Practice Over Perfection – A Keynote

NYSAIS Keynote(5)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She explains:

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

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

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

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

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

NYSAIS Keynote

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

I’m the warm-up act.

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

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

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

It is truly a provocation!

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

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

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

What kinds of behaviors would you encourage and for whom?

Which criteria for success would you set?

Please add some of your ideas in the chat box.

[Reading aloud some of the responses.]

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

Y’all are great at this!

Now I’ll share my response:

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

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

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

What can we learn from such an exercise?

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

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

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

  1. Here’s the second opportunity for practice:
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Photo by Eric Ward on Unsplash

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

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

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

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

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Photo by Arthur Edelman on Unsplash

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

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

[Reading aloud]

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

 

What do you notice when you do that?

[pause]

[Reading aloud some of the responses]

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

Thank you for sharing those.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s called listening.

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

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

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

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

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

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Photo by Arthur Edelman on Unsplash

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

Let’s go!

We have a little time for questions.

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

 

Three weeks in, I’m wondering.

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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.

The Education Can Begin: Meditations on Midlife

Middle age keeps surprising me.

I keep running into things I think I know only to realize that I was

mistaken

misinformed

under a false

but lasting impression.

These surprises are not always pleasant

or friendly.

some carry a force upon arrival

that’ll knock you down

flat

especially if you haven’t been paying close attention.

I thought I knew love,

thought I knew racism,

thought I knew how to show the former

and counter the latter.

Middle age presents the tests

but doesn’t ask if you studied;

doesn’t question your readiness.

Middle age says

work this out.

And there you are

grasping at straws

watching the clock

scouring your memory.

And there you are

stuck and stuck and stuck

unprepared

to be so utterly clueless.

But middle age saw you coming,

sees your indignity

at being caught

unawares.

Now, she says,

the education can begin.

 


 

Middle age has been on my mind A LOT lately. I identify as middle aged and regardless of how many folks kindly remark on how young I may appear, I know exactly how old I am and how many years this particular body has been in operation. On the one hand, I have some decades of life experience to draw on – full of family, work, and accomplishments, on the other hand, I face a great unknown of what will come next. After 60? 70? Even after 80? I’ve learned a great deal up until now, how much more will I learn before my days are at an end?

I’ve been reading bell hooks’ trilogy on love: All About Love: New Visions (2001), Salvation: Black People and Love (2001), and Communion: The Female Search For Love (2002). It’s a course of study I didn’t know I needed until I was deeply immersed in the material. Bell hooks is a patient truth teller as she guides us through museums full of mental models we apply to make sense of love; how we crave, practice, misunderstand and shun it. She speaks from a specifically American frame which helps me to connect it to my own upbringing in the Midwest and understand the ways I’ve applied those beliefs in adulthood in Europe.

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At the same time I am making my way through Ibram X. Kendi’s How To Be An Antiracist (2019). Similar to hooks, Dr. Kendi leads us step by step into a steadily more complex and nuanced definition of what an antiracist is, but more importantly he shows us what a true antiracist human does on the micro and macro levels of life in progress. What’s interesting is that both authors share episodes of their own lives – of their youthful fears, adult struggles and bracing insights along the way. Their lessons are personal AND intimately connected and embedded in the social structures they illuminate. We learn about personal actions and decisions and then witness how these can be seen in light of what we know about the impacts of race, gender and class.

I take note: None of us is operating in a vacuum as we lead our private little lives. On the contrary, our private spheres become sites of social interactions deeply impacted by the dominant culture’s overarching messages in favor of racist, sexist and classist ideas. Resisting all of these influences requires more of us than we often realize.

In an early chapter on dueling consciousness, Dr. Kendi introduces duels in Black and White, in the past and present, between assimilationist and segregationist thinking. In a remarkably poetic passage he describes the duel within the Black body:

The Black body in turn experiences the same duel. The Black body is instructed to become an American body. The American body is the White body. The Black body strives to assimilate into the American body. The American body rejects the Black body. The Black body separates from the American body. The Black body is instructed to assimilate into the American body – and history and consciousness duel anew. (How To Be An Antiracist, p.33)

Every time I reread this passage, I see it play out – sometimes in my own childhood, or on a recent news report – this back and forth without ever fully arriving: I know this duel. In my own ways, I live it. Then it hits, the other duels happening within.

Reading about love in heterosexual relationships, I am struck by the recurring duels that appear in hooks’ considerations: between feminism and patriarchy; power and love. She laments that feminists of the ’80s and ’90s while able to demonstrate significant gains in jobs, money and power, failed to share the discovery “that patriarchy, like any colonizing system, does not create a context for women and men to love one another… that domination and love do not go together, that if one is present, the other is not.” (Communion, p. 71-72)

I don’t remember ever having thought about relationships with that kind of clarity. I am familiar with the draw to compete; the unspoken patterns of one-upmanship that couples can fall into. To claim we want to love and be loved, but at the same time show with our actions that we also want to win. These are features of the dominant culture coming home to roost. Even when we believe ourselves to be beyond such influences. It’s the cultural air we breathe.

Given that lesson, the path to love that hooks sketches for us in Communion demands new lenses, above all for seeing ourselves. And she suggests that midlife lends itself particularly well for this endeavor. The timing of this reading could hardly be better.

I’ve had 4 lines written on a notepad next to my computer for about a month which means that I keep seeing them, rereading them, imbuing them with further meaning.

It doesn’t matter if I say

how much it hurts

the answer is always a question:

what did you expect?

Again a duel, playing itself out: answer and question. Midlife seems to be asking: What did I expect? Now I see that it is homework of a whole new variety. Work that may, in time, bring me home to myself.

“Now, she says,

the education can begin.”

 

References:

hooks, bell, All About Love – New Visions, William Morrow, 2001.

 – Salvation: Black People and Love, Harper Perennial, 2001.

 – Communion: The Female Search for Love, Perennial, 2002.

Kendi, Ibram X., How To Be An Anti-Racist, One World, 2019.

 

 

 

 

IDK

I Don’t Know

everything about everything or

All

about the things I choose to study.

I Do Know that I’m curious and

I wonder.

A girl who likes to propose

a good workshop for learners she’s never met;

A girl who thinks the topics on her mind

will make for a good conversation

among self-selecting walk-ins.

I Don’t Know

All

About the things I choose to write on.

I Do Know that I feel a certain kinda way

About some things

and that my health will thank me

if I assault the page

rather than a passing human.

Because I’ve realized that my writing, studying, presenting

Is less about KNOWING

and more about LEARNING.

My writing, studying, presenting  – all that’s about

moving somewhere,

changing my perspective (and maybe yours, too),

opening up spaces dark and silent

developing eyes and ears for connections.

What I know is

how to gather and marshal resources.

I know how to welcome what you know

and feel

into the room.

I know how to encourage

movement, spontaneous or otherwise

because we’re going places.

We’ll take our flashlights and hard hats

to investigate ruins and

sites of construction.

We’ll build stuff ourselves: relationships,

bodies of work, archives of resources,

towers of knowledge.

I know how to

raise questions

raise eyebrows

raise the bar

raise the roof.

Knowledge becomes a thing we

unpack

take apart

remix

re-imagine

reinvent

discover

refine

relate

recover

reassemble

.

It’s a dangerous, risky thing

to say

I Don’t Know.

Which is why I say, too

I Do Know

how to listen

for what the situation requires;

how to face the discomfort

of waiting to find out

what happens next.

I am a teacher.

This is my calling.

I know.

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Photo: © Alexandra Thompson

 

 

Written in great anticipation of a 5-day learning experience in Digital Pedagogy Lab, August 5-9, 2019 at University Mary Washington, Fredericksburg, Virginia.

I will lead the #DigitalIdentity Course.

Please come and make it what it fully needs to be.

 

 

 

 

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.

Repetition Works Wonders

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Let’s do that again!     (image via Pixabay.com)

Although I write about a number of different topics, what I do, how I earn my living, is teaching. Elementary physical education, in fact, from Pre-K up to 5th grade. For the most part, my students love PE. They are excited to be in the gym, to play the games we play, to be active and loud and even silly with each other. I have a lot working in my favor before I even start class.

I’ve been at this for a while and feel reasonably confident in my teaching abilities, although I keep learning new things and rediscovering ideas I had set aside. Recently I’ve been aiming for more repetition in my lessons. That doesn’t sound very progressive but here’s what I’ve learned:

  • Because I teach PE all day every day, I tend to forget that this is not true for my students.  They see me mostly 3 times per week for 30-40 minutes. That means that they may get to practice a group of skills 1-2 times, while I have gone through the instruction of those skills 4-6 times in the same week.
  • Students who repeat the same lesson are not bored!  Rather, they are able to concentrate on the actual tasks instead of the format details (stations, practice sequence, etc.).
  • Students who repeat the same lesson derive confidence from knowing what to expect. The exclamations: “We did this!” “I know this one!” often indicate a positive familiarity.
  • Performance improves, often dramatically. From one lesson to the next, my colleague and I often brag to each other about how much better our students performed in a lesson the second or third time around. Over time, these add up to produce movement learning.
  • Repetition invites challenge. As students recognize patterns and feel increasingly confident they will, often without additional prompting, find ways to make the task more challenging.

In elementary PE, my colleagues and I aim to cover a lot of ground. We want to expose kids to wide variety of movement options and possibilities, and we do. At the same time, we  must remain sensitive to their needs for competency, control, enjoyment and challenge in the PE setting. Repeating lessons, circling back to previously covered skills, playing a familiar game – these all help students establish their own sense of progress and growth over time.

I used to think that my students needed lots of novelty to stay motivated and excited. Sure they like some novelty, but not all the time. Like so many other aspects of teaching and learning, what is healthy and beneficial for students will have elements of routine and novelty, will offer repetition and introduce new tasks, embrace big challenges and celebrate the easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy.

The longer I teach, the more I learn. The better I learn, the greater the chances that my students will be able to do the same.

 

Shout out to my PE colleague, @imSporticus, whose posts on movement performance vs. movement learning and the Flaw of Linearity Within PE have helped me reach a much better understanding of the why’s behind lots of my practice.

 

If You Could Teach Anything You Wanted…

image via Pixabay.com CC
image via Pixabay.com CC

…and action!

The school year has begun and we’re off to what appears to be a very fine start. While brunching with my oldest today I asked him a question that just popped into my head:

If you could teach anything you wanted, what would it be?

He spent some time thinking about it and even said, “that’s a good question.” The conversation that ensued was deeply interesting and proved fertile for a whole new crop of questions like Do you need to be an expert in order to teach something to someone else? What makes a class ‘academic’? Would you require anything of your students? How would you know what they are learning? And many others.

At the same time I was turning the question in my own mind wondering what my topic or theme of choice might be. And sure enough, another very fundamental question emerged: What do I mean by “teach”?

Give instruction? provide expertise? engage in discussion? offer guidance? tell? show?

Wouldn’t this be an interesting question to ask students? How might they respond? What would their responses reveal about their assumptions related to teaching and learning? What might we learn about our students as people with interests and enthusiasms by raising this question?

Taking the idea back to my own classroom, I want ask students about their special interests and think about ways I can offer them opportunities to actively teach each other. While I often remind them that I am not the only teacher in the room, I want to  “put my money where my mouth is” and develop the idea into a visible practice. I wonder what some of them might be eager to teach. it’s time to find out.

There Is No App for Patience

There is no app for patience. Just as there is no app for respect, kindness or trust. I say this now in the midst of all the hoopla around the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) conference currently taking place in Philadelphia not so much because I want to rain on anyone’s edtech parade, but because I am missing something. So much of our focus on the use of technology in education has to do with speed, efficiency and scale – measurable features. We talk about technology as an accelerator of learning, we extol the virtues of tremendous reach when tens of thousands register to join a popular Massive Open Online Course (MOOC). We laud countless applications and software packages which promise us time-saving and economizing means to teach our classes and “raise achievement” in the process. I get it. There are numerous digital tools which allow us to do things we couldn’t do before as easily such as locate, sort and store information. As individuals we can create media to share with a potential worldwide audience. And our societies are heading increasingly in the direction of more technology, of faster tools, of ubiquitous digitization of the billions of data points that make up our individual lives. I do not live under a rock. Nor do you.

Still, there is no app for patience nor will there ever be.

Patience is a human capacity to do more than wait. Patience describes the capacity to pay close enough attention, to develop the awareness of self and others to be able to recognize and evaluate when pausing, waiting, holding off will likely bring about a better, more robust and lasting outcome than not waiting in a given situation. Listening often requires patience. Cultivating anything that grows requires patience. Any learning process aimed at achieving depth demands patience. Not surprising then that patience would seem to be a prerequisite for any educational endeavor – whether teaching or learning. In our current discourse around education – be it policy, practice or vision – patience finds no mention, no foothold, carries no weight.

On the contrary, impatience is the working assumption. We simply cannot wait. We should not wait. And for many issues I would perhaps echo that sentiment. Impatience is warranted and called for in response to racialized police violence, in response to ending childhood poverty, in response to highly inequitable school systems. There are many areas where we as a society cannot wait to tackle certain issues. But when it comes to individual students and teachers and their progress, in their capacity to effect change, where is our patience and empathy? When it comes to policy makers setting standards for multiple school districts and expecting to see rapidly improved results within the 9-month sprint we call a school year, where do we find patience and common sense?

There is no app which will teach us or train our patience. Patience requires some depth of thought. Patience requires being able to slow down when the rest are speeding by in order to see precisely what is happening. Patience with our kids means daring to watch and wait before we rush in with an intervention. Patience with our teachers means trusting them to make decisions which benefit and grow student learning and not assuming that all the results of that learning will show up through standardized testing. Patience with our colleagues means listening and encouraging without shaming and judging. Patience creates space for individual variability. Patience provides a stepping stone for faith and positive belief. Patience allows us to spend time not knowing. Patience can teach us to listen first before we speak; to observe carefully before we evaluate.

Patience is something I miss in our education talk and behavior. We cannot copy and paste patience into our curricula or teaching practice. It will need to come from within us and our institutions. Creating space for patience in a school would require a seismic shift in culture and habits. Some schools enter through mindfulness practice. I hope more will choose to follow. For us as individuals swimming in this sea of accelerated everything, we’ll need to fashion our own life vests and buoys to keep us afloat and present to the situation as it is. We cannot turn off the machine. We can, however, moderate our own habits and ways of being in the world with our family, colleagues, students and strangers. There is no app for patience. We must grow and nurture and practice our own.

For Here or To Go?

"Yes, I'll have that lesson to go..."
“Yes, I’ll have that lesson to go…”

This morning I was out for a jog and something dawned on me: Great teaching is something that sticks with you. That was the start. Then the thought began to evolve.

Is it the teaching or is it the learning? I asked myself.

What great teaching am I carrying with me right now as I pick up the pace?

I began assembling my stories; stories of the great teachers, the great lessons, the deep learning I was sporting as I lengthened my stride.

  • Story #1: The speedskating race. I did my first long distance speed skating race on January 2nd. I completed 15 laps of a 2.1km course in a little less than 2 hours and 15 minutes. Throughout, I could hear my coach’s whisper at each step, “feet together, feet together.”
  • Story #2: Reading aloud. One of my greatest joys as a parent was and still is reading aloud to my sons (aged 20 and 7). My mother surely instilled and inspired this habit in me. Every time I hear myself read aloud with passion, I imagine my mother looking on with pride.
  • Story #3: Sticking with the run I was on. It would have been easy to stop and walk, especially as I was plodding uphill. And there I heard a variety of voices, including my own, reminding me that I could and would succeed because: I know how this goes, I’ve tackled this before, I set the pace, the choice is mine and look at the blessings that surround me.
  • Story #4: The will to keep writing. Several folks have had a hand in this one, yet my thoughts actually go back to two of my high school teachers, Mr. Hawkes and Mr. Nelson, who encouraged me to recognize my writing as a definitive strength and that I should therefore dare to be confident in doing it. That lesson took a long while to kick in (some 20 years, at least). If they only knew…

So as I continued to chew on this line of thinking, I arrived at this: Great teaching, which often goes hand in hand with great learning, becomes great because it has staying power. Great lessons stick with you, are portable and transferable. Over time these lessons can become so uniquely and intimately useful to you as to no one else. This is what makes the learning your own.

I hesitate to draw the connection to education or schooling, because we know teaching, learning and lessons to be so much more, so much broader than what we tend to stuff into our favorite labeled compartments of education and schooling.  So think big and broad with me here, let’s go deep and not linger on the surface. When you consider some of your own great teaching, learning and lessons, both in the past and to come, would you like that for here, or to go?

Personally, I’ll take all three to go with a big side of uncertainty because there’s the catch – we just can’t know or predict before hand exactly what will stick with whom and when. All the same, let’s have the “to go” model in mind when we are serving up our best fare to students, colleagues, and loved ones. They will thank us. Someday.

A Programmable Future

CC pixabay.com
CC pixabay.com

I experienced a rare moment this week. I read a post and quite simply it changed me.

The post helped me see what I was not seeing.

To recognize what I have been avoiding.

To be brave when my fear is the only audible voice I can hear.

The post  I read was  “The Future of Education: Programmed or Programmable “ by Audrey Watters. It is in fact the transcript of a talk she recently gave at Pepperdine University. I encourage you to read the full text to appreciate the strength and wisdom of her arguments.

The first point that got under my skin was this:

Whether it’s in a textbook or in a video-taped lecture, it’s long been the content that matters most in school. The content is central. It’s what you go to school to be exposed to. Content. The student must study it, comprehend it, and demonstrate that in turn for the teacher. That is what we expect an education to do, to be: the acquisition of content which becomes transmogrified into knowledge…

…despite all the potential to do things differently with computers and with the Internet and with ubiquitous digital information, school still puts content in the center. Content, once delivered by or mediated through a teacher or a textbook, now is delivered via various computer technologies.

YES! Content is always at the center, of course.  And what have I been working so hard to cultivate in the learning episodes that I design for others? Experience.  I want my clients, participants, students, athletes to experience something, to feel something and thereby come to know “the thing” and what it may mean for them. Content has been a vehicle but my real desire has always been to generate feelings, emotions, connection – the stuff that makes you feel alive. How very counter-cultural I now understand.

Audrey Watters goes on to talk about shifting away from the content-centered approach of the “programmed web” and towards the more open and co-constructed “programmable web:”

The readable, writable, programmable Web is so significant because, in part, it allows us to break from programmed instruction. That is, we needn’t all simply be on the receiving end of some computer-mediated instruction, some teacher-engineering. We can construct and create and connect for ourselves. And that means that — ideally — we can move beyond the technologies that deliver content more efficiently, more widely. It means too we can rethink “content” and “information” and “knowledge” — what it means to deliver or consume those things, alongside what it makes to build and control those things.

This is about where things started to heat up for me. The next sentence laid my purpose out for me like the Tarot card you knew was coming before you even approached the table:

One of the most powerful things that you can do on the Web is to be a node in a network of learners, and to do so most fully and radically, I dare say, you must own your own domain.

WHAT?

As I read on, two things were happening: my emotions had gotten hold of the stage and were running with it. At the same time, my rational mind tore further into the text looking for something to save me fast.

Authority, expertise, participation, voice — these can be so different on the programmable web; not so with programmed instruction.

The Domain of One’s Own initiative at University of Mary Washington purposefully invokes Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own: “A woman must have money, and a room of her own, if she is to write fiction.” That is, one needs a space — a safe space that one controls — in order to do be intellectually productive.

Boom!

We have an amazing opportunity here. We need to recognize and reconcile that, for starters, in the content that programmed instruction — as with all instruction — delivers, there is a hidden curriculum nestled in there as well. Education — formal institutions of schooling — are very much about power, prestige, and control. [emphasis mine]

and then this:

Despite all the talk about “leveling the playing field” and disrupting old, powerful institutions, the Web replicates many pre-existing inequalities; it exacerbates others; it creates new ones. I think we have to work much harder to make the Web live up to the rhetoric of freedom and equality. That’s a political effort, not simply a technological one.

That’s when the tears came rolling in. Between the deep desire to be that “node in a network of learners” and the self-unhelpful stance of “I could never do that.” (in this case  to have, run and maintain my own domain.), a larger truth was revealed:  I am at liberty to make use of my own superpowers. I am a learner of outrageous potential. There is no reason to believe that I cannot do what no one expects.  That’s when all the forces, internal and external, technological and philosophical which have  kept the volume of my fears turned all the way up seemed suddenly muted.

I’ve been sitting with this experience for a few days now. I wrote to Audrey almost immediately to say Thank you and at the same time nearly wanting to ask for the antidote.  Because it is a fundamentally scary experience to be exposed to your own potential and grant it some credibility. And when you belong to a marginalized group, that exposure can be all the more astounding and confounding. Empowerment can feel like work because it is not for free. Empowerment always challenges us to imagine, to create, to put into practice what once appeared impossible.