If I had a million dollars, I'd build you a school.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Summer Camp: Student Choice

One of the central characteristics of my former camp was the focus on student choice. This focus was played out in many ways, but always came back to the idea that the students should feel ownership over everything that they did. One example of how this was put into practice was in video class, in which a small group of students planned, acted, filmed and helped edit a short movie.

During the first days of the class, students would go through a basic brainstorming process. They start with genres, and work their way to brainstorming more specific plot ideas. They are coached that all ideas are valid at this point in the process and that they should only react positively to other people's ideas.

Once a sufficient number of ideas are up on the board, they start the decision making process. They are invited to advocate for ideas that they particularly like (but never to criticize someone else's ideas). After everyone has had a chance to put in a good word for their favorite, the ideas get narrowed down. The emphasis is on building a consensus in which everyone is happy with the final decision. Counselors help them along using a lot of the 'yes and' approach. 'Yes your movie can be about aliens taking over the camp and cheerleaders who travel in time. We can make that work.'

When the plot of the movie has been chosen, the students continue to be involved in as many of the decisions as possible. Where should the camera be in this scene? What would make this more understandable for the audience? Was that take good enough, or should we film another?

The challenge when you put the focus so much on what the students want is that you could end up with the inmates running the asylum. When it is a parody of Lord of the Rings meets Finding Nemo, it's not too big a deal if the kids make kid-like decisions from time to time. But if we are going to bring these ideas into the classroom, there's a lot more at stake. There is curriculum to cover, and good behavior to teach, and that ever-important classroom management.

So how do we give students choices without them making the wrong choices? Is there even a place for student choice in the classroom?

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

What I'm Reading Next: El Capitán Alatriste

I just finished reading Watership Down. The advantage of reading a book that I first read when I was eleven is that it goes pretty quickly 22 years later. For those of you unfamiliar with the book, it is the story of a small group of rabbits who, worried that something terrible is about to happen in the warren in which they grew up, go off in search of a new place to live. The world is a big and scary place, full of predators, men and their machines, and other rabbits both friendly and hostile. It is a great adventure story, and I enjoyed reading it as an adult at least as much as I did the first time through.

Re-reading it with a teacher's eyes, I certainly understand why my teachers assigned it to me in the first place. Interwoven with the entertaining adventure story are all kinds of problems that young teenagers can identify with. There are issues of being outsiders and getting bullied. There are authority figures who won't listen to or believe the younger rabbits. There is the need to declare independence from those authority figures and set out on their own. There are societies with oppressive and unjust rules. I have long since forgotten any class discussions we had about the book when I was a student, but there are so many things to talk about that I wish I could go back and be a fly on the wall while seventh grade Jeff worked through the story with his class.

Next up: El capitan Alatriste
I am not a native Spanish speaker, so my Spanish needs regular maintenance. One thing I try to do is a read a book in Spanish on a regular basis. With the school year approaching, it seemed like a good time to dust off the language skills. The Alatriste series has been incredibly popular in Spain and has already been made into a movie. A number of my English students from our time in England recommended both the books and the movie to me.

While we were in The Gambia, a Colombian friend there lent me another of Arturo Pérez-Reverte's books, La reina del sur. What impressed me the most about that book is that Pérez-Reverte, a member of the Spanish Royal Academy, is able to tell a gripping adventure story without sacrificing any of the literary merit of the book. He is a gifted writer, and I'm looking forward to digging in to his most popular series.

Posts about previous titles:
Three Cups of Tea
True History of the Kelly Gang

Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Summer Camp: Challenges

In this series of summer camp related posts, I keep coming back to the day camp back in Massachusetts where I have been a camper, counselor and administrator. Many of my ideas about what an ideal school would be like, especially in terms of building community and character, come from my experiences there. One of the big pieces of that community building experience was what we called challenges.

Anyone who has done a leadership training course or any sort of Project Adventure program will be familiar with the idea of challenges. Basically, a group is assigned a cooperative task with a set of proscribed rules to make the task more difficult. Completing the task generally requires that the group work very well together and that every member of the group be involved in getting to the finish. One of the classic examples is a challenge we called 'The Peanut Butter Pit.' The task is to get the entire group from a start point to an end point across a boiling pit of sticky peanut butter/corrosive acid/radioactive sludge. Between the start line and the end line, the campers are not allowed to touch the ground. All they have to help them across are a series of evenly spaced cinder blocks in the middle of the pit, and two or three narrow but sturdy boards. The goal is to challenge both their cooperative and problem solving skills.

Generally, we did about three challenges over the course of a four week session, each one a little longer than the one before. The last and longest was generally supposed to take about one full day of camp, although there are legends about epic challenges that took three or four days to complete. Each challenge also came with a back story, usually involving counselors in costume breaking into circle time to enlist the campers help preventing some imminent threat to the camp, the world or the universe.

At the end of the challenge (and often in the middle of more difficult ones) counselors would lead group discussions about how things had gone, what worked and didn't work, and what they could take away from the experience and apply to other areas of life. They were given a chance to give a 'hats off' to members of the group who had been especially helpful, and were guided to the idea that a successful group effort requires both leaders and followers. Finally, the all gave each other a ceremonial pat on the back to congratulate themselves on a job well done.

As a counselor and a teacher, I took a number of lessons away from working with kids on these challenges:

1) Frustration is an important part of the learning process. Personal growth comes from overcoming challenges, even artificial ones. Students need to learn how to handle themselves when things don't come easily. If they can learn that lesson in the relatively safe environment of school, it will serve them well throughout their lives.

2) We learn lessons best when we explicitly talk about them. Somewhere in the teaching process, we need to have a conversation with the students about why they are doing the things they are doing, and what it is we hope they get out of it. The more we give them a chance to talk about the goals, and assess their own progress towards them, the better off they will be.

3) Sometimes students should just be left to figure stuff out for themselves. One of the key pieces to being a counselor in the challenges was to create a safe environment and then to leave them alone to figure out the solution. They need the confidence-building experience of being the ones to solve the problem on their own.

I'm not suggesting in all this that classroom time be taken away from academic pursuits and replaced with team building activities, but I do think that some of the structure of these challenges could be carried over into the classroom. Give the students a difficult task that stretches their abilities, allow them the chance to work through it on their own, even when it is frustrating, and then come back at the end and debrief. In this way, they not only learn the material, but they learn how to work and think independently.

What do you do to really challenge your students?

Monday, July 28, 2008

Summer Is No Vacation From Crazy Over-Involved Parents

Friday was the last day of my summer job as Assistant Director of the summer camp at the school where I have been working since January. I have three weeks mostly to myself before faculty meetings start at my new school. My long and involved to-do list prevents me from calling it a vacation, but the fact that my alarm clock won't be ringing at 6:00 AM for a few weeks is making me pretty happy at the moment. Most of my efforts over the next few weeks need to be focused on preparing for the new school year (I have a whole course curriculum to revamp before school starts), but before I move on to thoughts of September, I wanted to finish up with a few more summer camp themed posts. After all, it's not even August yet.

Saturday's New York Times ran this article about how the phenomenon of over-involved, over-protective parents has spilled over from schools into summer camps. The article focuses on how camps have been forced to hire full time parent liaisons to deal with the constant meddling of parents who are freaked out that their kids are eating too much/too little, not putting on enough sun screen, not making enough friends, or are simply not happy enough. For me, the most telling/depressing/amusing bit was about the parents who send their kids off to the woods with two cell phones, so that if the first one is found and confiscated, the kid will have a second phone hidden away and can still be reached. When the parents start conspiring with their kids to break the rules, camps (and schools, too) are in big trouble.

My job this summer was at a day camp, so the parental separation anxiety was not so much of an issue, but this didn't mean we avoided problems with over-involved parents. Take, for example, one little boy we will call Stephen. Stephen is one of those kids for whom ever little thing is a big deal. Stephen averaged at least one visit per day to the nurses office, almost always to show her (as if it had just been sustained) a cut or a bruise that was clearly many days old. This reached its most worrisome point when mom sent a vaguely threatening email asking why her son was coming home from camp every day with so many scratches and bruises.

On Friday, I was walking down the hall past the boys bathroom when the door opened a crack, and Stephen peeked out asking for help. I entered the bathroom to find Stephen entangled in a white dress shirt that, in his efforts to put it on, had become more like a straight jacket. That afternoon was the final performance for his week-long musical theater class, and he had spent the last ten minutes struggling to change into the black and white clothes he needed for the performance. I helped him untangle himself and get his arms through the appropriate sleeves, asked him if he could manage his pants by himself, and went back out into the hall. Five minutes later, Stephen was back at the door in his white shirt and underwear needing more help. His black pants were a couple of inches too long in the leg, not too mention too big at the waist, and he was completely baffled by this problem. I went back in, got him into his pants, rolled up the legs so that his feet were showing at the bottom, watched him struggle into his shoes, and sent him on his way, only fifteen minutes late to class.

An hour later, I went in to watch the performance of Stephen's class. They did adorable renditions of "I Just Can't Wait to be King" from The Lion King and "It's a Hard Knock Life" from Annie. There were many born performers in the class, but Stephen was not one of them. He spent most of the performance with his hands thrust deeply into the pockets of his over-sized pants, clearly trying as hard as he could to blend into the crowd.

Now, all of this would simply be a cute story about a shy and slightly immature kid who needed some work on confidence and self-reliance, but then mom showed up. First of all, let's point out that mom showed up at 2:00 for a 1:45 performance, which meant she arrived just in time to get stuck at the back of the 2:00 carpool line. Eventually she made her way in, picked up her son, and started walking with him back to her car. On their way to the car, Stephen apparently told his mom that all the kids had been laughing at him during the performance. It's important to know that there were no kids in the audience, only parents. All the kids in the room were much more focused on dancing and singing than on laughing at one of their classmates. That Stephen was embarrassed on stage was true, but had nothing to do with the reactions of anyone in the room.

Mom came storming back in, accosted me (the first adult she could find) and demanded to speak to the teacher in the class. When I told her that the teacher was already teaching her next class, she gave me one of those if-looks-could-kill kind of stares and informed me that she would be expecting a call from the teacher as soon as her class was over. Then she stormed out. Two hours later she was back. She had left Stephen to attend his final class of the day, and was there to pick him up from extended day. When I walked in, she had cornered the Director in our office, and was demanding (with only about half a dozen kids left on campus on the final day of camp) that we do something about how unhappy her son had been after the performance.

I'll leave it there, and just say that the Director handled the whole situation much more deftly than I ever would have done, reassuring the mom that her son was generally a happy kid, and that he had probably just been suffering from a little stage fright. The real point, though, is that this is not just one crazy mom who goes on the attack every time her child is a little upset. Every teacher (or camp counselor) could come up with half a dozen of these stories without even having to think very hard about it.

This is a real challenge for schools. One of the things we should be trying to accomplish is helping students grow up to be independent, self-reliant adults. Our ideal graduate should be someone who is ready to go off into the world and take care of himself when the need arises. The question becomes, then, how do we work with parents to let their kids grow up independently, even if that means that sometimes they are going to be unhappy?

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Build a School returns Monday, but first, why Comcast is the Worst Company in America

My blogging vacation continues here for a couple more days. The combination of spending my days helping to keep a 250 student summer camp up and running, and my evenings without reliable internet access, have kept me away from posting for a couple of weeks now. Camp is over tomorrow, though, and Comcast seems to have finally got our internet working again, so I'll be back on Monday with daily posts as I switch gears to thinking about the rapidly approaching school year. I've got a bunch of ideas saved up, including a few more on the summer camp theme before those go back on the shelf till next year.

In the meantime, the vindictive side of me wants to use this little soap box of mine to stick it to Comcast. I won't bore you with the details of our particular case. But please click on over to The Consumerist, where Comcast is in the finals in their Worst Company in America competition. Put in a vote for them, and if you ever have the choice, I recommend any other company over Comcast.

OK, I feel much better now, and I'll be back to full time posting on Monday, so check in then.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

What I'm Reading Next: Watership Down

I'm in the middle of a largely Comcast induced vacation from blogging. It's a long story, but let's just say I'm not recommending Comcast to my friends these days. In the meantime, I've had a chance to finish my latest book, and I have a few minutes at work today to write about it, so here goes.

I've just finished reading Three Cups of Tea. The story in the book is right up the alley of this blog, so I guess it's no surprise to say that I loved it. To give a quick summary of the story, the co-author/subject of the book, Greg Mortenson, goes on an expedition to climb K2. On the way back down, having failed to reach the summit, Mortenson accidentally wanders away from his guide and stumbles into a tiny village in the mountains of northern Pakistan. After the villagers nurse him back to health, Mortenson goes on a tour of the village and is shocked to see the children gathered in an open field, scratching their lessons in the dirt with sticks, with not a teacher to be found. He promises to come back and build them a school.

The journey that follows is inspiring. One school project turns into a half dozen, and then a dozen, and so on, all in rural villages in Pakistan. As the book concludes, Mortenson is in post-Taliban Afghanistan starting to plan for a whole new series of schools there. As I got to know Mortenson through the book, I found myself in awe that someone could so selflessly, and even naively, accomplish so much good in the world. The world would be a much better place if there were more of him.

The overall message of the book is a simple one. The antidote to extremism is not violence but education. If we help to provide a secular, modern education to the children of the world, we are cutting off the ready supply of converts to extremist ideologies. If we want to be safer here in America, we need to provide social services, education above all, to children around the world. We will be much safer if we are loved for our good works, rather than despised for the death and destruction we cause. The chapters surrounding the events of September 11th and Mortenson's response to them are particularly moving. I highly recommend this book!

Next up: Watership Down
It's time for a re-read again. Watership Downwas my summer reading going into seventh grade. My mom made reference to it while the family was gathered over the Fourth of July weekend, and I realized I didn't remember almost anything about it, other than it's about rabbits. That's a good sign that I should pick it up again. Hopefully I will enjoy it as much now as I did twenty or so years ago.

Posts about previous titles:
True History of the Kelly Gang

Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

My Five Favorite Books of All Time

This post by fellow edublogger The Scholastic Scribe reminds me that I have promised on couple of occasions to post my top five books list. Now that we are into summer reading season, it seems like a good time to follow through. I have previously written about the books I think students should read in school. These books are my personal favorites, and not necessarily things I would require in school.

One Hundred Years of Solitude
I know a lot of avid readers who have found this book too much to get though, but every time I read it, I find something new to love about it. It is one of those books that contains something to satisfy every part of my love of reading, and the prose is just magical, even in translation. If I was trapped on a desert island with only one book, this would be it.

Midnight's Children
For me, Salman Rushdie is the best author writing in English right now, and this is his greatest work. Winner of the Booker of Bookers as the best book to win that award in the first 25 years of its existence, it tells the story of the 1,001 children born between midnight and 1:00 on the night of India's independence from Britain, each born with a magical ability; and especially of Saleem Sinai, born at the stroke of midnight, whose ability is to communicate telepathically with the other 1,000 children. It's another one of those something for everyone kind of books.

The Lord of the Rings
Long before Peter Jackson made them hip, I grew up on the ultimate fantasy nerd classics. I first read these books starting back in elementary school, and have long since lost track of the number of times I have read them. My best association with them is reading them aloud in the car to pass the time as three friends and I drove through much of Italy, Germany and France over a two week period back in grad school. The fact that we were still friends after that many hours in a Ford Focus is a testament to the power of fiction.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
My mom gave me this book this year for Christmas after hearing Junot Diaz interviewed on NPR. Somehow she thought that a book written in a mix of English, Spanish and Spanglish (yes it's a different thing from the first two) about a hopelessly romantic, nerdy kid who loves Dungeons & Dragons and The Lord of the Rings would resonate with me. She was right. Winner of this year's Pulitzer Prize, this is one of the few books I read before it won a major award.

A Prayer for Owen Meany
A small kid who speaks only in capital letters, a love/hate relationship with the game of baseball, life in a New England boarding school, and a narrator who has moved to Canada, but can't break his addiction to ranting about American politics, what more could you ask for. I first read Owen Meany in high school, and it's been up at the top of my list ever sense.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

My Ideal Class: World Literature "Transloosely Literated"

If I could teach absolutely anything, I would love to teach a senior English class in world literature in translation. It would blend together my loves of languages and of literature, as well as my general belief that education should serve to expand the world view of students.

One of the major themes of the class would be the challenges presented by translation--the ways in which perfect translations are impossible and all translators are always making their own choices about the works. I would show the funniest scene from Lost in Translation, where Bill Murray is being instructed by the Japanese director of the commercial he has flown to Tokyo to shoot. The director talks and talks, but when the interpreter translates it into English it comes out as just a few words. The scene is Bill Murray at his best.

I would also pick a page or a paragraph from a famous work--Don Quixote comes to mind--and present multiple translations of the same material, in order to talk about the places where different choices were made.

And now I would have the students read this piece from Sunday's NYT Book Review. A classic!

Monday, July 7, 2008

Guest Post: Five Books I've Loved Teaching

The Five Books theme continues to generate a lot of dialogue. I'm happy today to have the second ever guest post to this blog. Today's guest poster is not only an experienced English teacher, but is also the proud mom of the author of the first guest post ever on this blog.

In September 2008, I will begin my 39th year in education. I’ve been teaching English grades 6 – 12 all this time, and I’m happy to respond to Jeff’s blog.

Five texts I’ve loved teaching:

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
High schoolers of all ethnicities presented with black lit., often appreciate, but don’t always “relate.” Ralph Ellison’s genius was that his prose style allows students to get inside the protagonist, who begins as a student himself and is desperate to get ahead. He’s thwarted left, right and center, ending, up living in a basement with a recording of “Am I Blue” (you can get a cd of it and play in class), busily screwing hundreds of light bulbs on the floor, ceiling and walls to rip off the electric company. I have had many students who have been shaken by this novel, some of them learning for the first time about black on black betrayal. Discussion leads to lessons in social history.

Julius Caesar William Shakespeare
I love to guide my seventh graders’ first reading of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Seventh graders – who knows more about stabbing one another in the back than seventh graders during the turning point in middle school where they break into the cruelest of mobs/gangs/packs, feeding on the souls of kids who were their buddies in elementary school with.
Antony’s principles are not as familiar to many of the kids. Close reading draws out the merits of keeping faith and loyality, and we get into talks about ethics, “mean girls” and bullies.

Crime and Punishment Fyodor Dostoevsky
By the tenth grade, most students are excited about having their philosophical discussions. Some of them posture and pose, while others grapple with valid pros and cons and articulating difficult concepts. Crime and Punishmentis perfect for giving students meat to chew, debate and write about.

Death of a Salesman – Arthur Miller
Students learn the painful lesson that, as the famous line from the play goes, attention must be paid. Dramatic tragic hero since the advent of the common man in the U.S.A., Willy Lowman, is a failure in the eyes of almost everyone in the play, and certainly in those wallowing in our neo-gilded age. Students have trouble seeing the nobility in Willy, seeing why his wife knows that attention must be paid even to those who hit the sidewalk and slug it out in the work-a-day world everyday, believing in a personal code of responsibility, dedication and old fashioned ethics that need to be resurrected.

Waiting for Godot -Jean Paul Sartre
Why go on when you can’t? There is no help. There is no reason. Teenagers can connect with this concept, but they can’t so readily relate to Didi and GoGo’s “I can’t go on. I can’t go on. Let’s go on.” Existential as it’s themes are, Waiting for Godot demonstrates that we are not alone, but, in fact we are. Recognize it and, with the knowledge, find a way to deal.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

There Is Nothing New Under The Sun

Starting about a month before I published my first post for this blog, I began archiving articles and blog posts that I thought might some day inspire a post. I didn't know at the beginning how much I would have to say about starting a school, and I thought it would be a good idea to have a catalog of ideas ready to go, just in case I developed a case of writer's block. Generally, when I see something that interests me and seems vaguely relevant to the topic of schools, I email it to myself, and label it for future use. At this point, I have over a hundred articles and blog posts awaiting my attention in my gmail account.

Among the articles I've been waiting to write something about is Gene Weingarten's Pulitzer Prize winning feature from The Washington Post. If you haven't read it before, you should stop reading this right now and follow the link. You should experience his article and the accompanying video clips first hand. I found it to be a fascinating and moving piece.

To sum it up briefly, Weingarten convinced world famous virtuoso violinist Joshua Bell to play the roll of a busker in Washington D.C.'s L'Enfant Plaza metro station, just to see if anyone would realize what they were experiencing. The basic answer is no. Other than one amateur violinist, a woman who had just seen Bell in concert and recognized him, and a young boy who had to be dragged away by his mother, no one stopped to listen. Bell barely made enough money for a cup of coffee.

On a couple of occasions, I have started posts relating to this article, mostly focusing on the wonder of the young boy in contrast to the hurrying adults all around him, arguing that schools should do everything in their power to preserve and encourage this sense of fascination with the world. I never quite got the post finished, or it didn't quite fit in with the other things I was writing about, so I kept leaving it for another day.

Then yesterday, my wife forwarded me this Weingarten article from this Sunday's Post. It turns out Weingarten's fascinating social experiment had been tried and written about more than 75 years earlier for the Chicago Evening Post with almost exactly the same results. In the most bizarre of coincidences, not only did both violinists play two of the same pieces for their street performances, but for a period of about ten years, Joshua Bell played the exact same Stradivarius used by Jacques Gordon 75 years before (The Red Violin anyone?).

I write about this here, because I think there is a lesson in the way Weingarten handles the discovery that his his Pulitzer Prize winning article, surely one of the proudest accomplishments of his professional life, is not quite as original as he had believed. Instead of burying the story, or writing a defensive piece all about how he still deserves credit for his great idea, he writes a very humorous and humble piece, poking fun at his own pride in his originality. He points out that the internet, not any intrinsic differences between the two pieces, is largely responsible for the enormous success of his article in comparison to the immediately forgotten 1930 version. He revels with the rest of us in the bizarre coincidences between the two stories.

There are many teachable moments out there in the world, and this is a great one. I would present the students with a hypothetical situation, maybe translated to the world of science, where publishing original ideas if of such crucial importance. They have researched and written an article. All of the work is their own, but as the article is going to press, they discover that someone else has published something very similar before. What would they do? I think it would lead to a fascinating conversation about originality and who ideas belong to. Any chance for students to really engage with an ethical dilemma is a good thing.

In Weingarten's place, what would you have done?