Goals and Projects for 2017

goals and projects for 2017I know. Everyone writes about goals and projects at the start of a new year, right? Considering I’m posting this on January 9th, I’m a little late getting on the “let’s talk about resolutions” bandwagon. The funny thing is I wasn’t planning to write anything or set any goals for the year. Last year was brutal, and by the middle of December, all I wanted was to hide and hibernate until sometime next spring. However, after the break from work and with a push from a few friends, I’m excited about the potential of 2017. With that in mind, I’ve embraced a few goals and projects for 2017, and experience tells me I’m more likely to succeed if I make my efforts public.

Two Goals

With encouragement from my friend A.J. Juliani, I’ve decided to return to this space. I have missed writing and spending more time reflecting and sharing openly. I’m a better teacher when I take my reflection to the next level and share it with others. I’m able to clarify what’s happening and how I think and feel about it.

For now, my plan will be to post each Monday. I’m writing daily in my leather-bound journal and my DayOne app, and I thought I’d polish something and post on Fridays or Saturdays. Instead, I’ve decided it’s better for me to have the weekend to clean up something to share. We’ll see how things go. However, sharing here isn’t the only thing I’m working on at the start of 2017.

In addition to writing more and sharing publicly, I’m working on tracking what I eat and drink. According to several different BMI calculators, my current BMI is around 27.2, so I need to drop a few pounds. I’m tracking my consumption on MyFitnessPal, and I’m using my Fitbit to motivate me to exercise more. I’ll occasionally post here for added accountability.

A Few Additional Projects

In addition to these goals, I’ve got a few other projects on which I’m working. First, I’m again attempting to capture a photo a day on Instagram. Perhaps this year I’ll make it past March. Second, I’ve set a goal of reading a book a week this year, and I’ll be logging my reading progress on Goodreads. (I’m halfway through my first book: Steve Martin’s Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life.) My third project is my “3 things I am thankful for today” records which I keep in my Day One app.

Thanks to this blog post from Bill Ferriter, my fourth project is writing more comments on blog posts. Right now I’m trying to write one good comment a day. I know that isn’t much, but it’s more than I have done in a while. I’m hoping it’ll help me reconnect with some of my fellow educators with whom I’ve connected through the years.

My last project for 2017 is working to learn Spanish through Duolingo. I’m only spending a few minutes a day on it, but I’m trying to be consistent.

I realize that I’m tackling way too much at one time and that I won’t keep up with all of this all year-long. Some of this will most likely fall by the wayside. Of these things, losing some weight to improve my BMI is primary. Unfortunately, it’s the least fun of all these goals and projects. Writing and sharing here is the second most important goal. The rest are ongoing projects that I hope to work on throughout the year.

What about you? Did you make any goals or resolutions for 2017? On what projects are working now?

Helping with Math Homework (When You Don’t Understand)

Math HomeworkThis post was originally written for and published on the Presbyterian Day School blog.

Generally speaking, my wife and I take a hands-off approach to our kids’ homework. We certainly want our four children to do well in school. We want to encourage and assist them along the way, but Debbie and I also want them to be independent and resourceful so we think it’s good for them to struggle sometimes. Therefore, when it comes to our kids’ homework, we avoid being too helpful and encourage them to figure things out on their own.

For the most part, this approach has served our family well. Our children usually complete their homework independently, and homework rarely results in any familial trauma–but not always. Occasionally, we have homework agony when one of our kids struggles with an assignment they just cannot understand–especially when the endeavor involves math. I’m an English language arts teacher. My wife teaches the visual arts. Neither of us feels particularly proficient when it comes to math.

Here are five things we do to help with math homework (we don’t even understand):

  1. Watch the teacher’s tutorial or read through the student’s notes with our child. Then, we ask our child to explain the lesson in his own words. I’m amazed how often this solves the problem as my child sees or hears something he missed during the initial instruction. Additionally, if my child can teach it to me, he’s most likely going to understand and remember it.
  2. Check out a different video tutorial. Sometimes my child just needs the concept to be explained in a different way than the way his teacher taught it. Fortunately, we live in a time when one can learn just about anything through the internet. Two places we’ve tried for math tutorials are PatrickJMT and Khan Academy. Both provide quality videos on many different math concepts.
  3. Plug the problem into an online computational problem solver. Both Wolfram Alpha and Discovery Education’s WebMath are immensely useful tools. They not only answer problems but also provide explanations so my child can see how the problem is solved and have another explanation of how to approach the question.
  4. Have my child phone a friend. In the wise words of The Beatles: “I get by with a little help from my friends.” Indeed I do and my kids do, too. Everybody needs help sometimes, and it’s important my kids learn how to ask their peers for help. (We’ve been known to ask grandparents, aunts, and uncles, too.) In college, I always made new friends and exchanged phone numbers with other students in my classes. Then, if I missed a class or needed homework help, I had friends I could call.
  5. Have my child email his teacher, ask his question, and move on. I have my child send the email in order to take ownership of his own learning. And believe it or not, I’ve found most teachers to be helpful, reasonable people. While they may not respond to the email immediately, they’ve always taken the time to help my child understand the concept with which he’s struggling. Then, we move on. If my child needs additional help, he’s responsible for talking with his teacher or joining the next help session.

Having made an attempt to do his best, my child can leave for school the next morning with looming questions about last night’s math homework. That’s perfectly okay. As parents, Debbie and I are less concerned that our kids get all the right answers and more concerned that they learn to ask questions, seek help, and find creative solutions when they struggle.

Lennon, John, and Paul McCartney. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The Beatles. Capitol Records, 1967. Vinyl recording.

A Statement of Educational Philosophy

Philosophy of Education

Recently, I took some time to revisit my educational philosophy. I’ve written my philosophy a few times over the course of my career, and I find it interesting to note what has varied with each iteration. My beliefs have changed drastically over the course of my career, but my love for students and my passion for learning have remained steady. This “statement” is by no means perfect and continues to be a work in progress. Nevertheless, here is my recent thinking. 

Everyone should be a lifelong learner. The essence of life is learning. As I examine what I believe about education, I realize how much my educational philosophy has changed over the past 15 years. The constant in my career has been my need to reflect on my thinking, evaluate my own learning, and adjust my beliefs and my actions accordingly.

I used to think a teacher’s primary job was to know his content thoroughly and to present the material well, but now I think a teacher’s main role is to get to know his students, to uncover their understanding, and to help them demonstrate their learning well. Early in my career, I spent untold hours studying the content I needed to cover and preparing the presentations I would use in my teaching. These days, I devote the majority of my time to conferencing with my students individually and in small groups and to having them share their thinking visibly. While I appreciate teaching as an important part of the process, I believe learning should be the primary focus in classrooms and schools.

Learning is more than the process of gaining knowledge and skills. It requires constructing meaning and transferring understandings to new contexts; it includes meta-cognition and reflection. I believe learning should be active and passive, social and secluded. Activity, collaboration, and interaction should enhance and deepen understanding, but there must be time to process, read, write, and think quietly, too. I believe the most engaging and memorable learning arises from student-driven inquiry, where students ask questions, research ideas, evaluate answers, connect information, and share their learning. Project-based and problem-based learning develops the critical skills today’s students need to become deep thinkers and take ownership of their own learning.

My leadership stems from a passion to serve those around me and to help them become the best they can be. To serve them I listen carefully to hear their needs and concerns, I work with opposing people and polarizing ideas to find creative solutions and build consensus, and I strive to lead honestly and transparently building a common vision and a culture of care.

I know schools and classrooms must be places where all learners feel secure, valued, and able to take risks. Effective leadership focuses on the strengths of each individual to build relationships and develop leadership at every position within the learning community. As leaders empower teachers to take risks, teachers inspire students to grow into the creative entrepreneurs our society needs through the challenging, meaningful, purposeful, and engaging learning they experience.

My current philosophy of education consists of these ideas. Yet, as a landscape is changed by a river rolling through it, my philosophy will continue to be shaped and molded by future experiences, new discoveries, and further interactions with my community of learners. As a mentor once said, “We do not know where our train is going, but Someone knows.” I do not know what insight and changes the future holds for me, but the Teacher does—and that is enough for me.

Cleaning Up Collateral Damage

collateral damageMy day started early. The alarm chimed at 4:45 AM, and I rolled out of bed fumbling for my running shorts and shoes as I headed toward the bathroom. On the way I grabbed my phone hoping to check a few emails and do some multi-tasking for school while I prepped for my early morning jog.

Ugh. I saw the name in my inbox and knew this wasn’t how I wanted to start my day. Emails sent from parents in the middle of the night are never a good thing.

I considered waiting to open it. I started to close the Mail app, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to think about anything else during my run. The unknown contents of the message would haunt my entire workout. With a deep breath I opened the message.

Mr. Cummings,

*Todd came home very upset today about a conversation regarding his makeup work. Todd has missed 4 days of school due to illness last week. He had fever and felt terrible. He was very weak all weekend and could barely keep his head up during dinner tonight! The full school day exhausted him. There was evidently a test  scheduled in your class today, and Todd stated that you expected him to take the test because “you knew what the homework was, Todd; it was online.” I’m not sure how you feel when you are sick with fever, but Todd couldn’t even lift his head to drink enough let alone think about schoolwork.  He certainly wasn’t checking homework on the computer nor was he reading.

He went on to say that you conceded by allowing him to read tonight and take the test tomorrow. He knows he has quite a bit of work to make up, and we are making sure he gets caught up while continuing to do his daily work. He is still not 100%.

This week his PE time is already taken up with other academic commitments so he has no extra time at school. Thank you in advance for  your understanding and allowing him adequate time to get caught up. I can tell you now that he cannot take the test tomorrow as he went straight to sleep after dinner.

Sincerely,

Todd’s mom

Yikes! I’d totally blown it. Todd was a great kid and a wonderful student. He always gave his best and did quality work. I had known he’d been out sick, but I hadn’t realized how sick he was. Truthfully, I wasn’t even upset that Todd wasn’t ready to take the quiz. He just caught me at the completely wrong moment. When he walked up to speak with me about his situation, I was already frustrated by another matter. I was having a lousy day. Todd innocently walked into my frustration with horrible timing, and he’d received the brunt of my exasperation. I’d made a sick kid feel worse.

Looking back, I recognized immediately my first reaction to Todd was wrong. That’s why I quickly reconsidered and offered to let him take the quiz the next day. I think I intended for the modifying of my expectations to be an olive branch offering to Todd for my inappropriate response. Todd didn’t need an amendment; he deserved an apology. He deserved a teacher humble enough to own his mistakes. He deserved a better me.

I wrote Todd’s mom the following message:

I will apologize to Todd today. He bore the brunt of some other frustration and that wasn’t fair. Todd is a good student, and he is conscientious about his work. I really didn’t mean to speak harshly to him or make him feel bad. I was irritated over another matter (not related to Todd), and he walked into it unfortunately.

Todd can make up the reading and take the quiz sometime next week (the book is very short). I really wasn’t upset or frustrated with him. He just caught me at the wrong moment on a bad day, but that’s really no excuse. I’ll speak with him today and try to make things right. Again, I’m sorry; please accept my apology. My reaction wasn’t intentional, but it was an over reaction and wrong. Thank you for letting me know I upset him so that I can fix my mistake. He’s a great kid, and I enjoy having him in class.

Thanks-

Philip Cummings

Later that morning, I met Todd at the top of the stairs entering our class hallway. I apologized for my behavior explaining that I was wrong to treat him that way and that I really wasn’t frustrated with him. I thanked him for being such a dedicated hard-worker and told him that he had more than enough “deposits in the Mr. Cummings bank” to make a few withdrawals when needed. Todd smiled, accepted my apology, and appeared to understand. His parents were gracious enough to accept my apology, too. I appreciate such grace.

As a teacher (and as a parent), sometimes it’s hard to acknowledge my mistakes—to admit when I’m wrong, when I’m petty—to admit I’m fallen and broken. I want to be the best teacher I can be. My students deserve the best, and on some days, my best may just be an apology.

 *Todd is not the student’s real name.

Be Present

be present.Life moves at much too fast a pace. I’d prefer things move a little slower. My dad turns 72 today. I can still remember his surprise 40th birthday party like it happened yesterday. In a few weeks, Evelyn will turn 7. How can that be? Wasn’t her birth just a few minutes ago? The older I get the faster time flies. How is it possible I’m going to be 44 years old next month?

I had a bit of a scare this past weekend. Late Saturday night, I received word that one of my closest friends was in the hospital in Nashville battling a dangerous infection. I hardly slept that night. I kept waking up checking my phone for updates on his condition. Worry overcame me. Throughout the day Sunday, I couldn’t stop thinking about him. Sure, I was praying for him, but I needed to do more. I needed to be present with him at the hospital. I couldn’t do anything for him medically, but I could be present. Fortunately, my wife realized this and suggested I drive over as soon as she got home from work Monday afternoon. I did and I’m glad I went. There is power in being present with the people you love.

My friend is better. He went home from the hospital yesterday. He’ll still be recovering for a little while, but he’s going to be okay. I didn’t do anything to help his situation. I didn’t do anything tangible. We talked and laughed. We remembered past days. I walked with him to get some testing done. I listened. We hung out in silence some, too. And yet, being present with him and his wife mattered. We don’t have nearly enough time together. We need to make time to be together more often.

Life is full of busyness and distractions. My family life gets filled with appointments, practices, ballgames, daily commutes, and making sure everyone has done his homework and washed behind his ears. It’s easy to get caught up in good things that aren’t the best things. The same can be said of my school life, too. It’s easy to get caught up in school assemblies, report cards, committee work, daily schedules, and workplace politics. Add social media, email, RSS feeds, etc. to the mix, and it becomes easy for me to miss what matters most. I need to be present–fully engaged with the people who matter to me.

A few weeks ago, I posted my professional development goal for 2014-2015. I’m excited about that goal, but it isn’t the most important goal I’m working on. My greatest goal, and perhaps the most challenging one for me, is to be present fully with those I love. Whether spending time with my wife, my children, my friends, my students, or my colleagues, I want to be present physically, mentally, and emotionally with them. I want to cherish our moments together.

A while back I gave notice to notifications on my phone, but somehow they’ve managed to creep back in to my life. I’m taking care of that problem today. I’ll continue to engage in online spaces. Those relationships matter to me, too. Some of my best friendships started online, but I’m going to be intentional about being present where I am—both in person and online. And I’d appreciate your holding me accountable for it, too. Time flies by. I want to make the most of each moment.

Yesterday Alex Couros shared a video of three German students surprising a homeless guy. The video really resonated with me as I watched how they chose to be present with this man. The video is worth watching.

How will you be present today?

Bragging Rights

bragging rightsIn response to my unexpected class visitor on Wednesday, I decided to email my students’ parents to brag about the learning and interactions the boys had shared. I know the students and their thinking are the most impressive things in my room, and I deeply appreciate and love what I do and the boys with whom I work. When I email parents, I carbon copy the boys, too. I don’t want to talk behind their backs, and I always want to include them in the conversations about them.

This morning I shared with my feedback friend Jill Gough about my email to parents, and she suggested I share the letter here. Jill suggested it’s important to share how I interact with parents. The following is the message I shared with them earlier this morning:

6A Parents-

Wow. Your (our) boys are incredible young men! I have to share with you how impressive they are and tell you how much I appreciate your sharing them with me.

As you may know, we had visitors in our room on Wednesday in conjunction with the Project Zero conference this weekend here at school. Teachers from around the country and Harvard researchers spent the day observing the teaching and learning at PDS. In reading, we are in the early stages of a project-based learning unit that the boys are helping to design. The boys learning is impressive, and I was extremely proud to watch as they demonstrated their thoughtfulness and articulated their ideas to our guests. They also showed how kind and considerate they are. They were perfect gentlemen.

Our visitors were amazed. Working with the boys everyday, I sometimes forget how deep, intelligent, and mindful they truly are. In fact, they were so impressive that the primary Harvard researcher who is here decided to return to my classroom to spend the rest of the day (unannounced – yikes)! Our boys had moved on to their other classes, but I was able to spend the afternoon with Ron Ritchhart, whose work is the basis for much of what I do and how I teach. It was an honor for me, but it was really a reflection on your boys.

To the boys and to you, I want to say thank you. I am proud to be your partner and their teacher. We are two class “happy grams” away from a class party. Well, in my opinion, they earned at least a “double-whammy” and a class party for all they have accomplished these first two trimesters (and definitely over this past week)! We’ll plan to do that next Friday towards the end of C day, and this party will definitely be my treat. The guys and I will plan it out on Wednesday.

I just wanted you to know how proud and thankful I am and to brag to you about your boys. they are a wonderful blessing to me.

Happy Valentine’s Day. I hope you are enjoying the winter break! And thanks again.

Regards-

How do you interact with parents? What things do you share? Where does the student fit into the communication loop? Why do you do it that way? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

My Homework

homeworkSo… This morning, my friend Bill tagged me in a “Homework” blog meme. I have no idea how this whole thing started, but according to Bill, “this meme has an important purpose: To give readers a look behind the digital masks that writers show outwardly to the world.” So what masks am I wearing as I share in this space? Hmm. I guess I need to spend some time reflecting on that. After all, the goal for this blog is to have an open, honest space where I share about my life and professional practice. I’m going to need to come back to this idea in a future post. For now, I have a homework assignment to complete (and papers to assess, too), and I’ve needed to update this blog anyway. (Okay, task number one is complete.)

The second task of my assignment is to share eleven random facts that readers of my blog probably don’t know about me:

1. When I was 13, my dad took our family to Los Angeles for the 1984 Summer Olympics. We were in the stadium for the women’s 3000 meter final, and I was less than 50 feet away from the spot where Zola Budd and Mary Decker had their collision.  

2. I am a total chicken when it comes to horror movies. I absolutely refuse to watch them. In fact, I’m still traumatized by the original movie versions of Carrie and A Nightmare on Elm Street.

3. I have a crush on Dame Judi and have for a long time.

4. I love teaching 6th grade, which is funny because I always wanted to teach high school seniors and then become a principal. I struggle with a tension between wanting to teach students and wanting to lead a school.

5. I start reading lots of books that I never finish. I feel a sense of shame about it. What is that all about?

6. My wife is a better reader than I am. I love to read, but she’s a voracious reader. In fact, I dream of being able to read like she does. Seriously, she’s amazing. She’s also a better teacher than I am. It’s not a competition; if it were, it wouldn’t even be close.

7. I could easily eat a box of frozen fruit popsicles every day. Every. Single. Day.

8. I prefer books, movies, or music to sports. I don’t really follow sports. I do have season tickets for University of Memphis football, but they don’t really inspire fanaticism. I occasionally enjoy watching professional tennis, and I like GolTV on nights when I cannot sleep, but I’m not “with it” when it comes to sports. Having said that, I should tell you two things. First, I read Geoff Calkins almost every day. Second, my team is in the finals of my school’s fantasy football league championship. Go team!

9. I’m getting ready to train for another marathon even though I haven’t run my first one yet. How’s that for complexity?

10. There’s a fine line between faith and doubt. I always seem to walk that line teetering from one side to the other. I wish I didn’t, but I do.

11. In another life I’m a performer.

My third task is to respond to eleven questions from Bill:

1. Grande Soy Green Tea Frappuccino with Extra Whip or House Blend Black? I’ll have the black coffee, but I’m hoping you have enough sense to serve this.

2. If you were going to write a book, what would its title be? Shut Up And Keep Spinning the Plates (Honestly, I have no idea.)

3. Rate graphic novels on a scale of 1-10, with 1 representing “useless” and 10 representing “simply amazing.” 5. I’m kind of indifferent in this debate. I’ve never seen a graphic novel turn a reluctant reader into a passionate reader, but some people may find them useful so I don’t have a problem with them.

4. What member of your digital network has had the greatest impact on your professional growth?  I cannot differentiate between my digital and non-digital network any more. I just have a network and those relationships develop in many places. I cannot name just one person either. After all, one cannot quantify learning no matter how hard he might try. Having said that, I admit the folks that immediately came my mind are Michael & Melanie Semore, John Spencer, Bill FerriterHadley Ferguson, Alice Parker, and Jill Gough.

5. How do you feel about the holidays? Stressed.

6. Rate the following movies in order from best to worst:  Christmas Vacation, Miracle on 34th Street, A Christmas Story, How the Grinch Stole Christmas (animated version). Christmas Vacation, A Christmas Story, Miracle on 34th Street (the original), How the Grinch Stole Christmas (animated version)

7. What is the best gift that you’ve ever gotten? Romans 6:23

8. If you had an extra $100 to give away to charity, who would you give it to? HopeWorks would get the first $100. St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital would get the next $100.

9. What are you the proudest of? Debbie and I have been together for 9 years. We will celebrate our 9th wedding anniversary next June. I’m crazy about her and our family.

10. What was the worst trouble that you ever got into as a child? As a teenager, I told a whopper of a lie to my parents. It was a big deal and it was awful. I won’t share the details. I just won’t. It was a day I’ll never forget, but I wish I could. I did other things that were stupid and/or mischievous, but this one haunts me. Now let’s move on.

11. What was the last blog entry that you left a comment on?  What motivated you to leave a comment on that entry? I left a comment on Bill’s blog primarily because he called me out in it. Sometimes Justin Stortz’s posts resonate so deeply in me that I feel compelled to comment.

The fourth task is to create a list 11  bloggers that now have to answer eleven questions from me. Here’s my list:

  1. Stephen Davis
  2. Bob Dillon
  3. Hadley Ferguson
  4. Jill Gough
  5. Yoon Soo Lim
  6. Jennifer Orr
  7. Alice M. Parker
  8. Edna Sackson
  9. Chad Segersten
  10. Justin Stortz
  11. Wanda Terral

The fifth task is to create a list of eleven questions for the above folks to answer:

  1. If you could take a “dream” vacation, what would it be?
  2. Hollywood is casting a biopic about you. Who should be cast in the lead role?
  3. The director changed her mind and has decided to create a reality show about you instead. What should the title be?
  4. What’s your favorite book?
  5. We take a trip to Yolo, one of those fill-your-own-cup frozen yogurt shops. What all do you put in your cup?
  6. It’s a busy night at the karaoke bar. You’ve got one chance to blow away the crowd and leave your mark. What will you sing?
  7. Who or what inspires you most?
  8. What was your favorite class in college or graduate school?
  9. If you could snap your fingers and magically change one thing (only 1) about your job, what would it be?
  10. Name one important thing on your “bucket list.”
  11. What’s your favorite holiday tradition?

So tag–you guys are it.

Here’s how it works:

  1. Acknowledge the nominating blogger.
  2. Share 11 random facts about yourself.
  3. Answer the 11 questions the nominating blogger has created for you.
  4. List 11 bloggers.
  5. Post 11 questions for the bloggers you nominate to answer, and let all the bloggers know they have been nominated. Don’t nominate a blogger who has nominated you.

Post back here with a link after you write your response. Go ahead, you have homework.

I Lost It

365.042 - AAARRRGGGHHH!I lost it today. Well, not completely, but almost. We had a half day today. Winter Storm Helen threatened to dump freezing rain all over the mid-south, and with safety in mind, our school announced an early dismissal. Imagine my sixth grade boys’ excitement. They couldn’t wait to go home.

Unfortunately, the weather messed up my plans. There were several things I wanted my classes to accomplish, but I narrowed the to-do list and tried motivating the boys with a promise that completing the tasks would mean no homework. Most complied, and today, compliance was what I most wanted. (Ugh, I hate admitting that.) Then, two boys just wouldn’t focus. Perhaps, they couldn’t. They refused to get things done. They started messing with each other. When I corrected one, he argued back at me. When I moved the other, he snuck back and began picking at his partner in crime. Eventually, they riled each other enough to cause a small commotion in our room.

That’s when it happened. I lost it. My temper flared. I didn’t get physical or swear or say things I regret (such things may or may not have come to mind), but I snapped. I yelled. I threatened–manipulating with talk of calls home and referrals to the office. It was ugly. No, I was.

I’ve worked hard this year to build good relationships with my students, to make our learning meaningful, and to give them a voice. Yet, today, I managed to lose it all.

I’m praying that we’ll be back in school tomorrow, that the boys accept my apology, and that tomorrow I can begin to find it all again.

Today, We Played

We played together today.

My 6th graders and I are away on a two-day “Breakaway” trip to Victory Ranch about an hour and a half outside Memphis. It’s been a day full of character and team building activities. I’ve been able to spend some time getting to know the guys in my mentor group better, and we’ve had a great time facing some challenges and enjoying some friendly competition. We’ve also talked a lot about leadership and what it means to be a godly man, but perhaps my favorite part of the day Has been playing with my homeroom.

We spent a couple of hours this afternoon riding the zip line and playing on the water slide. I put on a harness and joined them. We ran. We swam. We ate sno cones. We wrestled in the pond as the boys tried, rather unsuccessfully, to dunk me. We received a reprimand from the lifeguard. We tried to catch a football while going down a four-story water slide. We did flips and barrel rolls. We took turns. We told stories. We laughed. We connected and bonded as a homeroom class.

Playing is learning. It’s important. We spend a significant amount of time thinking, learning, and problem-solving in school and it’s good, but so are the times when we play. Play allows for self-expression. It develops our creativity, imagination, and empathy. Play reduces anxiety and increases self-confidence. When we play, we learn to cooperate, share, and resolve conflict. We improve our concentration and learn to persist. We develop our ability to communicate. (Singer, Golinkoff, Hirsh-Pasek 2011)

We weren’t in class today. The desks sat empty. But don’t say we didn’t learn. Today, we played.

#MCHunter Day 2: First Day in Office

As regular readers of this blog know, I am taking a Master Class with John Hunter this week at The Martin Institute for Teaching Excellence. John is the creator of the World Peace Game and featured in the movie World Peace and Other Fourth Grade Achievements. One of the unique aspects about the Memphis class is that it there is a group of students who are playing the game each morning, and Master Class members have the opportunity to watch the game in action. Then we spend the afternoon debriefing and reflecting on our own practice with John and Jamie Baker.

Yesterday, the adult observers were encouraged to look for how to handle “unknowing,” team development, Mr. Hunter’s use of his strengths, and how learning happens. I attempted to keep these suggestions in mind as I watched the game unfold.

The game portion of today started with the students going over the day’s crisis report. The report identified the following 22 crises that Mr. Hunter has embedded into the game:

  • a border land dispute
  • an air defense scramble
  • a natural disaster
  • a rebel insurgency
  • religious tensions
  • endangered species
  • drone attacks
  • a territorial ownership dispute
  • an oil embargo
  • arms proliferation
  • a territorial waters dispute
  • a forced alliance
  • two separate global warming issues
  • ethnic cleansing
  • mercenary and rogue military actions
  • an oil spill
  • a toxic chemical spill
  • a Star Wars missile defense conflict
  • an undersea mining dispute
  • a sunken civilization artifact discovery
  • cyber-hacking
  • an ancestor burial dilemma
  • an oil well gusher blowout

How’s that for a to-do list on one’s first day in office? 🙂

I love the game’s complexity, and it was great to hear John’s philosophy on the need for complexity. Often, in teaching we divide the learning into smaller parts in order to make it simpler for the student to understand and master. As someone stated “we pre-chew their food.” The problem with this is that the world is incredibly complex and it’s rare that we are able to focus on just one individual task at a time. By designing the game with significant complexity, Hunter requires the kids to tackle multiple tasks at once and rely on their creativity as much as their analysis. He’s not teaching them to multi-task, but simulating the true complexity that already exists in the world.

As a group, we adults observed students responding in several different ways to this. Some seemed paralyzed by it all. Others were confused. Some slowed down and approached things carefully and methodically, and a few simply jumped in with their “to-do lists” and tried to accomplish something. It was an interesting dynamic. The room was full of activity and busyness, but I’m uncertain as to whether it was productive. I’m curious to see how the gameplay will develop.

Students approached their lack of knowing and understanding in different ways, and it wasn’t easy to know how they were doing without really knowing them personally. I think this really speaks to the need for strong relationships with students. I also noticed that John has a gift for one-on-one connections. He is very intentional about seeking out individuals to ask questions, offer encouragement, and make observations. He also has a way of expressing genuine interest in each individual. It’s quite remarkable.

During the afternoon our cohort debriefed with John and Jamie about what we saw in the game, and John shared with us some tools he uses with his students. (I’m working on a separate post about these.) then, we sat together and shared our responses to the “homework” questions. Teachers are extraordinary people. Listening to my peers share deeply about how they teach and why they do so was a beautiful experience, and I learned so much from them. And this morning, as I reflect on yesterday and this experience, I must confess I am extremely proud to be a teacher.