Drone Fly-By To Remember School By

Our school technology specialist (and all around geek) used his drone to make a short film of our elementary school — now vacant and quiet and empty — and the video he made is both intriguing for its view of the place but also sort of sad because of what it reminds us we’re missing as the school year is coming towards an ending (a week from Monday is our last day).

Peace (flying slowly over),
Kevin

Slice of Life: I Can’t Read This Room

I took a breath before starting up my Monday series of video chats with my sixth graders. These are short sessions, with two offerings per week, for students to choose from. I’ve done some mini-lessons in the weeks at home with these video meets but mostly, I’ve used it as a check-in, pep talk, address questions kind-of-thing.

“If we were in the classroom, together, we would be talking about current events,” I tell my students, trying to read faces and body postures and feeling frustrated about how the video delays, spotty Internet connections, and small screens and faces-only visuals, not to mention the reluctance many still have of even engaging in conversation on the video, all stymied my approach.

I could have chosen to avoid this topic altogether. I could have but really, I could not. How can we?

“And there are events going on that you may have been following from Minneapolis and other cities,” I continue, noticing some nodding heads. One student quickly wrote “George Floyd” in the chat for everyone to see.  Another shared a sad emoji face. I pause, and acknowledge George Floyd’s name and then give an overview of what has been happening in cities across the country as a result, including nearby Boston (and later, I find, right in my small city, too, where the police station was the scene of a rally/protest and target of graffiti).

I connect what is happening now to our work earlier in the year in discussing race, civil rights, and systemic violence of the black community — particularly young black men — from our work with The Watsons Go to Birmingham 1963, and try to balance the news headlines of looting stores with the tenets of peaceful protest marches, as civic action against injustice being the heart and soul of our country. I avoid the president, despite the voice in my head, altogether, trying to keep the politics neutral.

Repeatedly, I open the floor up in the video for questions, and pose questions of inquiry. I receive some response, but mostly, not much. Just silence. Either they are reluctant to discuss difficult questions or engage in difficult dialogue via video, or they have not really been paying much attention to the news, or something else. (I refuse to believe it’s because they didn’t care). I could have (maybe should have) done some writing with them, but I wasn’t sure if they had enough context for that.

I could not read the room, despite my many years as a teacher, and this happened four different times with four different classes. I could not … read the room.

Yesterday, I disliked (hated, really, to be honest) this Distance Learning situation more than ever for the barriers it puts in front of me helping my students see the world through a larger lens, with context and compassion.

Seeing them there in little images, stuck inside my computer screen, isolated and maybe only seeing news through their social media applications, or if lucky, in discussions with parents, and here I was, a teacher they would often rely on to talk about these issues, feeling as inadequate as I have ever felt, trying to engage them in critically important issues, and seemingly failing in my efforts to do so.

Maybe they were thinking as they were listening, at least. Maybe that.

Peace (in frustration),
Kevin

Adventures in AudioStory Creation: Risking It All For the King

Risking It All For the King

As my students were writing their own “Stuck Inside a Game” short stories over a few weeks time in our distance learning adventures, I was recording an audiobook of my own story: Risking It All For The King. I’d been sharing each episode as I recorded them but then gathered all SEVEN episodes in one place, in order from start to finish. It was fun to layer sound effects in with voice for an extended story. This was fairly new to me.

Peace (in story),
Kevin

For Virtual Field Day: Making Stopmotion Movies

Our elementary school is taking a break from academics this week (we have three weeks to go until the end of the year) and doing all sorts of Wellness/Health/Arts activities. I think families, kids and teachers all needed a little mental health reprieve, a quick breather before the rush of the end of this strange school year is upon us.

Since we can’t have our usual Field Day of group activities throughout our school grounds, the specialist teachers designed a Virtual Field Day project, and invited classroom teachers to submit videos as inspiration to be active and creative for families. I decided to invite kids to make stop-motion movies, and made the video above as my way to introduce and invite movie making to happen.

Peace (frame by frame by frame),
Kevin

Slice of Life: The End of Days

The title of this post is a little click bait-y. Sorry.

The other day, I received in the mail a copy of a new book by my writing project colleague, Michael Silverstone and his writing partner, Debbie Zacarian. It’s entitled Teaching to Empower.

Michael sent me a copy of the book because I was one of many teachers Debbie and Michael reached out for vignettes from the classroom, around the theme of student or teacher empowerment, and I had forgotten most of what I had written.

So, I thumbed through the book and found my piece. In it, I had focused on our video game design unit, and how I entered into the world of game design, as a way to help students engage with technology and writing, after overhearing so many discussions about gaming, at the end of the school days, while waiting for the bus.

In fact, I’ve written many small pieces over the years about that particular period of the school day, of just waiting around, of boredom being interrupted by some interesting question or thought, of aimless chatter, or of how a line of discussion that starts one place and ends in another — all as we waited for the dismissal announcements over the loudspeaker.

Of all the things I’m missing now in the Social Distancing era, this end-of-days bus-waiting time (See? I told you the phrase would makes sense) doesn’t quite rank at the top of my worries, yet it’s emblematic of a periodic realization: I don’t quite know my students anymore. We’re in our tenth week of learning and teaching from home.

Honesty, I don’t really know how they are doing, other than how they look for a stretch of time on the screen. I try to read eyes, and gestures, and smiles, but the screens interfere with those moments. The technology masks the humanity. I don’t really know what’s shaking up their lives or what’s the newest, best, most exciting thing happening to them.

I’m in touch, but I’ve lost touch.

My piece in Michael and Debbie’s book reminded of this because it was such a celebratory moment of how eavesdropping in on student conversations helped me rethink the way I was teaching, and then guided me into some curriculum changes that made a huge difference for so many students (particularly my struggling writers).

I end the vignette with the idea of standing there, in the classroom, waiting, listening back in, with the reminder that you never know what you’ll hear if you don’t take the chance to listen. That seems quaint now, and so out of touch with the times. So it goes.

Peace (what we hear),
Kevin

Pandemic Poem from the Classroom: Broken Pencils

Tiny pencil

I went in to my classroom yesterday, at the allotted time, and began the difficult process of packing up all of my students’ belongings into clear plastic bags. Everything from every desk. Everything from every locker. Odds and ends. The left-behind stuff of every kid, placed into a see-through bag. Stickers with student names on the outside. At some later date, their families will drive through the back lot, and these bags will be delivered to their back seat, and they will drive off.

It was very depressing work, really, almost like an invasion of their privacies — handling not just school work – graded papers and papers never handed in — but also, the odds and ends of them, the things from friends they kept close and the things they kept for reasons only they might understand. All of it, packed into a bag. It felt like a morgue, really, and I am reminded of scenes from military movies, where what material objects remain are gathered, honored, returned. The locker hallway for fifth and sixth grade were lined from one door to the other with plastic bags.

One image that stayed with me later in the day, hours after I had finished the task, was the pencils. So many pencils, of all sorts and in all conditions. Who knew they had so many pencils? I bet I packed hundreds of them, and many fell to the floor as I worked, some ripping the bag and falling out. All I could think about is, what might still get written? What did we not get written this year?

My poem this morning is all about that.

It’s the broken pencils
that give me pause,
as I label and empty
these steel desk drawers

into clear thin plastic bags
that refuse to contain you;
your belongings ripping at the
fabric of my work –

You’re spilling out:
unsharpened, snapped-tipped,
eraser-bitten, rainbow-ed
and graphite possibilities of
lines, circles, dots, smudges
stories, poems, notes, plays

These broken cardboard boxes
releasing wild Ticonderogas
to the floor, scattering and silent,
as if lions sit in wait

You are everywhere
in this classroom,
and nowhere,
all at once

Peace (packing it up but not in),
Kevin

Slice of Life: Still Living In An Email World

In some ways, I am built just right for this shift to Distance Learning. I write that somewhat tongue-in-cheek since I miss my students so much and know this (points to computer) will never replace that (points in general direction of school).

But technology is something I have long explored and utilized, and feel quite comfortable with, for myself and with my students, so the shift in the respect of how we do things online isn’t so bad.

Except for the emails.

Even with full use of Google Classroom, which contains discussions pretty nicely enough, the sheer load of emails coming in, from administrators, from colleagues on my team, from parents and family members, from students (from technology companies, somehow temporary avoiding the spam filter to pitch me the next best thing for my students) … it’s all overwhelming at times. I am just as bad on my end of the email chain, sending out regular emails to students as a complement to our video chats, to remind of this and to urge them to do that.

If I am looking at my school email bin and taking a deep breath of near despair before diving in to follow the threads, I wonder how my students are doing with their school email (which is something new for them, activated once we left school for Distance Learning, although they have had other Google Apps for Ed platforms for use all year).

I know for a fact that email is NOT their first choice of communication and for many of my sixth graders, this may be the first time they either have any kind of email of their own or have needed to rely on it for information and connection. Some barely glance at their email. Others are finding it another way to connect with classmates.

I have a colleague who has resisted Google Classroom for assignments during this time and instead, assigns content and asks students to write responses in Google Docs (sometimes more than one each week) they create in their accounts, and share it with him. Just thinking of the avalanche of email notifications they must be getting from our 75 students each week makes me groan under the weight of it all.

We’re still living in an email world. Take that, Tik Tok.

Peace (the bin is nearly full),
Kevin

Picture Book Review: Let The Children March

One of the many topics that come up when I read Christopher Paul Curtis’ novel The Watsons Go to Birmingham 1963 is the role of young people in the civil rights movement. Although the novel never references the Birmingham Children’s Crusade, the movie adaptation does, through the memory of some cousins of the Watson children, and so we spend time discussing how young people took the streets in protest, were attacked by police with fire canons and dogs, and were sent to jail by the hundreds.

Let The Children March, a picture book by author Monica Clark-Robinson and illustrator Frank Morrison is a powerful text companion to those discussions. With brilliant visuals and an engaging story (plus, a valuable timeline of 1963 in Alabama during the Civil Rights era), the book brings to the surface the courage of the kids who took to the streets, the wariness and worry of the parents who allowed the march (code-named D Day and Double D Day) to happen, and the movement leaders who accepted that children being arrested would create tension for the Kennedy White House to finally act against segregation.

The picture book centers on a narrator voice of a child who takes part in the Birmingham Children’s Crusade, but it more of a universal voice, advocating for change against unjust rules and putting the self in danger to force confrontation against a police force that was part of the problem, not the solution.

I appreciate how Let The Children March gives those young marchers a voice, and also, explores the results of the march (which the scenes in the Watsons movie does not do because of the time frame). President Kennedy did get involved after getting pressure from the country and the world. Birmingham did end official segregation (if not racial violence, as the bombing of the church that forms the center of the Watsons novel shows. Change happened, even if the results of those actions are still something we continue to reckon with as a country.

Peace (for all),
Kevin

Slice of Life: One of Those Days

(This is for the Slice of Life challenge, hosted by Two Writing Teachers. We write on Tuesdays about the small moments in the larger perspective … or is that the larger perspective in the smaller moments? You write, too.)

The student arrived already grumpy on a two-hour delay day, as if the weather were plotting something against them, personally. They expressed that the bad day had already begun and would likely keep going, probably bound to get worse. All day. Today. There was make-up work to get started on, some daily things to accomplish, their friend was absent, a pencil wouldn’t sharpen, a paper was missing, and so on. All of it evidence of a world conspiring against them, today, this day.

I countered with a cheerful “good morning,” and made sure to check in with them a few times, smiling and being purposefully upbeat (not that I’m not anyway, but still …), and slowly, their mood seemed gradually to shift back towards some semblance of normal. By day’s end, as I was saying “have a great afternoon” when the dismissal bell rang, I saw glimpses of a smile and the carrying of a body that suggested some of the melancholy had dissipated.

One may never know what affects the moods of our students on any given day. What we can do is do the best we can to help them keep some balance and perspective on a swirling adolescent world, through our words and our actions and our caring dispositions. This has nothing to do with academics. It has everything to do with the child, and our role, as teacher.

Peace (even in the dark),
Kevin

Book Review: Vintage Innovation

As someone who has followed John Spencer for a few years, I have enjoyed the ways he explains innovation, design, teaching and learning. His latest book — Vintage Innovation (Leveraging Retro Tools and Classic Ideas to Create Meaningful Learning) — revisits some of his previous ideas around project-based learning and design cycles, but he looks at it through the idea of student inquiry dependent less on technology and new-fangled digital tools, and more on duct tape, cardboard and deep thinking.

His aim, or my take-away, is to remember that technology may be flashy and the “thing” in the moment — maybe something to hook the interest of our students — but in looking to what’s new, let’s not forget what has worked, and to revisit those “vintage” concepts in the age of the new.

The book explores concepts of integrating more divergent thinking that opens up wonder (as opposed to convergent thinking, which narrows the focus); encouraging students to be local historians and local journalists in their own communities through writing, interviews and publishing; tapping the power of imagination to think through and grapple difficult problems; reaching for the duct tape and cardboard before the laptop and phone; and more. John peppers the pages with his own illustrations, his own stories and his own sense of writing self, which is curious, compassionate and quite lighthearted and funny at times.

Three concepts really stood out for me after reading Vintage Innovation.

The first idea stems from the chapter in which John reminds us that nature and the outdoors provides plenty of ways to think about design (bio-mimicry), to inspire writing, to consider projects to help the larger world, and to use the quiet long walks or getting lost in the wild to mull over problems and solutions, all on their own time. (As a facilitator of the Write Out project, this entire chapter of his is right up our alley.)

Second, John spends a solid chapter reminding us that the teaching of Philosophy soft skills is as important, if not more so, than many of the harder skills of the STEM framework — that the philosophical underpinning of students thinking about problems, and devising solutions, can guide student innovators into ethical and important decisions about which path to take, and it is that point in which technology and other things may be tools for design. (If only Zuckerberg and company had done more of this …)

The final take-away for me is his powerful message that, at the end of the day, teachers are the most important player in helping our students grapple with modern day problems, not screens; that the ability to challenge critical thinking is something that can create magic in the classroom, beyond anything a website or app can do; and that the tools for innovation are easy found, and require neither elaborate MakerSpaces, 3D printers or any of the other expensive hardware that technology companies pitch our way.

“Apps change. Gadgets break. Technology grows obsolete. But teachers will continue to take creative risks and experiment with new ideas. They will continue to build relationships and inspire new possibilities in their students. When our tools have grown obsolete, teachers will continue to impact lives and change the world.” — John Spencer, in Vintage Innovation, page 224

Peace (in people),
Kevin