And I realized I had caught myself (quietly, in my head) judging people’s hidden challenges.
… Some people are quietly dependent or overtly addicted to alcohol. If their supply is quickly cut off it would be bad for them. Anxiety. Witdrawl. Physical and mental health challenges. Deaths. And if alcohol became unavailable, it would be bad for society by placing an additional strain on the health care system and community.
Hidden challenges can include biases from painful pasts, fallout from mental health challenges (OCD, depression, addiction) or invisible visual/auditory impairments that create ‘unusual’ behaviours when observed by another person.
Hidden challenges affect many people (but can be completely invisible to others.)
Including Tara Westover, who did not attend any school until she was 17 years old. Despite years of adversity, she excelled, graduating with a PhD from Cambridge University 11 years later.
Her hidden challenges included physical and emotional adversity – abuse, neglect, trauma. She often suffered from misplaced judgment – after genuinely asking, for instance, what the Holocaust was during a college lecture.
Because of a series of hard work, support and fortunate events, she overcame hardships – including judgment and misunderstanding – that would have crippled most.
She shares her experiences in ‘Educated,’ depicted above.
People are doing their best. Everyone has hidden challenges. Be kind.
He abruptly raised his hand as if to hit my lovely dog. My dog just looked at him, unsure what to think. My dog-walking, human acquaintance looked at me and said “You’ve never hit your dog, have you?”
“No need…” There are two ways to raise a dog – either through praise or punishment.
We got in a discussion about training dogs. He came from a farm background where discipline was instilled with a heavy hand. I had taken another path, decades ago, inspired by a book called “Training your Dog Positively.” In a nutshell, it promoted praising positive behaviour in a big way while acknowledging challenges with brief but succinct and mild corrections.
Both our dogs were very well-behaved and could walk off leash by our side. The difference was his dog worked from a basis of fear – “I better be good or I’ll be scolded or hurt.” My dog functioned based on positive reinforcement – “He’s nice to me when I work well.”
The two mindsets create vastly different beings – one is fearful, one is positive: • Opening with positive expectations and intrinsically positive outcomes creates an atmosphere of wanting to perform well. • Coming in with a “Do this, or else!” attitude creates a tougher environment resulting in less (positive) risk taking and community cohesiveness.
Extrapolate these two mindsets to the classroom and you create two different learning environments.
What positive reinforcement might look like: • To help establish expectations and positive outcomes during transitions I offer drumming opportunities to students (and the whole class) when they transition quickly. The drumming creates a positive outlet for the whole class to work towards. See my drumming transitions featured in Professionally Speaking, “Get Creative” on page 32-34. • Praise positive behaviour publicly: I draw class attention to a display when it exceeds expectations – “Wow! I love how Djenane has organized this science project.” • Address missed expectations / poor performance privately, quickly and with support: Quietly at their desk “Hi Robin, I notice your science project is missing parts. Are you ok? What do you need to make this better?” • Praise positive changes, however small: “Thanks for getting your shoes in the right spot today!”
Sometimes, stronger corrections are needed but they should be brief and effective before returning to positive praise in the classroom.
Your plane crashed in the wilderness... You’re the only survivor. You walk for 3 days with no food other than the few blueberries you find. You’ve only drunk water from creeks and swamps (that you hope is clean.) You have blisters on your blisters. You’ve slept poorly – shivering under your ripped plastic sheet and frightened by the midnight scufflings – you hope they are just raccoons and skunks. You’re alone. You’re scared about the other passengers’ families who are not as lucky as you.
You finally get to a road. Someone stops to help. They offer you four choices: • food and clean water. • a hot shower and fresh, warm dry clothes. • a dry, safe, indoor bed where you can sleep, uninterrupted, for 8 hours. • a math lesson on geometry.
My guess is you do not choose the math lesson first.
Abraham Maslow developed a theory in psychology – the hierarchy of needs – that suggests people are motivated by base needs (survival) before pursuing more lofty goals like education. The hypothetical plane crash illustrates your desire for basic needs before academic advancement.
And so it is with school children.
Some children in our schools are not ready to learn because: • they haven’t eaten enough today, this week or this year. • they’ve lost someone close to them. • they’re frightened of their neighbours, the bullies, or a family member (who is violent, abusive or suffers from mental illness). • they keep having to move because they can’t afford rent. • they wake up with nightmares every nght about what they experienced last year. • they’re quietly suffering from a hidden illness – OCD, depression, cancer.
Children are good at hiding uncomfortable truths. If they are pre-occupied by a lack of food, shelter, safety, love they will not be able to soak up (or pay attention to) school lessons.
The causes for their inattention may be their ‘normal.’ Some kids (and adults) are not ready or able to absorb the education offered at our world-renowned public schools. They’re too busy trying to process or access more basic necessities – food, shelter, love and belonging, safety.
What can be done? • Recognize a red flag. This can be tough. The challenges can be well hidden or disguised. • Once a challenge is flagged, investigate the root of the behaviour (unexpected low academic scores, falling asleep at school, unexpected behaviour…) That can require support from other teachers, administrators, parents, multidisciplinary team (psychologists, social workers, etc.) It starts by building a relationship in the classroom. This step can be perplexing and require detective skills, compassion and empathy… • Develop a support plan. This can involve social services, breakfast club, food bank, counseling, interpreters, doctors, and financial aid.
Life can be tough. Making positive change is easy. Or is it?
I spoke to a veteran teacher recently about the idea of making positive changes.
Me: “Change is tough.”
Other Teacher: “It’s just a decision people have to make.”
This was a tough discussion for me. Change is easy, technically. Instead of A you choose B.
But overcoming entrenched barriers and obstacles takes more than a flick of a switch. Change is harder to overcome if life has been traumatic or decades of obstacles have become entrenched.
How you approach the obstacles has a significant impact on your success at getting around them. Recognizing the need for, and accessing, support is another piece of the puzzle.
Obstacles will always be there. Some will be tougher than others. Growth mindset – along with support – can make the difference to create change.
Fixed Mindset: The way is set. It’s always been this way. It will always be this way. “I’ve never done well at ________ (school, love, interviews, tests…) That’s the way it is.” With a fixed mindset obstacles turn into barriers that become insurmountable.
Growth Mindset: The past has been set. But it can change. Anything is possible. “So far, my success at ________ (school, love, interviews, tests…) has been limited. How can I get better?” With a growth mindset, obstacles turn into puzzles that become possible with perseverance.
It’s true, some people have innate abilities that make (some) tasks or changes easier. And some people have external negative influences that increase the challenges.
But, with a growth mindset, the outcome is a challenge or puzzle that just needs to be navigated for success. Anything is possible. Nelson Mandela said “It always seems impossible until it’s done.”
Finding effective mentors or support for those with a history of recurring obstacles or entrenched barriers will also be one important key to success and positive change
Back to my discussion with my teacher colleague… Change is tough. History can repeat itself unless you make the decision to choose a growth mindset – perhaps with support – to allow the change to happen.
People around the world banded together recently to urge for change to help earth.
At school I see a wide range of views from young students. Most are keen to help but can be limited in knowledge and resources. What can you do to help young people help the planet?
• Lead by example! Children are sponges and mimic those they hold in high regard. If you compost, recycle and pack lunch with re-usable containers, it’s likely they will, too. Our son came home and told me he needed a container to bring his lunch/snack compost waste home. He made me smile. His teacher is making a difference.
• Talk In class we talk about factors affecting the environment. Discuss options for getting around: using bikes, public transit, electric/hybrid and gas car.
Discuss the benefits? Costs? Modelling critical reasoning is a valuable skill for youth to experience (and adopt.)
It doesn’t take a lot for young people to understand and appreciate .
• Bring nature to the classroom I love trees!
I bring trees and plants into classroom learning. Trees can be used in science (soils, life, photosynthesis) and in literacy (describe/compare, narrative, read aloud…)
In math, trees can be used to recognize and create patterns as well as measurement.
After a month of learning, we plant the class tree somewhere at the school. I asked one student if she ever went to see her class tree. Without hesitation she beamed “Everyday!”
Trees can be a powerful learning tool! Bring your own environmental passion to the classroom.
• Goals Set goals with your students/children. Every little positive environmental action helps… Will you: 1. Plant trees? 2. Walk, bike, car pool? 3. Reduce/eliminate purchases with excessive packaging? 4. Compost 5. Choose alternatives to fossil fuels?
Below I share: • Three real superheroes • A CBC clip about a teacher who brings superheroes to her classroom • Ideas for using superheroes to meet curriculum expectations
Like Gladys West, who developed the mathematics behind GPS technology. She overcame enormous hurdles to set the groundwork for technology that many people in North America and Europe take for granted. Hurdles? She’s an African American woman who grew up in the 1920’s when women and people of African heritage were not supposed to shine. She shone brightly in the world of mathematics but did not receive much recognition for her work until recently.
Or mild mannered Mr. Rogers and “Officer” Clemmons who battled racial segregation on mainstream television in a gentle and welcoming way by sharing the spotlight and a pool in the children’s tv show. Today, that’s not so unusual. In 1969, in America, that was unheard of. But it helped challenge deep seated bigotry in the USA.
Or Cecilia Payne, born in 1900, who proposed groundbreaking astrophysical theories against all odds. Her mother refused to pay for her education. She was a woman working in a man’s field. Other scientists denounced her theories. But she persisted and lay the groundwork for modern understanding of our universe.
I like using real superheroes in the classroom. Links to literacy, art and character education offers all kinds of unit plans with backward design.
Start by finding the end result – a real life superhero – and work backwards to research who they are and what makes them tick. Extend the activity to connect to the student’s self – what are the student’s hidden superpowers?!
Others, like Marjorie White (featured in the CBC clip below), use superheroes to motivate students:
Who are your real life superheroes? Who do you admire? What is YOUR super power?!
School’s out! Summer is in full swing. Yeehaw!!!!!
That doesn’t mean literacy and math learning need to stop. It also doesn’t mean you need to pull a chair to a desk and do some worksheets.
Let the learning continue – but hide it in summer activities! See some literacy/numeracy learning ideas below:
Summer Literacy These games are geared to elementary children and can be played anytime there’s some downtime, not just on roadtrips:
• I spy literacy games– “I see something beginning with t and ending in e.” … “TREE”… “What letters go in that word?”
• Story circle– Each person adds a sentence, verbally, to an ever-growing story. The story will be silly but reinforces communication and connections. Person 1… “We arrived at the beach and jumped in the water when suddenly…” Person 2… “a submarine floated up beside me.” Person 3… “The submarine opened and out came 26 cats…” Person 4… “…Who did not like getting wet!” Person 1… “My Dad rolled his eyes and said ‘Why are cats driving a submarine?!’” Person 2… “We HAVE to help the cats!” Person 3… “But, how?!…” etc…
• Visit your library! There is hours of adventure found in a library. There’s still time to join the TD Summer Reading Club.
• Read to your children. Anytime, anywhere. Research supports that reading to your children is a very good idea.
Summer Numeracy • “Who wants some money?!” My son’s day camp had a cantina. He wanted $2 for a treat. I gave him my loose change jar so he could collect the $2 himself. With a little support and guidance you have a motivated mathemetician!
•“Who wants cookies?!” Bake some cookies (or anything!) with your children. Get them to read and measure from the recipe = literacy and numeracy (and cookies!) Motivated mathematician strikes again!
• Tables turned… Get children to try to stump YOU with their hardest math questions.
Hehe… Who likes to stump their moms and dads?! Their questions may be silly and not illustrate perfect math. This math inquiry offers a chance to build on their math curiosity and engage math ideas and interest:
Child: “What’s a billion times a gazillion?” Mom/Dad: “Yikes, that’s a tough one! A boozillion?” Child: “No, a gabillion!” Mom/Dad: “Wow, that’s big! How big is a million?… Do you have a million hairs on your head?… Do you have a thousand hairs on your head?… etc.”
Their ideas and curiosity can be more important than a perfect answer.
• Hiking math Plant some math inquiry into hiking (or whatever you are doing.): “How far have we gone?” “How old is that tree?” “How many bugs are in that tree stump?” “How did you figure that out?…”
Again, the math ideas and discussion can be more valuable than perfect answers… Keep the math conversations going.
Science, art, social studies, physical activity, can all be disguised as fun activities, too.
Summer (hidden) learning will keep them sharp! Keep it up.
A young student does something wrong. They’re told to apologize. They do.
And then nothing changes…
There’s a lot wrong with this scenario. The student upsets someone or something. Yes, that’s unfortunate but it happens. I like to think of these ‘oopses’ as potential for learning. Often the student is asked or told or expected to apologize and, usually, the student knows the easy way out – “I’m sorry…”
The trouble is – in many cases – the student is not sorry. They want to get out of trouble quickly, go through the ‘sorry’ steps and get back to what they want to do. The greater injustice is that, oftentimes, the student’s undesirable behaviour does not change or is reinforced.
This winter a student from another class routinely stepped over the boundaries of school rules and general decorum. He was a high-flying prankster constantly pushing the envelope of acceptable behaviour. He’d been trained to keep playing his get out of jail “sorry” card.
The last time he said ‘sorry’ with his big goofy grin and an expectation of absolution, I stopped.
“I don’t think you are sorry,” came from my mouth. His smile faded with the recognition that his normal routine had hit a snag. He stood quietly, unsure what to say…
“If you were sorry you wouldn’t keep running and yelling in the halls between classes.” More silence…
“I would know you were sorry if you at least attempted to make a change.”
And I let him go…
That was the start of a slow change.
The next time I taught his class I met him at the door. I asked why I should let him in. “I could just give you your work. You could do it in the office… I don’t like it when your behaviour disrupts others. How do I know you’ve changed or are willing to change?”
That was the start of a gradual evolution. It required time and consistency and more energy than demanding ‘sorry.’ It required our relationship to grow.
The end result was better. But the cost was higher.
Most people think teachers teach math or language or science, etc. They do, but the more important job is to develop the whole person. That takes more time and effort – often more effort than the teacher has time for.
Don’t accept a meaningless apology. It’s the extra step that makes the difference to a student and a community.
They also fit nicely into the curriculum: • We wrote about the differences and similarities of the leaves. • We compared the mathematical patterns and measured their sizes. • We studied the science of trees as oxygen producers. • We included them in art. • We discussed the social impact of trees on neigbourhoods. … And then we planted two trees as a lasting memory of the learning and gift to the school/neighbourhood.
In the current state of our climate – more frequent floods, big storms and weather anomalies – bringing attention to the carbon capturing potential of trees at any grade level is a good thing.
I’d like to see trees planted as many places as possible. Schools and students are a great place to plant the seeds, metaphorically and literally. Growing trees in your class is possible and easy: • Plant some apple seeds from a student’s lunch apples and see what happens. • Contact groups like Ecology Ottawa and ask about their free seedling giveaways. • Collect seeds in the fall and explore the process of seed germination (this can be challenging.)
At the grocery store I recently paid for $92 worth of groceries. I asked for $60 cash back on my purchase. The cashier froze, paused and stammered “Ok, soooo…. How much will that be?” The bagger saved the day and helped with the math.
I was shocked that 92+60 caused so much difficulty. What surprised me more over the next month was how often a cashier stumbled with similar, simple “mental math.”
Mental Math The Ontario Ministry of Education defines mental math as: “Doing calculations in the mind, with little or no use of paper and pencil or calculator.”
In practical ways, simple, mental math means almost instantly knowing the answer – in your head – to questions like 92+60. Or 12×8. Or 100-87.
Why is this important? There are practical reasons. When you’re at the checkout it’s nice to verify that the cashier is giving the correct change, quickly, without the need of a calculator. Mistakes happen more often than I’d like to think.
In a bigger life context mastering mental math is useful to everyday tasks.
I’m talking about figuring out how much paint to buy for a room that is 11 feet by 9 feet with 8 foot ceilings (320 square feet of wall space, not accounting for window or door or ceiling.)
… Or figuring out how much it will cost to take 8 kids to a birthday party movie at $8 each plus snack pack of $4.
In the classroom, mental math is crucial for higher level math. I’m not talking about 3rdyear university calculus. Word problems and bigger concepts will suffer if all the student’s mental energy revolves around simple math calculations.
The National Research Council found that “The more automatically a procedure can be executed, the less mental effort is required. Since each person has a limited amount of mental effort that he or she can expend at any one time, more complex tasks can be done well only when some of the subtasks are automatic.” (NRC, 2001)
What do we do to help our children? I believe it is important for students to learn simple math by rote… so that the answer to 92 + 60 is automatic. They should learn simple math including times tables by memory.
How can students acquire this knowledge? It’s not fancy. Practice.
Activity 1 In elementary classes I do short “Mad Mental Math” by placing 20 simple math questions around the room on “vertical, non permanent surfaces”. I encourage students to work quickly, support each other. There are no calculators allowed! It’s exciting, fun and involves all levels of math students.
Activity 2 I’ll also do a game-show style quiz where students answer simple math questions verbally or on paper. It’s lightning fast, a little crazy and fun.
For both activities, we go over the answers as a class and ask students to explain strategies they found useful to figure out the answers.
If young students automatically know simple mental math, bigger concepts come more easily…
References • Laura Wheeler. nd. “Visibly random groups & Vertical non-permanent surfaces.” https://mslwheeler.wordpress.com/2014/11/09/visibly-random-groups-vertical-non-permanent-surfaces/
• National Research Council. (2001). “Adding it up: Helping children learn mathematics.” Washington, DC: National Academies Press. (page 351) – sourced from “Focusing on the Fundamentals of Math: A TEACHER’S GUIDE,” below.
• Ontario Ministry of Education. (2018). “Focusing on the Fundamentals of Math: A TEACHER’S GUIDE.”http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/teachers/teacher_guide_math_en.pdf