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Heroic measures: teach critical thinking

My big question this morning: how do we teach, and learn, to think critically?

Not the surface-level fluff–but the hard questions, the wrestling with the trifecta of intellectual stagnation: cognitive dissonance, justification, and rationalization?

Do we need heroes/heroines?

What would happen…if…we…didn’t?

What if…we were good to each other, did no harm, and made our classrooms, lecture halls, and online spaces engaged and safe places to discuss questions and seek ideas and answers?

Consider and read this thread: keep track and curate the narratives you teach: by every figure, do a character study. We need to face and review the decisions of the past and reconcile and come to terms with our future.

Example: what if Ruth Hopkins didn’t follow this path? Discuss the narrative of Lincoln’s heroism and his great, grave flaws?

But we don’t really teach critical thinking because that would cause a potential revolt to order.

What Does ‘Critical Thinking’ Mean?

This feels very big to me right now, and scary, but this is the gift I want to give my students most of all: the courage to question, and draw their own conclusions, and then have the mindfulness and mental flexibility to adjust those conclusions if necessity demands.

Now: that is a big idea. How to go about it?

Okay. Any ideas welcome.

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Build and Grow

Are we micro-managing reading, and not seeing the big picture?

Can the skills for the future be taught? 

Skills–strategies –the future will depend on our ability to solve problems–and that ability relies heavily on strategies–

Actually, legitimately taught and learned?

Two things crossed my view recently. Using my mental ‘crazy wall’ yarn and thumbtack skills, I’m going to play and mold how they may be related:

Turns out, Bigfoot does not work for the CIA.

Reading scores are stagnant for U.S. children: reading, and loving to read, has become a source of shame for many students. In a recent Hechinger Report, “Third Indication U.S. Education is Deteriorating” by Jill Barshay discusses the conundrum that parents and educators face. This does not surprise me. Consider the vitriol and desperation of many of us educators to help students read we’ve managed to kill the love of reading altogether.

And then there’s this:

Hidden Brain interviewed Alison Gopnik:

The Carpenter Vs. The Gardener: Two Models Of Modern Parenting

And the TL:DR is: “To get to good outcomes [sic] …not worrying about outcomes at all.”

Alison Gopnick.

The carpenter parent believes in raising children with blueprints: with planning and preparation, they can craft their child into the proper structure. The gardener parent encourages growth and happy surprises. Of course, there should be a balance between the carpenter and the gardener, but we’ve swung our hammer far too wide to the carpenter side with prescriptive reading programs, reading logs, and all sorts of canned curriculum, and haven’t dug deep enough into many of the wonderful and innovative ideas out there. It would appear, nothing is being done very well.

Perhaps if parents want their children to grow, a refresher on how to construct reading is in order.

Also: let children play.

The Importance of Play

Piaget stresses how important learning the rules of the game is in the process of socialization; a child must become able to control himself in order to do so, controlling most of all his tendency to act aggressively to reach his goals. Only then can he enjoy the continuous interaction with others that is involved in playing games with partners who are also opponents. But obeying the rules and controlling one’s selfish and aggressive tendencies is not something that can be learned overnight; it is the end result of long development. When he begins playing games, a child tries to behave as he could in his earlier play. He changes the rules to suit himself, but then the game breaks down. In a later stage he comes to believe that the rules are unalterable. He treats them as if they were laws handed down from time immemorial, which cannot be transgressed under any circumstances, and he views disobeying the rules as a serious crime. Only at a still later stage—often not until he has become a teenager and some even later than that—can he comprehend that rules are voluntarily agreed upon for the sake of playing the game and have no other validity, and that they can be freely altered as long as all participants agree to such changes. Democracy, based on a freely negotiated consensus that is binding only after it has been formulated and accepted, is a very late achievement in human development, even in game-­playing.

So let me see if I understand this:

  • Some students have a difficult time just being in class–understanding and cooperating with the community, the guidelines, protocols, and the rules–the simple rules–of how to function in a classroom.
  • Some students did not get enough time to play–to interact, socialize, and learn basic forms of human interactions…(and they still don’t)
  • Some students are in the classroom challenging and disrupting every aspect of those protocols*: the teacher’s instructional practices, the expectations for himself or the instructor, and constantly surveying and monitoring the pressures and praises of their peers…

If we miss out on “…it is the end result of long development” and come to the place in secondary education where a student struggles to function from hallway behavior to classroom cooperation it is our obligation and responsibility to ensure secondary students understand this and offer solutions to why they’re acting out, and what impact that has in the present and long-term.

It’s time to return to helping students see themselves for who they are, and who they can be. The grand potential is over time, not in a single moment.

*When the status quo is oppressive and racist there is a demand for disruption and protest. This is not a call for blind obedience–the opposite–this is a call for reflection and nuance, and most of all empowerment.

I really miss my friend and colleague who worked at our building until this year. She single-handedly brought back safety and community to our building and helped students find their integrity and honor, and consistently built bridges between teachers and struggling students. She’s doing good and important work elsewhere, but she’s left a vacuum. One of my strengths is building relationships: I did it before she came to our building, and I’ll do it again. But I’ll take the gardener approach, thank you.

Back to my original question: can we teach what we need to, and can students learn it?

We need to ask this question first: What do we want them to learn? — Answer: We want them to learn how to be in the world andcooperativelyy solve problems.

That has always been the answer, and they learn this by playing.

Oh: and the Digital Dogs blog is going very well. I still have a few students who need help finding their voice, but it’s a work in progress.

Book recommendation: Long Way Down





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The art of flying…

The ending before Winter Break was the worst of times…but also the best of times. We know our students react to the holidays often with increased anxiety, and no matter how tight or clear instruction is, sometimes a student or students can’t control their emotional responses. That is where our professionalism and patience are both tested and steeled. I just keep reminding myself that the majority of students are doing good, strong work and growing. The one to two who lash out just need more time, patience and support.

On the eve of the break, I received some amygdala-grabbing warnings about my teaching practice. Heaped on an already cortisol-filled heart and head, my best path to stress relief is to read and take stock, write notes, and make a plan.

Receiving negative criticism, however, need not be cause for alarm. With every negative assumption comes an opportunity to revisit positive intent. 

I am a HUGE fan of ‘assuming good intentions,’ and this article by Laura Thomas states why clearly:

Anger and Trust

What’s causing all this publicly shared ire? It used to be unacceptable to go to the scary rage place, particularly in front of colleagues or friends. Doing so would ruin one’s credibility. Now, due in part to the perceived anonymity of social media, we’ve reset the Overton Window on what is unacceptable — and we’re hurting ourselves as a result, because all of this anger may actually change the way the brain functions, as well as the heart, immune system, blood pressure, and lungs. When we feel attacked, a part of our brain called the amygdala floods our body with chemicals that prepare us for a fight. Angry outbursts feel like attacks, so we respond defensively, which from the other side looks a lot like an attack. In healthy people, the prefrontal cortex keeps us from taking a swing at the guy next to us (or at the very least telling him exactly what we think of him and his opinion). Lately, however, that system seems to be breaking down. We’re getting angrier while simultaneously feeling fewer inhibitions about taking that metaphorical or literal swing at the guy next to us.

So how do we stop it?

By recognizing what is happening, and surrounding and bolstering ourselves with intelligent, thoughtful relationships. To my colleagues who are smart and experts in terms of neuroscience, education, mindfulness and quality instruction. I am so blessed to have these women in my life. I will look to them for mindfulness lessons for students first.

Over-break Projects:

No burnout:

Don’t get burned out, but remain passionate.

Crafts, baking, walking, reading: enjoying my family’s company. My husband and sons are three of the smartest, funniest men I know. We are a creative, engaged family, and resourceful as all get-out. I realizing raising two amazing humans does not make me more or less qualified as an educator, but it does give me insights that help inform my practice. Raising humans is not for the faint of heart, and it takes a lot of heart to do so.

Seating Arrangments:

I went in today and cleaned up my room. I was sick that Friday before the break and reluctantly got a sub. One of the things I’ve been thinking about is seating charts. There are pros and cons, but ultimately it’s not the seating chart but the focus on what they will get done in that day. Though I have Learning Targets/Success Criteria always available, referred to and visible, greet them at the door, I am thinking daily success charts are the way to go. I’ve done these in the past, and they need to happen again. The management and logistics, however…that I’m not really sure about yet.

Trusting and listening to my students:

They are my ‘customers.’ They are who I serve. I love giving surveys and personality inventories, and choice. A lot of choices. However, choice to administrators or observers may look like chaos, and there is something to that. Not all students can handle choice: they’ve been through enough change and trauma to last anyone a lifetime, and they need direct instruction.

4. Go right to the kiddos.

Your students are the best evaluators of the success of your classroom. Throw together a quick survey and ask them how they think their year is going. This is also a chance for you to reflect on your core values; what’s important in your classroom?

For me, it’s every kid feeling free to be themselves—”You do you”—and learning in the way that’s the best for them. So, some of my survey questions might be:

  • Do you feel like I respect you as a person?
  • Do you think I do everything I can to help you learn? What’s one thing I could do differently?
  • What’s one thing you wish I knew?

(That last one can be heartbreaking, eye-opening and the best thing you’ve read all day all at the same time. Sometimes they just want to tell you they love you … and it’s exactly what you’re going to need in a moment of self-doubt.)

For some students, in particular, feeling they have my respect (they do) and my care (they do) is only as valuable as they use it to help them learn. And no one can learn if they don’t feel safe. (Including teachers.)

So: I’m working on this:

And then I’ll go bake something.

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WIHWT: Why I write.

This Wish I Had Written That is inspired by Rebecca Solnit.

Sometimes the artmaking stalls out.

Sometimes I’ve written my truth and it conflicts with someone else’s narrative. Writers step on toes, cause disquiet, and challenge ideas and status quo: and yes, I count myself in that group.

And when I stall out it’s because of fear. Fear of reprimand, unwarranted criticism, or being misunderstood.

But I suppose if I want to write, reflect, question, challenge, and process I must let go of any naivety and just write. Let go of the belief that all my words and ideas will be welcomed as a first-grader’s art project stuck on the fridge with a souvenir magnet.

It’s fun when there are over 1,000 hits and views on this blog. I realize other writers get tens of thousands a month, but for now, I’m satisfied with whoever takes the time to read.

There are too many fascinating and amazing miracles happening every day not to take snapshots of them, and curate the wonders of this world, and let fear get in the way. This age demands transparency and questioning. Carry on, be brave.



“You make art because you think what you make is good, and good means that it’s good for other people, not necessarily pleasant or easy, but leading toward more truth or justice or awareness or reform. I write nonfiction and know a lot of journalists, political writers, and historians, whose efforts tend to be more overtly geared toward changing the world but I believe this is true of poets too. This weekend a friend sent me a Neruda poem to celebrate the king tides—the exceptionally high winter tides we get here—and though it’s hard to say the way this might help someone, it helps me to read:

the disdain, the desire of a wave,
the green rhythm that from the hidden bulk
lifted up a translucent edifice

Because pleasure is part of what gets us through and helps us do what we’re here to do. Because the political struggle is to protect the vulnerable and the beautiful, and paying attention to them is part of the project.”

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Extra credit.

We, teachers, don’t hear enough about the good things we do in a day. We count on funny videos, friends, and our students to support us. The sad truth, it doesn’t come from the top often. But that’s okay, really and truly. That is not the work of administration. Or rather, it’s like finding money in a coat pocket: it’s great when it happens, but don’t count on it.

Maybe we’re so programmed to think of reflection as a tear-down process–but reflection can also mean, “Hey, I’m looking pretty good!” And by that, I don’t mean vanity, but the reflection of who we are through the eyes and hearts of our students.

Take a minute for yourself, and keep a log of the good things that happened. It’s the cure for the criticism, warranted or not, that comes our way.

This past month:

  • Started students writing and posting regularly on a class blog.
  • Contacted and reached out to the experts in my building about students who need extra support
  • Reached out to parents to support them
  • Had student-led conferences and helped support the majority of my students get their presentations done, and enjoyed talking to parents that evening (and made many parents laugh)
  • Hosted Minecraft/Anime Club in the wake of new protocols that support students and scholarly pursuits
  • Students decorated my classroom door for the door decorating contest: they did it all. On the backsides of the index cards were compliments they gave to one another.
  • Supported colleagues with resource curation (whether they use it or not, it’s there)
  • Made counseling aware of a student whose emotional health drew concerns and will continue to follow up
  • Contacted a parent to better help support her child
  • Helped students make connections to their core classes, each day, every day
  • Helped my ELL teacher colleagues with support for a student who needs extra help: she may not get it because of rules on the books, but we’re trying
  • Shared resources with teachers nationwide and locally – strangers and friends–and continued dialogues and exchanges of ideas
  • Helped create new form for an administrative procedure
  • Figured out how to do some cool things
  • Planning my PBL with the WABS/STEM group this weekend and last
  • Took advice from admin that’s really good
  • Cleared the air with a colleague
  • Solved misunderstandings
  • Said “yes”
  • Said “no”
  • Offered to update social-emotional lessons for admin
  • Came on time, stood in the hallway, did my duty, warmly greeted students–none of that is difficult. One of the best parts of my days.
  • Hosted students from other classes in my room for small group work
  • Discovered new solutions to problems, tested out apps and software
  • Made jokes, kept a smile, and laughed.

Oh, and that was all on Tuesday.

Well, I’m joking, of course, but not by much! We all do a lot in one day, a lot of good, happy things: we know we have students in our care who deserve the best of who we are. And if no one has told you lately, I will:

You’re awesome. You’re doing important, good work. You bring the best of who you are for them.

Thank you.