Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Putting the To-Do List Away for the Night

"Let's not work; let's play instead."

I've got a list up to the top button of my pajamas of things to get done (including this blog), but I've decided that for tonight I'm going to ignore the vast majority of them.  In fact, after I post this shortish blog, I am going to turn my computer off for the night.  The only condition on which I will turn it on again will to be watch Portlandia or Parenthood or West Wing(Can you believe I still haven't finished that most excellent series?) on Netflix.

Blog aside, my other obligations I shall meet are reading with my kiddos, tucking them in bed, and spending a nice chunk of time with that sweet chunk (Oops, I mean hunk) of a man I call my husband.

I'm blessed.  I love my life.  I love my family.  I love my job.  Sometimes it all seems like too much, but a bit of perspective helps with that.  My "too much" is somebody else's idea of paradise.

So what doesn't need to get done, won't.  Nobody's going to get hurt; nobody's going to judge me; nobody's going to even notice: except for me.  And I've decided that just for tonight, I'm not going to care.  (By the way, my daybook is up to date, the schedule is on the board, and my lessons are all prepared, just in case any of you think I am neglecting my job!)

That's my new start for today: to give myself a break once in a while.  Like I said, I love what I do, but sometimes I just do a bit too much of it.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Messy Thinking

I'm a big fan of "making thinking visible" in its many incarnations, and my big goal is to use at least one visible thinking routine each day in any discipline (or transdiscipline, better yet!), and to really start to make the routines what they are: routines.

I am presently reading Making Thinking Visible: How to Promote Engagement, Understanding, and Independence for All Learners by Ron Ritchhart, Mark Church and Karin Morrison and so far one of my biggest takeaways is the messiness of thinking - in a positive way.  They suggest that instead of thinking about the different kinds of thinking ala Bloom's Taxonomy, it might be better to start thinking about the quality of thinking within different kinds of thinking, and to start teaching to that.  Project Zero research suggests, contrary to Bloom's taxonomy, "understanding is not a precursor to application, analysis, evaluating and creating but a result of it (Wiske, 1997).  Therefore, understanding isn't a type of thinking, but a result of thinking.

All of this thinking is actually making my brain hurt after a long day of tending to a daughter with food poisoning, and doing my own soul searching kind of thinking about the randomness of the universe, how powerless we can feel when we can't help the people we love the most, and at the same time list-making all the items I need to pack for my five day trip to Xi'an tomorrow with a group of ten and eleven year-old students that begins tomorrow.

Today I am living proof that thinking is disorderly, non-sequential, doesn't always seem to make sense yet is strangely interconnected.

And so to bed.  Dreaming is a whole other level of thinking that I think it's safe for educators to stay well away from in their research!

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Taking Action

If I want my students to take action, I daresay I need to take some myself.  So what does "taking action" mean?  This is a question our staff wrestled with over a weekend PYP workshop, giving up our  Friday of teaching and our Saturday of leisure to grapple with and come to some conclusions about.

It's an absurd question in many ways since we take action in thousands of ways each day, physically and through our responses to stimuli, many of the obvious stimuli being our students, the people we come in contact with on a daily basis, our guilt and our obligations.

But does altruistic action and action coming from a place of wanting to make the world better really exist?  And if it does, can we actively promote it?  Can we push it?  Can we do it model it ourselves without being patronizing or smug or feeling holier-than-thou?

The most obvious call to action in the coming weeks is probably helping the victims in the Philippines after the devastating typhoon, and there is no question that we should be doing this. This is necessary and we should give as we are able to the needs that we see and are able to support, but my pay check can't begin to save the world's problems.  (Please, however, go to the link I have posted and see how sending money IS important and vital in times of disaster and crisis.)

Please Don’t Send Your Old Shoes to the Philippines

Survivors of Typhoon Haiyan need your help. But send money, not your hand-me-downs.

Typhoon relief effort: Manilla
Volunteers in Manila pack relief goods inside a Department of Social Welfare and Development warehouse before shipping out to devastated provinces hit by Typhoon Haiyan.

The question remains, how can I take action in the here and now?  Here's the list I came up with for myself as a teacher, a parent and as a friend:

I can inspire others to make a difference.  I'm not a highly talented person, but this is one thing I am pretty good at.

I can provide information about what is happening in the world: helping students to think outside of their own personal universes.  Teachers are obliged to do that, especially those of us who teach students old enough to cope with real-world issues.

I can play more with my kids - at home and at school!

I can give my time: to causes, to people, to writing about needs and informing, to just being present for people and being an active listener.

I can give my kindness and compassion to those who are in front of me right now.

I can be mindful: fully present in each moment.  

I can make more of an effort to make authentic connections with people.

I can approach people with a lack of judgment and an attitude of acceptance for where they are now.

I can give my encouragement.

I can offer my high expectations and the means to help students meet them.

I can more consistently offer my positive energy.

I can clean up my local environment with my family.

I can make choices to not pollute by virtue of what I buy and don't buy and how I dispose of it.

I can make choices of what to eat or not eat by virtue of how it impacts the planet, its people and its creatures.

I can make decisions moment by moment to live mindfully, making choices that contribute to a kinder, safer, more loving community of people.

These are the gifts of action that I can give to my family and to my class and to my school.  I am sure there are many more, but they are the ones at the forefront of my mind as I write tonight.  Am I doing it consistently?  Do I have pureness of heart in all of my actions all of the time?  Of course not.  I am a work in process; a teacher in process; a parent in process; a friend in process.

Small actions, small daily actions: they can make a difference that is more profound than we can know.  We probably shouldn't know how profound our actions can be, in fact.  It's better to just come from that place of wanting to make a difference, doing our best, and letting the results float on the current of life.  We don't need to know the results of our action.  We just need to know that we're doing our best.

Monday, November 4, 2013

What is the Most Powerful Question You Can Ask Your Students?

Without keeping you in suspense any longer, the answer is:

What makes you say that?

Think is the 12th most used verb in English, yet how much of it do we actually do?  Not enough, according to much of the research into teaching and learning, and certainly not enough according to the state of our world.  How much could a little more thoughtfulness (in terms of thinking and kindness) entirely change our planet and how it conducts its business?

That being said, how do we actively encourage students to think more deeply and not just give rote answers to simple questions?  The dead easy sentence - What makes you say that? - can help students explain, describe, justify, expand, and, most importantly, think about why they are saying what they are.

So often students (and normal civilians) just answer what they believe the other person wants to hear.  When asked to explain, however, they are at a loss for words.   If you want your students to start actually thinking about what they are saying or writing or doing, all you need to do is regularly ask, "What makes you say that?"

This simple prompt causes a neuron jump to the next level of brain activity.  It doesn't let you off at the first bus stop, but makes you get out of the suburbs and into the inner city of your brain.

"What makes you say that?" is slowly becoming a part of our classroom vocabulary.  I encourage students to use it with each other in their partner or collaborative groups.  For example, if they're working to solve a mathematical word problem and Grinelda says, "The teacher ate 69 apple pies," the other students in her group should immediately say, "What makes you say that?" and she should be able to explain her answer, or alternately respond, "Hang on a second, there's NO way she could have eaten that many pies without throwing up; maybe I'm wrong.  Let me think through it again."

My teaching goal is to institutionalise this question so students are constantly having to elaborate, explain and justify in their speaking, their writing, and across all disciplines.   It's a simple practice that, from the first day you start using it, will make your students more alert, more tuned-in, more likely to understand or to try to understand, and much more willing to explore their own ways they think about the universe and all of its many questions.

(By the way, it's also a great way to encourage intellectual discourse when speaking to people with whom you ardently disagree, whether it be on politics, religion or whether gluten-free or dairy-free is better.  Rather than causing dissent and hard feelings by arguing (unless you enjoy doing so), you can simply say, "How interesting.  What makes you say that?"  Then you can smile and nod as your companion either succeeds in persuading you or talks himself down the rabbit hole.  For me, I love it, because it takes me right out of the controversy that I shy away from, and people think I'm a good listener.)

If you are more interested in learning about this and other simple "thinking routines," visit Harvard's Project Zero site at