Keeping Kids in Mind

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Two posts I want to recommend off the bat:

Jesse Stommel: Why I Dont’ Grade

Pernille Ripp: A Call For Common Sense Reading Instruction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Skipping Post

image from flickr.com

image from flickr.com

Skip.
Skip.
Children skip.
See the children skip from place to place.
Who is skipping?
The children are skipping.
See how happy they are, the skipping children.
Skip, children, skip!

Where are the grown-ups?
They are sitting and watching.
They are sitting and watching their tiny screens while the children skip.
While the children skip, the grown-ups type and sometimes they wave.
The busy grown-ups wave to their happy, skipping children.
Do the grown-ups skip?
No. Not here, not now.

The grown-ups do not skip.
They run.
Grown-ups work out.
Grown-ups go to the gym and work out.

pixabay.com

pixabay.com

Grown-ups run and bike and lift and stretch.
See the grown-ups pay to sweat.
Sweat, grown-ups, sweat!

Here is a grown-up.
She is skipping!
She is skipping down the path.
Watch her smile as she skips.
She is skipping and smiling but I do not see her sweat.
Is this her workout?
Skip, grown-up, skip!

The grown-up says, “Come skip with me!”
“Try skipping,” she says,
“It’s easy, it’s fun!”
She smiles as she skips and I want to join.
Who will see me try to skip?
Who will hear me trying to skip?
I am afraid.
I may look silly.
I may look foolish. But
I want to skip.
I want to skip and smile and make a friend.

And so I try.
I try to skip.
I step, then hop. I step, then hop.
I am skipping. Skipping all the way.
I am smiling as I skip.
See me skip.
Hear me skip.
There I go skipping and smiling, stepping and hopping.
I am happy with my skip.
And my skip is happy with me.

This post is dedicated to anyone and everyone who has ever struggled to find the joy in physical exercise.

Try skipping and see if you can do it without cracking a smile. Watch children skip and gallop and dart. Watch their faces. What do they know that we have forgotten?
I dare, double dare you to skip for 100, 200, or even 800 meters and manage to keep a straight face. It’ll be tough but if you’re serious enough, I bet you can do it. You’re a grown-up after all, right?

Let me know how it turns out.

School Is Going To Be Awesome!

The Start (Pixabay.com)

The Start (Pixabay.com)

One of the greatest insights I have ever received on the topic of school answers the question of why kids continue to go to school day after day, school year after school year without more protest. Put simply: because school is where all the other kids are.  (I am inclined to credit psychologist and author, Michael Thompson, PhD, with this insight, but I have not yet been able to retrieve the specific passage.)

And if we think about it honestly, as parents, teachers, or just as grown-ups, doesn’t that make perfect sense? Of course kids want to be where other kids are. That’s where the action is. It’s where they can really learn the stuff that interests them. With other kids is where kids learn how (and how not) to be themselves. They develop their own idiosyncratic metrics to determine who’s up and who’s down, who’s in and who’s out, what’s cool and what’s not. What’s going on at school for kids has everything to do with these factors first and foremost and all else (i.e., academic achievement) has to be viewed within this critical context.

For this reason I love reading Michael Thompson on the topic of child development and school. In The Pressured Child  (2004) he describes why he feels that the psychological aspects of school are missing in most talk about education.

We always talk about what we’re trying to teach children in school, and whether they are learning what they need.  However, this is only the first of three different levels at which children experience school: The Lesson, The Strategy and Self-Knowledge.

The Lesson is the adult agenda for children. The Strategy is what children develop in order to cope with both the reality of The Lesson and the many other things they are interested in learning from school…Self-Knowledge is what children actually achieve in school.” (p. 14-15)

As adults we typically have a very hard time seeing things from the child’s perspective. We have forgotten what it was like being a child. We can no longer fathom the way they think and how on earth they reach the conclusions that they do.  And we have responsibilities: to make sure they are safe, warm and fed, that they are educated, and that they are loved. We’re working so hard to make sure they get what they need and often a fair amount of what they want. Why can’t they see that?

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Getting back to my own thoughts on school, I realized that my own positioning is decidedly ambiguous. Having my six year old start first grade in September has thrown this ambiguity into stark relief.  While I want my son to have a great school experience, I am clearly braced for the possibility that this may not materialize. In fact, I am sure that my grown-up reservations about school being the perfect place for children are as plain to my son as the nose on my face. This led me to wonder about adjusting my message.  What if I told my son, “School is going to be awesome!” and actually meant it?

What if I consciously added this perspective to the mix of messages he is receiving? He is six years old. The song, “Everything is Awesome” makes sense to him. So much of his world is still occupied by magic, miracles and super-hero powers. In his mind, school could become like the secret lair of a bunch of mini masterminds or the enchanted forests of a distant planet. All of that is still so possible – in his mind.

Yet my maternal, adult, educator mind is still saying: “You’ve got to be ready” and “You’re starting school in September” which are both ways of saying, “There are expectations you’ll need to meet, there are challenges you’re going to face” and actually meaning “I hope you’ll be OK,” and “I sure hope it goes well.” And deep down, “Yeah, I’m pretty scared, too.”

Maybe there’s the crux. And I think Michael Thompson would agree: My fears are my own and they surface as I watch my own child venture into new territory. Having that awareness and acknowledging it puts me in a real position to grant my son license to create his own adventure, both with school and without.  It’s possible for kids to absolutely love school. And for so many reasons I need to do all I can to support that possibility, to keep it alive in my son’s mind as well as in my own.

 

I highly recommend just about anything written by Michael Thompson, PhD. Especially, however,

The Pressured Child (2004) NY, NY: Ballantine Books (w/Teresa Barker) or

Best Friends, Worst Enemies: Understanding the Social Lives of Children, Michael Thompson, PhD and Catherine O’Neill Grace with Lawrence J. Cohen, PhD. (2001) also Ballantine Books.

Staying in the Lines: A Struggle and A Win

The Sunday Challenge

The Sunday Challenge

Last weekend my 6 year old and I completed this color by numbers picture together.  After we finished coloring the last couple of spaces, we celebrated with a high five and a good hug.  And we talked.

We talked about what a struggle it had been at the outset. He shed a lot of tears at the beginning because he was having trouble staying inside the lines. It frustrated him beyond belief that a stray stroke of red had infiltrated a space dedicated solely for yellow. In fact, for a period it paralyzed him. He would not continue. He insisted that I do it instead. He cried some more. He walked away.

Later in the day he came back to it. He experimented with using an eraser. Within moments he was back in the game. And this time I offered to join him. He assigned me to color in the blue spaces while he took care of red. What a transformation! For both of us! I got off my “You’re a big boy, you can do this on your own” trip and sat down and found my own challenges trying to stay inside the lines. He saw that my work was not perfect and said, “That’s OK, Mom.” This side-by-side, shared coloring space became a brief but profound oasis of calm – a much needed respite from our previously charged back and forth.

The incident raised some questions in my mind. What makes perfection so compelling a goal? What are the risks of going outside the lines by accident? What about doing it on purpose? What’s the reward for sticking to the rules and coloring inside the lines?

Our reward was the satisfaction of seeing the big picture that was revealed after coloring all those individual spaces. We also experienced the joy of having overcome a struggle to arrive at this result. I realize that I have a tendency to advocate for an “outside the lines” approach to many topics and this time I see that resisting that default setting actually helped me build a bridge to my son’s initial space of disappointment and inadequacy. By sticking to the task and the rules, cooperating and celebrating we created a far richer piece of family artwork.

Parent-Teacher Conferences – Cause for Celebration

I really enjoy parent-teacher conferences.  I see it as a wonderful opportunity to share perspectives on some very important individuals: my students; your child or children.

I sit down with parents for 5 to 10 minutes and it never ceases to amaze me what I can learn, what I can offer and how much connection parents and I can actually build-up. My field is Physical Education and while several parents of the children I teach sign up to see me and I also invite some, I only see a fraction of them during conferences.  Yet for that fraction I have bundles of information to share and my curiosity about each child we consider typcially rises as we talk.

Last year my colleague and I began sharing short video clips of kids in class with parents during conferences.  We use an app called “Coach’s Eye” and it allows us to capture footage of kids in action and also use it for instant feedback with students in class.  At conferences, the opportunity to show Marika in action or Luke taking it easy opens the doors for genuine conversation that often gets to the heart of the matter much more quickly than words or “the data” might allow.   A father and I talked about his son, who was clearly marching to the beat of his own drum on the video, and we both observed that while he seems both distracted and distracting in the example, his movements also convey a great deal of joy.  His son is happy and not following along. It’s easy to talk about what’s wrong with this picture.  I prefer to see and point out what’s right. It makes for a very different and often much more constructive conversation than if we did it the other way around.

Some parents have genuine concerns about their child’s gross motor performance and seem to arrive prepared for the worst. That’s when a short video clip can make all the difference in the world.  “Look at this!” I say, pulling up a recent success on the screen.  Then I listen. I hear about the difficulties in the past; previous negative experiences and prevalent fears. I learn about family histories and self-confessed physical inadequacies.  I hear reservations: “Well, we know he’ll never be a professional… (fill in the blank)”  And that’s when I cannot wait to say – “Well, we actually don’t know. She may become a pilates whiz or a deep sea diver!  We just don’t know… isn’t that great?”  This often produces a smile at the very least and a sigh of relief.  Progress is the goal and your child is well on her way – that’s my message and it matters to all concerned.

Other parents are eager to find out about their child’s specific strengths. Is s/he good at…?  What I have found over the years is that while I can comment on certain tendencies and and preferences, my main message to parents in response is: follow your child’s lead.  What interests does he show? What is it that she likes to do and with whom?  And I remind them that many children have hidden abilities and skills which often don’t show up at school: there are remarkable skiiers, disciplined martial artists, daring skaters or brave backpackers. There’s so much more to our students and our children than meets the eye and when looking at physical education performance, there is even more that we teachers and their peers will never witness. That seems important to recognize, especially when the dominant movement culture (soccer, basketball, more soccer..(in Europe)) tends to obscure that reality.

Looking back at the conversations I had with parents during this cycle, I realize that I spoke a lot about happiness, joy and progress.  Many of my students have challenges of one sort or another, yet they all seem to want to be in the gym.  They want a piece of the action and they get it.  Being in a position to communicate to parents: Yes, this “thing” [ – name the challenge] is going on and your child is happy.  That is cause for celebration. Again and again and again.