Category Archives: 6. Big Picture

A collection of posts about Big Picture approach to education.

First thing he has ever built

My Principal said she “needed a good story today”. I sent her a pic, here is the short story. You might as well read it too.

Meet Dennis*, an often disengaged 13 year old at our school.

He is in my woodwork class. He missed a couple of weeks at the start of term but has been regular, especially last couple of weeks. He designed, marked out, cut, hand planed, sanded, drilled, glued, clamped, nailed and polished that toolbox. He said it was the “first time he has ever built something”. He mucked up a few corners, cut things a bit short, split a bit of wood but he persisted. He did not give up. He fussed about sanding it “just right”. He used power tools in a safe way at all times. He reminded himself in front of me to put his safety glasses back on. He helped me clean up, charge tool batteries. He helped a kid bang the box together when the kid whacked their finger and couldn’t do it. He told a friend to stop mucking around. He had the biggest smile on his face when done.

He made his first thing at the age of 13 and thought it was really cool. His reflection sheet reads like this (I scribed for him, verbatim, in a busy, noisy workshop):

– Good things about this project? Why?  It was cool because it’s the first time I built something.

– Worst things? Why? The handle, it was too big, then I had to cut it but it didn’t work.

– Most challenging, tricky part? Why? Banging the nails because I whacked my finger.

– Easiest part? Why? Putting the side bits on because it was easy.

– Three things you did well? Used the sander well, used the hammer well, used the drill well.

– One thing you want to improve? Measure properly next time! (and you should have seen a smile on our faces as we both mucked up the measuring part)

He made me feel vindicated to (re)start the workshop at our school. He gives me the energy to push to include making physical things a regular part of what we do at our school.

Nothing ‘21st century’ about it, please. Just “give us [teachers] the tools and we’ll finish the job”.

Happy Easter all.

*Not his real name. But if you have worked at our school over the past couple of years you’ll know him.

Fascinating places

I didn’t think I’d feel the need to write and reflect after the first day of term but now I feel like having a stiff drink to go with it. Last time I wrote in this state was my (in)famous goosebump story years ago in a different school.

This morning, I got punched in the face by a student, a teen. This one. Not the first time I got hit in my work but never before in the face. An expletive or two and a fake swipe that actually connected with my chin was enough to cross the line. A big line.

Reactions of kids were a study into themselves. They ranged from “No man, you don’t hit Tomaz!” to “What are you complaining about, he didn’t even hit you hard, you were leaning a bit anwyay. You are not going to report him for that are you?”. The former is a result of some desirable moral compass mixed with trust we built over the year, the latter a result of the world of violence, abuse, eye-for-an-eye and bullying of all kinds that many of these kids live in daily. Not ideal, not desirable but it just is. I filed an incident report, police were called in since this does constitute an assault on a public officer and the kid is going to be expelled on School Directors request. Where to for the kid? I fear to ask.

Kids and colleagues came up to me to check, had to calm everyone down and state that I am OK and I am happy to stay for the day, business as usual. Not a good start to the term I thought …

Watching the teens (mostly) increasingly restless with out new school drive towards vocational courses and going down the traditional school pathway they escaped from in mainstream school (more on that another time), I wondered what are we going to do after lunch. The often dreaded 90 minutes before leaving for home.

What we need is a challenge!

Colleague and I went loosely by the idea of the ‘Scrapheap Challenge‘ TV show (two teams using whatever they find to complete the task). The first challenge to the two teams of about six teens was to “get the ball as far as you can from the starting line without your body directly throwing or kicking it.” My group mulled between a hit with a steel pipe, a rigid, lever catapult and a slingshot only for the pipe and hit to win. Neat, simple solution that looked like a teeball. The other group went for a slingshot with a chair on rollers.

Good idea too
Good idea too

The next challenge was “launch a piece of paper (and nothing else) from the balcony as far away as you can.” Paper aeroplanes (great way to search the internet *winks*), weird looking tubes, slingshots with all kinds of paper projectiles, paper balls. Winner? Our opponents this time, who cleverly scrunched the paper, wet it and made it into an almost solid, rock like object that was easy to throw very far.

You should have seen the kids go for it! ‘Learning outcomes’ anyone? We had science, social skills, maths, communication skills, problem solving, humour, persistence, engagement … the list of desirables goes on. It was simply awesome and done by kids who’d otherwise be hanging off the rafters or rolling their eyes in boredom, largely baulking at the stuff ‘curriculum’ throws at them.

We’ll do it again!

Now, this is not (all) about successful classroom strategies or science or discovery, even ‘learning’. It is about how schools, these strangely fascinating places, inscribe and code people to become in different ways. Teachers as controlling, ‘knowledge-holders’ and students as complying, ‘knowledge seekers’. How we become through what we learn. Not just how we store ‘being punched’ and ‘working it out with mates’ but what do those things do to us. And just how do we disrupt, re-code, re-purpose, subvert and negotiate.

It’s a fascination that will hopefully last and sustain me on my PhD journey over the next three years from July onwards (barring a major obstacle). Yes, I am leaving the classroom at the end of this term after just over a decade of teaching. It’s not (just) that I don’t want to be punched in the face anymore – I want to dig deeper.

And yes, I will have that beer now thanks.

The no good Noongar kid

Meet ‘Ricky’. He is Aboriginal, Noongar his people. He’d be a poster boy for many of the statistics and labels entrenched in public psyche about this group of people, particularly when young – low literacy, poor school attendance, lazy, the only good thing he can do is kick a footy, use hands, drawing and art … want more? You want to hear his life story and reasons why he is currently in DCP care and protection? You don’t.

Ricky has just finished his first ever Big Picture exhibition (a presentation of student’s work over a term). He is pretty shy and I didn’t want to put him on the spot to ‘talk to an audience’ for half an hour. So we dropped ‘the standard model’ and did it together. I listed, introduced things he had accomplished this term, he explained them, answered questions, expanded, showed. Nobody stood up, we just sat around the table with another staff member who was our audience. It was a conversation with, around and about Ricky.

He explained in detail about his bricklaying ‘Try A Trade’ course (he did brilliantly there!) and his use of tools, principles of physics, maths, spatial awareness, precision, motivation, all in conversational manner.

We moved to his first website he started creating with me. It’s about dirtbikes – first picking the images (stage at now), then descriptions, followed by comparisons and reasons (all coming up next term). Through the conversation about bikes it emerged that he regularly gets spare parts off other bikes and puts them on his bike to fix it. Just like that, ‘no big deal’.

Then came a guided demo of of a couple of online games he plays – problem solving, maths, economics in action, right there on screen but without the fancy terminology and lingo to describe it exactly. But skill and knowledge of principles? Easy!

It also turned out that he has probably achieved the highest sporting achievement at the school this term by playing (well!) for Peel Thunder in the 2012 Nicky Winmar Cup (football tournament for Aboriginal youth with top metro, country, even interstate teams).

We talked about his care about getting the right spelling when writing his two journal entries and a couple of weekly reflections this term. Nobody in class writes slower out of care for getting things right.

We talked about his trampolining prowess, his ability to get along with students and staff, his calm and cheeky ways, the respect he gives and takes and which is miles from when he started coming to our school last year. He does not have any enemies here, truly.

At the end, he wrote down his strengths and weaknesses (pictured above). And we talked about them. He was really honest, he didn’t shirk back from saying he is lazy sometimes and wants to go and get more things done.

We laughed, shook hands to congratulate on a job well done. His exhibition took 55 minutes, more than any other in my room!

Not bad for a ‘no good’ kid who, on paper, has ‘low IQ’, ‘low aspiration’ and a bagful of other ‘low’ descriptors much like many of his brothers, sisters and cousins.

I have goosebumps as I write this, the colleague who sat in with us welled up with tears afterwards.

Low? Bullshit.

Go Ricky, you got my back any time mate!

Mad or what?

The heart of it all. Questions !
The heart of it all. Questions, glorious questions !

This isn’t a ‘flipped classroom’. This isn’t ‘disruptive’ pedagogy or ‘disruptive technology’. This isn’t (just) about what is often understood as ‘critical thinking skills’.

I had tinkered with it and applied it in pieces in a mainstream school. Only in dosaged pieces because at the heart of it, this thing goes against the purpose embedded in the very (classroomed, corridored, square) building, let alone the way a ‘school’ is organised and thought of by most people who come in contact with. And this time, I’m going for it full throttle at our awesome … school.

About 45 years ago, Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner wrote an eloquently genial and provocative book about it. Even that cranky old Greek called Socrates would probably like it (he just wouldn’t like it for being written down, for fear of de-personalising and de-contextualising).

After such a bombastic opening you are probably expecting to read about something terribly clever, innovative, creative and so on. But it isn’t, it is so damn simple and quite old really but with a contemporary e-twist.

This is what we are up to, a factual account.

At our first individual, in-person meeting for the term, the student (six so far, half my group), myself and often another person (a colleague, friend, support staff, parent, carer …) sit around the table with a big sheet of paper. In the middle of the paper sits the topic of student’s interest with words What? Where? Who? Why? When? How? What if? as visual reminders under it.

Together, we come up with as many questions about the topic as we can. We go for about 30 – 40 minutes and we are only interested in questions, answers not permitted. We ensure that the student contributes a healthy chunk of questions (least we’ve had is about a third, most about 80%, usually around 60%). The student can veto ANY generated question at any time but has to explain the reasons for the veto.

When done, the student is given options on the format they would like to use to work on these questions, keep them organised, interact with others and so on. So far, all of them have chosen a website over other formats (eg. portolfio, folder, poster …) for this purpose. A unique Google Site takes about a minute to set up with all the capacity needed to gather, curate and interact.

The student and I share the editing rights for the site. I am the tech hand, (s)he is the content manager and vice versa. We collaborate. I’m not a ‘sage on the stage’, nor a ‘guide on the side’ – I’m a ‘meddler in the middle’ (thank you Erica McWilliam for the phrase, seminal paper). We (will) involve others too as we go along, locally and (inter)nationally.

And the questions, some still in their raw, ungrouped, un-critiqued, un-pulled apart state are the term’s curriculum. That’s it! What is worth learning to this person, right there.

Here are a couple of examples about becoming a visual artist, joining the Navy, online gaming and an earlier effort about drugs. All are in their embryonic stage but with questions there.

If you look at the questions, some contain a dozen PhDs in them if explored to extraordinary lengths. And they can! They are there to trigger that wonderfully humbling paradox of learning: “the more you know the more you realise what you don’t know yet.”

As the advisor (umm, ‘teacher’) I question, praise, challenge, argue, poke and prod, interpret, scaffold if need be. I encourage the student to do the same. I educate in the sense of the original Latin word educare – drawing out the potential, the latent from a person. These kids are not passive ‘recipients’ of knowledge – they produce it. The job is not that easy as it may sound but I have not been this energised about my own profession for many, many years.

Now … where will we end up with all this? Frankly, I don’t really know (probably THE most frightening aspect to many of my colleagues in education and students too). But I DO know that these kids will have a much deeper, meaningful, contextualised understanding not just of the topic they are looking at but ways of learning, thinking, interacting, reflecting, and – acting!

Some of you reading this might see this as great for all sorts of reasons – pedagogical, technological, social and so on. Some of you may be indifferent: “Meh…” Some of you may be truly horrified and you may be right: “How can you track this to syllabus? How can you test this? How can you make sure they are covering areas other than just what they are interested in?” Valid questions. But if you ask them, go beyond the superficial and ‘common sense’, ask the odd ‘why so’ along the way then wrestle with it honestly.

Yes, students starting the term with about 50 of own questions rather than a set course in something their teacher is probably good at is probably an anathema to what society considers as ‘school’. But if I have the engagement of these ‘hard-to-engage-in-schooling’ young people after the first few days to go by – we are onto something.

These kids CAN question. They CAN lead. They CAN learn. They CAN see themselves in a light a school would rarely (or never!) have them before.

Mad, courageous, awful, irresponsible … ? You decide.

What I learned in 2011

Share photos on twitter with Twitpic

My big(gest) lessons and reminders of 2011:

The importance of doing what you love doing in your career.

I never have or will regret joining Moodle HQ but I never have or will regret leaving Moodle HQ this year either. Thank you Martin & Moodle HQ. I love Moodle and its community but I am really happy to be a Moodle volunteer again and get paid (less) to work with teens that I dare say majority of teaching colleagues would not want to see in their class.

The importance of expectations.

You don’t significantly change or disrupt status quo by doing more of the same (way) but harder. Changing expectations shifts things dramatically.

Picture the expectations of a kid (and his surrounds) who has been told, overtly and covertly by the system of mainstream schooling, that most he can aspire to be is a dumb poor loser with some dead-end job as his only option (like many in his family). Suddenly, he completes a great project in the field he is passionate about. He is told, for the first time in his life, that a local university is offering courses in that field, and that, on the basis of things shown and in all sincerety,  going to uni and/or getting a well paid, challenging job in the industry is a realistic option for him in a couple of years if he puts in the effort. I saw the reaction of this kid and his parents. And it gives me tingles as I write this.

The value of Big Picture.

Big Picture is not a panacea for all our educational ills. It also isn’t for every kid out there. It requires a special kind of educator to really ‘get it’ too. But from what I have seen, learned and experienced this year after working in a Big Picture school and seeing some great work of kids and colleagues in BP schools around the country and the world, it is an approach, a state of mind rather, that truly empowers.

‘School’ is deeply ingrained in our societal DNA

It is soooo damn hard to ‘forget’ what ‘school’ looks like and does. In a ‘school’ you learn to play the game (usually called ‘what does the teacher or test want me to say’) then pass … and largely forget. There is a teacher, the knower, and a bunch of students who need to be ‘taught’ stuff prescribed by often someone else and contextually remote. You need a grade to show how much you are worth. Above all – you don’t ask (tough) questions. Things like: ‘What are we doing this for?’ And if kids don’t learn, the teacher says ‘I taught them that but they didn’t learn it’ (akin to a realtor saying ‘I sold them the house but they didn’t buy it’ …).

No wonder it takes us a very long time at our school (yes, we are one, but a Big Picture one) for kids and parents to come to terms with statement/questions like: “What are you passionate about?”, “What is worth learning?”, “No, I am NOT going to tell you what to do next, but I am happy to figure it out WITH you.” “You (student) know more about this (topic) than me (teacher) already so I am going to learn with you.” Crazy stuff huh? Or is it? Ask yourself why (not).

The value of networks

You have no idea how grateful I am of my, well our, network. This goes particularly when I see you from around the planet interacting with kids at our school, kids who, in most cases, have barely left their suburb all their life. Things like comments to ‘John’s’ motorbike website or ‘Billy’s’ ‘World Of Drugs‘ wiki project (one I am hugely excited and hopeful about in 2012) are small but priceless.

Every comment here on Human, every @ reply on Twitter, every *Like* on Facebook, every email, Skype call, shared document or other interaction reinforces my liking for Stephen Heppel’s observation: Previous century was about making stuff FOR many people. This century is about helping people help each other.

and finally … drumroll …

Watching students flourish in front of my eyes in moments during the year and particularly during their Big Picture exhibitions reminds me why I want(ed) to work in education: not to be “the knower” in some field and bang on about it as if it were the most important thing in the world but watch and help others becoming knowers (of) themselves in the fields they chose and share.

PS. If I don’t post anything before Christmas/New Year it probably means I am playing with my own kids and enjoying a bit of holidays. But I do check in here and Twitter …

Have a peaceful Christmas and a wonderful New Year. Kiss your kids and loved ones and tell them you love them. Often. And mean it.

More than a game

Monopoly play small
Our very own !

I get to play at school. No, really. And so do our students.

This time, we gave birth to an idea of converting a couple of broken plastic desktops destined for the rubbish tip into a giant Monopoly set (not a new idea). And this was not going to be just an extraordinary set in size. The challenge was on and today – we played our first game!

The set is ‘ours’, based on our (school) surrounds and places, streets, stations, utilities where our students spend their lives. The custom Community Chest and Chance cards are a work of many suggestions from students and staff in person or via Moodle forum, full of lines some of which only we would fully appreciate and laugh or curse at. Cards were designed and worked on collaboratively by several people via Google Docs.

On the ‘physical’ side, the tables were cleaned, sanded, primed, painted, balanced, hinged and carefully detailed – again by many! Cards had to be printed, cut, laminated, shaped and collated, thanks to the work of a bunch of students over the week in a very relaxed working atmosphere.

But this was not just ‘anything goes’. In design, for example, everyone was encouraged to have a go at even the trickiest little detail. “Go on, have a go and don’t worry if you stuff up. But do know there are standards expected and you can just do it again if not ship shape.” (eg. all letters had to be stencilled, no free hand). Failure was no huge deal but willingness to (first, at least) have a go and improve WAS. Some kids contributed a little, some a lot, none of it compulsory, none of it forced.

There were kids who handled a power drill for the first time, done their first roller paint, first masking tape, those who learned the need for a washer under a nut, learned the difference between oil and water-based paints (made an interesting clean up time I tell you 😛 …). there were kids who gave up but came back to do a better job. There were kids who had done nothing all term but were now happy to spend a couple hours working on the cards, laminating, contributing card entries. There were kids who saw the ‘magic’ of a collaborative online doc via Google Docs for the first time and more …

And then there were questions! Last week, I tweeted a link to a document to encourage deeper questions about our lives that games like Monopoly can stimulate. And have we got some beauties there – thank you @7mrsjames @drb @scratchie @malynmawby @billgx for your contributions.

We have already asked the kids, casually as we were making the set, and more formally this morning in class, to reflect on some the questions asked. And, as expected, the occasion generated some gems of insight. So far, we have touched on themes of (I’ll list, so many there, statements are all students’ unless indicated otherwise):

  • poverty (“oh, but I live in Medina (lowest property on our board), that makes me a poor **** doesn’t it”),
  • economics (“if the bank just printed more money everything would just get more expensive, people wouldn’t actually have more of stuff … [inflation anyone?]),
  • equity (“yeah but if some ****** has everything to start with how harder is it for me then. That’s bullshit, not fair!…),
  • opportunity (“some players get behind but they can make up for it and get smart and start winning…”),
  • racism, prejudice of kinds (“if you had a special rule for one player and they couldn’t get shit unless they did what others asked them to do … that would suck, I wouldn’t want to be that.”),
  • importance of learning (“Monopoly is about half luck and half skill”. Me: So, you have no control over luck but you have control over skill. How do you get that? Student: You learn stuff and understand. Me: Bit like in real life? Student: Hmmm … yeah, it’s a bit like that yes.)
  • moral choices (“… but if you could just steal stuff and everyone else would steal yours and you want to then carry a shotgun around that wouldn’t be good in the end.”),
  • philosophy of happiness (“I don’t know what makes a successful person. In Monopoly you have to be rich I suppose, I real life you don’t always have to be but it’s boss if you are because you can buy shit and all that…”)

… and more!

All these are individual gems, many overheard by others in the chaos and teenage noise but they were like a razor cutting through to what I believe is the purpose of great education – learn how to ask and wrestle with questions, problems that matter to you and the people you share a community with.

Thank you to all question contributors, thank you for your supportive tweets all along (you know who you are 🙂 ). Most of all, a massive thank you to the 16 contributing students and 3 staff members at our school for making this happen and giving us a sense of being a part of something good, successful, enjoyable and maybe, just maybe, triggering a few lifelong reminders.

Now that you got through all these words … please do check out the photos 😉 (click on the image to see larger). Cheers!

Better place



This is ‘Billy’.  He is 15.  He allowed me to post this photo of him from a visit to the local animal centre yesterday.

This is one of my favourite photos. It means so much. A couple of months ago, Billy was in a bad, dark space where no young person (or adult for that matter) should be. Desperate, lashing out at things and people, horizons closed. Not all his problems have gone yet but things have turned …

Yesterday (Halloween), he got on to the dressing up act (yes, I too walked around the school and public with a fake knife and blood to my head), allowed his face to be painted, went in public with it, played with animals at the centre and relished the company of a little weero on his head and shoulders with a SMILE on his face. This term, we are deliberately working on strategies to express himself – writing, drawing, music … whatever! He’s in a better place, albeit precarious for many reasons. But he is beginning to flourish! Little by little.

Billy also saw a crocodile for the first time yesterday. A few other kids saw kangaroos (!!), eagles, snakes, lizards for the first time. In Australia for crying out loud – they are everywhere! But they are ‘everywhere’ if your world expands beyond your couch, your mate’s couch and local shopping centre. If you have been taken places by your family, shown, read, discussed, laughed about them. And they are the things we need to keep in mind and never assume.

Today, we did not assume that all our students would automatically know what Melbourne Cup is (for good and bad) in the fabric of the broader society, beyond the limited circles many move in. At the spur of the moment, we turned half the day into a Melbourne Cup day. Kids helped make the snacks and fruit punch (non-alcoholic …). We rigged up the big screen and watched the big race via live stream from Melbourne. A bunch of kids started making hats. Some cracked jokes about horses. Some came up with and others answered questions about horse racing. We sat around our big shed and watched the race.  Relaxed, spontaneous, caring, as a community, a family of a kind.

After the race, I got sprung by a bunch of kids and sprayed with foam streamers while they were singing Happy Birthday (to me, very important number now 😉 ). Priceless!


Yesterday, I was quizzed by a person filling out a funding application about kids’ progress.

Me: ‘They have hugely improved their social skills. Confidence and maturity have grown, communication has come along in leaps and bounds.”

Person: “OK that’s fine. What about learning outcomes?”

Enough to make anyone who knows what makes learning go and who has worked with young people (especially those ‘at risk’ ones …) blood boil. But I did reply politely 🙂

Or as my good friend Ira would say: Evaluate that!

I fail too

Our 6 year old son flying a kite.

Most edu-bloggers, myself included, predominantly rain down on our keyboards to share our successes, ‘what works’, fire the odd rant and share musings on how things could, or even should, be.

Well, I am writing today to share a struggle, possibly a failure. Excuse the odd expletive in there but they are part of the story too.

If you click on Big Picture category here you’ll get a bunch of older posts about the school I now work at and the particular educational philosophy we have embraced as a school. In a nutshell: we are NOT your nice middle class aspirational school by any stretch (low socio-economics with assortment of, sadly, all too familiar related issues) and we follow an approach that may seem ‘out there’ with many who have ‘done school’.

We don’t have subjects at our school. I don’t teach ‘a subject’. I don’t give and mark tests and assignments (phew 😉 ) in an area of my expertise. Kids find and follow their (legal 😉 ) interest(s) in (mostly) areas they already know more about than me, I’m there to help with generics, help find mentors in the community and oversee their progress. Don’t wince in horror or get too rosy eyed just yet …

If I do prepare what I think might be an engaging activity (and probably would be so in a different context, school) it is often met with ‘boring’, ‘I’m not doing that’ and a bunch of cop outs. Ours is a tough crowd, burnt by years of unsuccessful mainstream schooling and suspicious of things ‘educational’.

Back at their old school, there was ‘work’, a teacher (often at their wits end) to tell you what to do and lots of examples to confirm that you suck at school.

To compound the trouble, this new, Big Picture way of doing things independently is something they have never really tried and is still pretty scary. They, the students, need to drive the thing, not the teacher (called ‘advisor’ at our school) telling them what to do. And the freedom is scary!

Like any good confused teenagers,  many of these guys want someone to tell them what to do (like in their previous school, because that’s safe and “that’s what school is” and “teachers make you work and you hate it”) … but they don’t want to be told by the teacher what to do all the time and “do shit that teachers want us to do”. They like the freedom but it is scary to leave the sheltered feeling of structured, pre-fab, teacher-led environment even if they didn’t exactly excel at it. For many, this means doing, creating, trying, learning as little as possible. Safety mechanism.

Or as one of my students said, insightfully, in a lively discussion yesterday: “The problem isn’t the freedom in choosing our interest, the problem is that we choose to do fuck all”.

As you can imagine, refusals, shoulder shrugs, “CBF” and “I dunno …” are common. I have a couple of students for whom I have not a shred of evidence to have created anything in over two months – a letter, drawing, photo, note, recording, journal entry, hardly even a verbal, a question of some learning-related kind … nada, zero, zilch!

And this is what I mull over, often. This is where I start running out of ideas to engage and motivate (standard ones perhaps, might to get more creative :D). This is where I question my professional ability. Can I do better than this? Am I doing the right thing by these kids to keep waiting for them patiently and keep handing the responsibility for learning back to them? As a teacher, I am trained, employed to help, not keep keep putting the ball in kids’ court? What can I then do to ‘start their engines’ so to speak?

But this is where I remind myself of a couple of other things: the ugliness of (middle-class) salvationism and … time.

I have always been suspicious of being a “knight in shinning armour” who will deliver the poor kids from their lot and ‘make them more like me’. Sure, the odd call to a kid to lift their game is fine, even very necessary and welcome (in the long run, often unseen) but it is condescending, unrealistic and damaging to assume that we share values and chances in life. It can turn into the tyranny of of the well meaning C.S. Lewis described so eloquently.

I have expanded (with others) on this ‘salvationist’ reflex and its origins here (see Rolling up sleeves: education as production). Yet this is implied in much of teacher training and the societally assumed job of teachers. And it is damn hard to wrestle with!

The second thing I am reminding myself of is time. It has only been a term and a bit with these kids. It’s only been a term and a bit of Big Picture for all of us. Things take time. Things need to be seen in context. The kid who hasn’t ‘produced’ anything has been coming to our school most days, totally unlike his old (mainstream) school. It’s a start.

I write this for myself, to clear my mind a little. I fail but I carry on. It takes time.

And if my little soliloquy makes you reflect on the work of educators – it’s a good thing.

Boys to men

pa and kit and slinky dog

OK, another language warning.

This morning alone, I was called a ‘dumb cunt’ by one student, told to ‘fuck off’ by another. Both after a small thing. But it turned out great.

Here is the latter one.

In a by now pretty standard way, I simply turned around and told him in a serious tone that nobody tells me to ‘fuck off’ in my face and walk off. I reminded him that he can now choose to be a kid and walk off or be a man and face my reply (he must have thought I was going to fight, hit him, seriously). Bravado on my part? No, just to tell the student that sometimes, outside these walls, there are a lot of people who might seriously hurt him for what he had done. Fact of life, especially in this neck of the woods.

As he fumed further, he even took a fake swipe at me. Staff were horrified, a female colleague who is his teacher was enraged as it brought back the feeling of struggle she has had with him in class – aggressive, condescending, petulent, sometimes downright dangerous. I asked him to leave, he flatly refused. Power struggle 101. But we did not want to escalate.

Within minutes, he calmed down a bit. At one moment, ‘the mask’ dropped. The voice lowered and the words: “Really sorry for telling you to fuck off Sir.” came out. Not by order or request. On their own, honest too.

“Now that is a man talking. Before that was a boy, a kid.” was my reply.

We shook hands and looked each other in the eye. Together we fixed the damage we argued about, he even offered to take the item back to my room.

Fifteen minutes later I pulled him aside to state that the behaviour towards my colleague in class is an act of a boy and reinforce my message of difference between a boy and a man. We both agreed that it was good for our encounter today to finish the way it did. He can now come in to see me any time when ‘he starts feeling like a boy’.

What he has been doing is not OK, particularly in the way he treats my colleague and many others, particularly women. He needs both help, support and face some consequences for his actions.

And it reminded of the many boys I have worked with, reminded me of the wise words of Steve Biddulph in an older post, it reminded me that schools can be places that can and do change people’s lives in ways that will never show on any league tables or test.

This was a(n ongoing) test of maturity. Priceless.

Can scootering save schools?

I have shamelessly re-purposed the title from what has to be one of my new favourite TED talks, alerted to by @malynmawby (Thanks Malyn!). See it below …

Did you catch those points?

  • Failure is normal.
  • Nobody knows ahead of time how long it takes anyone to learn anything.
  • Work your ass off until you figure it out.
  • Learning in NOT fun. (‘Flow’ and  the ‘Goldilocks challenge’)
  • No grades.
  • No cheating.
  • No teachers. (well, optional…)
  • Real-time meaningful feedback.

OK, on the surface of it, like many TED talks – inspirational, catchy, memorable. Don’t get me wrong – I love the clip but it does beg a few questions.

The clip is  is not ‘universal’ in all of its points all the time. Not everything you learn in life is by trial and error on your own, sometimes it is mighty valuable for someone (a ‘teacher’?) to show what (not) to do and for different reasons  – the notion of real-time meaningful feedback Dr. Tae mentions. Sometimes performance is more important than learning, sometimes the other way around and for different reasons (more on that dichotomy here), and so on …

We could start nitpicking here – and miss the good bits!

But here’s a story. A true one.

There is a bunch of very talented scooter riders in my class (scooters or skateboards – same diff in terms of Dr. Tae’s clip). For their first ever Big Picture project, they decided to complement and extend their passion and interest in scootering and learn how to (better) edit a video clip of themselves.

It has required some gentle manouvering of teens who run away from anything smelling remotely like ‘school work’ as they put it. But last week and today, we went to two different local skate parks and filmed them in action.Today, we even took our school media enthusiasts to do the filming!

At first, the four boys almost didn’t believe me we would go and do such a ‘non-school’ thing but signed up enthusiastically. There’s a whole blog post and beyond about what trips and opportunities like these do for building relationships with kids for whom the staff at our school may be just about the only stable adults in their lives but more on that another time.

We had a lot of fun (read meaningful effort!).  The boys scooted their butts off and we got a bunch of still images and video and some of it is simply awesome, judged so even by the kids’ standards themselves!  Over the next three weeks, these four guys will learn how to edit and put together a great mashup of video, stills, audio and special effects, then present the finished product AND the story of their learning to myself, their parents and whoever else they invite to their exhibition (central item in Big Picture approach – what you do is public and you need to ‘stand behind it’).

Here is a small taste of their talent just off my phone, I will feature their finished products (with their permission, of course).

Now, don’t tell me these kids are ‘poor learners’ or carry a learning disability. They must have failed hundreds of times, worked hard and kept going until they landed these tricks … in short, they embodied exactly the points Dr Tae was talking about! They embodied, purposefully and dare say joyfully, not just learning but, more importantly, the power of wanting to learn, even love for learning in their lives.

The words of my wise mentor water polo coach in former Yugoslavia still ring in my ears, now decades past: “Tomaz, your most important job with these juniors is not how to pass the ball and shoot well – your main job is to get them to fall in love with the game.”

Over the coming weeks, we will hopefully use their efforts in scootering to extrapolate and transfer things about the power of ‘love for  learning’ from scootering to other areas in life they come across.

Now, if you think ‘well, scootering isn’t going to get them a job’ or ‘get them to uni’ or ‘teach them geography’ and things like that, you may, but only MAY be right and even so, horribly myopically. Because what I, as a mentor to these kids, know is that these sorts of things have a chance of giving them the confidence, opportunity, resilience, love of learning that no textbook or teacher can teach.

And THAT is what our school is about. And that is what I am about. And that is what so often, so many of our schools, unwillingly, kill off, for the sake of things that simply … don’t matter.

So … can scootering save schools?

Well, that’s a long shot but if joy of learning is something to nourish and stimulate, it has a thing or two to offer, for sure.

PS Inspired in part by Dean Shareski’s piece ‘Why Joy Matters‘, alerted to by Pam Moran. Thank you both!