Free Fall

Saturday, January 28th, 2012

 

 

Free Fall
My friend’s daughter leaped off of Victoria Falls Bridge in Southern Africa
with nothing but a harness and a thin chord to save her from landing in
a crocodile infested and churning river.

She felt a moment of ecstatic exhilaration, as the wind whistled past her,
as the river came closer, and closer -
until the bungee yanked her back into the air, and bounced her again, and again.

Knowing the risks, she chose to jump.
She said that that moment changed her life forever.
Her life will never be the same.

About a month later, an Australian woman took that same leap of faith.
As she flew toward the water, she too waited for the chord to pull her back into the air,
but it didn’t. It snapped, giving her speed and trajectory new meaning.

She hit the hard and unforgiving river unconscious
And, as the horrified onlookers watched, she just  - floated
Until – GASP – she came up for breath!

But her ordeal wasn’t over
because that same rope that was supposed to save her was now trying to drown her.
So she had to dive down into the river to free that rope from the rocks below.

Knowing the risks, she chose to jump.
Miraculously, she made it to the shore.
Her life will never be the same.

As teachers, we sometimes feel like the spectators on the bridge.
We strap you into the harness, we witness as you weave your rope.
We watch in mute wonder as you leap, courage in hand, off that high bridge.

We too wait for the moment when the rope will pull you back up
but, occasionally, we’ve also seen it snap.
We’ve held our breath during the free fall, and the harsh landing.

We cheer from a distance, hoping that the sound can travel,
and we wait, to see if consciousness will return,
to see if our student will swim for the river-bank.

We feel an overwhelming relief in the miraculous moment
when a student, who, against the odds, dives deep,
frees the wedged rope, and swims past the crocodiles.

Knowing the risks, you still choose to leap
And in that moment you change your life forever.
Your life will never be the same…and that choice inspires us all!

 

The Issue of Bullying

Tuesday, July 26th, 2011
A fellow teacher and friend posted a link to It Gets Better  on her Facebook today, and I re-posted it to mine. The project focuses on teen bullying, and the message is that kids should hang on through the toughest times because life does get better, as a series of videos talks directly to bullied teens who may be thinking of ending their lives. The project began as a response to a spate of suicides related to bullied LGBT teens. Dan Savage heard about the suicides, and wanted to help.

The message is not just for LGBT kids, however. I was bullied in middle school, and I think sometimes that it is what led me to want to teach that age-level. One student in particular tormented me, and I felt powerless. I clearly remember my feelings of despair and of self-loathing. I remember trying to hold onto a scrap of self-worth, and feeling it slip away when my tormentor focused on me. I often say that it was the worst time of my life, and it was!  The wonderful life I have now was hard to imagine back then. This is an incredibly important message, because giving up on hope can have devastating consequences.

As a teacher, I see or hear about students experiencing this kind of treatment. I speak to parents who are also in pain, wishing that they could help their child, but not knowing what to do to make it better. I feel for them, and I remember my own sense of being overwhelmed and helpless. I didn’t talk to anyone about it. I wish that I had.

Bullying can take so many forms, and can fly under an adult’s radar too easily. Now I say, “The most interesting adults I know had a difficult time in school. As a result, they are more introspective, have more empathy, are more self-aware.” All of those things come later though, and it doesn’t necessarily help to hear it when you’re engaged in it. Or does it?

The videos on the It Gets Better site are heartbreaking, and truly inspiring. They delve into many, many different stories – all in the theme of life’s most difficult moments. They are survivor’s stories. “It gets better.” I’ve said that to my own students many times. It is so important to get that message out, and for it to be heard by those who are currently in pain.

The Bully Project is a new documentary on the subject.  Watching the trailer, you can feel the sense of isolation in the voices of the students talking. It follows five students in a year, filming them, and their families, as they deal with this issue in their lives. I haven’t seen this film yet, but I will. There are also resources on a government website – to see how the government is supporting this cause, visit this site.

 

The more we talk about bullying, the less power it will have.  At least, that’s my hope.

Enjoying the Ride! – ISTE and Improv

Thursday, June 30th, 2011
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Thanks to my friend and colleague, Megan, generously donating her ticket to me, I was able to attend ISTE 2011 (ISTE stands for the International Society for Technology in Education) in Philadelphia this week. It was aptly described as “inspiration overload,” and I came away jazzed, refreshed, and slightly overwhelmed. In an email, I thanked Megan saying in part, “I can’t thank you enough for this great experience! I learned a lot, but it also made me feel more centered. I do a lot of tech stuff – but it is more important to go back to listening to students and to focusing on them. It was the perfect combination of tech tools and thinking deeply about what is really important in the classroom! What an amazing experience!!!!”Since I live near Philly, I took the train into the city to attend the conference. Taking the train in each day was really nice. I used to do that for my work, and I miss those reading sessions in my car commute now. I was reading a terrific book as I rode in and back on the train during the three days, Improv Wisdom, Don’t Prepare, Just Show Up, by Patricia Ryan Madson – a theater teacher at Stanford University. Using the tenets of improvisational theater and applying them to situations and attitudes in life, Madson found a way to connect the “rules” of improv to life in general.

I spent three years performing improv with a troupe in Iowa many years ago, and I’ve spent ten years teaching improv to middle school children, so I related to her experiences, and I appreciated her reflections. Reading this while attending the ISTE conference, which is dedicated to connecting technology in education, gave me some interesting ideas about how these concepts intersect.

In the introduction, Madson wrote about her early attempts at achieving tenure as a professor. She said that she did everything right, colored within the lines, and followed all of the rules. In the end, she did not achieve tenure at that time because she was too predictable, and she was told that her work was not original enough. She realized that she needed to stop comparing herself to some ideal in her mind, and to just start being true to herself. She also had to work with her own personal talents, and to stop comparing herself to others. This led her to tenure at a much better school.

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As I was riding in for the first day of the conference, this advice struck me as golden. I am too likely to become intimidated by the education “superstars” at events like this. I forget that I’ve done some pretty great things in my own classroom, and that, even more importantly, it isn’t a competition in the first place. It was nice to remember that I bring my own set of experiences to any situation, and that they have value. Madson discussed thirteen tenets of improv, but I’ll use only ten of those here.

1. “Say yes, and” – In improv, if your partner in a scene begins by mentioning the (imaginary) peanuts in your hand, and gives you tips on how to tempt an elephant to come closer to the fence so you can feed it…well, then that is the reality of the scene and you have to “say yes” to it! In fact, you need to add an “and” to the scene. “Yes, and” means going with the scene and adding something unique to it as well so that it keeps moving forward. For instance, one of the peanuts in your hand begins to move – it’s actually a mouse and the elephant just noticed that!

In the classroom, we have to “say yes” to our students. If we don’t, we can shut down their enthusiasm and their learning. If we say “yes, and” then we can help to guide them in new directions. Kids do use technology on their own quite a bit, but not always as a learning tool. It is up to us to help them to use these tools in productive ways. In our own exploration, “yes, and” is a great attitude to have as well. It’s important to be positive with technology, and sometimes you just have to push buttons and flip levers to see what happens. It’s important to have that kind of positive attitude when you learn, and to find new ways to incorporate technology into a class!

2. “Don’t Prepare” –  In improv, it is very important to listen, and to be “in the moment.” You cannot control the direction of a scene, because that great line you have practiced in your head is irrelevant the moment someone else says something that changes the scene’s direction anyway.

As teachers, it is in our nature to prepare. But sometimes listening well is the best way to prepare. Listening to our students can be much more effective, and can lead us in new directions. I had a wonderful example of that this year. During recess, I found a cluster of about ten sixth grade boys huddled around one of the student’s computers. They were all engrossed, and that is always a red flag with a computer in unstructured time! I walked over to “shut down” whatever they were doing, but I ended up stopping to look and listen instead. As a result, I was pulled into the group as the boys explained the website “Minecraft” to me. It was fascinating, and very educational! Instead of shutting down their fun, I ended up high-fiving them for the interesting worlds they had created. In fact, about a month later, I allowed two of my students to use Minecraft to build Aztec pyramids for a class project! Listening definitely helped me out, and not preparing a canned response to the situation allowed me insight into a great learning experience!

3. “Just Show Up” – Onstage, this often means tackling your own fears, especially that big one where you don’t want to end up looking like a fool. Well, improv is a huge risk, and the fact is that scenes bomb on a fairly regular basis. Getting over that fear of looking stupid is probably the reason I think improv is the perfect experience for middle school kids. You just have to live through feeling stupid a few times to realize that you do live through it.

I began using technology as a result of participation in PLP (Powerful Learning Practice). I spent my first year feeling pretty dumb, and my greatest lesson that year was that it is really okay NOT to know things! I’m still feeling that way, because there are so many people who know more than I do. It’s fine though, because when I experience that feeling of inadequacy I jokingly use Stuart Smalley’s aphorism – “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!” That usually does the trick!  Then, I take a deep breath, and show up!

4. “Start anywhere” –  With an improv scene, you just have to find an entry point and go. It can be something very mundane that gets the ball rolling. The important thing is to get it rolling and then to go with the flow.

At ISTE, one of my favorite moments was when Heidi Hayes Jacobs said, “Just upgrade one thing in each of your units this year.” That made it all seem so much more manageable to me! If I just start anywhere, find an entry point and make an upgrade, I’ve done what I hope to do. I can do that! One upgrade will lead to others, and each year I’ll add more, but one…yes, that feels very possible to me.

5. “Be average” – People starting improv often think that they have to be funny to do it well. That is far from true! In fact, the “funny” types often fail, because they are not the best listeners and they don’t always play well with others. Improv is a team experience, and to be part of a good team you have to share the laughs.

In learning new technologies, being average means not trying to be the top dog, but being someone who plays well with others. I loved the culture of sharing at ISTE, and I appreciate my colleagues who so readily share information. Having the most friends on Facebook says nothing about the quality of those friendships. Being average can mean paying attention to the quality instead. Sometimes, it is in seeing something routine a new way that makes the greatest difference in the end. In the classroom, a small change to a classic element might be the perfect way to upgrade!

6. “Pay attention” – In an improv scene, you have to pay attention to the details to keep the scene moving. As an example, you use quite a bit of mime with improv. If someone sets up a door in a scene and closes it, and the next person walks right through the closed door, the entire audience will gasp! It is important to remember the details, and to keep the integrity of the scene.

One of my favorite things about ISTE was that in a venue full of gadgetry and flash, presenters kept coming back to the human element. From Alan November’s excellent presentation on empathy as the most important 21st Century skill, to Chris Lehmann’s very moving final keynote where he also talked about empathy and developing the hearts and minds of each student, the human element was emphasized. Seeing the students as individuals was a recurring theme, and really, really knowing them. It was nice to be reminded that it isn’t about the tools, it’s about the kids.

7. “Face the Facts” – In improv, it is important to be humble. You have to know what you can and cannot do well, and you have to be realistic about it. In order to work well with others, you have to see yourself clearly.

In teaching, this is also true! It is important to understand our weaknesses, and our strengths in the classroom. In order to do this, we need to be honest with ourselves. We can model the healthiest learning environment when we show our students this side of our own journey. Our students will benefit far more from seeing us tackle a learning curve challenge than from our being perfect at everything we do.

8. “Make mistakes, please” – In improv, you have to try things to see if they will work. They don’t always work. That’s just a natural part of the process. When I used to introduce improv to my students, I always said, “It’s O.K. to fail.” I loved that they usually came back with, “Wait, we can fail this class?” If you aren’t trying new things, you aren’t growing.

In the classroom, and especially with technology, not everything works perfectly. If you keep teaching the same way every year, year after year, you really aren’t growing either. It is important to try something new, even when that new thing doesn’t work out so well. We can learn more from our mistakes than from our successes, and that might just be the perfect lesson!

9. “Wake up to gifts” – In a scene, a gift is an interesting suggestion. When a person enters a scene, they need to “bring a gift” with them. So, in a pizza parlor, the gift might be the hair you just found on your slice. It moves a scene forward and brings in an interesting element for the actors to handle. In life, we receive gifts all the time, and it is important to acknowledge them.

Improv was a gift that I received after taking a ten-day training class in the 1980’s with Jack Canfield on promoting self-esteem in the classroom. That gave me the confidence to find an improv class, and the next gift was being asked to join a troupe. The opportunity to join the PLP group and to begin this journey with technology was certainly a life-changing experience. I’ve mentioned the lovely gift I received in the ticket to attend ISTE, when my friend Megan gave me her place at the conference. As well as friends pitching in to help me with the logistics. One friend helped me by picking up my daughter from camp, and another checked in on our new puppy twice a day.

I received a gift when I walked into my first presentation and looked up to see Barb, one of my oldest and dearest friends, at the conference. We didn’t think to check to see if the other was coming, even though we both work in education and both love technology. Having lunch and catching up with Barb was a great experience for me.

Each presenter gave me gifts as well. I received gems of wisdom, and the practical and personal advice. Finally, teaching itself is a gift. I was hired as the development and communications director at the independent school where I teach. I was given the opportunity to teach one class of eighth graders in my first year, and I switched to full-time teaching several years later when the position opened up. I’ve had several terrific jobs in my life, but none that give me gifts like I receive from teaching!

wedu-toboggan-jump10. “Enjoy the ride!” – I often think of improv as jumping onto a big toboggan and holding on as it careens down a hill at top speed. The ride is thrilling, exhilarating, and terrifying! Classroom teaching is a lot like that. Just when you want to slam on the breaks, another drop takes your breath away. Once you step out into the world of technology, you can find yourself moving faster than you expected. The ISTE conference was such a ride, and watching the hashtag #ISTE11 on Twitter felt like a lot like flying downhill on a toboggan at times! Students’ creative work can take you places that you never expected or prepared for, if you let it. The best thing that you can do for yourself and for your students is hang on and enjoy the ride!

ipad with a Scottie app

Friday, June 24th, 2011
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We’ve had our new Scottish terrier puppy for nearly two weeks now, and I’ve had a few revelations in that time. One is that for the price, I could have bought and ipad and downloaded a Scottie app instead. I’ve begun telling the puppy that recently, because it certainly would have solved a few problems.

You see we already had the perfect Scottie. His name is Duffy, he’s three, and he’s quiet, obedient, gentle, and easy – extremely easy. I thought he might be lonely though. I thought that he might need a friend. I was tired of watching him try again and again to interest our two cats in play. They just weren’t going for it, and if looks could kill…

So, I convinced my husband that we should get Duffy a buddy while I’m at home over the summer. My husband found Duncan online. Duncan, at 12 weeks, flew in from Texas on Continental’s PetSafe program. My daughter jokingly wondered if he’d bark with an accent. I admit that I hoped that he’d be just like Duffy and barely bark at all.
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Duncan, when he first arrived, was very much like Duffy. He was gentle, and sweet, and very quiet. Everyone remarked that they’d never seen a more calm puppy. Everyone was wrong. I guess that it took getting comfortable here for Duncan to begin to show his true personality. He is actually a Tasmanian Devil in disguise.

Unlike Duffy, he barks…a lot. We now have two cats who live in terror and are afraid to come downstairs. The cat box is downstairs. So far they’ve waited for the puppy to be sound asleep and taken the opportunity to sneak past, ninja-style. I’m so grateful that they make the effort! Generally, they sit gingerly with their tails permanently fluffed, as they peer over the banister, eyes-wide.

Duncan also likes to bark and growl fiercely at big dogs – the bigger the better. It is quite a sight to watch a huge German Shepard wagging its tail, completely unperturbed by our tiny ten-pound bundle of fury, as Duncan tries to hurl himself through a fence. Every T.V. commercial with a barking dog is an occasion for high alert, and a round of frantic barking, as Duncan runs through the house searching for a canine intruder.

And just today he overturned my own statement about how he “only chews the toys we bought him, never our shoes,” as he gleefully grabbed my sandal and took off with it. Recently, his needle-like puppy teeth have inflicted plenty of damage on us, and again, that was all incremental.

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The final straw, however, was the way he went after a car when we were walking. The first time I had him on an extend-able leash which he extended in the blink of an eye as he attempted to throw himself under a passing vehicle’s wheels. My brother once remarked that puppies and kittens spend their lives devising ways to kill themselves, while we spend our time trying to prevent it. The second time Duncan went after a car, I was more prepared but no less disturbed by the experience. I called the vet for advice, and it looks like puppy training is a potential answer. We’re going!

It now looks like Duffy, our “perfect” dog, is apparently susceptible to peer pressure. He’s begun chasing the cats, barking more, and taunting Duncan with toys to get him to race madly around the house with him. He wants to go for walks more often, and just seems livelier. I guess you could say that Duffy is experiencing a second puppy-hood.

My favorite moment of the week, so far, was finding Duffy laying across the top of the cellar steps, blocking the eager puppy from falling down them when I was in the basement doing laundry. The first time this happened, I thought is was a fluke. The second time, I knew that it wasn’t. I guess I have some help in trying to keep Duncan alive, and Duffy really likes his new little buddy. (Though I’ve been told this might have more to do with doggie dominance…I still like to think of him as protective!)

So, the fact is that I could have had an ipad with a Scottie app (and there really is one), but what’s the fun in that? An ipad doesn’t love you back.

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The Power of “What happens next?”

Sunday, April 17th, 2011

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT

On cold and rainy days, I always wish that I could be at home in bed with a novel. Well, yesterday my wish came true. I wasn’t alone, however. My twelve-year-old and I first watched the movie Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 together. We had missed it in the theaters. We both loved it! I had read the first five Harry Potter books aloud to my daughter when she was in third and fourth grade, but we stalled near the end of number five. She just lost the desire to know what happens next. I couldn’t get her started again, and I couldn’t get her to pick up the books herself, even though she is an avid reader. I felt frustrated by her lack of interest. I didn’t know how to re-ignite her desire to know what would happen next in Harry Potter’s life.

However, as the movie ended yesterday, she turned to me and said those lovely words; “What happens next?” I was thrilled! I told her that we own the book, and she can read it to find out. On a soggy, windy day, we spent most the afternoon together, reading our books. I’m reading Cutting for Stone, by Abraham Verghese, taking a break from the young adult authors I often read to make recommendations to my students. It is an excellent, complex, beautifully written novel. My daughter read the second half of the Deathly Hallows book. We read our books, side by side, for hours. She didn’t stop reading until she completed her book.

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In my sixth grade classroom, I’m reading A Long Walk to Water, by Linda Sue Park, aloud to my students. They’re doing a service learning project on water issues, and studying Africa in Social Studies and in Language Arts. So I began reading a chapter or two each class. This book ends each chapter with a massive cliff-hanger, often throwing some mystery out there to be explained more fully in the next chapter.

As  I end each reading, I hear a huge groan and sigh from my students as they beg me to read just one more chapter. At the beginning of each class, I am often asked if I will continue the story. They can’t wait to know what will happen next, and we speculate about what that might be. It is such a great pleasure to hear that groan of disappointment at the end of a reading!

One of my students confessed that she almost bought the book just to finish it herself, but she controlled her impulse, because she understood that this was an important kind of waiting. That desire to know what happens next is, sometimes, a delicious feeling, something to savor.

Like so many reading teachers, I’m always searching for the perfect book for my students. I want them to experience that feeling, that overwhelming desire to know what happens next. They don’t have to be books with obvious cliff-hangers, but they do have to take hold of a student’s natural curiosity. It is that kind of curiosity that is one of the most important elements in a person’s life, no matter what profession they pursue.

Without curiosity, scientists would never cure diseases, or figure out environmental questions, or map genes. Archeologists would never answer burning questions about our earliest ancestors, and mathematicians wouldn’t complete complex problems…the list goes on and on. Architects, electricians, product manufacturers, social workers…none of these professions would move forward, or expand, without someone asking, “What happens next?”

If we think about your own life as a story, this is one of the most profound questions we can ask ourselves. In learning, asking that question is essential to growing our knowledge, and pushing our own boundaries. Keeping that curiosity alive is one of our most important charges as educators. When students stop asking – it is time to re-think the process of education. How do we re-ignite that desire in our students to ask, “What happens next?” I really want know the answer.

So, I guess I’ll end this post right here…at the cliff-hanger.

Writing is a Gift

Sunday, April 3rd, 2011

writing

Though I love to write, I’ve always felt intimidated by writing fiction. In college, as a literature major, I avoided taking creative writing classes, limiting my writing to literary essays and research papers. In various jobs, I have written business proposals, grants, newspaper articles, press releases, and even our school alumni magazine. I write for this blog. However, I’ve never written fiction, until this past week, that is.

It’s not that I just hadn’t tried it. I had been afraid of it! I attended the University of Iowa for graduate school, and many of my classes included the students of the famed Iowa Writers’ Workshop. I listened to them talk about their own writing, as they discussed the authors we read for class, and I read some of the work they shared with me with a sense of awe. I was far too intimidated to attempt to take a writing class while enrolled as a graduate student there. But after finishing my graduate degree, I signed up for an evening class to give it a try.  It was my one attempt at learning to write fiction. The teacher, a published author and former professor for the Writers’ Workshop, was very encouraging, but I was disappointed in myself. However, it was one of my classmates who really made me think that writing fiction just wasn’t for me.

She was a very nice woman in her 60’s, a former fashion model who’d spent years living all over the world. Using her vast reservoir of life experience, she wrote a story about a fashion shoot that she had been on in her youth, which included a boa constrictor. She wrote about how the flashing lights frightened the snake, which began to tighten its hold around her neck. She wove D.H. Lawrence’s poem, The Snake, throughout her writing, conveying her feelings of terror that the snake would hurt her, with compassion for the fear that it must have felt. Her story wasn’t really fiction, but it was an excellent example of creative non-fiction. Her writing was beautiful, and so intimidating to me that I felt like I just couldn’t imagine having the ability to write something of that nature. I decided that I couldn’t, and then I made the decision not to try. I took that class nearly thirty years ago, and I never did try to write fiction again!

So, here I am, having spent years teaching my own students how to write fiction, while validating that horrible phrase, “Those who can’t do, teach.” A student asked me just this year if I was planning to try a writing assignment that I had made for my students. I told her that I love to write, but that I prefer to write non-fiction rather than fiction. As I made my excuses, I felt bad. It was actually quite embarrassing to admit that I couldn’t do it, but I was still asking my students to try.

It was my brother’s encouragement that helped me get past that barrier, and the time off that I knew was coming over spring break. Thinking back on Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, I’d have to add to the need for a room and include a child still in school, and a husband at work. As I was typing out my, “I can’t do fiction,” return email to my brother, I thought, why not try it? So I deleted my email, and began again. I told him that I would give it a try.

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I expected to disappoint myself, but then something happened during my attempt as I experienced the fun of creating a character that I like. I experienced the joy of wanting to know more about her, and learning about her as I was writing her world into existence. I experienced the pleasure of not worrying about what I would DO with what I was writing. I was just writing, and it was a creative, exciting way to spend my vacation. Pages poured out of me.

I can’t wait to sit down and continue her story, to explore her life further.  I look forward to the relentless editing process, as I refine my words, images, and figurative language. I have discovered that I am my own worst critic, but that I can choose to silence that voice for the pure joy of the experience of writing. So that’s what I’ve done, I’ve conquered a fear, and given myself permission to enjoy it.

So, I no longer fear writing fiction. I also don’t care that my writing wouldn’t stand a chance against writers like Barbara Kingsolver, or the great Virginia Woolf! What I like most about this experience is that I’ve faced a personal fear; I am no longer giving in to my own belief that I can’t do it. I love to write. Period.

Blogging – A Life of Its Own

Friday, February 18th, 2011

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I feel that I need a disclaimer here. I am not doing anything with my own class blog that many, many other teachers have not done…and done better. Yet, I feel the need to share my experience. I read many posts about the cutting-edge blogging done in classrooms these days, and, frankly, that is not what I’m doing. But, I’m still very proud of what has been created in my classroom through interactions on my own class blog. That’s right, my students are blogging together. They write their posts through 21 Classes; we have a private blog that is not shared publicly.

One of the things that I like about our blog is that all three sections of sixth grade can interact with one another in a safe, shared space.  I began the year requiring my students to write a minimum three-sentence response to a weekly “Big Question.” I used Jim Burke’s book, What’s the Big Idea?, for inspiration with the questions. I post an essential question that has no right or wrong answer each week, and require students to weigh in with an opinion. Requiring a minimum of only three sentences was a way to get my most reluctant writers on board.

I also offer extra credit each week. I post a question, usually related to what we’re reading in class, and the students must write a paragraph in response to receive extra credit points. For this, they receive half the points they’re given for writing the required three sentences. I have many takers on the extra credit questions. I’ve even noticed that the three sentence answers are lengthening as time goes on.  I love that I can ask questions that engage the students outside of class, and extend the time that I have to engage them in thinking about the content. Several motivated students also use the many links that I’ve posted. They may want to Adopt-a-Word, or watch a BrainPOP video, create a Wordle, or use Free Rice and donate through the World Food Programme, there are lots of options posted.

However, the real turning point for me, this year, was when the students started posing their own questions. Some are deeper than others, but they all ask for a response. I love that the students are generating their own content, and interacting with one another on the blog! While the students still answer the questions that I generate, they also ask far more of their own. Whether it is about which Hogwarts House one belongs in, or what T.V. show a student watches, or what book they are currently reading, students now drive the majority of the content. Students are asking some pretty deep questions as well. They are creating their own Big Questions, and their peers take these questions seriously.

I have to approve all of the posts, and I’ve only had a few that needed to be revised for publication. Most of the questions are excellent, thought-provoking, or simply benign. As the the gateway to all of them,  I marvel at my students’ initiative in generating interesting questions! Blogging, for me, has changed from a teacher-centered activity into a student-led activity. I am  thrilled to watch this evolution in my classroom!

The Class of 1942

Sunday, January 23rd, 2011

I’ve heard many stories about my father’s experiences in World War II over the years. They fascinate me, and I often ask him to speak about that time in his life. He’s 90 now, and time has allowed him some distance from those horrifying and heroic experiences. He served in the Pacific, including battles in Guam, the Philippines, and on some of the Japanese Islands. After the war, he stayed on for six months during the occupation of Japan. He was a great soldier, and he is a wonderful father.

Back in 2000, a collection of war stories was published which included some of my father’s experiences. He was a member of the Princeton University class of 1942, and someone decided to collect all of the stories from that class and to publish them. There were 683 members of the class, and of those, 573 served during World War II (84%). The majority served in the United States Army, though every branch was represented. My father, C. Paul Mailloux, was a part of the 77th infantry out of New York, called “The Statue of Liberty Division.” He began the war as an officer because he had done summer training in 1936 at the Citizen’s Military Training Camp in Plattsburg Barracks, NY. We have a photo of my father being given a medal by General George Marshall himself, awarded for being the top recruit (out of 5,000). Yes, I’m bragging here. My father would never do that for himself.

After the collection was published, the editors had an independent panel review them to choose 50 of the stories to include in an audio CD. My father’s story was included. I’ve been listening to that CD recently, and I am amazed by the range of experiences covered by this group of young men from the class of 1942. They served in every branch of the military, and the stories range from a student taking a bicycle tour of Europe in the summer before Pearl Harbor and being summoned for a personal meeting with Adolph Hitler (who wanted to gauge American sentiment toward the “New Germany”), to submarine battles, air battles, infantry battles, to liberating Bergen-Belsen and other death camps. The stories are haunting, and moving, and sometimes shocking.

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Once, in the summer during my own college years, I sat eating a bowl of ice cream with my feet up on a table. My father walked by me and murmured, “When I was your age, I was in command of 840 troops.”  Needless to say, I took my feet off the table! He really didn’t blame me for my lack of responsibility though.  I think that he was happy that I had a chance at a youth that he didn’t have.

One of my favorite stories my father tells was included in the collection. He had just landed on Leyte, “As our party landed on the beach, we saw two kamikaze planes headed for the transports we had just left. Suddenly, two fork-tailed P-38 fighters appeared out of the sun and shot down the kamikazes before they could do any damage. After the war, when I returned to Princeton, I was having dinner with one of my former roommates and his wife…When I told him of the encounter on Leyte, he produced a Citation crediting (him) for downing the kamikaze above the beach on Leyte in November 1944.” What an amazing coincidence!

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Many of the men included in the 50 stories received medals for extraordinary bravery. My father received the Silver Star, the Bronze Star, and the Purple Heart, among others. He became a Major at the end of the war. He was involved in fierce fighting throughout the war, and his life was spared by inches on many occasions. Listening to these stories is a real honor.

I want to express my gratitude to all of the men and women who have served in the military, and those currently serving. It is truly humbling to think of the sacrifices made, and the individual lives affected by these countless selfless acts. I’m also grateful to the editors of this book, and audio CD collection, for preserving these amazing stories for future generations.

I’ll end this post with my father’s words regarding the occupation, and beyond:

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“Because of our combat experience when Japanese solders almost always chose suicide over surrender, we expected to encounter enmity and hatred. We did not find any such thing. Originally, our troops were told not to fraternize, but it soon became obvious that the Americans and Japanese wanted to be friendly. The occupation went smoothly with Japanese officials and the people.

…I look back on my time in the Army with satisfaction with what was accomplished and with shock at the brutality of combat and the fragility of human life. I still enjoy the camaraderie of friendship with several officers with whom I served but, as in all things, our ranks are getting very thin.”

Need a Challenge?

Friday, January 7th, 2011

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We came back from the holiday break and the students were ready to learn, sort of. I thought that a good re-introduction to school might include The Marshmallow Challenge. My Global Studies students are currently working in teams on skits related to Europe, and there are snags as there always are with group projects. It is really hard to work in groups, and that is one of the reasons it is a good idea to do it. Someone’s too pushy, someone else never contributes enough…we’ve all seen it happen over and over again.

So, I thought that it might be fun to kick off the New Year with a challenge. According to the TED talk formula, I bought spaghetti, tape, string, and marshmallows. I was armed and ready for class! I divided my students into three different groups of four, and explained the process. In 18 minutes they were to use 20 sticks of hard pasta, one yard of string, one yard of tape, and one marshmallow, to build the tallest structure they could, and they had to place the marshmallow at the top.

Then, I sat back and watched. What a pleasure! It was so much fun to see the kids totally involved; communicating, negotiating, and brainstorming. They were excited and engaged. They also came up with some very creative solutions, though it was obvious who the winning team was at the end. The girl’s team took the prize, using the table and building down toward the floor.

Watching them enjoy the process so much, I thought that it would be interesting to mix the groups and give them another chance. They could use what they learned, but they were not allowed to duplicate the structure they had created with their previous group. I got three more fantastic designs, some more successful than others.

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The next day, we watched the video and discussed it. I stopped it at one point and asked the students to discuss their ideas about why kindergarten kids are successful with this process. They really had it! “Kids aren’t afraid to take chances.” “They’re used to playing, so they’ll just try things.”  “They don’t think that there is only one way to do it.” Then, we watched the rest of the video and their speculations were validated. That was fun!

I have to say that this was a terrific experience for my students, and also for me! It was inspiring to listen to the class as they brainstormed creative solution after creative solution. It was great to hear them negotiate, communicate, and create as they built their fragile towers. It was also an incredibly inspiring way to start the New Year!

Happy New Year to you all! May your year be filled with creative collaboration, and effective solutions to life’s biggest challenges. I also hope that you get to eat a marshmallow or two along the way! My students and I did!!!

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21st Century Learning

Saturday, October 16th, 2010

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How do you define 21st Century Learning?

A colleague recently posted this article, from Education Week, on our faculty Ning, and asked, “How do YOU define 21st Century learning?” I loved thinking about that question, because I hear the term used so often. Here is what I wrote in response:

It seems like 21st Century Skills are always talked about in terms of technology these days, but it is so much broader than that. I think back to my days of working for Junior Achievement. I used to speak with employers about what kinds of employees they would need in the future, and they always talked about creative thinkers, critical thinkers, and problem-solvers. It was basically the same language that we use today, and that was fifteen years ago! When I read about what the arts can do for students, the same kinds of skills keep coming up. The arts can develop flexibility, creative thinking, and vision. Or, thinking about the benefits of team sports, where students develop skills like collaboration, critical thinking, strategy…we can develop these skills in so many ways!

I think that 21st Century Skills are really about fostering a sense of empowerment in students. We need to give them the tools and the incentive to become real, motivated learners in their lives. The purpose seems to me to be to broaden their skills, rather than focusing exclusively on their content knowledge, though both are important. Students will need to be able to adapt to a rapidly changing world. They’ll need to be prepared to keep learning, and learning, and learning throughout their lives. Giving students a sense of their own standards, and a strong work ethic, seems invaluable to me.

I really like all the recent talk about passion-based learning. I hate it when students only seem motivated to do something because it is going to be graded. There has to be a way to help them to develop their interests and their skills at the same time. I think that they have to learn to do things for internal reasons, and not just be motivated externally by grades. 21st Century Skills also include the things that we keep hearing about, critical thinking, collaboration…but, for me, the most important “skill” that we can help students develop is intellectual curiosity and a true passion for learning.

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Thinking about this further, I began to consider ways that I try to promote 21st Century learning in the classroom. At the start of the school year, I introduced a project in my Social Studies class that I called the Relocation Project. The students are studying Europe, so I thought that it would be fun for them to imagine really moving to a country in Europe. They were given notebooks with labels saying things like, “I’m moving to Croatia!” or “I’m moving to Austria!”  Then, each student was told that they are responsible for moving their entire family to the country that they’ve been assigned.

They began by figuring out how to get themselves and their family members a Passport. They also had to come up with a list of at least ten questions that they have about the place where they will live. I wanted them to feel invested, if possible, in what it would really be like to live there. They might want to know about whether Internet access is available, and open. Or they might want to know about what type of school they will attend. Or, what types of food are traditional? Each student came up with their own list. After they created their list, I gave them a list of my own. They need to study the government, economy, healthcare system, etc.  Here is my list:

The project has two phases; the relocation plan being Phase I. Phase II is a day of sharing what they’ve learned as Ambassadors for their country. They will try to get others to want to move to their country with displays and information in an interactive presentation.

So far, my students have helped to create a rubric for the project, begun researching their countries, worked on a class wiki with individual pages for their final presentations, and used Noodletools as they begin to write notes and build their bibliographies.  They have shared information where that is appropriate, and they have added new ideas to the final project like, “Let’s choose a city in our country, and create a 3-D model!”

Recently, our librarian told us that she had signed our school up for a new research tool called Culture Grams. My students loved it. As they explored the student section of the site, they kept waving me over to show me things that they had discovered about their country. I saw interesting architecture in Russia, concept cars being built in various countries, dyed Easter Eggs from Romania, special tour boats in Austria, all kinds of interesting things. The students were each discovering information, and sharing their discoveries, like the recent news of the toxic sludge hitting the Danube. They were having a great time, while learning.  They were following their own interests, and looking for similarities and differences with another culture.

This is a very challenging project for my sixth grade students. They aren’t used to “owning” a project so completely. They want me to tell them what to do too often. I have realized that this has been a re-training of their concept of education. I feel that I hear this, “Is it O.K. if we…?” when I want to hear this, “Hey, why don’t we…?”  Creating the rubric was very interesting, because students don’t think about creating parameters for how they want to be evaluated very often. One student asked me why I wanted them to create a rubric, and we began a whole conversation about why I want them to have a voice in the process. I feel that we’ve all learned far more than a few facts about another country. This process qualifies as my concept of 21st Century learning.

So, how do YOU define 21st Century learning? I’d love to hear your thoughts!