In this brilliant podcast episode of “On Being“, Krista Tippett interviews Brother David Steindl-Rast on gratitude. Brother Steindl-Rast is eloquent on gratitude, but also on all that we may not be grateful for, like violence and environmental destruction, and his thoughts on being born as the beginning of our struggle with anxiety, to go forward is to live, to retreat from fear is to die – indeed before ever living, struck me. He says for this purpose we must validate our anxiety, recognize it as real, and as based on reality. In a humanity that is choosing to destroy our own ecosystems of survival and networks of connection that, as Brother Steindl-Rast points out, put food on our plate, this anxiety is valid.
Such resonance – our anxieties are valid. In the context of a school, imagine all of the anxieties on offer every day for each member of the community. Will my daughter reach a competitive university like her father and I did? Is my child being bullied? A bully? What if they find out I am here on scholarship? Will the principal observe this lesson today, and will she understand what she sees here? Nobody else in this room is dressed like me. I’ve been away on business too long and missed another play. I don’t have anything for show and tell.
Obviously, that list could go on.
A colleague recently described the anxiety high school/upper school parents in affluent schools feel about university entrances as “guarding the family jewels,” and it helped me to conceptualize that anxiety as one of preserving capital – cultural or otherwise. I recognize that parents in high poverty areas like those in which I have previously taught have many different anxieties – will the child return home if she attends university? Is that a reasonable fear? And what Brother Steindl-Rast shares is that yes, this is a valid anxiety, and that acknowledging this should protect against reactions from fear, like pressuring a child until he cracks and has a real psychological break before reaching majority age, or blowing up a relationship with a child to protect oneself against the pain of another brilliant kid leaving the reservation forever.
I wonder how many schools open conversations about these anxieties and validate them? How many ameliorate the problem at hand with platitudes and then roll eyes in the office after 5 pm? That’s a hard conversation, even just the easy bit about Penn State being a great place to be educated, even though it’s not in Princeton, NJ. Honoring anxiety about an ever crowded and seemingly chaotic world that could strip a standard of living from our children acknowledges how little control we actually have. I wonder: Would that reduce fear and stress in the long run?
Today, in fact right now, our Upper School faculty are engaged in the classic Marshmallow Challenge to kick off a year of innovation. The always-modeling-best-practices Elizabeth Wargo (@wargoelizabeth on Twitter) organized this mini-project to get people moving in the morning, excited about the day, and working together from the get-go. //instagram.com/p/roVKM4sxr1/embed/ I was tasked with using hashtags and social media, as well as WordPress blogging to later share as a PBL option for archiving and sharing. I used #zispbl and #marshmallowchallenge through Instagram linked to my Twitter account, adding in Twitter usernames of colleagues featured in photos and videos.
What do I love about this? As mentioned above, modeling best practices. This is a kick off, and will lead into a Speed Geeking session in which we share the various methods in which faculty recorded, archived, and shared this session. Perhaps obviously, this is an initial reflection – time has just been called! People are very into their towers. Jason Welker (@jasonwelker on Twitter) is measuring the towers, logging group numbers, tower heights, and time to completion into a Google form to track and graph data. Alison Callaghan has photos and notes in Microsoft OneNote, Geoff Peake has video and photos, Christine Jordan has audio going onto SoundCloud via her phone. All are options, depending on the desired outcome, and can be mixed and matched.
Liz Wargo also retweeted one of my videos, sharing with Suzie Boss, PBL expert and all around great person who will be joining us in October for 10 days of workshopping on PBL. The same tweet was retweeted by an #edtech robot because I slapped that common hashtag on one video, which is an interesting example of how hashtags work, extending the conversation and aggregating information. Additionally, Carmen Crenshaw-Hovey, one of our do-it-all folks around the Upper School, liked and commented on my Instagram posts. Once again, social media has the potential to share learning experiences in ways we may not anticipate and to involve more of the community beyond the classroom.
Liz is debriefing now and launching into the rest of the day while linking to our summer reading, Bringing Innovation to Schools by the aforementioned Suzie Boss. Now break, then Speed Geeking. Soon, I will share this post with colleagues and discuss how blogging for reflection and blog-as-digital portfolio for archiving might work for teachers and students. One final learning piece for me: if a Twitter username is used in Instagram posts shared to Twitter, those posts drop the @ and are not usable in Twitter. Weird. Play nicely!
Maurice de Hond gets attention – in conversation, at a dinner table, and in national and international media. After a few minutes in de Hond’s company, the forces of both his personality and intellect assert themselves.
No wonder then that de Hond has taken on nothing short of the structure of public education in the Netherlands as a project in founding “Steve Jobs Schools” throughout his country.
Steve Jobs Schools have ambitious plans to change the structure of the school day and year, allowing students to meet required curricular outcomes via virtual school spaces, apps, and coaching from a team of teachers in and out of school. Currently, the schools must adhere to Dutch regulations requiring a uniform length for the school day, but they have been able to consider 10% of the school year “virtual”, according to de Hond, ostensibly reducing the amount of time students are required to attend school in person.
We visited one of several Steve Jobs schools operating since August, 2013. A full day trip, a group of international school teachers traveled from Amsterdam to Sneek by bus, regaled with Dutch history and geography, and informed about the history of this project by de Hond as we went.
Once we arrived at the school in Sneek, a small, nicely designed school in what appeared to be an economically diverse area, we were free to wander and speak with anyone we wished. I witnessed lots of normal behavior for any school: students read books, filled out worksheets, had conversations, played on and off the iPad, got shushed by teachers, got coached by teachers, and gawked a bit at their visitors.
I also saw plenty that was interesting. Students have an individualized learning plan with goals created by the teacher, parent, and student working in concert. Students learn language, math, and science in classrooms during 20 minute blocks, then retire to a central common area to work. In these classrooms, kids of all ages appear to be learning together. Students come and go independently, reminded by their iPad’s calendar when to move. This was all pretty impressive.
In the common room, the teacher in charge worked with two assistants to keep kids on task and to help out when needed. This teacher reported enjoying his new job a great deal, stating that it was both more fun and fulfilling than his prior position because he could help each student individually via their “Learning Talks” and goal setting.
Clearly, the Steve Jobs Schools are a response to the current lockstep curriculum of the Netherlands, in which inspectors enter a certain class on a certain day, expecting to see everyone working on the same page of the same book. EDIT: Maurice de Hond shared via email that these inspections are less rigid than I described here, stating that ” of course the tests are forcing many in a rigid system.” As an option to what could be a stifling academic environment for some learners, de Hond’s project makes good sense.
But these schools are fledglings, with a palpable sense of running on enthusiasm inherent to such a new, attention-grabbing enterprise. Teachers are working long hours compared to their previous jobs, and the personalization level they hope to reach is not currently in operation – eventually, they plan to have each child’s iPad set up around her goals. Currently, the set-up is the same for all the kids. Ever greater personalization will lead to more hours, I imagine, particularly if the school is responsible for organizing such a set-up, rather than transferring responsibility to the child.
Additionally, succumbing to the fantasy that being busy is the same thing as learning can be intoxicating, at least as alluring as the classic teacher fantasy of controlling learning. Watching a child swipe randomly minute after minute across number and mathematical operator symbols to arrive at an answer was unnerving. I saw many abacus apps, and a good deal of app jumping. However, I also saw kids using blocks and good old analog manipulatives, sand tables and books. In this quick, drop-in tour, my biggest take-away was that this was a school, working like a school, with a good deal of learning and some healthy mucking about taking place simultaneously.
At lunch following the visit and on the ride home, de Hond shared his vision of education freely and his hopes for his organization, O4NT (Education for a New Era). We visited the Sneek school because it is currently the most compete realization of the organization’s vision for Steve Jobs Schools, but a handful of others exist, employing recommended strategies to varying degrees. De Hond didn’t express an interest to force schools to conform to a standardized approach, but he can see a time in the future when some adherence to basic norms – once more well-established than they are now – is necessary.
I went into the Steve Jobs Schools fairly skeptical of what I might see – personalization as a playlist of worksheets or more old things done in new ways. However, this iteration of Dutch schooling as an innovation on the past and on existing regulations has potential to offer variety for students turned off by traditional schooling.
Future challenges exist. Is this model exciting enough to help teachers and students maintain their energy and enthusiasm long term? Can O4NT keep personalization and community relevance at the fore while demanding some sort of brand standardization for Steve Jobs Schools, or will this lead to stronger echoes of the existing system of education? Once finely-tuned, what relationship will the O4NT suite of virtual school apps have with Steve Jobs Schools, and to what degree will such apps drive educational, curricular, or pedagogical decision making?
New approaches in education are few and far between, with much that is new or reform-minded providing little more than a fresh glaze over last century’s progressive-isms (many of which featured great ideas). De Hond and his Steve Jobs Schools are executing some thoughtful concepts and forging a clearly welcome path through the community of Sneek, engaging kids in the process. And de Hond seems to bring enough energy to the project to keep it steaming along for some time.
The function of a school should play into the manner of feedback provided to students. Grades are shorthand for feedback, but what I think most educators recognize is that grades are more of a communication shorthand between the school and stakeholders like parents or universities. We say grades are a representation of learning, or symbolic of learning achievement, but unless they are differentiated student-by-student, they resemble the Sorting Hat.
In fact, there is great hunger for a Sorting Hat. Doesn’t everyone want to be a Gryffindor, or perhaps, if Type B, a Ravenclaw? We need an accurate sorting tool, and apparently, some people are willing to go 122 questions deep to find the answer.
Conversations about grading today reminded me that if grades are demanded, they should represent individual progress toward personally meaningful and important goals as co-determined between teacher and student, or between teacher-student-family, or between teacher-student-family-community. Grades that follow well-designed rubrics, but that require a fixed mark today miss the point of learning – that it is a journey.
If a student is not mastering content today, it doesn’t mean she won’t tomorrow, or next year. Breaking learning down into manageable chunks is essential and requires expert teaching. Students should ideally be free to explore their interests, but in a negotiated educational community, like public schooling, having fixed marks for successful outcomes is fair.
What is unfair is to decide arbitrarily that today is the day, and your performance today is what will determine your grade label with no recourse for improvement, and that your label will likely correlate to future labels, and that the aggregate of your childhood labels will directly impact your future educational and professional opportunities (class advantage and disadvantage notwithstanding).
Grades suck – this much I have known for some time. Grades are a major warping factor in all facets of school and of learning communities.
If we must have grades, embracing them as signifiers of individual learning rather than as labels to help Princeton discard 9/10 of its applicant pool automatically seems essential. No school has a mission to “Sort the wheat from the chaff, and let the hollow husks of 2.2 GPAs lay rotting in the fields.”
I don’t want to be in the business of judging kids; grades for sorting are just that, even when operated under “best practices”. Grades for individual learning progress opens the door through which to escape the sorting hat.
I just love this piece in today’s Gray Lady. In it, the demands of quiet for thinking are discussed, with some examples – the framers of the US Constitution apparently covered the street in front of Independence Hall with dirt so as not to be disturbed by cart wheels, which differ from this surprise cartwheel.
Noise elicits a physiological response that we cannot control. Noise can be stimulating for an extrovert like me, but is can be an endless jangle to our nerves as well. For focus, nothing beats some quiet. For the past three years, working in a shared office at school, I have been wearing earphones for quiet, which is hilarious and sad. This piece makes it clear that real silence is essential for truly uninterrupted thought.
Additionally, controlling the interruptions of digital technology and all of the noise that surrounds them, real and imagined, is implied and examined in the piece. In our 1 to 1 school, pop-ups and flags are constant interruptions to our students’ concentration, but they will be there for the foreseeable future. I’m glad we now have a silent room in our school for study and work. After a summer of study at Columbia University, I re-experienced silence, and remembered it’s powerful effect on concentration.
I never seem to lose much weight during the holidays; in fact, I have been known to pad on a few extra pounds, even kilos. When it’s time for resolutions to drop weight, the difficulty begins. When there is so much good, what do I choose to give up?
This is like most institutions or organizations, I’m sure, which layer on Good Ideas like paint. It’s hard to argue against a good idea. Think of student learning! This new process will streamline our processes. This will replace that.
“Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”
― Antoine de Saint-ExupéryThanks to Mark Dilworth for the quote
But I have experienced precious little replacing. Instead, we add, add, add, until Good Ideas compete and swirl like currents in an estuary, each contorting the next. Some Good Ideas become Not So Good Ideas. Some Good Ideas become forgotten, obscured, or lost. In the wash, values can shift without our notice.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about the power of a Good Idea like Yokohama International School’s “Global Citizen Diploma.” Things to love about this Good Idea include a foundation on digital portfolios, a liberal focus across skills in the outdoors and arts and so on, and service, to name a few. I dare say that any student who completed the demands of this program would be prepared for university success at least.
As I imagine what this would look like in my own school, I wonder what Good Ideas that others have worked hard to develop and that members of the community have bought into would have to drop away or suffer a death by starvation? Duke of Edinburgh? Advanced Placement courses? Our cool Mission 10 projects? Our existing service learning structures? The degree to which a new Good Idea integrates into existing structures is important to grasp, as is the impact on those existing structures. So often, one contorts the other, leading to change intended or otherwise.
Perhaps, if the idea is good enough, it can supplant something like the IBDP. This, of course, takes courage and buy-in, but why not? Credentialing organizations beget only further credentials. IBDP > BA/BS > MA/MS > certifications/PhD/specializations. A portfolio of citizenship and engagement in the world should be an easy extension into showing evidence of and reflecting upon progress toward learning goals. Legacy echoes like IB/AP can drop away in favor of a richer learning environment centered on the student.
I may be wrong, but that sounds like a pretty Good Idea.
Hello? Hello. There’s, I don’t know. I’m going to try you again later.
I couldn’t – I think I tried you earlier. I’ve just lost track of time. I keep getting this machine. I just wish this was a conversation. It’s – I guess the machine tells you when this is.
Listen: Maybe a story will help put this into perspective. Years ago, I think, we were in Gstaad and the wind came up suddenly. This was winter. Anyway, the wind came up suddenly and although it hadn’t snowed in what seemed like several days, the limbs of trees around our chalet stirred and flooded the air with crystalline glitter. I said the wind came up, but it came down, suddenly, with a rushing sound like a train passing through a local station, but then up again, maybe as cold pressed over warm air and rebounded. When the wind came down, then up, lifting the snow off every light surface, it stalled. Neither of us breathed for I don’t know how long and the air was solid. We were frozen in that moment in cut glass hanging in a windowsill framed in southern light. I don’t know, do you/
Look, that wasn’t Gstaad at all, but I think Les Gets or Vevey. Where are you? It’s funny. Not funny, but strange to dictate to you like this. Mediated. What time is it there? Jetlag. Jetlag is like a fat floppy bunny incubating my brain. I guess bunnies don’t incubate anything.
Maybe that actually makes more sense as a description for jetlag with the error about bunnies, but/
Your answering machine is demanding. How long is the time window for leaving a/
There was another time, maybe you remember, in the Alps, near one of those funny huts with beautiful shutters and boozy coffees in warm wooden rooms, above tree line. So much of the Alps is above tree line. Not like the Rockies, which are much higher, but which line their flanks with lodgepole and spruce. Anyway, the hut. I can’t remember when it was, exactly, but we were climbing on skis near a ridgeline when the snow came. Did I leave this story already? Did I tell you this? Perhaps you remember. Maybe I’d better/
I was remembering the alpine hut and snow falling over snow above tree line. The story doesn’t matter. It’s the dislocation of losing all definition. I could see you, clearly, above me. How far? Impossible to know, but I could see you. I couldn’t reach you, but we spoke, wondering – up? Down? Which way was which? We’d pick a few turns down and fall over slowly, simply lost within our inner ears, balance collapsing into itself without external cues. We had only the memory of the ascent to guide us back down, not even very far – 600 meters? But we doubted, slipped and slid, sure of the encroaching moment of weightlessness, when our skis would slip off into whiteness with nothing beneath/
I wonder with what voice your machine crows back the time of this call? Female, male, brash, muted? What time is it there? It doesn’t matter. I don’t even know what time it is here.
I was recently in the desert. It feels recent. Nighttime shocked with its cold, but the stars pierced the darkness and the Milky Way stretched overhead, at least from here to there, wherever you are, whatever the clock reads in that place.
* What ideas in the readings interested or resonated with you?
Seymour Papert’s seventh chapter of The Children’s Machine, “Instructionism vs. Constronstructionism” was incredible. Particularly, his argument that school overvalues abstract reasoning or thinking while undervaluing concrete thinking resonated deeply with me. As a teacher of text from literature to media, new and old, I often find myself talking about abstract reasoning based on abstract data sets like “Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls” by e e cummings with reverence. At the same time, I brew a variety of British, American, and Belgian beers as a hobby. I meditate, and I snowboard, and I cycle. I enjoy working on engines. I’ve learned that precision and speed on a snowboard mirror my experience in yoga meditation. I like writing and brewing beer for similar reasons – both allow me to create something new, based on an existing form, and engage in a reflective cycle of improvement. I learn from all of these activities, and each involves some level of concrete and abstract thinking. I find each valuable. Linking to the Maker pieces, I greatly enjoyed them and believe in making as a way of being creative. In my secondary school experience, I found great solace in the photography darkroom, making photographs from my negatives tangibly in a way that Photoshop and a printer has not been able to replicate. This space in my day was essential. Schools should have maker spaces, absolutely, for kids to hang out, mess around, and geek out on low tech and high tech making.
* How could you apply these ideas to help others learn in your own work, family, or community?
This is a big question – how do I turn an externally moderated course like AP or IB Literature into a tangible maker experience, where the concrete meets the abstract? I don’t know. My AP Lit Badges have yielded one student-created dress based on a Tennyson poem, which was awesome. I have also created a choice menu for assessment outcomes for a choice novel or drama unit to end AP Lit. Still, my students are either in full embrace of the primacy of “the formal stage” from Piaget as the top of the hierarchy. Few make. Some create, certainly, but nobody is building beautiful cabinets, and my school has zero facilities for making anything other than music, art, and digital anything. We teach to AP/IB outcomes, and there’s no making. This is not a dig; this is reality. Certainly, my Digital Journalism course asks students to explore digital media through making digital media, which is a kind of making, but nothing so tangible as the Soulcraft laid out in this book that began to change the way I see my teaching practice. After reading “Big Ideas Need Love, Too,” a nagging question about, if not the value of making media, the lack of tangible making in my teaching became totally realized. I don’t want to be an agent of superficiality, driving kids to ever more banal forms of expression, turning them into little Alex Joneses. However, I believe in bringing kids to language and inquiry into their world through digital journalism. How else can I make this concrete, real, making? I don’t know yet, but I’m working on it.
In the annals of misunderstandings, maybe my favorite is the “Purple Haze” syndrome. Mishearing lyrics or poetry even has a terminology: mondegreen. I remember, hilariously, a friend making this mistake in real time; so awesome is the memory that I doubt its existence, like snipe hunting or cow tipping, a signifier masking misadventure.
Sometimes, even when we say what we mean, it gets misheard. Misunderstandings arise as language bubbles through emotional and physical filters like stress and our cochlea. Saying what we mean exactly, then, is essential, especially when we are instructing children or offering feedback.
A student came into my classroom yesterday, venting: “I just don’t know what she wants from me!” What is she hearing? What is being said? There’s almost no way of knowing.
I’m working on condensing a general use 6 Traits rubric to 4 traits based on feedback from my English department. People seem generally happy with it so far, though some colleagues found it too specific. I’ve been processing that, and I believe I have come to an understanding that specificity expresses expectations. An analytic rubric should express expectations for product. As such, an analytic rubric must be specific.
Additionally, being specific demands that we make decisions about what good products or outcomes are. Too often, the hidden curriculum of what a teacher likes or wishes for filters through a rubric, leading to grades in the end. Student gets grades, tries again next time. A solid analytic rubric communicates expectations, ideally in language the student understands and has practice with. The hidden curriculum or expectations will still exist somehow, but the student can be empowered to improve in a creative cycle through solid feedback and reflection based around a good analytic writing rubric, for example.
Even when expectations are clear, the student has to apply them and get to know the expectations personally, through their own writing (or other performance) and through their personally significant mental models. Until then, pieces of a complex rubric will be mini-mondegreens, limiting student learning and agency.
We’ve got to be specific and clear. We’ve got to be repetitive when it matters. We’ve got to engage in cycles of attempts and feedback. And we’ve got to give students experience with the expectations to internalize them meaningfully. Because even when we do, someone is going to hear something differently.