Tending our Gardens

(This is my most recent entry, cross-posted from the Cooperative Catalyst.)


 Ah, Spring. Now is the time where my family and I roll up our sleeves and dig into the dirt, preparing the soil for herbs, vegetables and flowers– up-rooting weeds, churning through the sun hardened soil and squishing our feet through the newly watered beds. We all have different approaches to accomplishing the same tasks. Personally, I love sifting the soil with my bare hands and don’t mind the layers of dirt caking my fingers. My mom on the other hand, wears gloves and wields a handy shovel.

As I was weeding the pots, I began to think about how these different approaches could be applied to look at school. Some schools take a gloved approach to learning- tackling material at a distance. But others dig right into the curriculum, unafraid to get their hands dirty in the process of truly learning. I think that in the world of education, the two approaches have different impacts. With gloves, you can only absorb and learn what’s on the surface, a mere fraction of the total amount of dirt (knowledge). But by peeling off the gloves and allowing yourself to get dirty, to really dig into the material, the richer soil (knowledge/information) is unearthed.

Like all plants and other growing things, students need to be cared for. A fine crop of produce is the result of lots of hours of weeding, adequate water and nurturing. Like plants, a well-rounded group of students emerge out of similar conditions. With guidance and nourishment, coupled with a hands on base system, plants and students alike flourish. Schools call their teachers to be gardeners, helping the students bloom.

It’s important that gardens get tended to properly, and as gardeners, teachers help care for their garden. Without a solid roots system and enough care, students and plants alike can burn out, over powered by the weeds and obstacles in our lives. Even though in school, one straggling student often passes by unnoticed, a parched plant is easily discoverable. If we adopt the garden mindset, then these parched or struggling students will get the care they need to spring back up and flourish. And rejuvenating one student energizes others to seek help when needed.

Over my years in school, I’ve seen that the best teachers are the ones who control the class while simultaneously encouraging their students and making an effort to learn alongside them. These “effective gardeners” have made a huge impact on my life. Thanks to teachers like Ms. G, Mr. A, Mr. B, Dr. M and Mr. S, and my parents (Mr. S and Dr. L) who have pushed me to be the best I can be and believed in me, I am who I am and where I am today.

But what if not only our teachers were gardeners? What if enthusiastic teachers helped students take control of their own upkeep, like a virtually self-sustaining plant that requires only a weed check and a trim every now and then?

Let’s make our classrooms like gardens, where learning is always in season!

Water…slowly dripping away

My grandmother said some wise words to me today. “You can make money, but you can’t make water.” She said “water is not in our hands, it’s in natures.”

“Well,” said I, “then we better treat mother nature right.”

This exchange struck me as simple yet profound. Even with all the riches in the world, a billionaire still needs water.

If we don’t pay close attention and treat nature right, we could be screwed. Imagine a world, where we have to heat our air to get enough water to sustain life. But even that is iffy. Imagine a life without water. You can’t, because it doesn’t exist.

To me, my grandmothers words were like an eye opener. For years I’ve heard the speeches and read the articles about water shortages, and resource wars but haven’t payed much attention. But now, I’m listening. Mother nature I’m on your side for good.

But that said, my grandmother later came back to me and told me- “Don’t be a miser either.” It does no good to cheat yourself while preserving nature. Water has to be consumed and utilized. We just need to be conscious about how we use it. In the world of nature, a little goes a long way. Even one drop could tip the scale. Imagine that it was the last drop of water on earth. What would you do? How far would you go to get it, save it, and exploit it to do as much as it could?

Helping Hands: Voluntary or not?

Somedays, I wish someone would voluntarily come up to me, ask me, “Do you need help?” I’ve gotten, “Can you help me?” before and I have no qualms asking others the same. Yet I wonder if my expectations are too high. Is it unrealistic to expect someone to reach out? How often do I do that for others in my daily life? How do I explain this to those around me without coming across selfish or self-centered? Should I let others know or simply keep waiting and watching?

I’ve been warned occaisionally that if help isn’t asked for then it’s usually not needed and therefore not helpful. Does this apply in my case? Does asking for help make it feel less like help? I wouldn’t mind the occasional helping hand stretched out to pull me up. But I can see the flip side too. Sometimes, help comes across as annoying, because even though the helper has the best intentions, the receiver may not always be so keen to get the aid.

These thoughts reminded me of one of my first ever lengthy-ish blog posts: https://itsallaboutthejourney97.wordpress.com/2011/05/24/embrace-even-the-smallest-amount-of-help/. This post touches upon how even the smallest bit of help should be regarded as ok becuase that’s sometimes all someone can do to show they care. It really helped me adopt a better mindset towards helping others and accepting all help graciously, whether you needed it or not.

So maybe then, it’s alright to be on the lookout for that diamond person in the rough sea of life, the one willing to give help without expecting appreciation in return. And I promise, if this happens to me, I will be sure to appreciate it for the sentiment behind it. Because it’s truly the thought that counts.

Caution: Work in Progress

(This is my post for Cooperative Catalyst- coopcatalyst.wordpress.com. Check it out!)

Perfection. It’s the unattainable. It’s what counselors tell children to shy away from. “Nobody’s perfect,” they say, “And who cares (about perfection)?” The answer is, apparently our society. In a world where children face a deluge of information from a variety of sources,  the quest to be perfect is omnipresent and never ending. Parents and teachers alike blame image skews on the media. But no one has stopped to examine the institution where children spend the majority of their waking hours: school.

Our venerable school halls are hotbeds of this pressure to be perfect. Adorning school walls are the best art pieces, the A papers, and photographs of the “most involved,” “highest academic achieving,” “sportiest,” and the est-iest students. They earn a place on the wall as a reward for striving to be perfect.  Yet the same people who unconsciously uphold this desire for perfection, are the ones publicly trashing the very same idea. How ironic?

Wouldn’t it be cool if students could be applauded for failing then getting back up and improving? What if the art showcase contained before and afters, highlighting the most improved? Even that’s not perfect, but it’s a start.

Along the highways, I’ve often seen warning signs declaring, Caution: Work in Progress. What if schools adopted this mindset? We are works in progress, incomplete, imperfect and amazing. Even if one somehow reaches the status of perfect and achieves the honor of appearing on the hallowed school halls, the journey is still not over. Learning doesn’t stop, and people don’t stop learning (even subconsciously), once they’ve hit this “perfect” bar.

Perfection then is really fickle. Being perfect is truly unattainable, because once a certain level of perfection is reached there’s always more that can be done. So why don’t we keep striving for greatness and realize that perfect is a label we don’t need?

Teachers, parents and all members of the adult persuasion should be awakened to realize that they said it best. “Nobody’s Perfect.” And perfection is irrelevant. We don’t need perfection to be happy and successful. Education should help students be able to stand tall and proudly announce that they are imperfect, constantly learning and above all, a work in progress.

But what if someone were to say, “Sure, Nobody’s Perfect. Does that mean I shouldn’t try?” As a student chock full of raging emotions, this question really speaks to me. Sometimes, it feel like the nicest and simplest thing to do would be to quit. I mean, if you can’t have it why try, right? However, every time my mind drops to this plane, I think back to what my tennis coach once told me. Even if you’re down 1 set and down 0-5 in the second, don’t give up. If you grit your teeth and stick with it, you’ve already won a huge battle. By saying to yourself, I CAN do this, much has already been accomplished. Embodying this can-do attitude, Nike stole the hearts and minds of the world with its tried and true saying, “Just Do it!” And why not? Even if the results and actions seem futile, who knows? Maybe all the effort will pay off and you’ll reach a higher level of greatness. Not perfection, but greater greatness. Don’t let the fact that the mountain has no peak stop you, just keep climbing. And maybe someday, you’ll look down and see how far you’ve come.

Life’s a journey, we’re always improving. So why shouldn’t our schools mimic this? Shouldn’t our schools help us see that perfect is overrated? That hard work and dedication are where it’s at?

When will you start your climb on the journey of a lifetime? It only takes one step to start an adventure. And what are we waiting for? Let’s go get the schools on board. On your mark, get set, GO.

Change Education: Ten Morsels of thought

Recently, my former principal Mr. Adams started on a blogging project he calls CHANGEd 60-60-60; a quest to concisely focus on what school could be, with 60 posts over 60 days (http://itsaboutlearning.wordpress.com/2012/03/07/assigning-myself-a-learning-challenge-changed-what-if-60-60-60-0/). In tandem with his posts, another educator I’ve connected with has been extrapolating upon his ideas on her own blog- (http://marymeganhoward.com/category/60-60-60/). The two series really play well off of each other and have yielded some interesting thoughts. I thought it would be neat to take a set of 20 posts, combine both bloggers’ thoughts and turn them into a few relatively clear ideas on how to change education.

The following compilation stems from the first 20 posts of the CHANGEd series. In his exploration of how to change education, Mr. Adams presents sets of “What If” Questions. All of them are intriguing, and often provocative, ideas enriched by Ms. Howards’ musings, but I’d like to focus on the ten points that really struck me.

What if we shared more? By this, I mean with our families and close friends. In this age of super-connectivity, some people think we over-share. Yet even as students expand their audience to people over the internet, a lot of people still don’t take the time to clue in those close to them. When asked “So what did you do today?” most people I know still answer “uh..nothin’…” As someone who had been on both sides, I know it’s not truly nothing. Sometimes, the issue between sharing and not is confrontation. Mr. Adams addressed this by bringing up the idea of using technology to break the initial barrier then engage in one on one conversations. Ms. Howard took the idea that childhood storytelling- “rug-time”- should not be limited to the rug. Students should feel comfortable talking to their teachers about more than just school. School should be a conversation launcher, the entrance to sharing our stories.

On that note, the next idea was, what if we really engaged storytelling? Ms. Howard brings up an interesting curriculum idea. “Instead of Language Arts class and English class and Writer’s Workshop class, what if we had a class called Stories? Our students have their own stories to tell. Educators do too.

What if we used storytelling in schools to honor the multiple stories inside us and celebrate those stories in others? What might we hear? Who might we help? How might we heal?” Stories have immense power, and that is something I have always believed in. Stories comfort, save, serve as anecdotes, preach and teach. Storytelling is an art and something that can be gained with practice. What if we were given this opportunity to share our stories in school?

To accommodate a different curriculum, we should start from the base-the organization of the classroom, the layout of the actual school. What if national organizations created conferences like the classrooms for which many advocate? To translate the classroom set-up into core values for a conference type setting, Ms. Howard offered this nifty graphic. 

Mr. Adams’ approach was more on bringing the conferencey, collaborative-learning feel to the classroom. For me, discussion ought to be a large part of the curriculum so that students get the opportunity to play with concepts. I know that I personally understand an idea better once I’ve talked myself through it. Setting up classrooms like conferences would open up more opportunities for discussion.

Collaboration and working with others are skills that students often gain through sports. Based on that observation, Mr. Adams asks what if we valued teacher teams as much as student teams? Students are required to practice often- whether it’s homework (practicing school course work), or sports practice. Why don’t teachers get that same kind of built in practice to prepare for the big game- each class. Yes, they get the occasional free period, but as the daughter of a professor, I know that class prep requires more than just one hour and often takes up lots of home time. Ms. Howard puts forth a question- “school transformation will happen when we commit to rehearsal and practice, what must we break up — repeatedly — in order to create fertile ground for teaming?”

To create the space needed for team based learning will require structural curriculum changes. One such change was suggested by Mr. Adams- what if schools factored in experiment days like Snow Days? These days could allow students to explore “educational” projects that struck their fancy, and the teachers would be available as resources and supervision. Daniel Pink mentions a similar idea in his book, Drive, calling them FedEx days. He says FedEx days are key to autonomy and work happiness- companies like Google have accepted these ideas wholeheartedly.

Another curriculum idea would be to rethink time and curriculum [and allow] for grand challenges? Mr. Adams is all for ½ normal curriculum and ½ time for grand projects. (For reference on grand challenges, look at Cal Newport’s How To Be a High School Superstar.) Ms. Howard was a bit more skeptic. She wondered if only a little was worth it and not just a waste. She supported he idea of having grand challenges as a sort of cumulative piece but wondered what the time trade off needed to be.

Students are the ones who have the most insight on what they want to do. Granted, some ideas are geared towards relaxation, however productive ideas exist as well. What if we expected and empowered students to co-design curriculum? Who knows what courses they’d create! And the timings would fit their needs and allow them to perform better as a result. I’m especially curious as to what my fellow students would do about homework.

Speaking of which, what if homework were just that? For me, homework has become a chore that students try to finish off as soon as possible. I know I’m guilty of this and I think the first step to leveraging homework is to actually do it at home, as opposed to during school. Also, school should organize the homework so that the load isn’t heavy and the goal isn’t “do what we don’t have time for in class”, but homework as just what’s needed to reinforce the material. Maybe if schools assigned down time, like my sister is assigned reading, parents would get on board? I know it sounds slightly manipulative but in my mind relatively plausible. For example, my Mom makes sure my sister reads her required 30 minutes a night, but makes me do other things first and read specific things before my pleasure reading—maybe because it’s not assigned, and school comes first. What if schools assigned homework such as x amount of free reading a week in English and built a class book network, discussing with qualified English profs and potentially like minded peers? I have found that books are a great way to connect with people because lots have read big hits and that provides a segway. Plus, a sort of class book club allows great perspectives all around. But back to the original what if—what if homework were free-er and less constrained. That way, homework could be more like work at home on something related to the subject for half an hour and weave in some free time etc.

Homework shouldn’t be the lone indicator of student growth and improvement. What if we used version software designation to signal powerful growth? We could have lessons in subjects with varying difficulties denoted by .1, .2. Personally I think that sort of idea is more an add on to a growth mindset and not focusing only on grades. Thinking in terms of version software connects to our technological word and supports prototyping to grow.

What if schools empowered students and teachers to be journalists and marketers? At our school, this just became very relevant with the addition of a new technology policy. Now, students and teachers aren’t allowed to have “unauthorized” technological interaction (twitter discussion fell under this category for one of my teachers) and any publications online should not be linked back to the school unless they are indeed affiliated with the P.R branch. But as much as I appreciate the P.R ladies and the school’s own twitter and online TV station, these barely scratch the surface on showcasing what the students do. If a student were to do the P.R, were to put his/her work on display online, the positive impact would be much greater. The students are the essence of the school, which is often forgotten. Yes, students are required to go to school. However, school was built for them. We need to make the voice of the students heard. Because they have the pithy stories, the stories that will resound, simply because  they are true and not crafted to present an angle. I hope to be one of those voices, sharing my story. Sharing the stories of those around me. And continuing my journey!