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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Is the “App Gap” the Next Achievement Gap?

What is too much screen time? An article in today’s nytimes tries to address some of the concerns, as well as point to the divide that some are saying is the next achievement gap.

I’m a huge proponent of technology, but if you visit my classroom, you may see me or my students using it as a tool from time to time. More often than not, we are usually more engaged in the physical world around us rather than the virtual one. Screen time is concern that many parents and teachers grapple with.

Like everything, technology has to be meaningful and purposeful, it needs to be used as a tool that helps with learning, and it has to be limited.

When thinking about how kids use technology, it should promote critical thinking (Do they know how to analyze their search results, or do they just trust the first thing that Bing or Google produce?). It should promote responsibility (Are they using it to learn?). It should also promote digital citizenry (Are they leaving a digital footprint that may help someone else?). Kids should be producing things more than consuming them. Students should always be asking more questions. Children should also be engaged by their curiosity.

When a child asks, “How do I change the font?” one should encourage them to explore. “If you were to design the program, how would you change the font?” is often how I respond, leaving them to experiment, “play,” and find out for themselves. There are often students who are more than eager to show others how to do things, and it’s really this kind of social interaction (in the real world) where great learning occurs.

There’s a huge difference in type of screen time such as TV, where children are passive compared with writing a final draft on a computer screen. Computers aren’t going away, and kids need to see how it can be used in ways to create and be curious. How we do this needs to be carefully thought through. As a teacher, when introducing a technology component, one has to ask: What skill is being lost (if any) when introducing a new tech tool into the classroom? What are the trade-offs?

There was a great article last week about the Waldorf School’s philosophy of “no tech.” My philosophy is that using technology is not an all-or-nothing endeavor. One needs to be thoughtful and deliberate about its use. If I thought an app could teach kids how to read, I’d be spending my time trying to create that app.

I have many more thoughts on this, but one thing I’m trying to do is not only teach my students how to evaluate the technology they use, but also to teach them how to turn it off.

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.

Autonomy vs. Collaboration: Are they Exclusive of Each Other?

If you’ve read my blog for a while, you know that I’m a huge fan of Daniel Pink, and his book Drive. If you haven’t read it yet, I repost a great animated summary at the end of this post. Using a lot of current research, Pink makes a case for autonomy being an integral part of motivation. The other two parts: mastery, and purpose.

I’m also a big fan of collaboration, and in todays world of sharing everything openly, its also really important. The summer issue of the Harvard Business Review is all about collaboration. In the book, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation by Stephen Johnson, he makes a very clear point that great individual a-ha moments are rare and that it’s often the confluence of two or more ideas that lead to game changing innovations. There’s a great quick animation of this as well (posted below).

My personal answer to the question posed in the title of this post is, NO!

A large percentage of our faculty just finished a summer institute at our school that was organized by our school leaders. I can truly say, that I left feeling more excited, motivated, and inspired of the potential that our school has to continue growing. If the aim was to begin cultivating a community of professional learners with growth mindsets who are both autonomous AND collaborative, the institute was an incredible success. Another underlying principle is that everything we do promotes the same kind of purpose, relevance, and collaboration for students.

How was this done? By finding the strengths within each individual, yet creating a safe, trusting environment to share these. By making the purpose a clear and shared one. And by promoting mastery. It was hard work, but work everyone was so eager to do because it had meaning. It wasn’t busy work. Aside from that, the institute was run using a variety of effective models of instruction. That kind of modeling is key for inspiration and the transfer of effective teaching practices into the classroom.

If you’ve read the book Switch: How to Change Things When Things are Hard by the Heath Brothers, the way to do this is to find a way to motivate both our emotional and rational minds, and set a clear path for how this will be done. I sense the beginning of purposeful changes happening at our school this year, and I couldn’t be more excited.

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.

Link to: Independent Schools Shouldn’t Brand…They Should Blog!

In the ideal world all my wonderful colleagues who take the time read my blog would also use twitter, and I could just re-tweet a great blog post when I came across one. I would recommend reading the whole article. At Brenden Schneider’s blog, he wrote:

“Branding in independent schools is an interesting proposition. Facebook launched in February 2004, before its launch branding work was relevant and necessary after its launch branding work, for the most part, has become frivolous and wasteful.  Why? Because independent schools don’t define their brand anymore, the public does.”

To Read more, visit:  http://www.schneiderb.com/independent-schools-shouldnt-brand-they-should-blog/#ixzz1RZri0rAs
Under Creative Commons License: Attribution Non-Commercial Share Alike

The Downside of Being an Early Adopter

I managed to get invited to google+ (a new social networking platform) today. There are a lot of interesting things it does that facebook doesn’t. Here are just a few from PC Magazine.

For me, I love the circles feature. It’s much simpler than fb’s privacy settings. I made the mistake of accepting parents of kids I taught that I will no longer teach, but then started getting friend requests from parents that still have young ones that I may end up teaching in a couple of years. I’ve ignored accepting those requests. But is that rude? One really has to think through how to utilize social media, and netiquette or digital citizenry keeps evolving.

The downside of google+ is that very few people I know are actually on it right now, let alone using it. I guess, I’ll need to have more people using the tool before I can really see if all its features are worth Any tool has to be better and easier to use for people to adopt it. Google+ isn’t facebook, it isn’t twitter, but it has a lot of potential. I was late to My Space, didn’t see its purpose and gave it up when Facebook came around. I was also late to twitter, but it’s purpose is becoming much clearer.

I suppose the slow roll out is to let people ease into the tool. There are features that I haven’t begun to play with. The rate at which technology changes, though, something may replace it in 6 months, so should I even bother learning how to use it? Why not?  Well, back to tinkering with it.