Podcast Episode Drop: “Finding your Jam when you feel like an Imposter” with Josh Brister

This post was authored by Dean Julius.

This week we’re pumped to release our second episode of Series 2 (“Living it: Stories from the Teaching Life”) with a conversation with Josh Brister, a great human and an even better Spanish teacher at St. Andrew’s. Josh Brister came to St. Andrew’s in perhaps one of the most challenging years for educators in a century. In the episode we discuss being a new teacher, being a new teacher in the time of COVID-19, the joys of teaching middle school, and developing meaningful relationships with kids. Personally, I’m honored to be able to call Josh a friend, I’m even more fortunate to call him a colleague, and I had the pleasure of being his mentor last year during his maiden voyage at St. Andrew’s. Hope you enjoy the episode!

During our conversation, we discussed: 

  • Being a teacher, especially a new teacher, in the time of COVID, Imposter Syndrome, and working at a place like St. Andrew’s (1:30 – 12:00) 
  • The educational value of YouTube for Teachers (13:00 – 16:00)
  • “Show me you’re a middle school teacher without telling me you’re a middle school teacher” + Why Josh hates baseball (16:00 – 25:00)
  • Building relationships with kids and dealing with setbacks/conflict (26:00 – 36:00)
  • Burnout & managing other interests/hobbies while teaching full time (36:30 – End)

Hunting for Plants: Mr. Goldsbury’s Dichotomous Key Scavenger Hunt

One of this year’s goals at St. Andrew’s is to continue engendering a collegial spirit of watching one another teach, taking what we observe, and stealing those ideas. After all, Picasso famously said, “good artists borrow, great artists steal.” And in the spirit of great artists stealing, Mr. Goldsbury’s 7th grade science class put to good use a database of local flora gathered and catalogued by Mr. McWhorter and students in the upper school. 

Mr. Goldsbury’s students have been learning about and practicing how to use dichotomous keys in their class. Using the website Mr. McWhorter put together, Mr. Goldsbury asked his students to create a dichotomous key for how they could identify various plants around school. And the results are stellar!

He said, “I have done several campus searches before in class, but by using this website the students have a more structured and informative assignment, and with the help of the locations that Marks has put for each plant, I will be able to make it into a competitive scavenger hunt!”

This is a perfect example of teachers inspiring other teachers. Mr. McWhorter made something that, quite frankly, is awesome. And Mr. Goldsbury, inspired by that database, decided to use it in his own classroom to create an engaging science scavenger hunt. Something equally awesome! Teachers inspiring other teachers, great artists, stealing from other artists: it’s what we do at St. Andrew’s. Not all thievery is malicious, especially when it comes to perfecting our teaching craft. 

“Pure, Unadulterated Common Sense”: A Conversation with Virginia Buchanan & Harriet Whitehouse

Authored by: Marty Kelly

What do you get when you interview two longtime educators? A bucket of metaphors apparently. (I hope you see what I did there.) Listening to Julie’s barely twenty-minute interview with now-retired middle school teachers, Virginia Buchanan and Harriet Whitehouse, I counted at least five analogies about teaching and school: being on a journey, being on a ship, preparing a meal, doing housework, and creating magic. For some of us, we perhaps relate most fully to a ship metaphor, envisioning a rocking vessel buffeted with wave after wave of various crises; but lest we lose hope, we are far from a sinking ship, and as Harriet and Virginia confirmed, we are all in the ship together (very High School Musical of us). Read on to see what this math teacher (who taught me as a student) and English teacher (who inspired me as a colleague) have to offer in nuggets of wisdom for those of us not quite at retirement. 

For starters, forget fancy stuff. Professional development is all well and good, but Harriet points out the tool that “works better than any educational strategy” is “pure unadulterated common sense.” And to butcher J.Lo’s song, that kind of teachering don’t cost a thing. But what does common sense in a classroom mean? According to Harriet: “Listen to the kids, see what they need, listen to yourself. Do what’s practical… Just go with what’s logical and reasonable.” As one who has wrestled with and feared and been fatigued by the amorphous goal of “innovation,” I felt a sigh of relief and validation come out of me when I heard her say the words “logical,” “practical,” and “reasonable.” I am finally coming to a place where I realize that practicality and my gifts and my students’ needs and innovation are not mutually exclusive. Who knew? Turns out, Harriet did. 

Also in the category of things I wish I had been told as a first-year teacher, Harriet and Virginia dove into the concept of never feeling caught up. Harriet says, “You know from day one of a school year that you are behind … and you will never be caught up and that is the way it is.” Defeatist? Nay. It’s for real. I feel it. You feel it. We all feel it. And instead of fighting it, Harriet says, “I think making peace with that and making space for it and not worrying about it… that probably kept me sane.” Easier said than done, I’m sure, but Virginia chimes in, “I’ve always thought of it like housework, at least at my house, it’s never all done. If it ever was, it might be for a second because there was stuff crammed in the closet or something momentarily.” So cram away and if you need an extra hand getting that closet door to close, call me. Kidding. I don’t think Virginia wants us to cram stuff away like we do our emotions (is that just me?) but try to accept certain feelings as a part of the natural rhythm of school: “Just go with the flow, evolve with it…. enjoy the journey instead of the ultimate goal.” Okay, Virginia, I’ll try… but no one has ever accused me of being a go-with-the-flow type of gal. 

This next piece of advice is perfection. “Never be bored,” Harriet says, “If I’m bored with what I’m teaching, they will be bored with what I’m teaching. So boredom is not an option.” Now, are there times when I have pulled out all the tricks and strategies and the students still look at me lifelessly and I want to scream like Russell Crowe in Gladiator, “Are you not entertained?!”? Absolutely. But *most* of the time, if students get that we are into something, they can get behind it, and they at least respect the vibe we are putting out. A 5-minute pop culture lesson about teens will tell us it’s all about the “vibes” for them and what they are “vibing” with. I have ended so many sentences with prepositions in this blog, but it felt so awkward to write “with what they are ‘vibing.’” Jests aside, students are actually scarily good at reading people and can sniff disingenuous enthusiasm and hypocrisy faster than you can say ‘Bama Rush TikTok. So if you feel passionately about the Oxford comma (which I do) let it be known and maybe, just maybe, they will campaign for the serial comma too. 

BUT (big but) here: our job is not to tap dance at the front of the room to keep student attention and keep them happily entertained for over an hour (don’t know about you, but I don’t have that kind of stamina). Of course, there is a time and place for everything (at least according to Ecclesiastes 3) including lecturing and being in the spotlight, but I think Virginia speaks for all of us when she says: “I’d much rather be a facilitator than a lecturer. That’s when I’m in my happy place.” Me too, Virginia, me too. Listening to all five of my classes sustain a Harkness discussion for over 30 minutes without my input was what I needed to give me life in the first full week of school, during a pandemic, you know, again. Virginia calls this “eavesdropping” when students are “discovering” on their own. It definitely feels cheesy, but it felt so right to me when Harriet described these moments as “magical.” As she admits, “it doesn’t happen all the time,” but sometimes “there’s just this magic in the room,” and “you feel as if you’re in tune with the spinning of the galaxy.” And for a long time teacher of A Wrinkle in Time, I can think of no more apt analogy.  We won’t ever have perfect pitch in the classroom, but chasing those moments when we are in tune sounds pretty magical to me too. 

Launching Our Next Series, “Living It: Stories from the Teaching Life.”

It’s that smell-of-fresh-marker-beginning-of-school-season again and Inspire & Innovate: A Podcast for Educators is back at it with a mini-series to get you back into the swing of things.  Without a doubt, our first series released last Spring (“Teaching in the Time of Covid”) remains relevant.  We are still masked, still distancing, and still very much figuring out how to teach and learn and build relationships in a pandemic-world.  But we are also very certain that the same enduring truths about youth, systems,  and the subjects we teach that we’ve learned from our collective years of doing what we do continue to resonate and inform what we do today.  We are also quite certain that the best way to figure out this impossible business of teaching well (pre and post pandemic) is to network with educators showing up every day  in our local realities and beyond.   That’s why we think you’ll glean a lot out of this four-episode mini-series that centers on local educators in the Jackson metro area giving it to us straight in: “Living it: Stories from the Teaching Life.” 

Ep. 1: “Leading with Love, Featuring Dr. Anita DeRouen”

This week we are proud to release “Leading with Love,” featuring Anita DeRouen, Ph.D., an English teacher at Murrah High School in Jackson, MS.  A former professor at Millsaps College, DeRouen has published on race and media representation, digital literacy, and most recently Richard Wright and modernism (with Anne MacMaster). DeRouen also serves as Community Liaison for the Millsaps College Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation Center and is an independent racial dialogue consultant.  I’ve been lucky enough to count Anita a colleague and a friend, and her ability to crystallize truth into words has shifted my own thinking in powerful ways. 

During this conversation, we discussed:

  • (5:45-6:35) Poetry as a vehicle transporting youth to  literary love.
  • (9:45-13:17) How Anita “winnowed her way” into teaching (and why every single person should work in retail or food service at some point for at least a year).
  • (13:35-18:00 ) The role of empathy, bounded choice, and addressing perfectionism for teachers working with “high achieving kids not living up to their potential.” 
  • (18:28-19:37 ) How particular school contexts produce particular expectations around “what learning looks like” which then trickle down to assessments.
  • (20:19 -23:55 ) Why the next time a student misbehaves in your classroom,  you need to internalize the phrase “it’s not you; it’s the chair.”
  • (24:23-25:50) What a gift it is to see the humans in our classrooms, not as a homogenous group, but as a collective of unique individuals, including our own “geeky . . . nerdy sel[ves]”
  • (31:29-33:30 ) Keys to growing and working with colleagues: brought to you by a compliment from her grandmother and “listening with a healthy, not a sick, ear.”
  • (33:31- 35:10 ) What it requires to work as a Black academic in predominantly white institutions.
  • (35:27-39:37) Pitfalls of white institutions seeking to become “more diverse”: on labor and the importance of discomfort in the process.
  • (40:28-44:21 ) How “leading with love” could open up an entirely different set of questions, positively transforming our education system (and our world).

Stay tuned for more educator-centered real talk to be released the next three Tuesdays; this series may be mini, but each episode is mighty.

Final Podcast Drop in Season 1: Tim Fish in “Centering Agency”

See this video glimpse for a taste of this week’s conversation with Tim Fish.

Last but certainly not least in Season 1 of Inspire & Innovate: A Podcast for Educators, we feature NAIS Chief Innovation Officer: Tim Fish.  He started his career as a 4th-grade teacher and has served as a founder, board member, and consultant for a variety of education and technology-related schools, organizations, and companies. His Magnetic Mountain metaphor has been formative for school leaders across the country as representation of the trajectory of innovation that school organizations take on, and we found that speaking with Tim really brought it home for classroom teachers as well.  We found Tim warm, honest, and thought-provoking, and we hope you do too.

During our conversation, we discussed:

  • How fourth graders gave Tim his first orientation to the world of teaching and why playing football with the kids at recess can have unintended consequences (4:02-7:15)
  • How Tim conceptualizes innovation.  Spoiler alert- it has nothing to do with chasing the shiny and new! (11:07- 12:39)
  • Why it’s important to differentiate between the what and the how of innovation . . . and why doing “retrospectives” can reframe failure as learning (16:10-18:04)
  • Why deep empathy and vision-led innovation are a powerful combination in this particular historical moment (18:05-19:25)
  • How Tim’s interest in “nose down to nose up” NAIS schools led him to first conceptualize the Magnetic Mountain (20:05-25:27)
  • What this journey metaphor has to do with the micro everyday choices that classroom teachers make (26:45-32:28)
  • What Tim doesn’t mean by “not returning to now-town” (teachers- you are going to applaud!)  . . . and a reminder that innovation is a disposition.  (33:30-35:55)
  • What now-town has to do with bias, privilege, and inequity (37:57-38:59)
  • The difference between reactive and proactive innovation . . . and why the reactive innovation we’ve all been doing in response to the pandemic  is much more draining (39:13-40:25)
  • Why agency is a big deal for both faculty and students now more than ever and one trend Tim’s noticed among teachers that have maintained energy during this difficult season (41:25-42:38)
  • How one high school faculty member managed to maintain high academic standards in this difficult past year while recentering the student experience (43:45-48:19)
  • How Tim’s favorite teacher when he was a young reaffirms the importance of  “really climbing into kids’ lives, being present with them, and helping them take the next step, whatever that might be”  (53:26-55:15)
  • Must-reads from Tim! (57:44-58:50)

In this week’s Teacher Talks episode, we feature the amazing Sheena White (Head of Foundations), Susan Pace (4th grade teacher extraordinaire), and Dean Julius (7th grade English).  They extend, adapt, and reimagine Tim’s metaphor in powerful ways and collectively help us take a breath just in time for summer.

i2 Inquiry-Based-Learning Fellows

Design-based thinking. Problem-based-learning. Student-centered learning. Project-based-learning. There are a host of ways to frame designing learning experiences for youth that revolve around inquiry, utilizing the general template of students: (1) Asking a question (2) Doing some research (3) Crafting an artifact or paper or project to demonstrate your sense-making and (4) Reflecting on the entire process. There’s also a lot of (perhaps rightful) angst about overly-utopian portrayals of such pedagogies.

We wanted to dip our toes into more inquiry based pedagogies with the people who know best (faculty in the trenches), so a little over a year ago we sent out a call for interested folks to apply to be part of a summer/school year group of fellows engaging in research, preparation, and implementation of inquiry based learning practices.

Many answered the call, and we were thrilled to engage with four faculty across divisions to devise very different projects for implementation. Matt Luter (upper school, English) worked with place as a site for memory with his high school students. Ruthie Taylor (middle school, drama) engaged youth in an exploration of theater traditions across the world as well as devised productions that center social justice. Val Dembny (4th grade, math) and Kathy-Vial (lower school, science) explored various levels of question-asking for sense-making.

In no cases did projects go off without a hitch. In all cases these pathways were doubly difficult because of pandemics and concurrent teaching/learning and masks and and and. . . . However in all cases youth stretched themselves and faculty learned how to pave the way for more success in future iterations. And lucky us, because during a faculty PD in April, we all became the benefactors of their collective and individual journeys.

Missed the sessions but wish you could have been there? You can! Just check out the google meet recordings/resources below and get ready for nuanced, real-life takes on inquiry based learning in classroom spaces during a very strange, very challenging school year.

Kathy Vial’s “”Introducing Inquiry-based concepts into your classroom without headaches or tears (yours)

In this session I’ll introduce the components of a true inquiry lesson: there is a back and forth flow of knowledge between the teacher and students. It begins when the teacher poses an idea or concept and then asks targeted questions. This leads to students sharing their ideas and asking additional questions.

Ruthie Taylor’s “When going wrong goes right: Wrestling with the tensions and learning from mistakes in inquiry-based projects”

Are you worried about how inquiry might go wrong? (or at least differently than you expected)In this session we’ll discuss some of the missteps, mistakes, and tensions that came up through 4 iterations of Performance Traditions Inquiry Projects with 5th Grade students and strategies for adapting to diverse student needs and interest levels.

Matt Luter
Hands-on research, hands-off guidance in a writing classroom

In this session I’ll share the assignment I’ve designed for a senior seminar in Southern literature, address how I’ve altered it from fall to spring semester, and then we’ll reflect together on the tension between guiding student inquiry and keeping control of students’ work in students’ hands.

Val Dembny’s “The importance of questions in the classroom” 

Have you ever wondered how many questions a teacher asks a day? Did you know that there are different types and levels of questions you can utilize in the classroom? We will discuss why questions are such an important part of the learning process and how they lead inquiry.

“Centering Teaching by Design”: A Conversation with Michael Nachbar

This week’s Inspire & Innovate Podcast features guest, Michael Nachbar, the Executive Director of Global Online Academy, a pioneering network of schools and educators reimagining learning to empower students and educators to thrive in a globally networked society.  If you’ve ever wanted to get inside the brain of a teacher planning learning experiences, you are going to seriously enjoy this episode.

Enjoy this video excerpt to get a sense of the themes Michael introduces in the full podcast.

During our conversation, we discussed: 

  • How Michael’s background and experiences in curriculum led him to the work he does now…and how incredible teachers re-thinking their craft helped GOA get its start ( 2:30-12:04)
  • GOA’s “northstar” mission and approach to coaching educators, helping leaders in the Design Lab,  and providing deep learning of the skills students need to be successful in college, career, and life ( 14:00-18:51)
  • The mindshift of being deliberate in the outcomes you want to see and designing intentional learning experiences for students (18:52-22:00)
  • Teacher wellness and how it applies to having a varied approach to providing student feedback (22:10-25:10)
  • Keeping relationships and communication at the center of student experiences during asynchronous learning (25:12-29:49)
  • Challenges teachers faced this last school year due to constraints they had to navigate and how “necessity can drive innovation in a big way” (29:50-33:25)
  • Articulating your northstar and designing learning experiences to match that (33:26-35:00)
  • Focusing on equity and justice, and as teachers, being aware of students’ unique experiences with empathy and compassion…and rethinking what we teach and how we assess to be more culturally relevant (36:15-39:18)
  • Helping parents and guardians understand the how and the why behind what we do (39:20-40:30)
  • Michael’s predictions he made a year and a half ago about educator competencies and the need to continue “upscaling”…and a focus on supporting teachers’ health and wellbeing (40:30-45:30)
  • Aspects of teachers’ work that are rejuvenating and reenergizing and lowering the cognitive load (45:30-49:50)
  • What “getting back to normal” looks like and how we will navigate the return to “normal” with virtual components moving forward (50:25-55:08)
  • Michael discusses his favorite teacher (55:18-57:20)
  • The book that Michael Nachbar thinks all educators should read (57:25-58:35)

Want some help digesting the important themes Michael raises?  Remember that our companion podcast, Teacher Talks, is always there to help!  This week I interview four inspiring  upper school faculty members: Nancy Rivas (Spanish teacher), Wesley Saylor (French teacher), and Gracie Bellnap (science teacher ).  They keep it real about this challenging past year while also laying down some serious wisdom. 

Feeling ready for summer? Next Tuesday we feature our final podcast of the season with Tim Fish. It’s a finale that is pretty grand, so don’t miss it.

This Week in i2 Inspire & Innovate: A Podcast for Educators, Charlie Jenkinson talks “Centering Relevance”

For a taste of the themes we discuss in this week’s packed podcast, check out the video teaser above.

This week’s featured Inspire & Innovate Podcast guest, Charlie Jenkinson, serves as the Chief Strategy Officer for the World Leading Schools Association (WLSA).  He believes that “schools have responsibility to act as powerhouses of social and global mobility” and he leads with a vision of ever-broadening access to and transformation of our educational spheres. 

During our conversation, we discussed:

  • How Charlie’s experience as a student  led to his drive to transform the system of education . . . and why extrinsic motivation never worked for him (4:10-7:28)
  • Why this transformative work cannot be the sole responsibility of individual teachers or even individual schools . . . a network is required (7:29-8:00; 18:10-18:53; 25:35-26:54)
  • A powerful example of why simply developing individual, measurable skills and performance  is not enough for transformative teaching/learning (8:02-9:02)
  • How WLSA is fighting for equity and access for all youth to learn, travel, and develop as global citizens through the acquisition of  intercultural lenses and working toward change  (13:58-16:30; 53:56-55:50)
  • Why the pandemic makes all of these commitments more important and more timely than ever (16:30-17:55)
  • The kinds of experiences youth need to thrive: featuring (in part) the double helix of “a deep understanding of what they offer the world and what does the world need from [them]”  (22:08-25:35)
  • The influence individual teachers and schools can have (26:54-28:58)
  • Charlie’s philosophy about the utilization of literature in schools in relation to student interest and faculty expertise (28:58-31:58)
  • A new phrase (and literacy practice) to incorporate into your vernacular, thanks to Charlie’s dad: “reading ‘round your subjects” (32:40-36:12)
  • How an individual school can best contribute to a network of schools, and why those of us in the Jackson, MS area are uniquely positioned to provide youth opportunities to study and make sense of civil rights in the US (38:30-41:25)
  • The definition of  intercultural intelligence and why it has more to do with math class than you might think (41:31-48:25)
  • Why a combination of a proactive and responsive curricula is key for older youth (48:26-51:33)
  • Why your ability to connect personally/relationally with your students is the part that really sticks with them (56:35-58:36)
  • The book that Charlie Jenkinson thinks all educators should read (1:00:18-1:00:01:46)

Don’t forget to also tune in to our Teacher Talks companion podcast . . . this week I interview two St. Andrew’s superstars that both teach and fill a variety of other central roles at our school:  Kate Dutro (our lower school librarian) and Rev. Annie Elliott (chaplain).  They help us unpack Charlie’s interview in some profound ways, so don’t miss it.

Also, exciting news! You can now access all Inspire & Innovate: A Podcast for Educators episodes through iTunes.  Just click here. Next week Michael Nachbar from Global Online Academy is up, and he’s got many practical ideas for curriculum and pedagogy both online and face-to-face. See you then!

“Centering Curiosity” with Julie Mountcastle

Get a taste of our conversation with Julie from this brief video snippet!

We’re back on another Tuesday with another podcast drop: this week featuring Julie Mountcastle, simultaneously Head of School and Grade 2 / 3 Teacher at Slate School, a K-12 independent school located in North Haven, Connecticut.  Slate School happens to be near and dear to our hearts, as one of the co-founders, Alexander Clark, is a St. Andrew’s alum. Julie has been a teacher for nearly 20 years and has taught every elementary grade level and worked in both traditional and project-based classrooms.  Passionate about reimagining elementary education, Julie has extended her collaborative and creative energy to every aspect of Slate School, including the development of the curriculum, the school and building design, the integration of the arts into every day, the school’s mission steeped in curiosity-driven education, and sharing that mission with the world . . . even (especially so) during this strange past year. Click here or listen below to access the full podcast.

Highlights of our conversation with Julie include:

  • How Julie’s less-than-inspiring experience in her own K-12 journey, her love for theater, and having children of her own ignited a passion for her to make changes in schools (3:15-5:41; 6:43-8:59)
  • A day in the life of someone who really does seem to do it all . . . and why you should incorporate 7am “infinity fun” into your day . . . (9:30-13:48)
  • How to find “your people” in your school organization and why it’s worth the time to prioritize sharing your teaching craft with work buddies (13:58-16:30)
  • Julie’s number one collaborators . . . (hint- they haven’t yet hit the double digits in age!) and how she engages them in personal passion projects to follow their curiosity  (16:30- 17:30)
  • Slate School’s unique student-led, interdisciplinary, nature-situated philosophy toward education . . .  (18:44-23:54)
  • How passion project sharing can help all  young children “stumble upon”  their interests along the way and how kids that know so much about one thing can find a way to connect to everything else  (25:23-27:40)
  • Why it’s important to communicate our philosophy the parents of the youth we teach (27:43-31:28)
  • A (pretty glorious) day in the life of a second grader at Slate School . . . now and pre-pandemic (31:22- 41:15)
  • How all of us, even those from the most traditionally structured schools,  can scooch our way closer to the direction Julie describes . .  and how simple tweaks can make a day “a day a kid never forgets” (42:35-44:51)
  • Why we should center class activities with questions that inspire our own curiosity as adults (44:55-44:53)
  • How the pandemic has distilled priorities and recentered compassion (46:30-50:18)
  • When adults should intervene in student-centered moments, why sometimes “when things are going sideways we should step back,” and a call to avoid the tendency to “squeeze youth tighter” as they grow more capable. (50:33-54:34)
  • Why assessment is a sticky issue they are still considering as they conceive of their upcoming high school (54:35-56:18)
  • Why Julie’s favorite teacher was actually a student  (57:26-58:13)
  • The one book Julie thinks every teacher should read . . . and why we should never settle and should always pursue what gives us  joy. (58:48-60:37)

Don’t forget to also tune in to our icing-on-the-cake Teacher Talks companion podcast! This week’s features Shea Egger interviewing three incredible educators:  PK3 educator Lea Crongeyer, first grade teacher Mary McCall McArthur, and fifth grade teacher Toby Lowe. (All three have taught/are teaching a kid or two of mine, and I can say from personal experience that you won’t want to miss eavesdropping on their conversation about Julie’s education ideals.)

Until next week, when we launch an interview with Chief Strategy Officer for the World Leading Schools Association, Charlie Jenkinson!

Podcast Drop: “Centering Relationships,” Featuring Ian Symmonds

Inspire & Innovate: A Podcast for Educators is excited to release our second set of episodes about this unique moment in the education landscape featuring the ideas and expertise of consultant, author, and ed-activist, Ian Symmonds. Ian’s experience in senior positions such as executive director and dean spans over 30 years, and he has worked in independent schools, boarding schools, traditional undergraduate colleges, graduate schools, and adult learning programs.  Ian is committed to education’s role in building communities, transforming people, and solving social issues.  See below for the full podcast.

Highlights from our conversation with Ian Symmonds include:

  • Why would we hang on to a model of education that is so stuck in the past? (5:15-6:05)
  • Three characteristics of schools who’ve positioned themselves to be innovative and forward-thinking, meeting the ever-changing needs of society. (6:45-10:43)
  • Schools working together for change collaboratively rather than competitively (10:45-11:42)
  • Three seasons or trimesters of the pandemic (13:20-16:40)
  • Key components classroom teachers should carry forward as we emerge from this pandemic: relational learning and using technology to personalize education rather than access education (16:40-19:36)
  • Building authentic connection with community around schools that expands past families we serve; how Sesame Street got a lot right (20:15-24:50)
  • Redefining what community means (24:55-25:54)
  • Ian’s Just Cause campaign and wisdom from Bono: “Helping someone reach their potential is the biggest act of love.”  (25:55-29:30)
  • Reimagining highschool graduation requirements and changes in college and university admissions; “We are in the business of helping kids discern their future.” (31:30-35:50)  
  • Examples of innovative ideas in schools and the classroom: institutionalizing the use of outdoor spaces & increased parental involvement via community events (36:30-39:20)
  • Why teachers are better aware of the “kitchen table conversations” these days and how this relates to game changers in student wellness  (39:20- 40:55)
  • “Transparency is the best thing”: How virtual learning counterintuitively has given us more transparency, making things more natural between one another and promoting our awareness for student wellness (42:25-43:55) 
  • Ian shares who his favorite teacher (K-12) was and why. (44:10-46:10)
  • What book(s) Ian Symmonds would recommend all teachers read (46:18-48:20)

Don’t forget to also tune in to our Teacher Talks companion podcast in which Toby Lowe interviews Virginia Buchanan, Emmi Sprayberry, and Nicole Robinson about how these themes of relational learning, creative classroom spaces, and community outreach show up in their classrooms!  

Also- you might as well start getting excited for next week’s release of our inspiring interview with visionary leader (and somehow also full-time teacher!)  at Slate School . . . Julie Mountcastle.  See you in a week!

Launching Season 1 of “Innovate & Inspire: A Podcast for Educators”

Check out this video teaser to get a taste of the themes in this week’s podcast release.

The i2 (Inspire & Innovate) blog has highlighted the ideas and experiences of faculty at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School ideas since August 2019.  Today we are excited to launch Inspire & Innovate: A Podcast for Educators.  In our first twelve episode series, we explore the nuances of teaching and learning during this challenging past year of teaching during a global pandemic, asking tough questions about what we have learned and how we are healing.  We speak to six thought leaders across the globe as well as educators across our hallways to get a sense of what is next in education.  While our podcast  title indicates that the podcast is for teachers, we believe that anyone that values education would find much of interest in our featured conversations.  

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This week, we release our first interview, “Centering Students” with John Spencer, best-selling author of Launch and Vintage Innovation which features cutting edge ideas around fostering active learning experiences for students of all ages.

Highlights from our conversation with John Spencer include:

  • How working in the nonprofit sector unexpectedly  led John Spencer into the field of education (2:50-4:55)
  • The “deeply human drive to learn and to create, to make . . . whether it’s kindergarteners or graduate students and . .  the  common fears we all experience.” (5:20- 5:50)
  • What “failing forward” has looked and felt like for those teaching during a pandemic . . . and how relevant the “hero’s journey” might be for all of us right now.  (6:01-8:35)
  • How important it is that a school’s culture, systems, and leadership allow for growth via mistakes; “you’ve got to provide slack to develop grit.” ; try out “the daily epic fail” in your classroom! (8:35-14:30)
  • Why grace matters this year, not just for students but also for faculty.  Try this:  make a t-chart of all of the permissions you’ve given to  students and then do the same thing for yourself . . . and think back to how far you’ve come since March 2020.  (18:20-22:40)
  • How teaching is like weight training, and how to determine whether we need more reps or a season of rest/healing as we move into the 2021-2022 school year.  (23:00-24:30)
  • What have our students lost . . . and gained this past year (24:30 -25:52)
  • How it has been simultaneously more challenging and easier to incorporate design-based thinking, project-based, LAUNCH processes in virtual or hybrid classes this past year (26:35-29:52)
  • For those new to more student-centered approaches, how to incorporate some of these principles into our more traditional pedagogies in a low-risk gradual way. . . and why this is the perfect time to try them out!  (30:20-32:35)
  • What will “come back” in our teaching practice as we return to more in-person experiences . . . gardens, socratic seminars, cardboard prototyping, all mashed up with digital tools as well!  (e.g. Vintage Innovation) (32:55- 34:32)
  • Why we should all be asking ourselves: “What are the things that we did differently this past year that we will continue to incorporate?” (37:12-37:37)
  • What book(s) John Spencer would recommend all teachers read  (40:40- 41:16)

We also release a companion podcast, “Teacher Talks,” in which teachers in our St. Andrew’s community (this week fourth grade teacher Anna Frame and upper school English teacher Matt Luter) discuss how their teaching mirrors the themes that came up in Spencer’s interview: making space for experimentation and centering students.

Both podcasts feature real talk about how the pandemic has impacted our daily lives as well as real inspiration about how to emerge out of this moment with tools to up our game in the classroom.

You know you are excited about this series.  Make sure you don’t miss a beat by subscribing . . . . And make sure you stay tuned, because next week, we will share our conversation with Ian Symmonds: author, speaker, ed-activist, and strategist.  

Words to the Wise: Inspiration from Veteran Teachers

I’ll never forget a moment when I was seven or eight riding in the gray Plymouth Voyager minivan and my mom, for the millionth time, explained the meaning of a word I’d encountered in my (fifth) re-read of a Babysitter’s Club book. “I don’t get it, Mom,” I said, “it seems like you and Dad know everything. Will I ever be as smart as you?” She laughed. “Honey, I’ve just lived longer than you. When you are middle-aged explaining words to your own children, you’ll understand that knowledge is most often just another word for experience.” To be sure, I’m now right there in my own Honda Odyssey explaining words to my own kids. The thing she forgot to mention is that she, now in her seventies, would always be the person I would turn to when a word (or the world) didn’t make sense. Still, her point stands. And that’s the point of this particular blog.

We reached out to teachers across all of our divisions with what we guessed was a minimum of 15 years of teaching experience under their belt, because we don’t make space for wisdom nearly enough in our teaching growth. We asked for two things in particular: (1) tried and true methods have they discovered and (2) advice for teachers in these challenging times. What we learned is that our faculty collectively have put a ton of time into their craft, and that they all have learned a thing or two or twelve. Too often in the noise and flash of our everyday we forget to tune our ears to the soft ebb and flow of experience. Thanks to everyone that contributed. Being around you makes us all a little bit wiser, and we need your experience now more than ever.

Describe the “tried and true” in your teaching craft. What are some teaching strategies, tools, procedures, and/or student learning activities that have withstood the test of time in your classroom?

“I have many teaching practices that I return to year after year. First of all, I sing everything! Nothing gets a three year old child’s attention like a silly song. This especially works during transitions from one activity to another. We also always start a new unit of study by creating a vocabulary list of words we know associated with the new subject and add to that list daily. I have watched vocabularies flourish with this practice. We also allow lots of opportunities to share during circle time and throughout the day. Three year old children tell amazing stories and I don’t want to miss one! I also believe in free choice activities at the beginning of each day. Children are excited to see what their teachers have ready for play and they learn negotiation, creativity and build friendships without being guided by the teacher. We are here to support their works, not lead them.”

-Lea Crongeyer (23 years in education; 13 years at St. Andrew’s)

“(1)Using humor to reach the shy/introverted student. (2) Using songs/music to teach parts of speech. (3) Making board games and using mini-theater to teach mythology. (4) Teaching students how to “chunk” information to prepare for assessments. (5)Taking a personal interest in each student to build an authentic rapport. (6)Turning reluctant readers into excited readers by sharing my love for reading and helping them find books they’ll enjoy for the independent reading assignments. (7) Having students share their books with each other through skits, dressing up as main characters, power points, and book trailers using music to enhance their presentations. (8)Using student made comic strips to check reading comprehension. (9)Choosing summer reading books and class novels that are universally appealing. (10) Using the writing process and more…………….I think that making learning fun is the key to making my lessons/activities successful. If I get excited about reading, grammar, or vocabulary, the students usually do, too.”

-Hannah King (37 years in education, 37 years at St. Andrew’s)

“I’ve found it true that students who become enthusiastic about coming to school and learning are those who come to understand that teachers care for them. So, building relationships and empathizing with their struggles have been pivotal in getting them engaged and committed to learning. In learning a language, I believe that finding laughter in what we do is another important element. Laughter relieves anxiety and the unrealistic expectations of perfect answers; we can laugh at our mistakes and try again believing that in trying we will master what we think impossible, like speaking fluently to a native speaker.”

-Nancy Rivas (22 years in education; 16 years at St. Andrew’s)

“I think one of the most impactful things I have learned over the years is the importance of conversations/dialogue with your students. Whether I am on the playground or sitting next to a child sculpting with Play-doh it is the moments of a back and forth that create true learning experiences. It is in those moments we can call on prior memories and build upon these concepts. This is when oral and receptive language is developed. This is when you get to see those wheels turning! A child rolling a wooden ball down a ramp will see the direction and speed the ball rolls but if I can take a moment to prompt with some questions or suggestions the results can turn into true “ah-ha” moments.”

-Taylor Davis (16 years of teaching experience, 13 years at St. Andrew’s)

“Whole – Part – Whole Method: this method is simply what it says. We show the whole lesson, break it down into parts and bring it back to whole. Whether its drill work or an offensive set in basketball. We also use the Positive-Negative-Positive Method when correcting undesirable results. We point out something positive sneak in the negative and reinforce the positive a second time.”

-Burney King (34 years in education, 29 years at St. Andrew’s)

“At the beginning of each school year I am pretty firm on rules and expectations in my classroom. As we get to know one another I then start loosening up on my parameters, but my students always know “how far is too far”. Being consistent in all areas of our day helps my students feel safe and secure. And I make sure we always have fun! Sharing parts of my life as my students do with me helps us create an atmosphere of family.”

-Beth Peterson (24 years in education; 25 years at St. Andrew’s)

“Tried and true fundamentals, for me, begin with the students: engendering curiosity and promoting a student-directed class help to engage students of all ages; when students are engaged, they are motivated. To foster engagement and motivation, we look at the “why” behind each lesson: why are we learning this? / Why is this important to you? I place students in teams and ask them to begin by explaining the value of what we are learning and then we discuss this value (values) as a class.”

-Andrew Cohen (21 years in education, 1 year at St. Andrew’s)

“Honestly the first thing that pops into my head is what is called ‘Must Do’ and ‘May Do’. I stole this idea from a colleague years ago and it still works beautifully and accomplishes exactly what it is intended for. When I need time with individual students or small groups I use this strategy. On the board I give a short list of items that need to be completed. These can be extra practice pages, spelling games, IXL practice, really anything I think is needed. I try to stay away from busy work and make it meaningful and relevant to what we are studying. It also could be a time for children to catch up on anything they haven’t finished. Once they have finished the “Must Do’s” they can move on to the “May Do.” These are fun activities that the child can pick from. They are differentiated and the students have choices. They range from math games, quietly reading in a chair, creating with my art supplies, legos, etc. I also tell them during this time I am off limits because I am working with students. I tell them there are only three reasons to interrupt me: if the building is on fire, if they are sick or bleeding, or if zombies are chasing them through the room. They always think this is too funny, but it works! This really allows me to have time with individuals or small groups without being interrupted. After the first month or so of school they do not even ask what the may do list is. They just know what they can do. I think this is truly a simple way to do centers without having to create elaborate materials. It gives the children choice and independence which is always something we are working on in third grade.”

-Carolyn Wilmesherr (24 years in education, 11 years at St. Andrew’s)

“1. Always give your instructions a positive slant, and avoid the word “don’t.” 2. Give students the tools to visualize what they are reading and practicing. By describing one’s own visualization, you can bring it alive for the students. 3. Incorporate the arts into everything activity as much as possible. 4. Incorporate dramatic activities into the curriculum as much as possible. 5. Within a class period, try small bites constantly, especially with tasks that are more humdrum: a small bite of grammar for ten minutes, a small bite of vocabulary for ten minutes, etc. 6. Never allow down time; always be ready to transition to a new activity. 7. Tell things as stories as often as possible. 8. Knowing that the kids will talk, give them something concrete to talk about, legitimizing the talking, which you know you will have anyway. 9. I have a background in gifted ed, which means I am really making the kids stretch their comprehension and their evaluative and creative skills. My believing that they can stretch themselves helps them also to believe that they can. My goal is always a serene classroom, where I am the facilitator, not the dictator. The above strategies make this goal possible.”

-Harriet Whitehouse (34 years in education, 14 at St. Andrew’s)

“Through the years, the best strategy for me as a teacher has been setting clear, fair expectations for my students. Starting on the first day of school we work together to create an environment that is safe and caring, while also having clear boundaries and expectations. Once the students get into a routine, things run like a well-oiled machine. They come into the room knowing what will happen each day. When they children understand what is expected of them, it is so much easier for them to focus on their learning. Structured sounds like a stern, cold word. But, it really lends itself to a place where children know it is safe to make mistakes and have fun. Having a consistent day to day learning environment just lends itself to a place where learning will naturally take place.”

-Rachel Newman (20 years in education, 9 years at St. Andrew’s)

“It may seem a bit counter-intuitive, but the words “tried and true” may best apply to the teaching of History classes, while for Economics and Entrepreneurship classes the phrase “trial and error” may be more appropriate. In both scenarios, however, the challenge before us is the same – “Relevance.” In History classes we strive to make sense of the past, and more importantly to find that connection that is relevant to our present and our future. Rather than borrow the worn-out cliche’ about “those who fail to learn the lessons of the past…” I would instead offer that we cannot truly understand ourselves and our society in the present moment without an appreciation for the past that brought us to it. Nor can we imagine a clear vision for our future without an full understanding of who we are and where we’ve been before. I have been privileged to learn from and work with some of the best History teachers in the profession at the high school, college and post-graduate levels, and one trait they all share is their abilities as master story-tellers. Through stories and readings, discussions and role-play, we are able to imagine ourselves in another time and place in the hope of acquiring a better understanding of why people lived and behaved as they did, and benefit from the lessons they can teach us about ourselves and how we might best live in community. Economics and Entrepreneurship, on the other hand, invite us to imagine and seek out the relevance of something that has likely not yet been created. The focus is generally on a “problem” in the present, and the prospects for creating a “solution” in the not-too-distant future. The relevance here is not with the “tried and true,” but with the “trial and error” – making attempts at a “solution” that may succeed or fail, learning from those failures, and following up with further attempts. In both cases, it has been about meeting students where they are (although I will admit that the widening generation gap has posed some challenges) and tapping into their imaginations, curiosity and creativity. Being a life-long learner and also being willing to give up a reasonable amount of control is helpful. Look for readings or discussion prompts that generate interaction and critical analysis, or activities that require collaboration and group engagement.”

-Dan Roach (29 years in education, 23 years at St. Andrew’s)

“Since each student has a different learning style, I try to use different strategies to challenge students keeping their learning style in mind.”

-Christy Hardy (42 years in education; 31 years at St. Andrew’s)

“Always set the bar high in your classroom. Your kiddos will over achieve, or get extremely close. They will go where you lead them. Teach phonics everyday, starting the first day of school!!!!! (Specifically Heggerty!!!!!!!!!!!!!!) Always, include devotion in your daily morning meeting. Having that passion for teaching no matter what lesson it is forces you to bring out the best in every student. That passion is deep down within your soul and it oozes out whenever you are teaching. Children can feel it. They know. When you love what you do, it’s no longer a job. Everything becomes second nature.”

-Terri Turner (20 years in education, 20 years at St. Andrew’s)

“Finding multiple modes of communication and info sources to keep my curriculum fresh and engaging. I know if I’m bored, the kids will be too! Students learn more and better when we change up the routine.”

-Linda Rodriguez (26 years in education, 4 years at St. Andrew’s)

“It is not unusual for co-curricular teachers to teach 200 or more students each year. Learning the names of your students is challenging but necessary, as well as the necessity of addressing challenging behaviors in every class you teach. Introduce yourself to each student individually, and have them introduce themselves to you. Hearing a student say their own name is very helpful, and making sure every student knows each other’s name is essential. Name games are a wonderful tool, particularly when students return to in person learning. When circumstances allow, our classtime begins with “Yoo Hoo” being sung by me, using their name, and the students singing back with my name, giving us both an opportunity to greet each other by name. This gives me the added bonus of hearing their singing voices. It also makes our time together more curricular and less episodic. Establish your classroom rules and procedures from the very first day. Modeling how to sit or stand, or lineup or raise your hand, is not wasted time for young students. Allocating sufficient time and attention to the management of routines particular to your curriculum will streamline your teaching time moving forward. As the year progresses and we get to know each other, my students will frequently want to tell me things that are important to them. And then everyone will have a raised hand and a comment. “One Thing” is a tool I use to streamline this: beginning with the leader, I call on every student without the necessity of their raising their hand so they can each tell me “one thing.” Sometimes it is monumental (my mommy has a baby in her tummy); other times it is what they had for breakfast. I also tell them they can say “I don’t have anything to share today.” When this time is over, we can transition to our music time with everyone having had a chance to be recognized. Because it can be six days in between my classes, with the youngest students on campus, these activities encourage successful use of time for curriculum and enhancement of a relationship from the beginning of the school year. Co-curricular teachers don’t have the luxury of allocating time throughout the day to return to a topic, so management and procedures are critical to student success.”

-Susan Lawler (28 years in education, 28 years at St. Andrew’s)

What teaching advice would you give a new teacher entering the field in these unprecedented times?

“When you are addressing a student, think about the words and tone you would want someone to use when addressing your own child. That helps to put the situation in perspective.”

-Christy Hardy

“Have a plan A, B, C… and be flexible; always assessing the needs of your students. Model the level of expectation and behavior you wish your students to have. Be honest and fair in your feedback; don’t overpraise. Help your students see the big picture. Give them hope!”

-Nancy Rivas

“Be flexible. Most days don’t go like you planned and that’s okay.”

-Beth Peterson

“Don’t be afraid to ask questions or to offer suggestions. Let yourself be guided by your own imagination and creativity. Time is both your friend and your adversary, because you will never be able to create more than will be absorbed by the time you have available. Yet you may find yourself wishing for more time at the end to do those things you did not get around to doing.”

-Dan Roach

“I would tell them they are going to mess up. I certainly did. Everyone does. It is ok. Also, you will try things that do not work that you think are great. Also, simple is better.”

-Carolyn Wilmesherr

“Let your lesson plans take a backseat when the moment requires it. Take the verbal and non-verbal clues of your students as your guide to listen and answer a question, or comment reassuringly and with confidence that everything really will be OK. One particular blessing of being at St. Andrew’s is that we can pray with our classes when we need to. When the situation presents itself, we can stop and ask God to be with someone we can’t be with, because prayer goes where we can’t go.”

-Susan Lawler

“It’s okay not to know how to do everything. Be willing to fail and try again. You don’t have to have all the answers. You can learn a lot from your students. Run ideas by your colleagues – let them help. Communicating with parents is a good thing – don’t be afraid. Your students must trust you and know that you care about them – let them in. Be a team player.”

-Hannah King

“Do not be afraid to look silly! Young children respond to a teacher having fun in their craft! Also, I cannot over state how much the relationship between families and teachers are key to the success of your school year. Once that trust is established, great learning can be achieved!”

-Lea Crongeyer

“Above all else, follow common sense. Common sense works better than any educational strategy. Also, follow your heart and your passion, because heart and passion will outshine any restrictions imposed by these unprecedented times. They are what makes one real.”

-Harriet Whitehouse

“There will always be winds of change in any school environment. Hold on to what you know to be good and true about teaching but also be able to adapt and grow along with trends and research.”

-Taylor Davis

“Over plan! Over plan! Over plan! Have at least 1 breakout room activity in each lesson. Try to ensure that everyone is engaged, whether in person or virtual.”

-Linda Rodriguez

“Be consistent where you can. This year, as we have been learning at school some days and at home others, the children have adapted well because my expectations have been consistent in both formats. Something as simple as keeping the same schedule and doing the same routines has helped them transition from school to home and back again with very few mishaps.”

-Rachel Newman

“Stay organized and plan each class to the minute, HOWEVER be flexible to deviate from each class plan using student interest to provide a foundation for engagement. Also, make sure to “critical thinking” questions; regardless of age / level, students should be tackling higher thinking open-ended questions.”

-Andrew Cohen

“1. Give all your energy, your love, your knowledge, your happiness, your enthusiasm, your silliness, and your smile to your kiddos. Your children will reciprocate. This makes for a happy and healthy class. 2. Never stop learning. Share, get new ideas from others, and read, read, read. 3. Consistency is key!!!!!”

-Terri Turner

“This is a tough one. I use to could answer this so easily but not so today. Parents are constantly evolving and trying to stay on the cutting edge with them is difficult at best. If I had to offer one bit of advice it would be know who you are working with, kids/parents.”

-Burney King

From Page to Screen: Exploring Faiths through Video Production

Blog Contributed by Rev. Annie Elliott

Ashley McCaughan and Raymond Huang, two students in Annie Elliott’s World Religions class, explore the Shinto faith with the help of illustrations and accompanying voiceover.

Over the past year, I’ve learned that creating concise, informative, and engaging content requires a variety of skills and a tremendous amount of planning.  This summer, as I wrote the syllabus for my World Religions class, I reflected on both the knowledge and the abilities that I wanted my students to study over the course of the semester.  I cannot imagine a world where our students will communicate solely in writing in their future educational and professional lives, so I wanted to support their growth as creators of content.   Luckily, our students are excellent writers by the time they take this class as juniors and seniors, so I had no qualms about assigning my students the production of a short video rather than a research paper.  Their assignment was to create a 3-5 minute video about one of the faiths we were not able to study in-depth over the course of the semester and to share the video in class for the benefit of their classmates.  

Before they began their projects, I shared with the class the methods I had used to create some of our chapel videos, particularly the drawings that accompanied several Really Big Chapel homilies and one of my Little Chapel lessons last spring.  I suggested three methods of producing this type of content: filming oneself drawing on paper, utilizing the screen-recording feature while drawing on an iPad, or using one of the programs available online that facilitate the process using stock imagery.  These options allow for folks with different technological and artistic skills to try this method.  

Two of my students, Ashley and Raymond, collaborated on this video to fulfill their assignment.  Ashley recorded herself drawing on paper to complement the information shared via voiceover, and Raymond used an iPad to create drawings.  This February, many in our community watched the Chinese New Year video that Raymond developed with many of his fellow US students and his sister, Sophia.  I loved to see it!
If you’ve been wondering about the iPad method, please check out this video, in which I draw a May Day scene and show a bit of the process.  I use an iPencil and an app called Procreate to create the drawings, but there are lots of options.  I am happy to help if anyone would like to try this in the classroom!

On Movie Soundscapes & Growing to Trust Ourselves: A Conversation with Ray McFarland

Ray McFarland is many things.  He is an award-winning, beloved faculty member.  He is an accomplished actor and singer.  He is keeper of our beautiful Center for Performing Arts. He is the first to remind colleagues that “our St. Andrew’s community is a family.”   But one thing he would be the first to point out is he is not a lover of all-things technology.  Nevertheless, it has been positively inspiring to watch Ray’s evolution with these tools we love-hate during the past year.  It shouldn’t have surprised me that when we recently caught up about a fabulous newly-designed assignment the theme of the day would be the importance of “learning to trust yourself.”   Of course, Ray sang the theme in relation to one of his burgeoning students.  But we faculty could all use a little extra dose of that self trust after the year we’ve had.

Ray, I heard you created this totally new assignment for Theater Tech because of all of the things you can’t do this year that you normally do . . . what was it? 

Well, basically I’ve had to completely “overhaul” the Theatre Tech curriculum this year  , because most of the time [in normal, non-covid years] we’re constantly designing and building sets and hanging and rehanging theatre  lights  for the multiple Middle School and Upper School plays and musicals  we produce every year.  Most people do not realize it, but the CPA is truly a working Theatre…there are very few weeks during the school year that we are not actively building sets on the stage.   Of course we do spend a couple of days  prior to the beginning of a build in actual “classwork”… looking at videos or photos of set designs for the specific show from Broadway and/or Regional theatre productions, talking about the  needs of the play regarding the historic period, doing pencil sketches and then mechanical drawings with measurements that we refer to during the build.  Sometimes it feels like a “you learn by doing it class”  but that is also part of the fun of the class…very few days are ever the same.

    For example…recently  we have been  working on a unit about how sound effects can be used to enhance a production….and specifically  how by  sampling and manipulating even one or two specific sounds  you can strongly enhance or literally change the audience’s feeling about and understanding  of the story being told. Creative sound manipulation is done all the time in movies and television and I’m trying to get them to see that the same process can be used effectively in  “live “ theatre also.  Sound in modern theatre is much more than just basic voice amplification and the occasional sound effect  like  gunshots or dogs barking. Over 60% of what an audience “gets” is what they see…so the 40% of what they “hear” has to be very specific.  Humans react to sound cues from the time we are born… certain sounds cause specific reactions… therefore we can “control” to a certain extent how an audience will react by selecting, producing,  and highlighting those sounds.

Oh that’s so lovely: a study in sound.  It has so much relevance for all of the digital media we are consuming right now!

And it’s basically the same thing I work on with the actors. We experiment with the way you say  a word or line…. the pitch you use, the force you use.  It’s these fine little differences that we make in how something sounds that insures that each individual audience member is going to react to it in a particular way…hopefully the way  the author intended. But you have to learn to be specific in your choices by thinking  through multiple options centered around the idea….” this is how I need you to react…so “THIS” is how I can best lead you there with the way I make it sound.

Okay so give us all the details.  How did you engage students in this study of sound? 

Well in non-covid times,  we would have talked about the basic “needs” of the show…the sound effects that we have to have and occasionally some music that we could play before the show and during Intermission…and MAYBE some background music to use during a scene. But now that we have the luxury of additional study and planning time ….we have been looking at various scripts and examples of scenes from movies and TV shows and talking about how sound is used, almost constantly, in these productions to enhance the emotional content being presented…by creating an almost continuous “soundscape,” which is comprised of not only the dialogue, but also background music, environmental sounds, special effect sounds, etc.   The additional sounds are  there.. you hardly even actually notice them…but they are just as important as the dialogue in some cases….they don’t,  as such, “stick out”….you are just affected by them.

    So… the assignment  was to make a maximum of a two minute video, about any subject matter,  and put your own  original “sound-scape” to it. Lots of students do this all the time with their phones, taking pictures and making little short films…this assignment is just more focused…the sounds chosen were to enhance the understanding of the video.   A major point of this assignment was also that it be done as a collaboration…so….the students were divided into groups of three.  My reasoning for this is a point that I continually talk about… that no matter what  profession you might be  going  into… you’ve got to be able to work as part of a group… doctors, lawyers, any profession….  you’ve got to be able to collaborate and work “with” people… to really succeed in something. Your individual effort must be 100%, but it’s about the group working together. 

Oh that’s fabulous . . . love how you set the stage for the importance of collaboration.  So what kind of things did they end up creating?

In one group  two of the students were on our school  basketball team. So they put together  a video of them playing in actual basketball games and added sound effects…some they created themselves (Foley sound effects) and some they found on line or from recordings. Another group created a story using one of their  little brother’s army men and a pet turtle that became “the monster attacking the troops”.  Action adventure was sort of a common theme. 

     I was very pleased with the work each one of the groups did…videos were clever and the sound selections were interesting. The “yes they really got it !!!! ( a.k.a. “ teacher moment”) came from a group comprised of three students that had been in the class last year also…two strong “Techies” and one that was not so strong…he always did what was asked of him but he never went beyond the required. This one particular student, “J”, is a sweet guy, nice guy, always so polite. He sits and listens to everything being talked about , always tries to do whatever I ask him to do… but whenever I  call on him and say, “what do you think about this” . .or ..”how would you suggest we try to do this.” [he would say] “Oh… well… I don’t know….”  then he would look away, almost seeming to be embarrassed.

We all have students just like this.  So much potential just waiting to bloom!

There are always students that, as a teacher, you know  that they have the ability to do something, but  they just have not learned to trust themselves yet…they haven’t learned to trust their own creative thinking and have not developed the courage to express it.   To me, this is something that the study of Fine Arts can really help a student  with…thinking creatively and working together as a creative team toward a common goal.  As in anything you do…. you don’t advance until you learn to trust yourself. 

Beautiful.  Well did he get excited about the assignment right away? 

 Not really… He did the camera work, but did not want to be “on camera” acting in  it. He participated in finding the limited number of sounds they initially added…but mainly  he just agreed with what the other team members found to use.  On the due date the group submitted this video;  originally  it was very average… Semi cute…  a semi funny little chase scene  around the CPA, back in the workroom, coming out on the side, playing like they’re climbing fences, shooting guns at each other.. That was it. It hit the marks of the assignment…just average in creativity.  Honestly I was disappointed..I hate “cute.”

Click HERE to view the original video composed collaboratively by J Walters-Demerritt, Burkitt Anderson, and Jasper Jones.

At this point  the individual work began.  Each member of the group had to  take the  original video and adapt  the sound effects.  Maybe it was  by adding  background music  or changing the music that was originally used. Maybe  it was finding some different or better  sound effects…like  …rather than using a  “Star Wars” space age gun shot sound,  maybe the better choice would be the  sound of a real machine gun… or in order to create a  contrasting effect,  by using the sound of a child’s pop gun…. something that’s unexpected…maybe it’s intended to create humor where humor is not expected… Basically…. use sounds  that will  totally change “the feel” of the original film..

Whoa okay now this is getting seriously interesting.  You are pushing them to consider just how central revision as a process is!  What did each student in the group come up with?

    One of the students  added  continuous  background music, which they did not have originally.  It gave the video a very energetic flow. . .much more of a true  action adventure feeling.

Click HERE to view the revised video by Burkitt Anderson. The addition of the action adventure music and sound effects made the original movie much more enjoyable.

 Another student added  different gun sounds and little bits and pieces of different music throughout the video….some action adventure sounds, some sad music sounds for  when her character “got killed” in the video.  It was interesting but it made the video rather choppy. ..the sounds dominated rather than enhanced the story being told 

And then we had J’s movie.  

Click HERE to view J. Walters-Demerritt’s video, which had powerful impact with just a few creative choices.

NOW THIS IS CREATIVE THINKING. What he did  not only changed the “feel” of the piece, he created a completely different idea. First …  the film was no longer in color… It was in black and white. He took out all of the original gun sounds.  Now, I don’t know where he found  the background music he added, but it sounds exactly like somebody sitting at a piano back in the early 1900’s playing music as an accompaniment for a silent movie….which is what his video truy became. To me, he took a very average short video and created a fun and interesting “silent movie.” Now, my point is …this kid  really used his IMAGINATION….and he took a huge chance.. He (somehow) knew about silent movies. He knew what the music they used back then sounded like. He knew that the tempo of the movie was faster because of the cameras that they had back at that time.  My point is….he knew about the genre, saw a potential connection,  and  he finally trusted himself enough to go out on a limb and do this. And, it reaffirmed in my mind, that they know so much more than they think they know, if you can just find the “avenue” that will give them a chance to express it.. He was SO PROUD of the reaction the entire class gave his work…they totally flipped out…he literally beamed !

Ray, I’m tearing up.  What a powerful shared classroom moment.  

 To me, it is  a good thing even if it is only for that wonderful moment when  the other members of his group  and the class looked at his film and said   to him “How did you do that?” and  “I  had no idea you could do this”, and  “I never would have thought about that” ….,BUT HE DID.   He created a truly original project.  Again….it’s back to the trust factor.  It can seem so daunting until you finally let down your guard and try… and you have those little increments of success…but  soon you learn that success comes when you learn to believe in yourself.  

You’ve said something to this effect several times in this interview.  Why is instilling a sense of self confidence such a theme in your teaching philosophy?

I was that little boy soprano, you know, growing up,  and everybody said, “Oh, your singing sounds so pretty,” ….and that was great, singing in the church and school choirs and musicals…but I was scared to death every time I had to perform…I was so afraid I would make a mistake.  It was not until a teacher in High School helped me see that I did have strong natural abilities but I needed to develop them. So I started studying voice and  not only did those natural skills develop but  mostly my self confidence grew also.  Then every time I had the opportunity to perform it became “Yes, I can do that.. Yes. I can stand in front of a bunch of people and be absolutely comfortable with letting them hear what I can do.  Now ….I’ve been doing it for years …but  I still get nervous before I walk out on stage , but I have learned to trust myself and the talents I have….so as soon as I step out on stage the nerves go away and the fun for me begins.

I can’t imagine you NOT being utterly accomplished in all things!

I was the world’s worst actor. Oh my God. I have a review of a musical I was in when  I was in high school at Jackson’s Little Theater, where New Stage is right now.  The reviewer said ““Ray McFarland is quite a talent, he’s quite the singer. The acting is not  there yet…  But BOY CAN HE SING”. ok… I’ve got to work on that acting thing.” So I did.

But again, back to the student …when I told him how proud I was of his work,  he was like, “really?”  I replied “Dude, do you have any idea what you did? I mean, all of the different choices YOU made and the clear and precise steps that YOU took?”  He said “Well, yes, but I was afraid I was making a mistake. . .that  I was going too far.”  I told him “it’s not about possibly going too far. It’s about what you did. You trusted yourself, you decided that “this is what I’m going to do” and  you did it. I added “And by the way the  technical work is great and would do you mind if I share it?” His face lit up and he’s said, “Oh, absolutely, please do.”

  So …that kid now has reached a HIGHER level. My goal or my hope is that this confidence level that he’s reached right now will allow him to take another  step, not only  in this class, but in anything else that he’s doing. Because you know, the important thing is we’re all working toward the same goal,  no matter what class you’re in.  We really don’t teach them  what to think, but really how to think, how to feel about learning, and hopefully about trusting how they really feel about things around them.  Chances are, it’s probably going to work out to be a pretty good thing… if you trust in it. 

The other piece that I think is genius is how you narrowed the scope to “ this is a unit about sound.”  That’s something we can all do in all of our classes, right?  Do one thing at a time because as a novice, I can’t handle thinking about 16 different things, right? Design, lighting, construction,  and dialogue. And I really think that’s a powerful takeaway for all of us in terms of like, how much do we ask students to do at a given moment? 

I think it’s one of those things that we as teachers forget, because if you look at any profession, it’s specialization, any doctor in the operating room, his thing is making the cuts. That’s all he does. He’s got an anesthesiologist that handles something else,  a respiratory therapist , he’s got nurses that are standing there and assisting in the room; the radiologist that’s going to be watching. It takes a team doing what each one does best. So in an assignment, you know, like you’re saying, be very specific, let them have this moment of, of absolute success within this realm. They made the movie together. Now you are the sound engineer. How can you make it even better? 

When you got my attention and showed me Jay’s movie in the library that afternoon, there was like a gasp .. . like, and I don’t even have the tools or the knowledge base to really know why that other video was so distinct. And it just felt right. Like what I saw his video, but you have at least the tools to explain, like, here’s why, right? 

Thank you very much. And I agree with that on a level, but my point in a class like this,  YES YOU DO have the tools . . . you HAVE experienced it before…It is in your head… and what we have to learn as creative people is to realize that  “It’s there”,  maybe not all of the parts needed, but I CAN USE WHAT I KNOW,  and figure out the rest..  It’s focusing your creative abilities…focusing that incredible IMAGINATION we all have.  “J”  probably saw a silent movie at some point in his life…and liked it.  When presented with a creative outlet he thought, “well, let me use that.”  Maybe it was watching the TV show Beverly Hillbillies where, you know, he saw a silent movie, and  he thought, “that’s funny, look how they are jumping around”  And then he, when he had this assignment to deal with, he looked at it and decided “well, you know, what would it look like IF I TRIED TO DO THIS?”  And that’s the step that’s important .It’s those little  steps of CREATIVE growth. And for him, this was a huge step…and a successful one. 

    You know, maybe this will be that first  step for him. Maybe this will be the step where he goes, “Well, I did it there….  Now I can do it here.”  We all love those moments….it’s why we teach.

In the Studio: The Relativity of Color

Written by Jessica Farris

We all probably know that the elements of art are what artists use to create a work of art. They’re often referred to as our building blocks, or, as I like to tell my students, they’re our Legos! To keep things interesting, each year students explore the elements from a new lens. For the last few weeks, third graders have been learning about the element COLOR, and more specifically, about the science of color. So what is color exactly? Ask a third grader and you might get a different answer than you’d expect. They know color isn’t something that exists “out in the world” but is something that happens in each of us. Learning that color is our brain’s interpretation of different wavelengths of light, third graders have discovered through testing and observation that the brain is not always a reliable narrator!

We’ve been looking to artist Josef Albers for inspiration and knowhow, not that you’ll find any answer key in his book The Interaction of Color! Albers spent his entire life observing, testing, documenting, teaching, and writing about color. One of his discoveries, now known as the Bezold effect, is that a single color can look like a completely different color depending on context (i.e. the time of day, neighboring colors, etc.).

In the spirit of Albers, third graders have been making their own tests, hypotheses, and observations. Sally Stover is one said student. To make her experiment, she picked four colors, or constants, to test: lilac, charcoal, lime green, and burnt sienna. She too wanted to see if these colors could appear differently when placed by other colors. Making three rows of colors with varying values, she worked from darkest, to medium, to lightest. These base colors were her variables. Sally cut her four constants into smaller squares and placed each color on its own row from left to right. What she discovered was amazing! After the experiment, Sally shared her observations with me, saying, “The colors [constants] on the darkest appear the lightest. The colors on the middle row seem medium. Colors on the lighter squares seem darkest.” Even though Sally herself cut each constant from the same piece of construction paper, each constant now appeared not to be one color but several!  Look closely at her work above and see what your own brain perceives!

Pace’s Pack News: Two Students’ Innovative Approach to News Broadcasting

The innovation point is the pivotal moment when talented and motivated people seek the opportunity to act on their ideas and dreams.”

W. Arthur Porter

Krisha Patel and Asha Malhotra, two talented 4th grade students, were motivated by their experience with distance learning to act on a creative idea that has grown into a new weekly and favorite tradition for their homeroom classmates and friends. Through collaboration and teamwork, these innovative students have created a news broadcast series titled “Pace’s Pack News.” Complete with upcoming school events, project and assignment deadlines, jokes and quotes of the week, and spotlights on their classmates’ accomplishments, their broadcasts entertain while providing classroom information for remote and in-person learners.

So what motivated these students to serve their community in such an innovative way? Asha explains, “My goal is to help people stay organized. For example, we watched it with our class.  When it was the upcoming events part, dressing up like a book character was mentioned. I heard someone say, ‘Oh yeah! I forgot!’ ” Krisha agrees: “My goal is to spread information to people who are maybe out of school or want a review, and also just to entertain them.” Viewers are certainly entertained! Pace’s Pack News covers the homeroom’s events along with motivational quotes, self-care reminders, humor, and what Asha calls “comedic intermission.”  Krisha adds, “The quote came from a job we have in our class. We have a job where someone has to bring a weekly one. And there’s a quote, so why not add a joke?”

When asked what inspired them to create a recorded broadcast, Asha explained, “It’s kind of funny actually. The night before, I was in my bed half asleep, and I had this half-awake dream and idea and thought I would email Krisha in the morning.” The next morning, Asha asked her classmate, Krisha, to join her on a Meet to discuss. “At first, I wasn’t sure because our class is already doing a newspaper, so would it make sense to do that? We were super nervous about the first recording, but then we just did it,” explained Krisha. 

Their first attempts didn’t come without bumps in the road and tech glitches to work out. Using Google Meets, the girls realized they needed a 3rd person present to record, so they recruited Asha’s sister, Priya, as well as Mrs. Pace at times to help with recordings. They also realized they needed to utilize a variety of tools in order to make the presentation engaging visually for students. “We use Google Slides with effects and one person presents their screen while we record,” Krisha explained. When faced with challenges, the theme of perseverance and learning from mistakes resounds when discussing this project with the students. “The first time took about 5 takes, but the second time only took us 2,” Asha said.

Krisha and Asha haven’t stopped with Pace’s Pack News recorded broadcasts. The girls also created an accompanying website for students that houses important information as well as links to the broadcasts. The website even features ads created by Krisha using the app Inkscape.

The Pace’s Pack News website features student-made ads for activities organized by classmates.

Krisha describes how her teacher, Susan Pace, inspired her to create the website: “Mrs. Pace showed us how she made a website, and I got inspired from that, so I made a rough draft, and I showed it to Asha. She went over it and made some changes she thought were necessary, and so we started working together on it.” When asked what experience they had creating websites, it’s clear these girls don’t shy away from exploring through trial and error. Asha explains, “Krisha told me about the Google site app, so I went there by myself and just started tinkering around with it.” After exploring and playing around with the app, the students now have a successful website, providing their classmates with options for accessing information as well as tons of opportunities to collaborate and get involved with the creation of the news. 

If you’re wondering how two busy students make time in their schedules to create these successful news outlets for their classmates, the answer lies in teamwork and collaboration via Google tools. Asha explains, “We both work on one slide, and when someone else has an idea, they will put it there and tinker around on it.” Krisha adds, “We both edit it until we agree that it looks good and is finished. We have classmates send us pictures of things to be featured, too. The deadline is Wednesday by 4:30, and our broadcast goes out every Thursday at 1:00, which is during read-aloud time.”

One way other classmates get involved is by responding to the girls’ call to email and submit photos and ideas for future episodes.

So what’s next for these two innovative students? Krisha hopes to see the news expand beyond their homeroom. “We’re both going in person soon, so we might try to spread it to 4th grade, when we will be allowed to interview and involve others.” They’ve also received lots of feedback and ideas from classmates and hope to involve more 4th grade students. After each viewing, the girls have received multiple emails from classmates, and they’ve created sign-ups to feature photos and share ideas for other topics. If one thing is clear, when Asha and Krisha set out to innovate, they find a way or make one! 

Asha and Krisha have been amazing students throughout the year, frequently recognized as model virtual learners for their ability to tackle difficult content from home.  Both girls quickly adapted each piece of technology used in instruction for personal use throughout the year. This is just one example of their innovative and tireless pursuit of learning. The news broadcast and supplemental website were created through a collaborative process the pair developed entirely independent of me. I was delighted to have been included in the second broadcast and look forward to future publications.

Susan Pace, 4th Grade Teacher

To view the entertaining and informative first episode of Pace’s Pack News, click here

Cultivating Classroom Community: A Teacher’s Approach to Maintaining Morning Meetings

If you travel the hallways of the lower school immediately after carpool, you will observe in each classroom a beautiful practice of community building through daily Responsive Classroom Morning Meetings.  During these challenging times filled with COVID-19 mitigation strategies and remote learning, teachers have utilized a variety of creative approaches to hold these important class meetings in a safe way.  Whether streaming your live morning meeting for different cohorts or trying to foster a community while fully virtual, this practice has been a challenge.  Mary McCall McArthur, 1st grade teacher, shares her strategies for continuing morning meetings even in crisis and reminds us how important it is to prioritize this community building time now more than ever.

How have you seen morning meetings benefit and positively impact your students?

I find there are many benefits to having a consistent morning meeting, but one of my favorites is the community respect. In the beginning of the year it sets the tone for a safe space where students’ voices are heard and respected. This pattern of listening and sharing not only further develops their social skills, but also infiltrates other parts of our day, too, making the learning experience smoother since children have learned to respect one another’s opinions

Describe a typical morning meeting in your classroom.

During “normal” teaching times, MM procedures are pretty textbook: greeting, share, activity, message. I’ve found it’s a much more meaningful time if the MM has been planned. Miss. Doggett keeps the first grade team’s document up to date with MM lessons, too, which is super helpful. Children sit around the carpet, in an assigned spot, and greet one another by name. This year we’ve invented silly ways to say hello that stay compliant with COVID guidelines. A couple of their favorites are “air knucks” and “rollercoaster waves.” Next, we take turns sharing. Children love “Would you rather” prompts, so I try to incorporate them weekly, usually a Wacky Wednesday question, encouraging them to support their answers with reasons (can I get a what-what for a writer’s workshop plug?). Often they get excited so I remind the listeners to use the nonverbal “me too” signal. Other times, I’ll incorporate a social-emotional skill, an academic riddle, or a joke of the day- basically trying to keep children engaged in a light-hearted, fun way but with an academic or SEL goal at the forefront, just like other instructional parts of our day.

Describe how you adapted your morning meeting during times of virtual learning this year while still fostering a classroom community. 

When planning a virtual morning meeting, I liked to create a Google Slides presentation to show during our Meet. Often I would present my screen before others joined the meeting with a prompt. This prompt would use their white board and dry erase markers, which have been sent home each time we’ve been virtual, and would connect back to an academic or SEL skill- sometimes it was to draw an emoji for how you’re feeling today or to solve an equation. This connected back to how we sometimes “check-in” in the classroom before MM began. During full virtual learning, we continued the hands-free greetings we started and practiced in the classroom. Something that came in handy was using our class numbers to say hello. We used the same order each time and the children became fluent and comfortable doing this virtually. It was a nice way for everyone to practice the computer skills necessary for our small groups later in the day, too. Each day we were virtual, I would present a “would you rather” question for sharing time. The children loved the frequency of them as well as the silliness. Giving them an anticipatory activity kept them in high attendance for our Morning Meetings, too! I let go of the academic and SEL topics I would normally grasp during this time because it kept things lighthearted and I was still addressing those other things with whiteboard check ins.

Any practical tips for those who stream virtual students into a morning meeting that’s happening on campus?

For my Saints@Home students, I’ve tried to communicate with their parents what we’ll be doing ahead of time if children need to be prepared. This is another reason why I love to have a lesson plan for the week. I can easily look ahead to see what they may need, which helps them feel more involved and prepared. When streaming into a MM on campus, I like to prop the device on a chair and place that student in their spot. When we’ve had students quarantine, this was one way that made it feel more normal! I also had a buddy assigned to the device to let me know if the Saints@Home or virtual learner had something to share that I had potentially missed.

Mary McCall and June Newburger having fun while leading a remote Morning Meeting during quarantine. 

What is one tip you would share with teachers that has helped your morning meetings go well in different learning formats?

Staying consistent in my morning meeting routines in the classroom made the transition to virtual learning smooth. I kept the same predictable pattern so children would feel the sense of community and the safe-space-feel, even when we weren’t sharing the same physical space.

Click here to see an example of one of Mary McCall’s Morning Meeting Google Slides presentations.

Dante’s Inferno Meets Meme Culture

Madison Word shares her experience with Dante’s Inferno by riffing with a popular meme image.

Like it or not, memes are a firm part of our culture. They can be offensive, problematic, overly-simplistic, derivative, and we could all go on with some not-so-nice adjectives. But they can also be incredibly witty, weirdly compelling and sometimes poignant, and they are most certainly quickly digestible and easy to share/adapt for other purposes. In other words, memes are representative of the best and the worst that the Internet has brought. Dr. Lara Kees, one of our fresh and fabulous faces on campus, decided to leverage all of the good she could out of the genre. By pairing the old with the new, she figured out an alternative assessment for her students that was simultaneously challenging and also just plain fun. Read on to learn more from Lara. Who knows . . . you too may find yourself adding a meme portion to your next test!

English 10 students read part of Dante’s Inferno, and Honors English 10 students read all of it. On the Inferno test, I included several commonly used memes as templates. Students could earn bonus points by creating a meme that expressed something specific from Dante’s Inferno. I didn’t expect the memes to be so successful, but the meme templates automatically suggest certain emotional situations and responses. Students easily identified the emotions called for, and they readily found those emotions’ analogs in the Inferno! Some students chose to represent their own reactions to parts of the Inferno, while others chose an emotional situation within the story of the Inferno itself. Either way, I think the memes speak to Dante’s genius in depicting aspects of human nature–and to our students’ creativity in melding past & present! 

Hailey Burns finds emotional compatibility between a cat meme and the author of the Inferno.
Dylan Bleck channels this dinosaur to explore the Inferno.
Jack Crawford tries out text summary by meme.
Patten Lane boldly takes on the character drama of the Inferno via meme.
Who says dog memes don’t belong in English class? Nico Buford waxes philosophical about the strange mismatch of time periods and religious expectations.
Anna Everly entitles her meme: “Dante starts to stray from the straight path.”
Bailey Bryan plays with photo and text meme manipulation to get his point across.
Sarah Belk Poulson makes a hard-hitting statement questioning the fairness in the moral and religious implications of the plot.
Catherine Zhou exhibits clear understanding of the meme genre with her simple “Dante.” in the second image.
Connor Dunnigan draws on this distinctive doggy’s facial expression for his own visceral reaction to Dantes’s Inferno.
Lily Hillhouse makes a similar point about the same striking part of the Inferno using a very different meme.
Jamie Lee asks a pointed question via meme.
Joy Dhar takes on this popular meme to show his own transaction with the text.
Anna Maria Martin illustrates Virgil’s sense of pleasure when Dante stops sympathizing with “sinners.”

On Teamwork, Survival, & Homework that Energizes

I don’t know about you all, but the theme of 2020-2021 has felt a lot like survival.  As if global pandemics weren’t enough to reckon with, we are all just now thawing out from a freak February ice storm.  So in more ways than one, it seems completely apropos that eighth graders are currently steeped in that classic coming-of-age tale of survival, Lord of the Flies.  And in a time when we’ve been so recently reminded of the importance of having a safe, warm shelter to weather out the storm of life, it’s pretty timely that Andrew Cohen engaged his students in designing their own how-to-build guides for  novel-inspired island shelters.  I had been meaning to catch up with Andrew anyway since he’s the cool new kid on campus, and the chance to hear a bit about this project gave me just the excuse.  And if you’ll indulge me in stretching the analogy a bit, you could safely say that Andrew’s words offered a basic survival guide for us as educators in the mostly-paradise (only occasionally hostile) islands of PK-12 classrooms. 

Eighth grader Verena Bhagat provides some Lord of the Flies-inspired survival tips for stranded islanders while exercising her informative writing muscles.

Andrew, from your email it sounds like eighth graders are designing shelters in teams as a response to Lord of the Flies? What a great idea?  How’d you arrive at this?
I’ve worked with projects before, but not this particular project. And I didn’t invent this project, though I put my stamp on it by adding elements of engineering and the arts. It’s been probably about eight years since I’ve taught the Lord of the Flies, and I haven’t taught it to eighth graders before, so I figured something fun would be key. But also, we had not yet considered exposition, one of our three drafting targets. So rather than approach explanatory writing in a simple step-by-step essay, why not embrace a project and emphasize the 21st century skills of teamwork and digital fluency. That said, I would have loved it if we could have somehow created physical shelters, building these on campus, or even better driving the kids out into the forest and leaving them stranded for some experiential learning, returning on Monday to assess their mettle. Instead, we created wikis, with each team of students offering their researched insights to answer the question, How do you survive when stranded on a deserted island or in the wilderness? Their step-by-step guides were enhanced through the drafting process, as the key English components of explanatory writing are clarity and precision: readers need to be able to follow your steps to success.

Bhagat utilized step-by-step drawings that correlated with her written instructions. To view all of the entries, see the class wiki here.

Oh interesting!  So they didn’t actually build shelters for this, but they practiced clarity in writing words to guide the creation of shelters? What a cool way to blend an English Language Arts Standard (how-to-writing) with like more design or sciencey approaches.   Can you tell us more about how you set that up?

For step by step details, here’s a link to the assignment sheet I used to set this up.   So students begin with STEM in considering the durability and weight of materials that they’re researching. I asked them to enhance their ideas by using an “if / then” then approach: if the island you’re stranded on has bamboo, use this for your roof as it’s light and strong, and if no bamboo is available then you must look for… By ranking preferred methods, students are forced to use their higher-thinking skills.

Students also needed to consider construction elements regarding tools: they needed to figure out what tools they would need, and how to make these tools. In addition to engineering, we added the A in STEM to make it a STEAM project (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math). I’m always looking for ways to add the arts and design into critical thinking, and teenagers are further engaged by this approach. We considered the value of design in society, something beyond island shelters, i.e. what arts and design add to our lives to move from surviving to thriving

They had to do research and of course everything’s cited using MLA standards. They need to strengthen their abilities to cite, including formatting and citation and of images, and these research skills will help ready our middle-schoolers for ninth grade. But also—and this was a little tough for some teams—I encouraged the students to draw their own step-by-step pictures. And some kids immediately whine, “I can’t draw,” but they’re not being graded on drawing: they are being graded on the clarity of their information. We had some creative and clear stick-figure work.

Wow so this shelter how-to project ties into writing, STEAM, and general psychology about joy and motivation.  Is there anything it didn’t relate to? 

We had some great discussions about what humans need beyond air, water, shelter, and food. Our kids—especially now during current crises—are in tune with the importance of emotional wellbeing: they discovered that art can be used to raise morale and to motivate. So they looked for different ways to motivate stranded companions. We used three New York Times articles and studied intrinsic and extrinsic motivation in their own lives, and then applied this learning towards islanders looking to move beyond survival. They considered coconut soccer and other games, as well as returning home to your shelter every day with its nuances of design and artwork used to increase pride and morale. We considered morale in the novel as well, and the students began to make predictions about what happens when emotional health reaches low lows.

Okay let’s go back to the grading. Earlier you mentioned that kids are being graded on clarity of information, not their ability to draw.  Can you say more about how you graded this assignment?

So the rubric (click here for the rubric and here for the checklist) for this is what I like to call a hybrid rubric: it’s not collaborative learning, it’s not cooperative learning, it’s both. Students have a team grade—including the homepage and Works Cited—and they have individually-graded pages, where each student is responsible for one element of the overall picture. One student might focus on the art and design and one student might focus on the tools. A team might divide individual responsibility into construction or gathering materials, or designate a morale officer focusing on intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, or really in any way they deem appropriate or efficient. All of this was built into the rubric. 

That’s awesome. So how did the kids take up the invitation? 

A couple of students included videos, and none had yet included sound bites, though we have been exploring and making podcasts this year. NPR has a great article on an artist who uses a 17,000 year old conch shell.  One key goal is to get kids thinking about different ways to communicate and ideally for them to be uploaders instead of downloaders. It was fun in parts. Sometimes it was sluggish. The kids are sluggish and often need a morale boost in this year’s unique education environment. I have yet to meet some of my students face-to-face. They need that little push or pull.

I love, love all of what I’m hearing and I’m looking at the documents as you talk about them. I mean, the number one thing I think with collaborative group work or group work is such a contested sort of fixture in education. And, and the thing that I always say the most important thing is that there’s both interdependence, right. and independence. Right. And you have those two pieces so nicely in the rubric.

I like both collaborative learning and cooperative learning. But I am very fond of the hybrid model, as it forces students to truly think about what they’re doing as a team, what each is doing individually, and to take ownership for both. One of the things that we’ll have in the upcoming test is a reflective question where each student has to analyze his or her role, including the evenness of work distribution. We have some amazing students who tend to dominate these projects, and the formal reflection helps these students to think more deeply about growth regarding teamwork skills:  if  a hard-worker does all the work and shoots for that A+, what does he or she learn about teamwork? It’s great that they have the opportunity to reflect on this growth now, because 8th grade is a perfect time to develop and strengthen these skills.

Okay so this all sounds utopian, but it couldn’t all have just been a super smooth process.  What about some hiccups that students encountered along the way?

Some of the hiccups or challenges regarded teamwork.  One group had trouble and met with difficulty and I would not accept their final product. They need to re-draft. Now that they’ve seen all the work from their peers, they realize how much potential they didn’t take advantage of yet. It’s back to the drawing board for this team.

One of the things I do with the kids—and we’ve been doing this since September now—includes the division of labor and responsibility: I assign colors.  So each team has an aqua, green, yellow, and purple teammate. And so I’ll say, okay, the green teammates are liaisons—they’re the ones who are going to ask questions of me. The aqua teammates are in charge of this, the purple teammates in charge of that. And sometimes, if their teammate doesn’t fulfill his or her own responsibility, the other kids either blame that student in a forceful way, or end up doing the job for that student, which is exactly not what we want regarding the end product. But it is, I suppose, what we want as teachers during the process: kids need to discover these things, need to work as a team, and need to develop tact in communication. And so, I don’t know, I wouldn’t call it a hiccup. I call it an opportunity.

Okay then how do you deal with these scenarios when the purple teammate fails to fulfill their duty?

So for example, if the purple teammate does not hyperlink the website by the due date, it’s minus two points off of the team grade. Says so clearly in the instructions. There were some conflicts that came up, and because it’s very clear that this task was the purple teammate’s responsibility, there are opportunities for growth, communication, and conflict resolution. For one group, the yellow teammate completed this task because the purple teammate, you know, wasn’t doing it. And so there is a problem. Minus two points. As well as an opportunity. I think that some teams discovered room for growth. They are nice kids, kind and sweet, but there was bickering. Now one of the things I like to do with the kids, even if they think this is a particular challenge, I like to say, “you gotta work this out as a team. Yeah. I will mediate but it’s better for your teamwork skills if you do this on your own.” And maybe some of the kids maybe took this too far. There was one team that should have come to me. I suppose that I’m growing as a teacher as much as they are as students.

I think, I think this is, this is really interesting. I love how this entire project and the three attachments you sent me really highlight how incredibly organized and structured great projects are. Right. I think often the thought is, Oh, you’re doing a project. Like it’s open. Just tell them to do it. And they get, and we know kids don’t thrive. Right. It’s not helpful. It doesn’t push them to a particular standard. If all we say is build a shelter. Um, but to see the ways in which you scaffolded it, I think is just, can be really helpful.

I’ve done other projects in the past. I wasn’t starting from scratch, this was just the first one for Lord of the Flies. But also, I mean, I’ve had other ideas that I’ve just feel, I didn’t have the time to implement. So for example, one of the things I wanted to do, and this is something I’d like to do next year, is to game-ify the whole experience. I am creating a system where I can strand the kids on different parts of an island, where they are given certain resources, depending on where they come ashore. And then the teams have to trade with each, for tool or shelter-building resources, food, or water. There needs to be some kind of point system, though not necessarily points, so I am still asking, What are they accruing?  I have some ideas, but nothing definite yet. I’m still working it out, but I love this idea and I’ve had success with similar projects in the past and kids get excited. When kids are excited, the learning has momentum. 

What would you say to someone who said: “Wait these kinds of projects go way outside the realm of what we should be doing in an English class!” 

I mean, you know, to look at it from a literary standpoint, they can empathize with the characters to some extent. Yes. And I have seen situations where I’ve experimented with stuff like this, where the kids might, take empathy too far: Jack leads the hunters and they are aggressive and violent, and it’s not out of the realms of possibility where a group or a team in a gamified situation might employ an aggressive tactic to get what they want. This provides for interesting opportunities for reflection and values. 

Now we’ve moved on from the project, but we’re still reading Lord of the Flies. And now we’re considering values and value systems and students are writing personal essays. They’re interviewing their parents. And yeah, in fact, I wish you could have observed the last class. During the last class, I asked the kids, okay, so was this the worst homework you’ve ever had? I’d say 90% of the kids were super excited and they were energized by this homework. I’ve used this framework as an example with other teachers. This is what we want as teachers. How do we energize kids through homework? It’s not a matter of how much homework is too much, or is homework effective. It’s a matter of how do we energize students with assignments?

It’s fun. So they interview their parents in separate rooms at separate times. And they hear the difference in the answers, though they use the same questions. How did you meet mom? How did you meet dad? Whatever the case might be, they often hear the same story told differently. The kids loved it. And they were like, “Oh, I learned this about Mom. . . I never knew Dad… Or I didn’t know that my parents…” One of the questions here was What did you worry about when you were my age? “My dad worried about the same thing that I worry about!” I feel that, you know, I’ve done something good.

My dad passed away five years ago and I fortunately started interviewing him two decades ago. I learned many years ago how capturing the voices of previous generations is important. My mom is 86. My aunt is 90. They are the elders in my family, and I have interviewed both of them, and others now gone. And I mention this to the kids, and I say, for this interview, you can write it down if you’d like, but you could also record it and I encourage you to record it; I share my own experience regarding the value of having this recording and looking back years from now. And it might not seem like a big deal, but I am surprised that this year—more than any other year—my students took me up on that and recorded the interviews as podcasts. I think our work is valuable outside of the classroom, and I aspire to help my students recognize this value. 

Textbook Transformation: Ninth Graders Address Bias in World History

Blog authored by Emily Jones

Ninth graders in Emily Jones’ World History Class get practice at utilizing a critical lens to illuminate what does and doesn’t get included in their textbook. They then take action by authoring and designing textbook-style pages about a recently discovered ancient civilization located in modern-day Peru: Norte Chico.

Even though I teach world history, my course, like many other “world history” classes, still favors Western history more heavily than any other area. I would blame that on my backgrounds in both Classics and medieval European history (it is true that I can provide a depth of knowledge in those units that I can’t in others…). But the reality is that we are all products of and have inherited an educational system which not only prioritizes Western history but whose essential structure has been shaped and dominated by the West. Adjusting for these biases has been a personal and professional goal for a few years. Chipping away at my European content, adding non-European units or enriching those that already exist in my curriculum. I have tried to include my students in this process: reading an article about how and why the word “civilization” is applied to some societies and not others, noticing what museums house which artifacts and why… 

Last semester, we also evaluated the biases presented in our textbook by filling in a major gap that exists in the book’s content – the Americas pre-500 CE. Students researched Norte Chico, a relatively recently discovered ancient civilization located in modern-day Peru, and made a textbook entry modeled exactly after their own book. (I can’t take full credit for the idea behind this project. A fellow teacher of 9th grade WHI, who was also taking a Global Online Academy course this summer, shared that his students rewrite the table of contents for their textbook with a similar purpose in mind.)  Below is an example of one of the final products. The 2-page entry required students to write a “focus question,” a brief summary, and additional sub-sections that focused on three specific aspects of Norte Chico society of their choosing. Finally, students had to incorporate a map and two other relevant images. This student chose pictures that showed the ruins of Norte Chico, others chose pictures the few artifacts that have been discovered. Since there is so little information available on this civilization, I provided the resources, and the project was more a lesson in synthesizing and paraphrasing the information they read. They used Lucidpress to design. Resources included articles from Khan Academy, BBC, and NPR, and a podcast. 

I might revisit the project this semester. There are countless civilizations absent from history curricula.  My hope is that this project serves multiple purposes: learning about an understudied society, making students aware of Western biases in world history, and maybe generating some excitement about the active nature of archaeology and history.