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.

138/365 Teachers will Learn when Teachers Can Play

LEGO blocks

In our conversation around Jim Knight’s Unmistakable Impact, the following question has come up:

What does it look like when we provide an environment where our teachers are “energized, thrilled, and empowered by learning?”

My gut answer is to look toward kindergarten and pre-school. Our earliest, intrinsically-motivated learning comes through play. The students I got to observe briefly yesterday at Spark! pre-school were playing through their ideas of what pieces of the puzzles they were working on went where and could easily fail without worry of reprucussions from their peers or their teammates.

In his investigation of play research with Christopher Vaughan, Stuart Brown outlines what more advanced players do when they realize they could easily dominate the field – they pull back enough so that they still find the activity enjoyable and so that those people they’re playing with are not overwhelmed. The activity remains fun because those playing are doing so to play and learn, not to win. This is what I saw when I noted something not going quite right for the Spark! students. The teacher didn’t jump right in to correct, and the surrounding students offered suggestions, but didn’t feel the need to take over and show. Everyone realized playing is more fun when you get to do.

Knight sees this too, writing, “When we take the humanity out of professional learning, we ignore the complexity of any helping relationship, and we make it almost impossible for learning to occur.”

In a professional space, where the organization has an intention of moving in a certain direction, there is certainly the challenge of feeling as though completely open and free play is not an option.

To this end, I’d turn to Dewey (of course). When he spoke of creating educational experiences for students, Dewey was not advocating a completely hands-off approach such as you might find in an open school.

Dewey recognized there were certain things schools needed to do to accomplish their mission. The key in moving toward these missions is to provide experiences that build on the pasts of learners and accesses what they’re already curious about.

Teachers will be “energized, thrilled, and empowered by learning” when there is space to play aligned with institutional goals and driven by their personal learning experiences and curiosity.

The trouble here is finding the balance and trust necessary to remember the humanity Knight speaks of. If we can remember his “simple plans, with clear goals.” We will move in the right direction.

LEGOS work because the rules are simple and clear: Build something with the blocks by putting them together. The more restrictions we place on what you can build, the less you will be interested in learning what you can build. The more we trust you to follow the simple rules, the more likely you are to build something we’ve never seen before for the benefit of deepening our understanding of what is possible.

Flickr image via Slack pics

112/365 Play. Empathy. Democracy.

Playing the Building: Installation by David Byrne
I’ve been slowly working my way through Martha Nussbaum’s Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities. (Cataloged highlights from Kindle here.) The text began with much read-noddign on my part. “Yup,” my brain said, “She thinks what I think.”

Because of this, much of the early chapters didn’t feel challenging. Nussbaum was presenting the arguments I find myself making to others all the time. I needed her to either challenge my constructs or deepen my understandings. I saw the merits in her arguments, so I stuck with her.

Happening upon chapter six “Cultivating Imagination: Literature and the Arts,” I’m pleased I’ve kept reading. While the argument for play, creativity, fun, exploration and all their adjoining pieces is a familiar one, Nussbaum does something I’d not before witnessed.

She makes the argument for the importance of play and imagination in strengthening a democracy.

Claiming “Citizens cannot relate well to the complex world around them by factual knowledge and logic alone,” Nussbaum calls in play and imagination as skills to be prized in helping to build the empathy necessary for a democracy in which a plurality of views coexist and build a society.

We cannot get to empathy without imagination.

Democratic equality brings vulnerability…Play teaches people to be capable of living with others without control; it connects the experiences of vulnerability and surprise to curiosity and wonder, rather than to crippling anxiety.

Nussbaum calls for empathy education here. In fact, she opens her chapter quoting education authors calling for the same thing in 1916 and 1971.

I’ve made the call for empathy myself when speaking with groups of teachers. It’s embedded within the Ethic of Care. The pieces new here are the relationship of empathy to democracy and the use of play as a building block for empathy.

If I am not given way to imagine, I’ll never find the space to imagine how you are feeling or see our lives as interconnected. If I never see those lives as interconnected nor your thoughts and feelings as relevant to me, I’ll not take them into account when I think about things like school funding, civil rights, taxation, environmental issues…basically, every idea that intermingles with democracy.

I’ve valued and spoken to the value of each of these pieces – play, empathy, democracy. I’ve not had the occasion to consider them as interdependent and one leading to another. Such a relationship rearranges the furniture in my brain a bit and helps me to find a way to structure a call to action when next I find myself in front of a group of educators.

51/365 What if We Can’t Play?

I had the great opportunity to work with Bud Hunt Wednesday and co-lead a summit workshop at NCCE on hacking the curriculum for the Common Core. A room of 50 educators who work as teachers, IT coordinators, district personnel, librarians and everything in between filled the room.

Bud being who he is and me being who I am, we designed the day around exploration moving toward participants identifying how they could leverage the Common Core to evolve teaching and learning in their sites by hacking the curriculum in the afternoon.

The conversations were rich and the room was full of good will moving into the afternoon.

When we got to the hacking portion, though, it was surprising the number of people who continued conversing about things rather than building something to take back and move their respective conversations.

It wasn’t everyone by any means, and I certainly do not begrudge anyone a rich conversation about practice. What it got me wondering, though, was how much we’ve conditioned teachers away from play and the idea of creation.

The day to that point had been resource-rich and open to many conversations about the problems and goals folks were carrying with them through their workdays.

When the scheduled time to address those problems to, “build the thing you’ve been wanting to build but haven’t had the time,” came, not nearly as many as I would have expected chose to do so.

I don’t know the answers to why, but I do have some ideas and some questions:

  • Did they choose not to because we have built a system where creativity and the building of useful things is seen as devoid of value?
  • Were they restricted by the space (a convention center conference room)? And, if so, what can such a feeling in a room that bears striking resemblance to many school classrooms tell us about what we are doing to students’ own feelings about making?
  • Am I reading the experience completely wrong? Were the conversations in place of making more valuable or necessary before these folks could make their way to creating? If so, what does that tell us about classroom experiences?
  • What could we have done, if anything, to structure the day so that people felt internally compelled to make when given the time and space?

It was a successful day, and I’m happy with the results. People had useful conversation and feedback has been positive. These are the conference equivalent of the questions I’d ask myself after a lesson in my class, no matter how successful I thought it had gone. They are the the weight of feeling like I must always ask, “Why did what happened happen, and how could I have made it better for those who entrusted me with their time?”

I’m thankful to Bud for asking me along today, and I’m thankful to everyone who committed to the experience as worthwhile to improving teaching and learning in their spaces. I’m excited to improve upon it next time.

You can find the wiki for our summit here and the blog posts that came out of folks’ time for writing here.

Things I Know 301 of 365: It was one hell of a game of musical chairs

All around the Mulberry Bush,
The monkey chased the weasel.
The monkey stopped to scratch his nose
Pop! goes the weasel.

The requisite announcements had been completed, the student skit designed to encourage students to keep on track in the new trimester had been performed. I was feeling certain community circle was about to wrap up and the students of Codman Academy were about to head to classes.

I was wrong.

The sophomore with the microphone announced it was time for Crew Olympics. The couple hundred assembled high school students took a collective moment before the crowd was peppered with the start of cheers. Our host had another announcement. The game – musical chairs. The competitors – the faculty.

At 9:45 in this school that has had 100% of its graduates accepted to 4-year colleges saw the faculty who helped make that happen walk down the aisles of the meeting hall to represent their crews. Crews are what Codman calls its advisories, and these teachers were out to represent.

The chairs were assembled, Reel to Real’s “I like to move it” blasted from the PA and the teachers started circling the chairs – slowly. Painfully slowly. No one wanted to be out. Some deep pre-schoolian instincts were revived. Plus, they were doing it for the kids.

The first few eliminations were mundane. Expectedly, the more timid of the teachers were the first to go. They had spirit, but realized the dangers of the sport.

Things got interesting when Round 4 signaled the beginning of double eliminations. By that point, those teachers who remained were in it to win. A few went for chairs and found themselves on the floor. As they exited the arena, they were applauded and cheered for. Those who remained high-fived and “good game”-ed as they left.

A few rounds later, there were three. Somewhere, on the other side of the hall, chanting started. To quote the great Neil Diamond, “like a small earthquake.” Before long, little else could be heard other than the blaring of a hundred voices calling for their champion.

In that round, he fell.

Literally, he ended up on the ground.

The two others who remained helped him up and shook his hand.

I looked around.

Somewhere in the course of the 10 minutes of the game, the crowd had taken to its feet. I realized I was leaning in. I’d even picked my favorite in my head.

The music picked up somewhere in the middle of Beyoncé’s “Single ladies.” The competitors – two grown, college-educated men – circled a plastic chair. The students screamed in glee. The music played longer than it had in any other turn. On one down beat, the contestants thought the music stopped and attempted to sit only to be cheered on by the crowd. We would see the game played out.

Greg, one of my classmates from school completing his practicum at Codman, was the first to sit. But, his opponent lunged to lie flat across the seat as Greg was sitting back. The judges swarmed in as the chair and the two men toppled backward.

Seconds later, Greg’s opponent was named the winner and first his crew, then the entire room exploded in applause.

As both men, appropriately dizzy, walked back to their seats, a retraction was made.

Greg had won.

The students were dismissed. Classes began.

The entire episode took 15 minutes of the day. This semester, we’ve studied what Richard Elmore refers to as the Instructional Core – students, teachers, and content. When writing about this concept, Ted Sizer also included how the content was delivered as a fourth aspect.

In this game of musical chairs, the school and its faculty had taught many lessons.

The students had seen their teachers more fully and developed more complex understandings of who they were as people. They saw what sportsmanship could look like. While the teachers good-naturedly ribbed one another during the game, each eliminated player was sent out with a handshake or high five. Those leaving the game did so with smiles on their faces. They’d done what they’d come to do – play.

Though the teachers were representing separate crews, those separations never kept them from enjoying and supporting the whole. If all they’d been thinking of were their crews, the game could never have started.

No one processed any of this with the students. It happened and the day moved on. As it should have. There are times to reflect and their are times for ritual. This game of musical chairs was silly, fun and energizing. And, it was ritual – an act of community to remind members who they are, of what they are a part, and how they play together.

Things I Know 272 of 365: Sketching a school brought clarity of practice

Architecture aims at eternity.

– Christopher Wren

Tonight, in preparation for our next learning task, the class was asked to think about the physical design of a school or learning organization.

What would it look like?

On the heals of drafting our theories of learning and how we might design for difference, this learning tasks makes sense.

It’s also right up the alley of thought I’ve been strolling down recently. Design has been on my brain.

Interestingly, when the professor gave us time to play and told us to see what we could come up with in sketching out what our schools would look like, I had no previous experience to draw from.

I’ve spent the last 8 years re-tooling, rearranging and rethinking classroom design. For the last 6, I’ve been thinking heavily about the systems, structures and pedagogy that work best to the good of the children and adults in schools.

If you asked me what I thought it would look like to see teachers and students interacting in these environments, I’d rattle off words like caring, collaborative, curious, reflective. Then I’d pepper it with examples from my own experiences.

The thing I haven’t done, that I hadn’t done until tonight, is sit down and sketch out what the physical structure of that place might be.

Part of that is likely tied to the fact that those in schools rarely get input into the spaces in which they teach and learn. Often, it’s a rehabilitated building or one that’s been around for decades. To design the physical space is a rarity.

I doodled for a bit tonight, playing with shapes and trying to piece together the structures I’m drawn to and where my students have told me they learn best.

More than anything, I wanted a set of LEGOs. The paper didn’t do what I wanted it to. I needed something bigger and more malleable.

Just before time was called, my group asked me to piece all of our sketches together for a composite final product. You can see it below.

What I said to me team, and what is still true, was that this space is a place I’d both want to teach in and send my kids to.

And that’s just one the first try.

I wonder what would happen if teachers took five minutes to doodle their ideal teaching spaces and then worked to teach as though they were in those spaces. I wonder what would shift. I wonder how interactions and expectations of the students would change.

I wonder what they would sketch with their practice.

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.

Cardboard Boxes for Everyone!

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.

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.

I spent much more time than I thought I would in the last post trying to parse out what I meant or needed from differentiating thought and idea. I think I got there. The final point was where I was headed. And, hey, who doesn’t like finishing writing and finding they’ve called their colleagues hypocrites?

Let me first turn to my own hypocrisy before I start talking practice. I wasn’t playing for a while there. It’s a shame really, because Mrs. Cavitt made a point in kindergarten of stating I play well with others . Right now, my play is commenting. I figure if the minds I admire are bringing their toys to the table, I might as well play. Down the road, we’ll see what ideas spring from it. For now, I’m making time to play.

As for my classroom:

I’d be hard pressed to find a day when I don’t directly ask my students to think. I’d be hard pressed to find a day when I don’t directly ask my students to come up with ideas. I do these things as a matter of habit. I’d imagine any teacher does.

But, do I mean it?

When I ask a student to think, I think I do mean it. I want them looking for patterns, connections, variables, ideas. I want them thinking. The world needs them thinking. When they watch television, I want them thinking. When they’re at the movies, walking down the street, riding the trolley – I want them thinking. I want them to think as often as possible. When I ask it, I mean it.

My aims with ideas are squishier. I ask for ideas. “What ideas do you have?” I’ll ask. Some days, ideas are in season and falling from the sky. Some days, not.

When the ideas don’t come, what do I do? Usually, I talk. Sometimes, it’s a statement. Sometimes, it’s a question. Rarely, is it anything that looks like asking them to play with their thoughts until ideas happen.

What message is this sending? Honestly.

If I’m asking for ideas and they don’t come, shouldn’t I be asking them to play?

“Teaching them to think,” pops up more likely than I’d like in my reading online. Aside from being asininely presumptuous, it sounds dangerous. They know how to think. Sure, maybe some of my students don’t think as deeply or complexly as I’d hope for them, but they’re thinking. I don’t need to teach them to think, I need to give them space to think. I need them to have space to play with thoughts, put them together and make ideas.

I don’t know that I let that happen as much as I’d like. The feeling that they could do that much more if I made sure they had this tool or experience with this line of thinking leads me down the path of profering too much.

I end up the parent whose child has 1 million toys but is sitting playing with the cardboard box in which the last toy arrived.

The project my G11 students are working on now has taken a turn toward play. I’m working on making the necessary adjustments for my G12 kids.

I should be privileging ideas as much as I’m privileging thinking.

Play by any other name would be as fun

NYT Columnist Rob Walker writes about Amar Bhide’s new book The Venturesome Economy, stating:

American consumers have long shown an “exceptional willingness” to buy, for instance, technology products before their utility is clear. Such “venturesome consumers” help spur companies and entrepreneurs to take the risks that lead to innovation because they know there is a market willing to take a roughly analogous risk that the next new thing will turn out to have been worth buying.

Aside from harkening back to Mrs. Hurie’s 11th grade history class, this makes sense on its own, only it’s much simpler than all that. What Bhide refers to as “venturesomeness” is really just play. What do kids do when they don’t have to consider resources or schedules or usefulness? They play. That’s what’s key here. Playing.
An SLA student recently interviewed me about being a member of our community and what, specifically, set the school apart. To my mind, it’s play. The teachers and students at SLA have the freedom to play with their learning and their ideas.
Dress it up however you’d like, but American venturesomeness is truly just play.
Perhaps that explains why, as Walker points out, iFart was one of the top iPhone apps for so long.

Photo Credit: