The Whiteboard Speaks

In my classes I rely a lot on my whiteboard. I put up an agenda for each grade level. Maybe agenda isn’t quite the right word. It’s a list of what I have planned. It’s some words and sometimes a few numbers that lets kids know what they can/should do, what’s next and what comes after that. Even my very young students learn to recognize “Tag” or “Awesome Gym Day” pretty quickly.

I use the whiteboard plans for a few reasons:

  • My students feel informed.
  • Having a written plan keeps me on track. (Even if I change my mind about something, my students can call me to account.)
  • Both I and my students do better with a common structure as a reference point.
  • I can assign independent activities.
  • Written directions keep me from talking too much.

Today in 4th grade I had the following on the board:

Jog 2 laps

Long Jump rope warm-up (4 per rope)

Stations: 1. Balance beam, 2. Climbing wall, 3. Ball balance, 4. Cartwheels, 5. Bear walk/forward roll

That means students arrived from the changing room, read the board, jogged the 2 laps and then looked for a group to begin jumping. Later arrivals may have needed a reminder to read the board and to do the jogging first but easily found their way. Groups formed, long jump ropes were turning, kids were jumping and I had said very little. We were 15 minutes into our 40 minute class before I called them all in to talk a bit about jumping in the rope. I gave each group the assignment to see that each person in their group jump 10-15 jumps in the rope to get a sense of where we are. They completed that task, put orange tickets in if they completed the assigned number (or more) and we moved on to the stations.

I don’t think there’s anything revolutionary here but I experienced this lesson and others like it as a tremendous relief to have helped students (and myself) through a lesson where I didn’t need to talk that much. And even better I think my students appreciate it if I keep my whole-group word interventions down to a minimum. This system allows us both more mental bandwidth for action, observation and individual exchanges which typically feel much more rewarding and valuable.

I guess this is part of a longer process in my teaching journey – learning to turn matters over to my kids. Most often they get it. They have fantastic ideas, creative and unusual ideas and they need space and opportunities to test them out. When I remember to open up that space, the results speak for themselves.

We started basketball in 5th grade this week and after having kids arrive, do some dynamic flex drills and shooting on their own (for about 10-15 minutes) I called them in and asked them what they wanted to learn about, what they considered most important to cover in this unit. Of course they were on it! Shooting, ball handling, how to defend, lay ups, rules… Based on that I then suggested that we focus on one of their priorities first (i.e., lay ups) and then return to mine (chest passes) a little later.

Afterwards I realized that I simply don’t do this enough. And that led me to this tweet which sprang from a challenge to capture our pedagogy in a haiku:

I definitely do not have this teaching game figured out. And that’s also the fun part. Me talking less is a plus. It appears that making space for student input is never a mistake. Student independence in class is worth cultivating.

Odd to put the whiteboard out there as my go-to teaching resource. It’s not an app, doesn’t require a subscription or even electricity but for my purposes it works a charm.

 

 

Keeping Kids in Mind

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Two posts I want to recommend off the bat:

Jesse Stommel: Why I Dont’ Grade

Pernille Ripp: A Call For Common Sense Reading Instruction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Dear Members of the Student Diversity Leadership Conference 2016, …

Dear Members of the Student Diversity Leadership Conference 2016,

Hi. We probably haven’t met and have not yet really seen each other here at this combined conference of over 5000 people. I’m an educator attending the NAIS People of Color Conference.
https://mobile.twitter.com/MsFreeman_Rm210/status/806914626650771456

I’m writing to you because I’m wondering about your experience here in Atlanta. What has your conference meant to you? I wonder what you could tell me about the people you’ve met, the conversations you want to really remember, your best and even most challenging moments. I’m also thinking about how we are connected even without having met or exchanged a few words yet.

Student. Diversity. Leadership. Conference.

I’m particularly curious about those two words in the middle and how you bring them together with the first one in your day-to-day. Diversity leadership – what is your vision for what that can look like? What will you have to do, who will you need to be in order to engage your peers and others in your school and home communities in topics of diversity?

Here’s another thought: as an adult who is a teacher and parent, I’m asking because, honestly, I need some help. I believe that you know things, perceive things, understand things that I do not. Your take on events, on situations is not among the most likely ones that I will hear about, read about and therefore consider. That is a deficit.

And while we at both PoCC and SDLC gather here to take up questions regarding diversity practice, one of our ongoing challenges in every conversation is asking ourselves which perspectives are missing. Your presence here reminds me of my own lack of consideration of voices much younger than mine. What messages do I regularly fail to hear because I am simply not listening? Because it has hardly occurred to me to turn my ear in your direction?

I can fix this though. And I will.

I will also forget, mess up, fail. On multiple occasions. Because we all will in different ways, on varied levels – that belongs to the process of striving to do better, to become better.

I am writing this in the morning before we come together in our affinity groups and regional meetings. This will be my opportunity to practice what I am preaching here. I want to be prepared for your brilliance, accepting of your vulnerability, and rooting for your success. It is vitally important that you are here being you and applying all that that entails to the work we have before us.

Because, oh my, we do have much work ahead of us. I am preparing for your leadership.

Ready. Set. Go.

Thank you for being here and being you. You matter.

Sherri

Practice Saying ‘Yes.’

While dropping off my son at school this morning, two moms from his class approached me about joining them for a 5K cross country/obstacle course race in June. I thought about it for 30 seconds and then said, “Yes!”

Never mind that I am struggling with knee pain on a daily basis right now.

Never mind that I am hardly in running shape.

Never mind that I’ve never been a fan of cross country running of any sort.

But I said “Yes!” and meant “yes” and now I am glad.

Saying “yes” means committing to changing my current state: Getting my knee back to normal, doing some cardio work (not necessarily running), giving myself the benefit of the doubt that I can make these changes.

So this particular “yes” was as much for me as it was for the others.

This got me thinking about how I use “yes” in my teaching. It seems that so often I am caught saying quite the opposite: “No, it’s not Awesome Gym Day today.” or “No, we won’t be playing soccer.” “No” can feel like my default response on several days.

Saying “yes” in my teaching requires more thought and intention. What sorts of parameters do I need to put in place to increase the chances that I’ll be able to say “yes” more often and with enthusiasm? What sorts of choices do I need to incorporate into my lessons? To what degree am I developing my students’ awareness of safe and wise movement choices so that saying “yes” to their suggestions and ideas becomes a reasonable proposition?

This makes me keenly aware that the capacity to say “yes” to student input and choice means letting go of the need to control every aspect of the lesson. It means cultivating and building a repertoire of trust between me and my students. It will mean failing and being disappointed. It will mean having to say “No” too.

As usual there are no absolutes or hard and fast rules. There’s context, history, experience and the moment. This morning’s moment yielded a confident affirmative. The kind of “yes” that will reproduce itself and chip away at my default “no.” Like most shifts in thinking and doing, this one calls for practice. Trying it out. Risking a little. Trying it again.

I know it’s in me. Just need to let it out a little more often. Yes.

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.

Finally Looking Under the Hood

Oh boy.
Stephanie Rivera tweeted some thoughts the other day which caught my attention via @theJLV because THEY WERE ALL IN CAPS. In my understanding, all caps in electronic communication is the equivalent of shouting. What was she shouting about?

Then she went on to write this powerful post: Advocacy in the Age of Colorblindness.. (Please read her blog post FIRST before reading on.) While I have certainly read my fair share on race in American society, and more specifically in education, this post and the comments it provoked landed like few others. Altogether they hit me at my core, pitched me into my past and lifted up the blinds on my present. Just like that – the exposure of widely held thinking among some white educators, the struggle to maintain decorum in the face of an emotionally charged set of triggers, and certainly the dedication to student voice throughout – Stephanie Rivera touched a piece of my own vulnerability in matters of race, identity, culture and education.
In the comment section Adam Beckham points out from his vantage point as a white male:

I can have an innovative curriculum and be tech-forward and all the good stuff we’re demanding from teachers, but I’m not going to get into their hearts like a black teacher can. They know I don’t go home to their neighborhood. We can both listen to some Houston rap and talk about it, but they know we are from different worlds and share different destinies. And they can know that while they know I love them and work for them every single day.

I can sit with them and read “Space Traders” by Derrick Bell all day long, but at the end of the day I’m still a white male. That’s not a bad thing, *there’s nothing wrong with being a white person or a male person*, it’s just not the whole meal they need to eat. It’s good to have some of me in the mix, but I can’t be all the options on the menu.

A kid shouldn’t have to go all day without seeing multiple, successful people reflecting their lives and cultures. That’s injustice. We would never accept that for our kids as white people. It’s unimaginable.

That final sentence is what brings the whole topic home to roost for me: Recognizing what would be unimaginable for my white colleagues and friends as an absolute given through most of my education and career.  Also Mia adds nuance to the dialogue by describing her desire as an Asian-American to have had Asian role models during her school experience.  She writes:

I identify as Asian and I would’ve really appreciated an Asian teacher to be a role model of an Asian American to me. Most of my childhood I learned how to be “white” American and to reject my culture not simply because of my white peers but because of the adults in my life that didn’t understand my culture.

These comments drive home the point that this conversation is not only about skin color – it’s about culture and identity which have many facets – although skin color is the most prominent identifier of minority groups.

For that New Orleans student who was brave enough to assert his own view of what might do him and his fellow students more good in school, I hope he continues to voice his opinions whether or not the adults in his environment are able to hear his message or not. While I was in high school, I doubt that I could have acknowledged or articulated what was missing in my education. I just took what was there for granted. In my case, what was there: predominately white private schools with no teachers of color. I just did my part to make sure I fit in.

And fit in I did. So seamlessly did I fit in that I also began to buy into the notion that race and color were not really so important. My academic, social and professional success were testaments to that, right? When I moved to Europe and created my life here, being African-American and a native English speaker seemed to open more doors than close them.

Well here I am, nearly 50, looking back at almost a quarter century involved in education and what have I learned? The divides are multiple and deepening and the inclination to look away, reshuffle our vocabulary and assert “mission accomplished” appears to be growing. I notice this now looking back, for instance, on my professional career and considering the tremendous lack of visible role models and mentors of color. When I was ready to consider pursuing formal roles of leadership, where were my colleagues of color, especially in independent education, who could share their experience and advice? When I attended conferences, when would I encounter a facilitator or keynote speaker of color doing the type of work I aspired to do? Almost never, unless I was attending the NAIS People of Color Conference where that was precisely the point of the exercise.

I may not live in the US anymore, yet it is my home culture. And being black in America has different nuances and implications than in any other culture in the world. I still live in the shadows of my particular racial narrative. And I sure do recognize the struggles of my colleagues, my family, friends and others to overcome these divides (of color, culture, language, gender, sexual orientation) with understanding and through dialogue. For this reason, I felt a special appreciation for Stephanie Rivera’s thoughtful analysis of the dynamics taking place on the BAT facebook page. When we take the time to actually look under the hood, we may find that even if we’re not sure exactly what it is we are seeing and hearing, we can still recognize when something is not right. And get help to discover what really is the matter.

Don’t know much about…

  • trees, bees, flowers, various forms of plant and animal life
  • physics, chemistry, higher math
  • History that extends beyond Europe and North America and can be referred to as “ancient”
  • Engineering, construction, mechanics
  • plumbing, carpentry, sewing, heating and cooling
  • finance, tax regulations, mortgages
  • Cultural riches of Africa, Asia, South and Central America
  • US celebrity culture
  • playing an instrument
  • specialized branches of medicine

And yet I hold two advanced degrees in my special areas of interest, I attended a prestigious college and did well in high school.  One would think that I must know a lot. Rather, I know more about the things I want to know more about.  It is also true that the more I learn, the more aware I become of how much I do not know. 

When we think and talk about school and what we expect our students to learn, it would be beneficial for us as educators, parents, and functional adults to step back and just hold our proverbial horses for a moment longer.  Asking ourselves and our kids: “What do I/you/we know?” is not serving us well.  Knowing/not knowing is not what is holding us back. Rather, the questions we need to be investigating alongside our kids go more like this:

  • “What can we learn from this situation?” 
  • “How and where can I find out more about how to do that?”
  • “Who can help me learn that?”
  • “What is the learning I am not willing to live without?”
  • “What have I learned in the past that can help me approach this new thing?”
  • “Where do I see evidence of my learning?”
  • What is it that I can’t wait to learn?
  • How does this connect to what I understand about …?

Although I know how to drive a car, that fact alone will not be enough when I go to the UK and have to drive a stick shift on the left side of the road. My capacity to learn some new habits, while temporarily unlearning some old habits will directly affect my success in this situation. In fact, lives would depend upon my capacity to learn and unlearn efficiently and effectively.  What appears to happen in schools is that we focus so narrowly on students achieveing that specific set of replicable skills in standard situations without providing the tools for expanding the repertoire or encouragement to redefine the task in more useful terms.

For all of those things I listed above about which I don’t know much, I do know that I can learn what I need and want. That has been the greatest benefit of my life’s education so far.  As a community of educators (parents, teachers, students (yes, students, too!)), we need to be clear that our greatest assets in school are inside our own heads, which multiply exponentially when we collaborate and support each other.  With my own children and students, I hope that they can grab hold of this essential point: “able to learn” travels better and farther than “ought to know.”