#1149 Hidden Challenges

• “I’M GOING HOME…” and he stormed out of class.
It was the end of the day – unexpected behaviour for a young student in class.

• The young student was struggling with reading. He had support from home and school. Everything else seemed to be tracking well. Parents had had his eyes checked a year before.

• A young student was (often) found crying in the bathroom at recess. Anxiety, awkwardness were presented but no reasons could be found for the distress.

These three real scenarios perplexed parents, teachers and students themselves. What was causing the behaviour or performance? Often, there is no obvious explanation. It takes a team of people (teachers, support staff, parents, students) to find a solution to challenges.

Hidden Challenges
Hidden challenges are often at the root of unwanted behaviours or performance but cannot be detected easily on the surface.

Hidden challenges can obscure the cause of a predicament. Sometimes the student is an expert at hiding details that cause them distress. Why hide information? Embarrassment, fear or lack of understanding can cause people to obscure information.

Hidden challenges can include ailments that are not visible or obvious (physical, mental or emotional), societal pressures, personal or relationship distress, economic or cultural factors. All can consume the person and alter behaviour without any outward signs.

Solutions?
Listen
Listen to the student, parents, other teachers, support staff. There will be clues.
Observe
Observe routines. Changes can shed light on changes in behaviour or performance.
Document
Keep notes of anything unusual or out of the ordinary.
Seek help
Ask for support from others who may have connections.
A big part of a teacher’s job is to find solutions… part teacher, part detective.

What really happened?
Scenario number three above describes a 12 year old boy who slowly developed Obsessive Compulsive Disorder – he was tormented by his own thoughts and fears of what might happen if he did not act in a certain way.

At its worst he was crippled and unable to perform on tests or active play. From the outside there was no obvious trauma or cause. His parents and teachers were baffled.

That 12 year old boy was me, a long time ago. With proper detective work and support I was diagnosed and received help to overcome the OCD and related anxiety I developed when I was in Grade 7.

Under stress, I still feel the effects of OCD and anxiety. I have the tools to manage the symptoms reasonably but I’m also good at hiding the observable behaviours that used to grind my life to a halt.

The experience has also helped me recognize clues when I encounter puzzling behaviour from students with hidden challenges.

Listen.
Support.

#1148 The Power of Classroom Music

I’m not an accomplished musician.
Or a drummer.
But my drum has the power to move people and change behaviour patterns in elementary classes..

It’s magic, almost.

cross curricular lesson

Drumming in the classroom for classroom management.

With a new group of students the drum is the one that does the talking. As students enter the classroom a simple drum-beat greets the students. And then there is silence. And repeat. Student intrigue kicks in. Students gather quickly. Someone risks clapping the beat in response. I smile. The drum beat repeats and more students join the beat in response.

The drum sets the direction. Everyone quickly engages.
It’s a lovely tool to help with transitions and attention.

As familiarity develops, I choose a student that follows expectations to take over the drumming transitions.

I have met few students that have not been excited about the opportunlity of drumming. The drum turns into a powerful tool that helps shape student behaviour and experience.

I’m still a novice drummer but the music it performs is magical.

The Ontario College of Teachers found out about my drumming and included a segment in their journal “Professionally Speaking.” See page 32/33.

#1147 Local Superheroes in the Classroom

I can’t keep up with my son when it comes to Superheroes. He corrects me when I get my Justice League characters mixed up. But I often ask my son and my students to dig deeper about “real” superheroes and real superpowers…

Real superheroes?
Yep, no x-ray vision, supersonic strength or flight capabilities.
Just the ability and courage to help people when faced with adversity.

How about Dr. Najma Ahmed,Toronto emergency room doctor, who pieces people back together.

Or firefighters who routinely support people in trouble?

Or the person who phoned to say they found your wallet at the coffee shop?

Real superheroes are everywhere and they deserve some recognition!

classroom project

Real Superheroes are everywhere!

Real Superhero Project
In the classroom I like to do a unit or project exploring real superheroes. We start with a read-aloud and progressing towards the students discussing and defining what makes a superhero. As a culminating task, students seek out and report on real life superheroes in their communities.

The project is easily cross curricular – touching on literacy, social studies, visual art and can include math and science on some level. Students can present their project in many formats – written, spoken, through a dramatic presentation or visual media.

Personal Superpowers
A related or separate unit can be on superpowers. Starting similarly as the superhero project, the class relates to traditional superheroes to recognize their superpowers. Through inquiry, group or independent study, students discuss and define the idea of a superpower. As a culminating task, students present their own superpowers or recognize superpowers they admire in someone else.

What I love about this project is the emphasis on young people recognizing what they are good at (their own superpower!) Everyone is good at SOMEthing. Some students just need some help to recognize and accept their excellence.

So, who is YOUR local superhero? What is your superpower? Or a superpower you admire in someone else?

#1146 Secret Learning

Shhh!
Don’t tell them they’re learning.
But keep up whatever keeps students excited.

A Finnish teacher describes her kinder class’ “secret” learning as they learn early math and literacy through very non traditional activities such as stomping puddles. I’ve seen children gleefully learning traditional material in puddles, mud and snow with full engagement. If they are enjoying their activities, they will be learning.

Before modern school, people supported their life through trades, skills or professions for which they had aptitudes. They learned what they liked to do or where they had skills. And the learning was not a chore. In essence they were experiencing secret learning – following their passions or skill sets…

And so secret learning can support many modern students – challenged or traditional. Allow the student to learn through their passions and the learning becomes easier…

learning

What learning expectations relate to frogs?
Photo courtesy https://pixabay.com

What early learning expectations relate to frogs?
• Math – Early numeracy: Count the digits (fingers/toes).
• Language – Vocabulary: Describe how the frog feels.
• Science – Habitats / Life.

For more advanced learners more complex passions can draw out their learning.

The biggest challenge of “secret” learning? Time and resources to connect with students…

#1145 Fall Down Seven Times

I was paralyzed on a rock wall, not by the difficulty of the climb, but by the fear of falling. What if I made a mistake? Would the ropes save me from pain or death? I could not go up because I could not face falling (and failing.)

The Downside of Success
Recently, I attended a STEM conference with a small group of students that regularly achieved exceptional successes. Their small team was pitted against similar teams of students. After the morning’s challenge I reacquainted with our team. One boy grumbled “We needed a chemist on our team…” Translation: “We didn’t do as well as I wanted. I am disappointed.”

He always did well. It was expected. He didn’t know how to cope with failing (or even not excelling)…

education

STEM conference – Science, Technology, Engineering and Math

Learning to struggle
In 1984 I wrestled my way through Grade 10 Electronics. I regularly got stuck & frustrated. I pushed my way to a lack lustre average-ish mark. My teacher recognized my struggles.

One day he came up to me and pointed to the students that, today, are likely brilliant electrical engineers. He said “They’re really smart. This is easy for them. One day, though, they’ll get stumped and they’ll be in big trouble… You, Harry, are learning a valuable skill – to challenge yourself to get through tough work…”

Life has thrown me many first world challenges – small business challenges, technological disruptions, loss, grief, etc. That tough electronics class was an early lesson on how to get through tough times.

Learning to Face Challenges
Similar circumstances affect students in the classroom. I’ve seen students, young and old, who either expect to score at the top or choose not to participate. They’ve never learned to handle mediocrity (being average) or to fail.  Excel or abstain is their way. Why? Possibly fear of failing? Or being seen to not exceed?

A parent told me once their son’s Forest School experiences expanded his horizons enormously. He was the oldest in his traditional school class and an only child. Things came easily to him. But in adversity, he crumbled quickly… Tears flowed, tempers flared and he was quick to quit.

In our class that year he was in the middle of the class, age wise. Skill wise, he was also in the middle. At the beginning of the school year he was afraid to try, quick to quit and his wobbly chin announced the frequent arrival of tears. He wasn’t used to not being the best, easily.

Throughout his school year his defeats were supported, his emotions were coached and he learned how to pick himself up and try again. His smile (and confidence) grew two sizes by the end of the year.

success

Climbing and success

Paralysis
Back to my paralysis on the rock face – a guide gently came to investigate my disabled state. He realized my predicament. He told me to “Allow yourself to fall (fail)… See what happens.”

Trepidatiously, I climbed until gravity peeled me off the granite.
Petrified, I fell.
In that failure, I learned I could climb higher next time.

Nana korobi ya oki” – Japanese proverb.
Fall down seven times. Get up eight.

#1144 Too Safe?

Can we be too safe?” a parent asked me after learning about our day’s adventure.

We had hiked a long looping trail. During snack the children realized we were high on a ridge just above our starting point. They wanted to take the short, steep direct route back to the start.

Risky play?

What came out of my mouth was the uncertainty about the potential dragons in their caves and the possibility of boiling pits of lava.

What was in my head was the steep, & rocky descent with snow, ice and unknown cliffs as well as my unfamiliarity with that part of the forest. Also, I was well aware I was solo with children under 12 years of age.

The students could guess there were likely no dragons and lava. But while discussing the real risks they started to understand the challenges of the unknown descent. I promised I would investigate the steep forest in the week ahead… and we hiked the long, safe way down.

After more solo exploration during the week I was satisfied we could descend safely as a group. The next week we retraced our uphill expedition and discussed how we could descend safely. We were practicing “risky play.”

Different groups need different levels of support to explore safety and risk. But, if asked to analyze risk, people are usually very capable to assess what is safe for them.

We had a good experience. We weighed the risks and found ways to minimize the hazards. The children practiced the valuable skill of testing their perception and reality of safety.

Regulating Risk
I often see or hear of students denied experiences that offer the ability to develop their self-regulating sense of safety. Managed scenarios can help build self preservation, self awareness and a better ability to stay safe in life.

When I teach at Forest School we talk a lot about risk and safety…
“Can we climb that tree?”
“What do you think?…”

We talk about hazards, risks and what is reasonable. Students usually come to a reasonable conclusion with support and guidance. As we explore more, students get better at assessing risk and regulating their own limits:
“Can I go higher?”
“What do you think?”
“I think this is high enough for me…”

Risk Assessments and Risk Management

Telling vs Learning
A couple of years ago, I picked up my own son from school on our bikes on a cool spring afternoon. I asked him to put on his coat. He told me he didn’t need one. He needed a coat to stay warm. But I said “Ok.” We started riding. He lasted less than a minute before stopping because he was cold. He decided to put on his coat…

Instead of being told he needed his coat, he learned he needed his coat.
Big difference. It’s called experiential education.

Can we, as parents, teachers, educators be too safe?
Hmm. We can teach risk assessment, regulation and safety with careful planning and management of “risky play.”

#1143 Teacher Directed vs. Student Directed Learning – Which is Better?

Recently, I observed a student doing nothing, quietly, in a classroom. I approached to help them clarify, support or initiate their work. To me, it was clear what was going on.  They were BORED.

I confirmed my suspicions through a direct question. I was correct. At this point urging them to complete the assignment does little to help them learn.

Teleport to a different environment where children are playing* on their own terms: Learning happens by default because they’re engaged in something that interests them. They’re experimenting. They’re trying new things and they’re learning.

Learner led learning

* I use the term “playing” with trepidation. Many consider playing to be the opposite of learning: “learning is serious business. Play is frivolous…”  Two thinkers in education – Vygotsky and Sobel suggest play grounds learning.

Vygotsky suggests children learn significantly through social interactions. Most commonly, social interaction for children includes play.

David Sobel suggests there are seven kinds or motifs of play. Like Vygotsky, Sobel places much emphasis on significant learning through play.

Anecdotes from prominent people also suggest the validity of play as a conduit to learning:

In ‘Boy‘ his childhood memoir Roald Dahl confesses of only two memories from his formative kindergarten learning days.  “I can remember oh so vividly how the two of us used to go racing at enormous tricycle speeds down the middle of the road and then, most glorious of all, when we came to a corner, we would lean to one side and take it on two wheels.”

His description is of play but learning underlies the experience: balance, fine motor control, social skills, risk analysis.

Steve Nash, NBA superstar and multiple time MVP said “I’ve worked very few days of my life.

Again, through persistent play Nash became incredibly talented and successful at his niche skill – basketball.

I play, teach and learn one day a week at Forest School. Through recent observations of students’ play with rope I experimented with learner led and teacher led learning.

I often have rope in my Forest School pack – it’s a versatile and practical tool that has many uses. A student became interested in using the rope to help her get up a tree. After some initial student investigations she started asking about pulleys. I developed two scenarios – a teacher directed “lesson” about the benefits of pulleys and some unstructured rope/pulley play time – for the students. I observed and learned.

The “Lesson” (ie Teacher Directed)
To demonstrate the benefits of pullies and rope I set up a “three-to-one” and “one-to-one” pulley system. I suggested students haul a weighted toboggan to experience the differences in pulley systems. Students followed the directions and successfully completed the challenge. There was no enthusiasm and little further exploration occurred.

Teacher directed lesson

The “Play” (ie Student Directed)
I dismantled the climbing equipment and left it for the students to investigate as they wished. Slowly, the real learning began. The “pulley student” picked up some equipment and started experimenting (playing) with building her own system. She built, with assistance, an elevator contraption to haul her friend up a tree.

Another time students initiated play with toboggans and the climbing equipment. They attached ropes to toboggans and started playing. From an educational perspective I observed practical use physics, forces, ropes and social problem solving skills being learnt with far more enthusiasm than my lesson. The students also spent far more time with their self directed “play” than with my lesson.

Student directed learning

Observing these different learning scenarios (teacher vs student led) confirmed the power of play. The teacher directed scenario (3:1 & 1:1 pulley toboggan) had value but students quickly lost interest. The other two, student led scenarios captivated students for significantly more time. Because of play their interest was sustained. Greater and more significant learning happened.

I see both pedagogical platforms – teacher directed and learner led / play based scenarios – have value.

Teacher directed environments allow students to be able to replicate information deemed important by others. However, the risk and possibility of limited retention, disengaged students, and increased misbehaviours is much higher in a traditional teacher led scenario.

Student directed play and learning increases engagement, flexible directions and social development of ideas.The risk of missing specific elements of a curriculum expectation is easily possible if the student’s interest veers away from the mandated curriculum material.

There is great potential for enormous learning if the learner led model is supported by  arms-length support from the teacher to provide connections and culminating summation of concepts. The interest, intrigue and final outcome can be so much more significant if play is initiated and followed through by the students.

My reflection and growth in education leads me to more questions:
• I ponder the correct balance of learner led and teacher/school board/ministry directed curriculum.
• Is there a danger of too much student directed learning?
• Will students miss important, foundational learning – base math, elements of literacy – because individual students lack interest?
• Or will they naturally find a need for a rounded education on their own?
• How much influence should the teacher project onto the learning canvas of the students?

#1142 Ten Year Blogging Anniversary

Ten years ago today I published my first blog post.
Since then 1142 diverse entries have followed my career.

In 2008, my web tech / comms / librarian wife suggested it would benefit my business. I secretly thought she was crazy but I followed her advice. Of course she was correct – the blog served my photo/arts workshop business and teaching career well.

The early posts now make me chuckle. Below are some memorable moments:
• Workshops
• Photography for Communications Professionals
Preston Studio
• Ottawa Photo Contest and Results
Ottawa Photo Newsletter
• Online Photo Program 
Watershed Art Project
Teaching Reflections

Keep reading and contributing.
Thanks for following…

Ottawa blog

Harry and his big plywood camera

#1141 Learning Links

As a young student I didn’t sit still very well. I got distracted sometimes. I loved what I liked and grudgingly did other work. Sometimes I sunk energy into subjects others thought I would be good for me… that never went well. I started to blossom when I allowed myself to pursue and enjoy what I loved.

This realization helped ignite my interest in education, and more broadly, working with youth to help them find their way and excel. I started reading, writing and learning.

Below are some recent resources I’ve enjoyed and that help me shape my next steps:

• Some of my toughest and most rewarding days are working with children who test our limits as teachers. I cannot believe these children are behaving as they do for fun. Their (often traumatic) circumstances shapes their spikey behaviours. Rob Miller describes “hugging the porcupine.”

math alternatives

Image Driven Math

• I spent a day last week learning about math strategies including our education ministry’s renewed math strategy.
I was happy to hear some of the strategies that included “image driven math,” math sites like  Which One Doesn’t Belong and Fermi’s open ended questions.
These sites get students’ brains and classes working differently. One of the presenters urged us to take math class outside. I smiled at that suggestion. I probably would have done better at university level calculus if we could play with practical applications outside the classroom…

• I don’t sit still very well. Active learning – ie being active while learning math / language, etc. helps me learn and smile. I am seeing more bike desks in classes to help students that need to move. Being outside and being active engage and retain students and their learning. Bill Murphy Jr. writes about the need for many to be active when learning.

Keep reading and learning. Please share your favourite links, below.

#1140 Losing Recess

A friend was upset recently that his elementary-aged student lost recess time for minor misdemeanors in the classroom.  He was upset. I would be, too. Why do kids lose recess? It’s complicated…

Children need time to play, run and explore in unstructured ways. Often, that means recess.

If the child is like me, sitting still in rows and quietly learning, is purgatory. Moving, exploring and learning through experiences is how I learn best. Taking some of that away – even just one recess – creates more stresses than successes. Thankfully classrooms and schools are changing from past norms.

Schools from the past often placed students quietly in rows where they were supposed to diligently do their work, quietly. Some suggest ‘modern’ school was an industrial idea to prepare workers for factories.

Luckily this thinking is changing.

I still hear of instances of active children who are denied recess for misbehaviours. In my mind, ‘busy’ children should receive double recess for misdemeanors. Disallowing active free play can escalate challenges.

Reducing Misbehaviours
I currently teach a little bit of Forest School. What draws me to their learner led philosophy? Students lead the learning. Kids are engaged and active because they follow their passions. Teachers build the curriculum around the student interest. Consequently, there are very few mis-behaviours to manage.

learner led learning

Following student interests keeps them focused on learning.

What’s going on with some kids in traditional schools?
I teach mostly in traditional classrooms. Misbehaviours happen. Recently, I sat beside a boy who had consumed much of my attention as I got the class going. He squirmed and disrupted those around him. I looked at him. “You’re bored aren’t you?” He looked at the floor and nodded his head. Instead of threatening a consequence – like taking his recess – I asked what he wanted to do. We worked a way to combine his interests with curriculum elements. Happily for all, his behaviour improved.

Why teachers take away recess.
Teachers threaten students with losing recess, I believe, because they’re often strapped for time, energy and need a quick way to keep a student in line. Although it’s short-sighted, some teachers have their limits and, despite best intentions, resort to recess loss as a way to keep the class moving forward. Without an outlet or release, the student’s behaviours can escalate and create more challenges.

What others say about recess and taking away recess:
The Atlantic offers discipline research, suggestions and alternatives to taking away recess:

Education Weekly suggests the practice of taking away recess is declining and offers support for recess.

The Huffington Post cites findings on the subject from the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Two alternatives to losing recess:
1. Differentiate.
This is education lingo for meeting all students where they are. It means keeping all students interested in learning whether they are at grade level, or way behind or way ahead. Keeping all students interested will help reduce unwanted behaviours. It’s the ideal in classrooms.

However, differentiation takes planning, insight, resources (time and $) and experience.

It also means teachers need to account for students who are chronically hungry or have a stomach ache or who live with a single parent who struggles to make ends meet. Sometimes the behaviours stem from stresses or traumas beyond the context of school. Some students never develop the basic social skills to get along in a school environment.

I have seen classes where one student can consistently derail an otherwise well functioning learning environment. Sometimes, that student has little support at home and may only be operating at the lowest tier of Maslow’s hierarchy. It’s hard to be ready for learning if you’re worried about food or shelter or safety. Which brings me to alternative 2 to losing recess.

differentiate

Keeping students learning means keeping them interested like in this learning environment.

2. More support.
And I mean more support on many levels such as:
Support in the class for students that need it. A good educational assistant is worth their weight in gold. Smaller class sizes help.
Support for families that are struggling. This could mean support for families that do not have the basics of food and shelter… or families that have developed poor coping skills for life’s ills. Support could be for families struggling with loss, mental or physical health challenges, stress.
Support for schools: More teachers, more educational assistants, more people, more time means better student development.

All this support means more big picture $. That’s a big issue that will not always welcome support. However, The CBC documents that money spent on early education / family support goes a long way in saving money down the road.

The NY Times offers research and more research that equates more educational spending benefits society.

The American Prospect suggests that (in the USA) there is a correlation between jails and education: “The lowest-performing schools tend to be in the areas where incarceration rates are the highest.

Would more support for schools and neighbourhoods lead to less need for jails? I think so.

So… taking away recess from misbehaving children?
Think again.

Support schools. Support teaching staff. Support social services. This support will create better lives for all.