Tag Archives: Learning

A Few Words from Ms. Frizzle

Children from the 90s (and probably their parents) will likely recognise the line: “Take chances, make mistakes, get messy!”. A bit of internet research told me that The Magic School Bus changed significantly when it was remade in 2017, the twentieth anniversary of its cancellation, and now I feel utterly ancient.

But that line, “Take chances, make mistakes, get messy!”, brings the same smile to my face as it did when I watched the fabulous Ms. Frizzle, the red-haired elementary school science teacher with the wildest themed dresses, bring learning to life. In elementary school I was given the character of Ms. Frizzle for a school play and I could not have been more excited. I had a denim long-sleeved dress that I used to wear with tights (elementary school in the 90s, folks) and my mum pinned toy plastic fruits all over it to create a Ms. Frizzle look. An older student wrapped my hair in bright orange yarn that was a nightmare to remove. But Ms. Frizzle I was.

This came back to me earlier today when I was riding my bike to school. I was feeling extremely pleased with myself for replacing the tube in the rear tire with a tube I’d previously patched, a lifeskill that I had just performed independently for the first time. It might be embarrassing that I’ve only learned to do this at age 30 but I was just so tickled by it. It was a lovely sense of accomplishment and its impact on me led to more significant reflections on my role as an educator.

As a high school teacher, I’ve spent my career encouraging young people to try new things. At my current school, we have gone as far as making our Theory of Knowledge course pass/fail in order to encourage students to take academic risks without having to fear significant consequences. With this model, we can fully live our words: It’s okay to try something and it’s okay if it doesn’t go well because we can try something else next time.

In a broader context, it’s easy to talk about creating safe, supportive, inclusive educational environments. But it is essential (and much harder) to build them with honesty and intentionality. We can’t claim that it’s important to learn from mistakes, for instance, if we don’t allow students the chance to make them without repercussions.

Anyone who has ever learned anything has likely experienced a moment of doubt. Doing something new for the first time certainly has that potential and this can be confronting. Yet, we demand courage of young people far more frequently than we, the adults, are willing to accept for ourselves. And even when we expect the mistakes from young people, we are often not particularly forgiving when they occur.

The gravity of these thoughts are in sharp contrast to my experience in yesterday’s bike fixing endeavours, which ultimately extended to the brakes and the chain once I headed out for a test ride. It took multiple scrubs in the shower to get the grease off my hands, feet, legs, and arms (mhm true story) and I had to wash the freshly washed floor (I wish I were kidding) twice to get the black streaks off porous white tile. I giggled inwardly the whole time.

Imagine if more of our world could be like that.

We know that our early experiences socialize us to the world we live in and inform our understanding for a very long time. Some never learn to think beyond the black-and-white world of childhood, and others cast it all away without recognising its power or value. I think there’s a beautiful place to find in the middle when we have the opportunities to play in the sandbox with abandon, to make a mess knowing that putting it back together is feasible. Had I not been able to fix the bike, a few phone calls would have brought me to a friend’s house or to the uncle shop down the street. If I couldn’t scrub the floor to my satisfaction, they sell cleaning products for far bigger jobs than this.

And what this experience reminded me is that repairing and reconstructing is probably far more possible in most circumstances than we might think. A bit of courage and a lot of humility are appropriate here and this is all part of what it means to live fully. When the world seems too large to handle it not because it is, but because we have not put ourselves in a place where we’re willing to take the risks associated with trying to manage it.

“Take chances, make mistakes, get messy!” Ms. Frizzle taught. Worse comes to worst, we have to take the responsibility of cleaning up.

Amsterdam, Netherlands – April 2018

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On Strength

I first tried to climb the black route on lane one at the climbing gym some time ago. After weeks of alternately attempting and staring at the tricky holds in dismay, I climbed it. The next day, I tackled the purple route, the one with the big sloping handholds. I got higher than I ever have, fell, and then climbed one hold higher. While I had developed my strength since that first attempt, I have also become more deliberate and more precise. In climbing, as in much of our lives, this makes a difference.

Feeling stronger has me thinking about what strength means and where I have found it over time. As a friend once pointed out, I have written about human fragility and vulnerability but I have not focused nearly as much on strength and resilience. I think there are good reasons for this, but that was then. Now is a different time.


I would like to talk here about physical strength in the sense that it takes mental strength to grow physically stronger. I’m reading The Rock Warrior’s Way by Arno Ilgner right now and much of what I’m reading aligns beautifully with my experiences learning meditation. The mind has a remarkable influence on the body and, as Eastern philosophy suggests, there may not be any separation between the two. When I’m feeling happy and positive, the world looks prettier. So too, my body moves more easily. Conversely, when my shoulders are cramped from hunching over a desk and my mind is already in a rut because my shoulders are sore, my body responds unhappily when I ask it to move and my mind continues to complain.

But there is more to strength than the link between mind and body. There is, for example, the sensation of soaring when the two work in concert.

Strength is the feeling that whatever comes next is within my grasp. It is reachable. It is possible.

Strength is the feeling of trust in myself and courage in the face of difficult choices. Strength is the commitment to this thing right here right now rather than acquiescence, resignation, or tacit agreement.

Strength is the ability to challenge oneself and to ask, as I learned in a Coursera course during Singapore’s circuit breaker, “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?”. Listening to the answer to that question is far more frightening than asking it, but crucial to ask if we are to learn who we are and what we are capable of.


A long time ago, I knew a group of people who measured worth, achievement, and level of respect due someone based on their estimate of the person’s 5k run time. It didn’t matter if you were better than them in any other thing; you couldn’t run a 5k as well as they could. To these young men, speed was the form of strength.

I have been running for about ten years now and I, too, measured my running in terms of speed. A good day was a fast run and a bad day was characterised by a slow run, regardless of how much I might have enjoyed it. Taking time off running, whether for injury or travel or anything else, was sapping the physical strength that defined my understanding of how strong I was or could be. Slowing down, be it physically or mentally, was a sign of weakness, despite how much I might have needed it.

I am older now, older, wiser, and a bit more beaten around by the world than I was back then. I took seven weeks off of running and recently started again, very slowly. But I breathed the air, felt the heat from the sun, and experienced the expansiveness of my heart that comes from being along the water and moving my body in the company of strangers doing the same. Would I have noticed this in the way I did without the time off?

This ability to notice, and then to see, is a sign of strength. Otherwise, I am merely going through the motions without ever doing the hard work of asking why. And without noticing, I fail to take the opportunity to learn.

To be strong means to attempt, to err, and always aim to learn. We are in this life to grow and to leave the world a better place than we found it. Having the humility to recognise that others have things to teach us and that we do not know all is a form of strength.


Recent global events have tested my capacity to tolerate, to embrace, and to be flexible when confronted with things I disagree with, dislike, or wish were different. Personal experience has taught me that while it is important to know what I can and cannot tolerate, there is also a difference between cannot and will not. In many ways, this is a choice.

And I believe I am stronger for having learned that.

And I believe I am stronger for looking at those black and purple climbs and asking, “What if I?” instead of telling myself, “You can’t”.

“Life will break you. Nobody can protect you from that, and living alone won’t either, for solitude will also break you with its yearning. You have to love. You have to feel. It is the reason you are here on earth. You are here to risk your heart. You are here to be swallowed up. And when it happens that you are broken, or betrayed, or left, or hurt, or death brushes near, let yourself sit by an apple tree and listen to the apples falling all around you in heaps, wasting their sweetness. Tell yourself you tasted as many as you could.” -Louise Erdrich, The Painted Drum

Interlaken, Switzerland – December 2019

Four Things I Don’t Hate About Online Schooling

Let me paint a picture.

I am standing on my well-loved blue yoga mat at the kitchen counter with my laptop perched on three coffee table books – America: An Illustrated History, Exciting Singapore: A Visual Journey, and 1000 Events That Shaped the World. Another coffee table book, The History of the World: From Earliest Times to Present Day, remains on the coffee table. But here I am at my makeshift standing desk. Like most people reading this, I’m living in an online world right now and my online world is school.

Those familiar with my work know that I typically talk about education. I’ve written at length about what education means and how I understand it. Right now, however, I am deliberately talking about schooling. Merriam-Webster says that schooling is:

  • instruction in school
  • training, guidance, or discipline derived from experience

That’s what we’re doing right now. We’re giving students instruction, asking them to do something, guiding them along the way, and giving feedback at the end. In a learning environment that was set up with intention and not in an emergency, this would look very different. Anyone who has taken a self-paced online course can attest to this. However, I do want to be realistic about what we can and cannot do right now. Ergo, the use of the word “schooling”.

I do not like online school; I know precious few who do. But there are four things I don’t hate about it, four things that I might actually even like.

Starting at the same point

At my school, we are using Google Meet and Google Hangouts to communicate. Email is still there but it has become increasingly common for students to send a quick hangout chat rather than a formal email. Students reach out very casually in a chat and I am more than happy to reply in kind. Breaking down hierarchy in schools is long overdue. Many students find video easier and it has become my practice to ask students for their preference. We’ve all learned how to share our screens and we’ve all made mistakes while doing so. We’ve all had trouble accessing documents or navigating new platforms.

Teachers and students are more alike in our current learning environment than we traditionally have been. This is new for all of us and the novelty makes us all real, genuine people. We’re all in this together in a very literal sense; no one can claim to have been here before and therefore it’s true that some have a much better handle on things than others. Sometimes, it’s the teacher but often, it’s the students.

While being genuine is important in all teaching and learning, I think it’s especially significant in our current context. I’ve asked my students about how things are going academically and in their personal lives and I reply when they ask in return. Some are really struggling, and so am I, and so are my colleagues. Under normal circumstances, this is easy to hide. But because these things literally are our every day lives, there’s no pretending. There’s no claiming we know the answers because every day, it’s more and more obvious that there are no answers right now.

The informality of our current online schooling system allows me to be involved in my students lives at a time when, by their own admission, they need human connection. Students who don’t normally like to talk have asked to talk. Students who are often reluctant to ask questions have been asking questions. One of my students (finally!) referred to me by my first name in our Advisory group.

We really are all in this together.

Learning out of interest

I teach grades 11 and 12 students and the expectations of and for grade 12 students changed significantly with the cancellation of exams. The message I have tried to get across has remained consistent since this announcement rocked everything we’ve worked for. But like I told my students, though I admit it took a couple days to find the words, the point of learning is not to sit an exam at the end. The point of learning, the way learning works in real life, is to explore something we want to understand and perhaps to share it with others.

The cancellation of exams for graduating seniors gave us the opportunity to remember that and to put it into practice. While my students study a lot of psychology over two years in the course, there’s a lot we don’t study. My students are interested in topics and questions far beyond the realm of the course and this gave us an opportunity to explore. They chose a question to investigate with the goal of sharing what they had learned with their peers. Many put together presentations, some recorded videos, and others created infographics. As part of their research, students wrote an annotated bibliography, many learning this highly practical (in the academic sphere) skill for the first time.

Most importantly, they enjoyed themselves. I conferenced with each student as they worked and they were excited about what they were doing and how they were doing it. There has been little time in the last two years when they’ve been able to learn something just for fun and just because they were interested in it. I’m glad that our current situation allowed them time to do so.

New ways to give feedback

I have never enjoyed collecting written work online because I find it very difficult to provide feedback that way. My students are used to their written work coming back covered in comments, circles (areas to fix), and underlines (well done, this is a key idea in what you’re saying). Each new cohort of students tends to find it initially alarming, which suggests that many of their teachers don’t mark up their work. But I do, and I’ve never been one for online submissions as a result.

However, that’s the only option we have now. Of course, not all tasks require extended written responses but I recently collected one that did. Instead of using the comments function on Google or the review function on Word to give feedback, I recorded it. I read through each student’s document and then ran through a screen recording. As I would when working individually with a student, I walked through each section of what they’d written and I talked, indicating certain parts of the text with the mouse or scrolling back and forth between other parts. I concluded each recording letting them know where they were on a scale of low-middle-high and summarising no more than three tips to move up. The recordings lasted between two and three and a half minutes.

I’ve never done this before and I put out a survey asking whether students liked getting feedback this way. Except for the one who replied “neutral”, all students said that they did and gave a very clear reason why. They said that it would be easier to look back, was easier to understand, and that they appreciated being walked through each part. Wow. Well then.

This is a time when we are trying to figure out what works for our students, who are going through something none of us adults can understand. It is really important that my students and I have settled on something that works for them. My responsibility now is to listen and to continue working together to make the best out of the system that we have.

Not chasing grades

There are many ways to find out what a student knows and understands. In a normal classroom, we find this out every time a student speaks or asks a question. Teachers gauge understanding as we watch who pairs up for activities, how long the activities take, and the resources students use without prompting. Ongoing informal assessment is not possible in an online schooling situation the way it would be (which is to say constantly) in a regular classroom. It is not fair to students to pretend that it is.

Additionally, formal assessment in a classroom is completely different than formal assessment online. For one thing, it is controlled in terms of time, materials available, and peer (or teacher) involvement. Formal assessment need not come in such a standard form but it often does. Again, online learning has thrown this on its head.

With my own students, I’ve provided options. In the above example of a written task, we actually generated a list as a class of all the possible ways students could think of to demonstrate understanding of a prompt. Not everyone wrote an outline or essay. Additionally, I’ve minimised grade bands. Rather than giving students a mark out of 22 and then converting it to the IB 1-7 grade bands, we talked about low-middle-high and variation within that.

Low-stakes assessments still tell me what my students know and therefore what we need to work on. From the students’ perspective, they don’t have the stress of thinking about a grade at the end. Hopefully it will also make it easier to talk about improvement without a number hanging in the background.

Conclusion

Like everyone else, I am eagerly awaiting the day I can welcome students back to school. I miss the conversations, the connections, and the general atmosphere of classrooms and hallways. Immersion in a dynamic and vibrant space is, after all, what I love about being a teacher. Standing in tree pose on my yoga mat doesn’t quite match up.

But I know that it’s important to find silver linings. I know that there is some learning to be had in every experience and in that sense, this one is not unique. I do not like online schooling but it’s not about liking or disliking right now. Instead, it’s about taking the emergency situation we are in and doing with it the best that we can. I have landed on four things that are actually going okay and four is more than I would have thought when this began mere weeks ago.

And, as always, there will be more to learn and try and implement along the way. It is my hope that the lessons we learn at this time are not forgotten but instead are taken to heart and into practice when times change yet again.

Any genuine teaching will result, if successful, in someone’s knowing how to bring about a better condition of things than existed earlier. – John Dewey