GETTING OUT OF STUDENTS’ WAY

Education often is steeped in compliance as a result of control.  How nourishing the experience can be, when instead of control, context is the driver.  In October two students asked if I might be willing to sponsor a club called, “Green Oceans.”

The name was intriguing, as were the stickers already affixed to the computers of various sixth graders.  Instead of an ocean, the design featured a mountain. Come to find out that the mountains wished to convey a broader message of interconnectedness. The green referred to sustainability.  Needless to say, I gladly accepted the request to act as sponsor.

A week later, twenty-two motivated students filled the room.

The club was born.

Unbeknownst to me, the savvy pre-teens already were immersed in a digital platform called Discord.  They were quick to include and even assign me a “teacher’s chair.” Green Oceans already determined that the club’s two “founders” should help guide the decisions.  Further, two other students were quick to self-nominate to act as Green Ocean’s financial managers.

“Financial managers for what?” I question.  We didn’t have any money!

Though I initially did not know several of the students, it is quite possible that unconsciously I was able to trust in the goodness to come.  This especially so, having students named  Birdie, Whale and Proud in the room.  In Thailand it is customary to have a nickname or “chue len.”  Literally translating to “play name,” in 80% of the cases the chue len is but one syllable. It certainly helps with pronunciation, as official Thai names can be especially long.

At the heart of Green Oceans was an earnest desire to help spread awareness to take care of the oceans.  Furthermore, the club wanted to take action. Students were quick to decide that they should sell something.  One student already was recognized to have a talent for tye-dye, whereas another enjoyed making friendship bracelets.  The novelty of both would be customization.

Over the next month students were part of either the marketing or production team.  Marketing was responsible for creating posters to be hung around campus, as well as digital posters to be shared in both the middle and high school daily news bulletins.  Further, individuals on the marketing team learned how to develop Google Forms for collecting orders and spreadsheets were utilized for organizing payment and also for communicating with the designers.

Just as quickly as the club was born, orders began to stream in.  The production team was all hands on deck, while marketing worked closely with “clients” (student speak) to collect payment and communicate the time and place orders could be picked up.

All told, an equivalent of over $1000USD was sold. True service, not an assignment. The endeavor entirely student driven.  “My favorite thing about Green Ocean Club was we had a chance to lead the club.” A similar version of this comment was repeatedly made in a reflective survey.

In initial club meetings, Green Oceans decided to piggyback on the relationship the school already had with an organization called, Phang Nga Coastal Fisheries, also known as “Turtle Heaven.”  Founded in 1985, Phang Nga Coastal Fisheries is located in Southwestern Thailand, along Thai Muang Beach. The Andaman Sea is home to four species of turtle and Green Ocean club’s monetary donation will specifically help support an effort to protect important nesting areas for both Hawksbill and Green sea turtles.

Becoming a “sponsor” provided for a “guide on the side” approach.  As teachers we seemingly are quick to lead, maybe even control.  Getting out of students’ way may just be the panacea.  One which leads to greater empowerment but also success!

HAVE YOU EATEN?

                  Photo by Des Récits on Unsplash

Does the perfunctory “How are you doing?” really cut it anymore?

Traditionally, the Chinese inquired, “chī le ma?” Or, “chī fàn le ma?”  Literally translated as, “have you eaten?” One origin story points to the significance of the salutation being attached to people’s emotions through food.  Closer to home, here in Thailand, people in passing traditionally greet one another by asking, “bi nigh krup” or “bi nigh ka.”  Used in place of “hello,” it translates, “Where are you going?” The polite response, as ambiguous as automatic, “down the street.”

How are you doing?

Four words.

At the doorway of my classroom and in the hallways, I might unwittingly string these four words together over a hundred times each day!

400 cheap words, the currency of little value. So, let me try this again.

How are you doing? I mean, how are you REALLY doing? The question, asked in English, goes back more than four centuries.  The actual verbiage being, “how art thou?” Syntactically, various versions of the common inquiry morphed throughout the ages.  The meaningfulness of the genuine salutation seemingly adulterated. Which brings us to today. The response an unauthentic knee jerk, “good.” For any who may contest, when was the last time you responded or heard another respond, “Terrible”?  Instead, the predictable exchange can be chalked up as one of life’s “near miss” exchanges.   Akin to handing off a bill and getting change at a toll both.  Mere pleasantries, if even.

With Social Emotional Learning (SEL) more than ever before on educators’ minds, it behooves us to successfully leverage ways we might more successfully and meaningfully connect with students, families, and colleagues.  SEL dubbed the non-cognitive skills which provide for an holistic and well-rounded education, might feel for some to be yet one more thing.  Yet, amidst a worldwide pandemic and inexorable uncertainty, truly getting to know individuals is vital.  Arguably even more so, in an increasingly virtual world.  A friend recently commented how a professor in an on-line course made the indelible assertion, “SEL is not one thing more on the plate. SEL IS THE PLATE.”  Touché.

So, if connecting with our students is important, becoming more deliberate in our salutations seems to be a sensible initial step. Thinking about what we ask, but also not settling for the generic, “good.”  Instead with compassion, might we look others in the eye, seeking to better understand how each is really doing.  Slowing down and taking a self-inventory to see if we are listening earnestly may also pay dividends.

Five years ago, “thinking routines” rightly were all the rage.  Maybe now, the time is ripe for “feeling routines.”  Challenging ourselves to not only learn more vocabulary but to truly get in touch with how we, they, and everyone is doing.  As we begin to hold ourselves more accountable for assessing the countless shifting tides of emotions, maybe then we can more fully honor and support students. But like all good teaching, first we must model. Additionally, creating space, building trust, developing vocabulary, and truly taking time to genuinely show we care, all are at the core.

The result?

Students who are likely to feel more connection, validation, and belonging.  In doing so, we stand a chance to truly bring out the humanity in this noble profession.

7:25 a.m is Not Too Early to Remember 

~Understanding Our Own Emotions is Imperative to Building Relationships

It is 7:25 a.m and Mr. Davidson stands at the “threshold,” carefully accounting for how he feels as he encounters each student. Greeting each child by name as they enter class first took root as a habit, after reading Doug Lemovi’s #1 New York Times Best Selling book, “Teach Like a Champion.” That was 2010 and he has since greeted over a thousand students.  However, the pandemic compelled Mr. Davidson to rethink the inherent power behind developing relationships.  And until recently he never really took stock for what he honestly might have been feeling for a student. 

“Good morning Daniela, how did your soccer game go?”

Breathe of fresh air. 

 

“Hello Jeremy.”

Neutral.

 

“Hey Jacob, gooood morning!”

Joy.

 

“Hi Isabella.” 

Irritation.

 

This new attentiveness commenced after a recent reading of, “Permission to Feel.” Author Marc Brackett, director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and a professor in the Child Study Center at Yale University, illustrates how emotions are information.  A first step is to note one’s emotions.  Brackett proposes we conduct an “experiment,” using ourselves as guinea pigs.  He encourages the reader to consider the multitude of interactions they might have in a given day.  What is the instant “top-of-the-head” answer to the question, “How do I feel when I encounter each and every person?” From the cashier at the convenience store and attendant at the tollbooth, to our closest colleagues.  Even more specifically, what about the very students we teach?  Our response to how we might first feel, ultimately has the gravitas to result in our will to approach or possibly, avoid a student.

Brackett shares how in seminars it is not uncustomary for teachers to break down crying once they recognize how differently they treat each child.  The inequity is a simple factor of a teacher’s faulty perception of how a student might “make” them feel.

A simpleton would foolishly chalk this up as being human.  Yet, this would be a futile pardoning of sorts.  One that in the end, absolves a teacher of the privileges and responsibilities of the “superpowers” inherent in being a teacher.  Furthermore, to be controlled by an emotion and not approach a student would be devilishly unprofessional.

Teachers enter the profession with an earnest desire for all students to become successful.  A teacher’s wealth built from the relationships developed with students and families.  Albert Camus touched on this prosperity, “When you have once seen the glow of happiness on the face of a beloved person, you know that a man can have no vocation but to awaken that light on the faces surrounding him. In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.”

A teacher’s doorway; summer.

There is grave importance in coming to the realization of the near visceral reactions within us. The reactions likely having little even to do with the child.  And children they are, even at 17 years of age!  Malleable lives in the making.  Our influence far greater than might be imagined. Every child, regardless of last class, yesterday, what was said, done, or possibly not done is of little, if any, significance.  What is, is to remember why we are teachers.  The child walking through the door is an invitation, a pending relationship. 

She is hope. 

He is potential.  

They are promise.  A better tomorrow.

 

It would be remiss to discount how teachers might be feeling.  Often stressed, overworked, and possibly frustrated.  But what about the children?  Many share the same feelings but are also bored and locked within four walls. The exit, the same as the entrance.  Eight purposeless hours, autonomy supplanted by control. Yet, some may wonder why schools feel more like prison than innovative places, when in many urban school districts in the United States rigid security measures include metal detectors, police on campus and students under continuous surveillance. 

Meanwhile, millions of learners are fixed to a computer screen for endless hours each day of virtual learning.  The need for relationships and connection even more paramount.

This begs the question, “Do students celebrate coming into the classroom, as much as leaving?”  For this truly to be realized, there is the necessity to replay the greetings and ensuing emotions at the threshold.

“Good morning Daniela, how did your soccer game go?”

Breathe of fresh air. 

 

“Hello Jeremy.”

Neutral.

 

Neutral?  This is inexcusable.

Neutral is neither going backwards nor forwards.  Neutral is going nowhere and Jeremy needs to be going somewhere.

More than ever before, students need teachers.  Negative and neutral responses towards a student simply is irresponsible.  Assuming Jeremy does propose every challenge under the sun, so what?  

There is all the more reason then to reach out to him. The vitality and value of this, far outweighs any emotion within Mr. Davidson. And he knows it. Emotional intelligence attests to the ability to regulate one’s emotions.  Might he (and we!) be poised enough to do this. Powerful and in control.  As opposed to being asleep at the wheel and possibly reacting to how we might feel.

It requires a remembering of why we became teachers.  7:25 a.m is not too early to remember!

Teaching in Three Dimensions

Self-compassion and seeing clearly of necessity as teachers navigate 3-dimensions.
Photo by: Photo by Nonsap Visuals on Unsplash

The start of a new school year resulted in my taking a bit of a hiatus in blogging.  No doubt, being in three places at the same time has provided some challenge.  Three places?  Live with five classes of twenty-something pre-teens wiggling before me in the classroom.  Getting to know students and  putting faces with names is the first order of “business.”  This year I have a student named Whale and another I warily call Honey.  “Good morning Honey!” just does no’t feel right for some reason.  I remain thankful Honey is not in Sweet’s class, or Sweet Honey might just sit alongside each other.  A colleague has Putter’s little brother, Birdie this year.  Thai nicknames often add  a bit of joy to the classroom and it is quite possible to have a whole fruit salad, with students named Apple, Pear, and Peach!  

 

3-D Teaching

Face to face, or dubbed f2f, often focuses the first days upon building routines and  just putting students at ease, so the classroom is a place each child feels comfortable. A second dimension being explored, is “the virtual.”  Back to Zoom and synchronous virtual learning. While the third space is reserved for the asynchronous and for students  currently out of the time zone.  These learners receive a link to the recorded class and sometimes  the addition of more succinct tutorial videos which teachers create.  So, a start to a school year unlike any other.  Three-dimensional!

Though only two or three class periods in, humorous stories already are being amassed.  Of such things as an unaware synchronous student,  broadcasting inappropriate comments  over the classroom speakers for all to hear.  Or, of the student projected on the screen in front of the whole class.  Only, everyone’s attention is on the mother who is behind her and acrobatically dodges out of sight. Dropped Zoom calls, forgotten recorded sessions, audio input/output incorrectly set.  Whatever the case, even with the fumbles and follies, the first two weeks back to school were a definite success.  One that required teachers both compassion for students and themselves.  

Here in Thailand we consider ourselves lucky to have a chance to be face to face.  This a possibility because of the stellar response of the  nation.  In fact, the end of  July saw Thailand ranked number one in the world out of 184 countries for its ongoing COVID-19 recovery effort.  This,  according to the Global COVID-19 Index (GCI).  Nearly a month later, Thailand remains on top.  As of August 16, the total numbrer of confirmed cases stood at 3,377, where 95 percent recovered and just 58 total deaths recorded.  Further, Thailand had no new domestic cases of COVID for 83 days.

 

New Normal Comes With Some Hard to Reach Directives

Throughout the pandemic, news of COVID stipulations seemingly shifted from morning to night.  However, society was steadfast in being compliant regardless if there appeared to be contradictions. Certain regulations appear to be for perception as the logic is difficult to understand.  For example, in schools students can pass a basketball but not borrow a pencil.  The importance of exercise a priority, while the pencil is deemed a risk that can be mitigated. Keeping account of the dos and don’ts or cans and can’ts can be difficult.  However, more challenging is to break socialization habits learned in kindergarten, where sharing was  “what big boys and girls do.”  First grade began with the importance of washing hands but also that there would no longer be the sharing of anything, toys included.  Then there was the valiant and never-ending  attempt to control for social, or what we call physical, distancing?  Social distancing, a bit of an oxymoron, as we want students to be social, but so long as there remains  1-2 meters of distance between them.  Middle school students huddle around an infographic the teacher probably should not have even printed and handed out.  Yet, the motivation being one of learning, sharing  ideas, and being together.  Laboratory work in the high school can be interesting if physical distance is to be maintained.  Need I even “touch,” no pun intended, what physical distancing might mean to a classroom of 3-year olds who is not yet even proficient in the language of instruction?  

Thai national  schools began the first weeks of July, whereas  the independent international school where I work just wrapped up week two.  However, mid-game (if ever there was a mid-Corona game) yet another measure of compliance was just handed down.  Impossibility absolutely inherent in the “design.”  The Ministry of Education requires all schools to ensure students maintain a daily record of their whereabouts outside of school hours.  The purpose is  to  facilitate any needed contact tracing should a case of COVID be reported (confirmed) in the community.  This means all students need to record where they go daily.  Being a middle school teacher, it often is challenging enough to have a chiild write down their homework when it is written on the board and given as a directive.  

In May Thailand’s government launched a contact tracing app, declaring it vital in reducing a flare up of virus cases. Public buildings required app and temperature check-ins  via prior to entry.  The shopping mall was the first place I encountered this, then the domestic airport.  Unable to mandate the use of the app, because not everyone has a phone, the alternative mirrored how it used to be to make a walk-in restaurant reservation.  A piece of paper on a clipboard and just your name and phone number penciled in. Initially I could not help but question the legitimacy or accuracy of this alternative.  However, Thai culture’s high degree of respect and deference shown to authority likely results in near perfect record keeping. A system like this in the United States would  play host to an array of absurd names and numbers.

 

The Road Ahead

No matter the next edict, law, or measure, Thailand will hurdle, rather than grapple with any ostensible or grey space. There remains a tensile strength in Thailand’s hierarchical structure, one that begets compliance.  Businesses remain shuttered and the entire tourist industry gasps for a breath of fresh air.  Though there is no promise, hope remains and there is conversation about a plan to re-open international borders.  Meanwhile, schools may be in session, but the situation is fragile. Learning could go back to 100 percent virtual at the drop of a hat!  If COVID has taught us anything, it is the importance of flexibility.  This, along with the reckoning of how Thailand’s entire society remains under the auspices of the Kingdom. Yet, herein possibly lies the very reason why the country tops the list of safest places to be right now!

 

Empowering Students to Own Their Experience

Thankfully few questions strike with such indelibility but two recent ones by a seventh grader landed hard.  Foreign at first, I was patient and let the seeds germinate, even though possibly sown with jagged teenage hormonal dissent.

“What’s the minimum?’ she asked with disgust.

and…

“You haven’t answered my question in chat!” (during Zoom class meeting)

“Oh, sorry. I was busy explaining what we are doing.”

 

On more than one occasion a student (actually, probably 5 different students over the course of virtually learning), either asked aloud or put in the chat,  “Can I go to the bathroom?”  I’m unsure if ever a question could wreak more of compliance.  This certainly is something I endeavor to move away from.


Important to revisit purpose of learning (not to get a grade) and also timeliness in taking advantage of 2nd learning opportunities.  Not to be overly focused on grades but to pay close attention.  I received this e-mail two weeks into summer:

“Hello mr.piercy I got two beginning approaching and I want to improve my grade so can you explain to me what kind of things I need to improve on?”

 

 

Is Lilliput the “New Normal”?

What might we expect for the 2020-21 school year?  With the endless possibilities, stringent measures, and unavoidable conservative changes being considered, one word encapsulates what I am feeling.  An omnipotent word that wakes me up at night and during the daylight hours, blinds my mind’s eye.  Lilluput. A fictional island of Gulliver’s Travels, Johnathan Swift’s timeless satirical classic. Lilliputians, symbolic of the excessive hubris we humans often exhibit.  A pride that in effect shrinks our very existence.  Where structure and bureaucracy become too thick to even wade through. Impossible 10-point plans schools hurriedly are designing, so learning can be brought from on-line to in-person once again.

Opening Back Up
The motivation to open schools back up is driven largely by a a desire to allow students human connection.  Some schools even consider an in-person finish to the 2019-20 school year, even if for one or two weeks.  A risk some declare is worth taking, if this means children (families and teachers too!) might feel good about the world again.  Safety of course driving any decisions being made.  There are considerations of student numbers on campus, possibly just 50%.  Question whether or not to utilize cafeterias.  Hands on learning, but only if items are manipulated by single individuals and also disinfected at night.  What type of masks are best?  On-site COVID-19 testing, data protection and self-declaration forms.   Of course, agreed upon social distancing requirements too.  The list goes on.
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Is this how classrooms are going to look?
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Confronting the Pervasive Uncertainty
One cannot help but wonder what this might not only look like, but what it will feel like? Though for many the motivation is to recover their pre-COVID life, a clear recognition of a changed world is imperative.  One that we MUST embrace.  No matter how strange it might feel for a teacher to keep her distance from a pupil, or try to read facial expressions covered a mask. So much is out of our control.  Yet, what is, is how we might respond.  Determinedly, as teachers we have a moral obligation to confront the pervasive uncertainty.  To run full speed ahead in vulnerability.  Trusting leadership.
Next Steps
Lemuel Gulliver, the “gullible” narrator, had several redeeming qualities.  I would argue that chief amongst these was that he expected others to be honest.  Amidst the current pandemic, we might benefit from a similar mindset.   Further, we might add fuel to the fire, by simply envisaging the irony all around us.  Gulliver was a prisoner to men no larger than six inches tall.  What imprisons us?  And, can we move beyond this and positively put our energy to use?  Possibly, even to pursue levity?  An upturned grin?  A chuckle?  No doubt, the world could certainly use a lot more laughter right now!

 

 

 

 

3-2-1 (Take-Aways, Questions, and a Reflection) on Virtual Learning

3 Virtual Learning Take-Aways:

  1. It takes time to develop a classroom culture.  Moving into the 9th week, the learning curve has been a little steep but I have come to realize that one of the roles I do not need to fulfill is that of “cheerleader.”  It’s counterproductive and actually a lie to act as if everything is “normal.”  Beginning Zoom sessions with a rah, rah, rah…”Good morning everyone!” has taken a backseat to a more invitational approach.  “I’m unmuting your microphones so you can all say ‘hello’ to each other.”
  2. Be okay with breakout rooms sometimes resembling a space for students to watch paint dry on a wall.  Sometimes they will be flat, especially if time isn’t taken to carefully craft the right “mix” of students in a breakout room.
  3. Come to peace with an unfamiliar quiet.  Maybe even appreciate how this hiatus provides students with an opportunity to improve listening skills.

2 Big Questions

  1. How do ethnic and home cultures of a student impact what they “bring to the table” in a virtual setting?
  2. What creative strategies might I be able to employ in effort to better “read the air.”

1 Reflection

  1. I’m absorbed in Erin Meyer’s, “The Culture Map.” What really grabbed my attention early in the book is the difference between low and high context cultures.

“Low-Context:  Good communication is precise, simple, and clear.  Messages are expressed and understood at face value.  Repetition is appreciated if it helps clarify the communication.

High-Context:  Good communication is sophisticated, nuanced, and layered.  Messages are both spoken and read between the lines.  Messages are often implied but not plainly expressed.”

Meyer’s continues by sharing how different countries fit on this sort of low/high context continuum.  An island nation, such as Japan, more likely to be insular and steeped in thousands of years of shared culture. Furthermore, its homogeneity also adding to a greater degree of nuance and layering of language.  How very different than the United States, the country I call home.

This has me reflecting on the nature of communication in our classrooms, especially if this is a skill we assess. Additionally, in our current Zoom classrooms, there are countless factors to consider that may be effecting, shaping, bending, and possibly blasting the classroom cultures we attempt to create.  Who would have thought about the role of distracting avatars and virtual backgrounds, or the need to mute student microphones because of the clanging of dish washing as life goes on in the houses of our students?