My Best Moment of the Week: Picking Line Leader (5/365)

people standing in line on a paved lotMy best moment from this week happened this morning. I was in one of our district’s kindergarten classrooms as the school day began. As the students entered the room, they were greeted by their teacher, but something was different from every other classroom entrance routine I’ve seen this year. The students entered, put up their things in the cubbies and then made choices as to what they were going to do to start the learning for the day. They were all over the classroom, all practicing their reading, all talking. It was beautiful. And, as much as that was lovely, it wasn’t the best moment.

The best moment was when the teacher picked the popsicle stick from her cup to announce the day’s line leader. For the uninitiated (or those who have forgotten), line leader is a pretty big deal in elementary school. If you’ve got a lifelong thirst for power, it probably started with your first term as line leader.

Whereas every other teacher I’ve ever seen select the day’s line leader has simply picked a name, said the name, and moved on, this teacher did so much more.

“The name I’ve picked has one syllable,” she announced. The students, at this point assembled on the carpet, hushed for a moment as they thought. Then, without prompting, one student popped to his feet. Then a girl joined him. Finally, another boy stood. I realized, these were the three students in the room with single-syllable names.

Okay. That would be enough. She wasn’t done.

The teacher asked the class if the students were correct. As a class, they practiced saying each student’s name, checking to see if it was, in fact, a single syllable. Each was.

The teacher then asked the students to look at the alphabet on the back wall with each student’s name listed below its first initial. She went through each of the three students, asking the class, what letter their names were under. The class answered.

“Okay,” the teacher said, “this name has three letters.”

After a second or two, several students started voicing their guesses. They were correct.

She wasn’t done. One of the standing student’s names had 5 letters. “How many letters does her name have,” the teacher asked the class.


“Correct. Is that more or less than three?”

A longer pause, “MORE!”

She did the same thing with the third student, asking if his name of four letters was more or less than a name of three. The students all knew and each answer was a celebration.

The entire thing was a celebration, and it only took three minutes. In those three minutes, this teacher was able to ask her students to practice at least five different skills of varying difficulties, but all essential to kindergarten learning. She didn’t say, “Let’s practice syllabication,” or “Now we’re going to think about numbers.” She just gave them small, contextualized opportunities to put into practice the skills they’d learned together earlier in the year.

This otherwise perfunctory task was seen as an opportunity for learning. It was a master stroke by a professional focused on squeezing the fun and the learning out of each moment.

Things I Know 81 of 365: Teachers need to play too

Play is the only way the highest intelligence of humankind can unfold.

– Joseph Chilton Pearce

We’ve arrived at that part of the school year where The Man can get you down. Usually, The Man is time – time together, time between breaks, time in the house during the bleaker months. This year, The Man has incarnations in the form of budget cuts, layoffs, the neutering of organized labor, and, yes, time.

Between sections of standardized testing today, I sent Chris a message.

“Can Pia lead us in a game at the staff meeting today?”

“Dunno,” was his reply.

I didn’t think about it again until I walked into the library a few minutes before the meeting.

There stood Pia, our health and P.E. teacher and one of my dearest friends, blowing up a beach ball.

“You’ve never looked sexier,” I said as the limp orb hung from her mouth.

We both cracked up.

Chris started the meeting.

There we sat, 30 professionals battling to get kids into college, through testing, to counseling, beyond adolescence. Somewhere in there, we teach and learn. If we have the time and energy after, we cobble together lives with friends and family.

“Before we get started,” Chris said, “Pia has a game for us.”

She broke the library in half with a clear dividing line.

“We’re playing chair volleyball,” she said. “This is the line. If it hits the floor after you touch it, the opposing team gets a point. Beyond the pole is out of bounds. You have to stay in your chair to hit the ball. All body parts are fair game.”

A couple teachers straggled in.

Both sides of the room erupted, “You’re on our team! You’re on our team!”

In our shirts and ties and our skirts and heels, we were 12.

Pia sent the new arrivals to my team.

After the other side protested, she said, “I cheat how I wanna cheat.”

I walked to her and palmed her a dollar.

“Okay, so it’s 1—0 to start,” she said indicating my team was up a point.

And then it began. It was tremendous.

The ball bounced off of people and bookshelves and the ceiling and tables and chairs. We were screaming and yelling and laughing.

Somehow, Pia’s scoring bounced around as often as the ball, and I got the definite feeling, no matter who scored the most points, the game was headed for a tie.

After about 10 minutes, Pia called the game and we clapped and laughed and sounded our barbaric yawps.

Sometimes, in the middle of a class just after lunch, when heads are bobbing and eyes are heavy, I’ll have my class stand and compete to see who can stand on their tiptoes or one foot the longest.

That’s what we did as a faculty today. March is the class after lunch of the school year. Later in the meeting, we talked about differentiation, multiculturalism and school partnerships – the business of school.

For 10 minutes, we took time to play and be people together.

Try it.

Things I Know 72 of 365: Dichotomies can go more than two ways

Inquiry is fatal to certainty.

– Will Durant

Jon Becker asked what I took to be a serious question today on twitter, “All of you fired up about Kahn Academy and TED ED, how do you reconcile that with your belief in learner-centered, inquiry-driven learning?”

The question implies Kahn and TED ED stand diametrically opposed to learner-centered, inquiry-driven learning.

It sets up a dichotomous relationship where one need not exist. The thing about dichotomous relationships is they present hard choices in easy packages.

Reconciling the learning of someone walking away from a TED Ed or any TED talk with the learning of one in an inquiry-driven environment is important, thoughtful work.

We need not, as Samuel Johnson said in his “Rasselas” make our choice and be content. Building a learning environment need not mean choosing one path and forsaking all others.

It’s easier to treat the matter as such, but learning and teaching should be more complex than that. Acknowledging the value in something that appears contrary to one’s belief could put one on the precipice of doubting those beliefs.

Again, it need not.

If inquiry and learner-centered learning are keystones to my educational approach. Building classrooms or other places of learning around the curiosity and interests of the learners in those spaces is the best way for them to learn. It is not, by any means, the only way for them to learn. In fact, a monoculture spoils the soil of learning.

I played with LEGOS, spent hours by the creek that ran along our property line and tied sheets around my neck pretending I was any number of make-believe super heroes when I was young. I also sat listening on the laps of any family member who would take the time as they read me stories. I watched Sesame Street. I sat at my grandparents’ kitchen table as my grandfather explained who Casmir Polaski was and why we got the day off school because of him.

I learned in many ways.

My friend and colleague Matt has his G9 students complete a learning style inventory at the beginning of the school year. Students answer familiar questions of how they prefer to handle information. In the end, their scores show them the spectrum of learning styles with which they approach life. It’s a tremendous exercise with great value so long as its followed, as Matt makes certain it is, by the conversation explaining the results as a snapshot of where the students’ learning preferences stand in that moment.

Dichotomies over simplify the issues they attempt to settle. Perhaps dangerously, they sidestep the conversation and careful consideration of how new or different information can shift the paradigms through which we shape our understanding of the world.

I see value in Kahn and TED.

I see greater value in inquiry and student-centeredness.

I’ll privilege the latter more than the former in my classroom, but I won’t deny both can help students learn.

Things I Know 37 of 365: I am uncool

Popular is the one insult I have never suffered.

– Oscar Wilde

It was an off-the-cuff remark a few months ago. One student was giving me a hard time about something and I was giving it right back.

“Chase,” said he, “you think you’re so cool.”

“Oh, no,” said I, “I definitely know I’m not cool.”

The class laughed.

I wasn’t joking. I’m not cool.

That’s a thought that’ll stick with ya.

For a while in middle school, I thought I was cool.

I remember the day in eighth grade when I learned the truth.

We were still given recess right after lunch. As the heads of middle school, this usually meant the eighth graders milled about the track aimlessly – training for when we went to the mall.

It was a fall day. The kind of fall day when you could see your breath.

I got outside and found my group of friends huddled in a circle at the far end of the track. Reaching them, I realized they were smoking. About 9 kids, sharing one cigarette. I walked away.

Something big had happened. They’d powered up to the next level while I kept an eye out for a pick-up game of tag.

I’ve held my uncoolness since then.

This comes not from a place of shame or inferiority, but one of self-awareness.

I’m totally uncool, and it’s one of my greatest assets.

In class as a teacher, I can dance or use an accent or give a kid a hug without fear of losing cool points.

In class as a student, I get to be a student because I don’t have to worry about the balance of cool and nerd. A question pops into my mind and my hand hits the air – at times, yes, waving like I just don’t care. (See, that was even more uncool.)

And I know there are those out there who will argue learning is cool and nerds are cool and how dare I suggest you can’t have a healthy appetite for learning and be cool at the same time. But, there it is. That nerds are cool is a myth propogated by the uncool in an attempt to subvert the language. See, nerds got game like that.

I’m probably not supposed to leak that one, but I’ve been in the same room as Bill Gates. He’s not cool. Super smart. Wicked savvy. Not cool.

Gates is a welcome reminder the eighth grade smoking ring has its own incarnation in the adult world. He’s also an excellent example of the primary benefit of avoiding that ring.

While the cool people like Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama must worry about staying cool, the uncool like Norman Borlaug, Amy Sedaris, Tina Fey, Joseph Priestley and Dorris Kearns Goodwin get to do cool stuff.

And that’s the virtue of being uncool in the classroom. I can try new ideas, new projects and lessons never raising any suspicions or risking losing and non-existent cred. Being uncool affords me the opportunity to have some pretty cool ideas.

The difference between idea and thought (Post #1)


The Gist:

  • Thought and Idea are different things.
  • We encourage both in the classroom.
  • I’m not sure which I privilege more.
  • I’m not sure which I should.

(Note: I started thinking more than I planned. The last three points will have to be in my next post.)

The Whole Story:

Disclaimer: My line of thinking here is protean. Ideally, I’d play with it as a comment somewhere first. As I haven’t run into such a post yet, I’m diving in.

Claim the First: Thought and Idea are different concepts

It’s highly likely that everyone is on board with this already, but I hadn’t been until recently. Asking me to think about something and asking me to come up with an idea are different requests. To me, thinking can include, but isn’t limited to, walking and making connections between the intellectual paths of others. Having an idea, though, is making something new, sometimes utilizing those intellectual paths, sometimes operating apart from them. Social bookmarking is an idea. Figuring out how to create it, utilize it, improve it are all thoughts.

Claim the Second: Thought usually precedes idea

Continuing the social bookmarking example, whatever the first iteration of social bookmarking, its creator likely went through a thought process driven by a problem. The thought process probably noted the insufficiencies inherent in the present situation as well as the desired features beyond those insufficiencies. With thinking, the process can end there. It can end at any step of the game: “Oh, there’s a problem.” “Oh, here’s why this problem exists.” “Oh, here’s what I’d like out of a solution to that problem.” “Oh, here’s what it would take to make that solution real.” “Oh, here’s that solution.” That last part is the idea, arrived at through thought.

Claim the Third: Thought mustn’t always precede idea

More than once, I’ve heard people complain Wave doesn’t solve a problem. They don’t know why they need it because it doesn’t fill an obvious need. It’s an idea that precedes thought. Now, I’m sure Wave’s developers see the need, I’m sure they thought it out. The difference between social networking and Wave exists in the paths of thinking. Many people had identified the problem, the causes and what they’d like to see in a solution leading up to the advent of social bookmarking. Thus, when the idea arrived, it was embraced more readily than has been the case with Wave. Wave was an idea whose time hadn’t yet come.

Claim the Fourth: Ideas from minority thoughts face a greater chance of rejection

The clamor for Wave invitations was as frenetic as the clamor for gmail invitations or the race to blogging, or the race to myspace (remember that?), or the race to space. We’d agreed we wanted to get there because it was a new idea with the force of those we knew behind it. Then, we got to Wave. Then we were there and looking around. Then we started complaining. We didn’t know why we were there. By and large, we still don’t. We’ve started leaving.

Claim the Fifth: The rejection of minority thoughts evidences hypocrisy

A common cry of keynotes and conference sessions and blog posts and podcasts is that we should not only allow, but encourage our students to play. Sometimes we mean this in a social way. Sometimes we mean this in an intellectual way. Either way, the implication is that we are asking our students to play for the inherent value of discovery within play. They will uncover new ideas. Play is thought without repercussions or expectations. When my younger brother dumps out his LEGOs and begins building, that’s play. When he dumps out his LEGOs and begins building based off of the diagram included with his latest set, that is not play. Minority thoughts give us ideas without diagrams and ask us to play. Though we encourage this in our students and claim to be dedicated to it in our own practices, if we can’t see the endgame or the relevance we frequently decide not to play.

This post serves as further evidence. In writing it, I’m asking if you want to play with ideas. In reading it, you’re looking for your diagram, looking to see if my idea lines up with your thinking.  If you’ve made it this far, you likely want to play. If you haven’t, you’re probably not a player. Playing (or commenting) means you either want to see what we can make or that you see your thinking in these words and want to utilize the idea.