Part 1: Humbling Awakening

I have a habit of questioning everything – myself, others, and institutions. However I have to confess that as I began my transition from an independent school to a public school, I felt confident and seldom questioned myself.. I believed that because I had taught in public schools years ago, my 2 children attend public schools, and I had grown, both personally and professionally so much over the past 9 years, I was more than prepared to take on the challenges to be a great teacher at a new school. In hindsight, I can see it’s like it was when I prepared for the birth of my first child. I did the exercises, connected with mothers, and read the books but I really had no way to prepare for the long labor and excruciating labor pains.  And I’m sorry to say, my husband’s back massage did absolutely nothing for me at the height of that pain.

Ok, this transition has not been as painful as childbirth but it has been a somewhat painful, stressful and humbling awakening. My biggest surprises were seeing how many students are not motivated to learn or perform well and the enormous breadth of learning content standards (which do not seem unrelated). I thought I could motivate most, if not every, student by making them excited with a great activity or PBL unit. I am now realizing I may know how to motivate everyone, especially students who may not have a strong support system outside of school. In addition, the curriculum leaves very little room for choice and depth.

 

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#RefugeesWelcome

In God Grew Tired of Us,  John Bul Dau describes his traumatic journey as a Lost Boy of Sudan. As I am reading this book, I cannot stop thinking about the current plight of Syrian refugees. In Dau’s preparatory class to get him ready to come to America he said he was filled with hope by the introduction in a book titled Welcome to the United States: A Guidebook for Refugees, given to him by his teachers. “In part it said ‘As a refugee, you may have lost everything, but in the United States, you are offered a chance to start over and build your life…You bring the gifts of your special talents, your background and culture, and your courage.’”

I cannot imagine how scary it was for Dau when he first moved to the U.S. and I certainly cannot imagine what it must have been like for Dau to  leave his village and walk hundreds of miles through swamps and deserts watching people around him die from gunfire, disease, animal attacks, and starvation. And I cannot imagine what those in Syria and other Middle Eastern and north African countries are going through either. I find it terribly disheartening that the United States has done so little to help these displaced people. According to Amnesty International,

“Dozens of hateful anti-refugee bills have been introduced in Congress—and dangerous anti-refugee rhetoric is getting louder than ever. There are 60 million refugee and displaced persons. All countries have an obligation to help, but most rich countries have left poorer, mainly Middle Eastern, African, and South Asian countries to host 86% of the global refugee population.

Regarding Syria specifically, 95% of Syrian refugees are hosted in just 5 countries. I don’t claim to be a strong social activist but I feel and hear a calling to get more involved. How can I just sit and watch what is going in the world in the luxury of my nice home, in my nice neighborhood, in my nice town that’s in my nice country and do nothing except teach about it? How can I teach about it and not do more. Sounds almost hypocritical. Things may look nice on the outside but on the inside I see many frightened citizens and government leaders who have not done enough. I don’t believe in just pointing fingers because if I’m not part of the problem there is no solution.

So what have I done? So far I have done little except to call and email Senators Perdue and Isakson to urge them to open our doors to resettle refugees in the United States. My goal is more and I will blog about my journey as I go.

 

John Hunter’s World Peace Game on the Road to Letting Go

In my last post I discussed how I have relinquished the role as sole director of my class. I have a  deep-seated belief that there is something that drives all of us – something that we are passionate about – something gives us purpose, but I do not know what that “something” is for anyone, including my students. My own spiritual growth has taught me to stop trying to control other people because it never works; people learn at their own pace and in their own time. This lesson has carried over into my teaching and prepared me to receive many more lessons.

Six years ago I attended John Hunter’s World Peace Game Institute, which had a profound impact on me and my teaching. I thought I was going to learn how to build and play the World Peace Game with my students but by day 2 of the workshop, I figured out I was really paying (really my school was paying) for a week of psychological work. I felt like I was being ripped off! I felt I was surely wasting my time and that I would let down my principal when I returned to school without the game.

However, what I took from that summer institute was much more valuable than learning how to play the World Peace Game. I learned how to stop being a control freak in the classroom. I began to take down my own barriers that stifled students’ creative thinking and authentic learning. It’s like the Chinese Proverb: Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. I learned how to fish. I learned why it is important to not try to have complete control over my students’ learning. Individually and collectively among students, there is a Conscience at work that guides students about what they need to learn and enables them to make meaning out of what this knowledge. My goal as an educator is to facilitate this.

Because of what I learned at that summer institute, I have become even more curious and receptive to more student-centered teaching methods like design thinking and project based learning and I am seeing the positive results with students and more personal fulfillment. In addition, these teaching methods that allow students to drive their own learning are allowing me to practice some Habits of Mind like Thinking Flexibly, Taking Responsible Risks, and Remaining Open to Continuous Learning. Most importantly, I am confident that students are starting to obtain an important Habit of Mind – A Sense of Personal Voice and Agency.

 

Letting Go of the Director Role

Like so many other teachers, I have been evolving over the past few years to allow my classroom to be more student-centered. Each year I am able to relinquish more control because of a few factors. The most important reason for my change is that I believe there is something that drives all of us – something that we are passionate about – something that gives us purpose. Since I do not know what this “something” is for anyone, including my students, I feel like my job as an educator is to cultivate an environment where students have numerous and varied opportunities to learn and discover their own passions in the context of my world geography class, Our Local and Global Community. I am no longer the sole director of my classroom but a co-director and co-creator with my students.

Our House is on Fire – Proceed with Caution

In my last post, I briefly discussed how our home is on fire. Some people may think that is very dramatic way to compare the negative happenings in the world but I make no apologies. There’s absolutely nothing more dramatic than what is happening in many countries around the world.

As a fifth grade world geography teacher (my class is actually called Our Local and Global Community), and a mom to an 11 and 8 year old, I do struggle with wanting to awaken my students and children to the gruesome realities so many people face with wanting to protect their innocence. When it comes to the environmental issues, I don’t feel uneasy about their learning. However, when it comes to animal protection and human rights, there are definitely lines I will not cross in a fifth grade classroom. In spite of my intentions, sometimes as students are doing research they come across some rather advanced topics, such as the raising and milking of dairy cattle or violence against women. In addition, some students come to fifth grade with knowledge about such advanced topics that, in my opinion, can be way beyond their years. This could be due to an older sibling’s influence or to their very open parents.

I think it is very hard to say what is age appropriate because it differs from teacher to teacher, parent to parent, and even psychologist to psychologist. In addition, some students are mature enough to handle the information but most fifth graders clearly are not. I’ve mainly learned this observing my daughter who is very mature but not emotionally ready.

I’m not perfect at it but so far I have done a pretty good job with the balancing act. I sometimes have to have side discussions with students to let them know it’s great they are interested and learning these things. And yes, they can continue to learn about them but it has to be at home with their parents. I’ve even called parents to discuss the matter. I’ve also had to tell students that it is not okay to discuss this information with their peers and we discuss reasons why.

So, the house is on fire and I do not want to downplay the severity and urgency of it, but we, as educators and parents, have to remain calm and proceed with caution. When the time is right, more will be revealed – to our children, to our students, and to ourselves.

 

Our House is on Fire!

Why do we even try to rest when our house is on fire? Our home is on fire, and we keep insisting that we just sit in it while it burns. We just keep burning away. Hmmm, sounds like a Place I’ve heard about before.

Ok. I’ll give us a break – we walk outside of our burning house and watch it burn. We’re not idiots but we are indifferent, or ignorant, or lazy, or maybe we are all three. I don’t know.

In books and lectures, Marianne Williamson discusses how God has given us this earth and it is our home, but instead of taking care of it, we are either destroying it or we are  allowing others to destroy it. We practice unsustainable oil and mineral extraction that is polluting our waterways and destroying animal habitats and the ecosystem. We eat and wear animal products that come from animals who have been tortured, sometimes even throughout their entire lives. We stand by and watch people suffer because they are stripped of basic human rights, like the rights to clean water or education or to choose their own spouse. Even more gut-wrenching, we stand by and live our comfortable lives while children starve, not just go hungry, but literally starve to death.

It’s ok to say it. We will certainly never save our home or anyone in it if we don’t say it… or scream it – “OUR HOUSE IS ON FIRE!”

 

Embracing Failure and the Anti-Portfolio Idea

In Creative Confidence, David and Tom Kelley state, “An old proverb reminds us that ‘success has many fathers,’ but failure is an orphan.’ To learn from failure, however, you have to ‘own’ it.” This is the only way we can really learn from our mistakes and not repeat them. They discuss how some companies are  showing off their failures by putting them on their websites. For example, Bessmer Venture Partners actually has a catalog of their big mistakes and “failed foresight” on their website. Through its online Anti-Portfolio, website visitors can learn about Bessemer’s passing up a chance to buy PayPal before it became so big and passing up a chance to buy FedEx before it became worth so much. Now that is taking ownership seriously!  

The Kelley brothers also discuss how failure conferences are taking place in America and one teacher is getting her students to write failure resumes. This makes me wonder how much I am truly embracing my own failure and that of my students and children? What can I do to take it to another level? Can stop putting so much stock in grades? (Confession: I truly know my feelings about grades when my own 2 children show me theirs and I feel let down when they don’t get an A and feel proud when they do). Can my school, where one of the norms is “fail up” embrace failure even more? Can we give students an award for their mistakes at the Honors Assembly? Can failure be seen as a positive area of growth on a report card or can we have a “Fail Up” tab or an “Anti-Portfolio” in students’ e-portfolios?

I am ready to more fully embrace failure, because I do believe our biggest growth is often derived from it. And although I (the ego part of me) don’t really want to have to face my own or my children’s failure, I will continue to reluctantly accept and half-heartedly embrace it.

 

My Hypocrisy with Embracing Failure

It is relatively easy for me to see someone else’s failure as part of their learning process, but when it comes to my own failures I do not have that type of perspective and tolerance. My more distant history reveals a pattern of beating myself for making mistakes. Fortunately, my more recent history portrays a change in that pattern. I give myself more slack. I forgive myself for my own wrongdoings. For the most part, I make necessary changes that my mistakes and failures show me and then move on.

I’ve changed my perception of failure and accordingly I’ve changed – for the better. Not only am I much more tolerant and forgiving of others, I encourage others, especially my students, to take risks. There is just one little problem with this: the fact that I still assign grades often says that what I really mean is, I want you all to take a risk but don’t get too risky. You are still getting a grade. And even though I say grades aren’t everything I believe they are important and my students and their parents believe the same thing. There’s a contradiction here that makes me hypocrite, which is certainly not my aspiration.

 

Positive Defiance

At a meeting with a group of women this morning, we discussed how we were naturally defiant individuals and how this trait did not tend to serve us so well in our past. Someone mentioned that our character defects become true assets when we turn them over to God or something greater than ourselves – for instance, Love or the Collective Good. I thought about many of the greatest leaders were completely defiant. Wasn’t Jesus defiant? Wasn’t Gandhi defiant during his Salt March? Wasn’t Martin Luther defying the Catholic Church when he posted his 95 Thesis? Wasn’t Rosa Parks defiant when she refused to give up her seat? We could continue to this list but but it still would not be not long enough.

Our world is in desperate of more defiance, not a reckless defiance but a positive one. How can we as educators prepare our students to be positively defiant? We want students to speak their truth and speak up against the wrongs of others but are we truly cultivating this trait? More importantly, are we modeling it ourselves?

What I am calling positive defiance is obviously part of 2 Habits of the Heart, A Sense of Personal Voice and Agency and A Capacity to Create Community. Positive defiance can also play a role in some Habits of Mind, especially Questioning and Taking Responsible Risks.

 

Summer Grant Work/Project Based Learning – Part 1

As I’m doing my summer reading of Setting the Standards for Project Based Learning, I continue to reflect on my first 2 PBL units and consider how to best execute my summer grant work with two of my colleagues. During our pre-planning, we will be co-facilitating professional development for the Middle School faculty who will have also read the book and designed their own PBL units. One small concern I have is that most teachers in the same grade level may be planning to simultaneously implement their units. This could be a lot to put on students who may not be ready for this degree of autonomy and self-management, particularly since they may not be used to PBL or something like it such as design thinking. I particularly foresee some students who new to Mount Vernon struggling a little more since most, if not all, of their previous schools did not have a culture that embraces and encourages collaboration, innovation, and risk-taking.

Fortunately, I have witnessed the success of our faculty’s diligence in developing this kind of culture. I’ve been a MV fifth grade teacher for 8 years and have seen a huge transformation in the ways we are teaching and students are learning. When I began we were more of a traditional school, although I have to say – I was always encouraged to try new ideas and be creative. I did not begin to grow professionally at such a fast rate, however, until Brett Jacobsen became Head of School 7 years ago and then Chip Houston became Head of Middle School 4 years ago. These past few years have been very transformational and it’s been a blessing to be part of it.

My concern about student readiness for managing multiple PBL units is somewhat abated when I think about our extraordinary faculty and student body. I know we will address my concern in pre-planning and that we will work together to support all of our students like we always do. Moreover, when I think about our current students who can lead and help acclimate their peers, I find even more comfort.

A concern is not doubt or skepticism; it’s just a matter to be explored and examined. I feel like I have begun to do just that by verbalizing it here.