#Blogamonth Something Old, Something New…

No, I am not preparing for a wedding, but this traditional phrase that guides brides in the moments leading up to the big day felt like such a perfect organizational fit to share some thoughts about the start to the school year.

At Davis, there is such energy, pace, optimism, and excitement throughout the year that sometimes in the dog-days of summer, we forget that when we ramp it up in mid-August, there generally is very little dip or lull, save for the holidays and breaks.   We like it that way.

Starting with something old…

The first book I ever read in its entirety was A Separate Peace by John Knowles.   I went on to teach that book as an English teacher for most of my years in the classroom.   I find it to be the archetype for bildungsroman literature for adolescents.   At Davis, we are fortunate to have an iconic language arts teacher in Susan Fields, who likewise has a deeply passionate commitment to using this text with 8th graders.

This week, I happened past her class while they were doing a “grab-bag” activity.   Susan sets a collection of meaningful quotes related to the Knowles novel (from other sources) on the table and each student takes a turn in this hot seat.  First each selects a quote that he/she finds most relevant to the story, then the student explains what the quote means independent of the book, then in relation to the text.

Poking my head into the classroom to capture a moment of the magic that happens in that space, I was summoned by teacher and students to sit in the hot seat.   Of course, I was more than ecstatic to oblige.

For the next 30 minutes or so, we engaged in a deep, meaningful and quite frankly FUN conversation about Finny, Gene, Leper and the rest of the characters from the Devon School.   This trip down memory lane reminded me of so many discussion just like this one that I was fortunate to share with students over the years.

….and something NEW

Later that day, we took our second step in a new journey that we have developed for our 8th graders, which is using the TED Ed Club platform for our 8th grade advisory projects.   The 8th grade project is ever-evolving, but at the core has always been passion-based, choice-based, research-driven, expertise-manifesting, creative expressions that we share with our community.  Our existing best practices are an ideal fit to align with the philosophical basis of the Clubs- Ideas Worth Sharing.   Our students will develop ideas, research towards expertise, use design thinking strategies, and create and execute a vision for sharing with newly nurtured presentation literacy.   One of the culminating steps of the program is to upload the presentations to the TED Ed Club youtube channel for possible selection by the facilitators of the program to be featured publicly.   Our students are excited by this challenge- and we are sure the challenge will bring out the best in them.

As I thought about what “something borrowed” might be,  I realized that the basis for our schedule that we used for our incredible 8th grade retreat was based on a former schedule.   As we re-designed this experience for the Class of 2017, we leaned on the logistical and timing structures that had already been in place to create fresh programming, that coupled with the right people (kids and chaperones), in the ideal place yielded a 36 hour odyssey that transcended the expectations for this trip.

At every moment of the past couple days at camp with the kids, the adults had the simultaneous feeling of being impressed with how well the kids embraced all we were doing, while not being remotely surprised because of the character and leadership of this group.   Fatigued, but energized by the experience, we returned to school more galvanized as a kehilla.

As for something blue?  That is easy- my favorite of all the Davis gear I own- my Blue Davis Ruach shirt that I wore during the first day of the retreat!  We are kehilla, we are chochma, we are tzedek, we are kavod- and on the retreat, in our classrooms, at Kabbalat Shabbat, and everywhere else- we show tremendous RUACH!

 

So a little bit of the “NEWS” here and with me.

#Blogamonth Summer Bucket Filling

When my friend told me the topic of this month’s revival of the #Blogamonth challenge, I laughed and asked if I should write about filling my bucket literally or figuratively. 

If you know anything about me, aside from the incredible opportunity am privileged and humbled to experience each day as a member of the Davis Academy community as an educator and a parent, you know I also “moonlight” as a farmer.  (Moonlight in air quotes as I see alot of moonlight in the early am hours). 

This summer, our female goat Totes (yep, Totes my goat) gave birth and thus we are, as they say, “in milk”.  So from a literal point, I fill my brand new stainless steel bucket (father’s day gift) with sweet, creamy goat’s milk every day. 

So while this is literal, the anecdote also manifests some figurative bucket filling.  Being 2 years into the farming journey, the learning curve continues to be perpendicular.  Further, as I have always believed, the patterns in nature, in farming reflect and illuminate patterns in other parts of the human experience. 

Watching the eerily adolescent social behaviors between hens and roosters, observing the fascinating loyalty and incredible intelligence of a paddling of ducks, the absolutely comical keystone cop stupidity of our turkeys, our remarkable mini donkey and the qualities she displays as a leader, exemplar, and loyal member of our homestead kehilla, and a variety of other lessons we can learn from livestock inspire us seek parallel patterns amongst the human flock. 

Further, the patient yeoman ‘ s work to preserve the organic quality of a garden in the face of pests just begging you to nuke them with chemicals can sometimes be the bane of my daily existence.

But amidst it all, I have filled my bucket in other very meaningful and purposeful ways, too.  

We took the best family vacation ever and had so much fun at the happiest place on earth. It was the first time all four of us really loved the experience.  We took our pop up and did the trip camp out style.  It certainly filled some family time bucket.  Sharing both the parks and the periphery was special. A highlight no doubt was the evening we returned from Magic Kingdom and the kids broke into Ashrei at the bus stop- with music responsive mucky ears in full regalia.

On a professional level, I have been tackling 2 pretty big new areas that have me growing in a way that will allow me to support teachers, students and parents in the years to come.   Immersing myself in early elementary reading strategies and a new math curriculum have been significant  areas of exciting growth for me.  The collective pursuits have led to research, conversation, questions and growth.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that I currently have George Couros’ #Innovator’sMindset and Spencer and Guiliani ‘ s Launch on the Kindle. And my summer tradition of reading an old favorite has me diving into Chopin ‘ s The Awakening on the nightstand in its full hard copy glory.  

Twitter, Voxer, blog reading, and some upcoming EdCamps round out a full summer. 

Ultimately, when I think about the summer, my main goal was to get some rest while taking opportunities to grow when they presented themselves. 

So far, bucket filling mission accomplished.

#OCA’s: Intentionality with Homework

There are very few more polarizing topics in education, regardless of environment, than the discussions centered around homework. 

The mere word evokes responses backed by a near unwavering passionate faith in the reasoning behind the response. 

Many hail homework as integral to rigor, requisite for high level academic experiences, and central in developing accountability in students. 

Others claim there is no research that supports growth in any of these areas and hold it up as another example of an antiquated education system that is potentially more harmful than nurturing. 

There are then the majority that falls somewhere in between the two extremes. 

Whatever an educator’s position, being intentional about approach and communicating purpose on a regular basis are of utmost importance. 

Here are some thoughts on developing such intentionality. 

First, call it something else.  The reality is that with increasing frequency, these activities are not being completed at home. 

Further, the word work is in some of the most cringe-evoking terms in all of Ed-dom.  “Busy work” and “worksheet” are some major  components of the aforementioned antiquated system.

So what do we call it?

I like OCA.  Out-of-class Activities.  

Activities that students do outside of class to achieve a specific objective that renders the time and effort immediately relevant to learning. 

What are the objectives we should be intentional about achieving when assigning OCAs?

I thought for a long while on the types of assignments that I assigned as a classroom teacher, and what many of the teachers with whom I shared a learning community have assigned.  (A 9 hour car ride affords such deep exploration).

Ultimately the most meaningful, purposeful assignments fall into one of 4 categories.  

Practice
Preparation
Pursuit
Projects

I wonder if we explained to students and parents the nature and purpose of each category, then used the category label when giving the assignment, how much better all would understand “why” and thus make more meaningful the effort invested?

I also wonder how such intentionality would support teacher practice in making any work for students to engage in outside of class immediately relevant to what is happening in the classroom. 

That last part, immediate relevance, represents my own personal pre requisite for all OCA- is the activity immediately relevant to what is happening in the classroom?

If not, then the activity is probably work, meaningless, and not intentional. 

Before moving on the discuss each of the 4 P’s, it is important to share two more thoughts. 

1) One of the most dangerous attitudes in education is that there should be equity amongst teachers when it comes to this type of outside of class effort.   The reality is that not all classes “need” to assign an equal piece of the out of class activities. When teachers get territorial about the work they assign, the intentionality goes out the window. 

2) Homework does not equate to rigor, quality academics, challenging teachers, or a good school.   That sort of thinking is why busy work and work sheets exist and are likely wasting our children’s collective time. 

Ultimately, teachers should assign OCA’s when there is a meaningful intention.  

Let’s consider what it would look like if teachers were to label homework assignment according to objective.  Please note these categories are merely a brainstorm, not a tried and true lexicon. 

If the work is preparation for the next day, a student might be reading or watching a video that provides a context or background information for the following day’s lesson.  The student knows that the purpose is to gain this requisite background for the following day’s lesson.  They know why they are doing the work.  The flipped classroom model is a great example of using OCA to set up the immediate learning in the classroom. 

If the work is practice, whether of existing skills, of new skills or skills required to attack new concepts or problems the following day, then the student knows that the practice is relevant to future learning activities.   Even if the skills are those that have been previously mastered, a student knows why the skills are being revisited. 

Perhaps the work is of a higher level a d thus the pursuit of mastery with new skills.  These activities nurture a number of different skills.  If the OCA requires students to attack concepts, questions, problems that they have not seen before, but possess requisite skills to succeed, then we are looking at reasoning skills, and more important, the ability to iterate-fail-reflect and iterate again.   Further, these assignments inspire in students an exploration of what they don’t know, resourcefulness in finding those answers which includes self-advocacy in asking the teacher for help.  

The key here is that the student knows when he or she leaves that classroom that this will be the nature of the OCA.  It is intentional that the work might be in that Vygotskian zone of proximal development, likely lessening any frustration during the process and inspiring in the student the desire to advocate and ask good questions about the assignment.

Before I go on, it is important to note that when assigning OCA’s, teachers must be mindful that students have prerequisite skills to grow from the intended objectives.   For example,  an assignment might require students to build compound words by cutting and pasting words into a template, but if the student is weak with cutting and pasting skills, are the compound word building skills being developed or is something else getting in the way? Might we mistake a child’s fine motor challenges to be literacy challenges?  Again, thoughtful intentionality is integral. 

The last category is projects. These are significantly more substantial assignments that require an ever evolving skills set, are assigned over longer periods of time, and are engrained with a complexity that builds and manifest both academic and organization skills. 

Typically, teachers are most intentional with assigning projects.   Rubrics, instructions, respurces, check ins etc.  In fact, projects generally encompass the other OCA objectives of preparation, practice, and pursuit.   

Amidst all of this verbiage it is important to acknowledge once again that assigning student work beyond the classroom is not essential, required, integral etc. Each teacher needs to make decisions about what is best for student growth. I see excellent teachers guiding students through a process of teaching, modeling, guiding practice, providing feedback and nurturing mastery every day in our classrooms. If the high level process happens daily in class, perhaps the need for out of class process is less or not at all.

Ultimately, whatever the approach a teacher, school etc take with regards to how we assign student activities to be completed outside the classroom, being intentional and communicating that intention clearly renders the effort more meaningful, purposeful and immediately relevant. 

 

What Great Writing Teachers Do

This past spring, a teacher in our building came to me with a simple question about how to enhance the reading group experience for some of her more savvy third grade readers.   She wanted to talk about how setting affects a story.  So we chatted about a few nuances of setting and its role in a book.  About a week later, she approached me with a few follow up questions for her process.   At that point, I merely chalked it up to a teacher growing her practices for delivering and leading an excellent reading group experience for her students.

Not too long after that, the teacher came to me to share the fruits of her work with her students.   Her third graders developed multi-paragraph literary essays explaining how three types of setting: natural, manufactured, and cultural, were important to the short book they had read together.   Needless to say, I was blown away by this game-changing example of student writing.   In a time when we are reviewing and growing our writing program, this work represented the possibilities that exist when an already established, successful teacher sees opportunity, asks questions, trusts her students, and has a skill set to make accessible seemingly “too advanced” material.

I shared the samples with teachers across the continuum as exemplary work done in third grade.   Ultimately, I had the “aha” moment that the student work was not the most important take-away from the process.  What was most impressive is that a teacher made this process accessible to her students, guided them through scaffolded instruction, provided a model, and gave actionable feedback.

Not only was the product fabulous, but the soaring confidence also made the process fun for the kids.   Ultimately, this is what great writing teachers do- they make accessible even the most challenging processes, content, concepts, and material, lead students to success that breed a sense of accomplishment that evokes joy in the composite experience.

Not to rest on any laurels, the same teacher approached me late in the year in the hallway with a simple question: Do you have a copy of the compare-contrast strategies?  Apparently there was a shift in schedule and she had a free block.  Spontaneously, she took the strategies for developing a writing piece using this rhetorical mode, applied it to current classroom content and led her whole class on a successful journey to create an essay comparing and contrasting the book they read and the movie based thereon.

The following week, I got a call to visit her room as the kids were completing the process.   The energy and pride in the room was palpable- students gathering around teacher to enthusiastically share their work.

 

This is what great teachers do.

Flexible Spaces: Breviloquis

While we are purposeful in our design process in creating learning spaces wherein our students and teachers can engage and grow each day, the true flexibility and verve lie in the collective imagination of the educators in our community.  To that end, even the “traditional” classroom is invariably transformed to provide optimal environs for learning; whether we are easily shifting table alignment for meaningful differentiation, allowing our students to use any surface as a creative canvas,  transforming a space into a scene on the praire complete with a campfire and tent, or converting the space to simulate a geological dig,  the manifestation of the simplistic flexibility is found throughout the building. 

Beyond the homeroom, we continue to explore, study, adopt, and develop innovative learning space design.  Our idea labs allow all learners to flex their curiosities in liberating collaborative spaces.  Our Nature Sanctuary empowers our learners to discover the elemental rhythms and patterns in nature, while they strive to elucidate for themselves and their peers the connections the natural patterns have to our own values, learning, and relationships. 

Ultimately, the organicism of our mindset transcends the physical space and flashy tangibles, making the physical structure of our buildings and campuses merely a new age manipulative to fit our ever evolving vision for what is best for our learners (students, teachers,administrators, and parents).

A Fine Line

Working with elementary age students who are learning about navigating their social interactions while also learning math, science, language arts, and so on, I have frequently been asked by parents trying to help guide their children about the concept of tattling.

The context has typically revolved around my generation’s conviction that one should not be a “tattle tail”, thus we have aspired to imbed this dogma in our children so as to save them from the social stigma of being laden with this moniker. 

Ironically, our generation is also likely the first to so unwaveringly embrace and pursue our children advocating for themselves in all areas of their lives. 

I recently had a conversation where the question was asked “what’s the difference?”

While I have always had an internal sense of the difference, the fabulous question forced me to articulate it. 

When a child talks to an adult (teacher, parent, coach etc) in response to being hurt, feeling fear, or needing help to navigate or learn, that represents self-advocating.  However, when a child talks to an adult in an effort to share information that can place a peer in a position of being uncomfortable as a result of the action the adult might take, that is tattling. 

In essense, the fine line is motive.  If the motive is for one to help him or herself navigate, grow, and attain greater comfort then the behavior is one of advocacy.  Conversely, when the motive is to bring discomfort to another, then we must continue to help those who show the latter actions understand the negative effect of those social choices. 

It is a fine line, but one worth defining more clearly for our children and students so as to continue to support their social navigations. 

What it Takes

Invariably each year, I am called on to chat with a young student-athlete about priorities, organization, and simply “what it takes” to be successful in both academic and athletic endeavors.

Having had the good fortune to have worked with a number of student- athletes who have gone on to high levels of success in both areas, I have gleaned from those models a set of intangibles that seem to be common amongst them. 

Whether the student-athlete played D3 basketball or plays for the Phoenix Suns, is a linebacker at Colgate or a lacrosse midfielder at Hofstra, played soccer at Harvard, walked on at Ohio State, or won super bowl rings in the NFL. All of these examples shared a couple things in common. 

When I speak with young, ambitious student-athletes, I share these examples with a caring candor that I hope and trust will resonate. 

It is always important to empathize that a major part of ascending to great heights as a student athlete lies in what I call the “God-givens”, the measurables.  However, our cultural canon is laden with characters who have defied the traditional model of success in their area by overcoming the lack of ideal measurables.  These folks have been blessed with other “God-givens”, intangibles, unmeasurables that have been the catalysts in their success.

I illuminate these examples as well so as to exemplify the importance of the intangibles.  

The most important intangible I share is simple:

What do those who succeed do when nobody is looking, when there is nobody to perform for, nobody to coach or teach them, nobody pushing them?

What do they do when they are out of the classroom, off the playing surface?

What is their mindset about preparation, growth, overcoming obstacles, facing challenges, enduring pain & failure, strengthening weakness?

The best, most successful student-athletes have in common an immeasurable intangible that is catalytic in driving them to work on their crafts away from the classrooms and playing surface, when nobody is watching, with no immediate consequence or reward, no scores and no grades. 

It is what they do when nobody is watching that makes all the difference  when everybody is doing so.