Influencing Young Minds

I read other blogs because they make me think. Also because most bloggers are really good writers and they can often put into words what I am thinking but haven’t expressed – or don’t feel I can express because I’m not a teacher. Blogging allows a conversation when it’s not possible to have a real life conversation.

One of my favorite bloggers is a former high school teacher. He has left the world of K12 for the hallowed halls of higher education. I hope his philosophy can benefit many new teachers going into the world. Instead of directly impacting students, he can benefit more students by teaching new teachers to question the current state of education.

Snippets in today’s post were perfect reminders of why he is an excellent teacher – and why the current public school system drove him away.

Standardized tests are silly and do not account for real teaching. I am referring to the complex work of mentoring young people as they grow up in an infinitely complex, unsafe universe. Story is a better way to represent that work than test scores.

Seriously, how wonderfully insightful is this? Truly, does it matter if a student can remember the street some character in a book lived on, what year a battle occurred, or what equation you need to find the area of a parallelogram? Yes – a professor of literature, history or math might need these pieces of information at their fingertips, but not the majority of us. Do we need to be exposed to many types of information, ways of thinking and problem solving? Yes. Do we need to memorize all this stuff. No way.

A more important piece of a teacher’s job seems to be just what Sam says: mentoring people to grow into healthy adults. He was a creative teacher that did not rely on tests, extraordinary amounts of outside work or reciting facts. He asked students to think, apply knowledge to other situations, consolidate information and use their own experience. But he got a ton of flack for it. Personally, I am grateful my kid had a chance to be in his class. I know she got more out of that class — he made her think, he challenged her — than she did from those “advanced” classes that were crammed full of content.

I particularly like this quote:

First, I think teachers should not pretend to be transmitters of ultimate truths. Our truths might not work for somebody else.

Agreed. This respects diversity of thought, of opinion, of belief. Let’s encourage students to develop a belief system of their own instead of forcing them to swallow someone else’s. This does not mean students don’t work with content – it means truly there is too much content in the world to know it all. Learn to work well with smaller amounts so you are better equipped to work with it all.

How can teachers empathize with students and help them adapt to their circumstances with the understanding that realities are diverse, dissimilar, and require nuance to navigate? Throw out the tests. Most tests assume an arbitrary truth and then impose that truth at the expense of questioning.

This statement I find sums up the problem with standardized testing in a nutshell. There is no room for critical thinking or creativity in these tests. There is only room for spitting back material. What do we value more?

Way back a hundred years ago when I was teaching, I told my students (7/8th graders) flat out that I didn’t want them memorizing dates. I never used tests. All assessment was done using projects, often of their own choosing. Projects had to show an understanding of the issues and how it applied. It wasn’t a spitting back of dates. This was in the years before the rise of standardized tests and in an “open” school that left teachers a ton of flexibility. It was awesome….

I hope Sam’s current work in higher education teaching teachers allows him to plant this seed of thought in all these young people going into education. Maybe that’s how we start moving in this direction.

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Theater as 21st Century Skills

Love this post, “Four Reasons Theater Should be a Core Subject in Schools” by Madison McAllister about why theater should be a required subject in school. I’d go a little deeper than the author as to my reasons why.

Yes, it’s good a good outlet for emotions. Yes, it’s builds great people skills.

Theater also teaches the basics of 21st Skills: Creativity, Collaboration, Communication and Critical Thinking.

21st Century Skills

At its most basic level, theater hits all these skills.  Whether onstage or offstage, theater builds useful life skills.

Onstage: actors have to create a character. They think critically about the character they are playing and find a away to communicate the character and the story to the audience. In order to do this, they must collaborate with others – whether this is another actor, a director, lighting person, stage manager, whatever.

Offstage: directors, set designers, stagehands all have to use these four skill sets as well.

Critical Thinking

The first step of any production is to read the script and think about the characters. What is their intent? What is their backstory? Why do they say the lines? How do they say the lines? How are they feeling? Actors often create backstories for their characters that require them to dig much deeper than the script presented.

What else do you need to know about the setting? How do you analyze the location? What time period is it set in and how does that impact the characters? The sets? Costumes?

Creativity

Theater is inherently creative -and perhaps that’s why people are uncomfortable with it in schools. Each actor creates a different interpretation of a character, and how do you grade that? (Maybe you DON’T!!!) How do you assess it if it isn’t  a number?

Actors, designers, directors all create the production from their imagination. How do different costume choices impact the show? How do you create emotion? How do you design a set to give the appropriate feeling?

Collaboration

Theater is never done by yourself. Even a one-person show requires more people. Actors collaborate with other actors, with directors, designers, stage managers and backstage staff. Talk about a deadline – the show opens! You have an audience. You have to work with the team in order to get the show to open.

Once the show opens, there is another collaboration – this time with the audience. The presence of an audience changes a show and it’s crucial to collaborate with that audience -not to alienate.

Communication

It’s all about communication! From the basics of communicating a story to an audience to delving deep into a character, theater is communication at its best.

From start to finish, many forms of communication are essential. Written: script, programs, marketing. Visual: set, costume design. Oral: delivering lines, giving/receiving direction. It’s all there!

But I don’t DO Theater!

I know, not every kid wants to be on stage. But guess what – not every kid wants to be a biologist, a mathematician, a historian. Yet, all those subjects are required. Why should theater not be there? You can deal with any of these content areas through theater. We all have to be in classes that are out of our comfort zone.

 

“Fear and Anxiety in Learning”

Wow – to think that grading might be interfering with  learning rather than encouraging it! What a concept!

A thoughtful post, “When Grading Harms Student Learning” by Andrew Miller, points out the aspects of grade grubbing that not only disrupt learning for learning’s sake, but are downright harmful.

We see this in kids with various learning disabilities, or kids who learn experientially, or who are creative. When we rely on teacher imposed/created evaluations, we really learn more about that teacher than about what the student learned. Of course we need some sort of assessment. But why does it have to be like always trying to keep your head above water instead of a positive environment? Students study to  avoid losing points — not to learn.

Zeros do not reflect student learning. They reflect compliance.

How does it encourage learning when students are always in the hole in terms of points? Can they ever pull themselves out of a bad situation? Students who perhaps have a learning disability, who had to work the night before a test, who might have test anxiety, etc., may not get great grades on a test. How does that motivate them to do better next time? I think it does exactly the opposite – many students would see this as a detriment. Why try?

I constantly go back to the story about a student who wrote a fantastic skit based on concepts learned in a history class. The teacher talked about how fantastic the skit was: it demonstrated complete understanding of the concept, the students were able to communicate the concept and apply it to another situation. It was worth a whole TEN points! The next day, the students had a 60 point multiple choice test. Huh. I know which thing I think shows more understanding, yet that was worth 1/6 of the multiple choice test.

Things about Dyslexia

I was so intrigued by this article, “20 Things Only Parents of Children with Dyslexia will Understand.”

I won’t repeat the article, but a few things of the twenty stand out that make life so very difficult for kids:

  • They feel dumb and stupid
  • They are exhausted by detail
  • They can be disorganized
  • They are not lazy or unmotivated — (but everyone thinks they are!)

But what people forget is the many, many gifts that dyslexics have — it’s just how schools are structured makes these kids struggle so much. Here are the gifts:

  • They view the world holistically
  • They are visual thinkers
  • They see solutions/things that others do not
  • They often have above average intelligence
  • Their sense of hearing is exceptional

The conclusion of the article is key:

Unfortunately, learning has been so intimately tied to reading that they have been at a clear disadvantage. Things are rapidly changing; however, in this wonderful age of technology. We are reaching a point at which we will be able to honor all learning styles, not just those that have traditionally met with success.

Shut-Down Learners

I have never posted just about the Shut-Down Learner concept by Dr. Richard Selznick. I’ve referred to it, but need a more thorough post.

I ran across Dr Selznick’s concept of the Shut-Down Learner about a year ago. It completely fits.

From his article, “When Learners Shut Down,” these are characteristics of a shut-down learner (before shutting down):

  • Tuning out in circle time
  • Highly spatial and visual learners
  • Active or over-active
  • Difficulty with language-based activities such as reading and writing

We’ve got three of the four.

Watch this video for an overview.

Screenshot of his PowerPoint that is it in a nutshell.

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“I Don’t Care”

Short piece from Edutopia today about Strategies for Reaching Apathetic Students.

This could be my daughter. I’m sure she looked like the stereotypical apathetic student. I know she was on her phone quite a bit. She didn’t take notes. She hated group work. She rarely did homework in the last two years of high school. She failed many tests. She hated writing papers. She was, I am sure, quite sassy in class. (She did, however, actively participate in class discussions. I regularly heard from teachers about how well she did in discussions, about how she had very astute observations and offered critical analysis.)

While her behavior may indicate that she didn’t care about school or anything, I can guarantee you that she did care. She cared so deeply that her struggles and difficulty meeting everyone’s expectations – difficulties that are not her fault, and are not because she’s not intelligent or talented – triggered serious anxiety and depression. Honestly, the “disabilities” are only disabilities in an academic setting like her high school. Look at the things she didn’t do: homework, tests,  writing. Hmmmmm — does that suggest a text based disability? YES! And, as she is a strong introvert, group work in class was excruciating.

As the article said, it became easier to say “I don’t care” than “I need help.”

In her case, the “I don’t care” came from hidden learning disabilities that she masked well that eventually manifested themselves in mental illness. It came from a school environment (both physical and pedagogical) that did not fit her needs. It came from a system that meant teachers had way too many kids to track. She switched teachers every trimester, so few teachers ever really go to know her to get below the “I don’t care.” It came from a learning environment that valued rote memorization and testing over creativity and critical thinking. The huge school and large classes meant that teachers had to do the easy-to-grade assessments, like multiple choice tests, as opposed to projects or more creative ways to express learning.

So, next time you see a student that doesn’t seem to care, don’t immediately blame them. Take a closer look. I bet there’s something else going on.