Stop. Drop. Listen. (18/365)

one person taking notes while another speaks

Photo by Nik MacMillan on Unsplash

I started a meeting with silence last week. We’re not talking the usual, mildly uncomfortable moment of silence that comes up every once in a while. Instead, I started this meeting with seven minutes of silence.

I’d drafted an idea for a team of teachers at one of our schools and decided to present it for their consideration in a way requiring no presentation.

“Okay, instead of talking this through, without talking, I’d like you to review the document and put all of your questions and comments in the margins as they come up.” A couple of the teachers looked at me to discern if I was on the up and up. I assured them I was. About 30 seconds in, one teacher said, “Well, here’s the thing…”

“Just put it in the margin,” I said, impressed at myself for not taking the bait of conversation.

They typed, I watched.

They typed some more, I watched some more.

I read as they as they added every question and comment that entered their heads.

Maybe two minutes into the process, I noted one of the teachers was inserting comments I’d classify as having a critical tone. From her first comment to her position midway down the first page, each time she hit option+command+m, the result was a reason why what I was proposing would not work. It continued this way for the remainder of the seven minutes. Though I’d told myself I was presenting a draft document and had said aloud to the room that I wanted to show them something we could make representative of the team, I was getting defensive.

As I scrolled through the comment, the voice in my head responded with Yeah, buts and Here’s what you don’t understands. She was missing the point of what I’d created.

By the time we hit the 7-minute mark, it was all I could do to stick with my plan and say, “Okay, now how would you like to proceed?” Others in the room started the conversation and kept driving. While I engaged and listened to their thinking, I was always half-listening for my critic to chime in. It took a while until she added her voice.

When she did, it wasn’t to voice one of the criticisms or reasons why one of the ideas would not work. It was to ask a question and then another to get clarity of the way everything might proceed. In fact, not once in the entirety of the conversation did she give direct voice to the ideas she’d written in the comments. Instead, I noticed she was making each comment into a question, searching for clarity and help thinking through how what I’d proposed might be made to work with their students.

The more I listened to what she was adding to the conversation, the more I realized she wasn’t the foe I’d assumed she’d be as I was reading her comments. She was an ally. She was an ally who’d done exactly what I’d asked and thrown her initial thinking into the document, shared what her gut told her would be hurdles to overcome in shifting the way the team had been doing things.

What I’d read as pessimism and inertia was this teacher trusting me and trusting the process. While I’d been preparing for battle, she’d been preparing to question, think, and learn.

My assumptions – the very same things I’d been asking these teachers to keep in check – almost derailed my ability to hear and understand what this teacher and her colleagues were bringing to the table. Much of my job is to listen. Part of the benefit of having a set of responsibilities different from those of teachers is my ability to come at conversations and difficulties fresh and open. Instead, I’d walked into the process in the same defensive posture I’m often working to help teachers move away from in our work.

I’m glad I caught myself. I’m glad I was able to stop, drop my assumptions, and listen.

81/365 Listen to Understand

Faculty meetings can be fascinating places.

Sit in the corner o f a faculty meeting of any given school, just listen, take a few notes, and you’ll be able to say much about what goes on in that school’s classrooms based on what you see.

Author Robert Fulghum writes about his time as a teacher and how he will go down in the history of his school as the guy who tried to kill himself with a pencil to get out of a faculty meeting. To be sure, in no other setting does a pencil present itself as a weapon as in a faculty meeting.

This needn’t be so. One important skill to put into practice for transforming school culture among faculty is to practice assuming positive intent.

Another tool, equally as powerful, and perhaps more important, is that of listening to understand.

In the schools we need, adults listen to one another to understand. They listen to the children with this goal as well. If what we want for students we must want for teachers as well, then it makes sense to begin with the teachers.

Listening to understand is not a new concept by any means. For many, it is as simple as Atticus Finch’s advise in To Kill a Mockingbird, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

This may seem like a long and drawn out process, trying to figure out all of the things contribute to a person’s thinking and then attempting to take on that perspective. If you were trying to do this for each member of a faculty, you’d likely retire before you’d completed the project.

Instead, listening to understand means marshalling the forces of focus and curiosity to truly hear what another person is attempting to communicate. It means hearing not only what they are audibly saying but moving from those initial utterances to questions that show that you were listening and want to understand at a deeper level.

Here, too, community will be co-created. Building understanding of those we work with helps us to understand how their goals, needs, and drives find common cause with our own goals, needs, and drives.

To listening to understand can take many paths, to get started, though, here are a few suggestions:

Look and listen. It’s commonly known that the majority of communication is transmitted through non-verbal means. If you were are truly listening to understand, you must listen with all of your senses. Pay attention to physical cues being sent your way.

Ask. So often, our gut instinct in conversation when others are trying to explain themselves or make a point is to react with a statement of agreement or disagreement. If we take an extra beat, consider the information we have, and ask the next logical question, then the conversation and our understanding will be all the better for it.

Say what you think you heard. In any line of communication, there is interference in the form of mishearing, getting distracted, or pouring our own thoughts into the process. By taking a moment to say to the person you’re seeking to understand, “Here’s what I think I just heard you say…” we open the path for clarification.

Listening to understand is different than listening to hear. While both are preferrable to remaining quiet until it is your turn to talk, listening to understand has the benefit of developing purpose that is specific to those to whom we are listening.

42/365 Story Matters

Each spring, a group of SLA juniors leave the familiar confines of Philadelphia for the foreignness of Flagstaff, AZ. They go as part of an independent trip where they and 10 students from Flagstaff raft down the San Juan river for four days, experiencing nature and America in a way few people will ever have the chance. Along the way, they stop, disembark their rafts and study collections of ancient petroglyphs left by Native Americans in a time long forgotten.

While archeologists have theories as to the meanings of these alien pictures, we don’t quite know for sure. Each year, students stand near the walls and wonder at the remnants of a people and what they have left behind.

Story matters.

This is most obvious in English and language arts classrooms. Built on narratives, fiction and non, their purpose is to connect story to its parts and parts to story while helping students access both the whole and the pieces so that they might interpret the world. Story most clearly and forthrightly matters in these classrooms. One would be hard pressed to find a contrarian ready to stake a claim in opposition to this fact.

Where we fall down in appreciating story but where it is no less necessary is in the classrooms not officially demarcated as the homes of stories. Math, science, even history classrooms are often thought to be devoid of story or of the requirement of story.

Here, though, is where stories are most necessary.

They need not be the stories of content. While helpful, it is not required that students know the stories of Pythagorus or Euclid. If they learn them, fine, but they are not required.

What should be required, and what should weigh on the heads of all teachers are the stories each of their students lived before they became part of this grade and this class in this school. What were their math, history, science, English, physical education stories before they walked into our classrooms?

Almost inevitably, we fail to ask for our students’ stories of prior experiences in school with specific regard to whatever subject matter we’re charged with transmitting. When those stories are exchanged, when a student finds an unlikely mechanism for alerting her teacher to the story of how she came to think of her self as always deficient in math, we have few mechanisms for honoring those stories.

Instead, we charge through, foolhardily focused on curriculum timelines and learning objectives for our students without concerning ourselves with our own learning objectives – understanding where our students are coming from and how we might tailor our practice to meet them at the end of their last stories so that our chapters might be more fulfilling.

This is difficult work. It requires the asking of questions to which we might not like the answers. Each year as an English teacher, I heard new students exclaim that they did not like reading, abhorred writing and didn’t even want to consider whatever it was we might consider “classics.”

The instinctual response was not surprising – put so much of all of their aforementioned hatreds in front of them that they couldn’t help but be overcome by wonder at how wrong they were to dismiss those pieces of school that had been part of stories of the failure, difficulty, and embarrassment. Not surprisingly, when I gave room for this instinct, it ended poorly.

When I gave room to their stories, though, and listened for the pieces of previous classes that had hindered my students’ ability to access content and learning, I was able to change my practice and consider thoughtfully how that year might tell a better story than the last.

It is an understandable reflex of the classroom teacher to assume the blank slate of the school year applies to whatever subject area for which she is responsible. This is not so, can never be so.

Given this, we must listen to the stories our students bring with them to our classes. We must listen to them as the first and most important pieces of data available to us in crafting learning experiences that might lead to better stories for whomever is responsible for our students after us.

Are you listening to understand or just waiting to teach?

A few days ago, for a moment of levity before a more principled discussion, we watched the video below in one of my seminars.

It got me thinking, about how the segment was framed. The idea, here, is to think of Hicks as an ignorant, foolish, nonsensical man. As much as a vehemently and completely disagree with his stance on these issues, I still felt compelled to listen to Hicks.
He’s sharing more than racism when he speaks. To miss that is to miss an opportunity. Since the seminar, I’ve been thinking about how most people’s experiences watching the video are similar to the experiences of many teachers as their students file in to classrooms across the country.
“We have to teach these people. They think they know, but they don’t know. We need to change their minds. Scour that ignorance right out.”
Except that’s wrong.
As much as I want Hicks and others like him to change their minds, I don’t understand them. I don’t comprehend how or why they think the things they do.
The same was true in the classroom. While I had legions of standards and understandings I wanted my students to leave my classroom possessing, I had to restrain myself from attempting to immediately pass them along. It wouldn’t have worked.
I had to work to understand those students before I was going to be able to teach them. How were the knots in their thinking tied? What was necessary for me to loosen those knots? It was frustrating work at times. It was important work all the time.
When I meet with the student teachers I’m supervising this semester, one of my most frequent post-observation questions is, “What do you know about student X?” If the answer is a collection of facts about quiz scores, homework return, and time on task in class, we dig more deeply.
If, as teachers, we’re not working to understand the people in our care, we’re doing it wrong. If as people, we’re not working to understand those with whom we disagree, any success in changing their minds won’t last long.

Things I Know 267 of 365: I got some advice on designing for difference

Last week, I was working on an assignment that asked me to define difference as it related to educational design. From there, I needed to develop my principles of school design. It seemed like the perfect chance to draw on the wisdom of friends, so I sent out an e-mail to some designers I know with the question from my assignment:

What counts, or should count, as a “learning difference” in the organization of learning environments?

The paper ran long, and some of the responses came back after I’d shaped my draft, so I didn’t get to explicitly use their responses. They took the time to craft their responses, though, and I wanted to honor that by sharing them here. My text on the question is at the bottom.

I can’t help but lean towards a student (at the scale of one) having the proactive ability to discern useful resources / flexibility found within a given learning environment, rather than just to assume that clarity will be given to them. Thus, how we set up a student to seek such resources / clues (within a test, within a project, within a team, within a community, etc) may therefore suggest a way to measure (or design for) differences.

– Christian Long

We are going to have an interesting conversation on Thursday at the Goldberg Center on “alternative assignments” for students.  that is, rather than a teacher saying “term paper due on Friday,” the students can devise their own ways to demonstrate their knowledge (we will have one example on Thursday of a student who demonstrated his knowledge by choreographing and performing an interpretive ice dance of a novel he had read…)  I can recall a student once who said to me “rather than an exam, I would much prefer to give a speech to demonstrate what I know.”  I’ve often thought that would be an intriguing way for students to own their learning.

– David Staley

What if one of the first thing a learner did was to design how they would be measured and configure their learning experience to match that and then have that be a part of some sort of public “learning identity” allowing their differences to both set up the parameters for their education and encourage peers to understand each other and connect to one another because of their differences?

e.g. I see from Sally’s profile that she is so good at advanced math that she was able to test out and focus on French history – I wonder if she would consider tutoring me in math and whether we could team up on our French Revolution project?

– Andrew Sturm

Listing the learning differences for which we are accounting, we risk inadvertently neglecting or denying a possible impact of a difference. In thinking about possible differences, it is helpful to appropriate Rosabeth Kanter’s (1993) understanding of difference from “A Tale of ‘O’” in which she defines the normative culture as those who are found in large numbers and those who are different as “the people who are scarce.” Different learning tasks create shifts in populations. In a classroom where students are expected to remain at their desks, a student in a wheelchair could be considered part of the normative culture, while the hyperactive child who squirms and wiggles in his seat looking for any reason to move would appear different. This same group of students on a soccer field during a P.E. class shifts the norms of expected behavior in such a way that the former student now appears different while the latter student becomes normative. Context must be considered when considering the organization of learning.

Non-physical differences can also impact student learning. Personal perception as affected by the stereotype threat (Steele & Aronson, 1995) or a fixed theory of learning (Dweck, 2000) shift student performance on learning tasks. Unlike those differences described above, these internal differences are not easily perceived, nor should they be presumed in students belonging to one group or another. All possible differences should be counted a differences affecting learning in organizing learning environments. This means subscribing to David Rose’s (2011) rejection of the notion of the standard child, and acceptance of variability as universal.

– me

Things I Know 127 of 365: The real world accepts late work

I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.

– Douglas Adams

Jabiz called me out this morning.

He didn’t mean to, but I’m glad he did. Each of his assertions was incorrect. I haven’t written 124 posts. Neither have I written a post each day since January 1.

Let me explain before you give up on this experiment all together.

This is my 127th Thing I Know. I realize yesterday’s post was labeled “124 of 365,” and there’s a reason for that.

I can’t count. Well, I can’t keep count. If you were to comb the archives, you’d find two 63s and two 94s. I’m not sure how it happened, but every TIK from March 6 on has been a day or two off. I’ll be going back and correcting them, but it’s going to take some time to individually rename half of the posts I’ve written this year.

The second inaccuracy was the claim that I’ve written one post per day. There were a few days over the last couple of weeks that got away from me. From being on the river to writing narratives to entering grades to report card conferences, my days got away from me.

I’m not sure anyone would have wanted to know what I knew in those few days. At least two of the posts were begun in end-of-day exhaustion only to result in me wake finding an open laptop on my stomach after I had passed out in bed.

I counted this weekend. May 10 is the 130th day of 2011.

I owe me some posts.

They’re coming.

No matter whether anyone else cares, my brain won’t sit right until this is all back on track.

What’s interesting to me is my lack of freak out. I could be rambling on and on to myself that I’ve lost the purity of the project or that writing more than one post in a day to catch up is cheating.

I’m not doing any of that.

It will get done, and the missing posts aren’t missing because of sloth or apathy.

Life needed me to prioritize school ahead of writing and then sleep ahead of writing. I obliged.

Today, a student got to my first period class late. We were just finishing up a vocabulary quiz. At the beginning of the year, my policy was that any student missing during the quiz would not be allowed to make up that portion of the quiz.

“Get here on time if you’re think it’s an unfair policy, and you’ll never have to worry about it,” I said.

The tardy student raised his hand once he’d taken his seat.

“Can I make up the quiz tomorrow during lunch?”

“Where were you?”

“I just got to school.”

“Why were you late?”

“I woke up late and then had to catch the train.”

“You can make it up Thursday at lunch.”

Then, I walked away.

I could have lectured him on the importance of punctuality or restated the policy, but that’s not what he needed at the time. The student was visibly frazzled and stressed by getting to class late and missing the quiz. Adding to that would have accomplished nothing.

If he makes a habit of it, we’ll talk.

I’ve been late to meetings and missed deadlines outside of self-imposed blogging deadlines. I’ve felt the frustration of falling short of the expectations of others and myself.

In those moments, it wasn’t the people who lorded the hegemony over me who made me want to work harder the next time. It was those who looked closely to see what I needed and responded from a place of care.

If I ever took advantage of their empathy, they once again responded caringly and called me on my actions, helping me learn lessons I didn’t necessarily want to learn but needed to.

I once taught with a teacher who accepted no late work and allowed no make-up work, citing the real world in her reasoning.

“When these kids get into the real world, they’re going to have bosses who don’t let excuses and tardiness fly.”

I’ve been in the real world for a few years now, and it’s not nearly as cut and dry as my colleague made it out to be.

There are times when deadlines are hard and fast, not to be taken lightly. Other times, life piles up and we’re forced to make choices. Then there are those moments when we make the wrong choices and firm understanding, not berating and belittling, is what’s called for.

I am reminded of this sentiment as I catch up on my writing. I will remember it again, Thursday, as I administer the make-up quiz.

Things I Know 83 of 365: Thoughts are like fine wine and Paul Newman

It’s sad to grow old, but nice to ripen.

– Brigitte Bardot

An envelope arrived for me at school today. I’d been expecting it, but it wasn’t at the top of my brain. That made it all the better.

Val Sherman who used to write with me at The Daily Vidette when I was in college happened upon some old papers a couple of months ago and asked me if I wanted copies of my old columns.

Before I was a blogger, I was a columnist for three and a half years in university. It was one of the best jobs I’ve ever had.

I took the envelope of almost 20 columns into Chris’s office to read and eat my lunch. I passed him a clipped column to read, saying, “This is me in a past life.”

He read it.

“I don’t think I agree with you here,” he said.

“I don’t think I agree with myself,” I replied.

I’ve read several of the columns tonight. Interesting mile markers of my thinking from a decade ago, they’ve also helped me to see who I am now.

In one I said, “It’s amazing how you notice a place moving so quickly when you step out of it.”

I’m amazed at how much I notice myself having changed as I step out of being who I was.

Though I never came out and wrote it, my column was the place I tried to work through my own demons. I lamented what I saw as the weakening of the Separation Clause. I argued acceptance over tolerance. I recounted a Christmas with my father’s family and having to defend my liberal social politics.

I can’t say these aren’t views I hold now. Ten years later, though, I understand them better. I can believe them better because I’ve let myself see their imperfections and listened to differing points of view.

This summer, my grad program asked me to write my philosophy of education. I sat down to draft it. Not surprisingly, it was a distillation of many of the ideas I write here. When I was done, I searched for one of the many 3-ring binders teachers are required to keep to make themselves appear more teachery.

In the binder, I found the first philosophy of education I ever wrote as part of the portfolio I was compelled to complete before being allowed to begin my student teaching.

I looked at the pages 8 years after their drafting and then returned to my newly drafted philosophy. It turned out it wasn’t so new.

Like the ideas I found today in my columns, my philosophy then was my philosophy now without the wisdom of age.

My ideas had been untried. I was working with what I thought I saw on the horizon. I could only speak as a student then. Now, I can speak as both teacher and student.

Today in class, one of my students was arguing against the television media’s coverage of the divorce of a celebrity. His argument was reductive and simplistic. It made suppositions based on half truths and asked the other students in the room to ignore the missing halves.

I put on my teacher hat and offered guidance.

When I was done, I was fairly certain the kid would make the same mistake over and over again for the next few years.

Reading my columns, I know I’ve done a fair bit of that myself. Knowing where I am now compared to where I was then, though, assuages any worry I have over that student or any other. Time and experience are decent tutors.

Things I Know 77 of 365: What we read makes who we are and what we do

You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.

– Atticus Finch, To Kill a Mockingbird

To mark AOL’s consumption of The Huffington Post, Arianna Huffington announced Monday that “AOLers and HuffPosters (who are now AOLers!) will be volunteering in their local communities” as part of a 30-Day Service Challenge.

Aside from being a good public relations move, it’s also good work. No matter one’s political leanings, jumping in and helping the rest of humanity is a good idea.

I used to teach with a science teacher who had completed a fellowship during which she attempted a different job each week for 52 weeks. At the end of the year, she’d done it all – including her personal favorite, learning to drive an 18-wheeler.

She walked through life with a different and deeper understanding of the people with whom she interacted.

She had taken Atticus Finch’s advice and walked in the skin of others.

This gets toward the heart of why I want so badly for my students to connect with books and be more thoughtful about what they view. These stories, mostly fictitious, provide moments of connection and portrayed experiences that wouldn’t otherwise be possible. I want my students digging deeply into texts because the more they read, the more they will archive. Their brains will become rife with archives of the “what ifs” of all the plots and characters they encounter. And this, this will prepare them for those moments when they are up against odds unknown or come face-to-face with someone diametrically contrary to who they are.

I grew up in a small town of 250 people. My school was in the next town over and educated just under 400 students. While each of us was an individual, the world our interactions created was nothing compared to the complexity of life for my students in Philadelphia or Sarasota.

While I can’t deny thoughtful parenting was the largest preparation I received for the world beyond Cantrall, IL, it was the books, television shows and movies I read that picked up where my family’s experiences left off.

Nothing can replace the actual experience of mucking in as the “AOLers and HuffPosters” are and my former colleague did. Reading, though, can serve as the primer in the absence of the physical experience – the original virtual reality.

Starting next week, my students will be spending dedicated class time on change.org. Launched in 2007, the site both raises awareness of acts of injustice and calls on readers to take action as well by signing petitions or contacting government leaders. I cannot provide my students with exactly what they will need for every possible eventuality they might face. Absent that ability, I can help them build connections with texts, read those texts closely and then ask questions about how what they can do in relation to what they’ve just read.

My mom likes to tell the story of the first time she read me a children’s biography of Martin Luther King, Jr. I’m not sure of my age, but know I was still in the realm of footy pajamas. As my mother tells it, we’d finished reading the section explaining racism and it affected me deeply.

“You were pacing back and forth yelling, ‘That’s wrong, mommy! That’s just wrong!’”

Though the texts my students or I encounter may not always draw on themes as clearly unjust as racism, both they and I are missing the story if we’re not looking at how the characters are treating one another and how we see ourselves in the pages or scenes of what we’re reading.