Tuesday, November 30, 2010

4. Get Along with Others

I probably don't have to explain why getting along with others is an essential thing to learn. We see it every day. We work with, know, or are even related to people who are talented, but don't have much in the way of people skills. I strongly believe these skills can be taught. And the best ways to get along with others is to use patience, empathy, and communication skills (mainly listening).  It is really hard to teach patience and empathy.  I can model it and talk about it and show examples from books, but young children especially can have trouble being patient and empathetic. I find it is easier to teach listening because there are overt behaviours kids can see and use.  These behaviours include: making eye contact, positioning your body toward the speaker, being silent while someone is talking, repeating back what they said, etc.     
A lot of times, the most popular kids in my class are the ones who are a bit on the quiet side.  Sometimes I will ask them what they do to have so many friends, and the answer is usually common (if they know it):  "I listen."  They don't have to have a huge personality, or be greatly talented or any of those other qualities we usually associate with popularity, but they do have to be good listeners.  This became clear to me when I had this really quiet boy, S, in my class who everyone loved, especially the rambunctious boys I had.  S never played soccer with them and he was an average student.  I asked one of the other boys why he liked S so much, and the boy replied, "He stands beside me when I am sad."  I then watched S and sure enough, he was always around.  He didn't say too much, but was present.  When others were sad or lonely, he would just go stand by them and they would start playing with him.  Just being there was enough for all of these boys to like him so much.  If you're a teacher, you probably know a kid like S. 

And you probably know the kid who is the exact opposite of S.  The one, sometimes a new kid who has been to a bunch of schools, who does really odd things to get attention, and gets does it, but repulses the other kids so much that they think he is a big pain.  Or the clown who is fun to be around, but not when it is time to work. 

Don't get me wrong.  There are some kids who are magnetic because of extraordinary things (positive and negative): making people laugh, having great beauty, being rich and generous, knowing the right people, being strong or a good athlete, having a popular sibling, etc.  These can really be things that make some kids popular or help kids get along with others.

But the catch is: I can't really teach kids how to be or do those things.  I can however, teach them how to listen.

And once we learn some basic listening skills, then other skills are possible: taking turns, cooperation, using manners, conflict resolution, restitution, etc.

Getting along with others might not get you hired, but it will probably keep you from getting fired.  In school terms, kids are definitely more happy and productive when they have friends and can cope with others, so why not teach these things?

Saturday, November 27, 2010

3. Get to Know Myself

To Know Me Is to Love Me
Identity is a big thing.  In fact, in one's life, it may be the only thing.  One of the great things about schools is that one surrounded by all kinds of models for one's identity.  Look at that girl over there who has lots of friends because she is so kind to other people.  I'd like to be like that.  Look at that kid over there who is doing that disgusting thing with his fingers, and look how people are reacting to it.  Man, I don't want to be like that!  And what about me?  When people are with me, what are they thinking about me?  Do they want to be like me or do I do some things that make them cringe?

Chip, chip, chip

I love the fact that kids get to learn about so many things in elementary school. They get a first hand chance to enjoy an experience and see if that idea resonates with who they are: "Hmmm. I liked that. I think I'll do more of that," or "That makes sense to me. It must be true," or "I'm not very good at that. If I don't get this pretty soon, I think I'll stop doing this," or "That's rubbish! I can't believe that!" Kids start to chisel out who they are based on their experiences, so we need to give them as many different kinds of experiences as possible, not just from books or second hand, but authentic experiences. I also believe that it is counterintuitive to grade young students on these kinds of experiences because not only are these young minds trying them for the first time, but in reality, an outside standard can't judge whether something will stick. If the experience resonates with the student (i.e. it is interesting, meaningful, or important), it will probably stick with them.

Tell Me Me
Reaching back to #2 Communicate, self expression is essential.  The way we get to learn about ourselves is by letting ourselves and others know how we think and feel.  Schools give kids lots of opportunities to do so: discussions, writing, dancing, painting, laughing, crying, reflecting, etc.  That last one, reflecting, is too underused.  Someone said at my last professional development meeting that we should have an additional day after the regular workshop or conference day, just to reflect and find ways to assimilate everything we've learned.  The same is true for kids.  We throw so many new ideas and experiences at them, but we give them very little time to think about their learning and what it might mean to them.  I see reflection as communicating with yourself. 

One of the ways we are trying to help kids learn at my school is by teaching them about self regulation.  We  can ask kids what they learned about themselves in doing any activity or learning about something new.  Hopefully, they'll begin to internalize this self talk: "When I'm working in a group, how is that affecting me?  I want to do my part, but I don't know what that is yet.  Maybe if I keep listening and asking questions, I'll figure it out,"  or "Linda sure looks mad right now. What were we talking about that might have made her so angry?"  It's really difficult for young children especially to think about their thinking, but we teachers try to model it as much as possible by thinking out loud.  By having students understand how their own emotional state affects them, they begin to see how emotions affect others too. 

Me on Me
I think this idea of identity resonates with me because I tried on all kinds of people's identity's until I found one that worked for me.  I took bits and parts of everyone I encountered until I sculpted out the identity I have today.  And though I think my identity is pretty well set now, I can still emulate other people depending on the task at hand, especially for tasks outside my comfort zone (e.g. negotiating a deal, speaking in front of large groups, trying on new pants when the mirror is placed outside of the changeroom, etc.).  Who am I kidding?  My identity is still in a state of flux.  I am still learning from other people and I am still learning about myself.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

2. Communicate

I said that Make Things Better was at the top of the list, but for the remaining essential things that I want my students to learn, order is less important.  Communication is very important though.  A lot of time, it is the process for making things better, especially between people. 

from http://www.lib.uct.ac.za/infolit/communicate2.jpg

If we ever want to share an idea or get something from someone, we are going to have to learn to communicate.  In order to get our idea or request across, we'll need to be able to put that idea or request into a form that someone else can understand.  This is why talking and writing are so important.

I was watching a video of a dramatization of some native people trying to barter with a someone from a trading post.  They used no words in the video.  My students asked if they didn't talk back then, but someone realized that they probably did not speak the same language.  I pointed out that they were still communicating because they both knew that the First Nations people wanted good like blankets and tools, and the storehouse owner wanted their furs.  It was just a matter of how much.  Being able to speak the same language definitely cuts down on the confusion and misunderstanding.  (Though not all the time.  See: Married People, Politicians, Lawyers, etc.)

Some of the things I teach my students under the umbrella of communication are: talking, listening, writing, reading, looking, asking questions, interpreting and evaluating information (Does this make sense to me?  Does this fit with how I see the world?), drawing, acting, creating presentations, learning a new language, reading people's moods and body language, role playing, sharing, debating, arguing, playing music, making posters and signs, etc.

Perhaps if we lived our entire lives by ourselves we would not have the need to communicate.  But perhaps not.  Sometimes, just putting our own thoughts into words helps us understand something or work out a problem.  Recently, my friend KA told me that he knows that he processes things by talking.   So by giving kids words, I guess for some we are really giving them the vocabulary for thinking as well.  

Saturday, November 20, 2010

1. Make Things Better

Sure, it's way too general.

In my quest to find the 7 essential things to teach, I give myself lots of latitude so that I can encompass everything that is important to me.  It still helps me to focus my instruction and helps students to direct their learning, but most of all, it makes what I teach purposeful.

Make things better. 
This could be the most important item on my list which is why I put it first.  Isn't it the point of education?  (Of living?)  This item actually began on my draft as "Solve problems."  It wasn't enough and sounded too reactive.  I want my students to go into any situation with the mindset that they can improve things or learn from them (in turn, improving themselves).

The Japanese have this idea of Kaizen, continuous improvement.  Everything we do in life is to move us forward, to enrich our lives, and build upon what we've already done.  I really like that idea.  (I like it so much I was thinking of getting a tattoo with the Japanese symbols for kaizen, but the characters are too busy and too intricate.  I thought that it was a whole lot of strokes that would really hurt. That would not be life enriching to me.  Perhaps a nice wallet photo?)

(from http://hasanyorukoglu.com/blog/?tag=kaizen)
With respect to what we do in school, making things better is why we teach science: so we can figure out how things work so we can make them better.  It's why we teach history and social studies: so we can learn more about ourselves as a community or a society, figure out what we did right or wrong and continue to move forward. It's why we teach any kind of communication: to share ideas and work things out.  It's why we teach math: to solve problems and organize the world numerically.  It's why we teach art: to add beauty and culture to the world and our existence. 

When it comes down to it, it's why we teach everything:
Improve your mind, improve your self, improve your world.

Making things better is both simple and complex. On the complex side, it is why green initiatives have become so important. We want to improve our planet, but the factors that are working toward destroying our planet are so numerous and complicated that it can be overwhelming. This is why the mantra: "Think globally.  Act locally,"  is so helpful.  It pares down something complex into something manageable.  On the simple side of making things better, it is why we tell jokes to friends.  For even a small moment, we improve the spirits of someone else and in turn feel good as well.   I think that is something kids could manage and get their heads around: "Improve the world one smile at a time."

Sunday, November 07, 2010

My Essential List

What is Essential?
Ken Robinson talked about Peter Brook who posed: "What can you subtract and still have theatre?"  Robinson then drew parallels with education and said that we should stick to the essentials of education, but not add anything that does not help it.   My question is: what exactly are those essentials in education?  I have the answer to that question for myself, but I'm not sure it applies to any other teacher.

One of the things I did a few years ago, but that I got away from, was that I came up with a list of 7 things that drove my teaching.  The list was all about the seven essential things that I wanted my students to learn, and that I could teach them.  They were global enough so that everything that was important to life would be included in the list, but they were specific enough that it wasn't so general that I could justify anything. 

I did not keep these essential things a secret either.  I tried to make them as explicit as possible to my students.  In fact, I told them to ask me, "What is the BIG IDEA?" over the course of each lesson.  My intention was to start each lesson with this objective, but of course, I forgot, so my students knew to trigger me with the question (they even competed to be the one to ask), and it was my job to tie every lesson to at least one of these essentials. I try to make each lesson applicable to their lives right now, not some nebulous time in the future (i.e. "Learn this because you might need this in the future."  What a load of hooey!)  Did I really need to learn the Prime Ministers in order when I can Google them now?  And exactly where do I need to use dividing by negative fractions?  And why are kids still getting marks for colouring their assignments in high school?  School is supposed to prepare children for the rest of their lives, not just the world of school.  But it doesn't.  School seems to be content on perpetuating itself.  Why are we learning this?  You might need it later in life.  Because it will go on your report card.  To get you ready for the next grade or high school or university.  None of these reasons can be important to the here and now of students, so I created the essential list to let my students in on the learning, not put it on the shelf for later.

Why Create Such a List?
Creating a list of the essential things that I want all students to learn was a really important exercise, and I urge you to do it for yourself if you are a teacher.  The list helps to justify what you do, and you'll see what is really important to education and to you.  It is also liberating because it helps you get rid of everything that is not important.  Why do it if it is not effective in reaching your objectives or if it is not important?  In telling students how each lesson ties to each of these essential things, it makes learning explicit to students (and myself).  They'll see the importance of the lessons because they are applicable.  (i.e. This is how your learning will help you, in your life. Today.)   If I couldn't reconcile the lesson with my list, I wouldn't teach it.

If you do decide to make your own list, here are some tips:
  1. Keep the list to under ten.  Brainstorm a bunch of things, and then sort and combine until you have a manageable number.
  2. Remember that the items are not mutually exclusive.  You'll find a lot of overlap.  Life is like that.
  3. Make your items teachable, doable, and important. 
  4. The list is NOT written in stone.

So, over the next blog entries, I will talk about the 7 things on my list that I think all students should learn.   If you are at all interested in creating your own list, I suggest you do so before you read mine because the process is important, plus I do not want my list to impede or colour your list.  The most important thing about your list is that it comes from YOU (because you are the one who is going to have to teach it, justify it and live it). 

Thursday, November 04, 2010

One More Word About Decor/Atmosphere: What Are the Best Conditions for Learning?

In the posts after this one, I will be going on a slightly different path than decor, so I thought I would say a few more things about before I change topic for a while.  I wanted to mention what a few other teachers are doing and how the experimentation with atmosphere is not confined to me in my school district. 

My friend K got really excited by the whole idea.  She ran out and bought The Third Teacher and really took the ideas to heart.  K has always been about choices and empowering students, so creating an atmosphere that reflects these tenets is an extension of her philosophy, as opposed to being an add-on or a stretch or disconnect.  K worked hard to bring in a variety of seating choices for her students.  She has easels so kids can stand, portable band risers, exercise balls, a loft, a couch, tables with and without chairs, and a few desks.  She rotates students through different seating places.  The great by-product of this practice is that her students can work with anyone because they have been exposed to all students in the class.  She feels that this flexibility and variety has really brought the group together as a team.  K is a wonderful teacher and the students really love her class.  Below are a few snaps from her class.  It's a really fun and inviting place.

loft and computer desk
easels and collapsible risers
comfy couch and inviting stuff in baskets

Another teacher who is passionate about bringing the world to her students (and vice versa) is Tamara.  [Her exquisite blog can be found at http://www.kinderplay.ca/ ].  Tamara believes in project based learning and real life experiences.  In her kindergarten classroom, she sets up these themed trays where students get to develop their fine motor control by experiencing beautiful real life objects.  Last year, she even took a radical step in real world learning: for an entire month, she took her class outside every day, all day.  The students spent their days with true hands-on learning in the sand, dirt, grass and forest.

Same Idea, Different Approaches
I find it interesting how the three of us have taken a different approach to a similar theme.  I like how we differ because it shows the personal nature of our spontaneous inquiry (as far as I know none of the three of us are doing this because it is attached to any organized research or group).  The question is probably, "What are the best conditions for learning?"  I'm sure the three of us would agree that it is not your traditional classroom. 

What do yo think?