The Opportunities Afforded by Authenticity (aka, Watching Moana with My Kids) #TeacherMom

I know a Disney movie has nailed it for me when I find myself repeatedly playing the songs in my head without tiring of it. Moana was just such a film.

But what I loved even more than the strong characters, plot, and score was respectful care that went into representing Polynesian culture. A bonus features documentary shared the production crew’s visits and connections with the people of Fiji, Samoa, Tahiti, and other islands, expressing the heartfelt desire to portray their culture in a way that would be authentic and recognizable. As one of the Tahitian cultural experts said,

“Our culture is very important for us because it’s the spirit, it’s the soul for our island. It carries values. It carries our life.” ~Hinano Murphy

The documentary highlighted many different cultural elements studied, including music, navigation, coconut use, tattoos, and more. But what really caught my 6 year-old’s attention was the Haka.

She was especially interested in the facial expressions and tongue waggling — in her experience, such behavior indicated silliness, but she sensed an alternate purpose.

So we watched a couple videos, including an emotional Haka performed at a wedding, and one the New Zealand All Blacks Team performs. We discussed the meaning, the unity, and the strength. We discussed sacred traditions within cultures, and how we should turn our hearts toward understanding rather than disdain when we encounter something we don’t initially understand.

I was proud of her respectful response. And not only did our discussion lead to her recognizing aspects of her own culture, but she was also able to make connections in subsequent days to other unfamiliar cultural gestures (such as kissing cheeks in greeting).

Had Disney not been as dedicated to an authentic representation of the culture, this learning opportunity would have been lost (or worse, she would have gained a skewed perspective).

To me, this was a reminder of the critical role of authenticity in education. Wherever possible, we must seek out the honest and shun the watered-down. Not only will this give our students a more accurate view of the world around them, but their learning experiences will be richer for it.

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

Our Best Intentions…

We put up behavior charts with the intent to recognize the positive just as often (or more often) than the negative…

…but how often is it truly used to do anything more than monitor those few “naughty kids?”

We create class bucks for our students to earn for stellar work (and maybe to learn a bit of economics)…

…but how often do they end up fining just a few kids, and/or regularly overlooking those steady, dependable kids?

And we designate special accolades to honor students for “being really good…”

via MrsMeganMorgan

…but for the large pool of (rather disappointed) children who meet that vague standard, does it end up doing more harm than good as they wonder what more they could have done for such recognition?

(And we’ve all heard the argument that “Someday they might hope to be employee of the month, and not everyone gets to be that either, so let’s prepare them for that now” — but I believe that’s an apples and oranges argument for the simple reason that these are children. Who work so hard to please and do their teachers and parents proud).

Yes, we want to notice the good. We want to stay organized. We want a smoothly-functioning classroom. But I can’t help but wonder if all our energies spent toward making those charts, buying those prizes, and creating fancy spotlights (having done all those things myself in the past) would be better spent with just simple, daily relationship-building…

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

Inquiry Into Our Common Ground

This week’s provocation is inspired by this powerful video by Asger Leth (please note that this is not part of the intended provocation for your students as it may be unsuitable for children). 

“There’s more that brings us together than we think.”

Whether you hope to address existing contention in your classroom or to proactively build a stronger sense of community, this provocation aims to unearth more empathy, respect, and common ground.

Resource #1: Step In the Box If…

This resource is an activity I learned from an adult team building exercise a couple years ago. It goes something like this:

1. The leader puts tape on the ground in the shape of a large box, with the participants standing around outside it.

2. The leader starts by asking participants to “Step in the box if…” for fairly innocuous topics, such as, “…if you are wearing jeans today.” “…if you like sports.” “…if you love chocolate.”

3. The leader then asks participants to “Step in the box if…” for more personal concepts: “…if you are nervous about school this year.” “…if you have ever felt like you don’t belong.” “…if you have ever felt afraid.” “…if you have big ideas to change the world.” “…if you are responsible to take care of a younger sibling.” “…if you love someone who has a disability.”

Resource #2: Shawn’s Paper from “Turkey Day,” Season 4, Episode 10 of Boy Meets World (in which Shawn’s and Cory’s families try to come together for Thanksgiving but find discomfort with their social class distinctions)

Provocation Questions:

  • Where does the phrase “common ground” come from?
  • How do people find things they share in common?
  • How does it impact communities when people search for what they have in common?
  • How does it impact individuals when they search for what they have in common with others?
  • What is the relationship between finding what you share in common with others and being true to makes you different?
  • How is finding common ground connected to respect?

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

If Only Parents Would…

My initiation to the parent side of the school table was abrupt and rather unpleasant. It was the first of many moments over the last two years that would expand my perspective and empathy as an educator. I have been reflecting lately on my old list of things I wished parents would do:

If only parents would

  • Practice spelling with their students for just a couple minutes each night.
  • Check their child’s backpack every day.
  • Sign the reading log.
  • Help their child practice math facts at home.

Interestingly enough, now that I have a first grader myself, my wish list for her teachers have very little to do with the list above:

If only teachers would

  • See my child as a person–not a benchmark result–first.
  • Help her con-construct meaning for herself rather than rely on worksheets.
  • Focus less on compliance and control and more on student voice/choice and ownership.

When I examine these two lists carefully, I have a few important takeaways:

  • My old “if only parents” list was more focused on grades and standards.
  • My new “if only teachers” list is more about student autonomy and powerful learning.
  • When I return to the classroom, my new “if only parents” list will undergo at least 2 important changes:
    • It will be transparent and more collaborative in nature (I hope it will become less of an “if only” list and more of an ongoing dialogue with parents).
    • It will stop assuming that parents who don’t worry about grades aren’t concerned about learning (because they are most certainly not one and the same).
  • Getting on the same page as teachers and parents is easier when we stop making assumptions and start finding better communication channels (not just #StudentVoice, but #ParentVoice, too).
  • I need to make it a point to find out my future students’ parents’ “If only teachers would” lists (ie, while I would personally be inclined to do away with homework altogether, I will be sure to work with parents to find out their thoughts and needs for their individual children).

Do you spot any other tips for me? How have you improved parent/teacher communication?

featured image: clogsilk

Inspiring Inquiry: On Refugees

I’ve shared resources about refugees before, but a new piece has recently captured my attention.

It consists of a series of photos of refugee high school students relocated in Boise, Idaho. Depending on the ages of your students, the article itself might be a little beyond your students, but the captions for each photo were what interested me most. There is something powerful about viewing a picture of seemingly ordinary teens alongside their stories that are anything but ordinary.

Provocation Questions:

  • What is the value of sharing our stories?
  • How does the process of refugee relocation work?
  • Why are there refugees?
  • What is the difference between a refugee and a migrant?
  • What challenges do refugees face, even after they are settled in a new, safe home?

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

If Teacher PD Looked Like Popular Pinterest Pins

In “An Open Letter: To Pinterest, From a Teacher,” I reflected upon why certain pins so heavily circulate around the education community despite their lack of learning value. Since then, I’ve continued to wonder on the matter, especially as debates have ensued over the subject of compliance. A recent post by PYP educator Taryn Bond Clegg further pushed my thinking, particularly when she writes:

“…there were some things that surprised me about adult learners – the very same things that used to frustrate me as a classroom teacher. I have started to wonder if these similarities might have more to do with being a human, than being a child.”

This perspective has placed a new lens on my reflections. Namely, what if those pins were applied to teachers themselves?

Drawing from some of the most popular pins I’ve seen time and again, I created 6 images to further drive the discussion.

1

As Taryn says in a comment on her post, “I wonder how I would react if the facilitator took my device away, shut my screen, flipped my device over, called me out publicly or “moved my clip” down the colour chart…”

2

Some of the items on this list might be legitimately appealing, but that’s not the point. The true pride in and intrinsic motivation for our work is degraded when it is turned into such a carrot-and-stick exercise. As Alfie Kohn recently wrote,

“When we deal with people who have less power than we do, we’re often tempted to offer them rewards for acting the way we want because we figure this will increase their level of motivation to do so.”

 

3

The playfully spirited teacher may think, what a low-key and silly way to get students’ attention when they are off-task! But when we truly consider the function of establishing true mutual respect with students, it becomes clear that such communication can only erode it. After all, no matter how playful the intent, it still reinforces your ultimate authority and their ultimate subordination.

 

4

Hand signals may seem benign, and indeed there may be specific instances where they are useful (ie, quick whole-class comprehension check, etc). However, when we outline an entire arsenal of codes for students to silently convey basic needs like going to the bathroom or grabbing a new pencil, we single-handedly undermine their ability to solve their own problems appropriately, along with our trust in their ability to do so.

 

5

At first glance, this one may not seem to be about classroom management. However, experience has taught me that these kinds of worksheets are more about control than learning; they are usually utilized in hopes to keep everyone else “busy” during guided reading or other small group times. But of course, such a sheet will no more make teachers tech-savvy than cylinder sheets will make students adept mathematicians. But if it were replaced with actually using Twitter itself…

 

6

It might not be so bad when all the other teachers start out on the low end of the spectrum, too. But as time passes, how would you feel to see the numbers moving further and further away from yours–because even without names attached, you know exactly where your scores stand? One might argue, “But it’s a great way to motivate,” but is it really? Is demoralizing someone by reminding them of everyone else’s superior performances the best way to elevate effort? As a study cited in this Washington Post article found, “many well-intentioned teachers…appeared to be using data with students in ways that theoretically may have diminished the motivation they initially sought to enhance.”

What about you? Have you seen Pins that could hinder more than help the teacher/student relationship? What are your views on the ones I’ve shared? I’d love to learn with you!

featured image: Highways England

Current Events, a Controversial Read Aloud, & Changes I Can Make to Better Promote Peace

Nearly five years ago, I selected One Crazy Summer for my fifth graders’ end-of-day read aloud. In it, three young sisters are sent to spend a summer with their mother in Oakland, California in 1968, amidst intense developments in the civil rights movement. While the themes of the book are many, race is a prominent issue, mostly presented through the girls’ involvement with a Black Panthers day camp.

As I taught in a mostly middle-class white suburban area, I viewed the book as a great opportunity to discuss civil rights. Still in the naivety of second-year teaching, I was surprised when one student started to be picked up about 15 minutes early every day–to avoid read aloud time. When I asked about it, my student explained the family’s viewpoint that “Lil Bobby” Hutton (whose death the girls were to protest in a march with their day camp) was “a thug” that provoked the police.

At first I was shocked. Then disappointed. After all, didn’t the parents trust that we were having open-ended and lively discussions with every issue raised? Didn’t they see the benefit of considering multiple opinions? Didn’t they know that I would never try to indoctrinate my students with my personal opinions on sensitive issues?

Over time, those emotions faded into the swirl of the years, but I never quite forgot the incident. But in light of the tragic recent events in Baton Rouge, Falcon Heights, Dallas, and more, this memory has resurfaced, and with it, reflections turning inward. How could I have handled the read aloud differently to help this family feel more comfortable with difficult subjects? How can I better use my role as a teacher to promote peace in the future? 3 ideas have come to mind:

  1. I can avoid assumptions. Everyone has a story, and I can’t even begin to understand the intricacies of every family’s background experience in shaping their current perspectives. But it is unacceptable for me to assume a reason for their sensitivity to or withdrawal from something we do in the classroom.

My job is not to help students to “see the light” in favor of my opinions. Rather, it is to encourage them to ask their own questions and to analyze information as independent and confident learners. Some families may misunderstand even this simple motive if their child appears to start coming home questioning their opinions or family values. Which is why the next two steps are so important.

  1. I can preface potentially controversial topics with reassurances. No matter how much I’ve worked to build mutual trust with parents throughout the year, at no point am I “done” in that endeavor–especially when we are about to ford hazardous waters. No parent is ever going to respond well to what is even perceived as a “teacher knows best” mindset, even more so when the issue might be emotionally charged.

In the future, I will be sure to dedicate a post on our class blog with not just background on the book or activity, but more importantly, with information on differing perspectives and the respect with which we will be treating that diversity.

  1. I can share student conversations. Once we get going, I can continue to promote transparency by documenting and sharing the discourse. A SoundCloud snippet, a YouTube video, photos of visible thinking routines–the options are abundant for giving parents a window to see for themselves the impact of open dialogue.

Of course, some of those discussions might be more spontaneous; if that’s the case, this sharing would be even more essential for parents to gain insight on the quality of the dialogue happening in our classroom. (In fact, the more I think about it, the more I think it would be worthwhile to replace my inspirational quote of the day component with a student dialogue of the day section…).

I know this is just a start to changes I can make. But any step toward promoting greater mutual understanding, trust, and compassion for students and their families to engage in a safe environment is one step closer to a more peaceful future.

I would love to learn from your experiences or recommendations. Please share in the comments below!

Featured image: Lisa Ouellette