Thursday, September 1, 2016

Embracing Spontaneity in Learning

“Spontaneity, in my view, is the best antidote to fear and habit, both of which are part of our repertoire but should not dominate. Fear and habit hold us back and make us predictable. Spontaneity opens the door to creativity and happiness, in part because of the unpredictability it brings.”
                                                                                   --Joachim Krueger, behavioral psychologist

There are lots of things to see on our expansive campus—flowers visited by interesting insects, lovely gardens, friendly ponies.

So I was a little surprised when Ethan, a first grader, stopped on our campus stroll to stare at a dripping downspout on the side of a building. “Where is the water coming from?” he wondered. We imagined the water’s downward path and our imaginations traveled upward to its origin: a gutter. In short order, Ethan determined that the gutter collected rainwater, which flowed into it from the sloped ceiling of the building. From there, we talked about the force that causes all things to be pulled downward to the lowest point: gravity.

Having goals for a child’s learning and a plan to get there is important. Our teachers have created curriculum continua to enumerate objectives at each stage of a child's development, and they plan rich learning experiences accordingly.

At the same time, spontaneity is a critical part of learning. It sparks curiosity, stokes wonderings, and sets questions ablaze. Ethan might have become interested in gravity if he were told to read in a textbook about how a downspout in a gutter system is an example of water traveling via gravity. But by discovering this simple, elegant system on his own, his innate sense of wonder made the “lesson” all the more powerful—and memorable. 

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Think Kids Aren't Capable?--Think Again

Is a 10-year-old capable of higher-order, sophisticated thinking?

The traditional factory-like system of education would say "absolutely not." Kids are meant to be passive. They are in school to absorb knowledge, to listen to the teacher, to sit quietly and follow along, to behave. These are the standards on which they are judged.

At High Meadows, I regularly observe powerful evidence of the capability of young people that flies in the face of such small thinking. On Thursday mornings this spring, I am mentoring a group of fourth and fifth graders who are engaged in inquiry through our International Baccalaureate Primary Years Program. We discuss the progress of their inquiries that will lead to a capstone public exhibition at the end of the school year. 

The central idea of the students' inquiry is Humans have the ability to act on their beliefs and values to improve the relationships and health in their communities. From there, my small group narrowed their focus to Supporting medical research improves the quality of life for people today and future generations. Individual students are studying advances in research in ovarian cancer and cystic fibrosis. One student is studying how medical research on humans in space can help people here on earth. They share research studies, email responses from experts, and questions they have devised for interviewing more experts and those affected by disease. The sophistication of their thought--and their ability to accurately and passionately speak about their work--is nothing short of remarkable. 

These mornings always remind me of how capable our young students really are. It saddens me that some schools treat kids with what amounts to intellectual and social disrespect. It's no wonder so many of them dread going to school. 

This morning, the students were brimming with vivid excitement as they told me about their visit to a science museum yesterday. "There was just one thing," one of them said. "They wouldn't give us a tour guide because they said fourth and fifth graders are too young to understand and don't behave well." Despite that caveat, they led themselves through the exhibits with fascination and purpose. And good "behavior." Another student continued, "We almost told them that we were older kids who are just small for our age." Now there's some higher-order humor for you.

So back to my original question: Are 10-year-olds truly capable? At the best schools (including High Meadows, of course) the answer is an emphatic "absolutely!"

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Redefining Rigor

“Demanding, difficult.” “Thorough, exhaustive, accurate.” “Strictness, severity.” All are modern definitions of “rigor" I found in various dictionaries. And I also found one particularly troubling  synonym: "misery.”

Lots of parents are looking for an “academically rigorous” school experience for their child. But I know no parent who want their kids anywhere near an “academically miserable” school.

So let’s take that word and reframe it. It’s good for kids to experience discipline, thoroughness, and challenge. But the best schools present rigorous experiences that are also deeply thoughtful, mind-expanding and exciting.

Which of these rigorous experiences do you want for your child?

Do you want plodding, closed-ended, multiple choice bubble tests with only one right answer? Or assessments that require students to analyze real-life situations and dilemmas that have more than one answer?

Do you want kids to have mountains of repetitive homework that robs them of family time and sleep? Or do you want homework that is meaningful and reasonable—like reading or practicing a modest number of math problems?

Do you want kids to memorize facts that will soon be forgotten? Or do you want them to learn how to find facts for themselves and use them in an authentic way?

A few years ago, teachers at The Lawrenceville School in New Jersey, a school widely regarded as the pinnacle of traditional rigor, conducted a powerful experiment. At the end of the academic year, the teachers administered highly traditional science tests to high schoolers. The tests were replete with facts and formulas that required significant memorization. Lawrenceville students being high achievers, it was not surprising that the average grade was 87%. In the fall of the following school year, the teachers, without prior notice, administered a nearly identical (and even simplified) test to the same group of students. The average grade? 58%. You read correctly. Students retained virtually nothing over the summer. What, then, was the value of what they had “learned?” This experiment set Lawrenceville on a new path of designing cognitively rich and meaningful experiences for its students.

The rigor of today is not what it used to be. It still implies hard work, discipline, and completeness. But it also means that students engage meaningfully, cognitively, and authentically in learning experiences.

And it certainly doesn’t have to mean misery. 

Thursday, December 17, 2015

The Vocabulary of Violence

Monday marked the third anniversary of Sandy Hook, the worst school shooting in our recent history. We all remember the sadness and anger we shared with the nation. I also remember thinking that this would be the horrible catalyst for us to finally take action to prevent such violence. Sadly, and not too surprisingly, we continue to argue over how we can make the world a safer place for our children.

Beyond the politics, violence is everywhere--even in our daily speech. Our metaphorical vernacular, which can add clarity and meaning to verbal communication, is littered with the insidious vocabulary of violence.

We "shoot from the hip." We use "bullet points" in our writing. We are sometimes "dressed to kill." We "shoot off at the mouth" "on the front lines" while someone drops a "bombshell" and we "take a stab" at fixing it. Eventually, someone is responsible or "heads will roll." It's only through "boots on the ground" with people who are "straight shooters" "who are quick on the draw" that we can get ourselves "out of the cross hairs." It's time to come out with "guns a-blazing" and to "have each other's backs."

I invite you to name more; they are countless. And try to go just one day without using such metaphors. I've yet to be successful.

I don't know how such speech affects us. It's easy to dismiss metaphors as harmless words that are simply embedded in the way we communicate. 

But our children listen to what we say--and how we say it--and it teaches them. If violence is normalized in daily speech, might they be learning that it is a simple, harmless fact of life? That the way we get ahead and achieve success is through might, militarism, and brash pronouncements of conquest?

As politicians continue to debate how to keep us all safe, maybe we can do our small part by measuring our words, by finding gentler metaphors to enliven our communications. However subtle the change might be, maybe our children will learn that it's possible to live in a world where words can create and not destroy.

Much has been written on this subject, and I encourage you to check out the classic book Metaphors We Live By and a recent article in the New York Times about the power of belligerent speech to incite violence.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

School: No Place for Fear

All hopes for a better world rest in the fearlessness and open-hearted vision of people who embrace life.

--John Lennon

Earlier this week, the City of Houston voted down a standing city ordinance aimed at protecting the civil rights of many of its citizens, most notably transgender people. At the heart of the vote was what has become the undignified threshold question that trans people face: What bathroom do they use?

Houston, like many other big cities such as Dallas and San Antonio, once honored the extensive research about (and the American Medical Association's recognition of) the complex issue of gender identity--that some people have a legitimate mental and emotional disconnect from their biological sex, and identify more closely with the opposite gender. This recognition enabled trans people to legally use the bathroom of the gender with which they identify.

But some Houstonians--fearful that such an ordinance would enable male predators to accost women in public restrooms--succeeded in repealing it, chiefly through a well-crafted television campaign that stoked terror and fear in the hearts of voters. [N.B. Neither Dallas nor San Antonio has reported incidents of such violence toward women in public restrooms.]

I cite this recent news not to promote a political "agenda"--I believe that respecting people for who they are is a simple matter of honoring human dignity and has no place in politics.

But there is one destructive reality that resides at the core of the example above: Fear is alive and well in our world.

Fear divides us. It perpetuates a simplistic, binary worldview--good/bad, black/white, liberal/conservative, us/them. Our schools should be focused squarely on the goal of eradicating such irrational fears, helping students to understand that the world is a place with endless possibilities and no limitations.

Fear is the enemy of innovation, of reasonable risk-taking. If I try and fail, then I'm no good.

Fear is what keeps us wed to educational practices that are valueless, like administering vapid, state-mandated standardized tests and training kids to crave the approval of others by giving letter grades. If I don't score well on the test or get good grades, I will not get into a good school. I won't live a good life.

Fear keeps us from truly getting to know other people and forming strong relationships. If I hang out with the brainiacs, then the cool kids won't like me. 

We are lucky at High Meadows. Our teachers know that fear is what holds us back from being our best selves.

They lovingly push children beyond their comfort zone, whether it's sitting with someone new or climbing one branch higher on the chicken tree.

They actively address when kids make "mean mistakes"--name-calling, social exclusion--helping them to feel and express empathy and self-forgiveness.

Our teachers openly encourage students to try something new, from a preschooler pouring milk by herself to an eighth grader presenting a project in front of the entire school. And if that preschooler spills the milk or the eighth grader misspells a few words in his presentation, that's OK. Our teachers will guide them to clean up their own (minor) messes, coach them, and let them try again until they are successful. And the students learn that they don't need to be afraid of making mistakes.

We are the models for our children. They take their cues from us. If we act with fear, they learn to be fearful. As parents and educators who want our children to be their best selves--happy, well-adjusted, fearless people--let's set a higher bar. We can embrace the power of nurture, inquiry, forgiveness, and love. Our children will take notice. And they won't be afraid anymore.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

The Definition of Progressive Education We Have Embraced

Two weeks ago, High Meadows Center for Progressive Learning Director Kate McElvaney and I attended the Progressive Education Network Conference in New York City. In attendance were hundreds of public and independent educators who are proud to embrace the tenets of progressive education, just as we do at High Meadows. As you might expect, schools that call themselves "progressive" often apply different practices and, therefore, have varying definitions of what the word means.

For this reason, the big buzz at the conference was around a new book, Tom Little's Loving Learning. The book highlights several examples of progressive school programs around the nation (High Meadows is given a shout-out in the index). Our teachers and administrators have all read it and continue to discuss it (and be on the lookout for a parent group study of the book this winter).

Tom (who, sadly, has since passed away) provides a compelling definition of progressive education based largely on the writings of John Dewey and Francis Parker as well as his own observation of dozens of schools. Many of the schools at the conference have embraced the definition, as have we:

Progressive Education prepares students for active participation in a democratic society, in the context of a child-centered environment, and with an enduring commitment to social justice.

Tom further highlights six core strategies shared by progressive schools:

1. Attention to children's emotions as well as their intellects;
2. Reliance on students' interests to guide their learning;
3. Curtailment or outright bans on testing, grading, and ranking;
4. Involvement of students in real-world endeavors, from going on field trips to managing a farm;
5. The study of topics in an integrated way, from a variety of different disciplines; and, not least,
6. Support for children to develop a sense of social justice and become active participants in     
    America's democracy.

For those of you who know High Meadows well, can you see where our mission fits into the above? Our faculty and staff will be continuing to discuss and identify our progressive practices with regard to these core strategies. I hope you will join us and feel free to comment!

Thursday, September 10, 2015

What Jody Knew

One of my favorite things to do in the new school year is to meet with new families. I love it because they tell stories about how their children, after only a couple weeks as High Meadows students, are thriving like never before.

They're blossoming.
The light is back on in their eyes.
Mondays are anticipated with excitement instead of dread.
When sick, they pretend to be well so they can go to school.

So what's behind all this joy? High Meadows Co-Founder Jody Holden was the original magician, and her magic is as strong and true today as it was in 1973. What did Jody know that makes kids thrive at High Meadows? The truths are simple and timeless.

She knew that relationships between students and teachers should be based on trust and respect. Ever the advocate for putting children first, Jody still reminds me (and the Board--she is a lifetime trustee) that we should follow children, taking our cues from them to show us how we can best help them learn. We trust that children are capable of learning for the sake of learning, and when we don't sit them in rows and talk at them all day, they will take ownership of their learning and enthusiastically strive to meet the goals we set for them. Jody also knew that children are far more capable than most grown-ups think. Give them fallen sticks and branches, they will build forts--or the exoskeleton of a rocket (true story--ask a third grader!).

Jody knew that being outdoors is good for children. Room to run with grass and dirt underfoot. Fresh air to breathe. And nature's wondrous beauty to behold. Jody knew that a place like the 42-acre utopia that is our campus would inspire kids to use all of their senses to help them understand the world around them.

She knew that play is at the heart of learning. She knew that a child's creativity is inspired by simply letting them be. And play does not need to be guided by plastic toys that suggest a specific function; a store-bought toy rocket does less for a child's creativity than a fallen branch that becomes an imaginary rocket. Jody knew that play is a perfect way for kids to learn how to communicate with each other, to work together, to solve problems.

Of course, Jody knows a lot more than the above; she holds deep knowledge of the research behind the best practices in learning. But it's her intuition that has been especially powerful in driving High Meadows as it has grown into the place it is today.