#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?

#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.

#1138 Public School and Forest School Symbiosis

I wandered past the school’s library recently and noticed a young boy happily consuming dinosaur knowledge (and practicing his literacy skills.)

It was an idyllic picture of traditional learning…  except that he had snuck out of class to do so.

Public School and Forest School
Many know I have been teaching something most of my life and that I currently work as a teacher in a public school board and a Forest School. My passions belong to the development of youth – kinders to Grade 6 – as they develop their foundational elements (see Maslow’s foundational levels) that support academic and/or technical skills… and life.

Which is how I have found myself with a foot in both public school and Forest School.

Public School Love
I love the resources available within public schools including experts, funds, policies, and large quantities of people and students percolating to support as many youth as possible.

Forest School Love
I love the pedagogical ideas behind Forest School – specifically the Emergent Education Theory, or, less grandiosely, learner-led learning (LLL.)

Learner led learning allows students to follow their interests and puts the onus on the teacher to build balanced curriculum around the students’ curiosity.

public school

Learner led learning at Chelsea Forest School.

Bring the two ideas (LLL and Public School) together and you have magic.

Remember the dinosaur-reading boy in the school library?
He exhibited idyllic student behaviours – quiet concentration, independent, engaged learning. His behaviour was vastly different when he was expected to engage in a lesson in which he had little interest! In the library, he chose the learner led approach within a school board.

Managing LLL for the masses is no easy task, though. Answering to the individual desires and needs of millions of youth while addressing the data driven expectations of ministries of education and government benchmarks is no small feat.

But, it is possible.

A first step is recognizing that all people are different, learn at different paces and want to learn different things.

A friend’s son struggled at school. He has dyslexia. His school squeezed him into set avenues of learning and support which went poorly. All that interested him were cars – Volvos, specifically.

His mom planted the seeds for his literacy and math development through car manuals, car magazines, Volvo books. He learned traditional academic skills through his passion for cars. What does he do now? He’s a leading Master Volvo mechanic with a happy, fulfilling life. That’s learner led learning in action.

Forest School

Learner Led Learning at Chelsea Forest School – these students were mesmerized by what they found beside the trail. They were captivated (and learning)!

Within the last couple of years I worked regularly with a tough class in a public school board – they pushed my skills. Every lesson was challenging. I dreaded gym class because there were volatile students who could make the learning environment challenging for all.

One day, I came to gym with the prescribed lesson – protests started. I took a deep breath and turned the tables. “What do you want to do!?”

Students shared their ideas. Quickly, the gym transformed into a hub of four activities that students chose to join as they wished. I took a step back and watched. It didn’t follow the plans and I had to work backwards to see how it fit the prescribed curriculum… but all were engaged, smiling… and learning. It was one of the best learning environments I witnessed with the students. They had helped shape their learning environment.

The learners in these scenarios led their own learning with positive results. Good news for all.

Forward steps!
Ottawa Forest and Nature school launched a program to bring Forest School to the Ottawa Carleton District School Board. Select elementary classrooms were selected to go to Forest School one day a week for six weeks.

The effect? Positive. I asked Karen, a Kindergarten teacher whose class were involved in the Forest School program. One of the benefits she noticed was increased creativity in her classroom.

Chelsea Forest School offers a School Day Program where students spend one day per week at Forest School to complement their traditional school. One observation – students who struggle at traditional school often blossom in the hands-on, learner led environment. Why? They learn in an active, kinesthetic way with a different mindset – students are encouraged to follow their passions.

I’d like to see the collaboration continue between the ideas of Forest School and public schools. The tide is slowly turning as people see the benefits, strengths and collaborative potential of public schools and alternative pedagogical principles like Forest School’s learner led learning.

#1137 Teaching Beyond Surface Behaviours

I had never seen a more out of control environment – total disregard for any authority – it was ‘F— you’ on everything – if a student came into class late and was asked ‘Why are you late?’ it was ‘F— you…’ ”
Jim Sporleder; Past-Principal at Lincoln High School in Walla Walla, Washington; from CBC Ideas show: “All in the Family, Part 2.”

I recently got swallowed up by a CBC ‘Ideas’ discussion, above, challenging the norms of behaviour management in a classroom.

trauma induced behaviour challenges

Behaviour beyond the surface.

The program, CBC’s All in the Family (Part 2) discussed the basis and context of poorly chosen behaviour. In the documentary, the teachers tried something different… they did not impose immediate consequences but instead offered support (and an opportunity) for the young person to release the underlying stresses that caused the behaviours. Results were remarkable.

Low on Options – Bad Choices
In my own teaching and observations, I have seen students making bad choices. Often, students are immediately reprimanded and disciplined based on their surface behaviours. Early on, I was sure there was more going on than what presented itself.

In my first year supply teaching, I taught a Grade 6 class. After recess I learned one of the students had hurled an abandoned bag of dog feces across the playground. Gross. Inappropriate. Alarming.

After students cleaned up and the class settled I quietly took the pooh-throwing boy aside. I gently asked “What happened?” Initially he clammed up. With some quiet support he realized I was not, as expected, about to drop the hammer on him. He talked. I listened. He shared months (years) of angst, scape-goated-ness and fallout from not being listened to. Eventually, he knew what he needed to do and we talked about options and better coping skills.

His excrement launch was more a cry for help than a premeditated act of defiance. He knew what he had done was wrong. But in the heat of the recess moment he was low on options and high on stress.

I quickly learned from experiences like this that calm and supportive actions had a far greater positive impact than traditional discipline.

Trauma and Behaviour
In the CBC ‘Ideas’ program Teri Barila discusses her work with her Children’s Resilience Initiative:
From humble, early studies she found that adverse childhood experiences caused undesirable behaviours in schools. The behaviours came from stresses outside school and were often a result of poor coping skills rather than overt choices.

As my experiences grew I had more successes with challenged students in elementary schools. One winter, a student refused to come in, lying face down in the snow. The principal was called. No one could make him budge… I was asked to wait for the boy to come in… it was cold outside. After more than 20 minutes he showed no signs of coming in. I walked out to the boy and sat down quietly a few feet from him. After much silence, I offered, “It’s hard, isn’t it?

For the first time he looked up. After realizing he was not in trouble (again) he started slowly sharing perceived injustices from classmates and others. I listened and offered support. Slowly, I asked what he thought we should do. We went back to school. I connected with his teacher and the principal. I learned about his background. He had a tough home life, often made poor choices and was in trouble regularly. Over the next few months I was able to connect with the boy and help, slowly.

Executive Function
I was recognizing what John Medina, developmental molecular biologist, describes as an executive function becoming deregulated by long-term trauma: “When you are traumatized over a period of time you begin to understand that the world is out to get you, even though that may not be true… If you hit a dog enough, eventually they will growl at you… Traumatized children have a very fragmented executive function.” (quoted from CBC Ideas show, above.) This means students experiencing significant trauma behave differently – they do not have the coping skills to deal with stresses like many people do.

Research suggests a traumatized child will react poorly to confrontation or traditional attempts at discipline in the class.

High School Turn-Around
Jim Sporleder, Past Principal at Lincoln High in Washington State  suggests a new approach to inappropriate behaviours has a much better outcome. He turned around a tough school through listening and supporting rather than detentions, suspensions and expulsions.

In the CBC piece, Mr. Sporleder states part of the problem is teachers are pressured to meet test scores at the expense of base needs: “… test scores mean everything. ‘I don’t have time for this kid. I’ve got to get test scores up.’ … and yet when we show that we meet their social and emotional needs then we can get the learning… yet our system jumps to the top of the (Maslow) pyramid and leaves the social and emotional needs out.” (quoted from CBC Ideas show, above.)

He recognizes that, when Maslow’s basic needs are not met, students cannot pay attention to the higher needs of traditional school.

The solution?
I’d like to see more flexibility to allow teachers to specialize the learning to each individual. If student’s basic needs are met first, they will have a greater ability to absorb the learning.

While teaching my own elementary class I met a student was hiding his (lack of) literacy skills. He had come from a hard few years at home. When I met him he was falling through the cracks and didn’t want to come to school.

By focusing on his basic needs – emotional safety, belonging and self-esteem through a fun classroom environment – I made sure he enjoyed class and consequently ensured the school’s literacy programs would (eventually) reach him.

By the end of the year I received a letter from home: “Thank you for helping ‘Bobby’ achieve a great year this year. He is more interested and engaged than I have ever seen him…”

My learning continues…
Recently, I spent time observing, learning and teaching at an Ottawa school whose enrolment quickly increased by approximately 50% as it welcomed students from Syria. I was sometimes able to watch teachers whose support and nurturing made a difference to their new students. Some of the students barely spoke English. I can only imagine what the Syrians may have experienced. But what I did see were the smiles on their faces as they developed trust and the skills needed to learn.

My interest in teaching elementary school is to develop strong, confident, happy people.. For me, that includes teaching traditional subjects, but more importantly, it includes developing confidence, empathy, independence, and a desire to succeed at something.

Without support dealing with life challenges, I am afraid young people may take ‘pooh throwing’ to much greater acts of violence.
Listen, support, learn…