Tools of Transfer: Conferences

Ah the time-honored tradition: Parent-Teacher Conferences. A time for students to ‘be placed in the hot seat’ in front of their parents and receive judgement; it’s like Christmas except that ‘Santa’ actually answers the question of have they been naughty or nice? Like many of you, I have just finished this year’s conferences and – per usual – learned a lot from them that I would like to remember for the next round of conferences I attend. Perhaps you will learn from my ponderings or be able to add your own lessons and heuristics.

Let’s pull a Sinek and start with why. Why do we do parent-teacher conferences, or student-led conferences as they are called in my school? Well, of course they add another layer of accountability for student behaviors and give us the opportunity to try to get parents on the same page with us so as to reinforce our messages and support students from home. However, they are also another of our ‘Educator’s Tools of Transfer;’ they serve (hopefully) as a way to convey (or make explicit) some of the lessons in the full-time, informal school we call ‘life.’ There is, of course, no curriculum for this vastly important informal school, and conferences are the small amount of time that we, as educators, get to try to teach some of those lessons in a one-on-one, personalized setting. These lessons include teaching students how to be self-reflective; to set goals and ‘upgrade their problems;’ and to recognize the cause-and-effect, chicken-and-egg nature of their motivations and actions (or should I say actions and motivations?). To me, this is vastly important, and we’d better do our homework in order to be able to capitalize upon these magical moments to create perspective expansion.

To begin with, I find it important to prepare students for their conferences – in this regard I quite like the Expeditionary model of ‘student-led’ conferences in which the student has some ownership over the direction in which the conference will go. In our case, this means that students are given a packet of prompts through which they will prepare for their conference. This ensures that scaffolding needs have been met, but that students can still begin the conversation and (hopefully) drive it for the duration of the meeting. What I mean by scaffolding, in this specific instance, is that without the following framework, students tend to just jump straight into either a) grades or b) anything else they can discuss to avoid talking about grades. Thus, our framework asks students to first take a step back and address some broader reflections on their life experience at the moment using the following notecatcher:
Screenshot 2019-10-14 at 6.17.53 PM

The reason for this type of reflection is that we tend to get caught in a loop where, if a student isn’t doing their work, we say ‘well, in order to succeed, you have to start doing your work… here are some strategies that I want you to use in order to complete your work: [planner, office hours, mentor program, etc].’ However, if one of these items for reflection stands out, we may have an underlying cause for the student’s academic performance that needs to be addressed! We are lucky this year in that most students feel safe in our school. However, even just today I had some catches like this: a student in my crew wrote (word-for-word) on her reflection sheet “Respected: I don’t feel Respected, but neither do I respect back but How ebe am i supposed to act.” and “Included: Sometimes, but outsider because all the teachers look at me wrong, and disappointed.” In the case of this student, this reflection directly captured a root cause for her current (low) engagement in her classes. We could have sat around going through her performance in each individual class, telling her she simply has to do her homework, turn in projects, study for tests, and stay in the classroom rather than leaving for the bathroom and wandering the halls, missing notes and practice… and nothing would have changed! Instead, we got to do a bit of analysis of her use of mental energy (as well as leverage our relationship a bit by making fun of her):

“Isn’t this hilarious? I mean, look at how much of a teenager you are being! You want to be respected but freely admit that you don’t respect back! [luckily this made her smile] But on a serious note, doesn’t it seem like you are using a ton of your mental energy trying to resist just doing what you know you have to do? Like, if you just decided to use that same energy to just begin doing your work or taking notes, you’d probably do better and not feel this internal struggle to ‘get your way,’ which seems to never have worked for you right? And what’s more, what you are resisting is people who want you to become an even more capable and talented person who can literally do anything she wants to in this life. Talk about teenager!”

From there, we were able to try to bring this subconscious resistance to the front of her mind by adding this idea to her Training Plan in the form of the question: Did I use mental energy today resisting just doing my work (leading to me feeling worse about my class performance)? I don’t know if this will work for her or not… but it certainly feels like it stands a better chance than telling her again she’s got to do her work.

As you can tell, the idea of ‘underlying problems’ is of course intriguing to me. All underlying problems are not captured by our short notecatcher, and this is where I claim that we, as educators, have to be well-studied and versed in this informal school we call life. We have to be able to analyze quickly and think on our feet. I am very much a beginner in this process, but let me share a couple of examples from today when the student had no red flags on their notecatcher, but was still struggling in classes.

To begin, I think it’s important to recognize that everyone has problems, and the point of this thing we call school and life is to solve our problems, to upgrade to new, better problems. So let’s start with a student who has great problems. Thomas is a Senior who has been pushing himself to get better at just about anything that presents the opportunity since his freshman year – he’s constantly pushing himself during fitness to run a faster mile, a couple days a week he’s in the gym after school shooting free throws, and last year he studied for the SAT completely on his own (well, with only my advice and direction on where to start/go next after he would complete practice activities) and ended up getting a 1450. His current ‘goal’ (which he is completing exceedingly well) is to ‘stay humble’ and push himself further by forgetting about anything he’s accomplished so far. “If you realize that where you are right now really isn’t that impressive,” he told me during his conference, “you can keep expanding your knowledge until you actually begin to know a little bit of something. Everything covered in high school… it’s interesting, but it’s known. The world’s problems are yet to be solved, and that takes real understanding.” Now, before I get to his ‘problems,’ I didn’t yet mention that he did not start off his conference with this topic; he started by talking about how last year in Biology, they studied the Microbiome and he started to realize how what we eat affects every part of our lives. This year, he has been learning how to cook in order to support his family’s ‘gut health.’ His mom nodded and said in her broken English “Yes, it’s very nice because I get to enjoy the cooking, but sometimes he requests that I buy something from the store and he is very picky that I get the correct item!” It wasn’t an academic topic, it was just a topic that he was excited about and want to make sure he mentioned how gratifying it’s been to learn – so yes, this kid is amazing in a completely self-understated way.

His ‘problem,’ was strategies for applying to college. He decided that he wants to make a financially prudent decision and, accordingly, is only looking at in-state schools and spending more time applying to scholarships. The question, though, was that apparently his top school (which is very selective) has an application option, where you can choose to apply with or without an essay. He felt like maybe he should take the option to apply without an essay, but wanted to know what I thought was better for him. “THOMAS! You are going to make my head explode! Did you listen to yourself so far? You are MORE than a 4.0 / 1450 – a lot more! The essay is your chance to show how different and unique you are!”

Now, I told this story partially to highlight that even the most motivated students are still struggling with big life decisions, but also to contrast with a student who came later on – my most challenging analysis of underlying causes. Mike is, in some ways, very similar to Thomas… it’s almost like they are made of the same mold: he is bright, enjoys pondering deep questions, and also has parents who immigrated to the U.S. and speak with thick accents that clearly convey their passion and excitement for the prospects of education. Still, Mike doesn’t do his homework and misses projects; however, he is able to ace a few quizzes here and there, and his grades turn out low overall, but mostly passing. He came in to his conference, sat down, and began an elegant speech to his parents:
“As you both know, we often start these Student-Led Conferences discussing ‘Stars and Steps;’ however, this year because of a shortage in stars we are going to be focused on discussing steps. This, however, is no cause for concern…” He began to dive down the rabbit-hole, preparing to expertly go through his performance in each class, one-by-one, and provide steps that he was ‘going to take’ to improve his grade in each class. He sounded great, and convincing… so I had to stop him there.

“No,” I said, garnering a confused look from him, “no… this isn’t how it’s going to go. We are going to stop right there. Because this is stupid, and you know you aren’t going to do these things. How many years in a row have you convinced your parents that you are going to improve, and then done the same thing for the rest of the year?” His parents eyebrows shot up and they began to pensively nod, as if it was the first time they were realizing this act seemed familiar.

“You are a curious student, and your intellectual capacities are incredible. Why are you not pushing yourself to learn more, to exceed what you thought you were capable of?”
“I just don’t see the merit in school after a certain point in time,” he paused. All of us stayed silent. “Like, I know that education is incredibly important, probably the most important thing in our lives if we want to have a good future, but I just want to already be at the next level, thinking about topics that are deeper than we cover here.”

“I get it,” I said “I see you writing in your notebooks, and on the trip this year staring off into the distance writing by yourself while everyone else is hanging out chatting. I heard your friend Keith read what you wrote about the trip when you were too nervous to read it out loud to the group, and it was incredible writing. And so what I mean to say is that you have this strong belief in the value of education as a gateway to accomplishing what you want to with the rest of your life, but yet you don’t think the content is valuable to you right now, so it’s like you are waiting on a later date to get engaged. And what that means to me, my friend, is that you are focused on the end-goal.”

Everyone looked at me as if to say, ‘um… yes. So?’

Luckily, our High School team assigned one of the Summer Reads this year to be Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow – I saw Mike reading it on our trip. Furthermore, I read some of Mark Manson’s Subtle Art (with lots of editing) to my crew on our trip. And finally, I am a fan of James Clear and the science of habit formation.

“So…” I said, “your path forward is to abandon goals completely. You have read Flow, I’ve read you parts of other goal-setting texts. What we are dealing with in your case is a question of values. You can drone on about what you are going to do in each class forever, but what you need is to analyze what your values include… for example, you value being able to engage deeply in meaningful and challenging intellectual work, and if the work does not serve that purpose (end-goal), you feel it is not worth doing. Yet, you see no contradiction with this value when you play video games, which I know you do often, right?”

He nodded reluctantly.

“This is because video games serves another of your values – pleasure in the moment. But what you are forgetting is that human beings do not rise to the levels of our goals. We fall to the level of our systems [this is a James Clear statement that I use with our students often]. By valuing the end-goal of education, you are forgetting that it is the moment-to-moment process that actually gets you to the end goal. We don’t decide we are going to write a book and just do it by writing 14 hours a day for two weeks. We write a book by committing to writing for thirty minutes every single day, and at the end of three years we realize that our skills and habits have improved to the point that they will allow us to write a book. Our media outlets make us think that stuff like this just happens when it’s time, but we need to actually value the process, the systems that make us what we are. Let’s put it this way: you are the Dave Mustaine to Thomas’s Pete Best. Remember when I read that story on the trip? How Dave Mustaine was kicked out of Metallica early in his career, and he vowed that he would create a band better than Metallica. His new band sold millions of records and has adoring fans… but he made himself miserable by setting his value as ‘being better than Metallica.’ Pete Best, on the other hand, found new values in his family and playing music on a more local level, and has been happy ever since.

The reason I say this is because Thomas, who you know well and are friends with – for goodness sake you two decided to stay in the same tent for the whole 16-day trip (!) – has completely opposite values to you. He doesn’t care what he ends up doing… he just wants to improve himself at whatever it is he is doing in the moment. That worked well for him with consistent daily SAT practice last year, but he’s also using that same improvement mentality to learn how to cook this year!”

Accordingly, this analysis of underlying values caused me to both add a section to Mike’s training plan during our Crew sessions that focuses on an analysis of his values, and to create some ‘Life Lesson’ plans that make us become aware of our values and act on them. I’ll post these lessons to this site when I get a chance to test them further, but for now, I hope that this sort of an analysis at least begins to help students stop with the BS-ing and get down to buying-in to their education and taking ownership over their own lives.

I’ll share just two more examples, and try to make them a little less long-winded than the last ones. I have one student whose main concern seems to be that he’s always about three steps behind. He’s engaged, tries, but he just always seems to be the last to realize that everyone turned in their assignments within one minute after I said “turn in your assignments to the turn-in bin,” and it’s now been ten minutes and we are on to the next topic. His mother reported that he is this way at home… she has to constantly follow him around to keep him moving and on-task. He said that he always feels tired, because he doesn’t get ‘good’ sleep, and his mother confirmed that she makes the whole family go lights-out by no later than 9:30. Hmm! I asked two things: 1) do you feel tired after our daily fitness course? No, he said. 2) do you have a screen that you use within one hour of bedtime. Yes, he reported. We added both of these items to his Training Plan, with his mother agreeing to support him from home. I’ll report back how this goes.

Secondly (and lastly), I have one student who seems to be completely unengaged in math class and doesn’t care. In fact, she makes comments that are meant to show just how much she doesn’t care… to the point that I just want to say ‘why bother with you? I’m going to go help someone else.’ However, in getting to have a conference with her, I got the ability to catch her when she is not in math class – the place that makes her feel most inadequate and vulnerable. She told me that one of her goals is to maintain good relationships with all of her teachers (which she is clearly not doing), which gave me the chance to realize that although she didn’t have any red flags on her ‘root causes’ checklist, she is exhibiting classic ‘defensive’ techniques that some teens use. Instead of letting the content make her feel vulnerable, she puts up the defense of the content being stupid and not worth it. I told her this and asked her if she might be able to recognize that she’s doing this, and of course the funny thing that happens with teens happened: when not in the moment she was able to realize… oh yeah, I am self-sabotaging. “But I don’t know how to not act that way in the moment!” she said. Again, we set up a daily reflection question in her training plan that she will continue to refer back to during the year, and I hope it helps!

Well, those are my reflections! What happened in your conferences that you can reflect on, remind yourself about next year, and grow from?

-mmm

Dance Between the BS

Call me a dreamer, but I envision a world where, should one happen to step into any classroom during lunch, they would encounter a group of students deeply engaged in learning. The means by which learning would be occurring would of course be disparate; however, learning would be taking place due to a fervor for life and a depth of curiosity. In the mathematics classroom one could imagine students would be undergoing dialogue about a particularly vexing problem; in the humanities rooms students would be transported to another world wrapped up in the pages of a book; in the gym students would be playing basketball or climbing on the rock wall before sneaking in a quick lunch. And the teachers – well, they would be engaged in all the same activities. Ultimately – and I know I am getting a bit crazy here – I imagine a school in which the ‘mathematics’ room was the same as the humanities room. A school in which there ceased to be barriers that separated discrete ‘subjects.’ But I am getting ahead of myself. My purpose to today is simply to tell you about the field of bullshit sprawled out vigorously and unapologetically in the space between reality and my dream school.

It should come as no surprise to anyone that I believe the fundamental function of a teacher is to facilitate learning. If you are an educator, it should also not surprise you that the majority of educators spend the majority of their work days doing things that are not related to facilitating learning. Now, this is a tricky point to make, because sometimes we want to call the things we are doing necessary for the process of facilitating learning… but if we really analyze these tasks, more often than not they are really about the process of running a school, and to quote Sir Ken Robinson, “Many schools are organized as they are because they always have been, not because they must be.” My dream school, described above, cannot happen as things exist right now, because it would require that teachers were walking their walk – that they were as excited about learning anything and everything as is humanly possible, and using that excitement to inspire students. As it stands, as teachers right now we spend more of our time just wanting to get our required BS – emails, grading, meetings, professional responsibilities – done.

Now, it’s also important to note that the process of facilitating learning – often messy – consists of much more than simply standing at the front of a classroom and lecturing to ‘deliver content.’ For example, and be forewarned there’s going to be a brief detour here, one of the most fundamental things we can ‘learn’ is ourselves. After all, “The paradox seems to be, as Socrates demonstrated long ago, the truly free individual is free only to the extent of his own self-mastery,” as Steven Pressfield wrote in an incredibly educationally-pertinent text called The War of Art, “while those who will not govern themselves are condemned to find masters to govern over them.” Of course, learning about ourselves goes far beyond learning to be truly free – it also affects how we are able to relate to the ‘curriculum’ of compulsory schooling. Within us exists what Ken Robinson refers to as ‘two worlds,’ first, there is the ‘inner’ world that is unique to us as individuals and consists of our thoughts, emotions, perspectives, and memories. Secondly, there is the ‘external’ world that consists of everything that is not us: this world exists whether or not we were ever born. In learning mathematics, humanities, science, and any other course curriculum taught in modern schools, we are learning about the external world. The irony of this situation is that the ‘inner’ world is the only lens through which we are able to see and relate to the external world.

Therefore, I consider it the foremost task of an educator to not only deliver content to students, but to help them to gain perspective on their inner worlds. This means spending time with students. It means loving students and listening to them to gain their perspectives and uncover their interests; inspiring them to ask questions through well-thought out projects rather than answering unsolicited questions and expecting ‘good’ students to listen and compliantly repeat them on the next exam. To me, when a student comes in during lunch and asks for advice, or help, or to hear a funny joke or an adventure story, it means being present and authentic with them – and let’s get back to the point now – even if that means putting away the emails that need responses and the stacks of paper that need attention.

The point is that there is a lot of bullshit involved in the teaching profession that is totally unrelated to facilitating learning, and that by constraining our view of ‘facilitating learning’ to classroom lecture time, we make it even harder for ourselves to complete the other component of facilitation that we just discussed, because we don’t consider it important. Grades are included in that BS – in my opinion – but I’ll get to that in a minute. Between emails, printing copies, attending meetings, and handling disciplinary cases, it’s easy for us as educators to say ‘sorry, I am too busy right now,’ to a student who needs advice, help, or – especially – to be heard by a person they respect and feel cares for them. And that is asinine.

Now, I am not claiming that some of the more menial tasks of the teaching profession need to be eliminated (although that may fuel the fire for some fantastic administrator to ask: ‘what do I want my teachers to focus on doing really well, and how can I cut the bullshit to allow them to do it?). Instead, what I am saying is that teachers need to form a healthy relationship with bullshit. We need to learn to frolick in the fields of it, dancing like fairies between the muddy pies and retaining our enthusiasm and focus. We need to walk between the raindrops, dry as a bone. Without learning to do this, we risk never inspiring and engaging some (or many) of our students in deeper learning that comes when they connect first with our human nature, which then allows them to connect with the content because of our own passions for it. We also risk burning ourselves out. Don’t get me wrong – I’m as passionate about this profession as anyone, but rare are the days when my friends on my team don’t talk about how nice it would be to just go get an office job or get our Electrician’s License and actually make money while enjoying the straightforwardness of the daily tasks.

Now, I have several suggestions for how dance between the BS:

First and foremost, we need to redefine our relationship with time. In other professions, people can afford to half-work. They can be typing at a computer while also having a conversation with the person in the cubicle next to them. They can be filling up at the water cooler while holding the smartphone to their ear and having a meeting, or typing an email. Teachers should not do this. When it’s time to engage with a human being in front of you, it’s time to engage. When it’s time to teach, do it. In order to do this, the first suggestion that I have is to learn to become efficient with our time. That’s hard… actually, it’s kind of the challenge of our entire modern world and generations (at least partially because we think multi-tasking and not fully engaging on the task in front of you is efficient). However, it can be done.

Perhaps the most important tool in beginning to do this is the Training Plan. If you are an educator who cares, read the article on it. Try it for yourself, seriously. By setting weekly goals for yourself that include things other than just your profession, you deepen the richness of your own life, which in our profession deepens your connections with the human beings you work with on a daily basis. Furthermore, it focuses your mind on what you want to accomplish, and makes you slowly start to eliminate actual BS time, like spending 30 minutes ‘relaxing’ when you first get home by checking Instagram, because you realize you are way to driven to better yourself to have time for that BS.

Secondly, put away the God Damned computer. I’d like to remind teachers that our students – whether we see it happening or not – slowly incorporate our views of the world, letting them color student perspectives, and this happens for our actions as well. If we spend all day showing them what ‘work’ is by working on our computer, they will ‘do work’ the same way – and the computer is far too powerful/dangerous a tool for even my adult mind (admittedly a feeble adult mind). Students learning what their inner world is all about don’t stand a chance. Without digressing into a dissertation on the need for a conscious relationship with our technology, I’d like to give a short anecdote to illustrate my point. A colleague comes into the room and asks if we can meet on Thursday at lunch, I agree and say ‘Great, let me just put it on my Google Calendar!’ To get to my Google Calendar, I click on the tab for my email which is still open in my browser, planning to press the Google Apps button that will swiftly and efficiently navigate me to my calendar, but before I actually hit the button, an unopened email catches my eye. I open that, begin responding, and completely forget that I was just trying to set a calendar reminder for my meeting. This happens to me (about six times a week) because of the power of the internet as a largely reactive tool – the entire design of the thing is meant to keep you diving further and further into it, consuming rather than producing, reacting rather than creating. The same sort of thing happens with links or ads while reading an online article or literally any other type of work that involves the internet with the possibilities to have new tabs open up.

So we need to be engaged in learning like students are. Do tests with them while they are taking the test (when you take the test, it can then serve as your answer key)! Or read a real book while students are taking their tests (you can even further your craft by reading a book about teaching)! Or if students have work time and you are hoping to make headway on new projects, draft it out in a notebook you keep handy in the classroom. But most importantly, DO NOT have a kid come into office hours only to spend small amounts of time working with him, pointing him in the right direction so that you can get back to doing some work on the computer. Obviously there are simply times you have to use the computer – your school requires you to take attendance online every day, or you need to respond to emails within 48 hours (just make sure you are not confusing something that’s urgent with what’s important). This is not an admonition to get rid of technology all together – it’s just an admonition to start thinking about when it’s not necessary and how we want to structure/scaffold/build-up-to productive computer use with students. It’s also an admonition to think about how to cut down on the amount of time you spend on things that are urgent but unimportant like email.

Third, incorporate a Mindful Moment into your daily class routine. This helps kids to gain focus coming into the classroom, but it also gives us a small moment to just take a breath and gain presence for our students.

Fourth, and this one is tricky, is to redefine our relationship with grading. What I mean to say by this is that in a LOT more instances than we would care to believe, grading is BS and we spend too much time on it. When a student hands in a paper, for the most part they already know if it’s of quality or not. My friend Eric likes to get some of our 11th or 12th grade students riled up by asking “Do I really need to read this and tell you it’s good or not? Did you learn something from it? Well isn’t that the purpose of writing it? For you to get something from it?” Without going back into a discussion of teaching Quality and the purpose of Rubrics, we teachers all see through our own BS when grading papers, right? We know that the grade given is ultimately subjective – did we think the paper was good or not, and how much further do we want to push this particular student (or try to strategically boost their grade to give them some extra confidence?). We create rubrics as a tool to help students who need scaffolding shoot for some achievable goals and to help ourselves try to ‘standardize’ our grading and remove variability, but then we go forth and start creating rules about how the rubric has to work: “Well, if I circle one line of text from the rubric’s ‘B’ category but another from the ‘A’ category, given that they are in the same box on the rubric I will just average those and call it a ‘B+’ but then circle this other one for the next box to make it a… [blah blah blah].” And we go through all this trouble knowing that only 10% of kids (if that) will actually read the edits, and 5% will come in to Office Hours to review the paper more specifically to get ideas that go beyond the rubric and edits/circles that we made – most of them will just look at the total grade and say… ‘eh, yeah, that’s about right.’ So why do we spend all that time going through that process!?!?! Figure out if you can redefine your relationship with grading, and make that clear with your high school students, so that you can maximize time on growth and minimize the time used that doesn’t lead to real change.

Obviously my list is still incomplete. What else do you do that you can share with our community to help dance between the BS?

Sweat the Small Stuff. Here’s Why.

For all the esoteric philosophical ramblings we may diverge on, Vena Cava is about one thing: Returning to the Heart of Education, specifically at the high school level. The way that we do that is through relationships. Education, as a whole, is about relationships.

If education, conceived as it is in the States today, was not about human relationships, then we would not have teachers in classrooms. Think about it! We could easily have every school in the country standardized to a single curriculum laid out perfectly in an online database, one that even included built-in options and choices of courses (when appropriate), and have students fill up computer-laden rooms to learn and be educated at their own pace on their individual computer. We could even have live humans available with expertise in each subject should any student have trouble figuring out where they were going wrong with what they were learning. These live human tutors would be trained in diagnosing the issue, so that they can redirect the pupil back to the computer program precisely where they were messing up to learn it correctly. Why waste the money on individual teachers in every classroom, right?

But the matter of fact is that we don’t do that – probably at least in part because that’s not the way we have done things in the past, but also because it takes an exceptionally motivated student to actually learn something from a computer when they are in high school*. Since going back into the same old rant over The Great Technology Debate would be both tedious and trite, let’s discuss the nuance that is ‘relationships’ in education.

To begin, let’s just make sure we are on the same page: grades or standardized test scores mean far less towards predicting a person’s future success than does the answer to the question: “did I have a parent, teacher, coach, mentor, or some adult presence in my life that I felt cared about me?”. Gallup polls have suggested this to be the case; Google has explicitly stated that in their experience, GPA does not predict an employee’s effectiveness; and in Gallup’s survey of more than 2,500 school superintendents, “[they] found that only 5% strongly agree that a high GPA is the best predictor of success in college, and only 6% strongly agree that high SAT and ACT scores are the best predictor.” The point is that we know that having a person in your life that cares about your future success and encourages you to shoot for your big dreams matters.

Now, you may be thinking that the point of this article is to say we should stop caring about GPA or academic rigor, and that we should instead focus just on loving our students. This is not the case. It is far too easy today to fall into the ‘progressive education trap’ – to understand that caring about your students is vastly important, and to begin to think that if you just love them at all times and make sure they like you back, you are doing everything you need to do in order to ensure their future success. I will argue that caring for a student does not equate to making sure they are always feeling successful, happy, or that they outwardly show that they like you. Once again think about it: imagine someone who loves you. Does that person always like you? (If your answer was yes, you must have been referring to a spouse of less than six months). Just as we discussed in On Compassion, it is important to recognize that caring about someone who is not yet fully developed (and often for people who are fully developed) does not mean doing what’s wanted in the moment. It means doing what’s needed in the long-run. And that can get tricky.

This is where ‘Sweating the Small Stuff’ comes into play. Presuming we are in the position that we care about our students deeply, but that we also hold our students to high standards of accountability, we assume the position of a balancing act. The good news is that this balancing act is moving forward… and just as we learn to ride a bicycle, the idea of balancing on just one set of wheels can become not so difficult as we first imagined. Maybe we can even get to the point where we ‘cut loose’ a bit and roost a corner or whip a jump… if you get my drift (sorry, a little mountain bike humor there).

When we are talking about Sweating the Small Stuff in relationships, we are talking about the finer points of this balancing act: holding high standards and expectations while still showing that you care, can laugh, and can have fun; conveying that you feel the impact this argument over expectations is having on your relationship, but maintaining a love for the person; transferring a set of values and moral standards even in the face of contemporary cultural pressures that fly in the face of those values while acknowledging the importance of those cultural influences on a teenager. Think about it this way: you have probably had many friends in your life, most of whom you interact with in slightly different ways. If you have a friend who is caring, makes you laugh, makes you get outside of your comfort zone in positive ways, and is an all-around joy to be close with, you are far more likely to overlook the fact that they always show up 20 minutes late to events you have planned together. Sure, it might annoy you occasionally, but this friend has so much to offer that we can almost come to love them for being the spacey person who is so loving that we overlook their complete lack of a functioning mental time-table. When people are excited about what you bring to the table as a person, they can overlook the small stuff.

Now let’s take this example to a bigger field. As an educator in the 21st century (or just adult in a field outside of education), you have likely worked on multiple teams, if not in multiple different organizations. Depending on the team you are on or the organization you are in, you will have had different experiences that changed your motivations or feel for the team. When you are on a team or in an organization that feels as if it has a common purpose and positive energy surrounding that purpose, you can overlook the small stuff. Imagine working in a school where the Principal comes by every classroom, every day, and says to each teacher “wow, look at the way you interact with those kids! You are doing an amazing job of earning their respect!” or “woah, this is SO COOL that you are engaging your kids in a math project that involves them growing their own salads that can be turned into healthy lunch items when they study in your room. Dang! Keep it up.” Compare this now to the Principal that you see once a month at Staff Meeting and during your annual evaluation, where they tell you about a hundred things you need to be better at in order to be a more ‘highly effective’ teacher. In which environment are you going to be able to handle some critical feedback more effectively? In which environment are you going to let it slide a little bit more – overlook it and change your plans – when the official calendar is published with a small mistake on the date of an important after-school event that you need to attend, but because of the mistake you scheduled a dinner with your close non-work friends?

The same thing happens in our classrooms. Obviously we hold high expectations, but in doing so we are also hoping to be that former principal rather than the latter. We are hoping to, on a daily basis, hand out compliments and ‘atta boys’ at a higher rate than our critical feedback points. We are hoping to laugh with our students, even when we do hand out critical feedback! To give an example, I have a student who I get along with well. Last year I remember a distinct moment where he came to ask me a question with earbuds in is ears; students know my thoughts on People>Technology, even though culture teaches them differently. I reacted very sternly. “Get those things out of your ears and completely away if you expect to talk to me.” His eyes went wide and he froze. I took a step back and waited. He took them out and put them away, still feeling scolded. That’s when I started talking like a maniac with clenched teeth and pretending to beat him up, “Freakin’ teenagers these days, I’m just gonna set them straight with some punches.” He knew me well enough to let a smile and laugh come back to him, and then I told him “Seriously though Pat, you know that people are more important than our technologies, always. Make it your thing to always show them the utmost respect over our devices, even when culture is making it seem like it’s fine to completely insulate ourselves from others. You will be a better person for it.”

Obviously this short example doesn’t convey the complete picture. This sort of an interaction is certainly unconventional for a math teacher, but by creating a classroom in which care for others as well as consistent positive feedback about what is happening that’s really cool (and there’s always cool things happening in a classroom, even when we are frustrated because we’re not getting our way with the entire class), we can get students to the point where they don’t sweat the small stuff. The stuff like when we take longer to grade a paper or test because we had a busy weekend, or when we move a fun science lab back on the calendar because we didn’t cover everything we thought we would, or when we don’t curve a test because we know that we covered all of that material well, and we suspect and tell our students that we don’t think they really studied… and then we ask them honestly, did they?

There are many ways to begin on this adventure of creating a classroom culture that has enough positive energy and purpose in it to allow students to overlook the small stuff, but one way to at least begin is by committing to monitoring the approximate ratio of how many positive, ‘this is SO great!’ comments you are giving out on a daily basis versus the critical feedback comments. Write this into your Training Plan as a daily reflection, or even a quick reflection after each class period! Then, continue to grow from there. The hope is that ultimately, you are not only proud of the values and skills that you are teaching students, but you are also having a ton of fun on a daily basis in this profession.

So sweat the small stuff. Are students in your classroom prone to getting angry with you for stuff that should be able to be rolled off their backs as easily as water through a storm drain? Or do you need to spend some time cleaning up that drain such that when the storm does come, there’s plenty of space created for that frustration to flow off their backs?

-mmm

References:
Bryant, A. (2013, June 19th). In Head-Hunting, Big Data May Not Be Such a Big Deal. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/20/business/in-head-hunting-big-data-may-not-be-such-a-big-deal.html?pagewanted=2&_r=4&&utm_source=link_newsv9&utm_campaign=item_178118&utm_medium=copy
Busteed, B. (2014, October 9th). Make a Difference. Show Students You Care. Retrieved from https://news.gallup.com/businessjournal/178118/difference-show-students-care.aspx

*Don’t believe me on this point? Rather than trying to search out statistics on the issue in research journals or Gallup studies, go straight to the heart of the issue yourself and do what we did this year: do an audit of the classroom computers in use at your school. Since seemingly everyone is obsessed with ‘one-to-one’ classrooms right now, I am guessing you have a decent number of classrooms in your school that use computers on a weekly basis, at least. Review the history of the computer-use during lesson time. What do you see?
At our school, we found a maximum on-task screen time for computer-based lessons of just over 50%.

The Intelligence Heuristic – Attention

Finally, after exploring both memory and reasoning, we arrive at the odd-ball out in Kahneman’s description of intelligence. The vast majority of our population doesn’t think of ‘the ability to deploy attention when needed’ as a component of intelligence – instead, we tend to blabber on about concepts that are extensions of the two components we have already discussed like ‘ability to problem solve,’ ‘critical thinking,’ or even one that is related, ‘emotional awareness.’ It seems to me that our society views deploying attention when needed as a trivial matter – ‘of course we can just focus on something when we need to, that’s not exactly a skill!’ Yet, in even uttering that phrase amongst educators, you will see some raised eyebrows and heads shaking in a non-committal side-to-side gesture, likely accompanied with the verbal accoutrements of ‘hmmmm’ and ‘yeaahhhhh, ideallyyy…’

In 1979, the profound and prescient educational thinker Neil Postman proposed a theory that he called the Thermostatic View of Education. The theory was far from his first or last word on pedagogical design and, for reasons that are beyond the scope of this article, received very little praise and second thoughts. Essentially, the Thermostatic View stated that one of the primary purposes of education is to act as a cultural ‘thermostat,’ sensing in which direction the greater cultural information climate (the first curriculum that we learn from) was trending and to provide a measure of ‘climate control’ to that curriculum. “Every society is held together by certain modes and patterns of communication which control the kind of society it is. One may call them information systems, codes, message networks, or media of communication,” he wrote, “Taken together they set and maintain the parameters of thought and learning within a culture. Just as the physical environment determines what the source of food and exertions of labor shall be, the information environment gives specific direction to the kinds of ideas, social attitudes, definitions of knowledge, and intellectual capacities will emerge.”

He qualifies that the Thermostatic View is not a new idea, returning to the work of Plato, who at the time was struggling to understand and counterbalance the effects of the written word versus oral. “The spoken word – rhythmic, aural, subjective, resonant, always in the present – versus the written word – cold, visual, abstract, objective, timeless. This was the conflict, the invisible issue which generated an education crisis. What was at stake here was not the virtue of Greek youth, but their intellect, for Plato knew that the dominant form of information in a culture shapes the intellectual orientation of its citizens.” Without diving into the intricacies of this ancient debate, let us say that Postman theorized that there was cause to believe that Plato himself was of the Thermostatic persuasion, that he “saw both sides of the picture. He knew the value of both speech and writing, but in the context of that time and place, he decided in favor of the written word. And he so decided because it was the spoken word that controlled the minds of the young. The written word was to release them from its grip. Though Plato did not say it, he must have believed that at that juncture the function of education was to free the young from the tyranny of the past. Sometimes the function of education is to free the young from the tyranny of the present. It depends on what is the character of the information environment.”

On first thought, what characterizes our information environment in 2019? Go!

And now on second thought, expand upon those things that you listed above – how does the information environment of 2019 direct our attention? What are its effects?

If you are like me, you immediately answered something to the effect of: “The internet… and that’s it. Sadly, a few particular components of the internet – email, social media, YouTube – compose our information environment in many senses. And this directs our attention to be scattered and seeking temporary highs – dopamine hits.” Obviously this is just a off-the-bat teacher’s response to the question, and there is much more complexity involved in our current information environment than this statement gives credit. However, if we were to take this statement as a grossly generalized truth and move forward, we would be left with a fairly straightforward answer: since the internet and all that it entails composes our current information environment, obviously someone of the Thermostatic persuasion would simply develop their curriculum to counterbalance the effects of it. But… what exactly would that curriculum look like? Would we simply shun personal phones and computers while in the classroom for textbooks and poster boards? Good luck with that, right?

The answer, of course, is that we need to understand the information environment on a deeper level, allowing the knowledge to impact decisions we make both personally and globally. Because this is obviously not intended to be a treatise, I will describe, informally, a couple of the impacts I see in short order form. Please feel free to weigh in on what I have missed, or direct me to resources that refute my observations, as this topic deserves much further research.

Let’s begin with the obvious: the information environment we live in today disrupts our concentration and contemplation. For example, when a physical book is transferred into an online format, it rarely remains as it was in print form – hyperlinks are inserted into the text, and plus symbols ready to open a new internet tab stare at us from the top of our screen. “Its links and other digital enhancements propel the reader hither and yon,” writes Nicholas Carr in The Shallows, “It loses what the late John Updike called its “edges” and dissolves into the vast, rolling waters of the Net. The linearity of the printed book is shattered, along with the calm attentiveness it encourages in the reader.” Let me be clear – it’s not that this setup is bereft of benefits. Being able to, for example, look up the meaning of an unknown word may help us to expand our workable lexicon much more quickly! The point I am making is that we tend to be all-too-quick to highlight those benefits and ignore the possibilities of downsides. What effect does the break in attention to look up a word have on the plausibility of us following along with the argument of the text (especially if it is a complex read)? Does it affect how long we will remain reading the text from that point on? Etcetera. “Whether I’m online or not, my mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles,” The Shallows goes on to say, “Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.”

The information environment also seems to hijack the component of our brain that begs us for efficiency. Standing in line at the grocery store? Make use of that time by getting something else done on your smartphone! Did you go to an optional lecture offered by a Guest Speaker at your University? If she doesn’t seem to immediately serve your purposes or interest you, then why is it even worth staying for it – just get up and leave to do something more productive! This line of thinking is almost laughably paradoxical because, if we are being honest with ourselves on how we end up spending our time after leaving the lecture (or using the smartphone in line), a significant portion of the time is wasted doing dumb things, like scrolling social media, watching a YouTube video, or checking email yet again (email, specifically, is the most challenging for us to recognize that it is unimportant as compared to our greater aspirations in life or work. That’s all I will say on that matter for now, though). Perhaps the time you spent standing in line, staring at the ceiling, and daydreaming really is a waste of time that should be eliminated, if possible. However, I would refute vigorously that line of thinking. Times like that are Where the Magic Happens, where we Train the Imagination. Perhaps the lecture would have actually ended up being a complete waste of time… but I think that if we have the ability to concentrate on it enough to ask the next question, any such setting could spark intriguing lines of thought more worthwhile than whatever it was we wanted to do on our phone instead.

Though not all lines of thought would be consistent on this point, generally both of the impacts described above operate on the level of the individual. However, in order to fully understand the issues at play, we must also wonder at how the information environment affects collective or social intelligence. What I mean to say here is that while the internet can fragment our attention – scatter it towards short, disconnected tidbits – it can also play an active role in determining which pieces of information we are ever exposed to in the first place. For example, if I am writing a paper in my history class, I am going to want to have some resources to support my evidence. Relevant pieces of information can be selected from a book… but we must read the entire book first in order to find them. This is sure to do several things: take a lot of time and concentration, and to force us to understand the information in the broader context of the book, to name a few. The internet provides us with a powerful alternative: we can simply use a search query to gain access to the information for which we are looking. Importantly, though, the information that is returned from our query is generated by the algorithms of our technology. If you think about that statement, hopefully Orwell’s famous quote starts running through your mind (preferably to the renegade sound of Rage Against the Machine): “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”

Instead of controlling the present overtly, of course, internet browsers control the present in a much more subtle (and scary) way. “The faster we surf across the surface of the Web – the more links we click and pages we view – the more opportunities Google gains to collect information about us and to feed us advertisements,” Carr wrote in The Shallows, “Its advertising system, moreover, is explicitly designed to figure out which messages are most likely to grab our attention and then to place those messages in our field of view. Every click we make on the Web marks a break in our concentration, a bottom-up disruption of our attention—and it’s in Google’s economic interest to make sure we click as often as possible.” Although Orwell’s statement certainly seems to predict this situation, as Postman predicted in 1985, it was never Big Brother that we should fear. “Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression,” Postman wrote in Amusing Ourselves to Death. “But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.”

In a paper published in Perspectives on Psychological Science 2019, Thomas Hills explains that humans have well-understood limits on the amount of information we can actually process at one time. “As information proliferation – the consumption and sharing of information – increases through social media and other communications technology, these limits create an attentional bottleneck, favoring information that is more likely to be searched for, attended to, comprehended, encoded, and later reproduced,” wrote Hills. “In information-rich environments, this bottleneck influences the evolution of information via four forces of cognitive selection, selecting for information that is belief-consistent, negative, social, and predictive.” In essence, we develop a culture-based positive feedback loop. Google first selects what information we will receive from our query (as discussed, the information is both a product of the algorithms which Google decides upon and the need for Google to advertise to us), and then, we inform Google on how it should rearrange it’s algorithm based on what we (the searchers) actually choose to click – the most popular information. This process has the effect of creating an echo-chamber of sorts, where information is amplified. And you guessed it – the information that gets amplified tends to be ‘the extremes.’ Hills warned that this process causes “severe pitfalls for the naive ‘informavore,’ accelerating extremism, hysteria, herding, and the proliferation of misinformation.” Is our society not more polarized and extremist than ever before? Personally, I don’t really know… I don’t feel like taking in all the information required to legitimately compare today to the past, so I am going to settle for going with my ‘gut feeling’ on this one. 😉

You may have recognized at this point why I previously wrote that the post on attention as a component of intelligence would be ‘a doozy.’ The question we are dealing with here is not whether or not being able to deploy attentional resources when needed is a skill. The question is whether the information environment of 2019 warrants a deeper look at the dynamics of human attention in service of providing education that counters any ill-effects on ‘the intellectual orientation’ of our citizens. Obviously this will be far from my last word on the topic. Yet, I drone on… so let’s get to a few practical implications for educators in the classroom.

What to do about it?

As of now, I don’t know the answer to this question. However, my team and I are trying to observe and learn everyday in our respective classrooms, and we have the autonomy to experiment. In terms of creating a Thermostatic opposition to our current information environment right now, my team and I do several things:

  • A Mindful Moment at the start of every class.
  • Try to have students read physical books, even in mathematics. In some ways, this is the reciprocal to the mindful moment. “Reading a book was a meditative act, but it didn’t involve a clearing of the mind. It involved a filling, or replenishing, of the mind.” Carr wrote in The Shallows, “Readers disengaged their attention from the outward flow of passing stimuli in order to engage it more deeply with an inward flow of words, ideas, and emotions. That was—and is—the essence of the unique mental process of deep reading. It was the technology of the book that made this ‘strange anomaly’ in our psychological history possible. The brain of the book reader was more than a literate brain. It was a literary brain.”
  • Discuss extreme-ism, nuance, and complexity on a daily basis.
  • When discussing the above, explicitly differentiate when we are in the realm of moral questions, or questions of value, versus when we are in a realm that can have discrete answers. The recent texts by Yuval Noah Harari – Sapiens and Homo Deus – have been exceptionally good starter reads for some of these conversations.
  • Use Yond’r Bags on a daily basis at our school.
  • Begin the year with an Outward Bound-style backpacking trip for 17-21 days.
  • Generally operate our classrooms on a “One-to-Zero” basis. GTFOH “One-to-One”. No computers (there are obviously exceptions, but that could be a whole ‘nother post).
  • Work really hard on developing our school ‘narrative.’ This helps students to at least recognize that there are actually choices to be made surrounding our use of technology. We ultimately try to make it kind of ‘cool’ to buck the trend from normal teenagers by not being attached to our technology.
  • Daily fitness. Based on the principles outlined in Spark by John Ratey, we have students challenge themselves physically every school day for 50 minutes in the morning.
  • Complete a Senior Solo.

What have I missed? What do you think?

-mmm

 

The Intelligence Heuristic – Reasoning

In our last post, we discussed an enlightening sentence from Daniel Kahneman: “Intelligence is not only the ability to reason; it is also the ability to find relevant material in memory and to deploy attention when needed.” It’s one of those “yeah, duh” sorts-of-statements, but in deciphering some of the nuances of what each of those components of intelligence refer to, we recognized some cultural perceptions that can get in the way of teachers or parents setting a clear goal for the purpose of education. This week, we’ll dive into the easiest of the three components to decipher – reasoning – in service of developing a better educational heuristic (or mental model that is easy to deploy) for teachers and parents.

In some senses, the idea of ‘ability to reason,’ has undergone the opposite cultural pressures from memory – recent pedagogies and school practices have begun to shift further in the direction of developing student abilities to reason as a replacement for memorization-style tasks. Now, that’s not to say that this is the case everywhere, as we see differential rates of shifting educational trends across the States. Yet, the evidence that the shift is and has occurred is plentiful, from the development of different styles of charter schools (Waldorf, Expeditionary Learning, Montessori Secondary, etc) to the promotion of curriculums like Jo Boaler’s YouCubed that support ‘low-floor, high-ceiling,’ project-based learning.

The key characteristic of these pedagogies is that students are given one massive task or project that they must not only use many skills they have learned to propose a solution for, but also decide which skills are actually useful and potentially throw out ones that are not useful. This model is in contrast to the “complete these thirty Quadratic Formula problems that are all the same but for the numbers,” way of doing things that was formerly predominant. Obviously even in classrooms supporting these sorts of methods, my own included, there is still a semblance of the skill work I just described. The idea is that once students have learned how to complete-the-square on a quadratic, they can then reason through the derivation of the Quadratic Formula itself. The skill of getting so good at completing-the-square that they can do it with constants instead of discrete numbers helps them to reason through that derivation. The hope is that by deriving that formula rather than being told to memorize it will allow them to do two things very well: first is to place the use of this particular formula into a broader context; if we think of the Quadratic Formula as a tool, then we should hope that these budding mathematicians become competent enough that they don’t (metaphorically) try to hammer a nail using a tape measure. The second thing we hope for is that when these students encounter problems that have not previously been solved, the idea of deriving is natural to them and they will go forth continuing that reasoning process, rather than being stuck at ‘the point where there were no more formulas left to plug-and-chug.’ I have written about this process somewhat extensively in The Degeneration Effect – it’s worth an exploration.

Of course, the mention of the Degeneration Effect brings up the fact that both reason and memory, two components of intelligence that Kahneman lists which I think would come to most people’s minds most readily as being the only factors of intelligence, have an incredibly powerful tool at their disposal in the modern world – endless data. The internet has completely and irreversibly changed the way we memorize and reason, making our lines of thought faster and potentially more all-encompassing than ever before. At the same time, however, the internet has also profoundly changed the third and least obvious component of intelligence: the ability to deploy attentional resources when needed.

Thank your lucky stars, you got a short post this week! See you next for a real doozie on the last component of intelligence.

-mmm

The Intelligence Heuristic – Memory

In Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman has a short and unextraordinary sentence that – for some reason – clicked together two major sections of a big puzzle that I had been working on in my mind subconsciously for some time now. “Intelligence is not only the ability to reason; it is also the ability to find relevant material in memory and to deploy attention when needed.”

This sentence hits upon some of the most deeply rooted, yet also ‘controversial’ ideas about education in our culture! For example, the idea of intelligence itself is one on which prominent contemporary educational theorists have tried to get our society to shift our thinking recently, and while educators all over the world now know that they should be thinking in terms of ‘growth mindsets,’ they continue saying things like ‘that was a smart idea,’ rather than ‘that idea must have taken a lot of attempts and practice to come up with!’ Given that our culture’s views on some of these keywords (intelligence, reasoning, memorization, attention) are both deeply rooted and shifting, let’s explore some of them in a bit more depth today in service of creating a more complete view of one of the main things education is trying to develop: intelligence.

Memorization

To begin, let’s start off with what I am considering an ‘old-school’ technique for teachers; those of us working in education today seem to have some amount of a stigma against the idea of memorization of content. It seems to almost be akin to the stigma against ‘testing’ – we all recognized that, at some point in time, our efforts to have students learn went too far in one direction, stifling true learning.

In the case of ‘standardized testing,’ we went too far in the direction of testing only one, very constrained definition of ability/aptitude. The push back, however, may have gone too far (in my opinion, which I feel counts since I am a very alternative sort of educator); we began to see tests as completely unnecessary in many cases, and many alternative schools and even some public schools began to aim to minimize the number of tests students took. The fact of the matter is that tests are a great way to learn! They have the ability to create just the right amount of ‘pressure’ (stress) to force students to deal with fear or anxiousness, and to really learn the concept in order to do well in the class. Now, I don’t think I go overboard with tests (in fact, I started doing weekly quizzes a few years ago by student request rather than my own policy… they felt that it truly helped them more to get nervous about the content and really study it). Instead, I try to make project-based learning a predominant portion of the grade in my class, but balance it out with tests coming in just slightly less weighted than projects.

In the case of memorization, it seems to me that we did something akin to standardized testing – realized that memorization was certainly not the only factor involved in intelligence, so we decided to villainize it and throw it out all together. I think what we meant to do with our pedagogy was to recognize that memorization solely for memorization’s sake may have some elementary benefits early in one’s education, but its scope is limited in applicability. For example, it can be a worthwhile task for one to memorize a poem or a sonnet or the countries of the world early in one’s career as a training exercise, but that does not ‘make us smart;’ rather, what it does for us is allow us to expand our working memory, meaning that we can hold more items in our mind at once than we were previously able. In this way, we can start to see ‘memorization of content’ as less about producing an exact copy of the information that was input, and more about remembering to include pertinent information from our past when analyzing new information coming at us. When engaged in a debate requiring rapid reasoning, or even when writing an argumentative essay, this skill will allow us to juggle competing concepts in our minds more easily, ultimately producing work of greater quality. Surely you have had a debate with a colleague where you came up with a great idea, but they brought up a counter-point that not only made sense, but that you felt like you should have thought about. That’s what we are talking about! Similarly, but in a different way, this ability to juggle competing concepts also helps us to deal with dualities (which I won’t say more about here other than to say I feel they are an essential component of life that we should analyze and teach). Overall, if all of our attention is put toward memorization and not reasoning, then our debate or essay is going to suffer; but we must also not forget that if we put all of our resources toward developing the ability to reason, we have given a soldier combat training and a rifle, but no ammunition. They have the ability to reason, but cannot recall pertinent information and place it into context, making the debate suffer as well.

There is another important benefit to ‘memorization’ – it allows us to perform tasks without thinking. “It is a profoundly erroneous truism, repeated by all copy-books and by eminent people when they are making speeches, that we should cultivate the habit of thinking of what we are doing,” wrote the mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead in An Introduction to Mathematics, “the precise opposite is the case. Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them. Operations of thought are like cavalry charges in a battle — they are strictly limited in number, they require fresh horses, and must only be made at decisive moments.” For example, if I simply memorize my times tables (which I did not do when I was learning them in second grade), then I can open up worlds of possibilities for completing higher-order operations using mental math, like multiplying 2 by 2 or 3 by 3 digit numbers, or squaring fractions when completing the square on a quadratic problem. Because the basic multiplication tables are automatic – I no longer have to think about them – I can focus my thoughts on holding numbers in my mind to sum my final result, or on the steps of completing the square rather than on the multiplication problem itself. When we have the ability to quickly, subconsciously measure our current experiences against our prior, ‘memorized’ (remembered) knowledge, it opens up doors for us to judge the likelihood that a new invention will work or be applicable, or the validity of a politician’s statements. This allows us to decide whether or not they merit the effort required for further review.

My suggestion for educators, then, is to recognize that memorization can be a way to develop our ‘ability to find relevant material in memory,’ and consider it before we throw the baby out with the bathwater. With that said, let’s go into a recent example of making memorization tasks fit with your classroom.

As with all educational endeavors, it is important that you make memorization tasks uniquely yours. Students get more into content when we (educators) are actually into it also. As an example, our schools science teacher is an avid birder. This year, he made a significant portion of his biology and ecology class turn into a study of birds. Along with taking students on outings to go birding, he also front-loaded the unit with memorization quizzes on the species of bird, identified visually at first, and then later on identified through their songs. The results were striking! First of all, students actually really enjoyed the memorization of bird species as a task, seemingly because they found it relieving to just need to do some memorization in a system that has made reasoning king (I certainly hold a significant portion of the blame for that). However, the results went deeper. Because students knew how to name the things they were able to see in the world, they became innately interesting. Students began to point out birds anytime we were outside, whether during our school’s Olympics (Field Day) or while outside at lunch. Previously, they ignored such ‘insignificant’ features of our natural environment. All of a sudden I started seeing students with bird drawings on the front of their work binders, or students who were wearing sweatshirts that said “Bird Nerd” on them. At graduation, our seniors get to choose the song to which they get to walk in – the vote was unanimous to play the song of the Red-Breasted Nuthatch. Ha!

Part of the reason that this unit was so successful is certainly because students began to feel a sense of pride around learning something that most students in the world do not – they felt unique. A high school math teacher may choose to do something similar by doing an atypical unit on mental operations using the ‘Mathemagic’ work of Arthur Benjamin, getting students comfortable with (and then proud of) their ability to square two-digit numbers quickly in their head. A literature teacher could have students memorize ‘an ethic’ that students wrote themselves and deliver it as a speech akin to Brendan Leonard’s 35, which was later made into this video.

The point is that opportunities for memorization tasks exist in places we don’t always dare to look as teachers, and by making our curriculum align with personal passions or unique content, we can do exactly what we are hoping to do as teachers: educate to produce wholly nourished people possessing ‘intelligence.’

Welp, that’s all I have time for this week – in the next post we’ll dive a little further into the other two components mentioned – the ability to reason, and the ability to deploy attention when needed. See you then.

-mmm

Review: Yondr Bags as an Educational Tool

Last year, we made a change at our school in the midst of a technological revolution that seems to be nothing short of all-encompassing of our lives (we’ve all had the momentary thought in a train station or restaurant that the scene around us looks like the zombie apocalypse, where instead of an unseen blight infecting each and every human, they had been taken over by a little rectangular box with a light coming out of it). We decided to implement a new educational tool at our Expeditionary high school: Yondr bags.

Urban legend has it that Yondr bags began as a way for comedians performing at nightclubs to put a damper on people doing two things that kind of suck: not being in the moment at shows because they were focusing more attention on recording the event, and then uploading their recordings allowing new (but perhaps not yet perfected) jokes to get out on the web, unlicensed, before the comedian wanted them to get out there. I say this is urban legend simply because I don’t care enough about the roots of the concept to spend the time researching it – the point is that they are a pouch that allows for a cell phone to be placed inside and then ‘locked’ until the user reaches a point in time or place where it is appropriate to have access to the phone again. As you can imagine, this freaks the fuck out of students. Pardon my French. I’m on a tear today, and we all know it to be very true, right?

Well, the bottom line of this review of our results with using Yondr bags in school is that they are freakin’ awesome. Check them out. Get your school on board. Just do it. It is SO necessary in today’s world. At our school Prom last week, my wife commented on how crazy it was that all of our students were talking to each other or dancing, and she had only seen one student pull out a phone once. That student had pulled out his phone to show me, his math teacher and chaperone, a person skiing an absolutely sick backcountry line that he wanted me to go ski with him next year. Ha!

Well, I feel like with that alone I have given a thorough review. But just in case you want it, to give a little more depth of field in terms of pros and cons, positives and negatives, and the results we have seen, let’s start with some logistical considerations. First of all, and most importantly, students need a reason to lock their phones away all-day, every-day. I know, I know – you were hoping for considerations like ‘do we compel them with some sort of a grade?’, or ‘do kids try to break the bags and what do you do about that?’ We’ll get there, but the most important component of this whole system is for us to first remember that we are educators. We are not doing this to make our jobs easier (though that is an attractive complimentary benefit). We are doing this to ensure that students learn about themselves and the pathways to productivity and contentment in their lives.

“The point is that, call them what you will, we are unceasing in creating histories and futures for ourselves through the medium of narrative,” Postman wrote in The End of Education, speaking as much about teenagers as about humans in general. “Without a narrative, life has no meaning. Without meaning, learning has no purpose. Without a purpose, schools are houses of detention, not attention.” This is important in the implementation of Yondr bags. What we are doing is attempting to re-write the cultural narrative about what’s important – to flip the script on Consumerism and ‘what’s cool,’ and to instead state that our community is cool because we believe that human beings were meant to talk together, face-to-face; that we are unique and rebellious of culture because we still create with our hands and hard-earned stories rather than consume with our mindless devotion to a little box that was programmed by geniuses who want our money. This is not an easy narrative to weave, yet, it’s certainly worth the effort.

Unfortunately, there is no sure-fire way to develop narratives that change the culture and mindsets of students in the school. This must be done on a team-by-team basis at each individual high school. However, there are a few practical considerations that are worth discussing with your team. Before diving into what those are, exactly, I want to make clear that my team and I are quite stoked about our implementation of Yondr bags in the classroom because we have a completely phone-free environment inside of our classrooms right now. This DOES NOT mean that every student is following our Yondr bag rule at all times, or that some students don’t figure out how to open the bags up, sneak off to the bathroom, and check SnapChat. It simply means that they are not present, at all, within our classrooms, and I think that’s amazing.

Now, in terms of logistical considerations, let’s start with the development of the narrative. As mentioned, each team will have to figure out what they personally believe about the use of technology in our culture, but I wanted to give a couple of examples of how our team has supported this narrative. First and foremost, we have all decided to use Yondr bags ourselves. This is not only because we personally believe that our productivity increases without the constant distractions of our phones, but also because the teenage brain is wired socially, and in today’s world with a lack of real, authentic purpose, many teen’s brains go straight to perceiving social injustices, double standards at the forefront. Secondly, each of us has strong beliefs about the effect of technology on our lives, grounded in texts like Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, McLuhan’s The Medium is the Massage, and more recently Carr’s The Shallows and The Glass Cage. Accordingly, we are able to speak to the topic somewhat elegantly off the tops of our heads, often presenting a different view than teens are used to hearing. Third, we have rituals and routines (like the Mindful Moment) that are designed to help students take ownership over their own attentional control. Having these implemented on a daily basis thus helps to change mindsets eventually, rather than behavior. Finally, we actually spend a week early in the year that we call Disorientation Week that is designed to ‘disorient’ students to the broader cultural narrative and to make them think about life choices in a different way. During this week, we read Roots by Emily Cousins, as well as reading texts like Czikszentmihalyi’s Flow or excerpts from Manson’s modern The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*** (I know, a ‘risky’ one for a school to use, but we edit it and the main points are really good and given in a way to which teens can relate).

As for logistical considerations, the Yondr system has to be tied to some sort of a carrot or stick for it to work well. For us, we give a grade based on ‘strikes’ for our Crew course, which is best described as ‘Homeroom on Steroids’. Strikes throughout the semester include when a Crew Leader (me – the teacher) sees that one of my crew-member’s Yondr bags is empty and not picked-up yet in the closet shoe-hanger we use to store the bags in our room. In other contexts, students may be able to attend off-campus lunch only if they are Yondr’d consistently, or may get their phone taken and stored in the Main Office for the week should it be out in the environment.

Of course, as you may have seen in my last post, some students figure out how to break the bags enough to get into them. This means that the best way to store Yondr bags would be in one centralized location, like the closet shoe-hanger we use in each of our Crew rooms. However, this can of course create liability problems for schools where the items could or would get stolen, etc. This is really up to your own understanding of the strength and integrity of your school’s culture at that point in time; but, really, I think the fact that kids figure out how to ‘get away’ with checking their phones secretly does not deteriorate the point of the whole thing: our environments have become phone-free. At the end of the day, we’re not trying to ‘cure phone addiction’ – we’re just trying to provide students with a little bit of space with which to establish the idea that phones are not essential to life, and in fact many aspects of life are better if we can just turn it off for a while and focus our attention where we choose to focus it.

Just a little bit of time away from the phone every day can end up having a profound impact on our youth. Try it at your school – you’ll have to advocate and kick and scratch for it, but it will be worth it.

People > Technology?

Today I had my usual Financial Literacy class, but had an interesting interaction during the span of the course, which is split in half by a lunch period. In the session before lunch, we did an interesting but fairly typical lesson for me – we were analyzing the returns on the S&P 500 using a graphic analysis that separated each company in the index by industry and categorized them by size (of the company) and colored them by return over the selected time period. Students did well with the analysis, but I was ruminating a bit by the end of it on the fact that students didn’t seem that impressed by the ingenuity of this cool graphic analysis – it seemed to be ‘just another day on the internet.’ There are so many cool and useful graphics, programs, and information-sharing platforms out there now that even when I ended the session with a statement of appreciation of how cool this sort of a thing is in the modern world (‘have any of you ever programmed? Do you recognize how ingenious this was to program this?’), I didn’t get much of a reaction.

Normally I think this would have been the type of occurence that I would ponder over perhaps one more time during the course of the day before forgetting about it completely… but then the other shoe dropped during lunch. Our Executive Director called me into a private conference room during lunch to do a little thinking on some observations he had just made around computers in the learning environment. Our 6th-grade classroom is ‘One-to-One,’ a term that has become so commonplace in education as to seemingly no longer need clarification, though I certainly wanted it clarified. It means that there is a one-to-one ratio of technology (a Chromebook) available to each student. Computers are out for the majority of the day, and most of the work is done on the computers. Our Executive Director had taken a sample of 6 computers from the 6th grade classroom representing a sample of students that spanned the gamut – straight A’s to the Class Clown – and found that the search history indicated they were flipping from tabs unrelated whatsoever to the content every minute, on average.

For the classroom teachers reading this, there is no surprise to that statement. We all know, if we’re being honest with ourselves, that when computers come out productive work stops. That’s not to say that students aren’t more well-behaved (quiet) when the computers come out, or that no work occurs, but that the majority of time is spent on BS, even when school firewalls are enabled.

For a while, we discussed practical options for how to improve this phenomena – that’s a story for another day – and when I returned to my classroom, I just couldn’t go straight back into the lesson. Instead, I implemented the Lesson Plan on Slowing Down. We talked for a while, with me disclosing my own personal struggles with technology and slowing myself down (I am terrible about getting on the computer to do one, specific task and suddenly finding myself checking email or doing completely different things then I had intended to do) I also disclosed the fact that I feel like students at our school ‘get it’ with their phones, which they keep locked away in Yondr Bags for the duration of the school day, but they don’t necessarily ‘get it’ with computers. They do the same exact thing I do when I am sitting down and trying to write an essay – all of a sudden I am ordering that part that I need to fix my garage door, and I’m convincing myself that because it’s something that needed to get done, it’s OK.

And it’s not.

For some reason, this caused one of my students to raise his hand and say “Can I tell you a secret?”

“Sure!” and “Yes!” we all said as a class.

“You can’t tell Dinkel [our science teacher and his Crew Leader].”

“Oh but you KNOW how I like to gossip!”

He went on, undeterred by my sarcasm: “At the very beginning of the year, when we first got our Yondr bags, I bent the locking wire so that I could still get into the bag whenever I wanted. Then, Dinkel found out and gave me a new Yondr bag… but that one I just cut a bit off the end so that I could still get into it whenever I wanted.”

The statement kind of just ended… we could all feel that something was implied, or going on inside his mind on which he couldn’t put a finger. I took the opportunity.

“Can we do a little therapy session? A little psychoanalysis?”

“I would actually really like that.”

“How do you feel about Dinkel?”

He was a bit taken aback. “What do you mean?”

“What’s your relationship like with Dinkel? How do you feel about him as a person?”

“Well, I consider him more of a friend than a teacher…”

This, by itself is a very interesting statement, albeit for another time. What I think he meant was that he sees him as a mentor, specifically a life-mentor. Why modern students don’t seem to have ‘mentor’ in their conception of possible roles in a person’s life is very strange indeed – it’s almost as if they are working on a binary system, such that there is no space in-between the saturated teacher-parent-friend continuum… Nonetheless I continued onwards without making that distinction and going off on a tangent.

“So you are close with him?”

“Well, yeah.”

“How does it make you feel to be lying to someone you are close to? To have a secret that you could easily disclose to them but that you are actively using energy to not tell them?”

“Well, obviously not good… but if I just don’t think about it, then it kind of goes away.”

“What do you think he would do if you did tell him?”

“First, he would probably try to make me see again why having constant access to my phone isn’t a good thing in my life… like for my productivity and stuff but also for my happiness. And then he would definitely make me have a new Yondr bag and make me keep it in the science room so that he knew I couldn’t get into it.”

“So clearly this is a person who is not ‘doing something to you’ just to make you miserable. Who cares about you… and more than just your academics.”

“Yeah.”

“That’s cool that you have that in your life.”

“Yeah.”

“Sorry, that wasn’t part of the whole therapy session, I just thought that was cool. I only felt that way about 1 professor when I was in college. Anyways, my question is this: if you put all of this into perspective, what’s more important to you – the relationship you have with this person who cares about you and you clearly have a close relationship with, or that stupid box with a screen?”

“I mean, obviously the person… but the way it is now I can kind of have both.”

“And that’s where I want you to reflect a bit on your own. You don’t have to do this now, I just want you to think about it a little bit over the next week, because I’ve been thinking about it in my life also. The question is do you really have both? Without examples, that’s a dumb question, because the question is inherently about ‘seeing’ something that we don’t normally see. When I say ‘seeing,’ I mean making a causal connection. Meaning cause and effect, right?

“So here’s my example: if you have ever used Craigslist to buy something, you probably know that people will oftentimes try to bargain you down from your posted price. Now, when you are buying something from someone you don’t know, then you have no idea whether they posted a high-price expecting someone to try to bargain them down, or whether they posted what they thought was a fair price. So if you try to bargain someone down, what’s the worst that can happen? They say no. But if you know someone, and perhaps you want to become better friends with them also, you don’t try to bargain them down as much, right? Because you have two things at stake: the price and your relationship with that person. But something funny happens when we know a person really well – we feel that our relationship with them is cemented, and that bargaining them down won’t affect a strong relationship. But the thing is, it does. It irks us if someone we know well tries to take advantage of us. We might tolerate it, but it certainly doesn’t build the relationship up.”

[Awkward silence… Until finally] “Yeah…”

“I think the same thing happens on a smaller, and even less-noticeable scale with things like what you are dealing with, call them what you will; I dunno, secrets or something. They do something important to us, or at least important to me: they make us not be our fully authentic selves. And I think that’s one of the things that is missing in the world – people who can be their authentic selves. Steven Pressfield wrote ‘Our job in this lifetime is not to shape ourselves into some ideal we imagine we ought to be, but to find out who we already are and become it.’ [yes, I actually said that, because I have it memorized, because I use it for Senior Solo and we did that just a couple of weeks ago!]. I personally feel like there’s enough fake people in this world, and I’ve decided to not do anything that sends me down a path towards not figuring out who I am and what I stand for and striving towards it. And that includes getting so obsessed with a device that’s been programmed by geniuses to force me to distract my attention to buy into whatever it is that they are selling. And the shit of it all is that I’m still not that good at it! The programming is SO GOOD that they still make me think the stupid stuff they are selling is actually worth distracting my attention from my life goals. It’s hard… but, yeah, anyways, that’s what I want you to think about and reflect on. It’s a mess. But I think it’s worth it.”

Then, I transitioned very quickly and had them start back in on a financial activity for the second half of class.

I asked the student yesterday if they had told Dinkel about the Yondr bag. They hadn’t but they also said “but that ‘therapy’ session you gave me was really valuable. I’m going to tell him when he gets back to school tomorrow.”

That’s all I know at this point. He could be BS-ing me completely and have not taken anything from it. On the flip side, and this is the teacher-dream, perhaps I planted a seed that has viability.

Happy journeys,

mmm

Lesson Plan: Slowing Down

In an attempt to make this into a ‘great’ lesson, let me start by telling you about where I am at personally in my life: I haven’t been writing enough recently.

I know, I must have big problems in my life if that’s what I’m complaining about! But in all seriousness, it is a major a problem for me – I can feel that it’s a problem for me in the contentment I have been feeling in my craft recently. You see, writing is the second step (after verbally processing with a friend) in a sequence that I don’t take pleasure in, but that I know provides meaning to my life as a way to process the events taking place around me and to set a path forward of embetterment. Thus, if I’m not doing it, I’m not reflecting, processing, serving students to the best of my abilities, and living consciously. That’s a big deal to me.

There are a lot of reasons that I haven’t been writing, but at the end of the day, all of them are BS… excuses. The real reason at the heart of it all is that we live in a world of constant busy-ness in which we get very little work that is of substance accomplished. I sit down to type my thoughts on my computer and suddenly remember that I need to order a new High-Limit Thermostat for my project on fixing our dryer, and switch tabs to order that quickly on Amazon. Then I remember that I forgot to email that kid’s tutor with the Study Guide for the final exam, so I do that. I convince myself that these are all things that needed to get done, so I am doing well! But it’s horse shit. I’m making myself busy rather than productive. I’m doing exactly what I’m trying to teach my students not to do.

Well, I caught myself doing this a few weeks ago, and realized I needed a re-set. I needed to get away from our technology that we love so much for a little while; I needed to return to writing in a notebook with a perfectly sharpened (by a hand-turned sharpener) pencil. I needed to return to meditating – to help me practice the skill of controlling my attention, and to return to doing my Training Plan. As a result of my own efforts, I created this lesson for students that I think could be useful to every student in modern America as a starting place for how to re-set when the lure of technology attains the gravitational force of a black hole, or when the frantic need to be busy but not necessarily productive in the modern world feels overwhelming. Obviously this is not a stand-alone lesson that will change everything, but the start of an ongoing process that needs to be incorporated into the school culture.

Start off by taking the time (if you don’t already do this every day) to stand at the classroom door and welcome each student into the room. Shake hands, give fist bumps, and look them in the eyes.

After the routine of the Mindful Moment, just chat with students for a little while. Tell them a story about a time in your life where you encountered a struggle similar to the one I just described with my writing; relate it to the point of the Mindful Moment – to practice our ability to control the only thing we actually own in this life, our attention. Personalize things! We are all struck by the urge to capitalism, which plays directly on an ability to control our attentions and emotions to get more money from us, the non-rational actors in this global economy, and I’m sure you have stories of struggling to get the things you intend to do done in your life as well!

Now that the tone is set, explain that we are going to do an extra practice session, trying to dive with a bit more depth into meditation. This will feel uncomfortable, but you will get more out of it the more you attempt to relax into it. This practice session is paradoxical, because we are going to be using technology to help us guide our meditation session. Then, get your class set-up with a good posture and have them breathe. Begin to play the recording of Alan Watt’s speech, Limitless Life found on YouTube. A special note of consideration here: you may have already noticed that YouTube, like so many other online content carriers, would like for you to just move on at the end of a video to whatever they have decided is next in queue for you. Plan and prepare for this.

You will have to explain the second portion of the lesson before starting the first. Students will need to be prepared with a clean sheet of paper or notepad, and a sharpened pencil (as a total consumerist tip, the Mitsubishi KH 20 Hand-Crank Sharpener is a game-changer… get three). After the ‘guided meditation’ by Alan Watts is finished, without talking to anyone, students will just begin to free-write about anything that pops into their mind, even just describing the things around them, with focus on making every letter of their writing absolutely perfect, but recognizing that none of them will actually be perfect and continuing on nonetheless. The attentional control is what is important! This part of the activity will go for an uncomfortable amount of time (as perceived by the modern brain)… so about 10-12 minutes.

Next, we will get into a seminar circle, and each student will share out how the activity made them feel. The assignment for every student who is not currently sharing is easy, but oh-so-hard: focus 100% of their attention on listening to the person speaking. When their mind drifts to things like what they will say when their turn comes, simply notice that thought and redirect it gently back to the speaker.

Finally, we end with either an introduction to or a re-dedication to our practice of completing our Daily Training Plans. These provide structure to our lives that turns out to be incredibly powerful in battling the forces of consumerism and busy-ness that be in our society.

That’s it. Try it out, please! Put your personal spin on it all!

Happy journeys,

mmm

Tools of Transfer: Rubrics

In Tools of Transfer: Quality, we began to discuss some of the tools educators regularly use in order to allow students the opportunity to leave the classroom with an implicit understanding of the factors that create quality work. Of the tools discussed, rubrics seem to be the most confounding; here, we’ll dive a bit deeper into some strategies and techniques that educators may want to consider when creating a rubric.

Remember that ultimately, rubrics cease to exist for students once they become, as we like to call them, ‘people’ in the ‘real-world.’ That fact, however, does not render them useless. The purpose of a rubric is the same as the purpose of a ‘no shots until there’s been ten passes’ drill during basketball practice – it would be ridiculous to see the Golden State Warriors following that rule during the NBA Finals, but each and every member of that team completed that drill enough times that it made the skill (of seeing the court as full of opportunities to pass the ball) into something subconscious. The members of the team no longer have to refer back to the ‘pass the ball ten times’ rule, they have expanded their conception of the basketball court to see the abstract passing opportunities without needing the concrete rule.

When designing rubrics, we are creating rules for drills that students will use to make implicit their understanding of quality, allowing them to perform at a professional level. In the pursuit of what, though, is anyone’s guess. Thus, it is important in my opinion to make the drills broadly applicable to a student’s future pursuits… I know, that’s a “no, duh” statement. However, the component of making these ‘drills’ broadly applicable that often gets missed is twofold, I believe. First, secondary teachers get too caught up in their particular subject matter to remember to make their rubrics include more components than the content itself; secondly, we forget that rubrics need to be a continuum from concrete to abstract as students move from elementary to secondary school.

As to the first point, I will be speaking from the perspective of a secondary mathematics teacher, specifically. The first reason is trite: I am a mathematics teacher. The second reason is that mathematics seems to me the subject most likely to get caught up in the nuances and specifics of the content and forget to include components like communication of mathematical processes through writing (mathematics is, after all, about creativity and sense-making – two pursuits which require that we communicate our findings effectively, whether we’ve discovered the mysteries of antimatter or created a financial solution to the woes of a struggling business).

To illustrate how firmly grounded in our culture is the view that mathematics is just about ‘getting the right answer,’ I’ll relay that just last week, I had a student write in the self-assessment section of a project “I know that I could have put more effort into my write-up on this project, but I procrastinated and didn’t have as much time. That doesn’t really matter though because I am certain I got the right answer on the project, and that is all that matters!” The reason this highlights just how deeply rooted this perspective has become is that this is my rubric:

PDF of the Math Project Rubric

You will notice that my rubric has four sections, none of which are directly related to ‘getting the right answer.’ In structuring the rubric this way, I am not saying that ‘getting the right answer’ is not important in life – there are many situations in which we must pay attention to details and get the answers right (taxes, for example). However, I feel that tests in my class serve to fill that niche, and projects, on the other hand, represent an area where we can focus on other things that also matter in life.

Craftsmanship is the first section listed on my rubric; I like to think of this category as being useful for teaching the ‘first impression’ effect. Whether we like it or not, when we give a report on, say the new quota-setting analytics we are using at our company, our boss is going to take the report, give it a quick glance-over and say ‘awesome, I am excited to read this!’ That quick glance-over is ‘the first impression effect,’ and you can bet that she has made a quick judgement on whether the quality of the report will be high or not just based on the professionalism of its ‘look.’ As an extreme example, can you imagine coming up to your boss after two weeks and saying ‘hey, I got that report you wanted,’ and proceeding to rip 4 pages out of a composition notebook and hand it to them? If the answer is ‘no,’ then you understand why I give an automatic ‘No Evidence,’ in the Craftsmanship section if my students turn in a project that has rip marks or frillies on the loose leaf sheets.

The Content Communication section also has nothing whatsoever to do with ‘getting the right answer,’ but instead has to do with the process of telling the story of solving this problem, often times an engineering problem of some sort. Without being able to communicate our abstract solution processes, we are limiting ourselves by eliminating the ability to either check our work with the help of other brilliant minds, or to have our work create an impact at all!

The Creativity section of the rubric is the one I feel most needs improvement. It’s designed to remind students that mathematics is a creative subject, but also that creativity counts in content communication also – adding a unique visual to a project can help to both expand your own conception of the problem, but also your communication of it to others. Just because the particular graph you choose to add has been seen before does not mean that it’s not creative! Secondly, that creativity comes with self-discipline and repeated attempts – we aren’t just struck by some muse and – ‘poof!’ – become creative. I often say these things to students when assigning a project, but haven’t figured out how to capture the essence of creativity in words while keeping the rubric to one page.

Finally, the Content Understanding is the section that comes closest to our cultural perceptions that math is about ‘getting the right answer.’ However, you will notice that I do not grade students so much on the final answer that they provide, but on their ‘use of the mathematical toolbelt.’ The ‘Toolbelt’ is a concept I use often to describe the skills that we have covered in math class. An important component of being successful in my class is to figure out what tool to use – a carpenter is not going to choose to drive a nail into wood using his tape measure! Similarly, we wouldn’t choose to complete the square to solve a linear system of equations; choosing what tool you are going to use is a way of learning to ‘think in the language that is mathematics’ and therefore garners points on my grading scale more so than does arriving at the right answer through guess and check.

And now for the idea of creating rubrics that represent a continuum from the concrete to abstract: in my perfect world, we in the high school world would be working with teachers in the lower and middle schools that feed to us to create this continuum and to make explicit (literally have learning targets about) the shift from concrete to abstract and why it is necessary. However, this is a bit of a tricky goal because the abstract concepts of which I speak don’t necessarily work for every kid the same way… I mean to say that the culture of the school is important here. Where I teach, we have created a culture that, I think, maintains a love of learning, and kids begin to feel confident that they have internalized an understanding of quality and can innovate from there. For example, during the last project I gave I created a scenario about two of the musically-inclined students in my class borrowing $150,000 from our principal to start a record company. The students had to create a sales strategy for the company based on a number of constraints I gave them, and one student had her project’s write-up placed inside a ‘record album’ – she had created an artistic design of a record cover and had made a playlist of fake songs in her ‘record’ on the back. The songs included tracks like ‘Spagetti Squared Anthem’ and ‘Do Math Not Meth’. Ha!

However, imagine taking a traditional AP-taking student that is used to getting rubrics that have clear directives and actionable steps to take to achieve them. My rubric may drive them crazy! Yet, I feel that the abstract nature of my rubric is valuable… but I could certainly be creating students that get out there into the ‘real world’ and get bored when they are tasked with just doing what is expected of them. Personally, I’d be very alright with that!