6th & 7th grade students discussing competing utilitarian ethical claims in the “philosotree” – a tree they designated as the meeting place for their philosophy club.
When we imagine a “good student,” to what extent are we simply imagining a compliant student? Is our idea of “good” interchangeable with “well-behaved,” or even “docile”? Are our classrooms rewarding the wrong things — rewarding students who aspire to our idea of who they should be, and penalizing those free enough to insist on becoming their fuller, better selves?
I wondered that this morning as I re-read English professor Catherine Savini’s reflections on her own assumptions in an article on academic rigor and mental health. Savini noticed that, like most teachers, she inferred a great deal about her students’ character and capabilities from their in-class behavior. She was concerned that those inferences had led her astray:
But after more than a decade of teaching, I realized that my idea of the good student was standing in the way of good teaching.
This was because her preconceived notions of what a student should be kept her from seeing her students as they were. So instead of deciding that the student who left abruptly in the middle of class was inconsiderate or indifferent, Savini decided to gather more information. And by learning more about the students in her classroom, she was able to teach them more effectively. (A recent study bears this out).
Teachers know this intuitively and witness it every year: taking the time to know our students as full human beings frees them to flourish in and out of the classroom in ways we can’t predict. But we rarely look more closely at this magic. Why is it so liberating to be truly known by someone who matters to you? What happens when we step back and make space for who students are and who they can become?
I think about freedom in those terms – the powerful and creative spontaneity borne of meaningful relationships that leave room for ourselves as individuals. Philosopher Erich Fromm argues that true freedom requires the kinds of relationships that help us shed our loneliness without losing our individual selves in the process. Novelist Toni Morrison offers a similar vision of liberatory human connections in her novel Song of Solomon:
Did you ever see the way the clouds love a mountain? They circle all around it; sometimes you can’t even see the mountain for the clouds. But you know what? You go up top and what do you see? His head. The clouds never cover the head. His head pokes through, because the clouds let him; they don’t wrap him up. They let him keep his head up high, free, with nothing to hide him or bind him.
I want my students to be free: to be known and cared for by the trusted adults in their lives, yet unencumbered by the kinds of artificially-imposed expectations or demands that would constrain what’s possible for their development as thinkers and human beings. I want my students to be mountains.
At LSG, I’ve seen kids transformed time and time again because adults took the time to create the conditions for this beautiful kind of freedom. Here are some ways our students respond to those conditions:
1. Students are free to care
Knitting enthusiast and viral internet sensation Samuel Barsky.
All that I understand about what’s most precious and worthy of protection in my students is embodied in a sweater-knitting internet sensation named Samuel Barsky. I was likely procrastinating grading when I came across one of his videos last year, and I was moved by the unguarded joy of this man who knits jumpers inspired by places and then photographs himself wearing his work at the actual place. His year is ordered by the careful craft of making these sweaters he’ll never sell, and traveling to the places he’d stitched freehand. He mostly taught himself how to do this beautiful thing that matters so much to him, and he decided on his own terms the purpose of his intensive labor.
It’s obvious from the first minute of the interview: Samuel Barsky spends his time doing what is most personally meaningful to him, and he would devote himself to his sweaters even if no one else valued them. Barsky reminds us of all that life has to offer when we care with openness and depth about the thing we feel most called to do in the world. How many human beings are brave enough to be that free? And yet: can any human being do great things without being that free?
Perhaps no one at LSG is more Samuel Barsky-esque than Kamran, one of our graduating seniors.
Kamran is the sort of student who sends thousand-word emails at 2 AM about the United States’ diplomatic relations with Iran, or the shortsightedness of establishment Democratic politics. Kamran is the sort of student whose class participation consists of delivering gesture-laden monologues with little warning and no preparation, to the enthusiastic, impromptu applause of his peers. Kamran is the sort of student whose mind lights upon a detail — a nineteenth century painting referenced offhandedly in a seminar discussion, or the cycle of idealism and disillusionment present in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man — and fixates on that detail for months, building it into an original, all-encompassing theory he’ll expound on to anyone who will listen.
Kamran is the sort of student, in short, who cares unapologetically and publicly and eccentrically, in a way that few people are brave or free enough to do.
Most people walk around trying to hide who we are and what we care most deeply about, because to be truly known and then rejected or mocked seems far worse than to never be known at all. And we see this in our students: so many children come to our classrooms already having been told by the world that they must hide who they are.
But Kamran puts himself out there fully, and because of that, he learns more, does more, and leaves his mark wherever he goes. He single-handedly built one of the only student-led Model U.N. programs in the nation as a freshman, and students signed up to join him only because he cared so desperately about the team. He spent half his senior year in D.C. as an intern for the National Iranian American Counciland a communications staffer for two nationally-significant campaigns. He lobbied incessantly for history courses reflecting his personal interests and worked alongside the teacher to design them. He emailed local politicians so relentlessly that they finally showed up to speak at the school.
It’s not just his deeds but his presence that impresses people. I see it in the classroom and at school-related social events: when Kamran is in the room, everyone notices; when he is not, everyone wishes he was. There is a definitive idea of “something Kamran would say” — he has a sensibility all his own. Community leaders have remarked to me how surprised they were to learn he was in high school. Teachers and students alike will never forget him.
In preparing to write this post, I interviewed teachers who’ve worked with Kamran throughout his time at LSG to get a better sense of what was distinctive about him. Our school founder Deep said something worth sharing here because it articulates precisely what is at stake in preserving students’ freedom to care:
I think the real lesson for us as educators is: we have designed all of education to make sure that people like Kamran don’t stay people like Kamran. And we are doing our very best to homogenize these kids. And so the real lesson of Kamran is: what type of teacher or school leaves Kamran as he is? That is the challenge. And that is all we’re talking about when we talk about teacher autonomy, and by extension student autonomy.
We must build classrooms and schools that protect students’ ability to care publicly and vulnerably about the work they are called to do — both because we owe it to all of our children, and because our shared future demands it.
2. Students are free to question
Biology teacher Ashley Gam leads her Evolutionary Biology students in a discussion of pain receptors in the skin.
What I am most struck by when I observe my colleague Ashley Gam teach her evolutionary biology course is how she encourages and embraces students’ questions about the material in real time.
The excitement of great content always prompts questions for students. When kids find a way into the material that’s personally meaningful, they naturally want to know more. The difference between a good teacher and a great one is how she responds to those questions: does she make space for students’ interests, or does she stick to her lesson plan? Does she free kids to participate in the construction of knowledge, or does she constrain them to the passive role of information receptacles?
I watched Ms. Gam deliver a lesson on sensory receptors found in our skin. After reviewing the differences in construction and placement of nociceptors, thermoreceptors, and mechanoreceptors in the dermis, she began explaining what happens in your body when they are stimulated. Her explanation fascinated Cam (10th), who peppered her with questions:
Ms. Gam: I blow on Keaton’s eye. It activates specific neurons that tell whatever, tell your brain in this case, that your eyeball has been blown on. It’s immediately going to send a response. But it’s not thinking about that stimuli. If these neurons are activated, you’re automatically going to get that response —
Cam: But where is the programming?
Ms. Gam: The programming is in the structure and organization of the neurons.
Cam: So it’s in the spinal cord
Ms. Gam: In the case of your knee jerk reflex, yes. I want to get back to Cam’s question about the reflex: if it’s trainable, can you inhibit them. Can you inhibit or —
Cam: So what’s muscle memory?
Ms. Gam can barely get through a sentence without Cam interrupting her out of a sincere desire to know more.
Other teachers might see such questions as a disruption. Even in more progressive classrooms, teacher talk typically dominates instructional design. We know that students who talk more in our classes learn more, but children simply don’t spend much time using their voices at school: wondering aloud, making observations, reacting to new information, pursuing original lines of inquiry. They stay quiet because they know there is no space for them to speak up.
Here, though, I watched Ms. Gam draw on Cam’s enthusiastic inquiry as a source of engagement for all her kids. His questions were surprising and delightful detours through the content of the lesson, and the exchange created an improvisational structure that crescendoed toward shared insight.
Ms. Gam continued to respond to Cam’s question about whether our reflexes can be trained, and she marshalled memorable details (including the possibility of death) that might not have emerged without Cam’s participation:
Ms. Gam: Can you inhibit or override? I’d like us to look at this and I’d like us to look at some of these reflexes. To your question of muscle memory, of can you train a reflex: these are highly ingrained in your body. Everybody’s body. If they weren’t ingrained, you would not be here. These are highly adaptive responses. You would have things in your eye and you would die from some sort of infection if you did not have this response. If you can develop a reflex, ultimately what you’re trying to do is you’re trying to speed up a response so you’re not thinking about it a lot. That information is —
Cam: So you are thinking about it a bit though?
Ms. Gam: It’s about how fast you can process the information given a specific stimuli.
There are few things more discouraging to young learners than a teacher hearing their earnest and passionate questions and admonishing them to stick to the topic at hand. And there are obvious reasons a teacher might shut down student inquiry: the fear of failing to “cover” the material, of losing control of the lesson, of chaos ensuing. Ms. Gam approaches Cam’s questions entirely differently: she tacitly invites him to help her build the lesson, and everyone engages more deeply as a result.
Cam: Is it – if you’re playing a song on the guitar very quickly, you hear what’s happening now and you predict, you do something before there’s a sensory input, you think ahead?
Ms. Gam: So the idea is there’s a specific neural network that’s responsible for your environment, how you process it. “I just played an A, what am I gonna play next?” But all these pathways can be kind of modulated depending on how much time you spend doing them. So you can increase the neural networks to specific parts of your arm or your hand —
Cam: is that just building muscle?
Ms Gam: It’s building, and changing, and modulating neural connections in your brain and nervous system connected to areas responsible for the behavior you’re trying to cue.
Cam: So that’s purely speed or coordination?
Ms. Gam: Or sensitivity or —
Cam: That’s interesting.
Because of the space she leaves for her students to wonder aloud, Cam was able to make a personal connection between the course content and music, one of his core passions. Teachers spend months building relationships with their students so that they can facilitate these connections; Ms. Gam achieved it simply by being responsive and flexible in the moment when it mattered most. And Cam is far more likely to understand and remember what he’s learned because of this opportunity.
Ms. Gam: Yeah and a lot of physical therapy is about retraining that. Musicians trying to maintain their dexterity – you can desensitize some of those aspects, and you need to retrain them through physical therapy.
Cam: Does touch incorporate temperature, like if you get goosebumps?
Ms. Gam: We’re gonna do that in a little bit. I learned this from a crazy, wonderful poultry science teacher, but he was in love with histology which is basically cells and tissues. It’s a matter of appreciating the complexity and also the logic behind the relative position of things right on your skin. So this is what your textbook doesn’t necessarily do: it doesn’t provide you context-dependent information about what’s going on in one location and how it goes down.
When they work with Ms. Gam, students get the sense that they have this great opportunity to learn stuff with someone who clearly knows a lot more than them, but is still curious and growing, and willing to think alongside them. They feel like they’re free to — even expected to — pursue their own lines of inquiry during class, and they approach Ms. Gam as a thinker who is open to seeing her area of expertise in new ways. The freedom to question is the kind of freedom that reminds students that their ideas and interests matter in ways that can shape their world.
3. Students are free to play
Sixth- and seventh-grade Nature Writing students observe samples in microscopes to prepare for a writing exercise.
My sixth- and seventh-grade Nature Writing course this year was a beautiful mess.
The idea for the class came to me awhile ago from two sources, weeks apart: an eager pair of seventh-grade girls who’d formed a club dedicated to caring for and observing a caterpillar they’d recently acquired named “Stripey,” and a recent book on composition pedagogy by Ralph Fletcher that drew on a nature metaphor to advocate for what he termed “feral writing”: letting kids run wild as writers in their English language arts assignments.
In Nature Writing, we’ve collaborated with art teacher Danielle Ferrin to visit beautiful local sites and reflect on our relationship to the natural world. At the suggestion of biology teacher Ashley Gam, we’ve constructed Smithsonian-inspired “biocubes” and looked closely and patiently at these diminutive units of nature. We’ve read Rachel Carson and Annie Dillard and Mary Oliver and even Henry David Thoreau — and we’ve tried to emulate their styles. We’ve kept nature journals with weekly entries cataloguing minute details observed in our environments, exploring what wisdom or insight is to be found in such documentation. We’ve collaborated with history teacher Jim Percoco to write research-based personal essays grounded in a particular place that matters to us. We’ve used long walks and model texts and even actual stones as writing prompts. I never quite knew what would happen during any given class period, but it was always extraordinary.
And thanks to Ms. Gam, we also used microscopy as a tool to generate ideas for poetry, short stories, and essays.
I prepared students for the activity by asking them to think about the role of perspective in the literature we’d studied. The essential questions of our discussion were were: “How can we as writers help others see ordinary things in new ways? And why is such a thing worthwhile?” We brainstormed the different ways the writers we’ve studied — Annie Dillard, Rachel Carson, Henry David Thoreau, Mary Oliver, Sharman Apt Russell — helped us see ordinary things in new ways. Here’s what the students came up with:
By providing the hidden backstory or secrets about the thing
By using unconventional imagery which helps make the thing seem unfamiliar or new
By creating unlikely comparisons through metaphor, simile, analogy
By making personal connections through flashback, memory, narration
By shifting perspective or scale
But the exciting part was actually going into the biology lab to see our world in new ways.
Ms. Gam brought in wildflowers, grasses, and other samples from our local environment. (An insect that tagged along on one of the flowers excited the pair of boys lucky enough to find it). After a brief lesson on how to use these tools, and a mini-lecture on spring as a time of reproduction and rebirth for these plants, students were left to explore these natural materials.
Here are some images students created during the lesson:
Evalynn (7th) wrote this poem after thinking about the activity:
Thoughts on Perspective
It’s amazing how much the world changes when seen from a different perspective. There is always more to see. There is always another angle to look from. You thought with your incredible eyesight you could see all of it. Your naked eyes could see that there was texture in the center of the wild daisy, yes. But could they see that each dot was a tiny hexagon, Blooming at the edges of the center of the blossom Into miniscule golden flowers? Could they see that the seed on one puff of a dandelion had stripes running down it? Each with its own row if tiny spikes, Hooks to hold on to a landing place? No. They couldn’t. You couldn’t. There is always more to see. Don’t try to kid yourself otherwise.
And here is what the classroom sounded like:
Part of Ms. Gam’s introductory lesson:
Student group work:
As I listened to my students generating ideas and reveling in the experience of discovery, I thought of a piece by Anthony Brandt and Dave Eagleman about what they call “sandboxing”: trying out multiple ideas before getting graded and moving ahead with a longer-term project. They argue compellingly that for students (and for all of us), “knowledge shouldn’t just be a landing point-it should be a springboard. More class time needs to be devoted not just to mastering the material, but launching from it.” Indeed, we tune out and learn less when the events of our classes happen in fixed and predictable ways:
Our brains gradually tune out the predictable, making it a struggle to stay focused in the face of drills and rote learning. Surprise captures our attention.
When kids are free to play, they do sometimes make a mess – and as I said above, my Nature Writing course often felt like a beautiful mess. But the joyful depth of learning students access during these ill-structured and delightful experiences means that mess will take shape in students’ minds, anchoring their understanding and extending their skills. The poetry and stories that came out of that exercise were only possible because of my students’ freedom to play during that class period.
4. Toward a conclusion: Free to become
One of our parents recently told us that her daughter, a former LSG student, said that here, she felt free to become who she should be and not who others expected her to be. It was the most important thing I’ve ever heard anyone say about this school.
Hearing those words made me reflect on what conditions make such a personally-meaningful, student-directed transformation possible. I think a big part of it is beginning with the assumption that students’ interests, passions, and voices are worthy of our attention. All of my colleagues do this, and I am gratified to work with them everyday.
Too much instruction proceeds from the unexamined notion that there is something wrong with our children that must be fixed.
Instead, a truly liberatory and transformative education is one that takes at its starting point the act of seeing the whole child, and making space for all the inquiry and discovery and creativity that naturally follow from such recognition. The school that accommodates truly free students is ultimately one in which adults decide each day to insulate the students’ learning experiences from any short-term or narrow or bureaucratic exigency so that what matters most is placed at the center of the instructional design.
When our students are free to care, to question, and to play, they can (in the words of that eloquent LSG alum) become the people they should be instead of the people our flawed, existing world expects them to be. And it is only in this way that we can imagine and work towards a better future.
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.
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.
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?
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.
“Teacher Perception Hole”: at Deeper Learning 2017, a conference participant improvised this visualization to show how much we simply don’t or can’t see about our students’ lives and experiences. The student is held behind the paper and can only be seen through the narrow hole.
In my first real year of teaching, my first-born son had trouble in elementary school.
I knew him at home as a bright and curious kid who loved to read; I knew him as a kind, dinosaur-obsessed game-changer with an impossible recall for song lyrics and an affinity for imitating the way jaguars walk. I had him young and (for his first six years) raised him on my own without many resources, so he learned how to make his own fun with what he could find around him. Like all parents do, I knew my son was an original, and watching him engage the world gave me hope for the future. (And it still does).
His fourth grade teacher didn’t see what I saw. She saw a kid who found it difficult to sit still. She saw a kid who secretly read novels in his lap while she taught. She saw a kid who rushed through his work and forgot important details — a kid who turned in shoddy products and didn’t appear to care much about learning.
It was hard for me to imagine how a teacher with so much experience could fail to see my son, to see all that he had to offer this world, all that was inside him that was begging to be cultivated. His teacher was obviously a caring professional who worked hard everyday to support her students. How did she overlook that beautiful eagerness to discover and create that beamed so clearly from his face?
And if she could overlook something that seemed so obvious to me, what was I, a brand new English teacher, also failing to see? Were there kids I had already decided couldn’t do advanced work or engage rigorous texts? Did the kids I’d written off as unmotivated have passions that brought out the best in them, like my son’s dinosaurs? To what extent might race or gender play into my assumptions about students’ potential?
Ultimately, what I was really asking was: whose gifts and abilities am I rendering invisible by the way I design and assess learning? Whose greatness and potential are hidden from me?
These are questions I believe all teachers committed to students’ humanity should ask. We have choices about how we craft learning experiences and check for understanding. And those choices privilege certain students over others. The learning outcomes in our classrooms are not inevitable or immutable. They are, at least in part, the product of our instructional design.
My literature courses, for example, tend to disadvantage introverts, students who process information more slowly, and students with social anxiety. The conventions and pacing of the seminar discussion simply do not give everyone an equal opportunity to demonstrate mastery. This doesn’t mean that I will scrap the seminar altogether. But if I want to create a just and inclusive classroom, I must give all my students access to the work of the course. I must design activities and assessments that help me see these young people as they are — indeed, I must design activities and assessments that help these young people see themselves and all they can be.
This article is a beautiful reminder of what a difference this can make in the classroom. Tara Malone recalls her experience as an introvert in college humanities courses. After some difficulties, she finally meets a professor willing to experiment in her students’ best interests:
One day after class, Professor Simon spoke with me after the other students had gone. She matter-of-factly but sensitively told me that she noticed I had trouble speaking in class and proposed a solution to boost my class participation grade. She invited me to email her after class with my thoughts and impressions about the readings, and to include anything I had wanted to say during discussion but was unable to. I greatly appreciated this alternative and returned to my dorm room and composed an email to her that very night.
It was amazing to me how quickly and easily the thoughts flowed onto the screen, and I realized that I had a lot of insights and original ideas when I was alone, free from the pressure of the classroom environment. I developed the habit of composing a thoughtful email after each class, which Professor Simon would carefully read and respond to with some ideas of her own. The exchange of ideas and dialogue was rewarding, and it made me realize that I had a lot to contribute, even if I wasn’t the biggest talker or the fastest debater.
The last line haunts me. Without this intervention, she may not have discovered all that she had to contribute; she may not have realized her capacity for insight or originality. The choices we make as teachers are ultimately about creating the conditions that allow our students to be seen in all their fullness and potential. If we truly care about cultivating our kids’ humanity and helping them all flourish, we must reflect on whom we empower and whom we marginalize through these choices.
Students know our purpose by the questions we ask. By our questions, they know whether we are about “business as usual” — what they’ve come to expect from all the adults and institutions in their lives — or the lifelong, collective work of understanding and enriching the human condition.
Shailee, 9th grade, records her thoughts at a student-produced interactive multimedia exhibit about social justice.
In large and small ways everyday, our students show us how deeply they care about what’s going on in the world around them. They ask questions; they share articles; they talk outside of class; they joke and wonder and argue and read. This year, as the adults in their lives and on their screens debated what a more just nation might look like, our young people took notice and added their voices to the conversation.
In and out of the classroom, there is palpable energy around the divisive political questions of our time — the kind of energy that would capture students’ attention and extend their learning. But we rarely make space for these worthwhile and difficult questions in our classrooms.
It’s not hard to see why this is the case. Although we know our students’ academic needs and interests best, most teachers lack the power to choose what and how to teach our students. Even those who can exercise some control might understandably play it safe to hold onto increasingly precarious jobs. Teachers have a well-defined and often worthy curriculum to cover; we have tests to prepare for and benchmarks to meet. We are hesitant to appear biased. Most of us are not experts on these issues. And we are working through these questions for ourselves, uncertain of what we should say, uncertain of whether there’s a place for it in the classroom at all.
Despite all of this, we teachers, administrators, and parents — we adults who care about the people our children will become — must argue in defense of the difficult questions. Students know our purpose by the questions we ask. By our questions, they know whether we are about “business as usual” — what they’ve come to expect from all the adults and institutions in their lives — or the lifelong, collective work of understanding and enriching the human condition. And when kids recognize our classrooms as sacred spaces for making sense of the world around us, education becomes beautiful and transformative.
How do we know a worthwhile and difficult question when we encounter one? I’ve found that such questions do several vital things:
1. Difficult questions force a new way of seeing and confront us with new considerations. They surprise us.
So much of what we encounter each day leaves us unchallenged. To the extent that we have the power to do so, we organize our lives around our own comfort and security – as any rational person would. But this choice narrows the ideas and experiences we can access: we come to inhabit a bubble that requires less of us each day. A good question surprises us, reminding us that there is more to consider than our own interests. Who are we leaving out or leaving behind? Whose experiences are we ignoring? Whose stories are we not telling? What does this event or institution look like for someone very different from me? A good, difficult question opens the wide world to us and demands we expand our vision to make space for all that we don’t know.
2. Difficult questions remind students that they have power over what happens in the classroom and in their lives.
When teachers ask questions we don’t know the answers to, we make it possible to have conversations and make discoveries we couldn’t plan in advance. Engaging with uncertainty leaves room for students to take responsibility for making sense of complexity. Our students are less likely to step up if they sense we already have an answer in mind: why would anyone take ownership of a lesson that had clearly been settled before the discussion even began? When we pursue understanding alongside our students, though, we empower them to decide how their learning takes place. School is no longer something that happens to them; it becomes a place where they can shape the goals and outcomes of their inquiry. And when our questions explore issues relevant to their lives, we help them see all the power they have to shape the world outside the classroom, too.
3. Difficult questions show us that our world is not the inevitable product of unchanging processes: things could be different and better.
So much about the world can seem fixed and hopeless; most people find ourselves resigned to the way things are. But a worthwhile, difficult question can reveal the choices we make every day, too often without realizing we have made any choice at all. How have our public schools become so racially and socioeconomically segregated so long after Brown v. Board? Why do most federal housing subsidies benefit the affluent while the majority of poor people receive no federal housing assistance? Is our criminal justice system the best way to address drug addiction or mental health crises or poverty? What rights do the animals we eat have? These kinds of questions remind us that it’s possible to do better. And this is the mindset most conducive to the curiosity and problem-solving orientation we hope to inspire in our classrooms. If we implicitly present our world as a settled state of affairs, we leave little incentive to wrestle with the problems we confront. But if our questions suggest that things can change, that a commitment to truth-seeking and hard choices can build a better world, students might decide it’s worth thinking deeply about how to make that happen.
4. Difficult questions reveal something about the person who asked the question: that we’re curious and willing to risk being wrong in the pursuit of truth.
Asking good questions shows our students who we are and what we care about. In this sense, worthwhile and difficult questions build meaningful relationships between teachers and students. We risk something when we ask a question that matters to us, one that we are still trying to understand. We risk a bit of our authority and control; we risk our apparent mastery; we risk revealing a glimpse of our flawed humanity. All important relationships require these kinds of risks, but classroom conventions constrain us, so students rarely encounter their teachers as fellow humans on a quest for understanding. When we are willing to show up as people who don’t yet have it all figured out, difficult questions can produce important, enduring conversations.
So this year, in response to what I heard from my students, I worked with a colleague in history to build an interdisciplinary course asking a question we continue to confront today: how have people fought to extend America’s grand promise of freedom and equality beyond its initially narrow application?
We took inspiration from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s hopeful pronouncement that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice” — a statement he uttered in a Hollywood synagogue three years before his assassination. In our current moment of deep uncertainty about our nation’s future, such a sentiment offers a longer view of how change happens. Placing King’s vision at the center of our inquiry, we called our course “The Arc of Justice in American Literature and History, 1830-1915.” [syllabus link]
Our whole-class readings focused on the past: African Americans’ struggle for civil and human rights in the nineteenth century. But students’ individual projects and choice reading assignments were designed to help kids frame and pursue the difficult questions that seem most urgent and worthwhile to their present. Over the course of a semester, we drew on history and current events to explore how movements for justice take shape.
A variety of primary and secondary historical sources, as well as novels, films, poem, stories, photographs, and paintings, helped us explore what forces might effectively bend the arc toward justice. We grappled with John Brown’s legacy through Tony Horwitz’s biography and James McBride’s novel. We explored Lincoln’s shifting perspective on abolition by reading Harold Holzer’s compelling account and Henry Louis Gates’s edited volume of Lincoln’s writings on race. We examined the crushed promise of Reconstruction with the help of Eric Foner, W.E.B. du Bois, and novelist Howard Fast. Field trips and guest speakers supported real-world connections to the continued relevance of our course content.
Three essential questions structured our inquiry, and each question was linked to one of the three units of study described above:
How have individuals decided for themselves whether violence is a morally acceptable means of achieving justice?
How have leaders wrestled with – and evolved on – their historical moment’s central questions of justice?
Is a period of political and extra-legal backlash inevitable after civil rights gains?
But the real work of the course was students’ self-directed study of a movement for justice they each decided to explore independently. My essential questions became both models and touchstones for the students’ original inquiry. It was important for me to get out of the way so they could ask the questions that seemed most pressing to each of them.
Some wanted to learn more about intersectional feminism; others gravitated toward immigrants’ rights; two explored Black Lives Matter, mass incarceration, and police brutality. Other projects focused on veterans’ rights, animal rights, LGBT struggles for justice, workers’ dignity, poverty, the American Indian movement, activism around mental health and disabilities, the complex role of music within the politics of liberation, and the question of whether sentient robots could lead a successful movement for self-determination.
As we moved through the whole-class readings on African American experience, students drew on what they were learning independently to identify patterns structuring how people create change. In student-led seminars and peer workshops, kids pushed each other to interrogate their assumptions and account for their biases. They suggested additional readings, helped each other craft persuasive texts for authentic audiences, and made connections across their individual projects.
The questions the students framed for themselves and posed to one another harnessed all the potential inherent in worthwhile and difficult questions. Over the course of the semester, they produced a collective understanding of the shape that movements for justice have taken in America’s history and present. They noticed that movements typically begin with a catalyzing event that promotes awareness and causes people to take a side. Next, people committed to change often fracture along ideological or strategic lines: more moderate and more militant approaches, for example. The separate paths coalesce around a moderate gain the majority can support, but this brief victory is often followed by violent backlash and political losses.
Under the guidance of our brilliant art teacher, my students worked together to turn these insights into an interactive multimedia exhibit experienced by the entire school on our last day of classes. They likewise presented their individual projects to their peers and teachers during a two-hour academic conference and panel discussion. It was clear by the end of the event that the work of the course was not done: students will continue reading, discussing, writing, wondering, and dreaming long after they receive their final grade.
As a teacher, I know that many adults are skeptical about whether our young people have something worthwhile to say about the topics my students chose to explore for this course. The arguments are familiar: adolescents’ experience is limited; they don’t yet understand how the world works; their expectations are unreasonable.
But as a teacher of English, I know why some of the most celebrated American novels about issues of justice use child narrators to tell their story. Think of Huckleberry Finn or To Kill a Mockingbird. The frank and uncompromisingly ingenuous voices of Huck and Scout remind us that things don’t have to be as they’ve always been — that we have choices about what kind of society we want to build. What some might say discredits young people’s perspectives — their inexperience, their idealism, their lack of stake in the way things are — is exactly what makes their voices so powerful. They are free to imagine other ways of being and to work passionately toward achieving this vision.
Risking the enduring conversations prompted by worthwhile, difficult questions can help our young people change the world.
The question of how we teach and evaluate good writing is the sort of thing that bitterly divides English departments, sending instructors fleeing into well-worn ideological grooves.
There’s the generational divide: some embrace old-school grammar drills and sentence diagramming, and others champion the post-1960s move toward modeling and low-stakes, iterative writing. There’s the philosophical chasm: some argue that composition instruction should instill the syntactic and discursive structures students must imitate to succeed, and others see writing lessons as opportunities for students to experiment with different genres, ideas, and voices. There are methodological fissures: how and whether to craft rubrics, the value and pitfalls of peer workshops, the language and methods we use to evaluate, and the perennial question of how best to deliver feedback that will actually make a difference. And then, of course, there’s all the sociocultural baggage around what forms of English we value; the complex intersections of race, class, culture, and access to standard English; the implicit and problematic conflation of “proper” English and intelligence; the question of who belongs in college; and the tedious claim all older generations make about subsequent ones: things aren’t as good as they used to be.
Given all of this, when I encounter clear and thoughtful arguments about composition instruction, I share them widely, invariably annoying my colleagues and social media contacts in the process. This is one of those articles. Along with the beautiful Joy Write: Cultivating High-Impact, Low-Stakes Writing, this article will form the basis of my school’s faculty-led conversations about writing across the curriculum this fall.
The piece shares writing teacher John Warner’s response to a controversial Washington Post guest article embracing a Mr. Miyagi-inspired approach to writing pedagogy (rote practice focusing on style and sentence construction).
Warner draws on research and experience to explain how that approach fails our students. I quote him at length below, but the article is worth reading in its entirety. Ultimately, Warner reminds us, when we teach writing well, we are teaching students how to think deeply. We must keep this big-picture goal in mind as we design our instruction.
Students struggle at writing because in an era of standardization and accountability, very little of the “writing” we ask them to do requires them to engage deeply with the true basics of writing: ideas.
Maguire analogizes writing with the “muscle memory” that Mr. Miyagi teaches Daniel in “The Karate Kid,” but writing is thinking, and thinking is not a reflex, but is instead a complex and deliberative process.
Maguire’s focus on sentence “readability” as the basics of writing is actually rooted in the same problems with writing instruction that is oriented toward passing standardized assessments judged on surface level traits. Students are coached on rubrics and rules that will help them pass muster on these tests — for good reason when teachers and schools are going to be judged on the results — but genuine, meaningful writing does not adhere to rubrics and rules.
Sure, drilling students in what competent sentences look like will allow students to create something that resembles writing, but to invoke another classic film, “Blazing Saddles,” it’s writing that’s akin to the fake version of Rockridge the townspeople erect in order to fool the marauders, flimsy facades with nothing behind them.
If we want students to truly write well, rather than settling for surface features either through a “readability” approach, or one rooted in the necessity of passing a standardized assessment, we must require students to engage in a much more rigorous curriculum centered on the most important skill all writers must practice: making choices.
Writers choose what they want to write about (subject), who they want to write to (audience), and why they’re writing (purpose). In composition circles we call this the “rhetorical situation,” and without it, you’re not really writing. Instruction that ignores these dimensions will prevent students from developing meaningful writing practices.
This is not the fault of teachers, or parents, or students, but instead is a consequence of a system that was put into place bit-by-bit without sufficient thought as to the larger implications, a system that privileges shallow traits over genuine intellectual engagement.
A good teacher is by nature a good storyteller. Short, resonant anecdotes bring abstract concepts to life; stories humanize teachers and capture kids’ imaginations. These are the things our students will remember long after the lesson is over.
My colleague Kevin Oliveau is a master storyteller.
Being in Dr. Oliveau’s World War I class is like reliving the plot of your favorite movie with someone who knows it inside-out: the history of its production, the science behind the special effects, the psychology of the characters, the philosophical implications of the unfolding events. These battles fought on distant shores a century ago are transformed into something like an epic film: vivid, engrossing, urgently relevant.
Here is what I mean: ten minutes into class, Dr. Oliveau riffs on a student’s comment about U-boats. He pulls up an image on the projector and describes what it might have been like to live inside one of these vessels:
You’re talking about cold, damp rooms where stuff drips on you all the time. And one bunk for eight people. So how do you do it? You need to sleep for 8 hours a day. It means also that if your fellow crewman has lice or nits or fleas, you have them as well. So when you climb into the bunk, it’s when someone has just climbed out of it. So these spaces are really cramped, really difficult.
[He’s gesturing at the image now.] And there’s the equivalent of an analog computer which guides the torpedo in a straight line at a fixed depth until it strikes the enemy vessel below the water line where it’s most vulnerable. And it doesn’t actually destroy the ship; it lets the sea into the ship and lets the sea do the work. Has anyone been in one of these?
As an English teacher, I’m sitting there appreciating his craft: he uses the second person to place each student in the story; he packs his description with unsettling and memorable sensory imagery; he asks well-placed questions that activate kids’ imaginations. Students’ hands shoot up to share their thoughts and questions, delving deeper into the content and relishing the opportunity to participate.
There are reasons that great teachers like Dr. Oliveau use narrative frequently: it works. Neuroscientist David Eagleman observes that stories facilitate the spread of ideas from person to person:
It’s not easy to infect the brain of another person with an idea; it can be accomplished only by hitting the small exposed hole in the system. For the brain, that hole is story-shaped. As anyone who teaches realizes, most information bounces off with little impression and no recollection. Good professors and statesmen know the indispensable potency of story.
The human need to tell and consume stories reveals a lot about how our brains work. Cognitive neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga suggests that a major function of the brain’s left hemisphere is to organize our memories into plausible stories, filling in gaps when necessary. Gazzaniga’s research supports what teachers like Dr. Oliveau intuit: that stories are how we make sense of our world when our world doesn’t make sense on its own.
Psychologist Daniel T. Willingham concurs; he explains the educational benefits of narrative and suggests some ways teachers can incorporate story into their pedagogy, focusing on the “four Cs of narrative”: causality, conflicts, complications, and character. (Teachers should scroll to the bottom of that resource for helpful suggestions using each element across disciplines).
Dr. Oliveau’s lesson showed me three ways that great stories become opportunities for deeper and more joyful learning: they inspire active participation; they reveal what is possible, and they break through the boundaries of academic disciplines. Below, I explain how each takes shape in Dr. Oliveau’s instruction.
Great stories inspire active participation.
Nobel- and Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Toni Morrison explained her ideal relationship with her readers way back in 1984:
The text, if it is to take improvisation and audience participation into account, cannot be the authority – it should be the map. It should make a way for the reader (audience) to participate in the tale.
For Morrison, the best stories demand active participation; they map the territory and invite the audience to explore and discover. That’s just how Dr. Oliveau’s stories work: they build a highly detailed, multidimensional world around his students. It’s essentially a very low-tech version of virtual reality.
His class is a collaborative, sometimes raucous, call-and-response event. Kids chime in with details, jokes, questions, and exclamations, until the conflict-laden story reaches a fever pitch. Led by Dr. Oliveau’s prodding and momentous questions, the class delights in the process of retelling the key moments point by point, reliving their fascination by poring over each historical figure’s motivation, the details coming together to reveal a compelling portrait of history.
From the corner of the room, he shouts a question in the general direction of the back row:
Oliveau: What is the counter move the Germans fail to anticipate?
Keaton: Convoys. The Germans didn’t know that the British would use convoys.
Oliveau: Right. The Royal Navy and merchant ships don’t like this. It’s boring, not exciting. Instead of heroically charging out, it’s like, we’re going to put you on this dinky boat, and you’re going to go sail circles around these other boats, and with luck, nothing will happen. [Student laughter.] And by the way, your boat is so small that when there’s a storm at sea, everyone is going to get violently seasick. So there’s resistance. But how did convoys reduce losses?
Kids wave their hands to offer their hypotheses and help craft the story; and on and on, the process repeats.
Great stories reveal what is possible.
People who don’t geek out over history tend to think of it in the past tense: a collection of dusty artifacts and static, settled events. Why bother? But to experience history as a great story is to be reminded of the terrifying and exciting fact that many futures are possible, and we don’t ever quite know how things might turn out.
Dr. Oliveau structures his entire lesson around that insight. His essential question is: why does England’s attitude toward involvement in the war shift so dramatically? This question is great because it invites kids to examine the dramatic contingency of history: the outcome of a war is not a foregone conclusion leading inevitably toward our current geopolitical order. Things could be very different today. Dr. Oliveau’s rich and detailed stories transport his students from the comfortable hindsight of 2017 to the uncertain complexity of one hundred years prior.
As he moves through each phase of the war, Dr. Oliveau reenacts the concerns and desires of various nations’ military leaders as they would have experienced them in the moment. He explains Germany’s worries:
By 1918 they haven’t hit their goal. One of the things about war is, you’re not sure. Even if you sink the 3 million tons which they pretty much did in twice the time, it’s not enough. They didn’t think about what the British might do in response. They were sort of optimistic in their view. They didn’t think, we’re gonna try this but it probably won’t work. They needed something to work, and they convinced themselves it would. They managed to sink almost 3 million tons that year, but it wasn’t enough.
When events are narrated as if their outcomes are uncertain, it’s easy to appreciate how many things needed to go wrong (or right) to get us where we are today.
Great stories cross academic disciplines.
Students learn deeply when they understand the content’s relevance to their own lives. We educators are thankfully in a moment in which that insight is neither original nor controversial.
Stories are an effective way to bridge the relevance divide — to craft a pathway between a student’s passions and the day’s learning goal. This is because narrative weaves disparate elements into a coherent whole.
No matter what Dr. Oliveau’s students are interested in, it’s a safe bet that he at least tangentially connected it to his narrative of the first World War. In 90 minutes, Dr. Oliveau’s lesson drew together anecdotes about syphilis, trench warfare, Ernest Hemingway, the science and engineering of weaponry, behavioral economics concepts like the sunk cost fallacy, military strategy, the sociological implications of male soldiers’ absence from the workforce, and the legacy of imperialism. Students also had to perform some basic mathematical calculations to determine how far Germany was from achieving its goals in 1918. The high point, however, was easily his highly technical explanation of submarines’ limited offensive capacity:
Oliveau: Right, it’s a three dimensional problem. It’s what submariners call firing solution. You have to locate your enemy precisely enough to fire your weapon. This problem won’t be solved till the end of World War II. It gets very complicated because in the ocean there are temperature differences and salinity differences, which has the tendency to reflect sound waves in an arc. In the modern day, we have —
Will (interrupts): How do you know that?
Ben (to Will): ‘Veau knows everything.
Ben’s comment stood out to me as the moment of the class because it insightfully identifies exactly what Dr. Oliveau offers his students. Through storytelling, Dr. Oliveau becomes a sort of omniscient game master, constructing a detailed discursive world and organizing students’ play within that world, integrating each distinct part into an engaging and unified narrative. To borrow from John Keats, it is a thing of beauty.