Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Learning to Listen to Each Other

This post was first published on the Touchstone website on Sept. 25, 2011. 

At this time of year, two weeks into the start of school, every teacher is watching what works and what doesn’t work for which kids, constantly modifying what we’re doing with individuals and groups and the full class, with a particular intensity that all of us recognize as September. 

Nothing else feels more important to me, in all of that, than the ways I help students begin to use their new, more mature ability to listen to each other.
Encouragement and support for good listening can take many forms. Part of it is simple body language: getting kids to face a speaker, to face into a small group with whom they’re working.
Some of it involves helping students understand what the whole group loses when they hold side conversations during group meetings. (I’m grateful to all adults in the school who model attention to the main show, instead of creating their own side-show.)
It always helps to establish formats for taking turns, so that each student’s voice is heard and each student can begin to learn from the spark in every classmate. 
  • In Tamara’s class that happens partly through portrait bags, bags of important evidence from home. 
  • In my class we make and then share portrait pages, essentially the same thing 2D. 
  • Sketching sharing happens mostly in the full class, and writing sharing both in the full class and in peer conferences. 
  • Something called “headlines” happens at lunch on Mondays, when kids one by one open quick windows into their lives outside school.
In math class and in projects time, kids are working in partners or teams, and I’m listening for good and equitable conversation among them, supporting those conversations to help them be as informed and productive and inclusive as possible.
When projects time groups start to share with the full class, we talk first about what the audience wants from each person sharing, and what the people sharing need from the audience. As the sharing goes forward, I try to make sure that every child gets to practice both speaking in front of the full class, and listening within the distractions of the full class–along with, at this time of year, the distractions of the outdoor setting. Over time kids realize they miss cool stuff in their classmates’ presentations when their attention wanders.
Both roles are important–speaker and listener–and all of us, at every age, can keep learning how to speak more clearly; how to listen more accurately and responsively. More than any other skills progress, learning to speak and listen lay the foundation for students’ future success.
All that is true at any school. At Touchstone, I watch it go further. 

Having learned to listen to each other, Touchstone students give each other inspiration and strength in uncountable ways. Yes, there’s always the temptation to exclude someone who doesn’t seem to fit; but side-by-side with that, year after year, I watch kids manifest our human ability to receive difference as a gift. Year by year they test and refine their skills for working collaboratively, using all the strengths available. In the process, students help each other learn and grow in ways that no teacher can engineer, no IEP can prescribe.
I’ve often joked–not really joking–about wanting a magic wand, which would let me bring back the lost parent, or unscramble neural circuits, or heal all manner of wounds; the magic wand that would miraculously free and lift each student to be his or her most wonderful and powerful self. In some sense, at Touchstone, I do have a magic wand: the power of the students themselves, and what they do for each other–beginning with listening.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Moosey Goes to Farm School

This post first appeared on the Touchstone Community School website on June 30, 2011.

Every year, one or two classes of Touchstone students visit the Farm School in Athol, Massachusetts: 
  • to help build fences, transplant seedling lettuce, train calves; 
  • to eat the freshest food we’ve had in months; 
  • to observe and absorb everything a rural hilltop has to teach us. 
Susan Doty heard about the Farm School almost twenty years ago, and said, “That’s Touchstone-style learning; let’s go.” She meant: hands-on, rooted in values, full of opportunities for every student to learn and grow and shine–and that’s what we’ve always found there.

For four years now, I’ve been joining the Farm School trip with my class of eleven and twelve year old students. The first year I fell in love. The second year I brought my classroom’s video camera. We were all hugely pleased with the Farm School video we made, but for various reasons we decided against putting it online.

A new video: preparations, and work at the Farm School

This past year, my fourth, we took both the video camera and our pal Moosey, a medium-sized woolly stuffed moose who boasts an illustrious past: he ran for president, and won; he made a feature appearance in a video about fraction operations called Variations on Llamas and Bales of Hay. The class chose Moosey to be the star of a new Farm School video.

We had made only indirect preparations: no script-writing, but several weeks of projects involved with soils, plants, and animals. (These were focused particularly on the ways farmers modify the life cycles of plants and animals, to produce food or fiber or lumber.)

While we were at the Farm School, I wandered around with the video camera and tripod. In little moments borrowed from their work, but mostly in free time, students took turns setting up shots, running the camera, helping Moosey feed the chickens or spray a table with vinegar solution or play basketball. 

Eventually, everyone got into the act: visiting staff, resident staff, kids from Maple Dene (the school in Pepperell that has often shared our Farm School time slot.) Susan Doty herself set up one of my favorite shots, showing Moosey with a Farm School dog.

Back at Touchstone

Full of stories and enthusiasm, we watched the video shots we’d captured. In a class discussion, we identified what was most worthwhile, for us, about time spent at the Farm School. Gradually, we began to imagine a voice-over narration that would be in Moosey’s “voice,” as channeled by all the students’ voices.

Five small groups wrote scripts for five sections: about the accommodations and routines; about the Farm School staff; about soils and compost and plants; about animals and their care; and about working and playing. On a warm day, with all the windows and doors shut and the fans turned off, we recorded the voice-over audio.

Then, working in our small groups, we matched up the video shots with the audio. Second by second we cut and fit. Building a video can feel a lot like building a shed, piece by piece, but it takes longer. 

When we needed a few extra shots to be taken at Touchstone, a small group set up scenes and shot them completely on their own. 

For Farm School shots we needed but didn’t have, we were able to borrow some from the project two years ago. 

When we needed just a little music for the beginning, Kate Keller helped kids invent and record percussion. 

Problems and solutions found each other.

What we got from making a video 

In their time at the Farm School, students had watched the staff making decision after decision: 
  • where to locate pens that define grazing areas; 
  • whether it was time to transplant the Swiss chard; 
  • how to create a path from one garden to another. 
Making their video, the students themselves made hundreds, maybe thousands of decisions: 
  • which five seconds to use from a forty second shot, to give the clearest sense of the staff’s kindness to the animals; 
  • what to put first and second and third and nineteenth; 
  • how to communicate as clearly as possible, in this medium that is so much a part of their lives.
The resulting video, Moosey Goes to Farm School, overflows with our understanding of the Farm School’s ideals, and Touchstone’s ideals, and the overlap. It’s also funny. When I showed the finished video to my husband, he laughed and laughed. “But wait!” I said, “if it’s so funny, you might miss the point of how much we learn there.” 

But no–it seems that people watching the video can get it all. The students’ faces don’t show, but in their earnest young voices, in the words they wrote, in the shots they created, we feel the burbling-over joy of their stepping up: to be themselves, working hard, making choices; to celebrate and support things they believe in. 

Like laughter, that, too, can be contagious. Hooray!

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Writing independent reports inspired by The Voyage of the Mimi

Some of the stages of the Mimi report process are invisible to parents, and some are invisible to me.

I get to watch students dive into the Skimathon. They take quick looks at many of the books I’ve collected for that year’s set of topics, either animal behavior, for The Voyage of the Mimi, or archaeology and technology, for The Second Voyage of the Mimi. The Skimathon process helps students make newer and wider topic choices than they would otherwise have made. I get to watch them decide that they’re fascinated by giant stick insects, or by the ancient Inca girl found frozen at the top of a Peruvian mountain, or by the earliest history of musical instruments.

Parents get glimpses of this process as books are carried home to be skimmed or quickly read at home. Especially interested parents have sometimes read every one of the books that came home! Still, I’m the one watching books fly in and out of the box, watching little fads for particular books spread through the class, watching the collective horizon widen.

On the other hand, once each student finds out which of her four or five choices will be her topic, it’s parents who get to visit the Aquarium or Roger Williams Zoo (or other places where kids can observe animals first hand), to be research assistants. Parents help count how many times each sea turtle breathes in an hour, or keep track of how the elephants use the space of their enclosure. Parents get to help interview the man at the rehab hospital who’s learning to use a prosthetic leg; parents help explore the Roman artifacts at the Worcester Art Museum. All these direct experiences depend on parents, and give families a chance to share some learning. I’m always hugely grateful for reports about what that’s been like.

Students this age are proud to produce a long and complicated written report without depending on their parents–but they still need lots of support. I’m so glad to be the one who sits with students, again and again through the report process, watching so many good things blooming:
  • their non-fiction reading and note-taking skills;
  • their writing and keyboarding skills;
  • their self-confidence approaching completely new ideas and experiences;
  • their ability to fold together what they’re learned from reading and what they’ve learned from more direct experience, into an overall understanding of their topics;
  • their sense of the particular flavors of their understanding as gifts they can give, to each other, to the readers they will have among the assembled parents and grandparents and friends at Mimi Night, and to the readers the second copies of their reports will have in classes to come.
Sitting with kids one-on-one, I feel so lucky to watch them stretch: stretch to sense the difference between a concept and a detail, stretch to hold large new meanings, stretch to hand those back to the communities around them.

The day after Mimi Night, we share the projects with the other classes, in something called the Mimi Museum. Each student is one of just a few tour guides for a particular visiting class, and, as such, is responsible for sharing not just his own report and 3D object and poster, but also those of his partners or small group.

This is an amazing thing to watch. Building on all our conversation, and their readings of each other’s reports as they came off the binding machine, kids take ownership of each other’s topics. Students who are shy, who are nervous about speaking to groups, nevertheless step forward: point out the way the sandal was braided, or the animal slinking back from a fire at the mouth of a cave in the diorama, or the ways a snake can move itself through its landscape.

Every year, I try to make sure that a few volunteer parents have a chance to see this stage. Don Grace, observing, has said that this seems to him to be one of the most impressive things about the report process at Touchstone. I’m aware of some crucial ingredients: the time we give to what we do, for one thing, but also our refusal to use graded assessments.

In conversations with teachers at other schools, I am repeatedly made aware of the way graded assessments throw students back into their own individual achievements. With lots of feedback and guidance, but no graded assessment, it’s more possible for students to stretch into those impressive individual accomplishments, and then keep on stretching, into this remarkable collective achievement: a comprehensive sense of some view of the world. We’ve all woven that together, by paying attention both to the content and to each other.

There it is, in some way: the Touchstone magic: paying attention to both the content, the wonder of the world, and to each other. In portfolio conferences, when a student and her parents and I are all looking at work together, students often hold up their Mimi reports. Their parents have seen the reports already, of course; kids know that. Still they want to focus our attention on that work again. I’m always delighted as kids point to things they’ve gotten help with from others: “Emily helped me make the drum again a different way,” or “When we made the timeline with Kate, I realized how long ago this was,” or “Joe (a partner) helped me figure out a way to draw a harbor seal.” The physical copy of the report has become, itself, an artifact: a vessel that holds the memory of shared meanings. No teacher could ask for more.

First posted on the Touchstone School website on May 16T, 2011

Monday, January 10, 2011

Morning Sketching

Some samples, none from my current class: Sherry comes into the classroom ready to make sense right away. Joey is a walking blur for the first half hour. Scott may well have had another argument with his brother in the car on the way to school. Diane would prefer to read, because it’s easy for her—but she’ll agree to sketch, now she’s used to it.

Kids arrive at school in the morning each carrying a different weather inside them, different both child by child and day by day. Sketching time makes a sort of airlock, a way to transition between home and school, a way to transition into output, a way to settle down into the self who chooses what to do, and explores and thinks, and then chooses again.

How it works

I buy 9 by 12 hardbound sketching journals at a place in Cambridge where I can get a special deal, and give them to my students on the first day of school. Right away, that day, we begin something that will become a familiar ritual. Following a note on the marker board and each others’ example, kids settle to sketch at their table places as they gradually assemble, chatting quietly as they’re settling. If they want special materials from the art shelves, they get them during this time. The sketching encourages relaxed discussion around the table (where, after all, not all the table-mates are chosen or familiar.) The chatting helps kids transition into the privacy of their own heads.

Around 8:30, when everyone is supposed to have arrived, we close the classroom door and start the day’s music, and the sketching becomes silent, with no movement around the room. Establishing this routine, and re-establishing it after breaks, I say, “Go down into your own mind, your own imagination. Don’t interrupt anyone else. Just settle in.” Sometimes, drawing on long-ago experience, I think of this as a Quaker meeting for drawing, a kind of meditation. The silent sketching phase lasts for ten or fifteen minutes, and then we start the rest of the day.

Every once in a while, not as often as I wish but as often as a busy schedule can allow, we do a round of sketching sharing as part of morning meeting. Kids call on each other for comments or questions. The questioners ask the sharer, “Where did you get that idea?” or, “How did you get that effect?” If a child shares something produced in a new way, or if I do a little mini-lesson on a new material nobody has discovered yet, the resulting contagion is accepted as a good thing, not spurned as copying.

Although I occasionally wander around the classroom looking over kids’ shoulders, and see whatever they chose to share with the class, I never evaluate what they’re doing, except for an occasional involuntary gasp of amazement. No guidelines; only the rarest of suggestions. They’re on their own.

What we need to get past

For some students sketching time is hard at the beginning of the year. Some fear that I’m asking them to make representational drawings of real objects, but tend to relax as soon as they realize that cartooning is fine; making abstract designs using collaged or stenciled shapes is fine; various kinds of printmaking are fine; maps of fantasy places are fine. (On the other hand, some kids welcome the chance to do—every day, in school!—representational drawing.) Once in a while a particular child judges his own visible products so harshly, so anxiously, that he wants to tear pages out of the book. (I say no; the book is a kind of journal; not all learning experiences are completely positive; that’s okay.)

What I learn from watching

If a teacher’s first job is to know her students, few class experiences help me more than this, especially early in the year. For example: some kids, who show in their other academic work a difficulty committing themselves, will find even in sketching time some format for quiet, repetitive work: filling an entire page with tiny tangent circles, or endlessly drawing the same cartoon. That helps me understand what they’re doing (or not doing) in math, or in writing, or even in trying to settle on a book to read.

Other students set themselves up to make decision after decision, and relish that sense of power. Many behave like adult artists I know, trying variations on a theme, investigating, exploring. “What if I...?”

Whatever energy is there—that’s what we work with, all day.


Thinking back over years of watching kids at sketching time, I think of the girl processing a messy parent divorce, who, day after day, drew ordinary things and then buried them under a thick layer of black cray-pas, rubbing it glossy. (This didn’t last forever, but it did go on for several months. I knew she was in counseling already; I could just wait and watch and see what she would do next.) I think also of the girl who spent weeks, maybe months, painting watercolor on her own hand and then making designs, on the pages of her sketchbook, with the imprint of her hand. I think of the few boys who’ve drawn almost nothing but weapons and mayhem—very few, actually, although many have used those motifs at times—and then I think of the equal number of boys who’ve made map worlds that extended from page to page for as many as thirty pages.

Why does it work so well?

When I say “it works” I mean that early sketching time has a positive effect on the rest of the day. I don’t know enough about teaching art to advocate morning sketching as a way to do that, although I’m always fascinated by what my students wind up doing in such an open and risk-free environment, with only each other as teachers. Still, I’ve always been focused on the effect that sketching time has on us, students and teacher, as individuals and as a group.

I don’t have much of an experimental control, though, for any claims I might make about the benefit of morning sketching. Since I discovered morning sketching, especially silent sketching, as a way to begin the day, I’ve only rarely left it out. Substitute teachers, coming into my room intermittently, discover that this is a part of my plans they want to follow.

I can’t think of anything with a bigger pay-off, that requires so little from the teacher.

Maybe it’s about the silence itself. Our hearts can say things in silence that we are less likely to say out loud, and those rise into the air of the room, and time carries us all forward. When I look back into the sketchbook I sometimes use myself, joining the kids’ work, I often return to the daffodils I drew when one of my best friends was dying. The kindness of that class—in college now—has become a fragrance for the flowers. I believe this so firmly: what we can give each other in shared experience should be a part of school. But those moments of mutual gift often seem to happen best with the lightest possible touch. As light as shared silence.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Writing with young adolescents

To begin, I want you to think of everything you have to do while writing:
  • finding the words for new thoughts
  • spelling the words
  • actually producing the written version of each word, forming each letter, or finding it on a keyboard
  • keeping the first part of the sentence in mind as you head for the later part
  • joining sentences in paragraphs that hold together
  • through all of this, creating a linear pathway through an understanding that may not be linear at all.
That's not everything, of course; there's also grammar, and punctuation, and resolving all the arguments in your head about anything that you start to think about.
Even for adults, writing is one of the most complicated things we do on a regular basis. So it has a big impact, in the evolution of young adolescent writers, that their brains are growing and changing dramatically, exploding with neural connections. That translates into new horsepower--but it's pretty raw horsepower.
I want to focus on two interlocking ways young writers can begin to use that horsepower.
To an increasing degree, they can harness extra selves to the work of writing, by doing it in stages, across a stretch of time. For example, I'm a big fan of both editing for mechanics, and, beyond that, more fundamental revision, not so much for the sake of correctness, but because together those processes of editing and revision give us all—at every age—second and third and fourth chances to figure out what we really mean, and get it written down in a form that a reader can use.
Young adolescents have a new capacity for paying attention to their own products in these ways-- but actually learning the component skills, and the necessary detachment, requires lots of modeling and mentoring; lots of practice; lots of encouragement towards confidence.
Second point: many of the benefits of revision involve extra chances to think about the experience of the reader.
A few kids can do all of that complicated stuff we do while we’re writing, and think about their readers, too, all at the same time, even in first drafts, at amazingly young ages. For some, just by luck, the physical production part of writing is unusually easy. Sometimes, for a particular kid, an unusually clear voice inside her head is perfectly synchronized with the pace at which she can produce written words, and that synchronization lets her lift her head and look around at the idea of an audience.
The experience of sharing writing in class, having actual readers, as they come up through Touchstone classes, helps kids develop this consciousness. But brain growth is a big part of it, too. (For some kinds of growth, it doesn't matter what experiences kids have; they have to get to the place where they're ready in a more basic way.) One way or another, for most kids, I watch them turn this corner toward more consciousness of their readers, somewhere in the journey from 10 to 12; and I often see it first in the process of revising an already existing draft.
[In the live version of this talk, this is where I show the sample piece of writing.]
So what does this new awareness of the reader let a young writer do?
It lets her make sense in new ways—in longer strings of logic, with more of the supporting detail that a reader needs in order to understand, and with a clearer main idea for a reader to carry away.
It gives him new power to control audience reaction without having to stick to familiar gimmicks, familiar formats for funny stories, familiar imitations of what he’s read--in other words, it helps him combine effectiveness and authenticity.
It helps her understand the point of punctuation and capitalization and conventional spelling—all those agreements between writers and readers to make the sharing of written language more efficient and reliable and expressive.
It lets the writing become more memorable and more useful to the writer herself—because she’s being her own first reader, and learning from herself in the process.
Is there a downside to these new capacities for self-awareness and awareness of audience? Of course. Most of us who aren’t young children any more fall over ourselves at times. Life is full of potholes created by self-consciousness.
But that’s an inescapable part of being human--and working with their writing is a very effective, at times almost magical way to help kids accept those selves they see when they're watching themselves. Sitting next to kids and looking at their work with them, I can model habits of self-forgiveness and self-encouragement. I love giving kids permission to appreciate their own writing. It's been good for me, as a writer myself, watching young writers, to feel and share steadily increasing gratitude for our complex, rich, expressive language, and for its power to help us preserve and celebrate life.

Here’s a link to an interview with neuroscientist Jay Giedd about neurological development in young adolescents: