William (7th) records observations of his biocube for Nature Writing, a middle school English Language Arts seminar
Novelist and writing teacher Anne Lamott keeps a one-inch picture frame on her desk. When she is stuck or overwhelmed, she looks to it for comfort and order:
It reminds me that all I have to do is to write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame. This is all I have to bite off for the time being. All I am going to do right now, for example, is write that one paragraph that sets the story in my hometown, in the late fifties, when the trains were still running. I am going to paint a picture of it, in words, on my word processor. Or all I am going to do is to describe the main character the very first time we meet her, when she first walks out the front door and onto the porch. I am not even going to describe the expression on her face when she first notices the blind dog sitting behind the wheel of her car–just what I can see through the one-inch picture frame, just one paragraph describing this woman, in the town where I grew up, the first time we encounter her.
E. L. Doctorow once said that “writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” You don’t have to see where you’re going, you don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice about writing, or life, I have ever heard.
There is something about framing a small part of the world that paradoxically invites an expansive, seemingly limitless exploration of it. Writing teachers like Lamott have known for a long time that divergent thinking often happens most productively within rigid guidelines: a structured prompt, a well-defined form, a given number of stressed and unstressed syllables. Leave some choices wide open; foreclose other possibilities. The wandering brain longs for something to grab hold of as it explores. Even the wildest games have rules.
And it’s not just the structure, the limits, the frame: it’s also the size. It matters that Lamott’s picture frame is one square inch. A bite-sized scale makes possible a comprehensiveness that’s otherwise unfathomable.
That’s the idea of the “biocube”: a twelve-inch cube set down in nature to facilitate the recording of biodiversity. We tried this exercise in my 6th and 7th grade Nature Writing seminar today. A piece in Smithsonian Magazine explains the rationale:
Twelve inches by twelve inches by twelve inches, the cubic foot is a relatively tiny unit of measure compared to the whole world. With every step, we disturb and move through cubic foot after cubic foot. But behold the cubic foot in nature—from coral reefs to cloud forests to tidal pools—even in that finite space you can see the multitude of creatures that make up a vibrant ecosystem.
Led by our biology teacher Ashley Gam, students assembled and then placed their cubes in different locations outside our school building. The exercise was meant to train our observation skills, to focus intently on a manageable window of the natural world, and to try to make sense of what we saw.
Students make biocubes out of straws.
Emily and Amanda (6th) place their biocube in a bush outside school.
After students recorded their observations (using magnifying glasses and rulers for precise data collection), we returned to the classroom for reflection. I added a few prompts but let kids write about whatever inspired them:
How does human disturbance affect biodiversity?
What interactions between living things did you observe? Pollinators, predation, herbivory?
How would you describe the different relationships in your mini-ecosystem?
What memories, thoughts, images, or questions come to mind based on what you saw?
Anything else you’d like to write about based on what you observed
We wrote silently for fifteen minutes and then shared out some of our observations about the value of the activity. Torin (7th) noted that the bright blue frame encouraged us to see with new eyes ordinary things we walk by everyday. The work my students did certainly bore that out; they made connections between disparate objects, crafted memorable imagery and analogies, reflected on their place in the world, and drew insight from their observations into the broader human condition. William (7th) used his notes to write a poem about decaying leaves and human civilizations through the centuries.
In the final five minutes of class, students set goals for “next steps” – what they’ll do with the things they saw and wrote today.
I’ll start at the end: I’m in a car full of students from grades 7-12. It’s close to 10 PM. We’re listening to M.I.A. and talking about whether and how we can make space for people to grow when everyone at school thinks they know who you are. We’re talking about what it means to care about something in public, in front of strangers. We’re talking about how hard it is to be a human being. No one wants to go home, so we sit together at school to share our big take-aways from this incredible day.
Here is some of what I heard my students say:
I’ve never been in a space like that, where people snap for you and encourage you when you make a mistake.
I was surprised by all the different perspectives I heard.
The poetry was amazing.
I mostly act like I don’t care about anything. Today made me think it’s OK to care sometimes.
It reminded me how much I still have to learn. We’re all trying to unlearn what we’ve been taught by systems of oppression, and it’s a process.
We’d spent the day at the Hyper Bole, the largest individual youth poetry slam on the East Coast. This is my school’s third year participating. In 2016 it was me, one brave high school junior, and her father. Last year, because of that young woman’s leadership (shoutout to Tessa!), we brought five kids. This year we took eleven. Two competed, and a third shared a just-written poem on her family’s immigrant experience.
Here is the truth: to be an adult is to never have to take seriously the voices of young people. We have the power to avoid them, ignore them, exclude them, and silence them — and too often, we do. As a teacher — even one who strives to be student-centered — I know how tempting it is to always lead the discussion, deciding who can speak about what and for how long. But on Saturday, for ten hours, I listened. I listened to young people from Baltimore, D.C., Norfolk, and all over Northern Virginia make art, publicly declaring their experiences, their hopes and fears, their vision of a better world. And I was reminded why I need to listen more often.
Every poem I heard at the Hyper Bole was an act of seeing our deeply flawed world with open eyes and still insisting that beauty is possible when we show up for one another. The poets were unflinching in their critiques of injustice, yet they made space for hope. They reminded us that there are better ways of being with each other in the world, and that we can only get there by dreaming and acting together. Indeed, the choice to raise their voices and share their truth with strangers reflects that abiding belief.
In this sense, Hyper Bole participants offered all of us a model of collective action for social change: seek and tell the truth; envision a better way; act in the service of that vision, in solidarity with those different from you.
My students and I ended our day at Hyper Bole talking about how empowering and affirming this community was, and about all that becomes possible within such a space. This didn’t come together by accident; co-founders Joseph Green and Brian Hannon made purposeful decisions to create the conditions for a transformative experience.
To give a better sense of these conditions, here are some photos and videos:
10 AM – 12 PM: Welcome and Ice-Breaker
In the first moments of the day, Joseph Green said just what I was thinking:
There has never been a time in my lifetime when it was more important to create a space and then hand it over to young people.
This is in line with what our school founder Deep Sran says often: we adults can’t get out of young people’s way soon enough. This idea pervades our instructional design, our clubs and projects, and our broader school culture and civic mission. We want to help students become their better and fuller selves so that they can get to work changing the world.
We began the day by giving students time to get to know one another. Young people had the chance to connect with peers who lived within a few hours from them but nonetheless led very different lives under very different conditions. A set of questions about poetry and social justice — and the incentive of a $50 gift card — broke students out of their cliques.
12 – 2 PM: The Preliminaries
Organizers purposefully scheduled the competition early in the day so that poets could enjoy workshops, lunch, open mic, and dinner without worrying about their impending performance. Students competed in small breakout rooms, and judges did not announce scores. This year, LSG had two competing students: Cas (12th) and Hannah (9th), who also lead our Poetry Club.
2 – 4:30 PM: The Workshops
Split This Rock invites experts to lead small-group workshops on poetry and social justice. Here is a list of the breakout sessions kids could attend:
The Poem and the Immigrant Poet: Claudia Rojas, Split This Rock
The Art of Opinion: Peter Certo, Institute for Policy Studies
Art as a Core Element of Social Movements: Aaron Noffke, Poor People’s Campaign
Intro to Theater of the Oppressed: Annalisa Dias and Althea Middleton-Detzner, Theater of the Oppressed
Beyond Diversity and Community Building: GMU Office of Diversity, Inclusion, and Multicultural Education
4:30 – 6 PM: Dinner and Open Mic
Over pizza, students performed poetry and music (this year, my kids were super excited to hear a song from Hamilton). Shailee (10th), who had never attended a poetry slam before, stood in front of this large audience and shared a poem she had written just moments ago in one of the workshops. We were all blown away by her bravery.
The Grand Slam Finals
The ten highest-scoring poets from preliminaries competed on the final stage. Students performed poems about homophobia, Islamophobia, the loss of a father, antiblack racism, albinism, bullying, friendship, love, and truth.
One of my students noted that there was at least one line in each poem – often far more – that was fundamentally transformative for her. We gain so very much from listening to one another.
Because scores were announced aloud, it was here that we all remembered how absurd it is to assign a number value to a poem – especially these deeply personal and consequential utterances. But the competition (and the $1,000 scholarship prize) matters in the sense that it affirms these poets’ craft and effort as any public competitive event would. The scores remind us that something is at stake here — and the photo reflects that — though what’s truly at stake is much more significant than the points.
It would have been worth waiting 9 hours just to see the feature poet this year, Elizabeth Acevedo. Here is one of her poems. Just before it, she speaks compellingly about her experience in University of Maryland’s creative writing program as the only student of African descent, the only Latinx student, and the only student who came from a working class New York City background. Her words remind us all why a space like the Hyper Bole is so crucial. And her poem – an ode to the city’s rats – affirms everything in us that exclusionary spaces and standards fail to see as worthy.
When I think about what it takes to make sure the future Elizabeth Acevedos currently sitting in our nation’s classrooms have every opportunity to share their voices with the world, the student-centered events of the Hyper Bole are a crucial model. My students and I are so grateful to have participated.
For more on LSG’s approach to enrichment, please click here.
A non-traditional final: Tanner (12th) defends his synthetic philosophy during his Philosophy Wars final exam
My entire approach to assessments changed when I read an article by a forward-thinking and idealistic astronomy professor published in the Chronicle of Higher Education. In it, Anthony Crider wondered what would happen if we completely rethought final exams:
Instead of a final exam, end the semester with one last, memorable learning experience: an epic finale.
“Final” implies the end (or death) of something; “finale” suggests the end of an artistic performance, such as the ultimate episode of a television season or series. Where a “final” implies that one is done discussing something, a “finale” is something that inspires speculative discussion beforehand and reflection afterward. What happened to the Soprano family? Will Ross and Rachel get married? Is the Island really just purgatory? Who shot J.R.?
I followed his lead a couple of years ago and designed my first “finale” assessment, which you can read about in an early blog post here. Last year, a team-taught Arc of Justice course Jim Percoco and I led concluded with a pretty awesome community event you can check out here.
I’m only able to do these fun “finales” because I work at a school where I have total control over my curriculum and assessment design. LSG founder Deep Sran gives teachers this freedom because it enables students to learn more deeply and enduringly.
If you prescribe too much in front, or you make too many decisions up front, you really constrain where people can go — what they can imagine and create. So I think you have to leave room for teachers and students to see where it leads, and to do so openly and honestly. You can’t know at the outset that, by gosh, by May 20th the kids are going to be on page 700 in the book, and they will have covered all the way up to the French Revolution. It just doesn’t make any sense.
Deep’s philosophy of school leadership rests on the premise that when both teachers and students have power over what happens in the classroom, education can be beautiful and transformative. And he has seen that when we empower teachers, they use their autonomy, in turn, to empower students:
I trust that the teachers here are qualified and know their subject areas better than me and are more curious about those subject areas than I am. I want to build the type of workplace where human beings can come in and do the work that they have prepared their whole lives to do.
The other side of teacher autonomy is student autonomy. If I give teachers the freedom to design their courses, and to end where they want to end, then they are actually able to respond to what their students are interested in and where their students are going.
So if I’m not telling the teachers where they have to end up, then the teachers don’t have to tell the students where they have to end up. The ultimate goal is that students feel free and comfortable, that they learn things that are meaningful and enduring. To do that, basically you have to create the same opportunities for the teachers.
For a better sense of how all of this comes together, here are some examples of the final assessments LSG students completed last week.
“Final Activity” versus Final Exam
To grade students on their individual progress and achievements in a course, teachers must assess students individually. But sometimes an individual assessment is an inauthentic or incomplete measure of what students were actually supposed to gain from the course — especially when collaboration and group work are central to instructional design throughout the semester.
To resolve that tension, our Proofs and Mathematical Reasoning teacher David Romero split the difference. He administered a traditional final exam to measure individual progress, and he created a “final activity” to conclude the course more authentically.
David explains the difference here:
We had this formal assessment before our final activity, and the assessment was somewhat artificial. It tests whether students were able to write proofs by themselves. But every single time we’ve been creating these proofs, creating these ideas and reasoning, it was always a social event. Students were never isolated, writing on a piece of paper, and if they don’t get it right, it’s wrong. It was always more like, “I think this,” and then someone would come over and say, “I’m not sure how you got from here to there.” Or someone would say, “Mine looks like this. Is it equivalent? Is it the same? Is one better?”
And so I wanted to introduce some problems that would remind them that although our formal assessment was individual, the final activity illustrated the point of the course — this social exchange of ideas.
In the video above, students work through Lewis Carroll riddles, applying what they learned in David’s proofs class. He explains the assessment design:
We chose some problems that were just silly and fun. So these riddles come from Lewis Carroll. Here is what was awesome about them: normally you can use your intuition to reason through things, but the premises in these riddles are so ridiculous, like “if you’re this type of cat you play with gorillas. If you like fish you’re not teachable.” It forces you to use formal logic because intuition is useless. This is weird for our students because in everything else we’ve done, we’ve tried to introduce this formal way of reasoning that showed how it went hand-in-hand with your intuition. But now we’ve kind of pulled the scaffold away to see if students can do formal arguments.
There is still context in the sense that you have these silly creatures and the words are familiar. I didn’t put jargon or invented words, “does the florg cause the whatever.” There is not much context, so you have to use formal reasoning, but there is enough context to give students something familiar and amusing. So in one of the videos, I’m just cracking up because it’s like the seventh time I’ve said “we choose an arbitrary cat.” It’s not intimidating. You can’t rely on the context to reason, but it’s there to make the activity fun and not intimidating.
It was important to David to give students a choice of final activity. Here is a video of another option – a theoretical tiling problem:
We had previously briefly discussed these tiling problems. Our group project way back when was tiling a rectangle with squares. And so I offered one final activity option with triominos, little L shapes made of squares. The prompt asked: can you tile this across different shapes? I offered them a variety of problems; we’d talked about the ham sandwich problem, and cake-cutting – how do you distribute things fairly in mathematics? I wanted to make sure they had the opportunity to choose what final activity they were drawn to. So if they were working on the Lewis Carroll, it’s because they found it interesting and intriguing. And if they were working on triominos, it’s because specifically Cas wouldn’t let it go. They kept wanting to talk about these triominos and their ideas about triominos.
By creating a collaborative activity that incorporated student choice while removing some of the contextual scaffolding, David challenged kids with a memorable final activity.
The oral exam and oral defense
Research suggests that students find oral assessments more useful, more authentic, and (unsurprisingly) more intimidating. The same study indicates that kids experience oral exams as opportunities to begin thinking of themselves as professionals or masters of the content area assessed.
Few American students take oral examinations (outside of foreign language courses) because it is impractical and inefficient for a single teacher to administer one-on-one assessments for a large group of students. But even at large public schools, the International Baccalaureate program incorporates oral assessments across disciplines to assess student learning. The benefits are clear:
Direct, real-time feedback allows teachers to get an accurate sense of what students know
The dialogic nature of the exam permits the students and teacher to take the conversation in unexpected, productive directions
Oral examinations encourage students to build communication and problem-solving skills they will need in the workplace and in life
Because students are assessed orally instead of in writing, their composition skills do not cloud a teacher’s ability to assess their grasp of the course content
For these reasons, I’ve administered oral exams to my middle and high school students during all six years I’ve taught English. Below are recordings of some of my eighth graders’ exams from last week. (The final exam study guide gives an overview of what the oral assessment covers: Great Books Final Exam Study Guide).
I look forward to these exams every year because they give me the chance to understand how each of my students has made the course content personally meaningful to them. And taken together, my collection of exams over the years offers a unique record of the kids’ intellectual development.
The “oral defense” is a class event instead of a one-on-one conversation. The film Most Likely to Succeed has memorable depictions of the portfolio defense assessment administered at San Diego’s High Tech High. Students present their work, reflect on their progress, and answer challenging questions from peers and teachers.
In Philosophy Wars, we concluded the course with individual oral defenses of students’ “synthetic philosophies.” In the video clip above, Shailee (10th) presents and defends her original positions on key questions of epistemology, metaphysics, ethics, and human nature.
Oral assessments, whether individual or collaborative, give students the chance to interact with the course content in new and enduring ways.
Role playing assessments
Indiana Jones final activity in Spanish
For a few years now, I’ve been an admirer of journalism professor Jacqui Banaszynski’s “Stakeholder Wheel” technique. The exercise requires reporters to brainstorm all the people affected by a particular issue or event at the very beginning of the investigative process. By taking on different perspectives, the writer will be able to understand the nuances and implications of the story.
I love the Stakeholder Wheel because it requires students to practice empathy as a means of understanding their world: it suggests that we cannot know all that we must if we confine ourselves to our own narrow view.
To me, that is the purpose of role playing exercises as assessments: to show how course ideas might live in the world beyond ourselves.
The Zinn Education Project uses role play activities to help students understand complex and controversial events in history and current events. Their Dakota Access Pipeline activity, for example, prepares students to take on the roles of members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, officials from the oil company building the pipeline, Iowa famers, union workers, and other stakeholders.
These exercises can be highly engaging and fun. In Vanessa Moreno’s Spanish class, kids had to produce and perform a skit that involved vocabulary usage, particular grammatical constructions, and pronunciation, among other skills. Here are a couple of short clips:
Likewise in Psychology and Literature, students reenacted the crucial dinner party scene from Virginia Woolf’s complex novel To the Lighthouse. The activity allowed kids to recognize all that the text left unsaid, and to infer or imagine what characters thought and felt.
Psychology and Literature final activity for Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse: reenacting the novel’s dinner party
Our Latin and Classics teacher Dr. Michael Hendry added an unexpected twist to his Shakespeare final. He asked students to cast members of our school community in the appropriate roles from the plays they had studied:
Imagine you are casting the three plays we saw this semester, and you have to include one classmate, one LSG student who’s not in this class, and one teacher or administrator in each play. (Assume you have plenty of competent outsiders to cover the other roles.) Which would you cast, and why? Be specific about their qualifications. Also, no repeats: 9 different names.
A separate question asked students to imagine what would ensue if a character from one Shakespearean play were placed in a scene in another play.
Both of these questions offer students what is perhaps the most appealing aspect of fan fiction: the reader’s ability to shift into the author’s role. These kinds of questions give students the chance to think in new and original ways about the text and their relationship to it.
Metacognition and reflection
Jim Percoco’s Hero’s Quest exit ticket gives Max (9th) the opportunity to reflect on his learning in this semester-long history course.
Metacognition is “thinking about thinking.” Too often, the pace of content coverage is so swift that students miss the opportunity to reflect on themselves as thinkers and learners. When kids take the time to examine their progress, their preferred learning styles, their challenges and goals, they take control of their intellectual development. Metacognitive activities can be dramatic turning points in students’ academic careers.
In Psychology in Literature, I required kids to turn in a reflection along with their final project. I asked them to explain what they’d taken away from each of our twelve course texts, and to think about how difficulty, joy, and personal importance impacted their experience of reading and learning in the course.
Here are some of the things each student took away from course texts:
“Your perception of the world and your memories can’t be trusted, because your brain makes incorrect assumptions and takes shortcuts. What I see and what I remember are different from what you see and what you remember.” (Hannah)
“There are many benefits to being perceptive about others’ thoughts or feelings, and the most perceptive people are able to make others happy.” (Layla)
“Repressed desires or memories can shape your entire life” (Tanner)
“Institutions are instruments of power and social control” (Mariam)
“The final idea that I will remember is the idea of struggling against the impossible. This is an idea central to humans, who will often not give up even when faced with an impossible or stacked task” (Will)
“Humans go through a merging state of our mind and body, in which we acquire an advanced sense of self that no other animal has” (Julianne)
“We don’t truly know ourselves” (Alex)
And here are some of students’ comments about their identities as learners and readers:
“What is most important to me is also what I enjoyed reading most.”
“When it comes to balancing difficulty, importance, and personal joy, it seems to me that people seem to like what they understand.”
“Personal importance and joy were loosely related. I really enjoyed the texts that volunteered new — sometimes crazy — ideas that explained a stage in life.”
“The ideas, questions, and texts that appealed to me were those that revealed something about power dynamics or the way our society functions. I just find human relationships and the way we interact with each other really interesting, these were the ideas I found most important as well. It reveals cracks and flaws within the system, and if we know how they function we can fix it.”
These metacognitive assessments help me communicate to students that they are the architects of their own academic experience. I can’t learn anything for them. I expect and encourage them to invest in themselves as thinkers by reflecting on what they know, what they want to know, and why it matters to them.
Student ownership is central to LSG’s instructional design, and it informs a broader civic mission. Founder Deep Sran explains why it is so important to make room for student voice and student choice in our classrooms:
The most important thing when we watch student presentations is some evidence that the student believes it’s truly theirs. They’re not going through the motions or doing it for a certain grade. The goal is that there be evidence that they did it for themselves. And again, there’s that parallel between the student and the teacher. The teacher has to feel the same way that ultimately, they did it for themselves. And that is where this has broader implications to civic life and interpersonal life and all of the things that we hope for professionally but rarely get the opportunity to do because somebody just thinks they know better. That’s why LSG is structured this way.
Me tearing up at graduation after my students presented me with a book of Dr. March-isms they secretly collected for three years
The holiday season seems like the right time to reflect on the place of love in my work as a teacher.
I began thinking about this back in September when I read that one of the goals set by DC Public Schools Chancellor Antwan Wilson is that “all students feel loved and supported at school.” The article explains:
While this idea might seem a bit idealistic, he believes without that love, students won’t be open to allowing others to challenge them academically. Wilson wants to change school culture through an increasingly popular movement in schools called social and emotional learning.
I’ve found this to be true. Strong working relationships with teachers give kids the confidence and motivation to take academic risks. Students show up when they know they are cared for.
I’m inspired everyday by the large and small ways my colleagues care for our students. Art teacher Danielle Ferrin brings in extra food for kids who forgot to pack lunch. Academic Dean Sylvia Israel talks kids through their stress and anxiety, helping them find solutions and strategies. Latin teacher Michael Hendry gives students unexpected gifts perfectly suited to their idiosyncratic interests. History teacher Jim Percoco shares stories from his difficult youth to show our students they are not alone. Teachers like Rita Lahiri, Wendy Huth and Carmen Carraway – and many, many others – arrive early and sacrifice lunch to help struggling students. And just in time for our holiday party, Director of Operations Maureen McCrae, who loves our kids in a thousand thankless ways, had students make “kindness chains” for each other, featuring thoughtful notes for each of their peers.
Red and green “kindness chains” my colleague Maureen McCrae compiled for each student, featuring compliments from their peers
The kindness and care of my colleagues challenged me to consider the broader impact of their work. What does it truly mean for all students to feel loved and supported at school? And how can teachers work toward this goal more purposefully and systematically?
Earlier this year, my colleague David Romero talked to our students about dignity and grace, and he opened by showing that beautiful moment from Dead Poets’ Society in which Keating puts quiet, shy Todd on the spot and has him create a poem in front of the class. Todd doesn’t think he can do it, but Keating insists, saying, “I think you have something inside you that is worth a great deal.”
David noted that Keating chooses to believe there is something great inside Todd without any outside information, without knowing it for sure. He asked our students, “What if Todd had given a bad poem? Would that change the meaning of what Keating said, that there’s something valuable inside Todd?” Through discussion, they decided that Todd may need time to develop that poem, and it may be longer than Keating is around, but there is something of value inside him, and inside all of us.
And that’s what I think of when I consider what it might mean for students to feel loved at school: it’s all the adults in the building making sure our kids know there is something of value inside them.
We can do this by practicing openness, commitment, and enthusiasm.
To love means to be open – to risk vulnerability and to make new things possible. Because he values Todd as a human being, Keating makes space in the classroom for his voice and ideas. Keating opens himself to Todd’s insights, listening intently, asking him questions, prodding him further.
To love also means to commit – to act in concrete and meaningful ways on behalf of the person or thing. Keating won’t let Todd off the hook. He takes the time to develop Todd’s voice, insisting on its value. He stands beside Todd and stands up for him when his peers laugh.
Finally, to love means to be enthusiastic – to care deeply and to show it unmistakably. Keating takes the work seriously – and takes Todd seriously (no matter how much Todd initially wishes he wouldn’t). He celebrates Todd’s greatness before Todd himself knows he’s great. Indeed, Keating’s praise and enthusiasm are the first signal to Todd (and to the class) that his voice is worth listening to.
That’s what my colleagues are doing when they show love to our students.
Of course, there’s another way to think about love and teaching: it’s also clear in this clip that Keating loves what he is doing. Just as we are called to love our students, I believe we are called to model a love of learning.
As I visit other schools (shoutout to Harlem’s Democracy Prep, DC’s Washington Leadership Academy, and Baltimore’s Lakeland Elementary and Middle), I find that the most important instructional question I can ask myself is, “Does this work seem important to the teacher and to the students?” This is another way of asking: do the people in this room love what they are doing?
There’s a classic and moving piece in the 25th anniversary edition of NCTE’s Voices from the Middle journal in which English teacher Maureen Barbierireminds us:
In the classroom, we have no choice. No matter what our curriculum, no matter what our methods, no matter what our philosophy, we bring our truest selves into relationship with students. Whatever we are passionate about, whatever we value, whatever we dream of or yearn for — all of this will be revealed to our students, will be impossible to disguise, and will be our ultimate gift to them. Our students will know who we are by understanding what it is we love. [emphasis mine]
Revealing our passion and geekiness is a way of sharing a bit of ourselves with our students – and inviting them to do so, too. It’s through that moment of shared exuberance that kids find a way in to our subjects. They may not love reading poetry, but they love what they see in their teacher when he talks about Whitman. And it’s that human connection that draws them toward the study and practice of the discipline.
The truth is, loving something publicly is risky. It makes us vulnerable to ridicule and rejection. Most of us are less like Keating and more like Todd, timidly hiding what we care most about.
But there is so much more to be gained when we show up and love boldly. When we model that boldness for our students, and help them know that they are valued, we prepare them to build a better and more beautiful world.
And since the holidays are all about family, here is a clip of my mom and uncle talking about the rewards of strong working relationships with students:
Last week my colleague Kevin asked our philosophy students a question that has perplexed great thinkers for millennia:
Crunchy or smooth peanut butter?
Here is the discussion that ensued (a group role play exchange channeling Aristotle, Descartes, and Hegel):
We talk a lot at LSG about the role of the question: how great questions open up unforgettable discussions, how a worthwhile education means confronting difficult questions, how we can help students form and pursue their own lines of inquiry.
But to be truly open to all the truth and beauty the world has to offer, shouldn’t our students also learn how to make ordinary experiences into material for great insights?
This morning, I read the latest Dear Pepper advice column in the New Yorker, and I realized that a committed truth-seeker and divergent thinker can do beautiful things with almost any question.
The question in the column is just as mundane as our peanut butter inquiry: the advice-seeker shares that her friend’s husband constantly walks around with his fly down, and she wonders how to manage the awkwardness of informing him.
The response is rich and nuanced. Liana Finck points out: such a situation forces one to choose between being a Cassandra, constantly sharing bad news, or a Jonah, who fails to warn Ninevah of God’s impending judgment. She goes on to discuss parenting choices, the gendered implications of obliviousness, and Einstein and Nabokov.
We teachers owe our students great questions and worthwhile texts. But I also want to leave my students with a sense of how to find beauty and truth in the quotidian. I want them to know there are ways of orienting themselves toward one another and the world that can enrich their lives (and the lives of those they touch). I want them to take responsibility for doing that every day, for engaging the possibility that each experience offers them (even mundane questions about zippers).
The morally reprehensible Louis CK nonetheless gave us perhaps the best statement of that responsibility when he talks to his fictional children here:
You live in a great big vast world that you’ve seen none percent of. Even the inside of your own mind is endless, it goes on forever inwardly, you understand? The fact that you’re alive is amazing, so you don’t get to be bored.
Showing kids what to do with a question is ultimately about teaching them to be responsible for their own boredom — teaching them to be grateful for all the world offers.
Tanner (12th) teaches computer science to Jack (10th) and Abel (6th)
This year, one of our high school seniors is teaching a computer science course, and our most senior faculty member is taking two high school STEM classes alongside his students.
Tanner (12th) created his year-long game design course after teaching himself AP Computer Science A last year. He worked closely with faculty mentors to develop a syllabus, select appropriate texts, and design assessments. His class of five students, grades 6-10, meets three times per week to learn basic programming skills in order to create a polished game, a non-digital prototype, and a short commercial for a broad audience. You can follow his progress on his blog.
My colleague and Philosophy Wars co-teacher Dr. Kevin Oliveau is an MIT-trained computer scientist and political scientist whose professional distinctions include founding and building a cohousing community and being awarded a patent for work he developed as a micro-coder. He is also a bit of a deity for our students, who follow him closely, challenge him good-naturedly, and meme him incessantly. But for 60-90 minutes each day, Monday through Friday, Kevin sits among the kids he teaches as “one of them” – taking seriously his role as a student in high school chemistry and an elective called Introduction to Mathematical Reasoning: Proof and Logic.
In fact, Kevin had to delay joining us for a pre-event faculty dinner this week because he had to finish his chem homework first.
Dr. Oliveau participates as a student in Mr. Ragsdale’s AP Chemistry class.
What I’ve discovered watching my student become a teacher and my fellow teacher become a student is that there is inherent value in shifting out of our established roles. We see things we’d otherwise have missed, and we empathize with people we wouldn’t have understood as well.
Here are five things I’ve learned from Tanner, Kevin, and the students in their classes about the value of these experiments:
1. Peers learn more deeply from students who teach
Jack (10th), one of Tanner’s students, shares what he loves about learning from his classmate (and also adorably assures me that I am “not old”):
I guess I can kind of connect with him a bit more because I feel like he’s more my age. Not that you’re old; you’re not. He’s more – he’s my friend, he’s more friendly and I feel comfortable around him and tell him stuff, like whether I understand.
The kids in Tanner’s class feel comfortable expressing confusion and asking for help. I watch them call him over for guidance with roadblocks. I see them attempt to answer in-class questions before they are certain they understand. Tanner doesn’t have to administer regular formative assessments to know what his students grasp; they tell him right away.
Because of their unique relationship to their students, students who teach give their peers access to the content in a way traditional teachers cannot. This is the rationale for the high school writing center movement, which draws on the university model of leveraging peer tutors to help all students become more effective writers.
The impact transcends academic discipline. The Young People’s Project (YPP), for instance, trains 500 high school students to teach math literacy to 2,000 students in elementary schools across six American cities. A Black Enterprisepiece about YPP points out that the kids teach:
in a way that is low-stress, informal, even playful, yet the results speak for themselves. According to internal and external assessments from 1997 to 2014, YPP involvement has improved test scores and increased mathematical confidence.
The measurable academic gains resulting from peer instruction have clear implications for underfunded schools and schools that serve black and brown kids. Students can get more instructional time and individualized attention at little or no cost. And they learn from people who look like them, which affects achievement and college acceptance.
2. Students who teach learn more deeply
Knowing he was going to have to teach his peers made Tanner want to learn the content inside out. He explains:
Last year I basically only had time to skim the stuff that I was learning about. Now that I’ve spent an entire summer rereading the books, teaching a subject forces you to know about it because you can’t bullcrap your way through it. I feel like I’ve gotten a lot better knowledge because I have to teach it. Probably the whole game design aspect in general, I went pretty deep into the field and learned a lot more because I had to teach it. I’ve gotten a lot more programming skills now because I’ve had to come up with new ways to teach the same stuff. It helps when you can approach it from a different perspective.
Research bears out Tanner’s insight. A 2014 study showed that students who expected to have to teach what they read in a passage had stronger recall and answered more questions correctly than students who merely expected to be tested on the passage. That was true even though the kids didn’t end up teaching at all. The mere expectation created the opportunity for deeper learning. Knowing you will do something public and social with what you’ve learned motivates you to learn it thoroughly.
And the act of teaching extends your learning. A D.C. nonprofit called Reach Incorporated identified high school students who struggle with reading and prepared them to act as reading coaches for second and third graders. Within a single academic year, the high school coaches demonstrated two years of reading gains.
Teaching well requires us to think metacognitively – to think about our thinking. To prepare his lessons, Tanner needed to reflect on his own learning: how was it that he came to understand this thing he wants to teach others? That sort of reflection makes us better and more purposeful learners. And by anticipating several different ways to teach the same concept or skill, Tanner came to understand nuances and details he missed the first time around. Teaching was an opportunity for him to do something meaningful with his learning. He explained:
I think tests are fine and all that but practical stuff that you have to actually be able to do, you can’t multiple choice or essay question that. You have to demonstrate that you know how to apply what you’ve learned. What I’m doing for myself is a huge leap, and you don’t necessarily have to teach a class on the material to demonstrate that you know the material. But you should be doing something more than just testing where it matters. Like actually going and building a game instead of just sitting through a class about game design.
Tanner reminds us here that just as we want the content and skills we teach to be important, our assessments should matter, too.
3. Shifting into new roles increases empathy
Most adults organize their lives so that they only have to do what makes them feel competent and comfortable. Tanner and Kevin chose to purposefully unsettle themselves by taking on new roles and experiencing education from a different perspective.
As with all things worth doing, the risk is huge, but the rewards are transformative.
Kevin described what he learned about being a student:
It gives me much more sympathy for my students and what they go through, the demands. If you missed what the professor said, you learn what it feels like to try and catch up. Also time, because it’s AP chem, so you have to be fast. So the quizzes are very stressful. And it’s also funny how quickly the students accepted me as a student. There was a day I didn’t notice the second page of the test, so I only did half the quiz. That rumor quickly spread through the entire school. Every quiz since then, it’s, “Oh look, Dr. Oliveau: there’s a second page.” It’s kind of humbling because you’re struggling.
Remembering what it’s like to struggle changes the way we relate to our students.
Veteran teacher Alexis Wiggins had been teaching fifteen years before she spent two days as a student, and her insights changed her whole approach to instructional design. Her entire piece is worth reading, but here are a few of her crucial take-aways:
High school students are sitting passively and listening during approximately 90 percent of their classes.
By the end of her first day, she felt mentally and emotionally drained. She also noticed the psychological impact of being constantly reminded that your personal needs or desires are inconvenient to the teacher’s aim:
You feel a little bit like a nuisance all day long.
Perhaps most devastatingly, she noticed that because teacher talk dominates classroom activities, students don’t feel like they play an important role in what happens in the classroom:
I asked my tenth-grade host, Cindy, if she felt like she made important contributions to class or if, when she was absent, the class missed out on the benefit of her knowledge or contributions, and she laughed and said no.
Shadowing for two days as a student helped Wiggins see that teachers were unintentionally placing their students at the margins of the work of the classroom rather than at the center. Kids’ voices and choices were too often a “nuisance” when they should have been the driving force of instructional design. This insight led to a dramatic retooling of her pedagogy.
And just as experiencing class as students challenges the assumptions teachers have about what kids are thinking and feeling in their classrooms, teaching has made visible to Tanner all the work that often goes unseen by students. He shares:
I spent the entire summer drawing up a syllabus and lesson plan. I was expecting some stuff to change through the course, but I was surprised by how much changed, how fluid and elastic you have to be, how flexible you have to be in order to get what you want done.
4. Students and teachers have fun shifting into new roles
Deep learning is serious and demanding work. It is filled with struggle, uncertainty, and increasingly daunting tasks. But it should be joyful, too.
The kids in Kevin’s classes delight in watching him raise his hand to talk, stress out over an exam, and make mistakes. Kevin explains why:
It’s fun for them to see a teacher struggling as a student. We’re always in this position of superiority as know-it-alls. And I’m always asking questions. I started out as the most backward student in the class. The last time I had chemistry was in 1978.
His classmates agree. Katie (10th) explains:
It’s an interesting exercise to learn with him. He makes the most interesting metaphors – he’s created this elaborate metaphor about bonding being like one atom bullying the other for electrons. And when we get tests back, it’s always fun to discuss answers with Dr. Oliveau since sometimes, rarely but sometimes he gets them wrong too. I really enjoy talking about the questions with him.
Kevin’s presence brings kids joy in AP Chemistry for a few reasons: 1) the incongruity of the role shift is just cool to see; 2) it’s genuinely fun to watch him wrestle with the material; and 3) he models that it’s possible to enjoy yourself while you’re doing something difficult. Kevin attempts almost 100% of in-class questions, gets excited as he gets closer to understanding, and finds ways to create a personally-meaningful understanding of the material.
The metaphor Katie mentions is a great example of this. In class, Clark discussed a diagram visualizing an aspect of covalent bonding theory:
Clark: No bullies to take the electrons away. (looks knowingly at Kevin)
Kevin: Right, this is all romance.
Michael (10th): Oliveau, you switched from bullies to romance?
Kevin: Oh yeah, with bonding? Oh yeah.
The class loved it. Clark plays it perfectly, and the dynamic wouldn’t work without him – it’s like watching a straight man and an end man from an old vaudeville routine.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, these teacher-student reversals are fun for all ages. Veteran teacher Tova Rivera wanted to break with the typical end-of-year activities and instead prepared her fourth graders to teach their third grade peers a preview of what they’d learned all year. The whole thing took around two weeks, and kids “had a blast” finding creative ways to share what they knew.
Routines and clearly-defined expectations can help our students feel comfortable and confident. But we all long to break free from these constraints every now and then.
5. Students who teach are empowered, and students gain confidence when they see teachers struggle
The first great piece of guidance I received as a new teacher was to ask myself during a lesson: “who is working harder, me or the kids?” If the answer is me, I am doing it wrong.
That question reminds me that the classroom is a place where kids should be the ones doing (instead of passively receiving knowledge).
And at its root, that question is ultimately about control and trust. Am I willing to cede power to my students, knowing they might not get where I want them to be, knowing we might not cover what I’ve planned? Of course these are valid concerns, but by giving up some control, teachers create space for students to do great things.
The opportunity to teach your peers sends a powerful message. It says to students, “You have knowledge worth sharing, you have a teacher’s trust, and you have an opportunity to support your friends’ learning and growth.” Students teaching students is an authentic way to build confidence, leadership, and empathy.
And that contrasts starkly with the student Alexis Wiggins interviewed, who laughed when asked whether she thought her absence from class made a difference to her peers.
By redistributing some of the authority away from the teacher and toward the student, we help kids see themselves as capable thinkers and doers. We accomplish something similar when we take on the role of student. Katie (10th) explains that when she sees Kevin make mistakes in class, it is a powerful form of humility:
It’s sort of an admission that he doesn’t know everything, even though he seems to in the courses he teaches.
When students and teachers reverse roles, it helps kids see themselves as potential experts, and it helps us all remember that no one masters anything without struggling, failing, and trying again.
Of course this all makes me wonder about the curricular and policy implications:
Should each teacher have to experience school as a student every few years?
Should we build time into the school year for each student to teach?
Should local districts interested in boosting student learning formalize peer tutoring programs like YPP and high school writing centers?
Talking about the living past is always a fraught act, so I share this with some trepidation. But the best teachers (formal and informal) taught me that it’s my responsibility to use my voice to create necessary change.
In the first half of this interview, I talk about my experience as a teen mom and full Pell Grant student at The City College of New York. In the second half, I discuss teacher autonomy and deeper learning, with a shoutout to Loudoun School for the Gifted.
Students (10th-12th) discuss where to place each philosopher they’ve studied on a continuum of statements about ethics, epistemology, human nature, and metaphysics.
On any topic, in any language, whether we understand what’s being said or not, we know a great conversation when we see one.
People make eye contact. They lean in. Their faces are expressive. Their hands and their pacing convey some urgency: they want to be understood and to understand. There are visible indications that they are trying out new ideas: silent pauses, scrunched up brows, tilted heads. There is nodding to indicate common ground, and there are upturned palms and pointed fingers to mark disagreements. There’s almost always laughter.
These are the conversations that draw us in from afar. We crave these unpredictable and rich human interactions, hoping they will remind us that we matter and are worthy of being heard, hoping they will free us from our unthinking routines and narrow expectations of what’s possible.
Conversations are great when they help us experience the joy of discovering other ways of seeing and being in the world. Great conversations are opportunities to encounter and make sense of new information in partnership, to think in parallel alongside other human beings who care as much as we do about finding the truth. Ultimately, by both challenging us and fulfilling us, great conversations remind us who we are and who we want tobe.
Most of us, of course, have been trained to expect rote, shallow, and procedural talk in the most important spheres of our lives. Students arrive in our classes with much the same expectations we bring to faculty meetings: an authority figure has set an agenda, and we must get through it. Well-intentioned administrators face the same challenges we teachers do: how do we break people out of these low expectations? How do we create the conditions for our students to have great conversations?
I’ve been thinking about these questions this semester as I watch my colleagues and my students and reflect on my own practice.
Here are three insights I gained from my experience so far.
1. Find great content.
Madame Carraway and Katie (10th) discuss a French vlog about violent video games.
For a few years now, I’ve subscribed to what I like to call the Big Daddy approach to teaching (and parenting). There’s a moment in that 1999 movie in which Adam Sandler’s character, a man completely unprepared for fatherhood yet fostering a young child, tells his new son:
From now on, you do whatever you wanna do. I’ll show you some cool s___ along the way. That’s what it’s all about.
The eminent biologist Rachel Carson expresses this idea a bit more eloquently in this beautifully illustrated excerpt from her writing. She writes:
If I had influence with the Good Fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children, I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantments of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things that are artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength. If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder without any such gifts from the fairies, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement, and mystery of the world we live in.
In this model, the teacher or parent becomes a guide, showing the child all that is worth wondering about in the world, and sharing those experiences as the child makes sense of what she notices. By introducing kids to what’s best and most breathtaking about their discipline, teachers become curators who get to re-live the sense of wonder that brought them to their academic field in the first place.
That’s what I saw in my colleague Carmen Carraway’s one-on-one French class with Katie (10th). She selected multimedia French-language resources exploring various sides of a question adults have been passionately (and sometimes sanctimoniously) debating for generations: does consuming violent cultural production make people more likely to be violent?
Madame Carraway chose polarizing and emphatic content produced by writers who, through their range (from a formal journalistic article to a quirky amateur’s video blog), showcased the rich and varied ways French speakers can use this language to persuade. Her expert curation inspired Katie to delve more deeply into the writers’ and speakers’ linguistic choices – Katie was asking questions, evaluating the structure of the arguments, and laughing at the speaker’s eccentricities. The relevance of the question (and the enthusiasm on display in the texts) drew Katie into exploring the language’s beauty.
I saw something similar in my middle school seminar on “Great Books and the Problem of the Western Canon.” We’re reading Lord of the Flies (and other commonly-assigned texts in an effort to decide why we read certain books and not others). This particular class has been very curious about the novel’s insights into human nature, so I’ve shared relevant ideas from philosophers like Thomas Hobbes, and the kids are piecing together their own sense of what it means to be human.
I’ve tried to be a Big Daddy-esque curator for this class, “showing them some cool [stuff] along the way” and then discovering alongside them. Last week, they had the opportunity to make sense of what they’ve been learning: I asked them to work in groups to visualize a key insight about human nature that explains the underlying roots of the conflict between Jack and Ralph.
Evalynn and Christi (both 7th) try to visually represent the psychological and philosophical roots of a conflict in Lord of the Flies.
Kids had demonstrably great conversations in my classroom that day because the content was worthwhile. They were reading an engaging and relevant text, and they had been exposed to some of the most influential thinkers in Western philosophy.
When helping students have discussions that matter, there’s no substitute for meaningful content.
2. Identify the constellation.
In his seminal work exploring how children learn, cognitive psychologist Jean Piaget emphasizes the importance of mental representations: a way of assimilating new information into evolving and flexible structures. Great content is fine, in other words, but we have to have someplace to put it if we ever hope to truly know or use it. Content can seem meaningless and forgettable if students lack a framework that helps them see its relationship to other ideas and texts.
I liken this framework to a constellation: a field of knowledge has a particular shape that becomes apparent to students if they know what they’re looking for. Those of us lucky enough to grow up seeing stars (not many were visible from my childhood home in Queens) likely remember the delight with which intelligible shapes emerged when someone finally showed us what to look for, and how impossible it was to ever look up and see a random and meaningless collection of stars again.
When teachers identify the broader structure that the specific content fits into, they reveal to students all the different things they can do with the content. When we identify the constellation, we show students what is possible.
Philosophy continuum: each emoji sticker represents a different philosopher. Students place them on the continuum between two opposing philosophical poles.
“Identifying the constellation” can take many forms, depending on the discipline and learning goals.
In our philosophy course, Kevin Oliveau and I sketched the contours of the field by identifying five polarizing issues that differentiate the thinkers we’ll study. We placed each pole at either end of a continuum. For example, on one end we wrote “the universe has a purpose,” and on the opposite, “the universe is a place of random interactions and emergent behaviors.” On the first day of class, kids drew dots on each line representing their personal philosophy.
Now that we have studied twelve different schools of thought, we wanted students to begin considering how these thinkers relate to one another. We printed copies of the continuum, distributed emoji stickers, and decided which sticker would be best to represent which philosopher (a hilarious activity: Stoics are the grimace because of their restrained approach to emotional pain; Epicureans are the doughnut because of their devotion to desire and happiness, although some students pointed out that they would describe the donut as a “vain desire” and discount its pursuit altogether). Next, students worked in groups to decide where to place each sticker. The video above shows part of one group’s conversation. (It’s so difficult to film students without making them nervous and shy!)
The “constellation” doesn’t always have to relate to content; it can also be a framework to practice a particular skill. This is most obvious in language instruction: teachers provide grammatical structures that students can use to contain new vocabulary words and practice syntactic variety.
In Spanish 2, Vanessa Moreno introduced the structure “cuanto tiempo hace que…?” (for how long…?). Her students were able to place all the words they had learned during this unit within that syntactic frame. The structure enabled students to take the content they had learned and put it into action, discussing activities of interest and sharing parts of themselves with their peers.
Sra. Moreno provides grammatical structures for sharing favorite activities and asking how long students have been involved in them.
These structures allow kids to do something with what they’re learning, which of course is the ultimate goal.
3. Step up and step back.
“Step up and step back” is a collaboration norm used at High Tech High. It’s a beautiful and efficient way to remind kids that when they’re working with their peers, they should bring something to the table, but they should also make space for other people to participate.
This is good guidance for teachers as well. Once we’ve shared great content with our kids and identified the disciplinary constellation within which the content fits, we have “stepped up” enough. It’s time to step back. Kids need the time and space to make sense of the content on their own terms, without relying too heavily on the teacher’s expertise.
The video clip above is from a whole-school advisory we designed around the following scenario:
It’s 2067, and Elon Musk has made possible his vision of colonizing Mars and “making humans a multi-planetary species.” Because of scientific innovation and the construction of an interplanetary infrastructure, it is now economically and technologically feasible to send one million people to Mars to establish a self-sustaining city. This is an unprecedented opportunity to rebuild human society, using our wisdom and experience to avoid the suffering that has long seemed inevitable on Earth. A global council is convened: twelve people who represent the human condition in all its diversity. This council is charged with the creation of a Bill of Human Rights on Mars, a set of ten principles by which to organize society for the promotion of human dignity and flourishing. What are those principles?
This is great content. It’s a worthwhile question that asks kids to draw on all they’ve seen and done in the world so far.
We also made sure to “identify the constellation.” We had kids brainstorm a list of ideas they’d want to take to Mars, and ideas they’d hope we leave behind. We cut out each item and asked students to work together in small groups to choose the most important five to take with them, and the most important five to erase from human history altogether. We included blank pieces of paper so that students could write in their own ideas, too. Kids placed their group selections in envelopes and included a rationale; they had to articulate the principles they relied on to make their selections.
(With one exception, an especially contentious group that required a faculty monitor), these conversations happened without much teacher direction at all. It was time for us to fall back and let the kids figure it out for themselves.
Students shared their reflections afterward. Shailee (10th) noted:
We as a society don’t really believe in redemption. How do we build a society that self-corrects, that helps us improve, that doesn’t treat people like animals?
Elling (9th) shared:
I was surprised by how different each person’s thoughts were – things I didn’t expect people to disagree on.
And Ben (10th) noted that the exercise was a great opportunity to generously understand our differences because, although we were talking about specific issues that seemed polarizing, doing it this way helped everyone explain the principles on which their ideas rested. He said:
I learned a lot about what other people value.
Because we provided great content and identified the constellation, we could step back. Kids had challenging, nuanced, memorable discussions during this activity, and they came to conclusions they never would have arrived at with superfluous teacher interference.
Here is a word cloud that collects all the kids’ responses from the day’s activity:
This word cloud represents each student’s explanation of the ideas and institutions they’d want to bring with them to Mars. The bigger the word, the more frequently it appeared.
Looking at this word cloud and thinking about all my students said and learned during this advisory, I know why teachers put so much effort into preparing kids for meaningful discussions.
Great conversations help us build the kinds of relationships that make ourselves better people and the world a better place.
Find out more about the great conversations we have at LSG here.
Relevant, meaningful activities that both engage students emotionally and connect with what they already know are what help build neural connections and long-term memory storage (not to mention compelling classrooms).
But before kids can appreciate why a given skill or content area matters in the world, they first need to see what it looks and feels like in the world. They need to see the abstract take concrete shape.
Great teachers do this across the disciplines, giving their students direct sensory experience with what otherwise would be intangible. One of my earlier posts showed what this looks like in an AP Physics course: our science teacher David Romero used roller skates and a jump rope to help his students feel “in their bones” the way “the universe works.”
Here are four more examples from math, philosophy, science, and English at LSG.
The concrete-repesentational-abstract instructional sequence is a “best practice” in math education for good reason: research shows the approach helps students develop their own mental representations of mathematical concepts.
In my colleague Rita Lahiri’s Algebra I course, students experienced the coordinate plane as a thing they could inhabit with their bodies.
Rita asked a student, Sera, to leave the room as the rest of the kids hid a piece of paper. When Sera returned, she had to close her eyes. Her classmate Evalynn guided her with directions: two steps forward, three steps to the right, etc. The other kids watched (and giggled), taking down their observations. After a few minutes, Sera found the paper – it was placed inside a textbook on one of the shelves.
The class repeated this experiment several times; kids eagerly volunteered to be the “finder” and the “guide.”
Once students got to see their peers move through the classroom toward a specific point, Rita gave them the chance to reflect on their experience by thinking and writing about two questions. She asked:
Each of you guided your person differently. Was one way more efficient than others?
Why is this relevant? Why are we doing this in class?
As the kids reflected, they made sense of the concept in light of their direct experience. In subsequent lessons, when her students encounter the coordinate plane as a pictorial representation, they will remember watching kids walk through space toward a fixed point.
The new, abstract concept will build on something they already had seen and understood.
The study of philosophy is often beautifully and infuriatingly abstract. What kinds of instructional approaches can make these ideas accessible and meaningful in students’ actual lives?
Here is a really cool article that wrestles with just that question. It’s about teaching philosophy to teens in Brazil’s favelas after the nationwide mandate that all secondary students learn philosophy. Check out this relevant excerpt:
But can philosophy really become part of ordinary life? Wasn’t Socrates executed for trying? Athenians didn’t thank him for guiding them to the examined life, but instead accused him of spreading moral corruption and atheism. Plato concurs: Socrates failed because most citizens just aren’t philosophers in his view. To make them question the beliefs and customs they were brought up in isn’t useful because they can’t replace them with examined ones. So Socrates ended up pushing them into nihilism. To build politics on a foundation of philosophy, Plato concludes, doesn’t mean turning all citizens into philosophers, but putting true philosophers in charge of the city—like parents in charge of children. I wonder, though, why Plato didn’t consider the alternative: If citizens had been trained in dialectic debate from early on—say, starting in high school—might they have reacted differently to Socrates? Perhaps the Brazilian experiment will tell.
Kevin Oliveau and I are co-teaching a course called “Philosophy Wars” this semester, giving students the chance to engage competing ideas about ethics, human nature, epistemology, and metaphysics. We want students to understand what it means to see the world through the lens of these various philosophies. We hope that the course helps us all develop the capacity to break out of our own particular, entrenched perspectives, finding ways to generously imagine alternate ways of seeing and being in the world.
One of the ways we encourage this is by conducting regular role-playing exercises during class. We pose a question: in the case of the video above, the question was, “Does material reality exist?” We require that students argue from the position of various philosophers rather than their own perspective. Sometimes, this means they draw an index card of their choice with the name of a philosopher, and respond in the way they think he or she would. In the video above, certain students were designated as “skeptics,” others as materialist George Berkeley, and still others as Renee Descartes.
This exercise in intellectual empathy is in the same vein as the “stakeholder wheel” approach to journalism education explained in The Elements of Journalism and the “Offend Yourself” challenge I tried with my students in 2015. These structured assignments force students outside themselves to explore the world from other vantage points.
The discussion took on a particularly concrete application right around minute 1:10 in the above video. Michael, who is supposed to be a skeptic, notices that his peer Enoch drinks mistakenly from his mug. As Michael argues against the existence of things outside ourselves, he calls out Enoch:
Michael: As a skeptic, almost like a Descartes type argument, you could say that – that’s my glass
Me: How do you know that’s your cup?
Kevin: Aha! What was the problem there? I sensed a problem. You put the cup down rather quickly, didn’t you? Why was that? You knew it was his cup!
Enoch: I did not!
The dispute about the mug revealed precisely the concrete stakes of what it would mean to sincerely doubt that things outside our mind exist in the real world. If Enoch truly entertained such metaphysical doubts, he’d have no problem drinking from Michael’s mug.
Since that exchange, the mug has become a shorthand for understanding concretely what it means to doubt. Role playing offers an engaging and memorable way to test the real-world implications of abstract ideas.
Research typically focuses on moving gradually from concrete to abstract — for example, this piece describes evidence supporting the “concreteness fading” method in STEM instruction. But my colleague David Romero points out that in his physics courses, students study abstractions so that they can better understand and describe the physical world. In other words, sometimes the concrete is the target.
An activity in his middle school science class helped students observe and experience the concept of relative motion. (Check out the video above to see part of the lesson in action.)
David sets up three groups of students on wheelie chairs and designates the other students “pedestrians” meant to observe and record. He gives these instructions:
We can run through this once or twice, and if you have a question for one of these people, feel free to ask.
We’ll have time to talk about what we’re seeing.
Both David and Rita’s lessons reveal the crucial interaction between enactors and spectators: by asking some students to experience relative motion, for example, and others to observe it, David ensures that the class works collaboratively to piece together an understanding from different perspectives. The insights of those who sat on the chairs augment the observations of those who stood and recorded what they saw.
The comments of Aidan, an eighth grader and “pedestrian” during the activity, illustrate this well:
David: Pedestrians, you want to describe what happened, what you saw?
Aidan: I saw that there was two chairs, Matt and Nadia, floor, and then two chairs, Matt and Nadia, floor. So I saw chairs, Matt, and Nadia move this way.
David: Oh and you’re using the floor to compare.
In this case, students are moving from abstract to concrete: David had introduced the concept of relative motion in an earlier lesson; in this later activity, students were able to use key terms and definitions to describe what they saw in the physical world.
High school students cut up Hemingway’s “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” to piece together the story’s chronology.
My students are usually blown away when I explain to them that the “full story” – told in all its detail from beginning to end, with no narrative gaps – is a thing that does not existoutside their own minds.
But they think about it quietly for a bit and realize: of course it doesn’t. No story takes the reader through all the excruciating minutiae of human existence. Our narratives – whether written or oral, literary or gossip, and everything in between – contain pauses, omissions, flashbacks, flash-forward, and repetitions.
Time in narrative is complex. And temporality, as a literary concept, is also highly abstract.
Russian formalists have a complicated theoretical language that distinguishes, for example, between the order in which events are narrated (the sjuzhet) and the “actual” order of the story (the fabula – as in fable, or a thing that is not real).
Ernest Hemingway’s short story “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” is useful for illustrating the nuances of narrative temporality. The story flashes back and forth to reveal the deep roots of the titular character’s unhappy marriage and the more recent catalyzing incident: Macomber’s seemingly unredeemable cowardice at the lion hunt.
To help students see the impact of nonlinear temporality on narrative, I ask them to cut Hemingway’s story into pieces.
I print out four copies of the story and ask groups of kids to physically separate each scene from the next: make a cut where the temporality shifts to flash backwards or forwards. Then, students rearrange them chronologically along a series of desks or cubes. As the photo illustrates, this is a get-out-of-your-seat-and-work-with-your-hands activity.
Students invariably come up with different ways to order events, revealing that part of what non-chronological structure does is to render the reader an active participant in the collaborative construction of meaning.
Like the activities in math, philosophy, and science, the act of cutting up Hemingway’s story helps students see what crucial abstract concepts look and feel like. This is an indispensable first step in making classroom content relevant and personally meaningful to all students.
David Tow, a California-based teacher-researcher, wondered whether requiring his students’ unquestioning compliance with class rules was at odds with his otherwise inquiry-based instructional approach.
How could he encourage his kids to take risks and pursue truth in their academics while expecting mindless adherence to convention in their behavior?
At the same time, he understandably worried that abolishing rules could lead to chaos in the classroom. He didn’t want to tear down the old way of doing things without first envisioning a new and better approach to stand in its wake.
He decided to start with first principles: what sort of classroom community does he want to build? What are the values that shape this vision?
The entire article is worth reading, but the four first principles he sketches are particularly inspiring.
Be respectful to yourself because it sets the context for being able to participate in a community; to others because it is hard to be a student and everyone’s struggles merit your respect; and to the teacher because although it is a position of authority, the teacher should also be vulnerable and learning.
Be engaged, because merely being present in the classroom does not necessarily qualify as participation, and a truly pluralistic community requires all voices.
Be prepared, because informed conversation requires prepared members, and preparation transcends just the work that is assigned—and is closer to deep thought, sincere skepticism, and a general willingness to interrogate assumptions.
Be courageous, because learning requires acknowledging that there are things we don’t know, skills we lack, and ways in which we might still be foolish—which is a scary prospect for everyone in the class, teacher included.
I love the way each begins with a particular orientation toward the world – “be respectful,” “be engaged,” etc. – and then clearly justifies that orientation, showing how it contributes to a thriving and just community.
Through this model, as Tow notes, student infractions become opportunities for the student, peers, and teacher to reflect on how the behavior might detract from the sort of community they had all decided they wanted to build.
In other words, what used to be simple, top-down interventions (the teacher calls out student behavior and possibly imposes a consequence) are now sophisticated, student-generated metacognitive and collaborative reflections. Students become responsible for noticing and regulating their own actions, and they do so because they feel empowered to actively create classroom culture.
The article makes me wonder what other kinds of “first principles” students and teacher might converge around in additional communities and contexts.