Tuesday, February 26, 2013

A Basketball Full of Character

Teaching in a school of third thru eight graders, we rarely have presenters who can catch the attention of every age group. Yesterday we were lucky enough to have a guest speaker who held all 660 students and every member of staff in the palm of one hand while spinning a basketball in the other!
I have never seen Jim Basketball Jones present before so I was a little unsure of what to expect but what a treat. As nearly 700 people streamed into the gym from every possible direction, far from being intimidated Jim immediately took command, organizing the seating the way he wanted and teaching us about his audience expectations .He asked for us to be patient listeners, responding carefully and thoughtfully to his words and to bring forth our best efforts to participate with purpose. The ground rules established, he began to juggle and spin several basketballs and I can honestly say my jaw dropped! His skills were mesmerizing and our students were enthralled as he pulled up volunteers to spin basketballs on their fingers, their faces, on top of pens they were holding…it was a joy to behold. But this was not just an amazing spectacle, it was an hour loaded with character education.
In between tricks and stunts Jim told stories, evocative stories about children and adults he had encountered in the past who had taught him much about life and how to live it. His first tale was about a teacher at a previous presentation who had volunteered to take a shot at the hoop in the hopes of winning a basketball. She wanted to win so that she could be remembered at the school, but the consequence for missing was to do ten push-ups. When she did in fact miss, and it was obvious she was unable to complete the consequence, he asked for the other teachers to volunteer in her place. When nobody offered, the hand of a kindergartener popped up and a little boy gladly offered to take her place because he wanted to be there for his teacher, just as she was always there for him. The little boy had cerebral palsy and to everybody’s amazement the child completed the task. From that point on he was always known as “Champ” by his peers and teachers.
One tale after another conveyed moving messages about kindness, perseverance, honesty and integrity. It was thrilling to see the entire audience turn to their neighbor and declare that they were each important, that they mattered, that nothing would stand in the way of their goals. Even a game of Simple Simon provided an opportunity to demonstrate key concepts such as leadership, striving for excellence and supporting and helping each other. Jim’s concluding tale about his personal struggle with learning disabilities and eventual success left much for us to ponder and there were several misty eyes in the room.
This was a fantastic assembly for our whole school to enjoy upon our return from mid-winter break. For me, it was a compelling reminder of the power of a story well told. As a child, teachers asked Jim why he spent so much time and effort learning how to spin basketballs as it served no real purpose. His response: because it makes me happy. Maybe the most effective way to teach character education is to simply support and encourage our students to pursue their passions with courage, determination, and dedication.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Epic Fail

My daughter and I are learning to cook together. My mother’s most essential cooking utensil was a can opener so it’s an area in which I am lacking key skills, but my daughter has a creative streak with food so we are trying to figure it out together.
We trawl through online recipes, choose one that seems most appealing and challenging, shop for it and do our best to follow the instructions.  Many of our cooking adventures result in epic fails but we enjoy the process of experimenting, tweaking, adjusting and ultimately learning. Failure holds no fear for us, indeed it spurs us on to do better, and it occurs to me that I need to fail epically more often in the classroom .
My students brainstorming skills are improving. They are at the point in the year where they have established trusting relationships, and they more familiar with the routine of trying to generate 100 ideas in ten minutes with no holds barred. It is moving from ideas to action that seems to pose the greatest problem. As soon as they begin to consider their ideas they can generate just as many, if not more reasons why their ideas won’t work. They reach an impasse quickly and will tend to descend into a dulled state of defeat and inaction. Rather than attempting a challenging solution and learning from their mistakes they prefer to choose not to try at all.
The question is, how do I help my students attempt to solve a problem with the same fearless enthusiasm that my daughter attempts a new recipe? I need to make my classroom more like my kitchen; a fun place for messy experimentation, a safe place to make mistakes and a place to celebrate success. I can make a start by modeling failure more often.
Instead of being just a coach and guide I am going to try and become more of an active participant. When I ask students to solve challenging math problems I am going to attempt solve some myself. When I ask them to build something, I will build too. When I ask them to play a game, I will play too. Being an active participant will enable me to demonstrate what it looks like to take risks, to dive in, evaluate, consider alternatives, rethink and try again. It will also provide opportunities for open and purposeful conversation about failure, about redefining success and about character traits like grit, determination and perseverance.
As educators we constantly hear that it’s not about the tool, (the iPad, the interactive whiteboard…the can opener) it’s what you do with it. Well my new learning tool is going to be failure, maybe my plan will fail fantastically, but the process will be epic.


Wednesday, February 13, 2013

A Tale of Two Classrooms

I have been feeling quite unbalanced for the last few weeks because my math and science classes have been so diametrically opposite.
The mid-year assessment window in my district is coming to a close and my math students have faced a battery of assessments. During the last two weeks they have taken end of unit tests, NWEA online tests,  mid-year tests, basic fact tests and the Orleans-Hanna algebra prognosis test. The classroom has been filled with silence broken only by coughing, sneezing, sighing, pencil pushing and head scratching. The usual fun banter has been banished, collaboration has been banned, engaging debate driven out, and I have been…bored! My role has been that of a spectator, watching from the sidelines. I’ve been watching the introverts happily and quietly calculating away to their hearts content, watching the extroverts struggling to contain themselves, watching kids become agitated, frustrated, anxious, weary, sick. It’s such an alien environment and I’m eager to get back into the mathematical fray.
In stark contrast my science classes have been fun filled and high energy. We have been participating in the Gravity Cruiser Challenge from the award winning A World in Motion Program. Working in collaborative teams of three, the students have been designing and constructing a vehicle that is powered by gravity. The basic model is comprised of a weighted lever, connected to an axle by string, which rotates on its fulcrum; as the weight descends it causes the axle attached to the string to rotate, propelling the cruiser forward. Once the students have the basic model they play around with variables to make the cruiser travel as far as possible. Concepts explored include potential and kinetic energy, friction, inertia, momentum, diameter, circumference, measurement, and graphing.
It’s been exciting to watch the kids struggle with this challenge, posing theories, testing hypotheses, thinking outside the box. Science, technology, engineering and math have burst into life as my kids are crawling on the floor, under tables, over tables, up the hallway, down the hallway trying to outdo their personal best distance. We’ve also been fortunate to have visiting experts join us to share their wisdom. Relatives with engineering experience have spent their afternoons with us, getting down on their knees and offering help with the process. It’s been wonderful to team teach with dads, uncles, and cousins and watch them struggle to maintain a supporting role and not just tell the kids how to solve the problem. One parent went home and built his very own cruiser which he eagerly shared with the class, demonstrating beautifully how engineers love the challenge of solving a problem. The conversation and learning that is taking place is exhilarating.
Tomorrow all 220 fifth and sixth grade students will celebrate Valentine’s Day with a cruise off! All the gravity cruisers will be put to the test to find the winning design and I can’t think of a better way to celebrate not only the holiday, but also the end of the testing window and the wonderful learning that takes place when the whole community comes together to work and explore together.