Apr 02

Teach Passion

[In my attempt to push my own thinking, I'm continuing to unpack in writing some of the things that I say a lot. I always say that I want SLA kids to be "thoughtful, wise, passionate and kind" -- and I do -- so I thought it was a good idea to take those words apart a bit. This is part three. Thoughtfulness was part one and Teach Wisdom was part two. ]

One of the critiques of this generation of young people is that they are apathetic, and it is our experience with the students we meet both in and out of SLA that the critique is no more apt in this generation than in our own or in the ones that came before us. The young women and men we teach are looking for a reason to care about more than what society is telling them is important. They are looking for a reason to be more than the stereotype of youth culture that is portrayed through mass media.

We have to ask ourselves — how often does school give them that reason?

In most schools, the things students care most about are extra-curricular – sports, drama, newspaper, marching band, debate – and students across the country endure class for the right to participate in the thing they actually care about. When I coached, I knew I had students who were keeping their grades up for the right to play and little else, and every coach I’ve known has similar stories. And while I wasn’t against using eligibility as a way to motivate an athlete, I have to ask – why is this o.k.? Why is it o.k. to tell students to endure the seven hours of classes and two or three hours of homework so they can enjoy the hour or two of the activity they are most passionate about?

And the thing is, the “soft” lessons we most want to teach are there to be learned in extra-curricular activities. Watch an athlete run sprints to train for the season or the lead of a play work a scene for hours or the editor of the school newspaper edit article after article – this isn’t just about “fun,” this is about passion.

And yet we partition off all of the work to the world of “extra-curricular.”

We have to help kids care as much about the curricular as they do about the extra-curricular.

Make it relevant: If we cannot help students to see how what they are learning in our classes is relevant to their lives, then how can we ask the overwhelming majority of our students to develop a passion for what we teach? And while there will always be a percentage of our students who fall in love with our subject because of its beauty or intrinsic interesting-ness, that’s not good enough. It is the difference between teaching Hamlet primarily through the literary structure devices Shakespeare uses or using it as a text to examine how our own human struggles to figure out who we are and how we should act as part of a continuum  of a hundreds year old struggle to make meaning of our lives.

Make it real: Have students create real artifacts of their own learning that have impact in the world. High school students can create public service campaigns for their neighborhoods around environmental / scientific issues. Students can create documentaries and submit them to film festivals. Students can debate the meaning of historical events and the impact they have on our society today. They can do fieldwork science, getting out of the pre-canned laboratory and doing field research in the world at large. And students can engage in all manner of engineering projects from building apps to building small-scale solar installations. And in all these examples, make sure that students are not just asking the questions we have given them, but that they are asking and answering their own questions, building knowledge and meaning from their own line of inquiry.

Make it live in the world: Whether through leveraging the web, creating opportunities for performance, or simply creating gallery walks within the school so students have the opportunity for peer critique, we must make sure that student work is more than just a dialogue between student and teacher. When students have authentic audience and can therefore see themselves as having an informed – if not expert – voice in the world, students will develop passion for their work. Be aware, that merely blogging to blog grows old, and we must work to create real opportunities for audience, rather than just counting on the somewhat overwhelming nature of a Google search to create audience.

Make it last: When students move from unconnected project to unconnected project, students can lose the sense of urgency and passion, but when students have the opportunity to see a project through multiple revisions, through multiple iterations, it becomes theirs. When students care enough about a project to hand it down to younger students to continue the work, you know that students have a passion for what they have created.

Schools can be places of great passion where students learn what it means to be scholar-activists, fully invested in authentic work that matters to them today, not someday.

When we do this, we will fully realize the promise of the idea that school should not just be preparation for real life, but rather that school can be real life, not just after school, but all day long with students and teachers who are making meaning relevant to the lives we all are leading now, as well as growing thoughtfully into the lives we will live tomorrow.

Mar 31

Teach Wisdom

[In my attempt to push my own thinking, I'm continuing to unpack in writing some of the things that I say a lot. I always say that I want SLA kids to be "thoughtful, wise, passionate and kind" -- and I do -- so I thought it was a good idea to take those words apart a bit. This is part two. Thoughtfulness was Part One.]

If you google “Definition of wisdom,” you get the following definition:

Wisdom: Noun

1. The quality of having experience, knowledge, and good judgment; the quality of being wise.

2. The soundness of an action or decision with regard to the application of such experience, knowledge, and good judgment. (https://www.google.com/search?q=Definition+of+wisdom)

We think of wisdom as something that only comes with time. Traditionally, the young person is head-strong, the elder is wise. Societally, we think of wisdom hard-earned — and interestingly, it is often gained by those who are not considered “good at school” — it is the stereotype of the elder who learned at “the school of hard knocks.” It is not something that we traditionally think of when we think of high school students to the point where when a young person actually displays these traits, we say they are “wise beyond their years.”

And yet, if we are to help students to become fully realized citizens during their time with us, helping them to develop “soundness of action” and “good judgement” — in other words, wisdom — during their time with us is essential. Because intellect and knowledge without the wisdom to apply those ideas thoughtfully can be profoundly dangerous.

So then, wisdom becomes about decision-making and action-taking, but the accumulation of wisdom is about reflection. Wisdom is about understanding that “doing” is not the end of the learning process, reflecting on what we have done is. Wisdom is about learning from your mistakes, but then — importantly — being able to apply those lessons not only so that you do not make the same mistakes again, but that you can imagine and foresee mistakes before they happen.

Wisdom means not falling so in love with your own ideas that you cannot see the unintended harm those ideas could do.

So how we do help our students to become more wise?

Do Real Stuff: We have to dare kids, help kids, support kids to attempt great things, struggle, reflect, learn and try again. That is the cycle through which wisdom is gained. But we rarely reflect on the things we do not care about. When kids are engaged in work that matters to them, work that is authentic and has real meaning, we create the conditions for students to reflect and gain wisdom. The coach who has students watch game footage and critique their own performances, both individually and as a team, is doing more to help her students become more wise than the teacher who covers the content of a World History class at blistering pace.

Be Scholar-Activists: It isn’t enough to do real work that matters. We have to help students see that work in the context of the work that has gone on before us. That is why it is important not just to study history but to develop the tools of the historian. When our students see themselves as scholar-activists, they place their actions in the stream of human history and they can learn from the mistakes of the past while they endeavor to take action in the present.

Be Willing to Live in the Soup: Life is messy and there are few absolutes. When we own that publicly with our students, encouraging them to come with us on our own journeys of figuring all of this out. In a conversation on Twitter, Bill Ferriter wrote, “Learning only happens when there is tension between what kids think they know and what they see in the world around them.” (https://twitter.com/plugusin/status/318394936233951232) And he is right, it is in that moment of conflict between what we think we know and what we experience that meaning happens. We need to help our students understand that we — all of us — are forever engaged in what Alvin Toffler said was the process of learning, unlearning and re-learning. (http://www.quotationspage.com/quotes/Alvin_Toffler/) And our students will be far more willing to listen to that message if we model ourselves.

In the end, our willingness to engage in reflective practice with our students, our dexterity in creating the conditions for students to engage in real work that matters, and our ability to help them see themselves and that work in the context of the never-ending stream of human history — in short, our ability to help our students to become more wise, is the most important thing we can do. If our students can learn from their experiences with us, when they still have a safety net, we will have enabled them to make better decisions about their own lives when they leave our walls. And if we have helped them to be more thoughtful about wise about their world around them, then we have helped them become better citizens for the world at large.

Mar 29

Thoughtfulness

[In my attempt to push my own thinking, I'm continuing to unpack in writing some of the things that I say a lot. I always say that I want SLA kids to be "thoughtful, wise, passionate and kind" -- and I do -- so I thought it was a good idea to take those words apart a bit. This is part one.]

Once we accept the premise that the purpose of school is to help our students become fully realized citizens of a modern world, we have to ask ourselves what are the universal traits of the modern citizen?

We want people who are thoughtful.

Not “thoughtful” as a synonym for “nice.” Our world needs people who are truly “full of thought.”

There has long been an anti-intellectual thread to American society and sadly, school has probably done as much to perpetuate it as it has to eliminate it. By catering to the “right answer” and a reinforcing curricular decisions that taught kids in a top-down, “we know what is best to learn” fashion, we have long sent the message that thoughts that are outside the proscribed canon — and therefore kids who are outside the proscribed canon — are not o.k.

When we treat our classes as lenses on the world, not walled-off silos, we allow students to make connections to other ideas in such a way that will allow them to connect idea to idea, thought to thought, in ways that can be never-ending.

When we honor the ideas our students have and dare them to push those ideas further, we teach students that the world of ideas is a place they can live.

When we model thoughtfulness by deconstructing our own ideas in public, we teach our students that thoughts are not fixed, final and perfect, so that students can understand how reflective practice can lead us to deepen our ideas.

When we are open as teachers so that student ideas can influence and change our own — so that we are a learner in our own classrooms as well — we teach students that authority has no monopoly on ideas, on “right.” A teacher who is willing to say the words, “I never thought it that way,” to a student in a classroom opens a child up to the power of their own ideas to influence others, and that is an invaluable lesson to learn.

And when we create an inquiry-driven, project-based curriculum, where students can take the ideas of the classroom, make them their own, go deeper into the ideas that most speak to them, and then build artifacts that reflect their ideas and the path they travelled to develop them, we let students see the power of their ideas made manifest in the world.

In the end, the hallmark of a great school isn’t the number of ideas, facts and thoughts of ours that our students remember at the end of four years, it is the sheer number of ideas, facts and thoughts they discovered that built on the foundations we helped them to build.

It is the thing a test can never measure, and we have to do it anyway.

We must help our students be thoughtful.