What are the responsibilities of a teacher?

I had the privilege during my travels in the States last month to visit a democratic free school (based on the Sudbury model) and a homeschool resource centre. I graduate from a different democratic free school seven years ago (🙀), and I found myself drawing a lot of parallels but noting a few key distinctions.

In both communities, the spaces are clearly student-centred, with couches and large community tables in place of rows of desks. Students have access to shelves and shelves of all different genres of books, musical instruments, computers, art supplies, and other resources. There is a School Meeting once per week in which the community votes on key issues of importance to the community. There is a small Judicial Committee composed of youth and staff that handles small issues that concern just one or a few members of the community.

At this particular democratic free school, to graduate, students must write a thesis demonstrating their readiness to leave the support of the free school community and enter the adult world. One of the staff members pointed out that he would never have been able to do that when he was a senior graduating from high school. It does seem to be a more authentic way of demonstrating one’s readiness to move on to the next stage of life than a bunch of letter or number grades given to you by an authority figure that are supposed to tell you about what facts you have memorised.

Some key differences between these models of education and compulsory schooling: facts (which can be and often are easily forgotten) vs. skills (which will serve us for life), and what to think vs. how to think.

Since August, I have been teaching New Entrants (five-year-olds) in a wonderful, student-centred, progressive school. I adore my colleagues and administration and am fortunate to have a lot of liberty in how my classroom runs. Our syndicate is embracing play-based learning, and there has been a marked shift to supporting skill-building and tamariki (children)’s own inquiry process. I have been trying to work out how much of my unschooling and free school background I can bring into my classroom while still working within a conventional school environment. So that brought me to re-examining what my role is. What is my responsibility as an adult in the classroom?

There is clearly:

Do no harm.

Nurture my children’s natural curiosity.

Facilitate opportunities for deeper inquiry.

Facilitate development of strong social-emotional skills so that tamariki grow up able to articulate their own emotions and successfully navigate conflict with others.

Nurture an environment in which each child feels welcome and supported and sees their culture and identities represented.

What more would you add to this list? What are the concrete actions we are/should be taking to fulfill these responsibilities every day?

Advertisements

“The back of the world”

Hobo-Dyer Equal Area - Two-sided: North-up Africa-centered/South-up Australia-centered
Hober-Dyer South Up

The other day we were talking about geography, and one of my young students asked casually, “The poor countries are on the back of the world, right?” Wow. Ouch. “It can seem that way, huh?” I said after collecting myself. “Because we often see more wealthy countries highlighted on the map. But check it out.” I spun my globe beach ball that I had brought in from home. “The earth is a sphere, so there actually is no back, front, top or bottom.” We talked about north, south, east, west, the equator, and hemispheres. I try to use the globe for accuracy whenever possible and avoid the terms “above” or “below” when referring to locations, but doing geography with my kids has brought my attention to how difficult it is not to let those phrases crop into my daily speech.

The Mercator Map I grew up with privileges the Northern Hemisphere and particularly North America and Europe, front and centre. It certainly has its place, but since most people today use world maps not for direct navigation purposes but for global awareness and understanding relationships between countries, I find it curious that the Mercator has remained so overwhelmingly dominant in classrooms and homes. The Oxford Cartographers write that “Maps not only represent the world, they shape the way we see it.” They go on to say:

 

Five thousand years of human history have brought us to the threshold of a new age. It is an age typified by science and technology, by the end of colonial domination, and by a growing awareness of the interdependence of all nations and all peoples. Such a moment in history demands that we look critically at our view of the world as portrayed by the World Map. Surprisingly, to a significant degree this view is based on the work of cartographers from an age when Europe dominated and exploited the world.

Traditional map projections, of which the Mercator is one example, have tended to show countries incorrectly in proportion to one another, exaggerating the size of high latitude countries such as Canada and making tropical regions such as Africa appear much too small.

Read more at http://www.oxfordcartographers.com/our-maps/peters-projection-map/.

Hobo-Dyer Equal Area

I also love the Hobo-Dyer equal area and “South Up” maps available at ODT Maps. ODT has published a great little article with some history of different map orientations and projections and a discussion of some of the limitations of flat paper maps, particularly if we are familiar with only one type.

 

“Up” is over our heads, and when we mix “up” with “top” and “north” we do ourselves a disservice. We confuse all the other things we associate with “up” and “top” (like “good” and “heaven”) with north; and all the things we associate with “down” and “bottom” (like bad and hell) with south. So Australia is “down under” (under what?) and Antarctica is “the bottom of the world.” Antarctica doesn’t even show up on this “What’s Up? South!” map of the world. Some world! But then … it’s hard to show the whole planet — which is after all a three-dimensioned sphere — on a two-dimensioned piece of paper. Along with that extra dimension a lot of other things have to go. A map can show one or more — but not all — of the following: directions the way they are on the globe, distances the way they are on the globe, areas the way they are on the globe, or shapes the way they are on the globe. When maps show things the way they are on the globe it’s common to say they’re true, as in; “This map shows true directions.” But the language of “true” and “false,” like that of “top” and “bottom,” carries so much extra baggage it’s not much use. It’s more useful to be familiar with many different kinds of maps, each with its own slant. It’s like getting to know a poem in a language you don’t understand. Each new translation reveals a facet the other translations ignored. The more translations you read, the surer your “triangulation” on the poem you’re trying to get to know. The best way to understand our world is to view it through as many lenses as possible, to see it from as many vantage points as we can.

(…)  Each projection translates the globe from its own unique perspective . The equal-area Peters is often contrasted to the constant compass-bearing Mercator because they are so glaringly different. At ODT, Inc. we appreciate this contrast because it shocks viewers into questioning their assumptions about maps in particular and life in general. It helps people to “think outside the box” by exploring how what they see is predicated on what they expect to see. The “What’s Up? South!” map is similarly shocking though in another way. The continents are actually shaped much like they are on a Mercator but look unfamiliar because we’re not used to orienting our maps to the south. But sometimes all we need to do to solve our problems is turn them upside down.

 

Why are all sorts of different kinds of maps not more widely accessible and seen today? Think about your own upbringing: Where did you grow up, and and how did you see your country represented in literature and the media? How did this impact your identity and ideas about your country’s place in the world?

Lesson Plan: “Where I’m From”

Last week, I had the privilege of introducing an origin/identity poem discussion and writing exercise to my fourth graders. In this lesson, students study and discuss George Ella Lyon’s “Where I’m From,” and they write their own poems inspired by Lyon’s work. Lyon is the poet laureate of Kentucky, currently working on a project to collect poems from every county in the state. My lesson plan for this study is posted below. If you do a similar activity with your students, please post your experiences in the comments!

Wherever you are in the world, you and your students can use her form to explore how memories shape identity. Encourage your students to use vivid sensory details from sights, smells, sounds, sensations, and tastes that resonate with them deeply. The stronger and more important each image is to you, the stronger and more meaningful it will be for the reader.

Continue reading

Integrity in Teaching

This is a response to the article “Integrity in Teaching: Recognizing the Fusion of the Moral and Intellectual,” by Deborah Ball and Suzanne M. Wilson (1996). Since the article discusses student-directed and inquiry-based learning, I thought it was an appropriate thing to share with readers of this Philosophy for Children blog. Happy reading and please join the discussion in the comments!

****

Teaching: “Knowledge endeavor” or “moral enterprise?” There is a tension in the academic community between those who say teaching is about transmitting content and those who approach teaching as primarily about engaging with students’ wellbeing. Ball and Wilson use two examples from their third grade classes to illustrate the point that these two ideas are inseparable.

Wilson begins by giving an account of a unit she spent discussing government with her third graders. A discussion of the history of how Lansing (their home city) became the capital of Michigan yields a number of misconceptions – some vocabulary confusions, some geographical, some about the nature of government. Instead of slamming down the discussion by correcting her third graders’ misconceptions right away, Wilson engages her students in further discourse, encourages them to respond to one another, and learns a great deal more about their thinking and understanding.

Wilson continues with an example of a fascinating third grade math lesson. She works hard to foster student-directed learning in her classroom, and encourages students to come to solutions and new knowledge through inquiry, active experimentation, and debate. During the episode she relates for this essay, her students are trying to figure out how to compare the sizes of different fractions. A portion of the class comes to the conclusion that five fifths is more than four fourths because there are more pieces. Wilson is befuddled but ends the lesson at a loss of what to do.  “Having worked hard to create a classroom culture in which mathematical ideas were established with evidence and argument,” she writes, “I found that many students were no longer so influenced by my views” (169-170). With five minutes left before recess, she asked students to journal about their thinking: “I was humbled to see that, even when I do choose to tell students something, there are no guarantees, and I remembered that this was one of the things that spurred me to make my classroom more centered on the children’s thinking in the first place” (171). While I grew up with and nearly always promote student-directed learning, one thing I noticed that makes Ball and Wilson’s techniques unique is that the content of their teaching is quite purposefully teacher-directed, but the process and method of the learning is student-led. This is a new model of shared responsibility for student learning.

The writers go on to discuss the potential challenges to their inquiry-based methods of teaching. More traditional modes of teaching might yield the correct answers more often, but their experience has shown that students can often give the “correct answer” without actually having the underlying understanding. For instance, it is common for students taught mathematics traditionally to understand the correct answer in one situation but not another – e.g. representing six pieces coming together to represent one whole using manipulatives, but still insisting that a sixth plus a sixth equals a twelfth when using just numbers alone without the manipulatives (presumably adding across the top and adding across the bottom). Instead of providing examples (e.g. same size pizzas getting cut into different numbers of pieces), Wilson chose to encourage students to come up with their own examples. These examples did not provide the correct answer right away, but they demonstrated students’ thinking in a way that working with only teacher-provided examples would not.

We also must consider that many subjects will arise in the conversation that the teacher did not intend to bring up. Some may engender discomfort, and some students will be more or less uncomfortable depending on their experiences. When some of her students made derogatory remarks about welfare, and Ball had no lived experience with the subject, luckily some of her students were able to advocate for themselves. But what about the students who remained silent? When discussing serious and sensitive topics, is there a point at which the teacher has a responsibility to step in and steer the discussion? And if so, at what point and how is this to be done without squashing student creativity and self-advocacy?

A central theme of this essay is how to approach every topic with intellectual honesty. Bruner (1960) claims that any subject can be taught honestly in some way to any student at any developmental level. Being intellectually honest means both taking the subject matter very seriously and taking each student and their individual thinking seriously. What does this mean when a student’s entire framework of understanding is at odds with conventional wisdom? Even once Wilson’s students understood that a cookie was the same size no matter how many pieces you split it into way, five fifths was considered more because you could share the whole thing with more friends. In a poetic way, one could argue they have a point. But according to the conventions of mathematics, they are wrong. How does an educator honour the poetic truth in the student’s understanding of a situation while explaining the mathematical flaw?

Ball notes how happy she was to see four young girls in her classroom, three who were students of colour, debating mathematical proofs – a domain too long dominated by white men. However, she worries that in her quest to respect her students’ critical thinking and learning process, she let her students leave third grade without the skills to defend themselves against the erroneous notion that women have lagging mathematical skills. Providing our students with only one or two conventional perspectives on a mathematical idea or historical event robs them of the nonstandard but valuable insight that they can achieve for themselves: “History would be something others do, not them” (186). However, as educators we have the responsibility to “represent the subject matter in ways that are honest and true” (178). If we leave our students believing that five fifths is more than four fourths or worse, have we failed them? Worse, if we teach social studies and do not ensure that our students see people like themselves represented in government positions and historical turning points, do we leave our students believing that they do not have the opportunity to be moral agents in the shaping of their world?

Activity: What Makes Us People?

Elephant_painting_thailand
An elephant painting

This is an activity to introduce thinking about essential and accidental properties of human beings, and what may or may not be important differences among people and between people and other animals.

  1. Get a large sheet of paper to hang on the wall (the giant Post-It stickies work well), or use a white board. (I prefer the giant stickies so they can be posted around the classroom afterwards and stay there to stimulate further musing.)
  2. Have the group generate ideas. Let children call out, or if you have a shyer group, go around the circle so everyone gets a turn.
  3. You may get things like “two eyes,” “can speak,” “can think,” etc., or you may get wildly different responses. Be prepared for anything and do not judge! Write everything down that the children suggest.
  4. After everyone has had a chance to speak, go back to your word cloud and ask of each one: Is this true about all people? And/or are there other animals of which this is true?

In the beginning, it may seem easy to come up with a list of traits that describe a human being, but in the end, it may be more difficult than expected to categorize what is true of all humans and only humans! After this activity, the group may like to continue with a discussion on perspectives and/or animal ethics using one of the poems above.

Activity: Perspective Shift

Have everyone read a poem written about a nonhuman animal, Richard Jarrette’s “Beso the Donkey,” for example. Consider having each person in the circle read a couple of lines, or invite a student who hasn’t had the opportunity to speak in a while read the poem aloud. This is also a nice way to include students who are shyer about sharing their ideas, and help them get used to participating in the circle in a gentle way.

  1. Split into pairs or split off individually and rewrite the poem from the individual’s point of view (e.g. with “Beso the Donkey,” instead of writing from the perspective of Beso’s observer, write as Beso himself.)
  2. Come back to the circle to share your new poems and discuss why you made the choices you did. How did you choose what to include and what to leave out? What do we learn about the subject of your poem that we do not learn from reading the original poem? Is there anything that we can learn by reading about him or her in the third person that we don’t get from your first-person poem? Why is this?
  3. Read the original poem again (if just one person read the first time, have someone else read this time), and move into a Community of Inquiry around the poem with your new deeper appreciation for what the poem is doing.

*Alternative: It could be just as fruitful to begin with the Community of Inquiry and then split off to write poems. If you write and share first, the CoI will likely be more fruitful. If you discuss first, the poems may likely be more insightful/deeper. It’s up to you as a facilitator. Try out the activity with two different poems two different ways, and see which yields the most philosophically interesting results.

Metaphysics Activities

“It isn’t really Anywhere!”

This is a companion activity to go along with the philosophical discussion that a community could have around the poem “Halfway Down,” by A. A. Milne. I’ve written up beginning discussion questions at Metaphysics Poems.

  1. Read “Halfway Down” by A. A. Milne.
  2. Do you have a special place where you do your best thinking? What makes it so special to you? Make a list of what is and is not there and what you do there.
  3. Using your list, draw a picture of your special place.
    1. –> **Alternative to #3 for students with extra time and some writing skills of their own: Go spend some time in your special place and do a freewrite. Put your pencil to paper and try to just write and write without letting the pencil stop moving for ten or fifteen minutes. What questions come to your mind in/about this special place? What do you hear/see/smell/taste/feel?
  4. Bring back to the circle to share the image/writing of your special place. Explain what is there and what makes it so special. What colours and images did you use? How did you make those decisions? Do your images represent something else? Can you explain what they mean, particularly if your images are not literal representations? How does this place help you think? Does you usually go there alone or with other people? Why?
    1. Have a “scribe” (another student or a teacher) jot down these ideas, or take notes for yourself if you prefer and are able.
  5. Finally, put these ideas into a poem of your own, inspired by “Halfway Down” and your own special place.

Stir Up A Character Poem!

This activity is meant to stimulate discussion on identity formation and essential vs. accidental properties of a species or individual, as well as give students practice writing a revising character poems. A set of essential properties tells us what it means to be that thing or being. The properties of being “male” and “unmarried” are essential properties of a bachelor. All bachelors are male an unmarried, and if someone is not male or unmarried, they are not a bachelor. In contrast, an accidental property is something that just happens to be true about an individual, but is not necessary. I have brown hair. But sometimes I dye it black, blue, or purple. Since “brown hair” is something that just happens to be true, it is an accidental property of myself. When my hair colour is different, I still identify as the same person. I am still Madeleine. But if I imagine myself with completely different body parts or with different parents, I may or may not feel differently.

  1. Begin with “Stir Up A Character Analysis Recipe” at Education World.
  2. Write a poem about a) yourself, b) someone you know, c) a famous person, or d) a character you’ve made up. Incorporate a collection of qualities that make up this individual. This may include physical characteristics, personality traits, things the person is interested in or has done, and more. Incorporate a variety of different types of pieces of information about the person.
  3. Come back to the group and discuss why each property is necessary.
    1. Could you still be human without two eyes, a nose, and a mouth? Why or why not?
    2. Which of the things mentioned in your poem could change and allow you to still be writing about the same person? Which things would have to stay the same? Can you explain why?
    3. A large part of writing good poetry is learning what must be said in a poem versus what can be implied, what the reader might understand without being explicitly told. Is there anything that your poem tells the reader about your character that could be shown in a different way, or something that is actually just not as important as it seemed during the first draft? Think about this for revisions.
    4. Are choices you make essential to your identity? This will probably be different for different people. For example, I am a vegan, and I feel that that is essential to my identity. There may be some vegans, however, who can imagine themselves as the same person if they were to start eating animals. How do you decide if something if part of who you are or just something about your experience, that could be otherwise?