Tuesday, December 20, 2016

On fragmenting & fragments

I love to read. I love to foster students' excitement about reading. I love when students who claim they don't love reading maybe, just maybe, start to change their minds -- a little. For these reasons and others, I champion independent reading as a classroom priority.

It's not all peaches and cream, though. I also notice downsides of independent (vs. shared) reading. For instance, our classroom community does less connecting and thinking together about books. It doesn't have to be this way; lately, it just is. Some student feedback at the end of this semester has me thinking about that and subtly different approaches we might take in 2017.

Mean time, I'm using this space (increasingly) to share slices of what I'm reading. A few powerful quotes are sticking with me from the book I just finished, When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi. This space seems like a good one to park them, along with a few related thoughts...
  • On why Kalanithi pursued a career in medicine versus one in a more abstract realm like literature or philosophy: "Moral speculation was puny compared to moral action." (43) I take this as a reminder, when teaching, not to get too bogged down in analysis when brisk action might be key.
  • On the doctor/patient relationship, crystallizing a stance I aspire to take with students: "Here we are together, and here are the ways through -- I promise to guide you, as best I can, to the other side." (88)
  • On growth mindsets by way of math metaphor: "You can't ever reach perfection , but you can believe in an asymptote toward which you are ceaselessly striving." (115)
  • On death, dying and the calculations science make: "The angst of facing mortality has no remedy in probability." (135) This dynamic has analogs in education as many students and their families, and school systems even, equate failure with a killing blow.
  • On seeking connections in service of learning: "Human knowledge is never contained in one person. it grows from the relationships we create between each other and the world, and still it is never complete." (172)
Thanks for reading.



Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Five slices of Breakout EDU life

It's the last week of the semester where I teach. From today through Friday, I meet each class for one 90-minute block to put a proverbial bow on four months together. That could be an opportunity for an exam (final or otherwise), a culminating project, or a mid-year course evaluation. Instead, I'm opting to introduce students to Breakout Edu. Here are a few observations from round one...
  • DIY'ing the materials is well within reach, thanks to the open-source nature of the project. Just as there are many ways to skin cats, there are equivalent ways to break out. Both actual and digital.
  • With a minimum of direction and the game afoot at eight this morning, most of the 27 students... They. Just. Started. Doing. Stuff. This was simultaneously exhilarating and frightening for the part of me that's a professional control freak. As events proceeded, I often found myself wanting to interject and, you know, teach. I resisted this temptation (my tongue still hurts from all the biting). I see now how being less helpful made space for students to help themselves and each other, not to mention sit with frustration.
  • Just because the design is open source doesn't mean it's easy or fool-proof. Last night, I managed to lock myself out of the directional lock on my first attempt changing the combination. (Imperfect gift for the holidays: Master-Lock paperweight?) Chagrin eventually gave way to problem solving when I decided to create a digital lock instead via a Google Form. Even better: a knot of students broke out in delighted shouts when they cracked it. And likely best of all: turns out the lock opened thanks to the creative know-how of one eighth grader who found a side door, not the way I had intended at all.
  • For the record, the second lock gave way under similarly unorthodox pressure, though not of the physical variety. I may need to rethink puzzle design, which feels like my own refreshing learning.
  • Not breaking out need not be a failure -- at least, not a lasting one. Students opened two of four locks in 45 minutes of play; then, we debriefed. That conversation invited students to notice both productive and counter-productive ways they approached problems. Students unpacked both group and individual dynamics, what they'd want to do again vs. what they'd rather avoid. One equanimous eighth-grade soul even reminded us that (I'm paraphrasing) experiences in life can surpass the outcomes if we let them.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Sound of one butterfly wing flapping

Part of this is a slice of life, and part is me reeling kaleidoscopically. Let's start with the slice.

On Monday, I started each of five classes by theatrically pouring out a box of stuff I had collected around the room the prior week: books and writing utensils abandoned at work stations, water bottles, empty drink cans, paper (whole and scraps), gum and candy wrappers, other detritus adolescents (among others) are prone to leave behind. Students mimed horror; a few gasped. I pointed students back to our self-study of design thinking to start the year and asked, "How might we improve this situation? How might we care better for the space we share?" Students offered a mix of ideas and excuses. Among the moments that made me smile: the sixth grader who offered wonderingly, "I guess we just need to be more aware."

The kaleidoscope started twirling on the drive home. I heard a radio interview with an author about "what it means to be a futurist" (transcript here, for the curious). The part that stuck with me and sent me deeper down the rabbit hole of my own thoughts was the writer's reference to meteorology professor Edward Lorenz who originated chaos theory. That particular idea I likely know best from this film:


Back in front of a computer, my next click brought me to a synopsis of Lorenz's work, including his finding that "small changes can have big consequences." Lorenz contrasts his view with deterministic ones in which "only one thing can happen next" based on whatever prior conditions led to a particular point.

While Lorenz unfolded his thinking from experience with weather models, his notions resonate for me in education. I crave (and sometime cling to) deterministic views of learning with their tidy causes and effects, even when I'm regularly confronted with messiness and unpredictability. Sometimes, as shown in the last week, that messiness can even be literal.