keep it moving. There’s a lot of bad news in the world and at the same time I must know that it has rarely been otherwise. Climate collapse feels imminent and will likely spell out our grandchildren’s realities in gruesome syllables. The related crises of existence that arise out of dwindling resources, persistent and exacerbated inequality, capitalist greed and self-sabotaging governments leave their marks on all of us, in varying degrees of severity. So, no, this morning I am not feeling particularly hopeful or optimistic.

I was listening to a podcast featuring the novelist, Katie Kitamura, talking about her recent book, Intimacies. I devoured the novel over the weekend and was eager to hear the voice of someone capable of such penetrating and precise insight. One of the things she mentioned was the desire to explore “how we make do with fragments of information” even as we are awash in torrential loads of stories, newscasts, articles, etc. We hardly realize how it is virtually impossible to learn or know a whole truth about events, about others, even about ourselves. And I’m struck by the notion of “make do” – how we work around the pieces we don’t know, can’t know. All the ways we fill in the blanks to compensate. “Making do” becomes our natural habit; a trick of the trade of general sense-making.

I’ve lately felt a bit of public disorientation, meaning that I wondered if maybe I have said all I can say to any topic of relevance. I don’t really know how to make anything better. I keep writing at topics. Throwing texts onto the screen, into the e-channels of Twitter and seeing where they land. If they land. I hardly have solutions that go beyond asking people, asking us, to get better at examining ourselves. Not in the sense of egotistical navel-gazing, but in a critical fashion where we finally open our eyes to the ways we have impeded fairness; stood in the way of another person’s or our own right to thrive.

And I can’t ask other folks to do what I am not willing to do myself.

My school year is off to a roaring start. Covid protocols in Austria are fairly clear. High levels of vaccination and regular testing of staff and students have allowed us to start at full capacity. Masks are also part of the formula. I have a new team colleague who is energetic and knowledgeable. We’re almost through our first 6-day cycle of classes and routines are becoming familiar to students and teachers. Here’s what I’m noticing: as much as I pride myself on being open and welcoming, I’ve found myself struggling to adapt to new input about “how we do things around here.”

Surprise, no surprise, I’m not the easy-peasy, hyperflexible colleague I frequently envisioned myself to be. When confronted with the prospect of change – or reconsidering taken-for-granted practices – I have, in various iterations, found myself tumbling into a defensive stance. Not feeling attacked, per se, but certainly unsettled and caught in a flurry of sudden self-doubt. That’s my truth. It has never felt good and cognitively, while I know better; emotionally, I have hardly been able to help myself in the moment. As the days have passed and I’ve gotten to know my students and my new colleague, I’ve been able to relax a little. To gradually lay down my institutional and personal armor. My fear of loss, because that’s really what it is/was, has subsided. I’m going to be alright.

I want to unpack those fears though because it might help someone else. I think I was afraid of losing power – of my standing through seniority, of popularity, of my own sense of efficacy. Simply the presence of a new individual with their own history, experiences, expectations and curiosity, was a welcome change but also a destabilizing one. My fear response was about me, not them. My emotions anticipated scarcity, that the addition of new ideas and impulses implied a loss for me and my perceived authority, importance, popularity. This is as real as it gets, friends. To what degree this was visible to others I cannot say. I do know that it cost me some extra mental energy I hadn’t anticipated.

The good news is that I’m over that initial hump of adjustment. The school is incredibly fortunate to have my new colleague. My own process or adaptation is certainly unfinished but my awareness of it allows me to navigate it differently than if I tried to pretend that it was not at play.

And this is where I hope more of us will get better, which means getting braver, about acknowledging where we need to grow. It doesn’t need to be public. Do it in a journal or in conversation with a trusted friend. We need the power of reflection to accompany us throughout our practice. We can never have enough rehearsal for being honest in the ways we show up for and with others.

We would also benefit from recognizing that in most cases – with our students, colleagues, friends and family – we are constantly having to “make do with fragments of information.” Let’s bear that in mind and resist bridging our gaps in understanding with judgment and assumptions. It’s rare that we’ll know the full story of anything. Here’s where we can exercise our capacity for compassion. Also with ourselves. I suppose that’s what I’m wrestling with as I write now – exercising self-compassion. How do I forgive myself for feeling slighted and defensive in the face of new impulses? I’m not good at this part but I’m practicing.

If you’ve read this far, thanks for hanging in there with me. Maybe this disclosure/insight kind of post can help others get some perspective on a thing they’re working through. Even if I feel neither particularly optimistic or hopeful in this moment, I at least feel the release of having said the thing I hesitated to say and being able to move along. That’s what this space is actually for.

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.

I tie their shoes*

Em, do you need help with tying your shoes?

She nods slowly and

my hands are already at work on her sprawling laces.

We can move on.

Tying shoes on small feet: an efficiency

I try to remember to ask first

L insists he can do it on his own.

His fingers labor while his brow furrows

It takes time.

He sits in the middle of the tag game

tying his laces just like he learned

one bunny ear, two bunny ears…

C kneels beside him and offers to tie the other shoe;

L weighs the option.

The game swirls all around them both.

There they plant themselves

in communion with the trouble of laces

determined

focused

suddenly successful.

I look away

and they have disappeared into

the frenzy of tag

squealing as they dash and dodge

shoes tied

and proud.

 

Shoe laces, fine motor skills, independence, asking for and receiving help. These topics populate my teaching days. When I squat down and perform the miracle of quickly tied laces, I am reminded of service as a point of connection. The child looks down at my busy fingers and can feel the care embedded in the act.

I ask if they would like some help tying their shoes. Some say yes, others no. I respect that. So often I am grateful for the material realities of learning. Shoe laces – tied and untied – ground me in my practice demanding that I remain observant, flexible and attentive to what the student in front of me requires: help or time or both or something else entirely.

 

*I found this draft in my pile. It was from September 14th, 2019. Reading it now provides a familiar comfort. Considering where we’ve been and now come back to, thinking about these small gestures matters.

 

 

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

stone-tablet-2185080_1280
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

Soccer unit inside and out

“Welcome to our soccer unit – highly anticipated for many of you – it’s on!”

(Some of them can hardly contain themselves, can’t wait to launch the ball towards the goal at record speed. Watch this one dribble like a pro, make the cross then execute that heel pass into the net right through the mystified goalie’s legs.

See how they run – chasing down that ball, beating the opponent – so much glory in 5 seconds before the ball is reclaimed by the better dribbler.

Soccer, my least favorite unit to teach. There, I said it. Yet, every year I get a little better at it. I let go of the reins a little more; observe and coach. I take on their input. I spend less time “curbing” their enthusiasm; more time letting them find their way into games they will deem satisfying. The know-it-all-bend-it-like-Beckham-watch-me-I’m-Messi Saturday morning experts can get under my skin if they press me too hard. But now I’m prepared for them: Yes, there will be games throughout the unit but small-sided. No, we’re not playing boys against girls, ever.)

*Students engage in free soccer play around the gym. No one is idle.*

(Why do I resist this unit so deeply? What am I afraid of? I can answer that. I am afraid of failing, of looking foolish, of missing the mark, of being mocked for my lack of visible expertise… Is that enough?

Every time I meet my classes, this fear is lurking beneath the surface – what if they resist my plans? What if they don’t follow the plan? What if they hate what I’ve written on the board? I am steeled for their push back and it almost never comes. Or when it does, it’s perfectly understandable. Like my Pre-K friends who resist anything with too much teacher directed structure. They all run in different directions and in their own way broadcast to me “WE’RE FOUR, WE’RE FOUR, WE’RE FOUR!! Which absolutely makes sense and they are simply demanding that I, too, make some sense.

So when it comes to soccer I am programmed for pushback. “Why can’t we play a game? When are we gonna play a match? This isn’t real soccer…” Feels like I have heard it all but actually, things go fine when I let them lead with their interests and introduce one bit of skill practice, a quick skill oriented activity and then another low stakes game that’s fun and lets players choose their level of active risk. It’s fine, fine, fine.  I’m ok.)

“What? It’s time to go? Are we doing soccer next time, too?”

One final kick into the goal. Smashed it.

Balls in the bag, please. Thank you. Tomorrow’s another day.