Education as a Lever for Addressing Inequality

Last week, I had the privilege of seeing Jonathan Kozol speak about “Race, Poverty, and the Corporate Invasion of Our Public Schools.” Kozol has long been one of my personal heroes working in the field of education, so I relished the opportunity to be in the same room with him.

So much of what he said made such obvious sense to me, including his belief that we are shortchanging students before school even begins by failing to offer quality preschool to all children, particularly those children who could most benefit from it and all of the services that ought to accompany a reputable program. And where would the money come from to fund such an initiative? His answer: from the budget we currently pay to standardized testing companies.

He also spoke at length about the continuing — and perhaps worsening — inequities in public education as segregation in schools continues unabated. This issue is of particular interest to me, as I am looking at positions in urban schools and have been floored by the intra-district inequalities in terms of free and/reduced lunch rates. (Of course, free/reduced lunch is a contested indicator of poverty, but I think it works to support the point made here.) I was shocked that it would be permitted to allow one school to have 12% of students receiving free/reduced lunch while another school across the city has upwards of 85%. Perhaps it was naive of me to assume that these types of obvious inconsistencies would be viewed as intolerable and immediately eradicated.


Prior to attending Kozol’s talk, I read one of his works that I hadn’t read previously — Amazing Grace. I found the book difficult to read, even though his other works have given me some familiarity with the contexts described. It is always painful to read about difficult situations; however, what made this one particularly challenging was the gnawing sense that even though the book was written two decades ago, things don’t seem to have improved a whole lot in that time. It is unfortunate that the political priorities in this country continue to lie elsewhere and that public interest is not constantly directed toward the staggering inequalities that persist in our own country and are, as the title of another Kozol book suggests, “the shame of the nation.”

Independent Learning Time

I can’t believe that April is half over! It seems like I forgot how quickly the time goes once spring arrives. We are down to under 40 days left in this school year — where did the time go?

Anyway, today I’m going to discuss another initiative that I’ve been piloting this spring with my students: independent learning time.

Immediately following our classroom walks, which have continued to be a pleasant aspect of our afternoons, my students have been engaging each day in “independent learning time.” During this time students can, so long as they’ve met expectations for work throughout the morning, work on any activity of their choice, as long as it is somehow related to learning.

Philosophically, independent learning time makes so much sense to me. How can we expect to develop students who are creative, critical thinkers when we are always telling them what to do during every minute of their school experience? By removing the directives about what students will be doing, I have found that my students are creating surprisingly rich learning experiences that are catered to their interests — all by themselves!

After an initially rough couple of days during the beginning of the implementation of independent learning time — my students were flabbergasted when they were given the authority to direct learning according to their interests — things have settled nicely over the past few weeks. ILT has become such an exciting time in our classroom! I’ve learned so much about what makes my students tick since implementing ILT, which has also helped with keeping our classroom flowing smoothly all day long. The kids look forward to ILT and don’t want to miss a second of it, so they have been increasingly motivated and focused during the other parts of the day.

So, you might be wondering what my students have been up during ILT. Here’s a short selection of some of their self-chosen and self-directed activities.

  • Learning how to write in cursive
  • Learning multiplication
  • Exploring how different types of paper and folding lead to different results in paper airplanes
  • Creating a book about recycling
  • Using pattern blocks to create mandalas and to try to build multi-story structures
  • Using Toontastic (an app) to create their own animated stories
  • Exploring natural objects collected during our afternoon walks
  • Working on reading books of their choice
  • Asking to spend more time working on projects from other parts of our day(!)

As you can see, my kids aren’t just “playing” and pretending that it’s learning; they are stretching their minds in significant ways, all on their own.

My hope is that the sense of wonder surrounding ILT will translate to their time at home. If students learn the skills of managing their own learning at school, they will be much better equipped to create their own learning experiences at home. My vision as a teacher has always been to cultivate students who are curious, self-directed learners; ILT time is one of the most significant (and initially scary!) steps that I’ve taken toward making that vision a reality.

The Simple Move That Has Transformed Classroom Afternoons

My kids, probably like all students, have times when transitions are smooth, simple, and stress-free and times when transitions can be slippery and stressful. This year, my students had been struggling with the transition back to the classroom after their time at “specials” — PE, art, music, etc. When my students return to the classroom after their specials, we still have almost two hours of learning time. But, day after day, regardless of the transition strategies I was trying, we were losing time getting back into learning activities. Not only that, but their focus flagged for the remainder of the afternoon, leading to a lot of (unnecessary) redirection and frustration on my part.

With spring finally beginning to show itself here in New England, I decided to try a new strategy for navigating this difficult time of the day for my students. I’ve long wanted to incorporate more physical activity in my day, but struggled to find times to fit it in without carving into time I hold sacred for other activities. Thus, a time when we were losing time anyway became a logical place to try out a few minutes of physical activity.

So, for the past two weeks, I’ve been experimenting with having my students return to the room after specials and quickly collect their coats. Once everyone is dressed, I’ve been taking my students on 5-12 minute walks around the schoolyard and parking lot (and, around the school building itself during subzero March weather and inclement weather…).

The changes in my students at this time have been remarkable. Now they rush eagerly back to the classroom, rather than dragging their feet down the hall. They also challenge each other to get ready as quickly as possible, as they know that maximizes the time that we have for our walks. Once we get outside, their joy is palpable — they can be noisy and move their bodies freely, they can chat with a neighbor and splash in a puddle. While our walks have been limited thus far to blacktop due to especially soggy conditions as the snow finally begins to recede, as things dry up, I’m looking forward to being able to bring them onto the wooded trails behind our school, exposing them to incidental learning along the way.

The best part is, that after just this short amount of time, my students are more settled, happy, and respectful for the remainder of the afternoon. It’s hard not to be in a better mood after getting to take in some fresh air and sunshine outside — I’m sure its positive influence on me is another reason these walks have been so successful. Needless to say, we have significantly increased our productivity in those final two hours — no pulling teeth required.

Working on Our Play

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We are entering the third week of work on our Dr. Seuss play. I find myself marveling at how slowly the process is going, but also satisfied that we are taking the time to lay a solid foundation of organization and expectations that will hopefully lead to success further down the line.

As you can see from the first picture, the initial step in our play process was making a list of all of the things that we would need to do to successfully put on a play. It was very interesting to observe the steps that my students believed would be necessary; they offered many very detailed ideas that had to do with parts of their costumes, but struggled with conceptualizing the bigger categories of tasks that we would need to accomplish. (No big surprises there, I suppose, as looking at the big picture is often challenging for second graders!)

In addition to making our to-do list, our first week of work also consisted of reading The Lorax many times to familiarize ourselves with the story, discussing how the book is very different from the animated version that came out a few years ago, and generating a list of characters that would need to appear in our play.

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During week two, we looked through various scripts that I found for The Lorax online (I was lucky enough to not have to start from scratch), considered how to adapt the script for our purposes, and applied for roles in the play. The students also started working the music teacher on two musical numbers that we will incorporate into our play, which I am very excited about!

This week, we started by making a set of expectations for play practice and I told the story of how my performances last year were undermined by some goofy behavior from students not involved in the group that was currently on the stage. We also have highlighted our individual speaking parts and stage directions in the scripts. On Thursday, we are going to open discussions about costumes and sets and have our first read-through of the script.

Already, I can see that this experience is going to be very challenging for many of my students. The amount of patience involved in waiting your turn, the degree of teamwork required, and the sheer amount of time it takes to stage a production are not easy things for second graders to handle. I am really looking forward to observing how my students respond to these challenges and (hopefully) watching them grow some essential life skills in the process of putting on our play.

Passion and Risk in the Classroom: Planning a Play

Screen Shot 2015-02-28 at 1.24.10 PM On Monday, it’s Dr. Seuss’ birthday, which is undoubtedly one of my favorite days of the whole year. I am a Seuss fanatic — a Seuss-ologist, if you will. My independent research project during my senior year of college explored the influence of the language use of Dr. Seuss on students’ comprehension and I am constantly seeking ways to incorporate Seuss-ian texts into my classroom. In fact, the current unit my students and I are working on is about Dr. Seuss, poetry, and is focusing more specifically on The Lorax and environmentalism.

Teachers are often told to “teach what you’re passionate about,” and the beginning of this unit has illuminated the wisdom of that statement. I feel myself being more excited, more enthusiastic, and ultimately, more engaging, when I am talking about Dr. Seuss and his work with my students. They seem eager to listen, to ask questions, and to be around the positive energy that I feel emanating out around me. Right now, I’m not feigning energy and passion, as I sometimes do with other, more mundane topics that are the sort of necessary evils that you have to teach but that are just impossible to get enthralled and swept up by. My excitement is authentic, it’s genuine, and my young students notice.

I’ve also found that it’s considerably easier to be creative and to exercise risk when you have passion for what you’re teaching. One of the major tasks that my students will work on in our Dr. Seuss unit is a theatrical adaptation of The Lorax. Now, last year, when I did my Dr. Seuss unit, my students worked in their guided reading groups to create mini-plays, based on their understanding of The Cat in the Hat, The Butter Battle Book, and Horton Hatches the Egg. This, too, was a risk, but nothing on the scale of what I’m endeavoring to pull off over the next several weeks with my students. I’m not exactly a theater person — I appreciate plays and musicals, but the idea of orchestrating a whole production is definitely something new for me. But, because I’m passionate about the subject matter, I find myself so much more willing to devote the time and effort to taking a creative risk in my teaching.

This has gotten me thinking about what is lost as teachers are increasingly encouraged, in my opinion, to move away from creative approaches in the classroom in favor of increased standardization because of the ever-increasing demands of accountability. Creative enterprises, like my Lorax show, can fit within the standards being delineated by districts and the federal Common Core initiative. But, if teachers aren’t actively encouraged to cultivate their passions and to use the energy they feel about those topics to engage in risk-taking, I feel like we might miss out on the facilitation of  some exceptionally memorable and meaningful educational experiences for their students. I feel fortunate to be in a setting where I can take these creative risks and be supported in doing so, and hope that I will continue to be as long as I stay in the classroom!

So, this week, I’m diving in. My students and I will be working on a script for our play and deciding what characters to include. Their excitement about this project already seems boundless, and I am eager to work with them on a long-term project that will help them develop academic skills, but also, give them a chance to apply so many of the character skills that we’ve been working on cultivating throughout the year. I think it will be valuable for my second graders to work on something that is long-term and hard, that will undoubtedly involve mistakes and maybe crises, and that will push them out of their comfort zones. Stay tuned!

Vacation Reading

I’ve spent my week off from school doing something that I’ve gotten a lot better at during my second year of teaching: taking some time to take care of myself, too. As a result, I actually relaxed and feel rejuvenated and prepared to dive back into school on Monday.

One of my main hopes this vacation was to spend time reading and I did. I finally got around to reading Quiet by Susan Cain, which discusses introversion and the ways in which these traits, often devalued by society at large, are often linked to personal and professional success. It was fascinating to hear introversion discussed in this way and validating as an introverted person to not be encouraged to “speak up” or to adopt a different disposition.

I’m posting Susan Cain’s TED talk here; it provides a nice overview of the book.

Another interesting book that I read this week was John Hunter’s World Peace and Other Fourth Grade Achievements. This work details Hunter’s experiences playing the “World Peace Game” with his young students. This game simulates global power politics and asks students to assume roles as negotiators and leaders as they strive to resolve a plethora of conflicts. Reading this work reminded me that our students are often so much more capable than we might give them credit for and that students can rise to the occasion when given motivating opportunities to do so.

Hunter also had a TED talk, which discusses the game. He strikes me as such an excellent educator!

So, with one day of vacation left, I am feeling ready to return to school and excited about beginning my favorite unit of the year, which revolves around Dr. Seuss, poetry, and environmentalism. I’ve memorized The Lorax to share with my students and can’t wait to perform the story for them!

“On the Way to School”

It’s been a long, busy, frigid week here in Maine. I have one more week to go until my February vacation, which will hopefully offer a much-needed break for both my kiddos and me — I think the cold and “cabin fever” that sets in during this part of the winter is impacting all of us!

This morning, I went to a local cinema to watch a film in the documentary series that they are doing on Saturday & Sunday mornings. The film this weekend was “On the Way to School,” which chronicled the journeys that four children (and, in some cases, their siblings) make to school. The locations covered were Kenya, Argentina, Morocco, and India — the scenery in the movie was fantastic and it was fascinating to observe the differences in lifestyles and means for getting to school. It goes without saying, I think, that there wasn’t a school bus that was coming to collect the students featured, but I was surprised by how arduous the journeys were, particularly for the boys in India, who not only had to walk 75 minutes, but had to do it while pushing their brother on a makeshift wheelchair through some pretty difficult terrain. As an educator, I felt moved that students would travel so far with such intrepid determination to pursue an education.

What was perhaps most interesting to me were the universal aspects of childhood that appeared throughout the film — the squabbles with their siblings, the amusement in small things, the sense of pride and responsibility when they are given the opportunity to be independent.

I think that this film would be a great one to show and discuss in the beginning of the school year with slightly older students than the ones that I currently have. Too often, kids are not aware that coming to school is a privilege that shouldn’t be squandered. I’d be really interested to hear their reactions to the film — I think it could be a powerful experience for them to see children their own age (~11-13 years old) and the odds they tackle to make it to school.

Snow, Snow, Snow, and a Peace Corner Update

Well, today is the second snow day in a row for me. I was probably one of the few teachers hoping that we would get to go into school today! With these two days gone and more snow predicted for Friday and possibly Monday, too, my chances of completing of my current unit (engineering — one of my favorites!) seem to be dwindling. I’m going to have to make some creative cuts, as it is usually pretty fruitless to try to pick something back up after a weeklong vacation, which we have coming in just two weeks.

In better news, however, my Peace Corner experiment is going well thus far. My students have reached the point where they respect the space and aren’t asking to go unless they have a genuine need to do so. In fact, one of my most challenging students, who I had in mind when creating the Peace Corner, has been telling other teachers in our school about it and informed me that she’s also created one at home!

The lack of defiance that I have gotten from students that I’ve asked to go to the Peace Corner has also been shocking. I have several students who, when they get embroiled in emotion, tend to adamantly refuse to do of anything that any adult (and often, peer) might ask them to do. However, in the past week or so, these students have been responsive to me telling them, “I want to talk to you about this, but I think it will be easier once you’ve had some time to think about what you’re feeling” and then handing them either the 5- or 10-minute sand timers that I got for the Peace Corner. Once they return from their cooling-off time, the students are in such a noticeably improved state of mind and are much more capable of having a reasonable discussion about what is going on. I feel like I’ve been able to hear them more clearly and also that they are more receptive to the advice that I might offer them about handling emotions.

I’m really excited to see what impacts this approach starts to have on student self-control and self-regulation. I’d love to see my students work up to the point where they could ask to go to the Peace Corner proactively, rather than after they’ve done something they probably won’t feel so great about later on. I’m also interested in seeing if the Peace Corner will be durable as is, or if I will have to continue to make tweaks to maintain its relevancy. Only time will tell!

A New Classroom Addition: The Peace Corner

In my classroom this year, I have several students who struggle with regulating strong emotional feelings. (Don’t we all, from time to time?) Last week, after attending a training on restorative practices (a Restorative Justice-esque framework), I resolved to try to continue to avoid using traditional discipline methods. This approach aligns with my personal beliefs about how to best develop character and positive habits in young people, but, too often, I find myself slipping into more traditional approaches when a youngster gets the whole class whipped up into a flurry that seems to call for a quick solution that recognizes that wrong has been done. The amount of patience and composure required to uphold the pathway that I’m trying to choose in m classroom is often daunting, especially when I’m tired or frustrated, but, on the days when I can pull it off, things feel so much healthier and so much happier.

One tool that I have implemented in my classroom this week to aid me on my quest to stick to this path of alternative “discipline” is a “Peace Corner.” One thing that I want to move away from is sending students out of my classroom when they are being “disciplined,” and the Peace Corner is a way to recognize the validity of student feelings and the right to have some time to process feelings independently, without having to send a message that there isn’t a place for that in the classroom. The Peace Corner is a small area in our classroom that I have set up with a soft pillow, a desk with a fabric covering that can offer privacy or a place to write or draw. There are also a variety of items in the Peace Corner that can help students to feel calmer — shells, little games that require lots of focus and concentration, a glitter jar that they can shake and observe, and lots of coloring and writing materials.

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photo 1At this point, I’m experimenting with implementation of the Peace Corner. My students were instantly curious about it and have been, for the most part, very respectful of the fact that it is a special place in our classroom for thinking and processing, and not a place to go and play or avoid work.

Students can either elect to go the Peace Corner by coming and speaking to me about how they are feeling and what has triggered it, or they can be encouraged to go there to gather their composure when a flare-up or incident seems imminent or has already occurred. In the latter case, the visit to the Peace Corner is followed with a conversation with me where I ask them to respond to several questions, which were presented to us at the training last week. I have these questions as posters in the Peace Corner, so that students will be able to read and consider their answers to them while they are processing their feelings and emotions.

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I really like the questions bring the behavior, rather than the person to the forefront; rather than saying, “You are a bully” or “You are a cheater,” the conversation focuses on how they are a “person who has been unkind to others” or you are a “person who has made a poor decision which impacts your learning.” Additionally, there is also a turn towards thinking about how the behavior impacts others, with a special emphasis on how to make things right.

I’m really excited to see how this change works out over the next few weeks — hopefully it will send the powerful message that I want to convey that we all make mistakes and feel intense feelings, but that we do have a responsibility to be able to work on taking responsibility for what we do with those feelings and/or how we repair the potential damage we may have done when we do let our feelings get the best of us.

Curious Questioner Character Strengths

After a lot of thinking this week, I’ve finally compiled the nine character traits that I aspire to cultivate in my students. For some of this work, I’ve borrowed heavily from the resources at the Character Lab. Because I love things that come in 3s, I decided to go with three categories of character strengths, each containing three different traits.

I’ve created the overview sheet that you can see below. I see myself using this as both a poster in my classroom and then also having students keep individual copies somewhere visible, where they will encounter it frequently. I think this will be a particularly valuable tool if I do wind up teaching slightly older kiddos next year.

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After devising the overview sheet, I also developed a more detailed version that describes how I’m defining each of the nine character strengths.

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While it might be a little late to be starting this work for this year’s class, I am going to work on starting to use the language I’ve defined here when I talk about character with my students, which will allow me to build the “muscle memory” I need to use this common language and to help my students start connecting their actions to specific traits.

I introduced the word “grit” to my second graders this week and they are so excited about trying to practice it. They even asked if we could have a way to visually track the grit that we are showing in our classroom. Work relating to character seems to really pique students’ interests, because it can be so obviously connected to their real lives. As long as the instruction is not overly didactic, I think these types of lessons can be highly motivating for students. I’m excited to see how my students progress in terms of perseverance over the next few weeks, as we continue to talk about and identify grit.

My next steps in this project are to start developing lessons and activities that I can use to get students thinking and talking about these traits. While almost all lessons leave room for character objectives, I think it is really important to talk about character explicitly and on its own and not always have it implicitly embedded into something else.

I’m already starting to collect some resources that I can use for these lessons. One really fascinating piece that I heard on NPR this week connects directly to grit: This piece discussed the arduous journey of free-climbers struggling to ascend El Capitan in Yosimite National Park. I think that students would find this piece fascinating, cool, and see the direct connections to grit and perseverance.

I’ve also been poring over Peanuts cartoons, because I think that they get at some really interesting things related to character, but in a humorous, lovable tone.

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I’m excited to start making good on my commitment to elevate character skills to the same level of importance as academic skills!