The future is now, and it looks like youth activism

LISTEN to their power.

I’ve been walking around since Friday with my heart alternately tightening and fluttering as I think about the youth in our world rising up for the Climate Strike. The images are breathtaking; the numbers are staggering. The message is undeniable: our children are pissed. Our earth is melting and the adults in charge aren’t moving quickly enough to address the issue. And these kids are through with the bystander role, with waiting to become old enough to make a difference, because what this generation seems to understand is that they ARE old enough to make a difference.

“What we stand for is what we stand ON!”

Students are taking to the streets (or in our school’s case, the courtyard) to change our world, and it fills my heart so absolutely full of joy to see them exercising their rights to peaceful protest. The educator in me considers all the learning happening…and wonders if they recognize it as such, or if our schools do. I think about the classes that they return to where some of those who were just chanting with full voices will sit back down at desks in rows, raise their hands to offer answers to questions, and in general return to tradition.

Something feels weird. It feels like we are missing the elephant in the room. They were just outside protesting the fact that the earth is melting! Should they be returning to their math class to review the answers to the quiz they took yesterday? Should they return to their English class to pick up where they left off reading Gatsby? As if the globe painted on their face isn’t there? Or the sign that rests against their desk is just an everyday accoutrement?

That polar bear drawing though…

Why do we do this?? It’s NOT a return to normal! Our students should be walking back into our classes and talking about the climate. This might piss off some of you, but the curriculum can wait at an historic moment such as this. In fact, at times like this, I argue that what is happening IS the curriculum. How might we honor our students’ concerns? How might we help them leverage this momentum to incite change? One thing is for certain: we must give them time to reflect on their learning and to process the enormity of the movement in which they have participated.

Education is about so much more than what happens in the classroom.
Photo: Alison Scileppi

I was fortunate to return to a classroom where the teacher gave students time to research Greta Thunberg following the rally at our school. We talked about her actions, her drive, and what she had accomplished. Still, I was left feeling like we had barely begun to understand the impact Thunberg has had, and that all of our youth are having.

So I’m reaching out to you. How are you recognizing the Global Climate Strike in your classroom? How might we continue to empower our youth beyond these momentous occasions? This is a time of great impact in their lives (and ours); what can we as educators do to ensure it doesn’t merely drift by?

I love adolescents.
Photo: Alison Scileppi

4 reasons to adopt a design thinking mindset

The new school year is full of hope. Newness. Fresh starts. And like the hesitation you may feel to lay footprints on the newly polished floors, you may hesitate as you consider the best way to dive into your curriculum.

Imagine if that’s how all students felt when they entered school each day…

What if…you embrace design thinking as the underlying approach to your teaching this year? Here are 4 solid reasons why you should:

  1. Design thinking begins with EMPATHY. And empathy requires you to understand your users (in this case, your students). They are complicated human beings, and that understanding will take time to develop. Still, even from the start, when you make the effort to know your students, you invest in them, and that empathy returns to you in student buy-in.

2. Design thinking requires you to be BOLD. When you consider solutions to any problem in class, think boldly! Contemplate ideas you hadn’t before. Ask your students for their ideas. Ask your favorite Twitter gurus. Reach outside your comfort zone.

3. Design thinking exercises your right brain. As you seek to solve problems in your classroom, tap into your creative side. Embrace the DT phrase, “How might we…?” Give yourself permission to think big. Look at things upside down. Examine components in a different light. Scrutinize from a different view point. Coerce your brain into redefining the problem through myriad solutions that you hadn’t contemplated before.

4. Design thinking demands INNOVATION. Whatever you are proposing as a solution to your classroom dilemma, it must be both new and better. And the only way to tell if it’s better is to test it and gather feedback. So take the time to do so. Don’t guess. Share it with your students, imperfect as it may be (you’re being bold, right?) and be brave enough to hear their feedback.

This is a true shift in thinking about HOW you teach. It puts students at the center because DT requires that you always empathize with them. It requires you to think like a designer because that’s what you are doing in creating an experience for your students that continues to engage and fascinate them.

If you’re not familiar with design thinking, here’s a quick graphic that explains the process.

How might you use design thinking in your classroom? Leave your thoughts in the comments!

5 ways to reset the energy in your classroom

It’s Monday morning.  Students are tired.  A quick glance around the room reveals half-full mega Dunkin’s, Monsters almost gone, and groggy teens. 

When my co-teacher and I talked about this lesson on Friday, we envisioned chart paper and brainstorming, our full group digging into standards and reflecting.

But now it’s Monday morning. A full weekend has lapsed, and I’m late to class due to other early-morning issues I had to address. So when I walk in expecting class to be engaged in meaningful reflection and discussion, I’m dismayed to find my co-teacher standing at the front of the room talking.  And talking.  And talking.  

I can see his message is failing to translate.  There are too many words for Monday morning.  Our students’ energy is so low, and yet it’s this elephant in the room that everyone is actively ignoring. How might we defeat this?

5 ways to reset the energy:

  1. Call it out. Embrace your inner Richard Simmons (where is he, anyway?) and kick that low energy to the curb with a quick brain break or simple yoga warm-up.
  2. Get them talking. It’s Monday. We just wakin’ up. Let’s talk about our weekend, our morning, our breakfast…just something to warm up those talking and thinking muscles so we can then start to think about the content.
  3. Switch gears with some media. Make a playlist of video clips to have on file for occasions such as these–short clips of genius that will help ease them into the right frame of mind (or just simply hit the reset button).
  4. Take a lap. Get outside and do a “walk-n-talk” guided by a question you (or your students) pose. Students pair up and discuss that question on their walk. It might be something content-related or it might not; make the call based on your students.
  5. Brain dump. Give students 5-7 minutes to write (or doodle, or whatever they create with a pencil and paper) about whatever they want to write about. Provide the open space to share afterward, which may lead to some lively conversation.

We eventually recovered, but we didn’t employ any of these strategies. (Failure is the best teacher?) Teaching is such a human-centered profession and so very personal, but sometimes we ignore that fact and soldier on in an effort to stick to our plans. Believe me, it’s worth the 10-15 minute investment to start with students who are ready to learn…and you might just be building relationships along the way. Let’s remember this as we return from December break!

photo cred Zachary Nelson: Unsplash

What are some ways you reset the energy in your classroom? Please share!

Empathy & Engagement: finding light in the darkness

“She’s just…gone,” she said to me, and I felt her energy–a sadness fueled by intense empathy–and I empathized in return.  So many feelings–pride that we have teachers like her who stop into the office before 8 a.m. to check on students’ well being, sadness that we have students who surf couches and show up hungry, hesitation in my response as I tried to remain open to her tears and find words to fill the space where there were none to reassure.

Empathy is powerful.  It can lay you flat out if you let it, and it did that to me today.  There were tears, those I usually keep boxed up in a tight container, that flowed freely out the sides.  I let myself truly feel for others, and yes, it hurt.  And in our current political climate, I find myself drawn back to empathy time and again, trying to make sense of things I do not understand.

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I don’t understand why some students must find ways to ask if we might have some food to spare–using humor, usually–because they struggle to quiet rumbles of hunger.  I don’t understand why students have to live in unhealthy circumstances beyond their control at home, and then come to schools where their voices are rarely heard there either.  I don’t understand why some teachers find it so difficult to build real relationships with students.

 

In tandem with the scant hours of fall daylight, there is darkness in school.  But in this darkness, I seek the bright spots.  One to note:

we have shifted our priorities this year to make time for things that matter,

one of them being time for students to explore personal interests.  On Thursdays, students participate in a 45-minute workshop designed expressly for discovery and exploration.  Here’s what some of them had to say about the experience:

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Encouraging, right?  Vermont says we must personalize learning, and so we create a schedule in partnership with students that prioritizes time for them to explore passions.  In some instances, it becomes the highlight of their week.  It has other unintended and serendipitous consequences: students create new friendships based on common interests; they feel valued and mitigate their stress; they discover new interests that inspire them.

In short, we strengthen culture.IMG_1217

Empathy requires that you feel, and that’s scary for some (including me).  Without it though, we find ourselves in tragic situations.  I believe our schools should be places of comfort, inspiration, and belonging.  Connecting with students, personalizing the school experience, valuing their voice…they aren’t extras.  They’re the very foundation upon which we build strong schools, and it’s time we prioritize these shifts.  We live in a world where school isn’t just school anymore; it’s the therapist’s office, the doctor, the parent, the family.

Let’s embrace what empathy can teach us about becoming the teachers that students need us to be in this present moment.

 

 

Hypocrisy 1; Equity 0: epic parenting dilemma

So my own hypocrisy smacked me in the face today.  Hard.  And I have to come clean if I’m to have a prayer of working through the existential crisis that’s unfolded in the last 24 hours.

I thought that one of my core beliefs centered around equity : all students deserve access to opportunity.

But when push came to shove for me last night, I failed as a human for what I tell myself was a trade-off as a mother.  I chose to advocate for separation instead of for equity in hopes of sheltering my child from exposure to what I perceived as a possibly harmful environment.  Maybe my child felt better in the short term, but what have I taught him for the long haul?

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Everybody struggles.  I’m struggling with this.  I’m looking at my own background, remembering my roots and considering how they shape my current reactions.  The daughter of a truck driver, I grew up with a father who freely embraced the f-bomb as every part of speech (and in just about every sentence).  Sidesplittingly funny with strong views on everything from politics to the Yankees, his language always threw me.  Language was at the heart of my discomfort in both of these situations–listening to my father and the potential for that kind of language to surround my son for four nights.   I’m all design thinking and empathy in school, but I didn’t honor that here.

But what if…it didn’t look like that?

What if my son had the opportunity to build bridges instead of be sheltered?  What if he learned some empathy himself?  Might there have been long-lasting positive effects?

When does fighting for equity outweigh concerns as a parent?  

Does it?

 

 

Photo credit: Volkan Olmez (Unsplash)

 

 

School change: building blocks to #empathy

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about school change and how best to make it happen: hours in meetings talking about how to inspire, talking others down from the ledge as they became so easily mired in pessimism, sometimes finding myself marveling at the problem as opposed to seeking out solutions.  It’s easier to say you can’t do anything because of X, Y, Z than to actually take steps to make change.  And it’s true that sometimes even when you spend countless hours trying to make systemic change, it fails.

Michael Fullan, the Heath brothers, and Dan Pink have all written at length about change and its one primary, deciding factor: motivation.  In “Change Theory: A force for school improvement,” Fullan writes, “If one’s theory of action does not motivate people to put in the effort–individually and collectively–that is necessary to get results, improvement is not possible” (8).  Interesting that he draws attention to the fact that change cannot beget results if only accomplished individually.  I have learned this lesson time and again as I carefully constructed the isolated island of a classroom teacher, head down, wading through the bull in an effort to create the best experiences for my students.  By the time I met with my colleagues at the end of the day to talk about standards, common assessments, or whatever other initiative was coming down the pike, I was spent and ready to watch some ridiculous Jib Jabs, not so much do heavy thinking on how best to align ourselves for the betterment of our students.

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Stanford d.school’s form of inspiration

This idea of a culture shift–noted by both the Heath brothers and Fullan–is one that the Rowland foundation has likewise esteemed, and I recognize that shift as the ultimate goal.  So let’s talk about some small steps to get there, taking my call for empathy as the impetus.  I will attempt to build capacity through students first–Fullan’s second premise of the change theory.  Check out my Powtoon for my plan of action–one I hope will result in a move toward better understanding the world in which we live.

 

I will report out (share widely!) what our students propose, and how their ideas play out at our school.  I’d love to hear your ideas as well, and if you’d like to partner with us in this venture.  Authentic audiences, global connections around issues important to our students, and a lasting understanding of what technology can do to build empathy are all worthy goals for this venture.  Please join us!

Resources:

Fullan, Michael. Change Theory: A Force for School Improvement. Jolimont, Vic.: CSE Centre for Strategic Education, 2006. Web. 7 Feb. 2017.

Heath, Chip, and Dan Heath. Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard. London: Random House Business, 2011. Print.

Pink, Daniel H. Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us. Edinburgh: Canongate, 2010. Print.

“Rowland Foundation Vermont Secondary School Teacher’s Fellowship Philosophy.” Rowland Foundation Vermont Secondary School Teacher’s Fellowship Philosophy. The Rowland Foundation, n.d. Web. 7 Feb. 2017.