Take A Step Back


creative commons licensed ( BY-NC-SA ) flickr photo shared by D. Garding

This is for you new teachers out there…

One of the best pieces of advice I ever received in my teaching career was a simple one:

“Sit back, relax, and enjoy your time with the kids.”

I had just started a new alternative program for junior high in an Outreach School, and I had the great opportunity to work with some very unique and special young people.  Now with all the great things these students brought to our class, they also had some issues with behaviour, issues that could lead to some very trying and stressful situations. By the end of October I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to do the work the rest of the year, I wasn’t sleeping much, I wasn’t eating a lot, and I was stressed out and exhausted.

My principal, one of the greatest mentors a teacher could ask for, came in to observe my class and offer his thoughts. After the students left for the day he flashed his knowing smile and chuckled, and I knew right away he had me and my issues figured out, that’s the way he was. He told me how I spent most of the class walking around looking for problems, or on the edge of my chair waiting for something to go wrong. He explained how I had amped myself up into a hyper-vigilant state, moving from problem to problem, just waiting for the next thing to go wrong.

Then he asked me “Have you had anything happen so far that you couldn’t handle?”, I told him no. Then he asked “Whatever might happen, could you handle it?” and I responded yes. “Well” he responded, “then stop looking for something to happen, or waiting for something to go wrong, sit back, take a deep breath and try to enjoy your time with the kids. If anything happens, you’ll be fine, and if you’re not, I will help you, but this will never be work you will enjoy if you move from crisis to crisis without taking any enjoyment from your day.

From that moment on, my time in the school and with my students got better. So much better. I spent time with my students and was able to bring more of me to my teaching as I relaxed and let down my guard a little. We still had issues from time to time, but they became mild inconveniences that we worked through rather than the dreaded storm that always seemed to be on my horizon.

For you new teachers, you are two weeks (or more) into your year and if you haven’t done so already, it’s time for you to take a step back and just watch the magic that is students learning together. Whatever might happen, you can handle it, so don’t worry about the class getting a little loud, or the learning heading off task, it will be fine. Students can sense when we are anxious or stressed, and it is not helpful in creating the relaxed and open learning environment you want for your kids.

We work in a great profession, and the part that makes it great is the kids, so make sure you take the time to enjoy them, and enjoy learning with and from them!

Have a great year!

Constraint


creative commons licensed ( BY ) flickr photo shared by graymalkn

Constraint:

  • something that limits or restricts someone or something
  • control that limits or restricts someone’s actions or behaviour

For a while now I have been a strong advocate for student voice in their learning and choice in what they learn. I have written about our four Innovation Weeks, and proselytized at length about the power in turning over control to our students, and the resulting learning that has occurred as a result. The push back against relinquishing control of our classrooms is dwindling, and I find far less resistance to these ideas when I present them at conferences or post about them here.

During one of my last conference presentations, the question came up about why I thought Innovation Week was beneficial to student learning, and how I felt it compared to other similar ideas like the wildly popular and fantastic Genius Hour. My response was that I find great value in the experience being limited by time, and that the deadline pushed our students to do amazing things in just that one week. I feel that the constraint of a one week time limit (5 days really), pushes students in ways that force them to deliver on their ideas (see fantastic Seth Godin video on “Shipping”), and that it helps focus what might otherwise become aimless or unmotivated without an end-point.

I read a fantastic post about Google’s ATAP team (Advanced Technology and Projects) a few weeks ago and in the article it talks about how the two-year time limit imposed on these ATAP teams motivates them to achieve great things because with every week that passes they are 1% closer to the deadline. I loved this quote, and it inspired a few posts (here and here) about how we should create similar research and development teams in education.

There is a sense of urgency, you don’t come to build a career. You come to do a project, to do something epic, and then you go.”

Since my last conference presentation I have been revisiting some ideas I had, and trying to look at them through the lens of constraint. I am starting to think that building in constraint can be just as effective as building in choice when we look at creating learning experiences for our students that challenge and grow their imagination. I was reminded of the scene from Apollo 13 when the NASA engineers had to create a solution to get a square CO2 filter into a round hole:

I believe that working to find a solution to a problem while navigating the restrictions or difficulties is an authentic means to fostering creativity, critical thinking and innovation in our students. We have no doubt done this already with spaghetti bridge building, shopping on a budget, and Rube-Goldberg machines built with things you find around your house. Where I think there can be some growth in this area is instead building a learning experience around a constraint rather than adding a constraint to an already developed learning experience, as I would suggest all of the above would qualify as.

Maybe one of the following may have potential, and maybe you can help me turn them into great experiences for our students with some suggestions:

Guerrilla/Ambush Learning – excuse the cheesy title, it is a work in progress. The idea is built around the constraint of time and limited preparedness. Students sign up to participate, and on a chosen day, all participants are shuttled into the gym where we have tables and chairs set up. They are handed a coloured card and asked to sit at the table that corresponds to their colour. Once everyone is in, a problem is shared with the group, and the challenge is given to each table to develop a solution to the problem. A clock with let’s say 5 hours on it starts to countdown. The groups have to work together to come up with a solution to the problem and have it ready to defend at the end of the 5 hours. Sample problems could be clean drinking water in a third world country, inner-city literacy rates or limiting cars into a city centre. As long as the problem is big enough to tackle and a problem that exists somewhere in the world, I believe the task would be engaging and meaningful.

Helping Hand – again, cheesy title that will be improved by someone (anyone?) out there. The idea is built around the constraint of space and limited resources. The idea initially started as lunch boxes to a 3rd world country but with some help from my colleagues (Thanks Courtney, Dana, Brad and Carson) we refocused this on cloth grocery bags for homeless people. The idea is that students have to come up with the best use of the space provided by one cloth grocery bag. The question would be what would be the most effective way they could fill the bag to provide to a homeless person with the most beneficial contents they could come up with. The limitation would be that they would have to actively seek out the donation of all contents. Whether it was medical supplies, a blanket, non-perishable food items, toiletries etc. they would have to contact a business, explain their project and then convince the business to help them out with a donation. I think with some work done behind the scenes before the project you could probably get some businesses or associations on board to help.

For the helping hand project we are thinking of doing it in January or February when it can get very cold in our neck of the woods, and after the Christmas season, when the shelters get a great deal of help from people already. We hope to partner with a shelter that can not only act as a resource for the exercise, but can hopefully facilitate our participating students in the handing out of these bags.

Whether the limitation or constraint you put on students is real or imagined, creating this type of experience challenges students to be imaginative in their finding a solution. Just as the best way to foster resilience in students is to give them a meaningful reason to be resilient, the best way to foster innovation and creativity is going to be to challenge them in ways that force them to be imaginative and innovative.

In a great article that Whitney Johnson wrote for the Harvard Business Review entitled Why Innovators Love Constraints, she talks about how constraints can push us, and how in the real world this type of thinking is required. I think this quote does a good job of connecting this type of learning to the type of thinkers our world is going to require, or already requires:

A tightly-lidded box can stifle and suffocate. It can motivate us to figure out how get outside the box. To make choices about how we will expend the resources we do have available to us, to find cheaper, more nimble ways of doing something as a person – and as a corporation. Our perceived limitations may give us direction on where we might play, or want to play. Indeed, if we will let them, constraints can (and will) drive us to disruption.

As always, I’d love your thoughts, comments, or recommendations.