Straightjackets or Security Blankets?

“I think that I have a very strong, formal hand, but I like a certain amount of mess. That’s where life happens. That’s where birds can have habitat, where they can find shelter and food and water. So for me, having a landscape that is manicured and clipped to within an inch of its life isn’t as interesting because there’s not a lot of life there.” Margie Ruddick, award-winning landscape architect, quoted in Dwell, April 2014.

The year began a few weeks ago. Kids came pouring in through the front door, excited and noisy, happy to see friends and teachers. It didn’t take but a few seconds before someone said, “Indoor voices please!” and “Watch your language!”

And so began the reminders of what behaviours are expected at school. The establishment of routines begins day one, minute one.

To the uninitiated, routines often seem authoritarian and old fashioned. My brother-in-law, easy-going bachelor marine biologist, thought so. Several years ago, he had agreed to come and speak to my class about ocean animals. “I love kids,” he confided on our way to the classroom. “They have such natural curiosity and enthusiasm. No offense, but it’s really a shame how schools destroy that.”

I helped him set up his specimens at the front of the room, and when the kids arrived, introduced him.

“So,” he announced dramatically, “the first person up here gets to be my helper!”

There was a stampede. After several minutes, we finally had everyone settled back in their seats. Dave leaned over, wiped his brow, and said, “Could you PLEASE get me a coffee?”

I quickly went to the staffroom to grab a cup and hadn’t even poured it when I saw a student running down the hall with Dave in full pursuit.

“What the heck’s going on?” I said, sticking my head out of the staff room.

“The little *&@%$# stole my lobster!” he yelled. “Stuffed it down his pants! Then LIED about it!”

We managed to retrieve the lobster, but Dave’s perspective was forever altered.

“Kids are essentially evil,” he now maintains. (Uncle Dave is a bit dramatic. Granted, that WAS his favourite lobster.)

Consistent routines and expectations smooth the way for learning. But establishing those take time and patience.

I used to think I was quite good at creating routines. But then I taught an autistic child for two years. Every day, without expression or accusation, he would point out my every inconsistency:

“That is not how you asked us to line up two days ago.”

“On Tuesday, you said we had to sign out for the bathroom every time.”

“You said that only self-managers could be inside before school.”

“You said we could only sharpen pencils during recess.”

“Glenn should not go to the washroom now. It is not recess.”

“You said that our journals were due today.”

“You said that we were going to write in our planners every day.”

“You said ‘three strikes and you’re out.’ That is Fred’s fourth strike. And Susan has talked two times and she has no strikes. And people are still not signing out for the bathroom.”

I tried explaining that sometimes, in certain situations, under certain conditions, I needed to make exceptions. And that sometimes, I changed my mind. And that usually, I just forgot what I had said. This made him cry.

I began realizing that I wasn’t particularly effective at establishing protocols. Despite good intentions, I actually avoided practicing routines, resented the boring repetition, and often “switched it up” last minute in order to shortcut the process. I heavily depended on my relationships with kids to keep order in the classroom and then resented the kids when they didn’t respond quickly to that day’s directives.

When I started teaching in an inner city school, I quickly realized I would need to change my ways. Depending on personality was not sustainable–it was too emotionally draining. The students didn’t want to please me. They didn’t care what I wanted. They couldn’t be humoured into behaving.

Rock solid routines became essential to survival.

Now I try and establish routines the way that the authors of The Daily Five suggest: establish urgency, set criteria, make a chart, practice the right way, then the wrong way, then the right way, and practice some more. Do it again the next day. I find the use of anchor charts helpful (good reminders for me). And whether I feel like it or not, I make myself review the darn charts with the kids every day.

Does this mean that now everything is smooth sailing? Uh, NO. This Monday was horrific. Tuesday and Wednesday I thought I was really making headway .Then Thursday was a gong show. Kids were tired, noisy, unfocused, and edgy. Di d I mention irritable? I went home frustrated and exhausted, knowing beyond a shadow of a doubt that I was failing miserably and that my kids were unreachable. (I rounded off that evening by nagging my teenage son to complete his homework, eating some Chinese food my husband had picked up, and falling into bed at eight.) Friday, to my utter surprise, was a decent day.

What will it be on Monday? Probably really bad. Mondays are almost always bad. Students are often tired, hungry, out of sorts. Tuesdays are almost always better.

All I know is that every day I must work to establish routines so that students can find the calm to learn. Far from being straightjackets, established routines act like warm, tight blankets around kids. There will be plenty of time for creative mess later on.

That Moment

Today felt like the end of the welcome party. I stood in my room after class and felt the metaphorical balloons deflating, the streamers on the ground. The initial excitement is gone, yet so much of the year remains.
It is at this very moment when the real work begins, the point where the momentum provided by the hill glides to a slow stop, when you look up and see the mountain.

The Certainty of Doubt

I thought after twenty-five years of planning for teaching, I’d be better at it. Not better really, just more adept. More proficient.  My teaching life has been a quest for smooth expertise in thought and action.  Then every August, I find myself stumbling over what to teach, how to teach, how to even start. This year was no different. The inner conversation went, “Why isn’t this second nature by now? Why am I not more efficient?  Why do I keep changing things? Do I not have a first day plan somewhere that I can just use?”

I gained a bit of personal insight after coming across this quote by theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli: “The very foundation of science is to keep the door open to doubt. Precisely because we keep questioning everything, especially our own premises, we are always ready to improve our knowledge. Therefore a good scientist is never ‘certain’. Lack of certainty is precisely what makes conclusions more reliable than the conclusions of those who are certain: because the good scientist will be ready to shift to a different point of view if better elements of evidence or novel arguments emerge. Therefore certainty is not only something of no use, but is in fact damaging, if we value reliability.”

When I stand back, I see what is happening: With new research comes the unwieldy challenge of aligning one’s lessons with evolving understandings. Experience brings a wider perspective, more questions, and ultimately, more options.

So while my theoretical brain is having an “aha” moment,   my practical brain says, “Well, that’s all fine and dandy, but you need to get some lesson plans together.” (See, this no-nonsense side knows that the theoretical me believes that by merely thinking about something, it will get done.  In fact, it is always a little shocked that thought processes alone have not produced more results.)

While I could be feeling somewhat chagrined by my slow progress, I think I speak for all teachers when I say that the job of putting theory into practice is much more easily said than done.  No one has the time to make every moment of every day a stunning learning experience.

For most of my career, I have worried about having the answers. I find comfort in the musings of Rachel Remen, a physician who focuses on “integrative medicine.” She says that “living well is not about having all the answers; it is about the opportunity to pursue unanswerable questions in good company.” If I had to make a goal for this year, that would be it.

Elements of Truth

I have been at my “new school” for just over a year. Returning this September was a homecoming. The feeling in my classroom has changed—from tentative to more certain. Building trust is a slow process. The important thing is to show up every day and start again. For most of my students, trust is a long rope bridge, travelled cautiously. And hold on tight—the whole damn thing could still collapse and leave you dangling.

We’ve been studying chemistry in science.  Everything is new to them, unbelievable. “Are you telling me,” says one student, “that everything in the universe is made from just THAT?” (He is pointing at the periodic table of the elements.) They don’t believe it. That can’t be true. “EVERYTHING?”

They are equally wary of other supposed truths. Like how many electrons an element ALWAYS has. Like how an element will ALWAYS bond in certain ways. “That plus that will always make that,” says a student skeptically. He’ll entertain the possibility, but he’s not going to believe it just yet.

Others have embraced the reassuring predictability of science. There is order.  There are immutable realities. Six students requested a copy of the element fact cards, a resource I found at Ellen J. McHenry’s site (a fabulous science resource). These cards led one of my students to design his own cards, cards of elements yet to be discovered. This student (autistic, brilliant, naïve, delightful) created this element in my honour. My colleagues agree that the likeness—and descriptors–are uncanny.

Seeing the Big Picture

At our first meeting, Bayview Staff started to create a mindmap of “our school.” We wanted to see the big picture: our inquiry questions, common practices and assessments, our responses to interventions, goals, and so on. This photograph captures the work-in-progress. We know it will never be “finished,” but it is helpful to see where we are right now and where we hope to go.

Summer Doubts on the Nature of Schools

Every year at about this time, I come to a horrifying realization: school is a completely cruel, artificial setting. Who locks 30 children in a room, forces them to listen and work for hours? What monstrous zookeeper would ever go along with such a plan? I have a sudden urge to join an extreme activist group that would go from school to school releasing the prisoners. Yes, let’s set up a Children’s Liberation Organization! Establish a sanctuary for all our rescued children! Repeat after me, Children are not ours to experiment on!

And so, every year, I recommit to creating a school for “The Ethical Treatment of Children.”

This school must abide by the following guidelines:

*allow for adequate movement and space

*build in time for talk

*strive to reduce stress by creating a climate of curiosity and laughter

*allow for creative expression and encourage diversity

*take itself seriously, but not that seriously (as Mark Twain said, “Never let formal education get in the way of your learning.”)

Whenever I start to get that “caged animal” feeling, I need to go back to these basics.

Can anyone relate?

The Ultimate Teacher Cheat Sheet (in case you’re a little behind on latest research)

Ever played “Buzzword Bingo”? Truth be told, I did not know my game had an official name. I just thought it a pleasant (albeit juvenile) way to keep my mind focussed during required professional development.

Here’s how the game works (these are my rules, FYI). Before the pro-d starts, you and a friend pick five “buzzwords” each. You get a point every time one of your words is mentioned. At the end of the presentation, you tally points and declare a winner.

For awhile, I was doing big business with “piece” and “assessment.” Other winners were “collaboration” and “technology.”

But let’s face it. We don’t always get to sit back and listen. Sometimes we have to get up and speak. So, based on my years of listening to educational presentations, I have provided a handy chart. Simply choose one word or phrase from each category and string them together. Of course, the chart is only a stopgap. I know you will get out there and do your own research. Soon.

(You may have to click on the image. As I couldn’t figure out how to make a chart in WordPress, I took a picture of my chart. .  .)