I Want to Tell You a Little Secret…

Yesterday, a student taught my class.  From start to finish, this student handled the class (well, aside from the administrative tasks of attendance, etc).  And the secret?  It’s not that a student(s) taught my class.  (I’ve had students do that many times.)  It’s actually the fact that I’ve been waiting for this.

The lesson was based on the Touchstones Discussion Project I’ve used for almost 20 years. But instead of me leading the discussion, I stepped aside, way aside.  You see, I’m in “20 Time” mode and the students in my 10th-grade Gifted English classes are involved in pursuing their own interests and developing real-world solutions to problems or innovations they’ve identified.

Touchstones Logo

One of my students, Aidan, is interested in dialogic learning, in particular, The Touchstones Discussion Project.  After a brief but fruitful discussion with Stefanie, Executive Director at Touchstones, Aidan engaged his fellow classmates in a discussion about sensory perception and human consciousness.  Aidan’s goal in his project is to improve the Touchstones experience for students and teachers, as well as to develop blog posts and videos on how students can better engage in and benefit from the project.

As I noted, I have a deep history with the project.  I will make no claims, however, to expertise.  I have ideas, I have experience, but as with any work where human beings and their interactions are the focus, what works this year may be entirely different from what worked last year.

So Aidan’s project has me interested on two levels.  First, I’m interested to see what insight and criticisms he can bring to bear on his classmates as well as what he’ll discover about the act of moderating a discussion.  But second, I’ll be listening intently for the insights he’ll offer to me and to my own moderation of these discussions.  For, regardless of the number of meta-discussions we do as a class, students can’t get past my status as the teacher.  Such power dynamics are almost impossible to escape, even in a once-a-week project like Touchstones.  Aidan’s insights and frank observations will offer me a perspective I’m currently lacking.

IMG_1308In the best of world’s, Aidan’s insights and frank observations will offer me a perspective I’m currently lacking.  Twenty years of work with the same project, even if the texts for the project have changed…twenty years of work in any field can yield complacency.  Especially during the past three years where I’ve worked with only gifted students I’ve felt myself drifting off, even–especially!–when the discussions are good.  There’s a difference between “hands off” in order to facilitate student ownership and learning, and “hands off” because I have become lazy and stale.

I’m not sure where I am, exactly, on this spectrum, but I suspect Aidan’s project will assist me in finding out, and helping me to improve as I continue to lead Touchstones discussions in school and elsewhere.  And I’m sure that Aidan’s project will help all my students learn more, do more, and be more.

What if…We Didn’t “School” Kids This Way?

I’ve been looking at the man in the mirror for a long time now, and truly, from a professional point of view, I have no idea who’s looking back at me.  I used to say I was a teacher, but I don’t know.  I never had the self-image of “the teacher.”  Standing in front of the classroom, lecturing, pontificating…puffing up my chest intellectually in front of those who were, obviously, gathering the pearls of wisdom that dropped from my lips?  None of that suited me.

I cut my educational teeth on Postman, Gatto, Gatto (again), Kohn, William Glasser…on readings deep and wide in the field of creativity–Michael Gelb, Roger von Oech, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Paul Torrance, Synectics, Michael Michalko, Tony Buzan, et al.

I grew up with computers, had my hands on the first Apple IIe in our districtapple2-100009966-orig

I bought an Atari 600xl  wAtari-600XL-PCith money from cutting lawns and taught myself Basic programming.



And while I chastise my children for all their screentime, I spent full afternoons in a dark basement, this cheap computer hooked up to an old Magnavox console TV, typing programs in binary code from Gaming magazines, saving them to a cassette tape drive, and cursing when one or two of the numbers were transposed and we had to go back and reread all the code…just so a simple precursor to a game like Slither.io would appear in chunky, blurry graphics on the screen.

What I was doing then, as now, as always, was teaching myself.  And even though I can’t point to the teachers who led me to understand I ought to do that, there were a few.

So I’m not the teacher you might think of when you think back on your own experiences.  My classroom is ever more student-centered, inquiry-driven, and a place of where freedom to learn rules the day.  But none of that comes freely.  There’s not one day where I don’t go home and second-guess myself, not one day when I’m not banging my head against the wall thinking about how much easier it would be if I just had straight-out lessons, with common activities, and single right answers to grade.  Of course, that’s my own problem, a personality disorder perhaps.  I know what feels right, but I also know what the system says, what the data says, what the powers say needs to be done.

And then Carol Black goes and writes something like this:  A Thousand Rivers.  I’m not going to lie.  It’s a long read.  But Carol Black does something unusual in her analysis of schooling and discussion of unschooling.  She goes outside the cultural paradigm of “Western Educated Industrialized Rich Democratic” (WEIRD) nations and looks at how the other 90% educate their children.  This multicultural perspective challenges the data culled by WEIRD Social-Scientists–No offense to psychologists, sociologists, economists and other in the soft-sciences… it’s just, you know, you can’t help it…you’re WEIRD people who ask questions from WEIRD perspectives, about WEIRD people, in WEIRD institutions.  You get it.

Look, I’ve pretty high standards for most of what I read, and I’m telling you that in terms of its focus on education, Ms. Black’s post is beautiful and brilliant.  It’s long, but it’s just a wonderful application of the kind of ethos I ask my own students to engage in, which is to ask two main questions about their world and the systems they are part of:  “Why are things the way they are? and How can we make them better?”

Ms. Black’s inquiry into answering the first question is deep, somewhat biased, but deep and, as I noted above, culturally broad.  Her suggestions for answers to the second question are rather rogue and brash–“just let them go” might be a good summary, and certainly in line with what Unschooling suggests.  But I cannot deny the appeal and the results of this kind of “guided freedom.”  In my own and thousands of other classrooms teachers and learners of all types are allowing students to explore their passions and follow their genius in projects like “genius hour” or “20 Time Projects”  While this is not “Unschooling” it is certainly something that flies in the face of what students and many adults expect “school” should be.


I have a child who is labeled ADHD, and he fits the descriptions given by Ms. Black to a “T.” Not only that, his experience in school has been one where he is the focus of almost universal “hospital” or “deficit” perspectives.  That is, he is looked at as a child to be “cured” or “fixed.” So I know of what she speaks, and I know this child, like so many I’ve taught, like so many I grew up with, could be much better served in a system that worked differently.

The name of this blog was originally “Big Styrofoam Things: It All Matters” because it all does matter, everything we do, every person, every action…it all matters.  Nothing is disposable in and of itself, everything we make is made with intention, and every human being acts from intention, whether conscious or not.  When we ignore or never even try to understand intention, or when we allow systemic intentions to go unquestioned or to become so buried in bureaucracy as to “disappear,” we reject the very humanity those systems are created to serve. 

I strive to buck that system in my classroom and district at every turn, and truthfully, I’ve never been wrong, because my actions were always undertaken with an understanding of my users, with empathy for them and an understanding of what they needed.  Such a human-centered design process is not beyond the means of our system, indeed, numerous schools are following such a process to great success.  (Check out the Mount Vernon Presbyterian School, Design 39, High Tech High, Science Leadership Academy, Design-Lab Delaware, Quest to Learn, to name a few.)