This Is Terrifying

I've always been drawn to the surreal, to the creative, to the mental spaces not confined to the rules of the universe. I just never realized that there was something wrong with that. 

When I first read the New York Times article, I figured it was an accident. I thought it was an article from the Onion. However, it turns out that there is a push for a new disorder called Sluggish Cognitive Tempo. In children, it is characterized by lethargy, daydreaming and slow mental processing.

I think I once suffered from SCT, or as I like to call it, "being a child."

Other "red flag" symptoms include things that were true of me on a regular basis as a child: skipping questions, failing to pay attention to detail, daydreaming excessively, frequently forgetting one's name on the paper, a thought process that goes off on different tangents, a slower mental process in basic computation.

And yet . . . that's why I can hold a fictional world in my head and write a novel. That's why I can comfortably live in my own mental space. I don't think I have a slow mind. I don't think many people would accuse me of it. However, as a child, I was often slightly behind and slightly . . . off. I shudder to at the thought that I might have been drugged for the very identity that enabled me to be creative.

A friend of mine responded with, "This is legitimate. You're not a doctor and you have no idea." He's right. I'm not a doctor. This might be a real disorder and the last thing I want to do is blame a child for something out of their control. There is already way too much stigma attached to mental health in our nation.

However, he also said something that I have heard in way too many parent meetings with a hyper child.  "A child shouldn't be diagnosed unless it is getting in the way of schooling."

That's what terrifies me. We're asking children to fit into school rather than asking school to fit the child. I'm concerned with the fact that so often instead of schools being adaptive to children, we create systems that are so narrow that children just barely on the spectrum of a narrow definition of normal end up struggling. It doesn't help when Big Pharma (in this case Eli Lilly) are the ones funding the research and will, no doubt, be helping fund the testing and implementation.

For what it's worth, I'm not all that concerned with the child who is excessively daydreaming. I'm more concerned with the kid that sits still for four hours at a time filling out packets and somewhere along the line stops daydreaming entirely.

If You Want to Build Grit, Don't Focus on Grit

I believe in grit perseverance. I want my students to persevere in a difficult task. I want them to approach learning with the same willingness to keep struggling that they feel when they try a skateboard trick or master a video game. I don't see struggling as a bad thing. I don't think it's wrong to ask students to keep going even when they don't feel like it.

However, where I break from the "grit" narrative is on the best way to develop this among students. I don't believe that the answer is to make the work harder and then tell the students to just keep working no matter what they think of the task.

Here are some of the conditions that seem to help students develop grit:
  1. Desire: If I want students to work hard at something, it has to begin with desire. It can mean tapping into a child's passion or wonder or joy. It can involve pursuing a geeky interest that grows into an area of expertise. However, I've seen that students will persevere when they are doing something that they love. 
  2. Agency: Students have to feel some sense of freedom. There has to be some level of permission to give up. I know, as a teacher, that this is risky. However, the more a job feels forced, the more students will fail to persevere. 
  3. Permission to Fail: The more students see failure as a part of the journey, the more likely they will be to take risks and keep trying. 
  4. Challenge: Here's where the "gritty group" gets something right. There's nothing wrong with something being really difficult. It's part of what keeps life from being boring. What's important is that kids know that it's safe to mess up and that a teacher will be there to help them back up and have their back in times when they really need it.
  5. Purpose: I see this as different from desire. This is the idea of doing something because it matters. It might be self-serving (in the case of a passionate self-interest) or it might be looking out for others. Or it might be the boring part that has to be done in order for something fun or exciting to work
  6. Scaffolding: I added this one later, but I think this matters. We have to provide certain supports that ensure success. It's the idea that an ELL student might need sentence stems and a chance to play around with language. It's the notion that some kids need calculators and simply saying, "Just keep practicing your facts" won't fix things. 
Sometimes this doesn't work. I have gone inquiry-based, project-based, interest-based and student-centered and yet there are times when a student gives up. I'm not always sure why. Sometimes what starts out as interesting gets dull. Like a song that's overplayed, a child tires of a topic. Other times, a student might be afraid of failing no matter how safe I try to make it. It can be even simpler. There are times when kids don't enjoy the discomfort of deep thinking or revising or dealing with mundane (albeit important) tasks.

Still, I believe that a single-minded focus on grit for the sake of grit doesn't work. Students are most likely to throw themselves into a task regardless of failure when they are consumed with passion and obsessed with a question, topic or idea.

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Character Education

A few days ago, I sat in a room filled with private school teachers meeting to talk about character education. Some talked about giving badges and rewards for students that are caught showing great character. Others described the need for teachers to model great characters and engage students in conversations about their actions.

I left the conversation overwhelmed by the questions. These teachers asked great questions and offered perspectives that I hadn't even considered. Aside from the occasional programs and posters, I don't often hear conversations about developing character in the context of the public school system. Most of our conversations involve raising test scores.

My first thought is that I'm not sure character can be taught so much as developed. I don't have the answers on how we develop it, either. I know that some kids respond well to praise, but that extrinsic rewards can get in the way of ethical thinking. Sometimes what it takes is a reflective conversation. I know that sometimes the natural consequences build up character, but sometimes it also teaches kids to lie and to hide. I know that struggling with a subject can build up resistance, perseverance and character. However, I also know that some kids give up way too quickly.

My second thought is that I've grown the most as a person in the spaces where I had the biggest permission for failure. I'm not sure what this means for schools, but I'm thinking that the policies we have typically don't allow for kids to be vulnerable. Our grading systems often punish kids for having the wrong answer and often places "getting it done quickly" above "master this over time." Our Zero Tolerance policies often tell kids that it's all about punishments and not about being restored. Our lists of rules often place compliance and rule-following about learning how to think ethically.

My final thought is that maybe what kids need the most is an honest, open recognition that we're all flawed. This includes every child and every adult on campus. The human condition is often the lingering, unspoken reality that gets in the way of our best crafted character education programs. The more we take this serious, the faster we are to be patient, to show mercy and to speak truth (instead of being in denial).

Changing What We Can Control

I love the fact that this space exists in my school.

While the opt-out movement continues to grow, I find it interesting that as I talk with kids, they often have a different perspective on the best and worst parts of school. As much as I hate the excessive testing, I am struck by the fact that there are often little things that cause a ton of anxiety. When I talk to people about their current or past schooling experience, here are some of the common things I hear:

  • Bad substitute teachers. I know that there are amazing subs, but I also know that to a young kid, a bad sub can almost be traumatic. 
  • Being forced to change out in P.E. in front of other kids. Or being forced to shower in front of the group.
  • Cafeteria food that tastes horrible. 
  • Bathrooms with stalls that don't lock. 
  • Excessive, meaningless homework.
  • Not enough of a chance to interact socially with peers.  
  • Uncomfortable desks and the fact that you never get to move around.  
  • Adults that believe they are above having to apologize when they screw up. 
  • Harsh words that cut to the core of a kid's identity. Sometimes it's as simple as "your problem is that you're lazy." Other times, it's insensitive statements that aren't even aimed at a particular kid. I remember a kid coming to class in tears, because a new teacher had used "that's gay" as a slur. 
I'm not suggesting that we shouldn't tackle issues like excessive testing or VAM scores or the use of too much lecture. I don't think the average student thinks to complain about a lack of critical thinking. It just becomes a general statement of "it's too easy" or "I'm bored." Similarly, I think the need for student choice might not be something kids vocalize even when it's a deeply human need. 

However, I'm struck that there are many human and environmental things that have little to do with pedagogy and everything to do with the school culture. I've never visited the schools of Tim Lauer or Curt Rees, but I can tell you that I would want my kids going there, because of how those places look and feel from the small glimpses that I've seen. 

We can create places where people want to be. 

And here's where I get a little more optimistic. We might not be able to change VAM scores or state testing in the near future (though we should fight like hell to change it), but we can make sure that the bathroom stalls have locks and the walls aren't all painted off-white. We can make sure that student artwork is framed on the walls and teachers are humble enough to apologize to students. We can ensure that classroom management is functioning at a baseline level so that kids feel safe. We have the power to do away with bad homework and offer more student choice and ask kids to think deeply. 

Even when it doesn't feel like it, there are a lot of things we can control. 

I Am Comic Sans

I used to hate Comic Sans. I hated the kerning. At a grocery store, our manager had once used Comic Sans and Hispanic Foods became His panic Foods. I hated the fact that something designed for kids was used for everything from flower shops to emergency signage (in our district, the blood-borne pathogens emergency sheet was in Comic Sans, because, you know, those pathogens can be pretty funny). I cringed at the "Hitler" and "Holocaust" in Comic Sans on our curriculum maps.

However, I've been thinking about the font. It's awkward. It's funny. It's slightly childish and never feels entirely grown up. It often feels awkward and out of place. But somehow, it became popular despite itself. Somehow it hit mainstream even when it's odd and quirky and childish.

And, on some level, I feel that way: slightly childish, a little out of place, over-reaching on what I'm trying to do and yet somehow being embraced despite my quirky spacing.

I am Comic Sans.

My failure to embrace this font is my failure to embrace that childish, quirky, spacey personality.

So, from here on out, I won't mock Comic Sans. It might be out of place when a nice, clean Bebaus Neue is easier on the eyes. It might feel un-grown-up when a solid Garamond or Minion Pro makes the most sense. But I'll take it as a reminder that we need the childish, the out-of-place, the quirky, the ever-out-of-place Island of Misfits Toys because, on some level, we are all Comic Sans.

April Fools.

I Would Totally Go See It

TED Talks have a distinct style. Say something provocative. Explain to the audience why everything they know about _______ is wrong. Use visual-oriented slides. Pause for dramatic effect. It's part of the branding of TED, even when people do TEDx events.

I'd love to see a TEDxHogwarts. I wouldn't want to see Harry Potter, either. Or Hermione, for that matter. No, I'd love to see Molly Weasley, slightly nervous, getting up there with a ball of yarn and you think she's going to talk about knitting or magic, but it turns out that the real talk is how you find a "happily ever after" when you've faced the losses she's faced.

Or I'd love for Neville Longbottom to talk about bullying and bravery and somehow weave it all into a geeky, fun, passionate talk about herbology.

Or maybe let Hagrid talk about animals. Nothing hidden and metaphorical. In fact, his might be the opposite of what you think: why everything you think about animals is true (that they're wild and safe and unpredictable and beautiful) and, being Hagrid, he'd cry halfway through it.

Then, it strikes me.

I want to go there. I want to meet these characters again. The story is finished. The conflict is gone. But I want to see the characters one more time talking about the things they are passionate about.

And more than that, I want my students to want the same thing -- not necessarily about Harry Potter, but about some type of fiction. I want them to get lost in the story until the characters feel so real that you miss them. That's why we do silent reading and read alouds and trips to the library.

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Good Things Are Happening

I realize that I can be critical about certain aspects of education. I hate the excessive testing and the way it is driving instruction in many schools. I am bothered by homework and by meaningless packets. I want to see more inquiry and deeper thinking. I'm bothered by all the punishments and rewards.

And yet . . .

On friday night, we went to a community event at our sons' school. They got to check out a fire truck and plant seeds and search for a book that they got for free. They met up with their classmates and raced to the science and math games. For two hours, they internalized a message that learning can be fun.

I was struck by the fact that the teachers put this on. They made phone calls. They planned activities. I'm guessing that in some cases, they worked outside of their contract time to put together activities that families would enjoy. They gave up their friday night, because they care about kids and they care about learning.

Our neighborhood school isn't the exception. On any night across America, there are teachers putting on musical concerts and plays and assemblies and art expositions. They're coaching sports and sponsoring clubs. They're meeting with parents and grading papers and tutoring kids. They're editing newspapers that take "student voice" far beyond a simple #chat. They're putting the final touches on yearbook layouts, because they know the power of memory and storytelling.

For all the teacher bashing and public school bashing that goes on in our culture, the reality is that there are thousands upon thousands of amazing, dedicated teachers doing great things. There are small stories that never make the news and never make it into the Twittersphere, but these are the stories that give me hope as a teacher and as a dad.

Take a good look at schools and you'll realize that good things are happening there.

Seven Horrible Things That Really Aren't All That Horrible

Teachers are quick to bash certain practices as obsolete in a twenty-first century classroom (a term which, in itself, seems kind-of obsolete). I've seen posts describing things that are now useless. Watch a Twitter chat and you'll see the same thing. Bad teachers do this. Bad schools do that. You're behind if you use this strategy. However, here are seven things teachers bash that aren't quite as bad as they seem:
  1. Computer labs: I realize that computer labs are a thing of the past. Still, there are many places where students don't have one-to-one access. Even that dreaded, "students are just using this for word processing" concept isn't such a bad thing. Where else are they supposed to type? Keyboards are still more efficient than phones. 
  2. Worksheets: I get it. Packets of worksheets suck. We can all agree on that. However, what about a photocopied article? What about a graphic organizer? It seems that the real issue is how we construct them and when we use them. 
  3. Showing videos: I've been guilty of bashing on videos when the truth is that there are great videos that illustrate concepts. The issue isn't with using videos, but with using videos to replace instruction entirely. 
  4. Lecture: If lectures are so awful, why do people go to theaters? Why do speeches still captivate our attention? Why do students so often say that they enjoy class discussions (which are essentially an interactive version of lectures)? The human voice is powerful. Lectures work when used at the right time for the right purposes. 
  5. Multiple choice tests: I remember bashing multiple choice tests and then turning around and taking a multiple choice personality test. In other words, I was willing to let a test tell me I was an INFJ but I wasn't okay with a test suggesting that a child was poor reader. The truth is that multiple choice tests are okay if they're used sparingly for the purpose of seeing general trends. The problem is we've gone overboard and now we're using them to judge teacher effectiveness. 
  6. PowerPoint: I've seen people bash slideshows and then give presentations with slideshows. PowerPoint only sucks when it is used as a text dump or when it relies on Comic Sans and clipart. However, I've seen students use it well for things like sequencing or for blog posts and I still use slides for bell work and for giving visuals. 
  7. Textbooks: Ah, the dreaded textbook. They're awful, right? Except, the tricky part is how we define them. Is a novel a textbook? Is a non-fiction book a textbook? If they're assigned to a class, it would seem so. And yet, I'm not about to say all books are bad. The issue, again, isn't with the existence of textbooks, but with the constant barrage of boring chapter review questions. 
Bonus: Teaching grammar. Actually, kids sometimes need access to difficult verb tenses and grammar can open the door to understanding a challenging sentence.

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Five False Claims About Homework

I believe that homework should be optional. I respect the desires of parents and students to have additional help if they really want it. However, time at home belongs to the family. I don't believe it's my job to intrude on that time. I think it should be an extracurricular activity, not unlike sports or church or clubs. All of those are great things that lead to learning, but they shouldn't be forced on families that don't wish to participate in them. However, when I mention my thoughts on homework, I almost always hear the following false claims:

Claim #1: Homework builds a work ethic
A work ethic begins with choice, autonomy and meaning. Kids will work really hard at reading if they fall in love with reading. Let them build something and they will spend hours in the zone focussed on the challenge before them.

It's true that there are times when you have to work hard at something even when you don't feel like it. There are boring, challenging, annoying jobs to be done. However, these are called chores. If parents really want to build up a work ethic, I suggest assigning real chores like cleaning toilets or dusting the furniture rather than turning something intrinsically rewarding (like learning) into a chore.

Claim #2: Homework prepares kids for college
This claim is unfair, because college students have a schedule totally unlike K-12 students. They spend half the seat time in classrooms and have a lot more homework. Many of them live away from home. If we want to get serious about easing this transition, high schools might need to embrace a blended model where kids go for half days and then have hours of homework. However, assigning hours of homework while requiring students to sit through school for a full day is essentially saying, "You get all the responsibility of college without any of the freedom."

Claim #3: Homework prepares kids for a career.
Often, this claim is followed with, "As a teacher, do I get to choose if I take home work to grade?" The short answer is yes. Yes, you get to choose. You went to college to become a teacher. You signed up for this gig knowing that you would work extra hours. You get paid for your work. You are a professional. It's true that we, as teachers, deserve a higher pay. It's true that the amount of work we do is too much. However, that doesn't mean kids should be required to do the same.

Kids are a captive audience. They are forced to go to school. They don't choose their area of expertise or their grade level. They're passed through and placed in a context without their choice. That short time after school is their only chance to develop autonomy, pursue interests and build relationships on their terms.

Furthermore, kids are not adults. We don't give a kid a wine bottle because he or she will someday use liquor responsibly. We don't hand keys to a second grader and say, "Take it for a spin, because some day you'll be driving a car."

Claim #4: Homework teaches responsibility. 
In many cases, homework does the opposite. Instead of taking ownership of their own time and using it responsibly, they are nagged by parents and teachers. Walk around a high school hallway and see just how much cheating occurs. Check the essays and see what happens in terms of plagiarism. Notice how many of them aren't reading the assigned novels in English class. When students are forced to do homework, they find ways to rig the system so they can have the free time they deserve. In other words, homework is making cheaters out of students.

Claim #5: Homework lets kids practice skills on their own time.  
This might be true in some cases. However, that's why it should be optional. Many kids don't need extra practice and many who need it the most aren't doing homework at all. When low-performing students practice skills, they often do it wrong, without any supervision. So, they need up practicing things poorly and creating really bad habits that they have to unlearn.

There are better options. First, we need to reorganize our curriculum so that students don't need to spend extra hours practicing skills. In addition, we need to provide help to students at an earlier age. But also, we need to invest in tutoring before and after school so that these students not only have practice, but also get the immediate feedback that they need.

I see a place for homework in some circumstances. If the parents really want it and the child really needs it, then it can be seen as an extra support. Also, if a kid is being lazy in class and wasting time, I can see why a teacher would say, "Go finish this at home. You've already used up your free time goofing off at school." However, I don't see the need to give every child homework. 

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What Lessons Do Kids Learn?

There's a news story floating around this morning about a girl who was suspended for shaving her head in support of a friend with cancer. Not surprisingly, this happened at Caprock Academy, one of those "high expectations," accountability-driven charter schools that dupe parents into believing that a set of rigid rules will lead to lifelong success.

The school required the nine-year old Kamryn Renfro to stay out on the playground instead of learning with her fellow classroom before they eventually suspended her.  Later, the school's board of directed vote three to one to let her come back. That's right. There was still one holdout who felt that rules are rules and if you break them, there aren't exceptions.

So, it has me thinking about the lessons that kids internalize in these situations. Here are a few that come to mind:
  • Appearances matter more than character. That might just be the scariest takeaway from this. 
  • In many systems, there's no place for nuance, for exceptions and for context. 
  • Adults that are charged with caring for children often place rules above people. Some of them continue with that mindset even when the facts require an exception to the rules. 
  • Zero tolerance makes people intolerant. 
  • An apology didn't happen .  .  . at least not yet. And if it does, it won't admit any actual fault for fear of a lawsuit. Again, another scary lesson about the lack of humility from those in charge.
  • The reversal of the decision most likely came from the public relations nightmare and not from a realization that they had done something wrong. The lesson here is that many people in charge care more about avoiding trouble than doing what's right. 
  • Rules are sometimes arbitrary and need to be broken. When that happens, people in power will view you as a rebel and a threat.