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.
One thing one probably couldn’t accuse me of is doing the same thing for many years. Teaching, ed tech, Moodle, PhD, back to teaching, different schools and approaches – a moving feast. Latest? Well, I am sliding away from teaching ‘social studies’ (geography, history, philosophy, politics, sociology …) I have taught since 2000. Next week, I am starting an intense six-month course (1 year equivalent) to re-train as a Design & Technology teacher. I will still teach at YBC of course but I will spend last two weeks of Terms 2,3 and 4 at uni (hence the image above I tricked my class with). Bus(ier) school terms and holidays here we come.
But it will definitely be worth it.
At the back of our school, we have massive manual arts workshops which have been gathering dust for many years. We have a number of potential mentors in the community who would be keen to work with our students through Mens Shed and other channels. We have many students who do and would love getting their hands moving and mind engaged differently in their learning, chasing their passion that the Big Picture model affords so well. We enjoy a long standing supportive relationship with Brierty Engineering. Personally, I have the support and blessing of our staff and as a sweetener, my course is actually paid for by the Department of Education due to the shortage of Design & Tech teachers. It seems that this change of tack in my teaching career is a bit of a perfect storm and one that is simply too good to miss.
I have a vision. Details of it will sharpen and change as we go but I can see a living, breathing learning space, infused with hands-on/minds-on experiential learning ethos with 3 questions (asked by the late Grant Wiggins) plastered all over the place:
What are you doing?
Why are you doing it?
What does this help you do that’s important?
Call it STEAM or ‘maker education’ or more old-school manual arts, woodwork or metalwork … the labels explain as much as detract sometimes. I may have been a humanities teacher but I have seen many a ‘no good’ student in class absolutely shine when they had a physical, tactile, spatial and similar problems to solve. From fixing bikes, making buggies, boxes, shelters, claymation, transport baskets, monopoly boards, simple switches, mini basketball hoops, plaster-of-Paris models, laser-cut wooden heralds and mock weapons, laying ground cover and more, so many of these kids felt valued, engaged and useful. I have seen them turn from sullen, careless or aggressive teens to a different, usually calmer, smarter, even funnier person in a very short amount of time. Difference? In most cases, they had a purpose that appealed to them, they were judiciously left to create or solve own problems, learning went from tangible to abstract, and usually in the company with others too (Dan Pink’s Mastery-Autonomy-Purpose spring to mind). Something we all desire in our work perhaps?
Now, I am not changing (or rather adjusting) my teaching direction to merely keep the hands of the lost, uncatered for souls in the educational landscape busy. I am doing it to provide new paths for any student at our school to taste success, flourish and learn the lessons of life and themselves through materials and people they will be working with.
Quite a few people have asked me for more info about the activity I raved about yesterday on social media and in person. I will spare you describing the incredible satisfaction myself and the students got out it. Let’s just say that the kids by large ‘definitely’ want to do it again.
The activity is called Community of Inquiry (more here ). It is a cornerstone of philosophy and particularly P4C – Philosophy for Children [video]. Philosophy With Children may perhaps be a better way to name it but … never mind. The way I described it to my students is ‘listening and talking in a circle about a question that can have many answers and none of them are right or wrong’.
I deliberately haven’t yet used the word ‘philosophy’ as I know that would cause a number of our students participating nervous about ‘not being smart enough’. This is the usual and insidious brake to philosophy, particularly in ‘low socio-economic’, ‘working class’ [ah, labels…] context like ours. I had experienced it first hand at a similar school in the past.
Our Community of Inquiry (CoI) ran pretty much along the well-established and very helpful ‘script’ by the Australian Association for Philosophy in Schools (APIS). I attended the Level 1 training workshop last month (thank you again Alison Freeman & Felicity Haynes, a superb weekend!) and I have been itching to put in to practice what I learned there.
First, we played a simple warm up listening game akin to musical chairs. One participant without a chair stands in the middle and states what ‘(s)he likes’ (Nutella, video games, travel … whatever). As the person finishes stating her like, everyone who likes the same thing stands up and switches the chair with another person (but not right next to them). After a fun and non-threatening few minutes of quick shuffling and bumping, a reminder we have just practiced an important skill we need to show in CoI (listening closely). I showed the simple rules of CoI and it was time to watch the stimulus.
For the stimulus, I picked an old gem shown below. I really wanted to explore the concept of trust and I was confident the clip would generate the questions along those lines.
When finished, students were encouraged to write two to three questions they had about the clip and place them in the question quadrant on the floor. What we were really looking for were the questions the answer(s) to which you ‘really have to think about’ (philosophical questions).
When done, I ran through the questions and pulled out the key themes, concepts they questions dealt with: loyalty, trust, betrayal, choice, social norm, gender … We whittled it down to a single philosophical/ethical question that contained the key concept of trust (sneaky of me there hey 😉 ), had a quick check by vote if that’s what we want to start with and … off we went, starting with a student-generated ‘Is it more important to look after yourself than to be trusted by strangers?’
The community rules were put up around the class and on the floor as reminders and the yellow ‘talking ball’ (you could only speak if you had it) started doing its magic rounds.
What followed was about 35 minutes of incredible dialogue with kids. In the first half, the ball changed hands among about a third of the 21 students present. As the moderator, I judiciously stepped back and merely nudged the conversation here in there for direction and participation. As we came close to the end, I really encouraged students who had not spoken at that point to speak. And they did, insightfully so and having listened all along. In the end, about 15 of the 21 present spoke at least once. Everyone listened though, deeply!
The hour absolutely flew by. To wrap things up, we evaluated our efforts with a simple questionnaire and banter about it. According to the feedback both verbal and on sheets, we will ‘Definitely’ continue doing CoI at our school.
If interested, you can have a look at all the slides, instructions and feedback sheet here. Free to share!
When I reflect about this (successful) experience a number of key things stand out:
Importance of preparation. I worked hard and made sure things run smoothly by preparing not only the materials and activities but also myself in terms of the topic, likely tangents and procedural issues. Unless thought out and done properly, an activity like this can so easily go awry.
Importance of participation but also ‘giving time’. I was amazed by the insights of kids who spoke little but ‘opened up’ towards the end with incredible insights that clearly demonstrated they had listened deeply all along, processing.
Delight of seeing a couple of kids whom colleagues (or even themselves!) may not see as thoughtful, articulate or intelligent, yet they starred and blossomed in front of my eyes.
Escape from school(iness). At the end, I commented on how much I enjoyed the time spent together as equals in this ‘us’ space. It felt like an escape from school(iness) and its usual power relations, concerns and worries. Kids’ comments were along the lines of ‘I never had anything like this’ . I was pleased but also sad to hear that.
Future possibilities. While I am genuinely excited, I am not getting carried away after the first successful CoI. I am however a lot more positive about gradually introducing more of P4C at our school, to the benefit of both staff and students.
I don’t really ‘play guitar’. OK, I know about 15 chords that make me able to rustily strum through a rock’n’roll list but I only grab it a few times a year. My favourite guitar time however is when I do the ‘Wave Hill strike’ lesson with Year 10s, learning about the struggle for Indigenous rights in Australia. We learn about it through Paul Kelly’s classic ‘From Little Things Big Things Grow‘ and the amazing story behind it.
I’ve done this for a few years now and it’s a highlight. Today, I even had my Principal serendipitiously sitting with us during it. We watched, sang, laughed, pondered, discussed … visceral stuff, not a worksheet or a website. Great lesson. But that’s not the main story here.
The story are the guitars I brought in today. They were a hit. During advisory time, I found that a couple of my students fancy themselves with a few small riffs. I couldn’t get the guitars out of their hands.
Next period, I left the guitars out, played as kids filed in. A couple of quiet Year 8 girls grabbed them and we played Stand By Me before moving on. Layer of students uncovered, new connections made. Laughter. Genuine enjoyment of music, of trying too, by all.
Then my Year 9 class came in. The ‘bottom’ kids who are ‘not academic’, the self-proclaimed ‘dumb class’. They are learning about something that interests them about Australia’s home front during World War 1. And yes, there’s a few strummers in there too. A kid who has struggled all along (with both the content and playing guitar) pipes up and says he wants to stay in class during the break and look up World War 1 songs. Part of me says ‘yeah right’, a part of me dreams …
I leave the class during long break and allow a few kids to stay in and play. I also leave my laptop in (not deliberately). When I get back, I find my laptop on a student desk, clearly used. I dread a bit. Then I find this was searched for:
Please notice the search item. This was during the break and I was nowhere near. These guys were clearly ready to learn, to figure out, to give it a go. I could trust them, probably learn from them too.
It made my day. It made my week. It makes relationships go. And that makes education go. But you have to “Give [kids] a Chance” … you know that one? 😉
Tonight, I keep thinking about the nod of mutual acknowledgment, unspoken understanding between a 14 year old student and myself. Nothing to it, right? Only an hour before that he told me to fuck off. In my face. Detail here isn’t as important as the fact he eventually stood up and apologised after my calm insistence that I simply “don’t want or deserve to be told to fuck off” (used those very words..). But then a week ago I heard how his father belted the hell out of him in the car in front of the school. Of his continuous troubles at home, at school. And more … “Fuck off” is like your nice middle class ‘good morning’ in his family. Reporting the incident and going down the punitive path would cheapen or, worse, prevent the silent, all-telling nod I treasure today. We sorted it out between us. Stable, calm, no-shouting and no threats or promises. He won’t turn into an angel overnight but he won’t tell me to fuck off again I am sure. We will still clash at times, I am sure too, but the bridge is built.
I seem to specialise in working with kids who tell me to fuck off, then give me a friendly shoulder-punch, nod, bump not long after. That my friends is … sublime.
I usually blog about the good stuff. The wins. Not to inspire (oh, please) or get clicks, but purely to somehow commit to my and public memory the bits I and many of our colleagues are here for. This time, and encouraged by an old time edu-friend Tony Loughland I am writing about the fails. Plenty of those. When teaching, especially mine … sucks.
Imagine being largely or completely ignored in a room full of people. You have to somehow persuade them to do something mandated by the powers-that-be and which you may actually find valuable, interesting yourself. However, the people in front of you, about twenty of them, neither like it, want it and/or see little if any purpose in it. They are extremely skilled at resisting, avoiding, changing topics or simply ignoring you and tending to their business. Plan A (which you spend considerable time and effort planning for) – fails, Plan B. Just as Plan C starts to take shape, something happens and that flicker of attention is out the door. Plan C restart or Plan ‘whatever the letter’. Plan G looks promising but involves a piece of technology to work. You guessed it… What was planned is slipping away fast, the unplanned ‘winging’ that sometimes works best is failing too. You can go down the procedural path for ‘dealing with disruptions’ but you know it’s a bit of a Faustian bargain because you believe, and are even known for, your ability to build trust, understanding, accepting stuff, not just dishing out detentions and stuff some of these characters have long stopped responding to. You could raise the voice but knowing that is doomed too because chances are they will make you yell louder next time until you hit the top. Traps of a kind, both of them.
JUST as you reconcile all this and keep a calm exterior, someone charges in to your class and demands a piece of you. Commotion. A student refuses to move afterwards. You think “shall I dish out detention and sacrifice eating my lunch of 15 minutes in peace or shall I simply ignore the behaviour and in this way condone it?” Technology still not working … Next door colleague comes in asking if you “…need all the laptops?” You feel bad for hogging the lot. An expletive is heard. Someone is trying to steal the lollies that you dish out for good reasons, going through your stuff. You refer to class rules. Repeat requests. Suddenly, you have everyone’s attention, an inch to squeeze in. You explain what needs to be done, 30 seconds max! As soon as you finish, two kids ask: “What do I need to do?” You help the two while losing most of the others. You glance at a beautiful example brought in from neighbouring class by a colleague: “Geez that looks good, should be able to do something in my class … is it me why we can’t?” Guilt. A shout “this is boring”. A teaser, nonetheless. Three kids completely ignoring you and pulling out their phones. It occurs to you “shit, absentees list needs to be done, behaviour sheets ticked.” A kid heading for the glass tank to play with soldiers. “The heck with content for this one, I know he can’t handle it and needs a bit of space every now and then”. Ten seconds later “Why can he play with soldiers and I can’t? That’s not fair, I am not doing work” … Little bit of pack mentality developing – ignore it at your peril. You know only a fraction of what you planned will probably get done. ‘Learning?’ What learning? What did they learn? Bit more guilt, right there. Wasn’t there (the millionth…) an article about how our ‘education is failing’ this morning? Yawn.
Still breathing, dear reader? What I described is about ten, fifteen minutes of ONE of my lessons today. I had five of them. Not all are like this. Some are much better, some are … worse.
Someone reading this may say – that guy needs better classroom management skills. Better organisational skills. Better boundaries. More of the nebulous’ quality’ in his teaching. More engaging activities (hey, we shoot Nerf guns in my class, go treasure hunting, run around to work out time zones, chop watermelons to explain latitude & longitude, fake Moon landing conspiracy to explain critical thinking and more …)! Less teacher-centred practice. Tighter teacher-centred practice. Better … something. Sure! You’re right. While at it, bring out the teaching standards, ‘engagement’ talk and curriculum will you please.
I build my practice on trust, on repeating but learning from failure. I build on hope the kids will muster the care, respect for each other, us, myself even, and recognise the effort on display and at least. I look for signs of understanding another person, a classmate or teacher, and their needs. I am a pretty damn mediocre teacher when it comes to teaching the content and producing pretty-looking assessment items. But I am damn good at one thing: more than for mere docility, compliance and curricular hoops – I look for care. I can’t spank this stuff into someone, anyone. It has to come from within. I look for it, really hard, and try to draw it out. Because I want to live in a community that gives a damn beyond ‘what’s in it for me?’.
But there is something prevalent I am hampered by, what I am battering against and which I fight my biggest ethical battles. I’ll give you a hint – it ain’t the students. Nope. They are but the messengers. It ain’t my school nor its management (and I don’t say that because my Principal is on Twitter and she will probably read this).
Care to speculate what it is? If you do, even briefly and privately so, the post was well worth writing.
PS This was my little therapeutic catharsis. Don’t worry, I am going back to work tomorrow. Still happy to do so 🙂
Last period. Hot. Humid. First part of the lesson falls apart completely, no calming down here. ‘Journal writing’ later? Yeah, right. Plan … P?
“15 minutes to see who can keep a piece of paper in the air the longest? Must let go, cannot touch or be supported by anything, launch with two feet on the ground.”
15 minutes of making mayhem, not one child uninterested, withdrawn. Great atmosphere, humour. Clever designs, different approaches to the problem. After that, 15 minutes of launching and friendly, funny argy bargy whose was in the air the longest. The mighty mess all cleaned up in five.
We have a teen who sits on the couch, always quiet, withdrawn, “no good at anything Sir, it’s all luck” lack of belief in any of his abilities, poor attendance record and diagnosed with things he … certainly ISN’T displaying now! He tests, he shows, he smiles, he tries and … comes second, close to the winner and far from number three. Leaves beaming, “Bye Mister”.
Think we have some material to work with there as far as sense of agency, internal locus of control, self-esteem and desire to be included, doing things that are valued? Yeah, we’ll get to the literacy and curriculum thing, for sure.
Yes, he might be in a complete heap tomorrow, no guarantee. All small steps, small steps. Or as the motto of our school goes: “One student at a time.”
PS One of my ‘aspirations’ this year is to briefly recount these little gems (and flops!) that happen in a place called school. I do so publicly not for admiration nor criticism (believe me, I am NOT a good teacher in many a mind based on this) but to simply add to the rich tapestry of understanding of what is it that teachers do. Because the moment you can ‘define it’ – it changes. And I like that in all its messiness.
I have a tank in my class. No, two tanks actually. Fish tanks, metre and a bit long each. I found them sitting lonely and empty as I started my work at my new school.
Took the tanks into my class. Asked a few boys who, I have been warned and confirmed, can ‘be a handful’ to fill both one third with sand. Done, with gusto. ‘My weakest’ (ah, the labels…) student shows me the best way to empty the crate of sand into the tank without spilling sand. Brilliant, smart, effective.
I produce a bag of toy soldiers, four mini armies in different colours. The glass tanks come alive. Forts, dugouts, trenches are built. Number of boys in different classes just ‘want to play a bit’ with the soldiers. ‘Work and play” take-turn system is born on the go. No walkouts, dramas or inappropriate behaviour when playing with the soldiers. Sharing is turned on.
Strategy to avoid ‘doing work’ ie writing most of these boys aren’t good at? Possibly. Enjoyment from being able to play with toys as something the kid may not have had much in the past? Likely, even more.
“Play with the soldiers, go for it, 20 minutes. Set a battle scene and then describe it. Tell, write down who is fighting who. What is the commander of the red guys saying to his troops? Take a photo and describe the view of the machine-gunner at the back. What about the guy with the grenade launcher? What do you think he wrote to his family last night, before the battle? Think you can do something like that?”
You can’t ‘box’ teaching. It’s too beautiful, too frustrating, too dynamic and complex to do so. Why I teach. Or as one of my favourite authors Arundhati Roy would say
“To love. To be loved. To never forget your own insignificance. To never get used to the unspeakable violence and the vulgar disparity of life around you. To seek joy in the saddest places. To pursue beauty to its lair. To never simplify what is complicated or complicate what is simple. To respect strength, never power. Above all, to watch. To try and understand. To never look away. And never, never to forget.”
Teachers, or not, we all have our ‘fish tanks’. What is yours?
Yesterday, a student baked this cake. For me. The same student organised a class party but refused to call it that: “It’s not a class party, it’s a party for Mister because he’s leaving us.”
This student is one I waited for hours all up, chased down the hall, argued with, copped verbal abuse from, endured her raging fury and theatrical walk-offs, refused her blackmail, nagged, annoyed with ‘stupid boring stuff’ I had to teach, sent out, warned, reported, gave fail or sub-standard grade, raised voice at countless times and more. When I told staff she’d baked a cake, the incredulous looks said it all.
I also stood up for her when bullied, given her space when needed, sent her out not to punish but to just be when clearly upset, given assessment alternatives, extensions, looked the other way over small stuff sometimes, explained when asked for and more.
Most of all, I never held a grudge. Every day, we started with a clean slate. One of us, or both, just ‘had a bad day’. She knew that, as bad as it got the day before, I’d welcome her without a sigh or frown the very next day. This built the all-important net of safety and trust this student could count on.
There is no box to tick about it. It doesn’t register. There is no ‘tool’ for it nor is it new, ‘revolutionary’ in any way. But it helped us both to learn, be. It helped us not to just get along but sometimes have a conversation, a task, an act to learn all sorts of things from and achieve some, if seemingly little, academic success. The cake says we got something right, with much left to do.
Is this some kind of ‘outstanding teaching’ thing? No, not really. It’s what thousands of my colleagues do, day in day out, around the world.
Which invites the question as basic as it is open-ended: What is the role of a teacher? I invite you to read this ponder by Bill Boyle and watch the outstanding video below (well worth a few minutes of your time, the end is particularly poignant). I cheat here and say ‘me too’ to both these sources because in so many ways they echo my sentiment more eloquently than I can.
Getting the foundational answer to that question right is more important than any of the stuff the revolutionaries, reformers and regurgitators would have us believe.
I hope you have a peaceful and wonderful festive season and, to my Southern Hemisphere colleagues – a case of great summer holidays.
PS For the record … 6 of my 25 Year 10s that bothered to turn up today simply sneaked out of class five minutes before time as I returned a cord to the office, not a kind word uttered or a gesture made. This after a year spent together and loads of effort and considerable expense on my part. I’d rather them say ‘screw you’ than that but … it is what it is. Just so you don’t think I operate in some magic edu-land.
Horse whisperer (noun) A person who tames and trains horses by gentle methods and speech.
Recently, I was described by a respected educator as a ‘kid whisperer’, a person who, as the originating definition above suggests, is gentle and fairly attuned with students in my care. Now, those of who have worked with me know I can bellow a mighty shout and a stern look when needed too, let’s not pretend … But overall, the gentle and patient has been my forte. To be called a kid whisperer is, to me, a badge of honour.
I have been asked the ‘what do you do?” type questions. A quick, from-the-hip reply goes like the following. And please do read the disclaimer too:
Tip #1 Watch what is going on. Listen, watch the child’s body language and your own, know the context, ask, create then keep a SAFE space for expression, whatever the form. If a kid looks hungry, upset, sleepy, sad … don’t ignore it for the sake of ‘efficiency’ but acknowledge and work with what you have in front of you, not what you would like to have in front of you.
Tip #2 Respond in unusual ways if need be. Disrupt the standard responses (raising voice, punishment, showing disappointment, overly praising, coldly quoting the rules, just slower and louder … you get it, surely). Say something the student is not expecting to hear but would perhaps like to hear, then go from there.
Tip #3 Find out something personal about each student. Does not have to be big, just big enough to strike a conversation, quick occasional “how is the BMX racing going? Got your new bike yet?” Yard, informal a great place for it.
‘Pablo’ (not his real name) is ‘trouble’ – in trouble, labelled as trouble, causing trouble. I could throw half a dozen edu-acronyms and phrases at you to describe him. He had called me a f*****g c**t only a few weeks ago, to which he was suspended for a day. Rightly so, boundaries do and must exist.
Yesterday, Pablo flatly refused to work on the environmental assignment like the rest of the class. Five minutes later, I asked him (gently, one-to-one): “OK, look, I get that writing about the Murray river probably isn’t the most important thing to you right now. What IS important to you right now?” Not the usual response …
Pablo paused and said: “I need to work on my CV [resume].” An interesting thing for a ‘trouble’ 13-year old to say. “Would you like me to help you with it?” Nothing to do with rivers here but let’s see where this leads …”
Where it has lead to is an amazing insight into his life, aspirations and family circumstances. He felt safe to tell me. He felt listened to. Tomorrow, we are finishing our collaboratively written CV and cover letter so he can letter-drop local businesses for a small part-time job. I, the guy whom he insulted a week ago, will be honoured to be his referee. And what do you think are the chances of him at least trying to write about the Murray river after that? Yeah, that.
The story I tell is real. The ‘tips’ I offer are real. But then, they are mere tips and they remind me of another story:
Ratko Rudic, the world’s most successful water polo coach (and my former coach) was invited by our national federation to work with coaches. He was bemused by the number of people who wanted ‘quick tips’ on all sorts of things:
“These Aussies are funny. Like the Americans, they want … what do they call them … ‘tips’ on legwork. Sure I can give them that in good will but I can’t give them the ten years of time and effort it took me to work it out myself. And I am still learning it!”
If you think that any of this can help your work with kids in your care – please use, spread, change, quote, make yours at will. No problem. But just like my old coach, I am telling you that all this is hard work in progress for ends I can never be certain of.
Just like listening itself. I for one still don’t do enough of it, especially of the youth in my care. And every teacher worth their title will probably tell you that.