Passionate Learning

Yesterday I drove one of my students into town to have a guided tour of our data center.  You see, he had a question about me using a VNC from school to show him stuff on his home computer.  (I have NO CLUE what  a VNC is.  I mean, I understand the concept he’s getting at, but I couldn’t answer the question he was asking.  However, I could connect him to someone who did.)

I had him send his question to our central office person for instructional technology, Becky Fisher. She, in turn, invited him to a tour of the data center and arranged for one of the folks in her department to lead it for this amazingly bright 11 year old.  I was honored to watch the exchange between this kid and the tour guide.

You see, my kid is one of those who doesn’t want to play school, and who stands out in the classroom as somewhat defiant, although he isn’t trying to be. He simply can’t understand why school can’t be a place where he can learn what he wants to learn and he questions the status quo constantly. He wants to pursue his passions in school as well as out and he can’t figure out why he can’t have some time in school to do so.

As an 11 year old, he has learned, though, to shut his mouth and not ask questions sometimes.  He has learned that to NOT lose his ability to have precious moments of free time for his passions, he has to spend time doing rote activities that don’t help him learn much many times. He has learned to play school.

He is writing code and creating his own computer games and has been for years.  He has an intuitive understanding of mathematical concepts and is truly one of the brightest kids I have ever taught–or in some cases, gotten out of his way so he could learn. He stops by my room every morning to touch base and make sure he can have extra time in my room each day.  He comes to my room every recess and lunch to have his own time for learning–to have a 40 minute piece of the day where he can pursue his passions–and I truly just stay out of his way most of the time, watching or asking questions to get an idea of what he is most recently creating. He asks to stay after school so he can work on his own ideas.  He spends hours and hours at home on his wiki, and is the most prolific wikikid I have. His silent leadership has caused me to have at least six kids in my room for lunch each day who are working on THEIR wikis and asking the leader questions OR who are playing his games and giving him feedback on them. They point to his wiki on theirs. By providing him an avenue to pursue his passion and let him bring that into school, he has gone from a classroom loner who was perceived as odd to a leader among his peers.

But, back to the tour…

Becky arranged for a former Murray High School student who is now our Systems Manager to give my kid the tour.  She says Robert is the most brilliant person she has ever met.  I believe her.  Becky was one of the teachers who opened Murray over 20 years ago. (Murray  is our alternative high school, a Glasser school of choice, as well as one of four charter schools in the state of VA, and is described as a school that “honors your heart and respects your mind.”)  Robert attended Murray after Becky had moved to central office, so they never knew each other in that venue.  He says, though, that while she was never formally his teacher, she has taught him much, as she initially gave him his entry into the world of our technology department as a student intern during his senior year at Murray. I have watched Robert grow in the 10 or 12 years he has been with the county as he has moved from his first support technician job right out of high school  to being in charge of all of our technology systems as a 30 year old. Becky and I deliberately wanted Robert to lead this child through the tour, as we knew they would be intrigued by each other.

Robert was amazing with this 5th grader. We had scheduled an hour and Robert gave more than that.  Robert gave this child his undivided attention and answered every question. The child SOAKED UP Robert’s explanations of the server room, the movement of packets of information through our system, and the details of how the redundancy of our system protects our work. He was so excited to be there, and Robert was just perfect as a guide–giving great detail so the kid was fascinated, but not too much so the kid was overwhelmed.  Robert shared reasons and the WHY behind some of the decisions made about our data center and the set up.  He gave enough information that the kid was totally engaged for the entire time. The most powerful piece for me, though, was the last ten minutes or so, where Robert and my kid talked about school.

You see, Robert doesn’t like to play school either, and he ended up at Murray because he was looking for an alternative to traditional high school, where he could learn what he wanted to learn. He was willing to do what was asked through the curriculum, but only if he could show what he knew in reasonable ways and not through doing pages and pages of redundant worksheets as homework. Murray met those needs and allowed him to create his own path of learning through our school system.  He described to my kid how he went from making Ds and Fs in the traditional high school to As and Bs at Murray.  As he described his path through our school system, he often used words my kid has used to describe school and his desires. Again, my kid SOAKED UP Robert’s words–but this time it was hitting him on a very personal level.  This time, those words came from a very successful person who struggled through school as my kid is–but who found a path that allowed him to pursue his passions while playing school.

My kid said in the car that he would love growing up and being like Robert-he would love to have a job like his.  Robert is an idol for this child.

Connecting gifted kids who struggle to survive in traditional school settings to successful adults who survived that system is crucial to give them hope.  My kid has that model now, thanks to Robert. I’m not sure Robert will EVER understand the impact he has had on this one kid with sharing his time and his story. MY whole purpose of this trip was to give my kid hope–hope that he will survive the next 7 years and manage to hang on to his passion for learning.  Thanks partially  to Robert, I think he will.


Mimicry-Ya Got That?

As I’ve been working on thinking about “LEARNING”  for the project at Thinking About Words Through Images,  my camera has been my constant companion at school.  That’s not unusual, for me to pull out my camera and snap pictures of my students working, but the difference is that I have told them WHY I am taking pictures and some of what I am thinking.  I have shared the link to that wiki, and it’s been interesting–knowing that I am collaborating with educators from all over the world seems to have had an impact on my students. I notice them commenting on each others’ wikis more, offering strategies in class more explicitly and asking each other questions that imply accountability to the community (like, have you finished your  geometry wiki page, I’ll call you tonight to remind you to bring in your iPod, etc.)

But, I wonder– am I seeing these things more because I am looking for specific instances of learning to photograph?

I have learned a lot in the first week of January, trying to take pictures of “learning.” First, it’s HARD trying to capture a still picture of the active learning in which my kids engage. I find myself wanting to describe the pictures, to explain what’s going on, to share the amazing thinking I see in my kids. While the images can capture some of what is going on, I need words as well.  I find myself posting my lessons (both adult and student ones) to the web, describing what happened and what I was hoping to happen. It’ll be interesting to see what I think and how I’m looking at the world through the lens of my camera at the end of the month.

What else I’ve learned is that it doesn’t matter what age kids are, they still mimic their teacher.

In teaching kindergarten, one of the funniest things to watch was when kids were in “free choice” time and they chose to play school.  I would hear my words coming out of their mouths, just as in housekeeping, I would hear their parents’ words.  It was eye-opening in both situations, and I often changed the ways I worded things based on the feedback I received watching my kids mimic me. (In parent conferences, I often told parents I wouldn’t believe half of what their kid told me about them if they’d promise me the same–because we ALL know that age also has a very active imagination!)

Yesterday was a hoot–the mimicry happened with fifth graders. In my class, when students are explaining their thinking, I often play confused so they have to be more explicit in their explanation and they learn how to explain their thinking more logically, sequentially and in depth.  I check for understanding with the group listening frequently by stopping the explainer periodically and asking the group things like, “Do you understand what s/he is saying?”  or “Did you get that?”  or “Does everybody know what s/he means when s/he says. .. ?”   I guess my most used is, “Did you get that?” Kids in my class don’t hesitate to ask for more explanation because this is part of our day-to-day conversations, AND they see me model confusion and asking clarifying questions.

Ms. White, Tzstchr

In a lesson where these pictures were taken, I was playing my confused self.  I had been taking pictures, but sat down at a table to probe a student who was making an assumption she shouldn’t have been making. Setting my camera on the table, I began asking the child to show me her thinking. After several minutes of interaction, another student picked up my camera and began taking pictures of our interactions. I paid no attention to that and continued with my questions.  She put the camera down, and throughout the next 5-10 minutes, several students took turns picking it up and taking pics as others gathered around to hear the conversation and support the child being questioned if they could. watchingThe pictures they got were pretty good (I had to leave out two because they have students whose pictures may not be put on the web.)

However, the funniest part was Toria taking over the explanation for the child I had begun with and explaining to me the way she saw to work the problem.  (She describes class on her wiki page, MathIDidToday.)   She was showing me her way, and I made her do it three different ways, apparently not understanding each time. (I asked her to, NOT because she didn’t get it, but because she was so adroit at thinking flexibly, choosing various shapes and changing her approach and modeling descriptive language for the others watching.)  By the third time, she was getting a wee bit frustrated with my lack of “getting it”, so she finished and, (truly) standing up, with a hand flourish, asked,  “Ya got that?”

The class erupted in HOWLING laughter. . .that’s why they all left with the red faces Toria describes!

UPDATE: the kid who picked up the camera first just wiki-mailed me and asked if I had ever figured out whether S4 was half of S5 (which was the problem we were working on that’s described in this blog.). I wrote her back this message:

Hanna, I’ll share a secret that you cannot share.
Please read this: http://tzstchr.edublogs.org/mimicry

PW

Her response back to me was simply priceless:

wow that is so cool i have never known but i did notice that you ALLWAYS didn’t get what we were telling you

My class didn’t work this morning-or did it?

I was working with 3rd grade. The plan was to have them respond to writing they had done Friday and give each other feedback, so we could rewrite and raise quality. Was it ever not working. … most had no clue how to do this! PLUS, 1/3 of the kids had written in their response something to the effect of “I think Ms. White showed us this because she wanted us to . .. .” They clearly were trying to write what they thought I wanted them to write.

I overheard a high level conversation going on in one group, so I gathered the others around that table in a fishbowl method and asked the three to relive their conversation. They were able to do so (challenging each other’s content, NOT talking to mechanics), and we started a conversation about my expectations for them in group work (This is only the 4th day with this group.)

Bottom line is I told them I did not want them playing school–did not want them to sit down, shut up and listen–did not want them playing the game of “guess the answer I have in my head.” I wanted them to think, to challenge, to ask questions, to be the highest level of thinkers they could be–and to constantly push themselves to be smarter. I said I would ask them questions, but they were NOT to assume I had an answer I wanted them to guess. . and they started talking about how teachers respond in other classes. They said some teachers yell when you get a wrong answer.

We talked about how intense I am–that sometimes I may sound mad or upset when I really am not, I’m just thinking seriously and intensely about what I’m trying to say. Several kids said I never even raise my voice. (That’s not true, but I think because they trust me, they don’t hear it.)

Kids said other teachers, if they (the kids) don’t respond as the teacher wants, say, “True, but what else?” or say, “Okay” and then call on another kid. They don’t get the chance to re-hypothesize or think about it more deeply, or refine their answer OR thinking

Sammie said  that what I do is say, “Okay” and then ask something else or give them more information to help them think harder and give them another chance to respond. I explained to her that I did that deliberately, that it was a teaching strategy called “scaffolding” which supports students learning for themselves. Several commented that they like that I do not go to another kid for the “real” answer–that I give them a chance to figure it out. (I reiterated that was scaffolding and said again that’s what I was trying to do.)

N’s summary of our conversation was that I do things to help them get to what I call “the AH-HA moment.” (Obviously he’s listened to me before!)

‘Bout half of this class has had me a LOT before. . ’bout half was reasonably new to me this year. They were all participating in sharing and asking and talking when we gathered round the group modeling high level thinking.

Looking back, with this conversation ending our class, I guess maybe something DID work… I hope they’ll come back tomorrow looking for deep thinking. We’ll see.