Writing to reflect: For the Horde!

Confession: I drive a Subaru Forester. In Colorado this is about as common as a lodgepole pine tree is in our forests. I would be lying if I said I never walked up to another Forester and wondered why my remote wasn’t working to unlock the door. After one last frustrating moment of trying to locate my Subaru in a forest of Subarus (don’t even get me started on trying to find my car in an REI parking lot), I decided mine needed a marker of sorts. Actually, Felicia suggested I should mark it.

Felicia drives a Honda Pilot, which is not as common as a Subaru mind you, but common enough that she has walked up to the wrong car, and has been sitting in her car when another person mistook Felicia’s Pilot for her own. An awkward situation to say the least. So Felicia put a “Sailor Moon” window sticker on her car so as to easily mark it.

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Felicia’s Sailor Moon sticker

This has done wonders for both of us in locating her car in crowded lots. Each time it has been used or each time we would have difficult time locating my car, she would bring it up and tell me I should get a something to mark my car, too. However, I have always had a no sticker policy on my cars, which drove my deceased wife nuts, especially during political season.

But my policy has changed. After a frustrating moment trying to find my car in a forest of Foresters, I decided enough is enough. I spent a few days trying to decide with what to mark my car, and I decided on the symbol for the Horde from World of Warcraft (WOW). 

Before explaining why I chose the decal I did, I need to step back for a moment. I do my best to teach my students that writing to reflect is a process we do in order to arrive at a better understanding of a situation of an issue or ourselves. As our students are young, they have so little upon which to reflect. When we ask them to reflect, it is often thin and superficial at best. We have to remember they are still in midst of deciding their truths and their opinions. I think it was Hemingway who said something along the lines that you can’t write about Paris while you’re still in Paris. I still have a difficult time writing about my deceased wife as the experience is still being processed. Don’t get me wrong, I have written a bit here and there, but nothing I am still working on arriving at some truths and realizations since her passing four years ago. In other words, I am still in Paris.

So, when I decided it would a Horde symbol to mark my car, I thought and reflected on what my years of playing WOW did for me as a teacher and as a person. WOW provided me an opportunity to explore myself as a writer and a thinker. One of my former students, Ben Kendrick (he has no idea the debt of gratitude I owe him), would become a mentor for me as a writer. He was an editor for Gamerant, a website dedicated to video games. Over a few drinks at a mutual friend’s wedding, I told him that I played WOW and shared an essay I had written about it. A few months later, he asked me if I wanted to write a weekly column about the game for Gamerant. I took his offer and for a few years, I wrote a weekly column called World of Warcraft Wisdom (hence my Twitter handle).

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Is there any question as to why I need a sticker?

Those years writing that column shaped me in so many ways as a writer and a thinker. It gave me a platform to explore my thoughts and ideas on culture and the role games play. It helped me hone my skills as a writer. More importantly, it gave me an opportunity to practice what I preach to my students.

There is so much that goes into personal reflection and reflection writing. In so many ways, what makes it difficult for students to find the meaning in their experiences and their views is that they are still in Paris. For many, they hold their opinions and ideas on their sleeves with so little consideration as to where they came from because they are still developing these opinions and ideas. Our students can tell you what they think, but they have a difficult time exploring why they think what they think.

The set up for reflection writing is very important, so much of it comes from the questions we pose as teachers. It’s not enough simply to ask our students to write about a significant experience. I often structure reflection writing through a series of small questions that become larger, open ended questions. After some pre-writing activities and their answers in mind, they are free to put it all together and discern the significance and meaning from whatever it is they are reflecting.

In this essay, for example, consider the questions I have asked and answered about why I chose a World of Warcraft decal to mark my car. From the very simple (When did you play WOW? What side did you play?); to a bit more reflective (How did you get the writing gig? Why did you need a sticker?); to a bit more open ended and thoughtful (Why did you change your no sticker policy, anyway? You’re 49 years old, why the heck are you still identifying with a video game?). And these questions do not even include the meta aspect of this writing!

When I ask my students to write reflective essays after a project or an essay they have written for class, I often use a Google Form to collect their responses and thinking. Each question they answer on the Form gets progressively open ended. The assignment will dictate the questions I have them answer (either for pre-writing or post activity reflection). When they are done and we have conferred on their responses, they are ready to find the meaning of whatever it is that I am asking them to find. They are, in short, ready to arrive at a better, more clear and personal understanding.

When I finally decided that it was time for a decal, I had my choice narrowed down to two decals: the Horde and the Colorado Avalanche hockey team logo. The debate in my head was not too long. Don’t get me wrong, I love my Avs. In the hockey world the Avs are the good guys, everyone else is ok (and then there is the wild (I refuse to capitalize their name), who are just plain wrong). But when I think about what has played a more significant role in shaping who I am today, there was a clear winner. Mind you, I have not played WOW in quite sometime, but I still consider those years writing and playing formative in my understanding as to how popular culture functions in our lives and beyond us. I came to realize just how significant popular culture is in shaping us as individuals and as a people. I often wonder about the interplay between popular culture and reality and the push and pull of those.

In part because of World of Warcraft, therefore, I came into my own as a writer, a thinker, an observer, a writing teacher.

Tell me, how do you encourage reflection in your students? Leave a comment below.

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.

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.