Don't Be Afraid of Your Own Ignorance

This past week a student required assistance with an article from his science fair project.  He had taken some notes and I was helping him construct a paragraph for his blog post. 

In conjunction with the Going Green initiative at the school, this student has selected a specific aspect relating to the causes of global warming: meat consumption.

Some of the information in his notes left me slightly skeptical, “Really?” I queried, pointing to some statistics on his page.  His face brightened and he nodded with conviction and articulated the gist of the article, as he understood it.  I insisted, however, that he show me the original piece.  Sure enough, he had comprehended the information correctly: According to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the livestock industry contributes 65% of nitrous oxide and 36% of methane related to human activity as well as 9% of human-related carbon dioxide production (1).  This student continued to expound on the detrimental factors of the livestock industry, convincing me to reconsider even my own modest intake of meat.

It was such a pleasure to see this student in the “driver’s seat” as he taught me all he knew.  He was empowered and it gave him needed confidence to continue on with his attempt to put his knowledge into the written word. 

Sometimes we just don't know, and that's OK, especially if we are genuinely interested in learning.

I can think of at least two scenarios in which a teacher finds him/herself in a position of admitting ignorance.  First, as in this example, in which a student has actually attained more expertise in a specific area and is willing to share.  Second, when a student asks a question in class that the teacher actually doesn’t know the answer to.  The latter happens to me, especially in my more advanced classes, and I relish these opportunities.  If I sense the answer is readily found I’ll model how to find the answer right on the spot.  If I suspect the answer might require a bit more time on my part then I promise to look it up and get back to the students.  They appreciate that.  It seems to foster mutual respect.

In any case, I think teachers should never fear showing their own ignorance to a student.

Allowing students to see our ignorance...

  • Potentially instills student confidence.
  • Allows students to see that learning never ceases. 
  • Sends a message of value in learning. 
  • Provides an opportunity to teach how to find reliable answers.
  • Fosters respect.

The same is true for any adult in the position of interacting with youth.  Don’t be afraid to claim, “I don’t know”.  Use it as an opportunity to bond with the younger person in finding an answer together.  You will find it a rewarding, and constructive experience for all involved.

(1) "Livestock a major threat to environment." Livestock a major threat to environment. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Apr. 2014. <http://www.fao.org/newsroom/en/News/2006/1000448/index.html>.

Caught in the Middle: A Teacher's Time

"That's not my problem" she exclaims as we watch the boys run down the basketball court.

I’m somewhat confused by what my friend and fellow parent means.  After shouting, “rebound” to our team, I try to argue my colleague’s case.  "Well, in her mind she doesn't feel she should have to look at or answer emails after her 'work day' late at night or on the weekends"

I am attending the game as a parent but often I end up fielding questions as a teacher, as is the case right now.  We clap and cheer some more as my friend continues, “Well, that’s a teacher’s job.  That’s what she signed up for."

I turn my eyes to the court to mask that fact that I'm stunned to realize during this staccato exchange that some parents expect teachers to be available 24/7, to respond to every email regardless of when it was sent.

 My colleague had approached me about this very situation earlier in the week.  She had told her students in class that she would postpone the test and allow them more time to prepare for the exam if they communicated this need to her.  She claims to have told the students they needed to decide that day.  Well, the next night a student wrote her at 9:30 p.m. asking for an extension.  She read the email the next morning only an hour before the scheduled test. She felt the request had been made unreasonably late.  She felt it wasn’t fair to postpone for this one student while the others sat the exam.  She also realized it would require writing a second test on short notice.  She was torn but in the end decided to not grant the student an extension.  Though I probably would have made a different decision, I understood her view. 

 As I listen to this parent’s plea during the basketball game, I also see her point.  However, I am a little "put out" at the expectation that teachers are expected to dedicate their entire lives to their jobs.  It’s one thing that we already do that by default.  We care about the students, we try to plan engaging and well thought out lessons, we seek fair assessment, and we want to be up-to-date.  As a result, we spend a ridiculous amount of non-work hours at our jobs.  I do so because I enjoy what I do and I sincerely care about the quality of education I deliver.  My income does not reflect my education level, the thought I give, nor the time I sacrifice. Suddenly, it feels different, even painful to think that what I do is expected.  I think if it is expected, then it should be compensated for.  Would this parent be willing to pay double the tuition for her child to attend the school?  In the States, would taxpayers be willing to pay higher taxes to have their teachers paid according to what they really give to the educational system?  Somehow, I think not.

 In any case, I’m glad that I have the clause clearly written on my website “I am happy to answer all of your questions.  Remember if you have a question, someone else might have a similar concern.  I will answer emails as quickly as possible, however it could take me up to 24 hours to respond, due to my duties.”  I feel like I should have the option of not checking my emails when I am involved with my family at home or attending to my personal needs and wants in the evenings and weekends.  It has been confirmed to me that for sure as teachers we have to be exceedingly clear in our communications and expectations.  We must leave no room for interpretation for students or parents.

Why do we have school vacations?

We currently have a week off of school for Crocus Vacation. I’ve googled every combination of “crocus”, “Vacation”, “holiday”, “school” that I can think of but do not understand what this vacation is really supposed to be for.  It makes me reflect on the more general question what are school vacations for?  Do students benefit from a break?  I’m not convinced they do academically.  At international schools world-wide students are whisked away by their families to all sorts of interesting corners of the world during school vacations.  From the Netherlands just this week I know of students headed to Dubai, Sweden, France, Cuba, Curacao, Prague, Russia, London, Paris, Morocco, Thailand etc. Often they leave school 1-3 days before the vacation, missing out on classwork, assignments, and even assessments.  So, in a sense they trade schooling for traveling.  But traveling can be educational too.  Some teachers also use the time to travel, especially the younger ones without families. Though I thoroughly enjoy my days as a teacher and I sincerely love the students, I still find myself looking forward to the days off.  I also have been known to occasionally use vacation time to see the world.  However, the reality is that I simply relish a week of no schedule, no alarm clocks and the ability to do what I want when I want.  For example, this morning I went on a 5K run at eight in the morning.  Later I walked the same loop with a friend. It felt like such a day of luxury.  Additionally, I am grateful for extra hours to do some needed planning, research, and grading.  The break in the school routine does energize me and refresh my enthusiasm.  So, regardless the purpose of vacations, they do benefit me!

Standard Based Grading

I wonder how many educators "buy" into standard based grading.  I recently attended a workshop by Ken O'Conner, author of How to Grade for Learning and I found the workshop absolutely confirming of ideas I had had swirling within my head for years and practices I had implemented without attaching a name to them.  It was a freeing experience.  The passion I feel for the topic is the impetus for this blog.

I attended the conference as a role I have as part of a focus group currently evaluating standard based grading and the possibility of implementing it school wide.  I am convinced it is the only way and am moving my classrooms in that direction regardless of what official policies the school adopts.  Taken from an article I recently read, I want my lessons "from the warm-up at the beginning of class to final grades...[to be] formative-minded, or about finding out 'how well do my students know this?'" (How We Got Grading Wrong and What to Do About It by Laura Varlas ASCD 55:10 Oct. 2013).  

After the conference, the four of us who attended presented to our focus group the ideas of the conference and a proposal to move forward.  Next week on Wednesday we will offer an initial presentation to the staff to simply get everyone thinking about grading practices. 

Here are the books, among others, I have on my nightstand:

  • How to Grade for Learning by Ken O'Conner
  • Standard Based Teaching: A Classroom Guide by Danell Elder
  • Developing Standards-Based Report Cards by Thomas R. Guskey and Jane M. Bailey
  • Practical Solutions for Serious Problems in Standards-Based Grading  Thomsas R. Guskey, editor

I plan to keep track of this journey of implementation (and other teaching experiences) on this blog.  Please feel free to add comments and thoughts on the topic, especially if you have any experience with standards based grading.