The Commencement Address I Never Gave

image via pixabay.com
image via pixabay.com

Dear Graduates,

You are here, I am told, because you made it. You fulfilled the requirements, satisfied the criteria of your studies and now will be rewarded with a diploma. Congratulations!

In the process that has brought you thus far, what have been your greatest lessons? Where has your learning been its deepest and  most rewarding? What are you proud of? To whom are you grateful?

I ask these questions because in my experience, some of the best graduation speakers turn out to be the students themselves. Often they are selected by their peers. When you speak as a student, you can address the graduating class as peers. You know what many have been through because you were there. And now as you sit, organized perhaps alphabetically, or by discipline or a combination of those, you may be sitting next to some people you know well and near others whom you perhaps hardly know. Yet whoever stands up here where I am now may be hard pressed to  recognize you as anything other than a collective, a class of, yes, graduates.

I want to change that. Rather than have me talk to you or about you for 8 or 15 or 30 minutes. I want us to do something different with this time we have been allocated. I want you spend some time talking to each other. I want you to spend five minutes (2:30 for each person) responding to one of the questions I posed at the beginning. Each of you will have 2:30 to respond without interruption. I will signal when the time is up and then ask you to switch places.  I want everyone here to participate, not only the graduates. Speak to the person next to you or behind you and share your responses. Listen without interruption until you hear the signal. Then switch and tell your story.

Find a partner you will speak with and raise your hand to let me know you are ready. We are a lot of folks here, so please hold off with your conversation until the signal, just raise your hand silently to show me that you’ve found a partner.

Looks like just about everybody has a partner. Great!

Here are the questions to which you may respond. Pick one: (Displayed on giant screen)

  • In the process that has brought you thus far, what have been your greatest lessons?
  • Where has your learning been its deepest and  most rewarding?
  • What are you proud of?
  • To whom are you grateful?

First partner, are you ready to tell your story? Okay, begin.  (Full buzz of thousands of conversations unleashed)

(at 2:00) You have about 30 more seconds, partner 1.

(at 2:25) Please finish your sentence. 3, 2, 1.  Thank you!

Partner number 2, are you ready to share your story? Okay, begin. (Even louder, more animated buzz)

(at 2:00) Partner 2, you have about 30 more seconds.

(at 2:25) Please finish your sentence. 3, 2, 1. Thank you!

Continued buzz. Pause.

How did that feel?

Graduates, this is the opportunity that I continue to long for – creating entrances into meaningful conversation. With our neighbors, with our colleagues, with our family members. Even as we dance on this planet, many of us hyper-connected and often more in need of unplugging than of anythings else, meaningful, face to face dialogues which unlock our intellect as easily as our emotions may become scarce yet no less necessary to our thriving. And if you or I intend to make a dent in the world, then we must understand that our significant dialogues need to extend beyond our most trusted circles.

You are leaving this ceremony with a degree in your hand. You know, too, that you have had classmates along the way who are not here with you. Classmates who have not yet made it to where you are. Right there is a space for dialogue which is often overlooked. The dialogue between graduate and drop out. What might you be able to learn from each other, to contribute to each other’s understanding of the world we inhabit, especially when you may each see the world very differently?

As a graduate, you enter adulthood in one form or another. There will be new demands upon your time, money and wits. You likely have friends and family who are in your corner rooting for you.  What kinds of new conversations will you be having with your parents, siblings, grandparents?  How will your freshly won independence express itself when you need to ask others for help?

Thinking about being able to live with yourself, what internal conversations do you need to have before you leave this place and head for the next? Even when you know what to do (get more sleep, exercise regularly, brush and floss daily), what gets in the way from acting on that knowledge sometimes? How do you bridge your own ‘knowing-doing gap’? How do you talk to yourself when you fail? What do you say to yourself to make it alright again?

I raise these questions not to throw you into a philosophical crisis, but as signposts for the conversations I wish more of us would entertain. While dialogue, even with yourself, may not be the solution to the world’s problems, it strikes me as a perfectly fine place to start. Each of us is capable of becoming an effective listener.  We can learn to respect and honor multiple perspectives. Without these capacities, I fear that your education is hollow and of limited use to the world.

Make your education useful: Become an expert on gaps.

Recognize the gaps that exist around you – through gender, race, class, education, health status, to name a few – and dare to stand in those gaps. No need to raise your hand anymore; raise your question. Question what is and perhaps try “what if?” Gather the responses. Investigate  their sources and interrogate their meaning. Research possible ways forward. If your education has equipped you to do as much, we can all be well pleased.

Do not fear the gap; make the gaps you encounter an unending source of creativity.

What questions will you pose to the world?

What is life asking of you?

These are the questions that come up for me as I look at you in your caps and gowns. To me you all look lovely and promising and slightly uncomfortable.

I have often wondered about the purpose of commencement speeches. When they are good, they are often highly marketable after the fact, particularly if they are delivered by uniquely wise and well spoken members of the celebrity class.  Yet what good do they do? What do you gain by listening to someone offer anecdotes, some encouragement and of course, a bit of advice? Speakers at graduations are of course talking to a much wider audience than just the graduates themselves. They are addressing parents and families of the graduates, the faculty and administration of the institution, and perhaps other invited members of prominence.  Of course, you, the graduates, are the focus of these ceremonial activities but rest assured that there is much more going on than folks simply gathering here to say “Congrats!” and to wish you well. We have the pomp and circumstance along with apprehension and nervousness. We have joy and cheering along with tears and departures. A commencement address seems to be there to tide us over until we can get to the main course; to forestall a widespread emotional implosion should all the other parts move too quickly. That said, I have one more quick exercise for all of us before we go.

This exercise has two parts, the calm and the storm. During the calm we are going to go silent for yes, a whole minute. Use this time to breathe and simply be where you are, who you are right at this moment; nothing more, nothing less. Then, when you hear the signal,please stand up and give us a whopping loud cheer of celebration.

Here’s the calm.

(at 58 sec.) Now the STORM. (Very loud cheering from all angles !!!)

Pause.

Congratulations, graduates and Thank you!

On-Stage, Off-Stage

 Pretend for a moment that you’re alone with your thoughts, and that whatever you think or feel in the next few minutes is not designed for social media consumption, interpersonal bonding, or heated debate – that it’s just you thinking through you. (emphasis mine)

If you’re angry, why? No, really? What makes you angry about recent comments, events, interpretations, etc.? There’s no right or wrong answer here – you don’t have to tell me or anyone else. If you feel a bit defensive, or defiant, or sad, or guilty, or even if you’ve been trying not to think about ANY of these seemingly distant riots and uprisings and whatever, ask yourself why. Just for a few minutes.

Let your mind sift a bit. No one will know.

– Blue Cereal Education, To My Confused White Friends

“Let your mind sift a bit. No one will know.”

These words and the idea of being alone with my thoughts and not grooming them for social media consumption – well now, that caught me in a sensitive place. Because, he’s absolutely right. For those of us who show up here daily on the social media channels of our choice – we admittedly have a lot going on. When we have something to say and decide that it is indeed something we need and want to share, we run a risk. In fact, we run a whole host of risks.

We risk being misunderstood and our words misconstrued.

We risk being confronted with our own ignorance, misjudgment, and narrow mindedness.

We risk saying something that may offend or hurt someone else.

We risk being called out for our arrogance and tone deafness.

We risk being too right, too wrong or simply too much.

And yet, if our online experiences are positive enough, it can become quite easy to make our presence a habit, our contributions frequent and our interactions numerous and varied. If those experiences strike us as positive enough through favorites and retweets and follow-up shares, then we feel affirmed in our presence and contributions. We may feel heard, valued and seen. Like our being here is a good thing.

A challenge I face as frequent user of a few social media spaces, however, is being honest with myself outside of those spaces. IRL – in real life, my family members do not toss out stars of approval at my wittiest statements or my forthright requests. There are no retweets of our dinner conversation.  And yet, a surprising portion of my inner dialogue seems to run through a type of  social media filter.  How would I want to blog about that? Is that tweetable? What’s the right tone here?  For lack of a better term, I’ll call it “social media creep” (as in “slowly progressing” not “wierdo”).  These more recent thought filters slide in and make themselves at home in my day-to-day habits.  Their reason for being is rooted in the potential response of the other. These social media thought filters reveal speculations about how I wish to be seen, heard, and recognized in this great big untamed space by others.

I, by myself, entirely alone with my thoughts… I know it happens and it is becoming rare. My thoughts drift into writing and that writing happens with some sense of audience in mind. Before I have gone too far, my thinking may become a text that I choose to publish. Where I used to commit all this stuff to journals, I now have the opportunity to do that AND share those thoughts with the whole dang world immediately.  When Dallas Koehn, alias Blue Cereal Education (@BlueCerealEduc), suggests that we pretend for a few minutes that our thoughts are not designed for social media consumption, he cuts to the core. He calls me and so many others out for staging our being more than actually being our being. When we enter the social media fray, we step on stage and although we may feel like nondescript extras in a scene of the masses, we want to play our parts well and to the best of our ability.  If we’re good, the thinking goes, surely someone will notice us and our performance.

And being noticed, catching someone’s attention – this becomes our new currency of influence and prestige: Follower counts, potential reach. This is how we figure out who’s boss and who’s not (yet).  Social media creep wants me to care about those things. Social media creep beckons me to maximize and optimize my presence. Because being noticed more often by more people – well that must be a reward in and of itself, right?

What does it mean that I have nearly 400 followers on Twitter? Or that some 70 people follow this blog? My hope is that each of those individuals derives some benefit, some usefulness from my occasional contributions. I’m not here to start a movement. I am here to learn. to grow. to stretch. to engage.  Staying alert to what’s happening on stage may prove to be less challenging than recognizing the processes going on behind the scenes – inside ourselves. Our vanity, our egos, desires, and our need to belong have become economic drivers on a whole new scale and we find ourselves vulnerable  in strange and unanticipated ways thanks to the wonders of digital technology.

Given the personal impact of social media creep, the time that I spend alone with my thoughts becomes the best preparation I can imagine for keeping this thing real and human and meaningful, on stage and off.   “Let your mind sift” may need to become my new mantra.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Inclusion, Intent and Extraordinary Value

It’s workshop season and I’m pulling my resources together trying to design adult learning experiences that create value for participants. When I am in this phase of mapping, planning, sketching and drafting, a number of competing ideas come up for me. I find myself zooming out, then zooming in; attending to the details while keeping the big picture in mind – these are the intellectual challenges that I love in this work. And this time I see that I have created a special task for myself. The workshop that I want to deliver struggles with the premise of the workshop that was accepted.

Let me explain. The title of my workshop is: “The What, Why and How of Inclusion Activities” and in a nutshell, it is billed as offering participants a framework for when and why to use activities which are designed to foster inclusion in a group setting and of course, practice selected activities as we go.  Sounds reasonable enough. For participants there’s a predictable outcome: ideally they will leave with some specific activities that they can use in their classrooms and offices. In practice the workshop looks something like this:

Participants arrive, we do an activity, I talk, we talk, we do another activity, I talk, we talk, next activity, I talk, we talk …time to wrap up, I talk, we talk, round of applause, participants depart, done.

There are worse models, to be sure. Participant involvement and reflection are central to any plan I create. At the same time, I want to do more. I want to bump up against the boundaries a little. The phrase that keeps coming up is: “mess with.” I want to “mess with” people’s ideas and assumptions about how this process works. It is not particularly hard to select a series of activities which may be useful, practice them a little, create a handout for folks to take home and send people on their merry professional way. In principle, that sums up most of what I have planned. Yet the call for more persists.

Here’s what more might look like:

  • After having participants circulate in the room for a minute or two, stop and ask them to note down: 1.) Their hopes for this workshop  and 2.) Their intentions for participating in the workshop.  The purpose here is to invite participants to make an internal commitment to the time they are about to spend on something. Asking about hopes and intentions alerts participants to their role in co-creating the learning experience they are about to have. That is more.
  • Create space for activities completed in silence. We tend to talk so much, especially in the role of facilitator, that we forget how powerful and revolutionary it can feel to let go of talk for a time. Just because we are not hearing each others’ voices  does not mean that dialogue will disappear. Calling for silence and restricting the use of voice can feel like a huge counter-cultural demand. And yet if we just go ahead and do it, model it, let it be – our results are often stronger for it. That would be more.
  • Create space and time for participants to connect input with pre-existing knowledge and experiences. Again it is so easy to fall into a trap of delivery. We offer a workshop and we should deliver new, interesting stuff to the participants. And yet, what allows any learning to stick is when it finds an anchor, a connection that already exists in the individual. Even if that connection is the realization: “Wow, I’ve never seen that before.” The key is reflection. The learning is not in the activity, it is in the reflection on doing the activity.  In our insufferable quest to squeeze lots of content into skinny little time pockets which should then be applicable, portable and transferable, we often do ourselves and our participants a great disservice.  Deliver less and value the wisdom and expertise of the room. This, too, is more.

While these ideas do not strike me as radical, I can acknowledge them as unconventional. They are not the professional development norm in education circles. And I know that I have to brave experimenting with them. I’d like to “mess with” my participants’ notions of what compelling adult learning can look like and I expect them to teach me in turn. Actively co-creating the learning experience is what I am after and it gets to the heart of what Inclusion Activities are actually about.

Inclusion assumes that every member has a contribution to make to the group’s success.

In Will There Be Donuts? a book that advocates for designing and running real meetings, author David Pearl says:

The question I always ask clients – and have them ask themselves – is how can this meeting create extraordinary value for everyone involved? Not just value but extraordinary value. Not just for me, but for everyone, most particularly the other participants…

When people are queuing up in the corridor for your meetings, camping overnight in sleeping bags for the doors to open, we’ll know that we are creating extraordinary value. And it’s the intention that gets us there.

(David Pearl, Will There Be Donuts, Harper Collins 2012., p. 76)

Applying that mindset of “creating extraordinary value for everyone involved” to my workshop planning, it becomes absolutely clear that the path to more for participants and me starts with clear intentions – internally formulated and explicitly stated. Every participant who walks through the door must be aware that her presence is valued, his voice is essential, that our work is shared.

This mindset also underscores the importance of only employing inclusion activities if inclusion is the genuine intent. When participants are encouraged to behave as if their voice mattered only to be quickly reconfigured back into traditional roles of power distribution (teacher-student, boss-employee), then they will quickly learn to resist such offerings and see them as a form of mockery. So I will make a point of asking participants to consider this intersection of intent and impact before trotting off to simply “try something new” with their unwitting groups.

In this way, the workshop as conceived and the workshop as advertised become one and the same: Art in the making, adult learning experiences eager to take on lives of their own. More than the norm. More about participant growth and connection than about content delivery. More about listening and sharing than about telling and showing. I’m going for more. Wish me luck.

 

 

I want to give a shout out to Elena Aguilar whose excellent post on Edutopia is a foundational reminder for me in this process: “10 Tips for Delivering Awesome Professional Development”: http://t.co/SBluT0jKjD

 

 

 

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.

On Becoming Adaptive

...and I'm in.  CC via pixabay.com
…and I’m in.       (CC via pixabay.com)

When we experience new learning that is exciting and valuable, we are often bubbling over with the desire to share and to envelop others in our heartfelt enthusiasm. I’ve recently returned from exactly that kind of learning experience.  A seminar where I left feeling love and gratitude for everyone in the room, where I had daily “a-ha” moments which nearly knocked me off my seat, where the teaching was so good that it often felt more like magic than learnable practice –  that’s the kind of experience it was.

I attended the Adaptive Schools Leadership Seminar (http://www.thinkingcollaborative.com/) which was hosted by the Tashkent International School in Uzbekistan (TIS). The 4-day training which focuses on developing individual and group capacities in leadership and collaboration was sponsored by the Central and Eastern European Schools Association (CEESA) of which my school is a member. A small contingent of international educators from Delhi, Dubai, Bangkok, Vienna and Vilnius joined the TIS staff in creating a tremendously trustful atmosphere for exchange and community. Our facilitators, Carolyn McKanders and Fran Prolman,  guided us expertly through a rich program of awareness raising, skill building and actionable next steps. And yet, the content, as compelling and applicable it may be in its own right, was not the star of the show. No, the real star, the giant outcome for me, was the overarching process which I would dare to call a transformation.

In four days it’s possible to cover a lot of content. And we did that. What was different was that at every stage we were consistently exposed to these four things:

  • Our facilitators maintained a fully relational approach to the group.
  • There was 100% transparency on the What, Why and How of each step.
  • We received both modeling of and practice in every strategy that was introduced
  • Reflection was built into the instructional plan at every turn.

Our facilitators maintained a fully relational approach to the group.

Both facilitators engaged participants by being authentic, welcoming and approachable. Questions were encouraged. Attention to feedback was meticulous, so that small changes in the program which better served the group’s understanding were honored and carried out. As a participant, I felt empowered to participate fully without fear of stepping on the facilitators’ toes. In the Adaptive Schools framework, I believe this might fall under the heading of “promoting a spirit of inquiry.”

100% transparency of the What, Why and How of each step

Skilled educators understand the value of making it clear to students, participants and group members why something is going to be done, exactly what it is that is going to be done, and how it will be done. Throughout the training every strategy, reference point and skill was described, explained and recorded, so that the information was consistently visibly available – posted on the walls all around our meeting space. By the last day we were literally surrounded by the fruits of our learning. If I was ever unclear as to what we were doing and why, all I needed to do was look around or ask a question. I never needed to leave thirsty for an answer.

Our facilitators provided modeling of and practice in every strategy that was introduced.

This practice really hit home for me. “What? Why? How?” is in fact a strategy which says that you answer these three questions for the group before asking group members to do something.  You play with an open hand by providing clear rationale and reliable instructions. This frees group members up to actually focus on the task at hand rather than second guessing the possible motivations or likely outcomes.  This piece is so important because it, demonstrates and reinforces an uncontested respect for group members’ time, presence and energy.  And the effect of seeing the strategy in action and then actually practicing it in real time builds a participant’s sense of efficacy. Seeing is believing – believing that, “yes, I could try this, too.”

Reflection was built into the instructional plan at every turn.

The oft repeated sentences offered by our facilitators spell it out: “The learning is not in doing the activity, it is in the reflection” and “any group that is too busy to reflect on process is too busy to grow.”  We don’t get smarter by simply doing, we need to reflect on what happened and how, in order to make sense of it on our own terms and eventually internalize what holds meaning. In the space of 4 days, there were no superfluous activities. All of our doings had a purpose and at each stage we were given opportunities to process our thinking sometimes silently, or by talking with a partner or in a small group; sometimes in writing and in pictures. This habit of reflection steadily contributed to group trust, participant efficacy and enthusiasm, and a gradual anchoring of the content in our lived experiences.  Brilliant!

While there may be plenty of resources, agencies and consultants out there that offer to teach a group how to run more successful meetings, boost employee morale or even how to build and sustain professional learning communities, the capacity to stimulate genuine transformation remains rare.  The Adaptive Schools Leadership Seminar achieved more than most by attending to the needs of adult learners in fundamentally deep ways. Rather than focusing exclusively on tips, tricks and raw skills, we addressed the significance and contribution of identity, mission and values in the mix. In order to do that we had to make ourselves a little vulnerable from time to time. In some cases we had to let go of a few long held ideas while making friends with new ones. Carolyn and Fran, by applying the four characteristics mentioned above provided the space, structure and atmosphere for the group to feel capable and prepared for true transformation to take place.

 

For more information on the work of Adaptive Schools, please visit the thinking collaborative website (see above) and consider getting a hold of the sourcebook: The Adaptive School, Garmston and Wellman, 2009, Christopher Gordon Publishers, Norwood, MA.

 

 

The Way of The Sloth

(picture via amazon.com)
My interest in talking animals has recently jumped off the charts. Following a deeply satisfying read-aloud of Charlotte’s Web, I brought home Eric Carle’s “Slowly, Slowly, Slowly,” Said the Sloth. And there is one final passage that has a remarkable hold on me.

After hearing questions from the other rainforest animals about why he, the sloth, is so slow, boring, quiet and lazy, this is what follows:

The sloth thought and thought and thought for a long, long, long time.
Finally, the sloth replied,
“It is true that I am slow, quiet
And boring. I am lackadaisical,
I dawdle and I dillydally.
I am also unflappable, languid,
stoic, impassive, sluggish,
lethargic, placid, calm, mellow,
Laid-back and, well, slothful!
I am relaxed and tranquil,
And I like to live in peace.
But I am not lazy.”
Then the sloth yawned and said,
“That’s just how I am.
I like to do things
Slowly,
slowly,
slowly.”

What would it take to know oneself so fully and clearly?

What an absolute gift to know who, how and why you are without a hint of doubt.

For all of my online chatter, including a steady stockpiling of text upon text of insights, outrage or just plain how-to instructions, the courage to proceed slowly,  methodically and thoughtfully appears worthy of strengthening.  My more recent immersion in social media has not come without a price tag.  How I spend my attention, availability and even patience has changed and not necessarily for the better. Thanks to Eric Carle, it may well be time for me to investigate and pursue the way of the sloth. To see just what can be learned in being more of who I am while doing considerably less.  The capacity of the sloth to think without speaking, to reflect without simultaneously sharing, to take in the ideas of others without assuming them as his own offers a worthy example.

The sloth reminds me that thinking and reflecting take time; that real understanding hardly comes in bursts – rather, it requires patience and some letting go.  Those strike me as hard to come by and stick to these days.  And there’s the lesson, waiting, like it always does, like a sloth might.

 

 

Slowing down and catching up

This week I was pleasantly surprised to read a post by a well connected educator urging us fellow connected to slow down.  I read it and let my shoulders relax for a moment; it felt like a message I had been waiting for.  Over the course of the past year I’ve really gotten into the edutwitter swing for what it’s worth.  My number of tweets has  been steadily climbing and I feel increasingly brave about putting my own views out there for comment.  There’s a part of me that is proud of myself for pursuing the new and unfamiliar, while seeking outlets for my natural inclinations (developing a sense of neigborhood in the twitterverse, for example). There’s another part of me, however, that is still skeptical and questioning: What is this really all about? What’s my ego investment? and who’s actually benefitting from my online engagement?

And then I read a tweet or an article or watch a video.  There is a change. In me. A response is occurring. Whether I tweet it or not, the change has happened. A brief sharing strikes a chord and reminds me of my own situation. I look at a statistical graph showing me earning differences based of levels of educational attainment. When I watch the video that accompanies the data, I reach a more significant understanding.  Most of the people speaking in the video are brown like me: they are the researchers, educators, community advocates, academics all describing the impact that education has on health outcomes. The graph becomes real, relevant, fully human and of genuine concern.

This type of experience necessitates slowing down. It requires digestion, processing, think time.  And yet, the temptation was there to stop at the graph in the twitter feed and say, “yeah, yeah, we know this…” and keep scrolling. In this case, I’m glad I took the time to listen and learn and become aware, once again, of how much I do not know. 

Another experience of comparing notes with a fellow educator about our respective youngsters preparing to start school gave me pause of a different nature. So close to home, that anxiety about my child in school and what his experience will be like.  Although I know a lot about schools and schooling, the bulk  of my own child’s experience in school or day care, is largely unknowable. Acknowledging that reality calls for nearly stopping in my tracks, breathing deeply and granting myself a moment of gratitude for all the moments which allow me to provide my children with an education regardless of how they do in school.

My twitter use has become a both a personal and professional source of community, knowledge and understanding when I consciously take the time it requires to discern, contextualize and think through the messages that induce an internal shift. Matt Miller’s message arrived at just the right time.  It’s definitely time for me to slow down. Catching up in the interim will be mainly with myself.

Step 4: Celebrate and Reflect

 

Although I have been teaching team building to elementary students for many years, my learning in this area just never quits.  So this year when pulling out my favorite group challenges and rounding up the necessary equipment, through conversation with my partner colleague I realized what I felt I was missing in the process: not enough time and attention dedicated to reflection at the end of a challenge.  In response to that need I drew up a plan outlining 4 steps for the team-building process which my colleague and I posted in our teaching areas:

  1. Form a group.
  2. Understand the task.
  3. Solve the challenge. Try and try again.
  4. Celebrate and reflect: Talk about it.

Team Building Blocks

This way it was clear to my students and to me that reflecting on what happened, how it happened, and what we learned from it was as important as solving the challenge itself.  What I also realized was that certain structures and tools needed to be in place to allow the process to run smoothly and to have a sustainable impact.  Successful student reflection requires:

  • Time, especially for listening and for each person to have a voice.
  • Conversation norms  (i.e.,  raising hands, listening to each other, taking turns)
  • Use of open questions starting with what, how, who, when. Use “Why” sparingly or not at all.
  • Paraphrasing or duplication: relating back what someone just said.
  • A reference point or points of how this learning relates to other topics
  • Opportunities to practice reflection in the short term and one on one (i.e., after correcting or redirecting a negative behavior).
  • Varied means and formats of expression (i.e., verbal, written, through art; publicly or privately)

What my colleague and I have found is that the conversations among students have grown increasingly layered over time. Our students can recognize and name behaviors such as blaming and supporting.  They are able to acknowledge each other’s specific contributions to their collective success. They can also identify where they experienced roadblocks and define what got in their way.  They learn to listen to each other. As they have grown accustomed to the types of questions which require them to actively recall, name and interpret their actions, their responses have become increasingly nuanced.  Also, as I experimented with gathering feedback privately from individuals, my ELL students were able to share their thoughts with greater confidence.

Now, as our groups have moved on to other movement topics, the benefit of this approach is paying further dividends. After struggling to make co-ed groups for a game, I stop the class and ask: “What seems to be the trouble?”  The responses often hit the nail on the head without much probing. Or before I release a class to go change, I ask them to tell me on their way out: “two things that made your team successful.”  In both cases, students are able to articulate and safely share their take on a given situation.  While not every child is anxious to speak up, I feel confident that every child is creating their own internal response; a process  we call “thinking.”