Let your kids struggle…

A couple of posts ago I finished with the following words:

“…so I promise, another post will not appear until I write one that reflects on a positive teaching practice of mine.  If you blog…how about you doing the same?  It can simply be what do you do really well and reflect on how you make it happen!”

Sunday I was at a family picnic.  I scooped up my 1year old niece and took a walk into the backyard.  We walked up to each tree and she reached out to feel the leaves.  After going from a Maple to a fir tree she wanted to go back and forth between each.  She does not have words yet, but was obviously comparing the two textures.  As she was going for a pile of woodchips she walked right over the edge of a railroad tie and fell but I caught her before she could bang her head and get an injury that would have ended our walk about.  We then sat down in a pile of wood chips.  She picked up each one and gave them to me.  Then she started to try to break each one finally figuring out that the thin ones broke, and then proceeded to examine all the new mini chips she had made.  When she got down to the dirt her fingers could no longer dig.  She picked up a little twig and it broke, so I handed her a larger stick so she could continue exploring the dirt.  She eventually dug up a small rock that she picked up and then left with her treasure in hand.

At some point I had an urge to “teach” her about the outdoors.  I wanted to have her feel all the trees, pick the various leaves and have them all in front of her. I wanted to pick her up over the railroad tie and carry her to the other side.  I wanted to stop her digging because I knew she was getting dirty.  I wanted to show her how to break the woodchips and flake them into bits.  I wanted to just move the woodchips aside so she could get right to the dirt.  And I wanted to just pick the rock out of the dirt instead of her scraping away the dirt with her stick.  But I just helped her go where she wanted to go, helped her up when she fell, and presented her with a tool that might be useful.

Dr. Sylvia Rim said “Each time we steal a student’s struggle, we steal the opportunity for them to build self-confidence.  They must do hard things to feel good about themselves.”

One thing I think I do well is that I don’t steal the student’s struggles.  I give them space and freedom to explore on their own.  I resist the urge to do things for them.  At the beginning of the year the class gets very messy.  I have to systematically wean them from all that they have learned which is that I am there to tell them what to do and they are there to do what I tell them.  In the beginning they do not have the confidence to do things on their own or believe that they can do things on their own.  They stay locked inside of their little safe boxes.  Slowly I let the struggles get bigger, and last longer.  Soon they are banging down the sides of their boxes and slowly step out into the unknown.  Ready to take risks.  Ready to make mistakes.   Ready to step in front of a class and struggle on their own knowing they have the support of the class.

Just a quick note…I hesitate to define “struggle” and place it in perspective.  I assume a reasonable reader will be able to determine that I am referring to letting the kids struggle with an engaging project that has the proper emotional and academic supports in place. I am also not referring to the struggle that comes with having to finish useless work or completing an assignment that is just simply lots and lots of busy work.

Today one student who usually asked a million questions during projects did a presentation.  They were given two weeks to complete it.  She never asked for help, never asked for any ideas, and she finished three days early.  Her presentation was so far out of her box that I teared up.  After school she came up to me and said “How’d I do?”  I said, “I don’t know, what do you think.”  She said,”I am so proud of myself.” I gave her a double high five and she bounced away.  I also had another student who wrote to me on the first day of school saying that she hoped I could help her gain some confidence and break out of her box.  A couple of weeks ago she stood in front of the room and gave the class a live performance of the song that is in the video below.  I cannot imagine the guts required to step in front of an 8th grade class and sing a song.  In many respects I really don’t want to take any credit for my kid’s performances.  I feel like I just kind of let them be and grow and they do the rest.  But that would be like saying a gardener is not responsible for the harvest, that it was the vegetables that grew on their own.

Dr Kevin Washburn just recently wrote in a post:

…I often observe teachers presenting a sequence of steps that students need to follow to achieve some result. As students practice, the teacher roams the room and checks student work. A student with an incorrect result is often reminded that the steps “are listed on the white board,” and directed to look there to find his mistake. But whose brain processed what and where as the teacher wrote the steps in order on the board? The teacher’s. The student’s brain focused on the what and where of the teacher’s movement and voice, not the material. As a result, the student still lacks the processing of the material necessary to enable higher functioning, such as using the sequence of steps to achieve a result.

However, if the teacher has the students write the steps of the sequence onto index cards and then arrange them in the correct order, the students process the what and where of the new material. Additionally, the teacher can assess the students’ knowledge before they begin making application. Instructive feedback at this point prevents incorrect practice.

While I might not be successful with every student, by the end of the year it’s the students who can identify the problem, come up with the steps, put them into sequence, process the what and where, take that information to a deeper level, and create a presentation that engages their audience.  It is allowing the students to struggle in a safe environment that allows that to happen.

If you are a blogger, please consider sharing something that you are proud of doing with your kids in your next post.  If you don’t have a blog, well then then please share your “something you do well” in the classroom as a comment on this post.  While you are thinking, enjoy the video below from my kids.  It is a song they wrote after studying urban problems in 19th Century America.

A Post of Educational Heresy

Like I said in my last post, I am a bit crabby.  And since I have declared spring positive blogging season, I have a couple more to get out of my system before the buds appear on the trees.

Let me tread on sacred ground for a moment. 

Teachers are not supposed to “bash” teachers.  We are not supposed to blame them for the problems in schools.  At least that’s what I read two other teachers write last week.

Why not?

Are we that powerless? 

Am I supposed to just believe that everyone else is responsible for the conditions except the teachers?  If they are not responsible for the conditions then can they at least be bashed for not trying to change them? 

You can’t convince me that what my kid’s do isn’t my responsibility, good or bad. 

At some point shouldn’t we take ownership of something besides just the good stuff?

If my students were complaining about some problem I would tell them to get off their butts and do something about it.  Right now we are in a unit in which the kids are working out their own Essential Questions.  They have developed some interesting questions like “How can one person make a difference?  And “It only takes one to lead.”  The content of the unit lead most of them to develop questions that revolve around the theme of “One person can make a difference.” 

Do we lack a leader?  Do we lack someone with the right pizzazz and charisma that we can all rally behind on the way to an educational revolution?

What’s that saying about “If you are not part of the solution you are part of the problem.”  Is there a middle ground that me/you/we hide in?  Tell ourselves that we are not behaving like the problem people, the kids are doing fine in my class, but yet we don’t try to solve the problem outside of our four walls. So we feel good that we are solving a problem in one classroom, but still get to gripe about the problems outside of our walls. 

I hide there.  I hide right in the middle of that saying.  I feel like I am pushing the boundaries in a middle school social studies class–we are our own sovereign state practicing a policy of isolationism.  We do open our arms to those seeking educational asylum, but do not offer any foreign aid. 

Every teacher operates with roadblocks to being successful.  One cannot blame failure on those roadblocks.  It is their responsibility to overcome them.  Figure out ways to succeed despite being told they can’t.  Persevere when they are facing overwhelming odds, and continuing to believe their course is just and right, even when given the label educational heretic.

I am responsible for what happens in my classroom, and is that overwhelming feeling of responsibility that will be the topic of my next post…

The Kid that No One Wanted

Last summer I found a video based on a book by Brad Engel that helped motivate me to get ready for the new school year.  As I was busy planning units and trying to stuff as much technology as I could into the year it made me pause and remember to say “welcome” to each kid that enters my room…and really mean it.  No matter who they were, or what type of reputation or label they had.

Do you have pretty good students?

I have the greatest group of students ever this year.  I know that is tough to say, all kids are great and that sorta thing.  But this year I think that they are just a super group.  I have been questioning whether that has allowed me to relax, to sit back and maybe not push so hard.  I wonder if I have settled into just doing a pretty good job because the kids make it so easy.  Or is it that I have challenged them and they are just so good at dealing with a paradigm shift in classroom environments.

Those thoughts made me dig up a poem that I started messing around with to use in class at the end of the year.  It makes me remember that being pretty good, is not good enough.

Pretty Good, by Charles Osgood

There once was a pretty good student
Who sat in a pretty good class
And was taught by a pretty good teacher
Who always let pretty good pass.

He wasn’t terrific at reading,
He wasn’t a whiz-bang at math,
But for him, education was leading
Straight down a pretty good path.

He didn’t find school too exciting,
But he wanted to do pretty well,
And he did have some trouble with writing
Since nobody taught him to spell.
When doing arithmetic problems,
Pretty good was regarded as fine.

5+5 needn’t always add up to be 10;
A pretty good answer was 9.

The pretty good class that he sat in
Was part of a pretty good school,
And the student was not an exception:
On the contrary, he was the rule.

The pretty good school that he went to
Was there in a pretty good town,
And nobody there seemed to notice
He could not tell a verb from a noun.
The pretty good student in fact was
Part of a pretty good mob.

And the first time he knew what he lacked was
When he looked for a pretty good job.

It was then, when he sought a position,
He discovered that life could be tough,
And he soon had a sneaking suspicion
Pretty good might not be good enough.

The pretty good town in our story
Was part of a pretty good state
Which had pretty good aspirations
And prayed for a pretty good fate.

There once was a pretty good nation
Pretty proud of the greatness it had,
Which learned much too late,
If you want to be great,
Pretty good is, in fact, pretty bad.

I am working with the poem and changing the ending to create a video to show to my kids on the last day of school. A bit rough, would love suggestions.

Again, a big thank you to everyone that has voted for “Blogush” in the Weblog Awards. Remember you can vote once every 24 hours until Tuesday! Just click on the icon below and it will take you to the poll!

The 2008 Weblog Awards

Do you teach the status quo?

status quo ante — “the state of things as it was before.”

During the first fourteen years of my schooling I was taught the status quo. Yes I answered a lot of questions, some of which I even came up with, but I never “questioned” anything. I learned about Pilgrims, read all the books “smart” kids were suppose to read, and was told pollution was bad. During this time I cannot ever remember having to think about what I was learning. I was just expected to become part of the status quo, and I should say, becoming part of the status quo was my goal.

In my sophomore year of college I had a professor who was somewhat controversial. He said and taught things that went against the status quo. He presented ideas that I could not help think about-controversial ideas that did not just flow into my brain, but something made me stop, make conclusions, and seek out evidence before accepting or rejecting them. He made me “think” about what I was learning and being taught—I started to “question” everything and have not stopped.

An idea that is controversial always makes me think more than one that re-states the status quo. I have not seen many blog posts, plurks, tweets, or ed websites that challenge the status quo. If you read most comments they all tend to be written to tell the writer why they agree with their point.

Can we truly teach kids to question things without bringing up controversial topics into our classroom? We can’t teach kids to challenge the status quo by simply having them answer questions about generic topics and maybe even sometime “creating” their own questions that they answer. I know I have stopped bringing up ideas of mine that would be considered controversial in school. Folks hear them and minds close-I am assumed to be wrong because my ideas do not support the status quo. I think that also applies to this blog–as a small time blogger I am afraid of having someone feel “offended.”

I know that I also do not feel safe talking about controversial topics in class. Kids would love it, but parents would not see it as an opportunity for their kid to question and examine their own belief system, examine evidence from multiple points-of-views, draw a conclusion and defend it with data and facts. All it would take is one single phone call from a parent to destroy my life. I am not ready for that.