Learning About Giving

Students love field trips, and I do too. Visits have to be meaningful though, not just a fun day off from school. When planning trips, one needs to ask what  the children learning from the experience. There are many reasons to leave the classroom. A few include, extending the curriculum, participating in authentic learning, and being exposed to new ideas and resources.

I’ve always appreciated the size and scope of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, but until this year, didn’t know that they had a visitor’s center adjacent to their headquarters here in Seattle. If you are ever in Seattle, I highly recommend a visit. It’s only about a 7 minute walk from the Space Needle, and it’s free. Our second grade classes visited last week.

The center is divided into 5 main areas:

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Voices

Hear voices from around the world and see portraits of our foundation family—employees, grantees, partners, beneficiaries, and our co-chairs.

Family & Foundation

Find out why and how the Gates family started this foundation, see examples of how we work around the world, and tell others what you’d do if you had your own foundation.

Partnerships

Discover how our partners are making progress on tough problems globally and locally, and weigh in on newsworthy issues.

Theater

Watch and listen to a rotating program of short videos offering a deeper perspective on our work.

Innovation & Inspiration

Solve real-world problems using your own best skills, and learn more about how people just like you are making a difference every day.

My favorite (and I think the children’s) was the innovation and inspiration area. The entire visitor’s center is designed to be interactive, but we could have spent hours in this particular room. Children are asked to think outside the box to design solutions to some of our problems. They also had several examples of products in the field on display such as shelter boxes and filtered drinking straws. They even had prototypes of items like Soccket, a soccer ball that captures energy during play. Enough to light an LED for a few hours or charge small batteries. The foundation pointed out that they weren’t the inventors of these innovations, but supported efforts like these to further their mission.

One of the neat features of this interactive room was that the children’s ideas or creations were displayed and shared instantly on large walls alongside ideas from previous visitors.

One of the other rooms emphasized partnerships. That while one person may have a brilliant idea and can have an incredible impact, it takes teamwork to achieve many of our goals. Our tour ended with our docent asking the children what they would do if they had a foundation. It was great to hear students come up with ideas that were outside the scope of the Gates Foundation, like animal welfare.

Before our visit, our class had a great discussion about needs and wants. The class agreed that basic needs included water, food, and shelter.

They had a harder time deciding at what time in one’s life one could care for themselves. They decided it could be both a need and want depending on the context. The other two topics that students grappled with were education and health. Several students had solid reasons why they were needs, wants, or somewhere in between.

We involve our students in service in many ways such as helping one another in our own classrooms, partnering with students outside our classroom, planting trees in a city park, and packing food at a local feeding center. Helping children see beyond themselves is not always easy, especially in 2nd grade, and some of these ideas come from the adults around them. It’s extremely powerful, however, when service learning ideas come from the students themselves. Hopefully, this visit inspired a few and planted some seeds that will help serve our immediate and global communities.

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How Can Kids Take Risks in a “Safe” Environment?

I’ve been guilty of telling parents of students in my class that we have a safe classroom environment where we encourage students to take risks. I’ve come to realize that risk and safety are are really oxymorons. What I mean to say when I use the word risk is that kids will try a lot of new things. They will get many of them wrong and fail, but when they succeed, the grit and resilience it took to get them there, will fuel them on to learn more.

In our traditional industrial age world, risk was not seen as something for the general public. Trying something new on an assembly line could mean getting fired. Many of these hierarchical structures exist, and schools are no exception. Because of this, teachers have to be fairly calculated when going out on a limb. Within our values statement at my school, we have the following:

Resourcefulness: We foster resilience and expect all to search and find, to fail and learn, to risk and succeed in a changing world.

It think it’s beautifully written, however, if we hold these values for our students, certainly we must hold these values for our teachers and other community members. Due to structures of schools (remnants of the 19th and 20th centuries), risks can be very costly.

Recently, Seattle teachers were suspended for boycotting a particular test. We teach our children to stand up, not to be bystanders, engage in politics and democracy, yet when teachers model these very things, the consequences can sometimes seem harsh. I guess it wouldn’t be that risky otherwise.

Before the NAIS conference, a colleague in California raised many questions about the NAIS’s boards decision on the new president-elect, John Chubb. While I am sure the board’s intentions are good, the announcement was a surprise. The letter, though written respectfully, asked hard and important questions. Yet, from what I heard at the conference, he was scolded for raising those questions.

Again I ask, don’t we want our students to be inquisitive, challenge the status quo, engage in the process (which can be amplified through social media), and think critically?

One of the reasons for academic tenure is so intellectuals can have debates and build support for those ideas publicly. They may end up being wrong, but at least they won’t be fired for it.

I’ve been known to ‘go rogue’  and ‘fight windmills’ but I’ve also been supported and guided as to how I might balance those things. Still, in a school with no tenure, challenging the status quo with a simple question, “why?” requires risk.

At the NAIS conference, there were calls to be revolutionaries, visionaries, rogues, vanguards, pioneers, mavericks, and change agents. Most of those kinds teachers were already at that conference. We were told to change paradigms and forge ahead.

Most other teachers, however, just want to love their kids and become excellent teachers. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

I met a first grade teacher who was only in her second year of teaching and was overwhelmed with the conference. “They’re asking me to be all those things, be culturally competent, employ project-based learning and design thinking, integrate sustainability in the classroom, use technology in ways I never thought possible, create a global teaching network, and that’s not even including just teaching 1st grade.

My advice to her, was that when I first started teaching almost two decades ago, all these things were foreign to me too. All she needed to do was think of her students first, know where to find support when she needed it, asked questions (lots of them), carry on when things don’t seem to be going well, and always be open to and willing to learn something. If she could do these things, she would find this career an incredibly rewarding one.

I’m not a big fan of words like revolutionary. They bring up different connotations depending on who you ask. George Washington was a revolutionary; so was Hugo Chavez.

Are You a Life Long Learner?

If you ask any educator what one of their main objectives is for their students, you are more than likely going to hear the term “life-long learner.” In order to meet that objective, however, one also has to be a life-long learner.

So here I am in Massachusetts at a New and Aspiring School Leaders institute for four days, learning. It’s been a great start so far. There are many types of leadership styles ranging from the coercive to a coaching style. The important thing to note is having the wisdom to know which type to employ. According to research on these styles (Coleman, HBR March April 2000), the two most effective styles are authoritative (not to be confuse with authoritarian “do as I say” – this style represents “come with me”) and coaching (“Try this”). The first mobilizes everyone towards a common vision, the second develops people for the future.

The other styles are coercive (good only in crises), affiliative (a team builder), democratic (consensus builder), and pace setting (highly motivated, competent, and  results driven). Of course there are pros and cons to all the above and are context dependent. One has to realize though, that all styles have the intention of positive change. Unfortunately, if you choose the wrong style for a certain situation, things can go awry quickly. Of the two most effective styles they have one thing in common, they require you to have a high EQ (Emotional Intelligence).

Unlike IQ which is more or less genetic and fixed, EQ can be learned. Developing one’s EQ requires one to be self-aware, have self-regulation, be motivated, have empathy, and good social skills. As I learn to develop these myself, I also think about how I can develop these in the students I teach.

I know for me, I have all the above skills, but it varies with the context in which I’m placed. I have a lot of self-regulation with my students and peers, but not a lot with my administrators (it’s a growth area of mine). I am becoming more self-aware, but it takes time. Social skills are great in certain situations, horrible in others. I’m always motivated and my empathy for others deepens each day, but has a lot more room to grow.

Being this reflective as an adult is not an easy task, but an important one. If it’s not so easy for me, then how hard must it be for 7 and 8 year-olds. I always like watching the different leadership skills emerge from my students. Some are doers, others want to question and have a clear purpose, others want to make sure everyone is heard, and still others are interested in organizing all the details and having a well-thought-out plan.

Leadership is not easy, but the more aware you become of yourself (strengths and weaknesses), the more you become a better leader. There is a large amount one can learn from a book, but being able to adapt and inspire, those are the traits of our next leaders. If we as teachers can truly call ourselves life-long learners, hopefully we can inspire the next generation of true leaders.

Got Character?

Cover of Today's New York Times Magazine

Today’s NYTimes Magazine is the Education Issue. Our Head of School forwarded one of the magazine’s featured articles to the faculty earlier this week: What if the Secret to Success is Failure? A Radical Re-thinking of how Students Should be Taught and Evaluated. It’s a thought provoking article, but if you’ve been following some of the changes in education over the past few years, it doesn’t seem all that radical.

Daniel Pink has explored zest, grit, and optimism in his work Drive along with empathy (social intelligence), play (curiosity) in his book A Whole New Mind.

Carol Dweck, in her book Mindsets discusses self-control as an important factor in developing growth mindsets.

Nel Noddings has been writing about the ethic of care for years.

I was able to catch a few of the TEDxLondon talks that were live-streamed this weekend, and there was definitely a call to spark curiosity in our students. Hopefully, the videos will air soon, but Ewan McIntosh posted the transcript of his talk about creating a generation of ‘problem finders’ on his blog. I encourage you to read his post.

Character Ed. isn’t new, but what I found compelling about the article was how they broke down the list of character traits into two categories ‘moral character’ and ‘performance character.’ I also liked how the article mentioned many of these character traits can backfire. “Too much grit…you start to lose your ability to have empathy for other people.”

I also liked the Head of Riverdale’s “philosophical issue with quantifying character.” It’s true that the last thing we need are people trying to game the system with test prep on character traits. Also, if too much of a certain trait can backfire, how would you measure what is best?

Another great question brought up in the article is: How do you teach these traits? I don’t know the answer, but it’s definitely one worth exploring. I know you can’t do it with carrots and sticks and you can’t do it simply by putting quotes around your school. You can start by modeling these traits (I’m 41 and I’m still learning how to grow some of these traits and moderate others), getting to know your students, and creating supportive relationships with their families. I suppose what’s radical is that more an more people and schools are thinking about these questions. It’s exciting to see some start to try new things.

I’m looking forward to hear what others at my school think, as our Mission and Values have both the moral and performance character traits we strive towards.

Doing the Right Thing

The word ‘epic’ is a slightly overused word these days, but it would certainly be appropriate to use that word to describe the Harry Potter series, especially in the case of the final movie. For those who haven’t read the books or seen the film, don’t worry, there won’t be spoilers here. It’s rare that I say this, but this last film was better than the book. Both, however, involve wonderfully good storytelling with characters that have gotten deeper as the series progressed.

To me, the hero in this series isn’t Harry, but a character who is far more complicated, full of flaws, but chooses to do the right thing because it was the right thing to do: a true leader.

We have a lot of leaders in this country’s government unwilling to collaborate, compromise, or be willing to see what they actually have in common with each other. I try to stay out of politics on this blog unless directly related to education, but I do care about social justice and diversity. So a few weeks ago I happened to be in New York City when the governor signed a marriage equality bill into law in that state. It showed me that there are indeed still leaders out there. My favorite quote was from Republican NY State Senator Roy MacDonald. He said,

“You get to the point where you evolve in your life where everything isn’t black and white, good and bad, and you try to do the right thing.

You might not like that. You might be very cynical about that. Well, … I don’t care what you think. I’m trying to do the right thing.

I’m tired of Republican-Democrat politics. They can take the job and shove it. I come from a blue-collar background. I’m trying to do the right thing, and that’s where I’m going with this.”

I don’t know what the politics or issues of the day will be when the children we teach today are the leaders in the new future. I just hope we manage to teach them to do the right thing when it matters.

What Exactly is Culture?

I was very lucky years ago when I attended my first symphony. I was taught beforehand not to applaud between movements. It’s just not done. During the performance, however, a few poor souls clapped in between movements. Rather than use that opportunity to teach them something I had only learned earlier that day, I swear a hundred heads shot backwards and fired daggers out of their eyes. The first time I went to a jazz club, I had no idea what the expected culture would be, but the people I was with encouraged me to participate and interact where appropriate. There are many different cultures in this world. Many whose manners would seem opposite to what we were taught. I’ve noticed that there are cultures that are inclusive and those, usually originating from societies with class-systems built in, that are exclusive. What then, is the culture of your school?

Cover of the summer issue of Independent School

In the summer issue of Independent School, Hugh Jebson and Carlo Delito write in an article titled ‘Trust, Accountability, Autonomy: Building a Teacher Driven Professional Development Model’

“We believe the strongest and most effective models — those that promote professional growth and outstanding teaching and learning — are found in schools where there is a shared sense of ownership for student outcomes. The culture in these schools is one of trust among the various constituents, where accountability is embraced and autonomy supported.”

Another article from the same issue discusses the culture of collaboration. Alexis Wiggins writes,

“I think we can — and must — do better. Independent schools pride themselves on providing a top-notch education, but the dirty secret is that they often produce smart, interesting, capable students because they admit smart, interesting, capable students. It isn’t enough to be a passionate, knowledgeable teacher. There are very knowledgeable and passionate teachers who aren’t actually effective at helping students learn. We need to constantly think about the quality of education we’re providing overall, not just what we are each doing in our classrooms.”

So what’s the culture in my school? Is it an inclusive or exclusive one? Is it one that fosters collaboration? Our constituents include students, parents, teachers, staff, administrators, and the greater community. Can we define that culture and make everyone feel included? Do we teach someone how to eat rice with chopsticks or laugh at them trying?

 

 

Reading Fiction

The final Harry Potter movie in the franchise will open in less than two weeks. I remember taking my class over a decade ago to see Ms. Rowling at the Vancouver International Writers’ Festival. The festival is a great event in Vancouver that promotes reading and always has events for school children. In previous years we saw John Scieszka and other kid-lit authors in an intimate setting on Granville Island. In Vancouver, to read and talk about her fourth book, The Goblet of Fire, they needed to host the event the Pacific Colleseum (at the time, the arena for the local NHL ice hockey team) for Ms Rowling. The event was like a rock concert. Kids screaming at the top of their lungs. How great though to have children that psyched about a book.

Like many of my students, I devoured the Harry Potter books, but it’s been a long time since I last read one. Yesterday, when I saw a trailer for the film, I couldn’t remember from the clips what happened. Aside from kid-lit, I used to read a lot of fiction each year: Jonathan Franzen’s Corrections, Ian McEwan’s Attonement, Rohintin Mistry’s A Fine Balance, Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, Yann Martel’s The Life of Pi, Margaret Attwood’s Blind Assassin, Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex and so on.

A couple of years ago, though, I started reading more non-fiction and got hooked on it. I continue to do so with little time to fit in any fiction. I was simply fascinated by Dweck, Pink, Chip and Dan Heath, and Seth Godin, just to name a few. I picked up the graphic novel Logicomix thinking it was fiction. It was, sort of. It turned out to be, in some ways, a biography of Betrand Russell.

This past year, I think I have read only 4 pieces of fiction: American Born Chinese, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, The Help, and The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. The first two were more middle school reads that piqued my curiosity and the last two based on recommendations for airplane reading. I didn’t realize it at the time, but looking back at all four books, they all deal with race. Reading fiction, if written well, allows the reader to empathize with characters and sometimes pretend to walk a mile in their shoes. It’s not exactly the same thing, but it gives you a sense of what that mile might be like. Having just read The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, which is set in Seattle and includes a sad piece of American History where the country interred the Japanese, it struck me that 1942 was not that long ago. Many still live in this area and have vivid memories of that time. Thanks to all who recommended it. I thoroughly enjoyed it. It also reminded me that I need to read more fiction. Any recommendations?