Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Arm Wrestling 101

Last week I arm wrestled 14 of the biggest students in Akron, Ohio. In 14 separate assemblies in 4 high schools in Akron, I had the task of sharing with the students results of their My Voice survey and asking for their assistance interpreting those numbers and helping the school improve.  Borrowing from Stephen Covey, at the start of each assembly I made a lot of noise about growing up in New York City (close: Jersey City), being an arm wrestling champion in high school (I was in theater), of setting up intramural arm wrestling at Boston College (I helped found a performing arts council), and of knowing that I could pin any student 20 times in 30 seconds.  "The only question," talking the best smack my acting background could muster, "was whether any student in the auditorium thought they could pin me 20 times in 30 seconds."  The testosterone that filled half the assembly hall took care of the rest.

So each time I brought up one of the biggest students in the room.  Each time I flexed a bicep and gave him a chance to back out.  Each time I told him there were two candy bars at stake for 20 pins in 30 seconds. And each time we started the timer, I looked the student in the eye and said, "I want you to win" and put up no fight the first three times. Pin. Pin. Pin. Then I stopped and fought and started the object lesson. "Look at the timer ticking down.  There is no way you can pin me 20 times without my help. Let's cooperate.  You pin me 20 (I let him win again...4) and you let me pin you 20.  Let's cooperate.  There is no way this can happen unless we do that."  Some of the kids pinned me 5 or 6 times.  One young man pinned me 18 times (remember 4 were freebies!) but not 20, not without my help.

About half of the young men got it.  They put aside ego and picked up two candy bars.  The other half could not get there and if they couldn't pin me those one or two times more, it was a stalemate and they walked away empty handed. They understood what I was asking them to do, but could not make the switch from a Win-Lose mindset to a Win-Win mindset. After the fun, teaching the lesson about how high school was like a ticking clock and that they and their teachers would likely stay stuck...same drop out rate, same amount of boredom, same amount of respect for one another...if they didn't start working together was easy. When teachers and students start thinking Win-Win with each other, beginning by listening to the voice of students and taking their point of view seriously, amazing things can happen.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Got Homework?

Every few weeks or so an article pops up in the news about homework.  Yesterday, the Boston Globe (which I won't link too because they are starting a pay for use program on their website) had one discussing some new and, as ever, inconclusive evidence.  For math, yes; for english and social studies, no.  Or something like that.  The disappointment was that the study used data from 1988.  "Anyone working in schools think homework has changed much since 1988?" he asked, on a blog, using the internet.

More helpful are articles like the one last week in the New York Times reporting about the usefulness of "spaced repetition." Or learning about the school district in Los Altos that is using Khan Academy to flip its math classrooms: learn the material at home on Khan Academy and come to school to do homework type activities when a teachers assistance would be most helpful.

Most of the articles, the Globe included set up a false dichotomy between kids who hate homework on the one hands and parents and teachers who like homework on the other.  But this is false.  Kids don't hate doing extra academic type work at home.  They hate busy work.  Work that doesn't contribute to their learning.  I know a third grader who spent a great deal of free time for months collecting shark teeth and researching sharks on the internet. I know a fifth grader who, having learned about Pangea in school wrote a movie script about a group of kids who time traveled back to see if the theory was accurate.--not for homework, but for fun.  I know many, many students who read books outside of those assigned in school.

The question is not whether homework works or not.  Student can, do, and want to learn outside of the classroom.  The question is: How do we assign homework that students actually want do do?

Monday, September 12, 2011

Fall Out

I have a five year old friend who has been in school for about a week now. When I asked him how school is going, he reported, "I had a great day today. I learned something which I forget, and had outdoor recess." He captures it, doesn't he? Not just the one day, but the entire experience. When I look back at my entire educational experience, like Tom, I can say honestly, "I had a great educational experience, I learned somethings which I have forgotten, and had outdoor recess"--I played with friends at sports and in co-curricular activities, we ate animated lunches together discussing the latest liaisons, we receded from the academic grind into crisp fall days, and slushy New York winters, and bright spring afternoons.
Undoubtedly there is an accumulation of learning and knowledge which persist despite the memory gaps in the particulars of every math or science or history class. What I think Tom's response calls attention to is the fact that from the student's side of the school experience, as distinct from the adult's side, the real energy, the part that sticks with you, is what happens "outside" explicit learning experiences--in the interactions between teachers and students, over lunch with some students, inside a football or soccer stadium when students see their teachers supporting something they love to do. In a sense, everything not directly curricular is co-curricular and has the potential to engage students in meaningful ways. This is the "fall out" of having the privilege of interacting with young people for six or seven hours every day.  
When you consider your busy week ahead, what time can you give to a recess outside--literally and figuratively?

Friday, September 9, 2011

What's New?

And so begins another school year. In the past three weeks, I have participated in one way or another in opening events in 6 school districts. In one I was an opening day keynoter, in another I had students helping me deliver professional development via a systems game to their teachers, and in the others it was straight out pre-student arrival PD about Aspirations. By all accounts, schools have never been busier. It wouldn't be too big a stretch to say that before a single student sat at a desk, administrators and teachers were already feeling behind. They were excited, eager, and energetic and wondering how they had already been lapped when the official starting pistol had yet to be fired.

This year the new entry seems to be 21st Century Skills. But schools are not adopting that effort as a replacement to improving literacy or numeracy--or just coming online science and/or social studies testing. They are not side-lining common core standards or dropping their new anti-bullying program to work on Innovation and Collaboration. 21st Century Skills, the PD associated with it, the time committed to it in classrooms, the effort to assess whether the skills are being taught or not is not being done in lieu of the dozens of other initiatives schools have adopted over the years. It is just being added--some might say "piled"--on.

The big question is: Is this sustainable? All the programs are good programs. All the skills--from traditional literacy skills to the more avant guarde communication--seem critical to teach if our students are to be successful. But where will already breathless educators find the stamina to keep up this pace? One answer is from the students themselves. Not just as inspiration for doing whatever it takes, but also as partners in the effort. That's a goal I have for this year: Helping the schools I support develop deeper and fuller partnerships between teachers and students.

What's new at your school?