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.

Tired of Achievement

Close up of tan short-haired dog stretched out on a sandy beach. cloudy blue sky and sea horizon in background.
Photo by Ruel Madelo on Pexels.com
I took my thoughts for a walk. Cold/cool/brisk air on my face feels good/not bad/needed. I walk
while others along the same route jog/cycle/push themselves. Few pant. Everyone in their own way is dressed for the elements. Everyone in their own way seems prepared for cold/cool/brisk air. All of us are out. I walk neither fast nor slow. This is no workout. I am walking to drop off our PCR tests then circling back, strolling through the little Saturday market, then past the side-by-side cemeteries. For a moment I think of ascending the big hill drive that divides them. That would feel like a workout. I easily decide against it. I walk and my head brims with useful and less useful thoughts. It's OK because I'm taking my thoughts for a walk. This is their chance. I don't begrudge my thoughts their moment in the sun.

I walk past the hillside vineyard which is striking in the midst of otherwise residential territory. The vineyard as breathing space, a clearing for the eyes to recalibrate. It is always a welcome break in the visual action. Today there is a small team of eight workers pruning the vines. I wonder which language they speak with each other, how much they get paid, how long it might take them to finish the whole plot. When I return on my way back they are absent, but their van remains. It's lunchtime. I wonder where they take their lunch although it is everything but my business to know.

I'm near the tail end of my loop. I notice the same venturers on bikes, on foot completing their own loop-de-loops. That's where it hits me that I am tired. Tired of achievement. Tired of driving/striving/edging myself and others forward, forward. Tired of achievement to measure my worth. Tired of achievement to identify belonging. Tired of achievement as the price of admission. Tired of achievement as the lens I use to recognize others. Tired of achievement as a false god to whom all sacrifices must be dedicated. Tired of achievement as gospel. Tired of achievement as mandate. Tired of achievement as an institutional safety blanket. Tired of achievement as a broken record. Tired of achievement as the only record.

Isn't it ironic that I have made a career working in schools? In achievement factories. 

But that's the thing. Students insist that there is always more than silly achievement. They show it. They speak and sing it. They write it. They play it. They dramatize it. They outsmart/outrun/outpace it. They skip it. They perform it. They hold it hostage. They hold it back. They hold it over our heads. They override it. They fake it. They make it. They deliver and withdraw it. They illustrate it. They erase it. They toss it. They remix it. They've got it. They are over it. 

They are why I stay in schools. I am studying their achievement of resisting/retiring/releasing achievement. They teach me. They make me less tired.

I make it home, allow my thoughts to run wild on the page. We are all relieved. Peace is a challenge and always only temporary. I can accept that on a walk in the cold/cool/brisk air. 

I Worry

I worry.

When I hear the call for help that comes by e-mail looking for a

trainer,

consultant,

someone

who can help us

“have conversations … about these areas.”

I worry.

When I hear the institution is prepared to pay good money

to hear what they already know and continue to pretend not to understand

what is really required for change.

One can always call a task force, form a committee, commission a study

while power remains in trusted hands, there to insure

that the transformation we keep hearing about

does not get out of control, does not go too far,

lest we perish

and our storied bodies turn to salt.

I worry.

When the urgency is so sudden,

the need so dire

since last week, last month

but not since 2014 or 1995 or 1986 or 1968.

When the solutions sought

are thought best to be provided,

imported from elsewhere,

laid upon the institution like bandages

with magical powers.

I worry.

When I hear administrators talk about the need

“to empower students”

and that it’s now, now

“more important than ever”

“to confront the ways”

which were tolerated for decades and centuries with nary a care

about how that looked

to insiders, outsiders or anyone else.

I worry.

When we mistake saying for showing

when answers come before questions

when there is no time for the time it takes

when power relations never enter the room

I worry.

When I worry

I may forget to wish

that we dedicate ourselves to learning as we teach

that we practice having the conversations we need

and get better

while we go deeper.

When I worry

I may forget to remind you

to look around

and consider the resources right where you are.

I bet you they’re there.

When I worry

I may forget to dream

dream

dream

Of what I hope tomorrow

might bring.

 

 

 

 

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

Coming Clean With Equity

Reading widely is a fine way to expand our vocabulary. I still find all kinds of words that I thought I knew and have to look up and realize I had no idea or actually the wrong idea (or better yet, the completely wrong pronunciation like segue (segway? really?!)).  Today, I’m thinking hard about equity. Yes, equity. As in, “the quality of being fair and impartial” not “the value of shares issued by a company.”

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In education circles we talk and hear a lot about equity – in our districts, schools, and classrooms. There are popular posters distinguishing equity from equality, clarifying that equality means that everyone receives the same treatment, access, materials regardless of specific needs, while equity requires that each person receives treatment, access, materials according to their specific needs. Sounds reasonable, right?

I recently finished reading Dr. R. L’Heureux Lewis-McCoy’s Inequality In The Promised Land in which he describes disparities between Black and white families’ experiences in a suburban school system. One piece of his analysis really made me stop in my tracks, though. He specifically examines the way the achievement gap between Black and white students remained even when they sat in the same classrooms. Even if I can fathom this based on student discipline statistics that demonstrate how Black boys and girls are suspended and disciplined at disproportionately higher rates than their white peers, and knowing that with an overwhelming majority of white teachers, implicit bias presents further hurdles for Black students in the classroom, this still surprised me. Even having a rough understanding of those factors, I was not fully prepared for the case that Lewis-McCoy makes with his observations.

This chapter has demonstrated that racial and economic minorities in RAPS [Rolling Acres Public Schools] experienced school differently. The different assessments and treatments of academic performance (teacher feedback), behavior (student discipline), and culture (perceived family background) cumulatively contributed to the marginalization of the minority students… Mr. Marks, Ms. Reno, and Ms. Jackson thought of themselves as culturally sensitive teachers who created diverse classrooms for quality education. In fact, their classrooms created unequal experiences for black and white students. (p. 136)

The teachers believed they were doing their level best to offer equal opportunities for all of their students to excel. Lewis-McCoy further explains that

RAPS teachers and school staff were attuned to issues of social inequality, but they seldom incorporated their social scientific knowledge when discussing their own classrooms. Instead teachers saw educational inequality as a function of individual student issues or family issues. (p.137)

In our educator hearts I think there’s a real tendency to want to deny that this could/would happen to us. We use our best intentions as flattering headlights that guide our practice with children. We know we need to do better – to truly examine where our blind spots are, determine which forms of bias we may be operating under without consciously realizing it. Yet, we struggle to make necessary changes. Our old habits don’t die hard, they just don’t die.

In an article chronicling similar disparities in academic performance between white and black students in an affluent suburban high school in Evanston, Illinois, we find a typical system-oriented response.

The analysis showed that District 65 provided a much better education to white students than black students, no matter their income…

The board has hired a consultant to assess each school’s practices, is committing to hiring more teachers of color and making lessons more culturally relevant, and is encouraging staff to attend workshops to help expose unconscious racial bias.

It’s a common package of proposed changes that several schools and districts take on to shift the entrenched dynamic. What stands out for me is thinking about how we in our individual classrooms learn to practice equity with a capital E. We’re no longer talking in the abstract about systems and policies, we’re talking about our classrooms and the students we have in front of us, whoever they might be. Shana White has a powerful post on educational equity that is an excellent resource for action steps. How are we working to meet the needs of specific students? To whom are we likely to give the benefit of the doubt in conflict situations? How do we respond to children who challenge our authority? Which children are most likely to be excluded as a behavior consequence?

If I look at my own situation: it’s boys, often very athletic boys, sometimes with attention issues but not always. They are the ones most likely to be caught in some sort of temporary discipline bind. If I’m as committed to equity as I say I am, then I need to consider what I might do differently to interrupt those patterns. Having an instant activity helps. Using a whiteboard agenda to minimize the need for oral instructions during class helps. Pulling an individual aside rather than confronting him in front of the whole class can help. These are not wildly innovative. But for individual students and the atmosphere of the class, they can make a significant difference.

My point is that in my own little instructional world I can practice equity every day (or not). I can study my own habits to find out where my blind spots lie. I can ask my students for honest feedback. I can also look at my personal history to consider which lenses I may be applying when I encounter a little blonde boy who seems to behave as if he already owns the world. How might I be interpreting his behavior in light of my personal history? A consultant who comes into my school and delivers a workshop might ask me to consider such steps. The choice to take the steps, to share my progress (and setbacks) with others will not be a given nor necessarily easy.

A while back I was asked to create a video in response to the provocation:

How would I design a learning environment if I wanted to marginalize certain populations?

 

As an exercise, responding to the question proved extremely helpful in getting me to think about all the ways we set up barriers to learning whether we intend to or not. The same goes for creating classrooms that are genuinely equitable. I’m convinced it means listening to students more. As we hold up standards as the new cure-all for what ails academic achievement, I believe it also means developing hundreds of ways for students to demonstrate their attainment of a given standard, not just one or two. That’s what we would do if we were truly committed to equity. You know, stretch ourselves to meet the specific needs of all of our learners. May seem like a big expensive ask for a whole school system.

In my classroom, however, I hold the most powerful levers – relationships, professional expertise, resources. I can put them to work for equity daily. And I’ll need practice, help and critical feedback. My students are counting on me.

Be The Power And The Point – A Recap

I did the thing. I shot my shot, sang my song. And it was glorious! I offered a workshop at the National Association of Independent Schools People of Color Conference (NAISPoCC) in Nashville, Tennessee. The title felt clever when I came up with it in the proposal-writing phase. In the execution of the workshop itself the participants gave that title more life and meaning than I imagined possible. They were, in every sense, all power and fully the point.

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My goal was for each participant to leave with an intention to share their experience and expertise with professional peers at a conference or other public learning event.

My premise in addressing educators of color specifically was first to acknowledge the brilliance of the people in the room. We are knowledgeable, have a remarkable wealth of experience, bring distinct and compelling perspectives to every context and in most education conference spaces are typically underrepresented. Once we can lay claim to those realities, then we can proceed to consider which ideas we would most like to champion and cultivate in our professional worlds.

Early on I asked participants to meditate on this central question:

Given your experience, special interests and variety of strengths, what would would be your dream workshop or presentation to offer others?

I encouraged everyone to think broadly – outside and across disciplines, to consider interests outside of school, long term passions and newfound talents. To place my own approach into context, I shared this story:

This fall I was invited through my Twitter direct messages to contribute to a major learning event – not as a keynote speaker or to offer a workshop of a couple of hours – no, I was invited to lead a course. For a whole week! And I could choose the topic! The person who invited me is a friend and mentor and I was overwhelmed with surprise and shock initially. I said yes quickly before my reservations would have a chance to change my mind.

I had to admit to myself that this was not an accident and that it had been several years in the making even if it was never the possibility I would have imagined for myself at the outset. The invitation was the result of having put myself ‘out there’ on Twitter, by blogging. By participating in various forums, online and off. So I will be leading a track on Digital Identity at the Digital Pedagogy Lab next summer. And please note, this is not directly connected to Physical Education.

It felt important to illustrate that we may have talents, strengths, perspectives that are unique that will be valuable to someone else, if we take the opportunities available to share them with others. The point is not that I am authority in the traditional sense. I don’t know all there is to know about the topic. My particular expertise is in the area of facilitation. I have a deep interest and curiosity and given the chance to convene a group with equal interest and curiosity I know that we can construct a series of experiences which will grow our mutual knowledge and individual expertise. That’s what I suggested our knowledge sharing at conferences can be. Claiming expertise is not an all or nothing game.

We worked our way through a series of other questions and I offered a simple graphic organizer to help with the process.

  • Describe your last public professional learning event. How did you share your knowledge and expertise with colleagues?
  • For your future workshop/presentation/panel, where will you find your audience? Who can support you in your pursuit?
  • What are some barriers to presenting at or attending conferences? What kinds of support would you welcome?

At each section, participants spent time sharing thoughts with a different partner. This meant unlinking the chairs and moving around the room. It meant engaging with a number of fresh minds. It looked like this:

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“It’s called a workshop because we are all going to work.”

When it came time to write down intentions, folks did not hesitate. They did not skimp, waffle or hold back. They brought it! With clarity, precision and all the soul you can put into words on a big colorful sticky note. In another post I will share a full list, but here are some shining examples:

There is no encore after that.

Our success was epic. We were epic.  Look out edu conferences far and wide. We are coming and we’re bringing vision, commitment and beautiful brilliance!

 

 

Workshop slides can be viewed here.

*Images are mine. Please request permission to use elsewhere.

What I Will Fret Over, 2018

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A few years ago I wrote a blog post about what I would fret over regarding my two sons and their futures. It’s near the end of 2018 and what I will fret over is some of the same but more and with a different urgency.

At the time I realized:

On my deathbed I will not be wishing I had fret more over my children’s education.

Rather, when that day arrives I may fret about their futures. About whether they know how much I love them. I will hope that they know how rich they have made my life. I will hope that they understand themselves to be capable and extraordinary human beings. I will pray that they have learned to trust others, how to reach out for help, how to care for and love others especially when loving is hard to do. I will fret that we have not had enough time to say all the things that we wanted to say to each other. I will fret over whether their passion for life and learning will be enough to see them through, in and on whatever paths they pursue. It is extremely unlikely that I will fret over how they did or are doing in school.

Today, following the election of an openly fascist president in the largest country in South America, who joins the ranks of world leaders poised to desecrate nature in hopes of power and profit, to punish indigenous populations for existing, to carry out nationalistic policies which openly discriminate and uphold racist divisions. In the midst of these developments, I fret for the future not only of my own children but children across the globe who will grow up knowing perhaps only the unrest, anger and deception that lie at the heart of the rise of unjust regimes.

And I fret over education and how we practice it. While I have found wonderful nurturing communities of educators who are deeply committed to opening minds rather than closing them, I need to remind myself at times that we are not necessarily the majority. The willingness of my allies and accomplices to face their own biases in order to better serve the children in front of them is not the norm. The rigorous pursuit of inquiry, liberation and radical imagination is not the focus of our professional development programs or degree granting institutions. Rather, we insist that new teachers learn to look past inequity and miraculously raise test scores. Education officials may suggest that gun training for teachers is a higher priority that ensuring that all children have adequate access to counseling services in every school. At the ballot box, funding initiatives to guarantee the coverage of school necessities in communities across the US struggle to pass and take effect.

We are living in a time where we have become comfortable with idea of stealing. From our children and grandchildren. With our political choices we are showing them that we are indeed selfish and short sighted, stingy and cruel, poor historians and lazy thinkers. All of our proud speeches about respect, care and critical thinking run smack into the reality of what they can witness on a daily basis – dehumanizing rhetoric, never ending violence against the vulnerable, the hardening of a ruling class that refuses to change itself.

My fretting today is the kind that has me writing at 4 am instead of sleeping. It’s the fretting that is physiological and that rekindles old worries and insecurities. It’s the kind of fretting that these new regimes aim to foster. Because a fearful, disoriented and unsure populace is much easier to manipulate with strong man arguments and false promises. But I am an educator. I’m not a superhero. I am a parent. And at this moment I am fearful.

And I have a little faith. I have two sons who know some things about care, respect and critical thinking. They are avid readers and understand that this matters. They have strong imaginations and dreams about what they want to achieve. In my classes, I work with eager students who have seemingly boundless energy to climb, jump, run and tumble. As they grow, I hope that they also build their strength of character and learn to recognize and counter injustice wherever they find it. Many of them will. Among hundreds of previous students, several have already made that commitment.

So this morning I have fear and some faith. I have community and back up. I know which side of history I am on. Today I will fret. I will also fight.

image via Pixabay.com CC0

Dear Tricia: A meditation on a life of reading

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Dear Tricia,

Ever since I read through the beginning of your thread last night and finished reading it this morning, several thoughts have been turning in my mind. First of all, let me say how grateful I am for your voice not only in my digital life. Your leadership of #DisruptTexts as an initiative and community has opened up another world for me, one I preferred to leave to the experts until now. But let me get to this thread you shared.

It’s of course a thread so there’s a lot more to this and I’m going to pick out the 3 or 4 that really hit me:

I want to pause here. Already at the first tweet I was shaking my head. My bookshelves are testament to the overwhelming whiteness of my reading diet over years. My children’s libraries are not so different, although their shared interest in Manga series may shift their reading ratio considerably over time.

I second your claim that we adopt the values that come along with reading mainly through the dominant gaze. I’ve been very good at assimilating into the dominant culture. My reading choices over decades have reinforced and bolstered that process. And maybe this is what I woke up thinking most about: The way I read, which naturally bleeds into the way I write, is a function of how those efforts have been rewarded – as a student, colleague, employee, and friend. Since my social circles over decades have been comprised of mainly well-educated middle class white people, the language and literary habits I have cultivated reflect that participation. As a kid, I was told by my Black neighborhood friends, “You talk like a white girl.” They were correct. I suppose in my pursuit to fit in even better as an adult I learned to “read like a pretty smart white guy.”

And this is where I am.

My home library is heavy on non-fiction: sport psychology, parenting, education, cultural studies, sociology, general self-help, psychology, and business consulting and leadership lit. This is no accident. At some time in my early 20’s I found non-fiction to be where I felt more at home, where I could explore my interests often with a journalistic lens. In the course of my adulthood reading, I shoved fiction to the margins. I still read the occasional novel and enjoyed it but when it came to book shopping – I always headed for the non-fiction sections first. This is all still largely the case but my fiction and poetry reading is on the rise thanks to some friendly nudges from friends and colleagues.

OK, so that’s some background. Non-fiction – mostly written by academics who have established their reputations as capable (and sometimes extraordinary) storytellers is what ‘s mainly on my bookshelves. That means a LOT of white men, some white women and a comparably smaller selection of authors of color. I haven’t done an inventory. I haven’t gathered the data. But I know. The spines of my books tell me. There are far more Dans, Davids, Jameses, Alans and Michaels than there are Lenas, Rebeccas or Susans.  The few authors of color are most likely to be among the education texts and in my small stash of fiction titles. Sport psychology (the area of my 1st masters) – that shelf is all white male authors.  Fitness, parenting and self-help books on my shelves have been penned overwhelmingly by white women.

My 10 y-o’s library is full of favorite American authors: Mo Willems, Dr. Seuss, Maurice Sendak and Leo Lioni. We’ve read a number of chapter books by Ann Cameron, Sharon Creech, JK Rowling and most recently Chris Colfer’s series, The Land of Stories. My older son enjoyed similar fare as a child. I am thrilled that they are both enthusiastic, nearly greedy readers. At the same time, I see the lack of color and range of perspectives and work on addressing that. My school library has been a great help so that my youngest and I have read novels by Jacqueline Woodson and Svetlana Chmakova and absolutely loved Sundee Frazier’s Brendan Buckley’s Universe and Everything In It, which featured a boy like him – brown and biracial. We also read John Lewis’s March trilogy together which sparked all kinds of questions that I needed to research to answer. (Fortunately I was reading Carol Anderson’s White Rage at the same time which provided more context.)

My insight as a result of your thread: How our reading lives develop becomes its own field of research revealing things we might not have recognized about ourselves just by looking in the mirror. Your thread reminded me that there is always time to explore, to step out of well worn habits and seek out what is likely missing. Most recently for me that has meant adding indigenous voices to my reading lists: Robin Wall Kimmerer, for instance, and Tanya Talaga’s Seven Fallen Feathers. These are only beginnings but they open doors and windows and help me see new vistas. I’ve made fresh attempts to investigate more fiction as a way of joining new conversations with different people (i.e., #THEBOOKCHAT and #DisruptTexts) This is still so new to me but invigorating and enriching. If not for so many folks on Twitter I would not have read the work of Angie Thomas, Jason Reynolds, Jessamyn Ward or Elizabeth Acevedo. Now that I have, I am primed to seek out more from these wonderful writers and others who are being brought to my attention.

The way you describe your experience resonates deeply with me:

We’re growing and cultivating intentionality as we go. Witnessing your example and that of others who share this passion for widening perspectives gives me both pause and strength. It’s clear to me that I will continue on this path. It behooves me as a parent, educator and citizen. Sharing the journey, encouraging each other one read at a time makes it all the more doable and inviting.

Thank you.

Sending gratitude, love and admiration,

Sherri

 

image via Pixabay.com CC0

 

Resourced Learning

I’m almost finished with the springtime cycle of parent-teacher conferences. This is a part of my job which I really enjoy. Meeting parents provides that rare opportunity to communicate in person how marvelous and amazing my students, their children, are. It’s a chance to share my specific observations and to hear particular concerns or questions.

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One parent said at the end of our talk, “You really know my son, you really do.” A compliment of the highest order. This is what I am here for.

I ask myself ‘How do I know this child? How do I get to know each child?”

First of all, I have the benefit of frequency. I see students between 2-4 times per week, depending on the grade level. That’s a lot of contact time. Time is a resource.

Next, I teach in an environment in which although there is relatively high turnover in our student body (about 1/3 on average per year), I often get to teach or at least see many children over the course of a few years. I get to participate in their development. Shared history is a resource.

I spend time observing students. As the years have gone by, I have stepped back from extensive direct instruction and encouraged more student-led and independent activities. Besides cultivating a culture of choice and self-direction, these opportunities allow me to stop and look, to study and analyze student behaviors. Children reveal a great deal about themselves their tendencies during these times. Creating space for observation is a resource.

In my PE classes, I am who I am. My students get to know me in a unique and deeply individual fashion. The multiple filters and mental models each child brings to our encounters shapes the development of our relationships in unimaginable and hard to document ways. When I teach I show a ridiculous number of behaviors, emotions, capabilities which all reach students differently. Over time, kids develop ideas about who I am and what I represent to them. And these ideas are constantly being updated, revised and reworked to accommodate new input and fresh perspectives. Awareness of dynamic, evolving relationships is a resource.

Above all, my students share themselves with me. They talk to me, they ask questions, they run wild with their peers and hang back by the water fountains. They buddy up quickly or pace around the margins, they shout out their favorites and broadcast their dislikes. In everything they do, they are tireless communicators. And it’s not that I understand everything they are saying, offering or demonstrating at the time. Rather, I take their input into account when attempting to grasp their intentions and determine how best to meet their needs.

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Students compel my curiosity and I learn. I learn about them. I learn from them. I learn through them. This is how I get to know my students: I open myself to what they can teach me.

When we look for resources in teaching, we tend to bypass our students.

What if we recognized our students as the most precious resources available to us in developing our teaching and learning?

What if we learned to ask students more often about what they know and understand about the world so far?

What if students were in the habit of being able to tell us who they are before we rush to categorize and file them?

Imagine a world where “the educated” believed that their mission was to stoke the fires of curiosity wherever they went and see the potential for learning in everything that came their way.

Imagine then how well resourced education would be.

Speaking Digital PD

I recently held a workshop entitled: Navigating The Blogosphere and Social Media for Professional Growth. It’s a long title for a few simple ideas. I designed this 90 minute session as an interactive, experience-sharing and question-growing learning event and that’s mostly what it turned out to be according to participant feedback. I’m glad about that.

While part of my aim was to encourage participants to seek out social media opportunities to grow their professional practice and connections, I found that there was more I wanted to say. So often in promoting digital tools in education spaces, we emphasize all the things we can get from them: lesson plans, snappy ideas, old wine in new bottles, new wine in virtual bottles and on and on. There is no doubt much to be had, to be consumed, to be added to our overflowing professional plates.

At the same time, there is a piece that is so often ignored or hardly mentioned: the potency of our contribution. Yes, bloggers will tell you to blog, and that others can benefit from your hearing your story. This is true and frequently shared. The missing piece, however lies not simply adding to the jumble of voices but to take an active part in creating and sustaining community. That means finding ways to acknowledge the voices you respect,  giving credit where it is due, providing feedback and links which may benefit others. I summed up this idea in the slide below: “Go for what you crave, stay to make the space a richer one.” Show up on social media and be an example of positive digital citizenship: be kind, be thoughtful, be you. Make social media spaces better by being a good human.

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The other point I wanted to emphasize with regard to social media use is that only you know (and will find out) what (and how much) is good for you and your aims (recognizing, too, that this will shift and change over time). Resist the pressure to try all platforms or to be everywhere at once. Let those impulses die a quick death. Instead, find the things that you find useful, do those and skip the rest. If Pinterest works for you in your private life, it may be a tremendous resource for your classroom or office needs. On the other hand, if you feel especially comfortable with Facebook, why not seek out like-minded groups there to begin your journey into education conversations in the digital sphere? Start somewhere and go from there.

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If our goal is to encourage and empower colleagues, students, parents, administrators and policy makers to engage in education conversations on various channels, we need to think about how we welcome them into spaces which are new to them but territory to us. In that process we also need to break open our ideas about what PD is and can be. This is as true for us as it is for the systems we inhabit and sustain.

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I don’t consider myself a digital evangelist. I do consider myself an active member of the commons who appreciates and uses digital tools. This distinction matters to me. And that is what I aim to share with colleagues when I find myself speaking digital.