Business or Busy-ness

I didn’t post in the month of May. Ironically, last month marked the one month anniversary of this blog. I should probably feel a certain way about that, but I don’t. Over the last year, I have learned to trust the ebb and flow of my energy more. Sometimes I have a lot to give to a particular area of my life, and sometimes I don’t. Forcing it never made anything better. 

I am DEEP into these rest practices, ya’ll, and I have never felt more whole. 

Now that I am vaccinated all sorts of things feel like a possibility again. Except being too busy. Before the pandemic my personal and professional lives felt very chaotic. Things looked pretty good on the outside, but all of the scheduling and details and logistics were making my mind a messy place to live. A gift of the stay-at-home orders was a hard reset. At work, I was over involved in committees and initiatives and projects and professional development. If there was a pot lying around my hand was in it! My to-do list was never ending, and I always felt like I needed to be working.  Even when it was late.  Even when it was the weekend. Even when I was exhausted.  I relaxed by doing way too much too! I ran all over town attending concerts and book talk and dinners and happy hours and networking events and conferences and work groups. I did not manage the resulting stress in healthy ways. I developed Grave’s disease, an autoimmune disorder. I tore my meniscus. If it wasn’t for the pandemic, I am not sure any of this would have stopped.  

This pandemic has taught me that so much of the BUSY-ness of American life is self-imposed. And what does need our immediate attention – like climate change or global hunger or reparations or our health – rarely gets it. I can see now how much of the activity of the Before Times was just momentum or ambition or performance. Start running because everyone else is. Well, I don’t want to do that anymore.

It would be a mistake to just get back into the swing of things and business as usual. That swing often felt like a wild ride. In the After, I want to embrace the spaciousness of an unbusy schedule. The kind of schedule that allowed me to start this blog and dream of writing more. Time to rest. Time to think. Time to get bored. I want to be more discerning and more ready to decline. I recently told someone I was anti-urgency. As I watch people start to travel and dine out and BBQ again, as kids activities open back up, as birthday parties and weddings get scheduled, as we start to look towards the future again and plan, plan, plan,  I am reflecting on how to say “no” to busy-ness with zero guilt, thus honoring the joy that creating space brings.

How does this impact my students? Well for one, I am thinking about how to avoid assigning work that I am not actually interested in, that doesn’t relate to important projects or allow me to assess their growth. I am done with the busy work. You know, the stuff that was more about time management or “rigor” or honoring a relic of the past or another teacher’s interest. This year, we simply didn’t have time for it.  When we gain back instructional hours in the fall, I want to be super careful about what we do with the added time. How can there be more choice time and more exploration? If we start to go off on a intriguing tangent, I would love to be able to say, yes, there is time for that. If there is something urgent going on in the world, I would love to be able to give space for response.

I also no longer penalize work that is turned in late. If work shows up before my grades are due, I will usually give it full or almost full credit (sometimes there are extra points available for turning it in on time).  The truth is I rarely grade assignments the day they are due anyways. And kids are busy too! Teaching them to prioritize means allowing them to tell me that my essay simply isn’t as important as the national Latin exam or the math final or a big science project. As a grownup – I should be able to hear that. Of course, I also tell them that our next unit and more work is on the way. A natural consequence of letting things pile up is having several items to take care of instead of just one. For most kids, this is enough to stay on top of things. The ones who don’t do their work usually need further support in some capacity anyways, and they shouldn’t turn the work in until they have received it. Allowing students to experience organic deadlines has become an important part of building an intrinsically motivated classroom, which is my ultimate goal. Plus, when I say, hey I need that – they know I mean it. 

As we consider the ways in which a more normal version of school will return in the fall, I hope there are parts of this big life lesson that we will keep. For me, it is about the connection between time spaciousness and a mind that is more creative and at ease. As monk and Buddhist teacher Haemin Sunim says:

We know the world only through the window

 of our mind.

When our mind is noisy, the world is as well.

And when our mind is peaceful, the world is, too. 

Why I Chose Whittle

One of my ancestral stories goes like this:

In 1891, my great-great grandfather Jordan Young (no relation to YoungeE) decided to move from his home in Columbia, South Carolina, where he had previously been enslaved, to Fowler, California. He and his three brothers received a letter from their sister, Julia Bell, who told them they should come. Jordan took the train out west, found the dusty land to his liking, and started a farm. A few years later, he sent for his wife, Louisa, and seven children. Eventually he would own a 160 acre ranch and several lots in the growing city.

I am a descendant of pioneers.

(Jordan and Louisa Young)

In 2018, I made the decision to leave my cushy job at a prestigious and historical independent school to join a new, for-profit, global school network. Why? Well, why does anyone join a start-up – for an adventure, dahling!

I was good at my job, but I saw an opportunity to be great. Whittle School and Studios came to DC with marketing banners blazing. They promised to be a modern school that prioritized global, interdisciplinary, and experiential learning. Those words are literally at the top of my resume. Instead of fighting to validate those things in a school community, I would simply get to teach them. This move would baffle DC Urban Moms. No one could fathom it.

The 2019-2020 school year is turning out to be an insane year to have gone rogue. A pandemic; civil unrest to end racism; impending cicadas, locusts, and murder hornets…we just keep asking, “What’s next?” So how it is that this June I find myself not limping to the end of the finish line, but skipping? Why am I not squeezed, fried, exhausted? Why do I have even a twinge of excitement for the fall? Why does my summer PD and project list fill me with joy?

Because. This. Was. Awesome.

(I did not say perfect.)

There have been massive ups and downs. But wow. It has always been important for me to teach as my full self, and Whittle is a space where that is welcomed. I brainstormed and co-taught with incredible artists, mathematicians, historians, writers, and scientists. I have colleagues from around the world on our campus, as well as in New York and China. I went to nearly every Smithsonian and connected students with the city in new ways. I taught things that would have been impossible elsewhere. I centered marginalized voices and real American history. I chose books I love and a diverse group of children saw themselves reflected in their pages. I learned to differentiate my math class so kids who would otherwise be labeled as needing support simply got to take their time and others, who wanted to accelerate, were able to fly.

The problems we tackle are exciting. What counts as an experience? What real world problems are developmentally appropriate? Is there such a thing as too interdisciplinary? How do we put the “authentic” back in authentic assessment? What reporting system effectively communicates student progress to parents while reinforcing our core values? It has been extraordinary to work on these dilemmas with a team of people dedicated not just to innovation, but smart innovation that learns from previous experiences and draws on best practices. While it is brutally hard work building a new school, we have a chance to get things right, and that is something in which we are all invested.

During my students’ final reflective presentations this week, they highlighted three pieces of work that showed their progress. They based their reflections on our Graduate Profile, which provides a framework for thinking about the goals of a Whittle education:

Our middle schoolers spoke with great vulnerability about mindsets, frustrations, setbacks, comebacks, and triumphs. They spoke about being whole children who loved growing in math AND art AND basketball AND Chinese. Not a single one said, “I know I did a good job because I got good grades.” Instead, they knew they did a good job because they were proud of their work. They were uninterested in comparing themselves to their classmates. They were focused on who they had been and who they were becoming. Before, a truly intrinsically motivated student seemed as rare as Sasquatch. Now, I believe it is possible to engage children in work that is meaningful and relevant and to see them respond with curiosity, tenacity, and joy. At Whittle, we are slowly uncovering the secret recipe, and it tastes good.

My year at Whittle School and Studios has changed me. A student speaker said at our closing ceremony that this roller coaster of a year has made Whittle the special place that it is and also helped to prepare all of us for the uncertainty of these times. I couldn’t agree more. My ability to adapt and be flexible has increased ten-fold. I am absolutely a better teacher. A better curriculum designer. A better advisor. A better advocate. A better colleague. A better leader.

Faith is the hope for things unseen. 130 years ago, my ancestors set out for a land they’d only heard of. Their journey took courage, guts, and imagination. I’m sure there were days when they wondered if they had made a big mistake. If life would have been better back home. Perhaps on those days, they thought about those of us coming along, just down the road a bit. Perhaps, because of us, they decided to keep building. They had come so far and were just getting started.

As we close this remarkable 2019-2020 school year, I never want to forget how it feels to have taken a risk – a BIG risk – and arrived at the destination knowing the road ahead was totally worth it.

Onward.

Transparent and Organized Math Instruction

A puzzle for my math teaching this year was how to make our learning goals transparent and how to organize class work so that it could be easily coalated into a portfolio at the end of the year.  Then I learned about a resource called Betterlesson.com.  They hire master teachers to submit lessons in a variety of topics.  I liked one teacher’s work in particular, especially the way her lessons featured student notes.

I appreciated the way she focused on her learning goals, both questions and mandated standards.  The “I will be able to” statements allowed students to understand what they were responsible for learning. The “Do Now” offered a way to kick off activities or to do mini-assessments.  The notes can contain information, activities, links, or resources.  It is easy to attach class or homework to them.  
I adapted this model for my own class and felt much more organized this year.  It was easy to integrate essential questions into our every day lessons.  It is also a useful system for differentiation as each student can get an individualized set of activities attached to the notes.   Students continued to need reminders to keep up with the notes and to use the notes to study for tests, but the system was in place for them to do so.  It was also useful during conversations with parents, as my expectations were clearly articulated in the student materials.  Here are some samples:

A Return to Paper Blogging

I’m back! And ready to admit that I completely failed in my goal to use this blog to reflect on my teaching at least once a week.  The lesson learned?  Don’t set such lofty goals.  

But let’s not dwell on the past.  Success lies in the future and after a whirlwind spring, summer, and fall, the dregs of winter are setting in and I am once again motivated to share my work with the people.  The latest project is jump starting our class blogs.  Last year’s experiment went really well – over 500 blogs posts!  Over 500 pieces of writing, artistic projects, personal experiences, and you tube videos about raining tacos shared.  I learned a lot (which I should probably write about in a separate post) and I am really excited to see what this class of students does with the opportunity.  Already they blew me away with our first step: Paper Blogging!

This year’s students really took the paper blogging challenge on with gusto (click here for a post on last year’s lesson).  First we watched a really great video from BrainPop on exactly what blogs are and discussed the purpose of a blog: to share ideas and connect with other people.  I explained that paper blogging would let us practice the three roles of blogging (writers, readers, and commenters) offline before we moved online to our KidBlogs.  Then students got to work writing their first blog posts on something that they loved.  

It was really fun learning more about my kids and the things in their lives that they like and love to do.  I think they enjoyed learning more about each other too – an added community building bonus!  They added an artistic design and submitted it for “publishing”.  This year we “published” the paper blogs on lockers.  We used post-its for “comments” and everyone was encouraged to make sure they continued the conversation.  They actually are going back to read each other’s comments, ask questions, answer questions and generally make their paper blogs a really vibrant place for discussion.   Some students took the opportunity to redesign their blogs or added updated posts – all really cool ideas that they will be be able to do with their online blogs.  The next steps are to transfer these skills online, get used to KidBlog as an app/website, and start sharing, documenting, and reflecting on our work! 

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I Gotta Stick in My Craw…

so I just wrote this:

The Social Studies working group recommends a school-wide transition from the terms “Western” and “Non-Western” to the terms “United States” and “Global”.  In our own discipline, this would mean cessation of language referring to “Western” and “Non-Western” history/social studies and the incorporation of “Unites States” and “Global” history/social studies in course descriptions and other curriculum materials.  At the very least we recommend a critical cross-divisional discussion to examine the problematic nature of these terms and their place in our institution.  


The terms “Western” and “Non-Western” have come under our scrutiny because they are:
  • antiquated
  • euphemisms for “white” and “non-white”
  • unrepresentative of the dichotomies presented in actual curriculum; “US” and “global” are more accurate
  • an impediment to goals for diversity and inclusiveness as they create an undesirable Eurocentric concept of “the other”
  • geographically incorrect i.e. placement of Latin American works/topics within the dichotomy


The committee understands that these terms are widely used in academia. However, as a cultivator of tomorrow’s thinkers Sidwell Friends School has an obligation to ensure our program is semantically representative of what we hope our students will contribute in the future.  We hope in the field of social studies and history our students will be thinking beyond “Western” and “Non-Western”, and as such, should name our programs accordingly.  

We’ll see what happens.

Homework – Argh!

I am taking an online class called Teaching For Understanding 1: Focus on Student Understanding offered by Harvard Graduate School of Education through their WIDE program (still wondering what WIDE stands for; can’t find it):

WIDE courses are developed using the Teaching for Understanding (TfU) Framework. The TfU Framework was developed by researchers and educators at Project Zero at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (1989-1996) as a tool to design, revise, and review curriculum and instruction that helps students develop understanding. 

The content is really interesting, but the format is driving me nuts.  Moreover, I don’t really have time to process the information they are offering.  I am totally winging it.

Luckily I am on a team and we are saving each other.  But I have homework.  Due tomorrow.

Assignment: Apply the Ladder of Feedback in a NEW way. You have already used the Ladder of Feedback to provide feedback to each other here online. Now, we want you to use the Ladder of Feedback right in your own classroom or work setting or with a colleague. Teach the rungs of the ladder to your students–young children may only use the clarify and value rungs 
  1. Select an important assignment your students will do, one for which you or you and learners can develop a list of criteria. The criteria should describe “high quality” work on that assignment. 
  2. Teach the Ladder of Feedback to your students.  Help your students or colleague to see the Ladder of Feedback as a tool for offering support and constructive, supportive feedback to others so that the feedback can be used to improve a major assignment or work project. 
  3. Ask your students to work in pairs (using the Ladder of Feedback and the criteria you developed for “high quality” work to help improve the assignment/work project before it is to be formally assessed by the teacher or a supervisor.
Need a visual of the ladder?
So…

This must be how my students feel some of the time.  When their parents’ describe evenings where they did whatever they could to “just get it done”. 

I forgive them as I am going to forgive myself.

Luckily our students are in the middle of writing geography stories.  And some of them are “done”.  But I love telling them they are never really “done” because even our good writing can get better.   This ladder of feedback will be a nice step back, another opportunity to review their work with peers as we more thoughtfully set up a classroom culture that is safe for critical peer feedback.  

My question is should I do this exercise with a small of focus group of students who are in pretty good shape or subject students who really need more time to just write to all of my shenanigans?  Because lets be honest.  I just learned about this ladder of feedback and I am just using it to complete my homework. 

I should probably leave those kids out of it for now.  I can always share this model with them when they have more of their story written.  I only need a few kids to produce a write-up.  This course is trying to prove to us that this format works, and I will go ahead and just believe them.  

Phew okay.  I have a plan.  Thanks. Reflection on how it went and whether or not I finished my homework on time to come.  

Cooling It Down

My students would like me to:


For eight weeks we have been having a grand time exploring ancient civilizations, E.B. White, Geography, paragraph writing, sensory details, Chinese language and characters, factors, multiples, variables, and equations.  Specials classes in science, Spanish, art, PE, music, and chorus have been incredibly exciting and wonderful. We just had conferences and many parents talked about how their students are feeling engaged, challenged and resilient.

Which is exactly where we want them.   
But now that they are there, we need to slow down a bit.  
There are a few signs indicating this.  The first is an unfinished project that several children need more time on to finish.  Many children were finished two weeks ago, but a few want to do their most careful and thoughtful work, and we have not had time for them to be as deliberate as they would like.  School should have time for careful work.  
Another sign is a geography writing project that now needs a consistent amount of time allowing for individual conferences and writing instruction.   The part where we teach them all together is ending and the most important part, where students receive assistance and feedback designed just for them, is beginning.  School should have time for differentiation and individual instruction and feedback.  
School should have time and sometimes it feel like there just isn’t time.  But we teachers sometimes make the beds we lie in.  When the signs start appearing, it is time to pull back, stop planning for the “next” thing, and support the thing that is happening right now.  It’s too easy to get caught up in all that is to come, all that we have to do before the end of the year or the start of the break or the date of the test.  The children would like to live in the moment a little to enjoy and remember their work.  It will be nice for us to do that too.  

Throwback Thursday: iBlog about iPads

Here are a few posts I wrote for our school iPad Blog at sfsipads.blogspot.com.  It’s kind of fun to see them collected here.  There are both more and less than I thought.  Our school blog is an amazing professional development opportunity that has allowed me to become more reflective, more responsive, and more creative in my practice.  It also led me to start this blog.  It’s kind of like the Bible: AND BLOG BEGAT BLOG BEGAT BLOG BEGAT BLOG.

The iPrep for iPads series about starting a new year of our 1:1 program focusing on:

On digital balance in the classroom:

On math problem solving projects like screencasts:
On Goal setting:
And my first public blog post on launching a 1:1 iPad program:

Teaching Without Ego

What would it mean to

TEACH WITHOUT EGO?

Since returning from Lake Qinghai and the grasslands of Tibet. I have been contemplating this idea deeply, using it as a mantra to keep me grounded in a variety of scenarios.

Because, as a teacher, it’s amazing how often I bump into my ego.  Not to mention the egos of my colleagues.  The worst is when you encounter two egos in the hallway duking it out, however politely. You know it’s time to back away slowly.


What is “ego”?  It is a projection of the self, a self that is separate and different and special from the other selves in this world.  It is the source of identity and self esteem.  It is the driver of the question, “Who am I?”  Its importance is culturally constructed and particularly celebrated in modern America. 



It is also divisive and a barrier to compassion.  It is at the root of exclusion, indifference, and hate.  It breeds insecurity, fear, jealousy, and competition.   And as teachers,  it can be a detriment to our practice.

There are a good articles on this idea, from teachers of various disciplines:

“…the role of teacher is one in which you gain satisfaction through observing the learning of your pupils.”

But it’s hard.  Because don’t we teach who we are?  Don’t we need to guide [students] with a strong sense of self?”

The danger is this:

The ego can exist in two states – one, wherein it is aligned with the higher consciousness and the other, where it is not in alignment with this consciousness.
When the ego is aligned with the higher consciousness, there is just a quiet assertion of the individual self in a particular direction, which it knows intuitively is right for the fulfilment of its life purpose. This assertion is based on love and faith and leads to a harmonious state of goodwill and cooperation for the greater common good. When it is not aligned with the higher consciousness, the ego can really wreak havoc. It can misguide and misinterpret. Propelled by emotions based on fear and insecurity, it can cause action motivated by the desire for applause, attention, getting ahead of competition, reaching the finishing line first, proving one’s superiority over others, etc. Here, the ego is intensely conscious of the other and derives its identity in comparison with the other. The individual self asserts itself purely from the need to create a position of unassailability from which it cannot be dislodged.
When I joined my current school I entered into a team teaching situation that I greatly underestimated for its difficulty.  I have come to realize that 99% of any angst I feel at work can be traced back to my ego.  Desires to be recognized, respected, and right can be strong. Self-preservation seems sensible and competition seems healthy.  A twinge of resentment over a close relationship or individually achieved success seems normal. Suspicion of new colleagues and initiatives seems expected. Giving priority to the activities and topics I prefer seems logical. But when these emotional responses interfere with my ability to focus on what is best for my students and their learning, my ego is the one that needs to back down.  

In those moments I am learning not to fight, not to defend, not to protect, not to promote.  I am learning to let go.  When “I” am at the center of my practice, the world my students and I are creating together feels fragile and destabilized, tilted in the direction of a self-concerned perspective.  When my students are at the center of my practice, our world seems infinitely more solid.

In pursuing this idea, I meditate on these questions:

  • In what ways does my ego support  the development of my teaching practice?
  • In what ways does my ego impede the development of my teaching practice?
  • In what ways does my ego improve my relationships with students and colleagues?
  • In what ways does my ego make relationships with students and colleagues more difficult?
  • In what ways can I work with greater compassion?