Becoming with books

If you have never done the homework you assign your students, you really should. While we don’t have the time to do all of the work we assign our students, there are times where we really should. This seems the best way to make sure that the work we give them is really good for them, or if it is assigned because that is what we are supposed to do.

Recently, I had my AP English Language and Composition class read Sherman Alexie’s “The Joy of Reading and Writing: Superman and Me.” For a pre-reading activity, I asked them to complete the following writing:

Describe your early experiences with reading. Spend some time examining your history with reading. Do you still enjoy reading for fun? Are you a victim of letting school get in the way of your reading for pleasure (my many apologies for allowing this class to get in the way of your enjoyment of our readings from time to time (a very sad irony))? What are some of the earliest books you read? What do books mean to your family (feel free to include pictures if you have a family library)? If you have never enjoyed reading, why is that? How do you acquire stories? And whatever else might pop into your mind.

I figured I would do this one with my students. A bit long, but it is below. Happy reading, and feel free to share your own experiences and thoughts in the comments. Again, my thanks for reading.


If you were a member of my family, you read books. From the moment my brother or I could hold a book, our parents put one in our hands. Once we could sound out words, we were reading to our parents. The moment we could read larger books, we were given access to our parent’s library. The library was a room so sacred, food was not allowed, this in a house where ash trays were primary decor, a house where stacks of books lay in piles to be read, piles to be returned, and piles to be put away. The library was the only place my parents came close to consider putting out a cigarette or cigar. Close.

In 1974, we moved to Albuquerque from Alexandria, to a neighborhood where my parents were the lone east coast liberals in a place full of defense contractors. Hailing from New York City, my parents had grown accustomed to having dwelling with only living space, the idea of a garage was foreign to them. When they bought a house with a two car garage, they immediately set to remodeling. They got rid of the garage and turned it into a library. The walls were lined with built in book shelves, In the middle  of the space was a reading couch and a desk. They set aside space for my dad’s stereo system and his dark room for a photography business that never quite turned out. 

My parents read with abandon. Anytime they were still, which was frequent, they had a book. If they were watching TV, they had books. If they were sitting outside, they had books. After my father cast his fishing line into a lake, he placed his pole in a nook in his chair, and with his bobber floating many yards away, he sat back in that chair and read. My father hated going into the stores, so while mom did the shopping, he sat in the car and read a book. Sometimes I would stay and read with him. Those quiet moments with my father, sitting in the car with the windows rolled down, a cross breeze running through the car carrying the scent of his cigar, and the only sound was that of pages turning, those are some of my fondest memories of books. And my father.

• • •

My first real book was Watership Down. It was all the rage in 1977. My brother read it. My best friend read it. His older brothers read it. My parents read it (likely because we were all reading it, though they drew the line with sharing our books when we all started reading Tolkein’s books). Watership Down is the story of a warren (I distinctly remember looking “warren” up. If you’re in a house of readers, there will likely be an honest love and respect of words – which means there are several heated arguments over the meaning of words, which ends when someone consults the large family dictionary – which I did to learn the meaning of the word “warren.”) of rabbits. The warren is destroyed and the rabbits are forced to leave and reestablish their lives elsewhere. As they do, they are confronted with a variety of struggles from within their warren and outside of it. It is a delightful story about foundations and redemption told thought a bunch of anthropomorphized rabbits. Everything an eight year old boy could want.

LibraryOne of our family jokes was that if either my brother or I walked in and our parents were not reading, then we likely would have walked out of the house in horror, fearing we had entered the wrong house. So present were books and reading in my family, thus, when I stopped reading in middle and high school, there were quiet threats of disowning me. I would like to blame this stoppage on the death of Greg, my best friend, but that seems too convenient (though likely the real cause). Reading  provides a delightful escape from reality, so why wouldn’t I use it after Greg died? Perhaps because Greg and I read books together. There is an innocence there. An innocence of two young boys sitting on the couch reading books and talking about them. If he and I were not outside, we were reading in one of our perspective houses. When he died that summer between fifth and sixth grade, coincidentally, so did my love of reading.

After both of my parents died, my brother and I had to decide what to do with those books. My parents had outgrown their library as the weekly trips to The Menaul Book Exchange, the used bookstore of choice, had gotten the best of them. The house burst at the seams from thrillers, rose books, garden books, history books, mysteries, philosophy, essay collections, comedies, and whatever may have grabbed their attention on their weekly pilgrimage to that book store. I say their pilgrimage, but when my brother and I were younger, our weekends involved at least one trip to the library and often The Menaul Book Exchange. My parents did not hoard, unless it came to books. A trait which I have inherited. When it came time to clean their house, 24 years since I had moved out, books had moved in to occupy the spaces my brother and I had once occupied. When we cleaned the house, we divided the books into three rooms: books we wanted to keep, books to give to the New Mexico Rose Society, and books to donate to charity. I didn’t take that many. I have since become a different reader. I wanted the love and memories reading those books carry with them to be shared with another who needs to share in their scent and their words and their love.

My reading moratorium lasted until college. Sure, I read books for classes, but not for love. Not to learn for myself. Not to grow as a person. Not to inquire as a thinker. I read because I had to. I didn’t absorb my reading to my own knowledge base, I didn’t take that shared knowledge and make it personal. I almost hate to admit this, but I started reading for pleasure again because of girls. I realized that the girls I liked, liked guys who could read a book. So I began the process of rediscovering my love of books and the power of the written word. And I have not left it since.

So here I am, 30 years since resuming reading, four years since my mother died, more than 45 years since I started reading on my own and aloud to my parents, and I now have a library of my own. When I remodeled my house a few years ago, I made sure I had a space dedicated to mine and Felicia’s books. Included is plenty of space for Zoey, Felicia’s daughter, to have her own books alongside our books. The room is a space to sit, listen to music, read, and talk. It is a space to grow. It is a space to learn. It is a space to become. For that is the power of books and the power of words: we can become.

The check box syndrome and why we value the process over the product

A couple of weekends ago I was fortunate enough to see Hamilton. I hold season tickets to the Denver Center for the Performing Arts (a great value, actually) and this season’s package included Hamilton. For the past two years, Felicia and I have been to many shows and this one seemed a bit more crowded and busy than normal. We couldn’t quite figure out what it was as we had been to many other sold out shows since we started going on a regular basis.

Before the show, there was a larger than normal number of people taking selfies (any picture taking in the theater is forbidden). Mind you, these were not your run of the mill selfies. They made sure they covered all of their bases to prove where they were. They had selfies holding the program. They had selfies with the stage in the background. They had selfies with anything Hamilton in there.

And I asked in my head, how many of these people were at the show so they could do the metaphorical check list of things to do before one turns in this mortal coil. I wondered how many people that evening missed out on the full, honest experience of going to a show in order to check going to Hamilton off their list. As my classes tend to be on my mind more often than not, I wondered how many of my AP students are in the AP class in order to check taking AP English off their list and end up missing out on the experience of completing a project or a class.

If you have ever been to the Louvre in Paris, you have been rushed past the Mona Lisa. In doing so, perhaps you missed the Titian piece hanging behind it (this from the days when she was not in her own room). When we do something because it is what we are supposed to do, we often miss out on the honesty of the experience. By honesty of the experience, I mean that idea of taking it all in, doing something because we truly want to, not because it is what we are supposed to do. When I wrote my post regarding colonization, part of the question in my mind is if my students take my AP class because that is what they are supposed to do, they don’t seek the experience of growth, they seek the badge of AP. They seek the credential, the grade. All of this takes that metaphor of colonization a bit further.

This harkens back to my struggle with grades and grading. I have been working with my students this year to focus on the process and not the product. And for many students (and teachers) this is a tremendous leap in thinking and understanding (again, for both students and teachers). They have been brought up in a system that focuses primarily on the end product and the content. I am working the help my students realize that their education should be more about the process and the skill acquisition, not the product or the grade.

This is brought up by George Couros who quotes A.J. Juliani and John Spencer’s book Empower:

Our job is not to prepare students for something. Our job is to help students prepare themselves for anything.

This is where focusing on process and 21st century skills comes into play. By keeping our students and teaching focused on these two items, the hope is that students will see that school has relevancy beyond the classroom door. While I freely admit to my students they will never, ever write a literary analysis beyond the confines of a classroom (unless they become English professors or literary critics), they will, however, use the reasoning and critical analysis required to complete that writing throughout their lives in any endeavor (I will engage my students who work at Wal-Mart into role playing with me as the customer and they are helping me to decide a product. The rest of the class will explain the deductive and critical thinking skills the student went through to compare and contrast products). The same goes for math. The same goes for history.

Ask yourself as a teacher, what are the skills your students need to complete an activity and where are those skills used beyond your content and your classroom. How are those skills necessary in the process?

If we focus on skills and process, I hope that no class becomes a check box for a student. I hope that when they leave my class, they realize that it was about the experience. I hope that they are willing to look around when in the midst of checking a box to realize that there is so much more happening around them. As nifty as it was to see the founding documents at the National Archive this past summer, it was so much more fun to try and find those damn eagles placed around the room (I think Felicia and I missed one or two before we were forced out of the room).

What are some ideas you have in helping your students focus on the process? What do you do to focus your classes on the process and not the product? Let us know in the comments.

PBL in TOK: reflection and what to do with the knowledge you created

I have been working on adding a project based learning (PBL) component to my theory of knowledge class (TOK). The easy part in developing PBL in TOK (if you are in an IB school, acronyms are part of the process, and this last sentence is normal. If you don’t teach in an IB school, my apologies for the acronyms) is coming up with project ideas, the difficult part has been designing effective plans to meet the needs of TOK and provide robust, authentic projects beyond a presentation that lead to TOK thinking.

TOK makes up part of the core of the IB Programme. In order for a student to receive his or her IB diploma, that student needs to succeed in TOK. It is a class where students ask questions about knowledge as knowledge arises from real life situations. In doing so, students ask: What knowledge means, where it comes from, how it is acquired, created, produced, and so on. TOK, therefore, is a class that revolves around epistemology.

While I have been working out how to implement PBL in my TOK (and all of my classes, for that matter), I have borrowed heavily from John Spencer and  A.J. Juliani, their book Launch, as well as the Buck Institute for Education. In the process, I have been putting together a unit planning template from all those resources that also brings in IB requirements. I think I am finally nearing my first use of it all.

As I have been working on PBL in TOK, there has been a nagging feeling that something was missing. I have come to the conclusion that education is most effective when students take the necessary time to reflect on what they have done, what skills they used, and the impact those skills might have in and outside of class. This is essential in IB, as one trait from the IB learner profile asks that students be reflective. And so when it comes to PBL in TOK, I have realized the TOK thinking must happen in the reflection process.

Here is the way I see this happening: present students with a a problem as it  arises out of a real life situation (this is TOK language) from the world outside of school. Have the students use knowledge, information, and skills from one of their content classes to address the problem, go through the LAUNCH process, design a project, implement, present, and reflect. While this does not look so different in any for of PBL they would do in history or math (for example), TOK, therefore, must happen in the reflection and presentation. It is here where they will address the knowledge issues  they encountered during the completion of the project.

IB asks for students “to consider the world” and their “own ideas” in the reflection process. In addition, students are asked to reflect on their “strengths and weaknesses” in order to support their “learning and development.” Imagine asking students to add this to their reflections: “What can you create outside of TOK (or whatever class you might be using PBL and reflections) with the knowledge you have acquired from this project?”

And there it is. Without any real warning sign, I feel ready to implement PBL in TOK. The necessary reflection, which will include necessary ideas for TOK, such as an exploration of the knowledge issues they encountered in completing the project and other TOK themes.

What kinds of questions do you ask of your students when they reflect on a unit? How do you use this information? I look forward to an exchange of ideas in the comments.

Colonized by the grade book

Modern education has been fully colonized by the grade book. As any colonizer, the grade book imposes its values as truth and reality over those whom have been colonized. This is not an easy process as these values often are in direct opposition with the colonized‘s previously held values. Eventually, however, with force and other methods of control, these values will be seen as the only way forward and will not to be questioned. When this shift happens, the colonizer’s ideology becomes reality and the colonized see no other way but that way of life.

My AP class just read George Orwell’s, “Shooting an Elephant.” Every time I use this essay in class, I am reminded why I sympathize with the speaker when he is compelled to use his rifle, which he calls a”magical,” because it transforms him to a man of power and authority.  While I do not have a magical rifle, I have a magical grade book. And like the speaker in the essay, I am forced to use it. And sadly, due to the process of colonization, sometimes that is all the students, like all colonized, understand.

A quick summary if you are not familiar the essay: The speaker of the essay is a British police officer in Lower Burma. As such, he is a representative of the colonizing force from England. The speaker admits early in the essay that “imperialism was an evil thing” and was doing what he could to get away from it. One day, however, the speaker recalls a “tiny incident” which he claims reveal the true “nature of imperialism – the real motives for which despotic governments act.” He was called to do something about an elephant running amok in the bazaar. The speaker does not want to hurt the elephant, but with the collected wills of the local population, he is compelled to use his magical rifle and shoot the elephant.

Much like the speaker I am compelled to confront my own elephant, which I do with my magical grade book. My students understand in the abstract the meaninglessness of grades and test scores. They understand that the only people who care about their grades and transcripts are them, their parents, and (to a certain degree) their college application. But the values imposed by the colonizer is quite different. The colonizer seeks to supplant the will of the colonized with the will of the colonizer. This is not an easy process and one that has to be done over and over again, lest the colonized’s will resurge. And so my students focus on the magical grade book.

Every time I read this essay, it seems that the colonizer, too,  must be re-colonized in order to inflict the colonizer’s will upon the natives. The speaker realizes that what he is doing is not the right thing, regardless, he continues with it. He continues to use this magical rifle. He continues to enforce the colonizer’s rules and impose their values.

Just like I continue to enter and ‘value’ grades. And spend the first few days back from summer break looking over SAT, PSAT, IB, AP, and other test scores (I don’t mind data, what I do mind is not allowing my students to be individuals). In doing all of this, I break the will of my students a bit more so that they are fully under the spell of the colonizer.

To push this metaphor of colonization one step further, there is a time when learning is about joy and fun. When the grade book does not matter. A time when school is about exploring. But then enters the test. Enters the venerated test maker. Enters the person who has the fucking audacity to ask if your first grader is college ready? Here, the kid leaves and is replaced with a data point or, worse yet, the stresses of being adult.

I find myself playing into the game. I find myself pulling out my magical grade book. I listen to the crowd of thousands making sure I use it.

As we started to discuss “Shooting an Elephant,” I presented this idea to my students. The irony is they agree. They agree that they are the elephant and the system (through me and the grade book) is taking their will very slowly. They agree that their thoughts about school and education have been fully colonized and they cannot see anything beyond the ‘significance’ of the grade book. They agree that the first question they are concerned about is if an assignment is being graded and how many points it is worth. It seems the more it is worth, the more work they will put into it.

And so I work to combat it. I work to find the balance between satisfying the needs and wants of the colonizer and making sure my students leave my classes with their wills mostly in tact. To be honest, in order to function as a society, we must give a bit of ourselves up, I have no problem with this. What concerns me, however, is the lack of desire for many of my students to learn for themselves in school, to put themselves into their learning. That if we want them to become lifelong learners, then we have to confront the incentive for learning in school. We have to confront the process of colonization through the grade book.

I will be spending some time over the next few posts as I explore some of what I am trying to do to combat this process colonization by the grade book in my classes. Right now, I am experimenting with the grades themselves, I am including some PBL approaches to learning, and other ideas. But I wonder about you? What are you doing in your classes to try and get your students’ focus off the grade book and on the learning? Please share some ideas in the comments.

 

 

 

 

 

Skills, not content

I teach a variety of levels of classes. I have the treasured lettered classes (AP and IB) and classes which I co-teach with a special education teacher. I also have one class full of those students who, under normal circumstances, might not have a chance to graduate. And I know that a key to all of these students becoming functioning adults is having the skills needed to function in reality. Not necessarily the skills needed to function in school.

The question regarding the purpose of high school has been running through my head the last few years. The last couple of decades, in my mind at least, the purpose of high school has been to prepare students to become college professors, though only a few will get an education beyond a bachelors degree, much less be college professors. Regardless of this, the system still functions on the idea that all students will go to a four year college and study the liberal arts. The system, unfortunately, has not fully acknowledged the reality that our world is quite different, and the skills needed to survive in that reality have changed considerably. Try as it might, the system has failed to keep up with those changes of reality outside of education.

As I see it, my job is to get students ready to be functioning people in the world outside of the education system. As I told my AP classes the other day, the only people who really care about their GPA or the fact that they have taken AP classes are their parents and their college application. I know this might be sacrilege to many teachers, especially when it comes to AP and IB classes. The reality, however, is that it doesn’t matter what they have learned in any class until they can do something with what they have learned in those classes. As I write the previous several sentences, I think about a former student I ran into a couple of years ago at a restaurant.

He was in town for Christmas break after his first semester away to college, and he told me that high school had not prepared him for college in the least bit. He had taken a slew of AP courses and he did well in them. He was not valedictorian or even the top 10, but he did well enough to get a decent scholarship to the University of Arizona. I asked him where he was struggling the most. His list included, but not limited to, dealing with the work load, the time management, the expectations of self-direction, these were all a shock to him. After our conversation, it hit me, I had been far too focused on the content of the class and not the skills needed to function as an individual outside of school. I had bought into they myth that I needed to prepare my students, regardless of their level or interest, to be college professors. And the questions of my purpose as a high school teacher really began to take more shape.

I have spent the last many years of my career trying to wrap my head around the idea  that content is far down the list of things many of us teach. Until a few years ago, I had had difficulty in determining what that thing was exactly. the answer to that thing finally began to take form at an IB conference whose keynote address was about skills over content. And since that keynote, the idea of skills over content has been taking shape in this cranium of mine. But I couldn’t name exactly which skills.

And that is where I am today. The Colorado Department of Education focuses on five “21st century skills.” Those skills are: collaboration, creative thinking and reasoning, information literacy, self-direction, and invention. Mind you, there are many more of these 21st century skills depending with whom you ask, but I have to be honest, I am down right giddy about this change. However (and this is the hard part), the system in which I still work continues to be focused on content. But (and this is the fun part), the system is changing.

I am one of those people who needs to name something before I can deal with it. During the last several years and these experiences, I can finally name what those things are that I should actually teach through my content. Given this revelation, over the next few weeks, I will be writing about and reflecting upon as I explore those 21st century skills and what I have done in my classroom to address them in my lessons. If I am to insist my students reflect on their process, then I will, too.

The first skill I will explore in some depth will be collaboration. If you have any suggestions about teaching collaboration as a skill through content, please share these in the comments below.

Welcome to Thinking without a Harness

I have been thinking quite a bit this school year about the significance of student (and teacher) reflection. I enjoy spending time in my own head, but often I find I don’t do it with the intention that I really should. I encourage my students to reflect and share their reflections, so I reckon I should too. In so many ways, that is the purpose of this blog and website. I intend to use this as a time to put together ideas and reflect on what I have done in my classes, tried to do in my classes, read for fun (and my classes), and other random writing and thinking.

So let this be a welcome mat to my  blog and my latest creative and educational endeavor. I suppose I should spend a moment on why I finally decided to give this medium a go on my own.

Last week I was at the Colorado Council of the International Reading Association 2018 conference and sat in on a few sessions by George Couros. I was moved. I was motivated. I realized in his session what a sham I had been asking my students to take risks with their writing and their thinking and all the while I was hiding most of my thinking on this computer of mine. Moreover, I realized if I want to improve my craft, I need to get out there more. By that, I mean I need to get my writing, my ideas, my struggles, my successes, my thoughts, all of it. I just need to get out there more.

And so this site was born over a couple of Manhattans with Felicia, my girl friend. I told her of my thoughts to put this together and we brainstormed ideas about the name and the purpose. And here it is, Thinking without a Harness.

Here you will find various pieces of my writing and thinking and reactions and reflections. I will post about teaching, learning, living, functioning, and the like. Take what you will. Leave a comment or two. Join in for the ride.

So, welcome to Thinking Without a Harness. This is my place to reflect and work some thoughts and ideas out in public.  And it starts now.

I look forward to your comments and thoughts and insights. As educators and people, we cannot function well in isolation, so please join in the conversations. I will let go of my safety harness and put my thoughts and ideas out there. I hope you will join me in this endeavor as I put my reflections out there and do what I ask of my students, and not what I do.