Heart-in-throat Syndrome: Keeping Kids Safe

A young couple I know have been excited to watch their son begin to walk, and then run, in quick succession. A recent video shows him opening a door for the dog.

In approximately five minutes, he will ask for the keys to the car, and then life will get really interesting.

I remember a group of parents discussing the rapidly increasing maturity of their young adolescent children. One mother, whose medical practice had given her a long and broad view, said, “I don’t really worry about sex or drugs. I worry about cars.” The room filled with nervous, not-yet-believing laughter.

I have to agree with her, though. Four of my past students have already died much too young–one from a drug overdose, but three, including Dana, about whom I’ve written, in accidents involving cars.

Meanwhile, a Touchstone alum just posted on Facebook. One of his college friends was in the group of climbers who died this past week on Mt. Ranier.

So I’m thinking about physical risk-taking, and how we negotiate that between the generations, and within ourselves.

playground reaching with net When I first started teaching, it drove me crazy to supervise kids on the playground at school, or in the active outdoor parts of field trips.

Over time I came to enjoy many aspects of this part of teaching–the chance to watch the bees in the morning glories, the chance to savor the liveliness of the kids in their own buzz of physical and social activity, and the chance to admire physical learning as practiced by many kinds of kids. I learned to stand and watch and name for myself everything good and growing that I saw happening–and that always helped me enjoy it more.

Still, the real job was making sure that everyone operated within carefully rationed acceptable levels of risk–and that became only slightly less challenging in all those years.

I’m a cautious person, physically, and always have been, even as a very small child. Watching other people dashing to and fro, I often have to swallow a certain amount of instinctual alarm, no matter how charming the dashing.

playground sprinkler run croppedMy intuitive response is too protective, and I have to correct for that, consciously, by thinking.

Still, again and again, when we talked about playground risk in staff meeting, we all wound up agreeing that we had to follow our intuitions. I can hear a more experienced and very wise colleague saying, “If something feels wrong, stop it first, and then think it through. Every time we ignore our intuition, something bad happens.”

Can you feel the enhanced conflict there, for me or anyone like me? If your intuition is overprotective, you learn to disregard it, to some extent–and that leaves you vulnerable.

I keep remembering Mikey coming down the snow-slicked slide, about to fracture his wrist as he broke his fall when he reached the ground. It happened so fast. If both time travel and stop motion had been available to me, I’d have been able to go back into that moment: to factor in the extra slipperiness provided by snow, along with the thinness of the snow cover, providing no real protection against the frozen bark chips at the bottom of the slide, nearly as hard as concrete. I might, no matter what, have trusted Mikey’s own astonishing physical intelligence. But Mikey was young, still learning what he needed to know to be safely someone so fast, someone for whom motion was so fluid and so full of joy.

His wrist healed. He was also one of the ones killed in a car accident, years later, on his way to a ski team event, so all my stories about him have a special poignancy. Nobody had done anything reckless; it was just the wrong intersection on the wrong slippery day.

It’s hard for anyone to judge the costs and benefits of physical risk for young children, for young adults like the ski team or the lost climbers, for one’s self. Nobody, no parent, no teacher, no coach, can do that right every time.

Meanwhile, our goal must always be to empower kids, and teach them, to judge risk for themselves. If we decide to close the slide preemptively, whenever it’s fast with snow and there’s no bump-buffer at the bottom, we need to explain why, in a way that shares with kids what we know about practical motion physics.

(My husband routinely threatens to stop traffic and hold a quick class for all the nearby grown-ups, on how the force of a collision increases much faster than an increase in the speed. It varies, in fact, as the square of the speed. I’ve heard the lecture.)

playground kids climbing cropped

A kid at Farm School, learning to climb down. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)

On the playground and at the park and in the backyard, just as in the classroom or at the dinner table, we need to teach skills, and give kids time to practice skills: not just the jumping or throwing or climbing skills for a particular game, but also the subtler skill, gained only through practice, involved in thinking while moving. Thinking about what’s slippery and the ways slipperiness can change kinetic action; thinking about where your body will be in another few seconds; thinking about other bodies in motion besides your own.

playground motion at farm school cropped

In the playground of life, as I stand and watch and savor the wonderful blur around me, I wind up seeing and appreciating what I saw in school: we each bring many kinds of mental energy to whatever we do, including paying attention. We bring intuitive energy, that lets us notice things and understand them without even trying, the way Bill Bradley knew where the basketball was in relation to his own position, every moment he spent on the court. We bring analytical energy that lets us think through the math problem of the action at hand in a more systematic way. We are so lucky, as a species, to be able to use reflective energy, to  look at experience and learn from it and then remember.

Meanwhile, each of us is different, with a different way of weaving those energies (and others) together. I’ve known kids–and adults–who could judge and ration physical risk with exquisite accuracy, until the game involved social interaction and negotiation also. I’ve known other adults like me, climbing up a tree in a burst of enthusiasm and then freezing, needing the Jackie Lockney voice to playground Jackie Lockney croppedhelp them solve the step-by-step and hand-hold by hand-hold problems involved in getting back down–and needing to do that both in slow motion and with the help of a pal.

At this point, I believe truly that there’s no shame in living any of those variations, only in not growing within whatever combination of energies you have. I need to listen to people who don’t see physical risk my way, because I have things to learn from them–but the reverse is true also. Every year I last, I can say with more certainty that there’s nobody here but us goofers, and with the best intentions in the world we will all make mistakes, and need the mercy of others’ forgiveness, and our own.

With any luck, parents’ wisdom about all these things grows and deepens, as we help each child become her own person-in-motion-with-an-active-brain. We watch with both sober concern and wild grateful joy.

And when the time comes, sooner than anyone can believe, we take a deep breath, and hand over the car keys.

Kidnapped schoolgirls held in the light

I keep thinking about the kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls. I find it increasingly difficult to trust international news, but last month roughly 200 girls were taken, one way or another, as pawns in some complicated political drama, and as I write they have not been returned. From far away, I try not to worry, which is useless; I try to hold them in the light.hope--candle another edit

Right now, I am following the Quaker practice called “holding in the light” for a number of people. My interpretation of holding in the light may well vary from that of Quakers you know (or from your own practice.) As it works out for me, the practice involves holding hope, but keeping that hope faithful to the situation, open to what I don’t know yet, and wise about the ways all of us must accept natural change.

With no belief in magical dimensions, I still send my spirit, send whatever strength I know. Ultimately, to hold someone in the light involves staying attentive to challenging realities–not shrinking away from people just because what they’re experiencing is hard and I don’t know their answers.

The Nigerian girls are in life-threatening trouble, and they are strangers to me, strangers in layer after layer of life’s realities. But for various reasons, like so many others around the world, I feel called to their trouble.

Most of the people I’m holding in the light these days are people I know.

hope--swimmer editedI’m thinking of past students who are making big transitions, graduating from Touchstone, high school, or college. Some are in the process of moving from schools supportive of special needs into other schools that can’t afford to be, within their current structuring. I hold all these journeying students in the light and wish for them awareness of promise, no matter what. I wish them both courage and the joy of discovery; both thoughtful care and exhilarating flight.

Oddly enough, that’s what I wished for them every day, when I spent every day with them.

hope--boatSome of the people I’m thinking of have recently experienced a loss, and now face a huge absence in their lives. Some are struggling with long-term illness, and some are just surprised, again and again, to have become old, surprised that their reward involves working so hard–physically, emotionally, socially, spiritually–to navigate all the changes that come with having survived (and thrived!) so long. I hold all these travelers in the light, and wish them both self-possession and continued openness to whatever communities support them and need them. I wish them the energy to make their journeys with dignity and grace.

I’m also holding in the light some people I know who are learning to navigate new relationships and responsibilities, parenting for the first time, or parenting two kids for the first time, living in a committed couple and feeling all those mixed blessings, or moving into a new community. I watch them practice new skills of listening, of risking, of embracing, and I wish them energy for all that.

hope--tiny swimmerThere, too, it’s much like what I was doing when I went through the alphabet of my class. That was my first task when I was given a finally-for-sure new class list. I memorized it–using first names, after the year I first taught twins. I asked myself many questions, child by child, in that recurring ritual of going through the list in my mind, while driving, while doing dishes, while standing on the playground for recess duty. Two of the most important questions always seemed to be: how can I help this child belong to herself? How can I help each child belong to the group and collaborate to create and nurture the group? Name by name, I held them in the light, as travelers moving forward together.

For some people, what I’m describing would be a prayer list. In fact, it is what I do when I find myself in a church (as a singer, generally, or as a mourner.) Maybe it’s some form of shamanism I practice, some very decentralized life of the spirit. For example, crossing the Connecticut River several times each week, I reach out to its power, and send some to the people I know who need energy to let go and swim in the rivers and brooks of their lives.

Or energy to hold onto whatever sapling they are holding in a flood.

Always, some are strangers, these people to whom I send whatever I am sending. Right now, some are in terrible peril, in places I cannot visualize, across an ocean, on a continent and in a country that has always fascinated me, but where I have never set foot. Those Nigerian schoolgirls have been rendered powerless to a degree I’ve never known. Their identities appear to have been reduced to their physical, sexual bodies, by people for whom they are something colder than strangers; they are tools.

In the face of all my ignorance about them, in the face of my own wave of fear and rage when I think of them, I hold them in the light.

The girls’ kidnappers say that they kidnapped them from their school because education for girls is wrong. (The same group appears to be resisting one of Nigeria’s biggest oil companies, and that’s part of what makes me a little wary of taking the story at face value.)

It’s true that education for girls threatens traditional roles for women, because those roles have so often required unthinking submission to rules that did them harm. I get into a snarl every time I start to ponder this, because I value many things about traditional cultures, and mistrust many of the forces that seek to undermine them. Reading Kirkpatrick Hill’s novels about girls in Alaskan tribal groups, thinking about their struggles with the rules for their behavior–and especially with the ways they were defined as danger to the hunt or to the harvest–I also respect Hill’s portrayal of the ways those rules were softened and mediated by relationships, by mutual knowledge, by family and community.

I wind up wondering whether traditional ideologies aren’t most dangerous when the family and community relationships that mediated them have been disrupted. I don’t expect all my readers to agree with me, but I see traditional culture, as well as family and community coherence, under siege by mindless giant corporate profit motive, by blind greed that gives itself no way to see or listen, everywhere in the world. I wonder: could it be easy to think that fighting against the corporate monoliths requires a return to the worst aspects of tradition, the most brutal patriarchy? Or maybe thugs are just thugs, wherever and however.

Here’s what I know for sure. Supporting education for girls–supporting authentic education for anyone–requires the courage to let go of traditional arrangements, and a commitment to a change process that listens to everyone’s needs, values everyone’s possibilities, and moves forward by mutual consent. But that takes skills, practical skills, that many people have had little chance to practice. And there are always interests which don’t value teaching people to think independently, and to act together.

At this point, most of the ways I support education for girls, and authentic education for all, do feel like prayer–simultaneously remote and heartfelt. For one thing, week after week I write this blog with no idea where it will travel. I continue to support Planned Parenthood, working for full, rich, empowered lives for both women and men all over the world. I support and applaud A Mighty Girl, helping my granddaughter see herself as Super Julia.

I don’t have much money with which to support these organizations; I support them chiefly by passing on their perspective in whatever ways I can.

Planned Parenthood recently posted on Facebook their hopes for the “world we want”, in which all those girls are restored to their families. In my own hope, I wish those girls courage to take action for themselves, to grab the chance to flee however they can. I wish their captors courage to see the evil of what they are doing, to release those girls to their families and their teachers.

I add a hope that if and when they are returned, the girls do not become victims who are blamed for their own suffering, as victims are so often blamed out of the shame and cynicism of those who’ve harmed them.

I hold those far away girls in the light, and wish them some way to sing with gladness, soon.

hope--Grammy school[For illustrations in this post, I rummaged in my boxes and binders to find some talismans I kept near my desk in my classroom: a paper candle saved from those we put up around the room when Dana was in her coma–since real candles would have set off the smoke alarms; an anonymous watercolor I fished out of the trash, of a girl swimming with a red kick-board; another watercolor, similarly rescued, of a boat near an evergreen-lined shore; a baby learning to swim, with a hopeful face and carrot red hair; and finally, here, since turned into a house, the tiny one room school in which my grandmother taught, on the shoulder of Mt. Blue in Maine.]

Deadlines and challenges

Jackie Lockney, amazing Touchstone physical education teacher, advocates something she calls “Challenge by Choice.” She helps students identify the skill–or the level of participation in a game, or the form of safe risk-taking–that they can move into when they’re ready, and she gives them whatever support they need–but they get to choose, kid by kid.

Jackie can talk a kid through a climbing element high in a pine tree, in a way that has felt almost supernatural to me when I’ve observed it. Not many people with Jackie’s personal physical skills can enter the mind of a kid who freezes, physically, unconsoled by the safety harness and line, and unable to talk himself or herself through–the kid who can only take that kind of risk with a copilot.

Out of her sight, without her even knowing, I’ve sometimes borrowed Jackie’s coaching-from-the-ground voice, to help myself get back on my bicycle, or tackle a mess.

Of course, we don’t always get to choose our challenges. People close to me are facing hard things right now, things they chose only in the sense that they agreed to love each other.

As teachers, we can’t always offer our students total flexibility or total choice in the timing of challenges. The deadline of an announced performance date always becomes a kind of emergency, no matter how carefully we plan the preparation. Teachers feel terrible, sometimes, putting kids on the spot by saying weeks ahead of time–the way we must–that a class will share some finished product on a given night.

On the other hand, here’s my image of what can result from that leap of faith–a physical expression of this class’s pride and relief at being done with their individual presentations for the Alhambra Banquet. I wish I could share the sound clip of whooping joy.

Alhambra cheer

Teachers need to take risks outside their teaching, in situations in which they themselves are fully the ones at risk. Especially in the beginning, every time I agreed to read poems publicly I knew the benefit of putting myself in my students’ place. I felt that even more whenever I participated in a class or workshop, and had to follow someone else’s directions, or perform a task with others watching. (In one math workshop in Maine, with the leader standing next to me, I completely lost my memory of how to use a graphing calculator. Gone.)

I took a risk this past month, agreeing to be one of several poets who are writing poems in response to sculptures, for a special online chapbook associated with the exhibit’s website. Here’s the big risk for me: less than two weeks for the writing and revising. What’s so risky? My usual process as a poet involves months, often years, of revision. To produce something on this schedule has been like writing in a completely different genre–as if I’d worked in fabric for decades and suddenly tried to work in clay.

One side-effect: an unusually long gap between blog posts. Nobody is hollering, but I’m worried, for my own sake, that after too long a break I’ll forget how to get back on this horse, too.

On the other hand, I’ve learned some things, launching myself out of my comfort zone this way.

The process of revision that means so much to me, within which I invariably learn and grow, consists of a conversation among various versions of myself, with an odd commitment to democracy and equality among those selves. Facing this deadline, I’ve been figuring out short-cuts for staging that conversation among selves, without waiting for years to go by.

For one thing, I’ve hollered for help, showing drafts of the poem much earlier than I usually would, to family members and to fellow Every Other Thursday poets. They’re not different versions of me, of course, but they trigger different versions, as I respond to their thoughts.

I’ve also pushed hard on something I’ve always known: that I could bring a different mind to a piece of writing, maybe especially a poem, by taking it with me somewhere outside my house. I’ve experienced breakthroughs for these sculpture poems while listening to 50’s and 60’s rock in the vintage McDonald’s on the Massachusetts turnpike; also listening to spring peepers near the Milford bike path; also in a nearby greenhouse tea-shop; also while listening to the sleeping breath of my youngest grandson, staring out at the hemlocks behind his house.

Obviously I’ve had to do some express writing (and express risk-taking) for this blog, too. No, it’s not death-defying, but I know myself better than you do; I’m up a pretty high tree, on this also.

What are these sculptures about which I’m writing? They’re sculptures by Boston area artists, in a show organized by the Energy Necklace Project at the Jackson Homestead in Newton, Massachusetts. They’re stunning. Here’s a detail from one of the pieces about which I’m writing, a fiber piece by Linda Hoffman and Margot Stage, called Forest Fall.

100_0807And here’s another, Reaching Hand, concrete cast from clay by Peter Kronberg:

100_0830If you follow this link, you can see the official photographs for the whole show.  The artists I heard speaking, at the exhibit opening, intrigued me with their descriptions of process, and moved me with their stories.  If we have good weather, the poets will walk from sculpture to sculpture, reading, on June 1st.

And any hour now–really soon–I’ll decide that I’ve done the best I can to live up to the sculptors’ work and courage, and I’ll let go of the poems they inspired. I’m planning to have my surrogate Jackie Lockney voice at hand when I press send.

Black Studies

Whenever I imagined no longer teaching at Touchstone, I knew that I would leave some thematic explorations without ever having arrived at the level of understanding I wanted, for the kids, or for me. Here’s one topic like that–really a set of topics: the economic expediency and cruelty of the slave trade; the Civil War and its complicated relationship with the eventual abolition of slavery in the United States; the Civil Rights Movement and the long, unfinished struggle to translate that legal abolition into true equality of rights and opportunities, a truly inclusive democracy.

I do feel good about some of what we did, and particularly about my students’ wholehearted openness to every attempt. Beginnings can be seeds for growth–so in the next post, I’ll describe some of what we tried, for whatever help it can provide to learners and teachers continuing to think about these things.

In this post, I’ll share a few of the sources for our initiatives.

First, though, why did this matter so much to me? Why was it hard to feel satisfied? In trying to figure out engaging and faithful ways to teach about these aspects of United States history and our present, I wasn’t just being conscientious. The drive to do justice to these topics has deep emotional roots in my own childhood experience, which included, among other things, some integrated schools at a time when they were unusual.

Not that everything was working well there. For part of elementary school I attended a tiny two-room rural school along with the children of black farm workers, many of whom had only recently stopped being migrant laborers, and had settled in our potato country year-round. I could tell much more than a post’s worth of stories about how my parents’ relatively liberal attitudes framed my child’s-eye-view, and left me perplexed. When I was still very young I learned, from an unofficial part of the curriculum, that the world was not fair, and was less fair for some people than for me. I also got to know those kids, at least a little.

My high school was integrated in the way many high schools are now: everybody going through the same big doors, but minimal mixing in most classes. Only some of the white kids took the college prep classes, and a few black kids did, too—so the segregation I observed was not absolute, but complicated, with white privilege everywhere visible and nowhere acknowledged.

Chorus, open to everyone, I loved. But the select group that sang at Rotary was almost entirely white. Most of the people who post on the ‟Remembering…” page on Facebook are white. A little informal reunion a few years back was entirely white. Something that almost didn’t happen–but did happen, also–feels lost.

I haven’t lived in that place since I was twenty, and I’ve been storing up questions ever since–including questions about the things I worried about but never challenged–or took part in and never challenged. And of course I’m leaving out the hardest things to tell.

That kind of unresolved partial knowledge can be a good place to start a careful poem—or a really careful curriculum exploration.

I hope it’s obvious what I mean by careful. I never told my students about the details of my experiences at any of those ages, because I knew how much emotional whammy they packed for me. I sought out sources for us to share that would be as inclusive as possible in their views. I treated myself as another learner who had been at it a little longer—with no other authority than that.

I did have some great help, starting with wonderful literature for children and young adults written by African American authors–with the beginnings of a good collection of these left in my classroom library by the previous teacher at my level, Christine Lindeman. There are so many places online and elsewhere to get help finding these books, if you need it; I’m not going to try to duplicate that, beyond sharing a link or two. (Here’s another link, to an online bookstore specializing in books that show people of color from the whole world, but especially African Americans.)

Freedom-s-Children-Levine-Ellen-9780380721146I made frequent use of a collection of oral histories called Freedom’s Children, in which African-American adults looked back on their involvement, as young black Southerners, in the desegregation struggles of the late 50’s and 60’s. Kids the ages of my students (average age, 11) or only slightly older–or in some cases even younger–played important roles in history, sometimes choosing that, sometimes thrown into it. My students were fascinated.

Many people who live in Massachusetts don’t seem to know about the Mass Moments published by MassHumanities, but they are a gold mine for teachers, and for anyone who wants to know more about the political, social, and cultural history of the state and our country. You can get the eMoment links delivered in your email, daily, and I know several people who live outside Massachusetts who nonetheless read them all.

Here’s a link to a recent eMoment about the first arrival of slaves in Massachusetts. Here’s another about Malcolm X’s years in Massachusetts. Almost all the eMoments have further links to online sources, and/or information about other published sources. Some, including the eMoments about African-American history, are supported with special materials for teachers.

Beginning with the Mass Moments and working out into materials linked to or cited by them, I learned more than I’d ever been taught, or even read on my own, about slavery in the north. I learned about Mum Bett, who got help from a white lawyer to sue for her own freedom, and won, in one of several cases that led to the abolition of slavery within Massachusetts. I learned about the ways the northern colonies (and then states) continued to profit (hugely) from slavery, even after we had outlawed it within our own borders.

I learned more about the high-profile abolitionists whose names I already knew, but also about other people prominent at the time and completely unknown to me, such as David Walker, an important black abolitionist and writer. I learned about slaves who fled to the part of North Carolina liberated by northern troops, including troops from Worcester. Some of those emancipated slaves came north to join Worcester’s small black community, with support from the parishioners of several abolitionist Worcester churches.

The history I learned in school was dominated by big names and dates and too much to memorize; as a result I took a pass on history in college, and may never stop regretting that. But the history I have explored on my own–with the help of resources like MassHumanities–has led me more and more into imagining the lives of ordinary people, and I have found that deeply rewarding.

First FruitsBecause all this matters to me in a way beyond teaching, I’m now reading First Fruits of Freedom, by Janette Thomas Greenwood, a Clark University professor whose research helped open up that Worcester abolitionist history. That led me to a great blog, rich with primary sources, called After Slavery.

Turning in a different direction, I decided to reread Virginia Hamilton’s YA novels about the Underground Railroad in Ohio, beginning with The House of Dies Drear.

Last year I heard the poet Martha Collins read from her book White Papers, an exploration of white privilege triggered in part by her father’s memory of a lynching in the town in which she grew up. Meanwhile, a Touchstone colleague got me started reading a blog by Tressie McMillan Cottom, a young black sociologist, and I’m linking here her recent post about historically black colleges and universities.

I’m not planning curriculum for young adolescents right now, and not sure that I will again. So where am I heading with all this? It’s possible that I am just trying to grow into the kind of better-informed citizen we need, in order to build that truly inclusive democracy I dream of. I’m not done with my own education.

Teaching—including the teaching of oneself—is a relay race. Except it’s not a race. Just a relay. Anyway: here, pass it on.

What Students Need

I’ve written before about Marjorie Weed, at the end of the post “In Praise of Colleagues.” But now I’ve got a photograph.

When Mrs. Weed retired from teaching art to high school students, one of her alums–having become a Touchstone parent–recruited her to come to Touchstone as a volunteer. Marjorie agreed to try teaching younger kids, on the condition that the classroom teachers would stay with their classes during their art sessions. She didn’t want to have to fuss over behavior.

Oh happy condition! My students didn’t need much fuss at all, so I almost always did the project of the day along with them.

I learned a lot about art and the making of art, much more than I can summarize here.

I also learned about my students, watching them explore Mrs. Weed’s suggestions. Here’s a favorite memory: Harry, painting, saying things like, “Oh! I didn’t know that would happen! That’s so cool! What if I try… This is terrific…” With a burbling stream of running commentary, he cheered himself on. In years to come, faced with one of those kids who kept running down his own efforts, I would attempt little imitations of Harry, making it clear that Harry was way cool, a model anyone could be proud to imitate. (You can definitely try this at home.)

Meanwhile, I also learned about myself. Visually I’m too conscious; the best assignments for me thwarted that, pulled the rug out from under me, made accurate representations impossible. When Mrs. Weed said, “Watch for happy accidents!” she was talking to me along with the kids.

I can also get carried away with the fun of making something, and not know when to stop. In a terrible memory from second grade, we were finger painting, and I just kept adding color, more and more glorious color. It all turned to mud, of course, and the teacher threw out my paper. By contrast, Mrs. Weed would sidle up to me and say, “Don’t do another thing! You’re done!”

I thought she was a genius, and tended to obey. This was interesting for my students to observe.

So I’m thrilled to have unearthed a photo of Mrs. Weed. In this view, we’ve been wrapping plaster-soaked mesh around each others’ hands, and Mrs. Weed is getting ready to help remove one of the finished casts. (Maybe somebody else can remember what we did next, inspired by the photo.)

Mrs. Weed with kids

Marjorie Weed no longer teaches nine or ten classes a week, but she still shows up at school for guest appearances. Watching her in the last few years, I’ve tried to put into words, just for myself, her sense of what students need–but it isn’t about words. Her teaching behavior appears to be shaped by her sense that students need, more than anything verbal–and as quickly as possible–direct physical interaction with the materials of art: the heat of curing plaster, the textures of paper and paint and clay, the various ways of hitching two objects together.

In the private videos of my memory, instead of telling kids how to create a targeted product, Marjorie tended to set them loose in the exploration of a process. “Get messy!” she’d say. “Pay attention!”

But she didn’t mean “Pay attention to me!” She meant, “Pay attention to the stuff in your hands, and what it’s doing.”

Thinking about Marjorie Weed’s sense of what kids need, I went back into my notebooks, to find something I wrote before the start of school, in one of my earliest years of teaching. I wrote the original by hand, in a hotel room in Montreal, on a late summer trip with my family. Later, I kept photocopying the handwritten version to put it into each new year’s notebook. Here I’ve chosen to type it in italics, to show that I’m quoting that long ago person who was me.

Like any student work sample, this is a moment in time, in which I tried to distill what I was learning–from incredible colleagues, and from the incredible luck of working in a place where teachers could really learn from observing the kids themselves. Just a moment–but one of those moments to which I found it useful to return, again and again.

Thinking about the first weeks: What do the kids need–and what do I need–from those first days?

1.  They need a sense of WHO the class is, and who in the class will be friends for them, and how urgently they’ll need particular friends–whether the class as a whole will feel friendly, whether they’ll feel marginal or included, what patterns and formats there will be for interaction with each other and me. They need a sense, each one, that I’m going to like and appreciate and notice and understand them.

2.  They need a sense of WHERE–a sense of the room and what’s in it and what’s possible there, given the room as a micro-version of the world. How does the room interpret the world for them? They need to begin to know where to find things, begin to make their desks their own. [Later that became crates, when desks were replaced with tables.] They need to figure out traffic patterns, to carry an image of the room in their minds, if that matters to them.

3.  They need a sense of WHEN things will happen, especially because the schedule is different this year. [One way or another, it was different almost every year.] In the situations in which the sequence of their activities isn’t under their control, they need some sense of my reasoning and my own constraints. Where they do have control, they need to know the parameters and alternatives, and begin to sense their own priorities. They need to begin to feel the rhythm of the day so they can be in synch with it, and many of them need this in a visceral, unconscious, nonverbal way.

4.  At some point in each day, each of them needs:

  • the experience of contributing to the group, helping the group happen and being recognized for that;
  • an “aha!” experience, an experience of discovery, an encounter with something new;
  • an experience of personal “academic” competence and control.

They need a sense of WHAT we’re going to do together and HOW they’re going to grow, a sense of our collective purposes. 

Rereading that from my current distance, I’m struck by the intensity of the responsibility I perceived and accepted–and by the ways I already understood that the classroom community would share that responsibility, and grow in the process.

I’m also struck by the ways I had come to trust the nonverbal arrangements of the room and the schedule, the where and when, to support us.

From De Feustal I had learned to support kids through structure in space, the arrangement of the room. I tried to provide areas with more and less freedom of movement, more and less visibility to the rest of the room.

From Ginny Scherer I had learned to support kids through structure in time, to plan the schedule as a rhythm, with changes that would support kids’ energy–times to take the world in, times to be expressive; times to move, times to be still.

I had watched De and Ginny use these nonverbal cues brilliantly, minimizing the need to intervene verbally in working with their five to seven-year-olds. Day by day and year by year, I was figuring out how to apply that with my ten and eleven and twelve-year-olds.

So, this post could also be titled In Praise of Colleagues: the Sequel. It could have a very long title: what a verbal person, a talker and writer, learned about how to use nonverbal cues more effectively while teaching, and how grateful she was for her teachers. (And how she could teach for another 25 years and still be learning those lessons.)

Ellis Island Stories

 On one of my first trips to Ellis Island, with my family, we were part of the annual surge of people into the national parks, on the day after Thanksgiving. (‟Highest attendance, nationwide,” the rangers told us.)

ellis island hallMoving from exhibit to exhibit in that throng, I overheard an older woman telling her companions about her own father’s journey to America, alone, at the age of 12. As she stood above the Great Hall, where people were sorted–allowed in or refused and sent away–stories she had heard all her life took on new shape.

On the ferry back to New Jersey, listening to all the languages around us, I leaned over to my husband and asked, ‟How many?” and he listened for a few minutes and said, ‟Maybe twenty?” We were surrounded by another pilgrimage, a pilgrimage of new immigrants, come to honor that shrine of the old immigration.

None of our own close relatives came through Ellis Island—his mother came after the island was closed; my ancestors, like the rest of his, came centuries ago, when nobody was counting or checking or manning the gate in any way; when people just came.

Still, the story we felt around us is universal—all those people, in all their languages, were saying so—and we were deeply moved.

The parents of my students helped me figure out how to get us there, from our distance in Massachusetts. The first time, Gail Epstein and David Tapscott arranged for us to stay with relatives near New York City, taking over their rooms in a giant sleepover. (Thus the comment–in the recording below, that shows part of our debriefing session once we got back–about not stepping on anyone.)

ellis island debrief higher contrast

Another year, Carol Bedrosian, now the editor of Spirit of Change, arranged a bus for a day trip, and helped the class throw a car-wash to defray some of the costs. It was a very long day. We left from Grafton at 5:30 am, and returned about midnight. Still, it worked, and we used that way of getting to Ellis Island many more times.The trip book–a combined guide and workbook, the sort of thing teachers can create and use in the wonderful age of photocopying–included games to play on the bus. We chose a video to watch on the way home, and the few kids who didn’t pass out cold in extremely odd positions watched along with the adults.

The bus had more room than we needed, and cost a fortune, so we invited parents and grandparents to join us and help cover the cost. Making this a multi-generational field trip had all sorts of benefits. Kids got to know each others’ parents; parents got to know their children’s friends. Especially on the way home, as children slept, parents told each other (and me) their own families’ stories, deeply moving, often full of sorrow and darkness along with hopes fulfilled. With all those generations bearing witness, we settled more deeply into some truths of our history.

When I decided to post here that debrief of the very first class trip, I knew I would have to tell the story of the guy reaching over the railing.

We were exploring in our small groups. My group was in the room with what I called immigration math, huge colorful 3D graphs and interactive maps, showing immigration trends across time. I had designed a day that would echo our day at school: math time in the math room; reading and writing time in the galleries full of photographs; sketching time in a gallery full of the actual objects immigrants had brought with them, candlesticks and prayer books, christening dresses and lockets. Recess time we spent outside, looking for our own relatives on the wall of names, watching the seagulls. All of this was meant to help us feel ourselves mid-harbor, mid-history, mid-melting pot.

Lucy Candib, medical doctor and mother of Addie, was with me there in the math room with our group of four or five kids. Suddenly, we heard the terrible sound of someone’s head hitting the stone floor in the entrance room behind us. A young man from another school had leaned out over the stair railing too far, reaching to a friend, and had tumbled down to the floor below. Lucy was the first person at his side. I saw him on a stretcher, apparently unconscious, as rangers waited for a helicopter to fly him off the island.

All of us, every single one, including me, had to tell that story first, before anything else, when we got home late that night. I had to get past the ghost of that story in order to go back to Ellis Island with kids again. That incident made me tighten my organization for the trip, and recruit kids to be mindful of everyone’s safety. It forced me to think through (again) all the risks teachers take when we leave the classroom with kids, and all the reasons why we should, anyway—because the story of the young man who reached too far was not the only story we all had to tell when we got home, just the first.

Inspired by that woman on the balcony of the Great Hall, imagining her father, I had designed the immigration unit around true immigration stories of family members and friends, people still alive and people known only by the stories still told about them. Kids called uncles in California who knew that stuff; they interviewed their babysitters; they often found family artifacts and brought them in to share. In our work at school, students gathered these stories, distilled them into file card versions to put on a huge timeline stretching around the room, and chose one to write in full and revise for publication.

Always, in any particular class, a good portion of the kids, as many as half, had family stories that linked to Ellis Island–but the assignment didn’t specify that.

At Ellis Island Lewis Hine - Italian child gets her first penny, 1926Ellis Island, I asked the kids to make up a fictional story, also. In a room full of giant portraits of immigrants, near the entrance to the Peopling of the Americas exhibit, each student chose a person from one of the photos: boys and girls, women and men, from several continents.

ellis island photos writing croppedThen, as students moved from section to section in the exhibit, the trip book led them through the corresponding stages of the immigrant experience: a section about saying goodbye, when they left their old homes; a section about finding work; a section about communities of immigrants giving each other comfort and reassurance. After reading some of the text on the walls, looking at the photographs, and listening to recorded accounts on phones placed around the exhibit, each student wrote a journal entry in the voice of his or her chosen person, bearing them through the experience, stage by stage. To the right, Ian Wills and IanTapscott have found a comfortable piece of floor. Below, Mike Costa reads what he’s already written.

ellis island mike costa croppedSometimes a kid chose a photograph that could be a stand-in for a great-great-grandmother or grandfather. Sometimes they chose photographs that could be stand-ins for themselves. Stefan Cunha chose a newsboy yelling out across a street–and for all these years since I have remembered the clarity and power of his writing in that situation.

By the time we got back onto the ferry to leave Ellis Island, each of us was like a set of Russian dolls, with other lives nested inside us: the boy who discovered that the immigrants had come to earn their way into this country with unbelievably hard work; the girl who was let through Ellis Island but had to say goodbye to her father; the aunt who could never fully emerge from the trauma, the shadow, of the pogroms; the teenager who became the family’s translator exactly at the age when he wanted independence; the mother with her children held close all around her, hollow-eyed, all of them hungry and hoping to be better fed.

Ellis Island was hard hit by Hurricane Sandy; it’s only gradually being reopened, and I’ve worried that exhibits I treasured, as a teacher, may have been lost. Even before that, security arrangements put in place after the World Trade Center bombings had so lengthened the process of getting onto the island that it no longer worked for us as a day trip. Meanwhile, I had been learning about Blackstone Valley immigration stories, and had discovered the Museum of Work and Culture in Pawtucket, Rhode Island–not at all the same, but fascinating in its own way. The focus of our work in the fall gradually shifted.

It’s fair to say, though, that all my curriculum work afterward was affected by the Ellis Island field trip experiences, and by the thematic study that grew around them. Looking back I can see shifts: in my sense of what is at stake in curriculum choices; in my sense of the huge and complicated realities young adolescent students can stretch to embrace; and in my sense of the importance of combining, carefully and respectfully, both research and imagination.

Below, Adam Curley and I are too excited to sit down, while various parents huddle and talk in the October wind across the harbor.

ellis island photos ferry cropped

You’d have a hard time tracking people down with these photographs, from several of the earliest trips–so I decided to just go with them. Thanks so much, to everyone who helped these wonderful field trips happen!


Absence and presence

In the end, it’s not really the topic of grades that’s so huge for me— It’s the topic of no grades: what can happen, what I’ve seen happen, in their absence.

graduation JuliaThis is Julia Miller, who graduated from Touchstone long enough ago that she’s about to graduate again, from high school. Behind her, draped on the greenhouse, you can see the flag her Older Student Program group made the previous fall, just before going on their fall hiking trip. If you look closely, behind Julia’s right elbow, you can see the word CREATIVITY and the beginning of the word RESPONSIBILITYtwo of the values that group chose as their watchwords for the year. She’s about to dance–

graduation julia dance cropped–mostly as a joke, but I love the way this photograph shows her blooming along with the petunias, and reaching for the literal and figurative skies.

As they go through their experience, students in an ungraded situation aren’t thinking, “no grades no grades no grades.” They’re making connections from topic to topic and theme to theme and school to home (and vice versa); they’re trying out different voices and different genres and new strategies for understanding the world; they’re thinking a lot about the community of each other.

Teachers who aren’t giving grades aren’t thinking “no grades no grades no grades.” They’re making connections themselves, learning about their topics, watching and planning for ways to include other adults and experiences outside the classroom; imagining the world of each student from inside that student’s perspective; nourishing the community that can do more for each individual than any teacher’s plans.

As we went along, the missing grades barely figured in what I said about the teaching and learning I shared with each year’s class. At parent meetings, I never said, “First, I want you to know that I’m not giving grades.” It was taken for granted, invisible.

Still, that absence of grades was constantly at work in the presence of other energies and outcomes.

I saw the benefits: for kids whose learning experience had never been assessed with grades; but also for kids who had come to my school after experience with grades elsewhere.

Now and then, a transplant–or his parents–couldn’t make that transition. Most were like people woken from a long and troubled sleep. They stretched; they looked around; slowly, or quickly, they became active, in a new way, in the scene of their lives.

Still, I don’t have available the experimental control, in which the same teachers worked with similar kids and gave grades. I don’t know how that would have worked for any of us.

Close friends have said that I would probably have blown all my fuses and quit; that I would have left teaching very early in the game, if I’d been forced to translate my students’ growth and learning into graded assessments.

I wonder: how many teachers have been driven out of teaching by the necessity of an activity ultimately so alien to their original hopes and intentions? How many others, not questioning grades, have nonetheless abandoned teaching out of disappointment with the state of mind grading has induced in their students? What have we lost with this attrition, these departures?

My own history meant that I didn’t take the absence of grades for granted. I first started questioning the effectiveness of grading long before I was a teacher, long before my husband and I went looking for schools for our children. I became skeptical of grades at a time when I was being graded myself, and getting good grades. Not always, but sometimes, I could feel how addictive that was; I could glimpse how few risks I was taking; I felt, often, the price of that labeling.

Beyond that, I remember watching the effects of grades on some of my friends. I knew their talents and strengths, and wondered why their grades didn’t represent them more accurately. In fact, there didn’t seem to be any way for some of my friends to live in their strengths, in the classrooms we were encountering. Looking back I can see how the learning was often shaped to be easily measurable, easily graded.

If you’ve read previous posts, you know that I had some wonderful teachers. I don’t blame them individually. I was in the first wave of the post-war baby boom, and our classes were large. To some degree, increased testing and grading pressure attempted to manage that suddenly increased demand.

Like them, still, many teachers don’t have a choice of not assigning grades. Some give the grades they have to give, but play down the importance of those grades in any way they can, putting their energy into those other products and outcomes I tried to describe in the previous post:

  • Teacher support, and student goal-setting, guided by targeted, individualized, meaningful assessments
  • Learners who know and understand and respect themselves as learners
  • Authentic and rewarding group learning
  • Deep meanings held in community
  • Powerful connections with significant content

One of those “teachers without a choice” lives under the same roof with me, and his frustrations were part of what finally goaded me into writing about not giving grades. So I want to end this series of posts, at least for the time being, with a nod to him and to all those teachers past and present, saddled with the obstacle of grades and making the best of it, for their students’ sake.

I think I’ve said this before, and I never forget it for a minute: I was lucky.

But that’s enough (finally, or at least for now) about no grades. Next time, I want to start thinking about structures to help teachers and students meet each other halfway, beginning, I think, with the seasonal feast of the Skimathon!

Five More Thoughts About Grading

The story so far: If the product of a learning experience takes the form of a grade, other possible products and outcomes have less reality and less power for the learner.

Voices speaking out against grades want to shift the focus of learners and teachers, to give priority to those other products and outcomes. I’m going to focus on just a few.

# 1  Teacher support, and student goal-setting, guided by targeted, individualized, meaningful assessments

Focused effort matters, and thoughtful assessment can support that. Very briefly, here are some of the kinds of feedback individual kids could come to expect in my classroom, in place of grades:

  • one-on-one working conferences to look at pieces of writing, reading comprehension progress, math quiz outcomes, etc.;
  • group mini-lessons based on common confusions or not-quite-there efforts or emerging possibilities or spontaneous break-throughs, acknowledging and moving forward from all those;
  • quick skills checks in the form of miniboard warm-ups;
  • written responses to specific assignments;
  • long narrative progress reports twice a year;
  • conversations in preparation for portfolio sharing, and the portfolio conferences themselves;
  • feedback from classmates, students in the wider school community, parents, and other adult audiences.

The previous post has examples of some of these. The feedback for students in younger classes varied from this in developmentally appropriate ways, but always with the same goals: not judgment, but celebration and support.

Each of these activities provided an opportunity for student and teacher to observe patterns in comprehension and skill, or difficulty, and to set goals both short-term and long-term. At the same time, each of these assessment activities was an opportunity to revisit, share, and reconsider the important questions inherent in our content.

#2  Learners who belong to themselves

I remember a conversation with the high-school-aged daughter of a friend. She told me about her classes for that year by telling me her grades. She couldn’t tell me what was interesting to her; couldn’t say what she wanted to learn next; couldn’t describe anything about her learning process. Her grades were high overall, and she assumed that the subject in which she was getting the highest grades should be her major in college.

This young woman didn’t belong to herself as a learner; she belonged to her grades, and to the people who were giving her those grades–even the people who were celebrating those grades.

Especially once we were able to keep students until they were ready for high school, people observing the graduates of my school have been struck by the way graduating 14-year-old kids belong to themselves–how clearly they know and understand and respect themselves as learners.

fall projects NateInstead of pinning their student identities on their GPA, students in ungraded situations learn how to work with their real identities as learners. They learn how to choose meaningful and sustainable challenges for themselves. They know how to manage their own attention, and what to do to sharpen their memories. There may be passages through which they struggle, but a lot of the time they’re having a blast. Above all, they know, for themselves, why it matters. To the left, checking and graphing temperatures.

#3  Authentic and rewarding group learning

Teamwork flourishes best when grades are out of the picture. When I’ve talked about the amount of group work happening in my class, people have often asked, “Don’t kids get distracted by working together? How can you tell who did what?”

I’d have to be crazy to deny that distraction happens sometimes, or that timid students can become dependent on others. Still, young adolescents are ready and eager to learn how to be teams.

as Tsongas 3At Tsongas Industrial History Center, these girls are constructing a working canal system model. As usual, museum educators  commented on how well students worked together–incorporating everyone’s ideas, sharing the dirty work on the floor.

At any age, effective group work doesn’t happen automatically. In order to get the huge benefits of several minds focused on the same task, complementing and helping and challenging each other, kids have to learn how to be task-focused and team-focused both at once; how to do the social work, the intellectual work, the creative work, and the procedural work all woven together.

Kids exposed to plenty of group projects in an ungraded situation get a terrific head start. Without grading to tell them they’re competing instead of collaborating, they learn how to stay balanced within the group process, and how to help the group stay balanced so it keeps on working for everyone.

If you want an argument against grades, focused on future success, you could start with that.

tracing watershed pathway croppedAbove: Working with a parent volunteer, students help each other figure out which direction the rivers are flowing on topographic maps.

Meanwhile, freed from generating grades, I could put time into helping groups design and choose tasks that would engage them, with topics and audiences that mattered to them. The resulting energy helped their bicycle built for two (or three or four) keep momentum.

Often, when sharing work in a portfolio conference, students mentioned their partners and teammates, and told about what each of them had contributed, as I set off quiet internal fireworks of celebration. Yes!

# 4  Deep meanings held in community

As humans, we seem to have evolved to construct meaning, and experience meaning, collectively.

Stonehenge.arp.croppedMany groups of students have been inspired by the collective power of the communities that built Stonehenge, and archaeologists’ ideas about the community events held there.

Archaeologists and paleo-anthropologists have found evidence of the power and importance of community life and community understanding, deep in the past history of our species–and even for the other hominin species before us.

Young adolescents work hard to begin to understand huge things: life and death, economic reality as they observe it, the concept of scale, the notion of one image symbolizing whole realms of experience. Whenever I asked groups of students what they’d like to understand better about the world, I was astonished anew at the ambition of their questions, knowing this at the same time: the really heavy lifting they can’t do alone, any more than adults can.

Lizzie Bright croppedIn my own most emblematic image of this, a group of learners listens to a challenging novel read aloud. As I write, I realize that I’m thinking particularly of Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy, a novel about racial prejudice in early 20th century New England, beautifully written by Gary Schmidt. Sharing a novel like this, the students build understanding together through their various comments and questions. Sometimes I sense their collective bravery in their silence for a tricky passage, or just after.

If somebody out there knows a way to assign grades to the quality of a shared group silence, let me know.

Now hold that in contrast to this: When individual achievement is the only test of an experience; when shared learning is considered cheating; when it’s constrained by the “level-playing-field” concept that requires teachers to do exactly the same things for every student; when teachers face such large classes that they have no way of knowing who’s doing what without completely isolated graded assessment–the deepest and truest parts of learning are hobbled, compromised, or outright lost.

It’s not impossible to nurture community, and the deep meanings community can hold, in the presence of a grading system–just harder. In fact, in my experience, over-emphasis on individual outcomes in any form–either grades or some supposedly benign substitute–works against the development of community, and the construction of shared meaning.

#5 Powerful connections with content

When grades aren’t the focus, content itself–the world!–gets more attention. The world is alarming to young adolescents–and to all of us–but also fascinating. Grades wind up being a smokescreen in the way of that fascination.

That’s what broke my heart about my friend’s daughter, mentioned earlier. She was experiencing very little actual engagement with the world and how it works and what we make of it. Her grades were like junk food, no fit substitute for actual encounters with the depth of time, or the mysteries of prime numbers, or the relationship between surface area and heat loss, or the way human history offers such contradictory evidence of both altruism and cruelty.

I think of a student long ago who wanted to read novels about the Holocaust. She had no assignment. She just kept coming back to me for more books, and talking about them to her classmates and parents. She was choosing her own path to a deeper understanding of the world.

Or I think of a student, now grown to a man, who used his sketchbook, during morning sketching time (which was completely open, unassigned), to make a very long narrative map, which continued from one two-page spread to the next, and the next, for months. The map as a whole incorporated everything that kid was noticing about the world through which he traveled: about geography, transportation, and the designs of buildings and other systems; about humor; about continuity and discontinuity.

Looking back, I remember now that this student’s family had just gone through an unusually messy divorce. His rehearsal of continuity in the built and natural worlds, page by turned-over page, feels tremendously poignant to me now. At the time, I was focused on his thinking and processing and creativity. But it seems likely, now, that the mapping was working for him on levels I couldn’t even guess. He gave himself the assignment that let him live in his intellectual strengths, and use those strengths to help him live through his family’s troubles.

Although he made me copies of some of the pages, I have no idea where they are. Hooray for memory so vivid and dear that it doesn’t need props. Hooray for learning so rich that no grade could encompass it. Hooray for the safe haven, also a highly effective launching pad, in which such work could happen.

I have a feeling I’m still not done with this topic…

Never, Nada, Zip, Zilch: No Grades

In the teaching and learning I’ve written about for this blog, some things never happened–things taken for granted in most schools. I was lucky.

For starters: because my school didn’t require me to, I never summarized my assessments of students’ work using grades. No number grades; no letter grades; none of the judgments about mastery (not as clear a concept as you might think) summed up in terms that are just grades thinly disguised. None, never, nada.

Alhambra Caroline and Isy croppedLike all my colleagues, I gave plenty of careful attention to student work. The students received many kinds of feedback, and even more kinds of support. Above all, in ways small and large, we celebrated the culmination of authentic learning.  But not with grades.

I was still a kid myself (and getting A’s) when I decided that grades were meaningless and dangerous. As an adult, I’ve been known to refer to grading as institutionalized child abuse.

Still, I’m used to the fact that people I respect may disagree. Occasionally, Touchstone families have decided they wanted grades, going somewhere else to get them. Other families have wished for the crispness of grades, but stayed for the quality of their children’s learning. Almost all our graduates have gone on to schools that use grades, and almost all of them have continued to belong to themselves and care most about meaning.

If you want to read essays about the uselessness (or outright harmfulness) of grades, track down the writings of Alfie Kohn. I think often of a less famous heroine, Meghan Southworth, a working math teacher and trainer for the Maine Mathematics and Science Alliance. She wasn’t able to eliminate all grades, because her school required them at the end of every quarter. In order to have some basis for those grades, she had to administer tests and other graded assessments, and record the results.

Here’s the kicker: she had stopped showing her students the grades they received through the term.

Instead, she continued to give her students written comments. I didn’t see hers, but I’m guessing they were a lot like mine: suggestions for ways to rethink problems, ways to improve quality control, ways to balance carefulness and momentum–along with acknowledgement of the kinds of engagement and effort, no matter how tentative, that can help a student move forward. Here’s a small sample of comments on a test:

math quiz comments croppedThis student was working to overcome test-taking anxiety,  and needed to focus on how close she was to the full answer. Thus “almost” instead of an X.

Like most teachers everywhere, Southworth wanted her students to improve, not just stay at the level of achievement they arrived with. She had noticed that they wouldn’t really absorb or use the support embedded in her comments, as long as the shortcut of a grade was available. She quoted a student who caught on to her new system very quickly: “Oh, you want us to read the comments instead of just looking at the grades!”

Southworth also cited research describing most students’ response to grades: “Is this what I’m used to getting?” If the student is used to getting A’s, and this is an A, no need to stretch. If the student is used to getting C’s, and this is a C, no need to worry.

To put this as harshly as I’ve sometimes felt it: If it’s a teacher’s job to sort kids into levels, grades make sense. If a teacher is meant to be a gatekeeper restricting access to future opportunities, ensuring a scarcity of qualified applicants for those opportunities, then grades make sense.

But if a teacher’s job involves paying attention to learners, understanding them, and working with them to help them grow, then grades aren’t worth much, and can actually get in the way.

Think about what freedom from grading meant for me and my students, as we worked together:

  • math work and progress croppedFreed from grading, I could put much of my energy into assessing what each child needed in order to make the best possible progress. I took lots of notes, and reviewed them less often than I thought I should, but often enough to keep my concerns and hopes for each student fresh.
  • We could make frequent and thoughtful use of student self-assessment. That’s awkward to incorporate into a grading system, but really important in helping students move forward.

math self-assess and my response croppedWritten quickly on the back of a math quiz, this is part of a student’s routine reflection on test-taking strategies and skills, with reading self-assessment croppedmy response.

Here are some of the sentence starters for a reading journal self-assessment, leading up to a portfolio conference.

  • My students and I weren’t in the more-or-less adversarial relationship that grading so easily encourages. Kids treading line-up cropped with Colin and Samended to be fully invested in the goals we had set together. So I got to hear them say things like this: “Something in me just rushes right through instructions, because I want to get started on the answers. So I’m trying to build the habit of stopping myself and reading the instructions again.” Or: “Now I can really understand what I’m reading, I get involved in what’s happening, and hate it when you say that reading time is over.” These are kids realizing what they need–habits of rechecking, reachable books–and figuring out that they can provide that for themselves.
  • Freed from grading that would imply class standing, we didn’t have to worry about an “even playing field.” I could help kids make individual choices of topics and materials comfortable enough to encourage confidence, interesting enough to inspire excitement, and challenging enough to nurture flexibility and pride. Like our physical education teacher, I aimed for “challenge by choice”–and I found that well-supported students motivated by genuine interest almost always aimed high.

nate with tube and vortex croppedThere had been a rage for home-made marble chutes, in a run of rainy-day recesses. This student worked on his own to explore a new idea, incorporating a toy vortex.

At a professional conference, another teacher asked me, “But why do kids work, if there’s no grade as a reward?” I didn’t actually burst into tears, but I felt some despair. We are in real trouble when teachers themselves have been conditioned to forget the intrinsic rewards of learning, the joy of feeling powerful as a learner, the genuine appetite kids bring to talhambra mattheir mutual effort to understand the world.

What about my own reward? Immeasurable. My students grew like weeds, not just physically but intellectually. They bloomed! That was the real delight, for me, in teaching at a school that disavowed grades: I got to watch kids learning like mad, bright-eyed and working tirelessly, full of the meanings in their learning and full of themselves, taking off and flying for their own reasons.

I wouldn’t trade that for nothin’. (Nada. Zip.)

I could not fit this topic into anything resembling my 1000 word target. So I’ve saved some aspects for another post: the relationship between grading (or not) and group work; ditto the development of class community. Also: in the absence of grading, kinds of feedback students could come to expect–and my continuing fascination with learning that happened in odd little corners (like rainy-day recess) where feedback wasn’t a factor.

Afterthoughts, Afterlinks, Resolutions, and Thanks

My most recent post, about math mentors and math fun, was the 25th on this blog. The calendar year is about to turn; I’m a little less than halfway through my year to think it over. Time for a mixed salad of quick thoughts, including some resolutions.

More math fun

First, it turns out that 2013 is not prime. All year I’ve wondered. Finally, this morning, I started scratching calculations on the back of an envelope. Then I went to the web to double-check, and found a prime factor calculator. That confirmed it, just in time:

goofygraphics2013I also checked 2014. That, too, is a product of three primes, but I’m not telling. (You know right off the bat what one of those primes has to be.)

After reading the previous post, Kate Keller said some really nice things, including, “Wait! You left out the birthday ritual!”

Kate’s remembering something we did whenever a birthday happened in my class. I started by writing the child’s new age on the big whiteboard: 11, or 12, or occasionally 13. Then I’d ask, “What can we say about the number —?”

Students responded in a variety of ways:

  • with cultural uses of the number. (“It’s a dozen!”) (“Some people think it’s unlucky, but they’re crazy…”)
  • with expressions that equaled the number: 3 x 4 = 12, or 14 plus -3 = 11, or much more complicated expressions coming out of our experience with Lloyd’s Game (described in the previous post.)
  • with a magic number sequence that started with the number and returned to the number.
  • with words that describe other properties of the number: it’s odd (or even); it’s prime (or composite); it’s a palindrome; it’s deficient or abundant or perfect.

These various statements, written on the whiteboard, both documented learning and provoked it. Although we focused on the same numbers again and again, the activity was repetitive only in the way ritual has to be repetitive: a pattern similar in every iteration, but never actually identical; a shared dance in which roles can change and change again; a bowl or basket or web for both familiarity and innovation.

If I forgot to include the number ritual in our celebration of someone’s birthday, or if we ran out of time before dismissal, the kids insisted that it be carried over to the next day. Remembering my students’ affection for the ritual, and remembering the way every student participated, I feel like I’m holding some important key to who they were, and are; something hard to put into words; a treasure.

For still more math fun, check out the YouTube channel of Vi Hart. Here’s a link to one of my favorites, the first in a sequence of three about plants and the Fibonacci sequence. “Ow!” one of my younger students said. “My head hurts! Play it again!”

vihartfib

More My Place

I’ve been tickled to have the posts about My Place get a steady trickle of hits from Australia, so I did some behind-the-scenes backtracking. In the process, I found a wonderful collection of material relating to Nadia Wheatley, with an author interview, curriculum plans, and reviews of some of her other books–and a link to my own post about My Place, down towards the bottom. Great stuff!

If I were teaching right now…

I would read aloud The Higher Power of Lucky, the first in a series of three novels about a girl named Lucky in a town named Hard Pan, in the Mojave Desert.

higherpowerofluckyb

Living in a very small town, Lucky has memorable friendships with both kids and grown-ups. She eavesdrops on twelve-step anonymous meetings, hoping to hear the advice she needs. She hopes seriously for an afterlife, because there are some questions she would like to ask Charles Darwin. (She has a dog named HMS Beagle.) She’s cranky and impulsive and imperfect and worth a million dollars, and she’s part of a new sub-sub-genre of realistic contemporary fiction for young adults, in which characters think about biological evolution and what it means, and interact sympathetically with adults who can’t or won’t.

“If” thought # 2: I would figure out how a class could use the latest book by Alice Roberts, the charismatic anthropologist and medical doctor who narrates a BBC video series (which we did use in class) called The Incredible Human Journey.

alicerobertsevolutionbAlice’s new book (we pretend to be on a first-name basis with her, in my household), published by Dorling Kindersley, is called Evolution: The Human Story.  It uses narrative, model reconstructions, photographs, illustrations and charts, to take the print medium’s slower-paced (but thrilling) look at the history of our species, starting with the Big Bang. Such a rich resource for a class to use!

A third “if” thought: I would explore the idea of privacy, which matters a lot to 11- and 12-year-old people, and keeps coming up in the news.

Resolutions

One of my most faithful readers wants to know why I haven’t yet written about some teaching and learning that was central to my teaching life:

  • about the evolution of life in general, and about human evolution more particularly;
  • about animal behavior and archaeology and the history of technology;
  • about immigration, both chosen and involuntary, in the history of our country and our communities and families;
  • about Islam and the Arab world and the history of Arab Spain;
  • about The Voyage of the Mimi, both the first and the second;
  • and about the making of Voyage to the Sea.

Instead of writing about evolution, I guess, I’ve been evolving. (I know; I’m using the word in two of its different senses.) Somehow I’ve had to work up to those topics, and also work down with them. They’re all so huge for me, giant human artifacts around which I’ve spent all these years crawling, like an ant in the jungle, climbing up and looking around whenever I felt brave, or whenever a student was nudging me onward.

However, I’ve just made that list. I’ve included some of it sideways, in this mixed salad post. I’m pledging myself to figure out ways of exploring those giant thoughts in 1000 word packets, before my year to think it over is over.

I welcome, and probably need, suggestions from readers who shared those themes with me as student or parent or colleague or cheerleader. If you were writing this blog, how would you tackle all that big stuff? Just askin’.

In an activity so solitary (except for the joyful throng of co-conspirators in my memory), tiny encouragements from the rest of the world mean so much! A quick note in an email, a side comment in the aisles at Colella’s, a post on a website generated on the other side of the planet, devoted to a much-admired author–each of these remind me that I’m really doing this, and parts of it matter to other people. Some of you have recommended the blog, or a particular post, to friends and relatives and colleagues, or on Facebook; some of you have written comments on the blog itself, invariably thought-provoking, nudging me and lifting me forward. For all that…

goofygraphicsthanksRecently, my daughter has been sharing a website or movement called Lean In, which encourages women to lean into their ambitions, to overcome fears and take risks, with each others’ support. I take a big breath and “lean in” every time I publish one of these posts, and I’m inviting you to lean in with me, women and men (and girls and boys)–whatever that may mean for you.