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.

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.

“If We (Teachers) Can Be Replaced By A Computer Screen, …

…we should be.” Cathy Davidson

That was pretty much how the NAIS conference ended. It was the last slide for Cathy Davidson’s closing keynote. I couldn’t agree more with that statement.

For some teachers, it may seem a scary thought, but for most in attendance, it was validation that the we live in a very different world than we did even five years ago, and we need to adapt and prepare our kids for an unknown future.

Her most recent book is called, Now You See It: How Technology and Brain Science Will Transform Schools and Business for the 21st Century. I recommend you visit her website and check out some notes from her talk here.

I am a big fan of Davidson’s work, and Davidson’s ideas resonate with me a lot, but I feel she can sometimes back herself into a corner with her beliefs, and rather than present her ideas with a more balanced approach, her arguments often come across polemical.

Take her statement, for example:

Move from critical thinking to creative contribution.

Both are important. I agree with Davidson that students need to build, make, do, invent, and so on, but they must be able to discern, analyze and evaluate while doing so. I think I know what she’s trying to say in that statement, but it still evoked a reaction from me.  Prior to mentioning this, Davidson talked about a website that appeared to be a great kid friendly resource on farm animals. It turns out that this website was an ad. We need to instill a healthy dose of skepticism in our students, prepare them to think critically.

I liked one of the tasks she gave the audience which was to list the …

Three Most Important Things We Can Do To Help Prepare Students For Their Future (Not Our Past)

Here were mine:

1) Develop a sense of wonder, play, and inquiry.

2) Learn how to find and use the resources needed to grapple with the questions they encounter.

3) To empathize, listen, network, and collaborate with humility and be able to discern between what is useful or purposeful, and what is superfluous or meaningless.

I know, there are a lot of things going on in the last one, but it was hard to come up with just three. I also had another response: Though I’m not religious, the following three things come from a prayer I learned as a child.

Serenity – to accept the things we cannot change

Courage – to change the things we can.

Wisdom – to know the difference.

 

I think we can prepare students for the first two of those, but the last one is something we have to learn on your own. I know I’m still working on it.

One of the things I enjoyed both this year in Philly and at home last year in Seattle was that the featured speakers were accompanied by “graphic recording artists” who captured visually, in real time, what was being said. Here’s a pdf of Cathy Davidson’s closing keynote.

Click for larger view.

All It Takes Is One Person

There were so many great ideas shared at the NAIS conference. Some were new, some validating, and some that challenged my own philosophy about education. While I need time to process and reflect, I also want to dive right in and push myself to try new things.

The theme of the conference was “Think Big, Think Great” and the main keynote was Jim Collins, known prominently for his work “Good to Great.” He left the audience with 12 questions to ponder which I hope to do in the coming months. Rather than summarize his entire talk, which you can find here, I want to highlight something that stuck with me. He said that a great enterprise, be it a business or school had to pass three tests:

  1. Superior performance relative to your mission.
  2. Makes a distinctive impact on the world it touches. (If your school went away, would it leave an unfillable hole? Who would miss you truly and why?)
  3. Achieves lasting endurance, which means it’s great beyond any one leader. (Your school is not great if it cannot be great without you.)

Throughout the conference, I was reminded about these three things several people I heard speak. Here are two examples:

One of the general session speakers was Tererai Trent who grew up in what is now Zimbabwe. Married at 11 and mother of three by 18, her biggest dream was to get an education. She earned a doctorate in interdisciplinary evaluation. With the strong belief that education is the way out of poverty and a way to stop the mistreatment of women, she wanted to start a school back in the village where she grew up. As of today, she has helped build 8 schools.

Another session I attended was led by Lee Hirsch who made the documentary “Bully.” You can see the positive impact the film has been making at CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360 page here.

Both these speakers set examples that pass the three tests mentioned by Jim Collins. Whether their intention was to impact one life or hundreds of thousands, their mission remained focused. It was clear to me that they let their projects become bigger than themselves, big enough to endure without them.

Both speakers did not do it alone. Tererai Trent, for example, received help from Oprah. Their dreams of change, however, were their own, and their belief that this change was achievable never seemed to wane.

The kids we teach are all dreamers. For lack of a better analogy, those dreams are like seeds. Maybe we play a role in planting some of those seeds. Maybe we don’t. Whether those dreams impact one person or many, part of our jobs as educators is to nourish those seeds and help them grow.

What Does Censoring Children’s Literature do to Critical Thinking?

It saddened me to read in the news that a book by one of my favorite authors, Patricia Polacco was restricted in a Utah school district on Monday.

Patricia Polacco is a prolific children’s writer and for some of my readers we engage in an author study featuring her books. She tends to write from personal experiences about family and friends and her themes vary widely. Some of her most famous books include:

Thank you Mr. Falker, a book about a young girl with dyslexia who realizes her potential thanks to a fifth grade teacher named Mr. Falker.  The epilogue is quite touching when you realize that the girl with dyslexia is the author.

Pink and Say, a book about two boys (one black and one white) during the Civil War. Another touching book.

Mr. Lincoln’s Way, a book about overcoming bullying.

Thundercake, a book about how the author overcame her fear of thunderstorms.

The book that was banned was called In Our Mothers’ House, which is a story about family or three raised by two mothers. I always worry about children’s books that may contain ‘issues’. Often they can be preachy and end up not being very good literature. This book is simply a good story. We had it in our library, so I read it to my students.

I asked them why they thought this book might be banned for children, and it was quite refreshing to hear their responses. The overwhelming response was, “I think some adults don’t think children can handle stories with sad endings.” Only two children identified the two moms as the possible reason and one child said, “I think it might be about the two moms because in some places, they just don’t get it yet.”

I try really hard not to provide any answers for my students. They need to analyze and think for themselves. I enjoy opportunities to do this. If books are censored, how can children develop critical thinking skills? This doesn’t mean I need to read every book on a banned list, but it’s important to get kids thinking.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/06/01/utah-school-district-rest_n_1564118.html

My Take-Aways from the Tiger Mom

The closing keynote at the NAIS conference was Amy Chua, author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. A year ago, the press used this book to paint a portrait of a villainous mother. The media generalized the differing parenting styles of Chinese and Americans making inflammatory statements in their headlines such as the Wall St. Journal’s “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior.”

I haven’t shared my thoughts on whether or not I found value to her talk, as my opinions about Ms. Chua’s memoire continue to vacillate. Though cynical about her keynote address, I wanted to approach it with an open mind. As she began speaking, she started with a great story about how the press storm caught her by surprise. I even started feeling for her when she described being on the Today Show and the first thing Meredith Viera asked was, “Are you a monster?”

Unfortunately she followed that story with one about a trip to DAVOS that seemed more about name dropping than it did about teaching or parenting. And so even though she may have ended up with more negative press than she initially bargained for, it certainly helped her sell her book and my sympathies began to wane. Interestingly, one of the names she dropped was Larry Summers who disagreed with her by saying,

“In a world where things that require discipline and steadiness can be done increasingly by computers, is the traditional educational emphasis on discipline, accuracy and successful performance and regularity really what we want?”

Mr. Summers went on to note two prominent Harvard ‘drop-outs’ Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg may not have had that much support from the kind of strict parenting to which Ms. Chua refers.

Ms. Chua said her book was meant to be a ‘funny’ memoir rather than a parenting guide and it was a way to reflect on how her strict parenting didn’t exactly work out when her second child turned thirteen.

Overall, while somewhat charming and engaging, I wasn’t too impressed by her talk. It was still validating to come away with these few thoughts.

1) Have high expectations for your children/students.

2) All children are different and we need to recognize this.

3) Self-Esteem must be earned.

One thing I enjoyed from the conference were the illustrators that were engaged in live visual note-taking for each of the main speakers. Below is an example of Ms. Chua’s.

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.