Tag Archives: Reflection

Looking Forward

The grade 12 students at my school had their last required day of classes last week. Historically, this week would have been their reading week, their time to revise for exams in whatever ways best suited them.

In the present world, however, this week is different.

And we all know this. We also know by now that there is little purpose in dwelling on what might have been or could have been or should be. We know, as a guided meditation reminded me this morning, “This is the way things are right now”.

With this awareness, I have tried to uphold what I have always done when the time comes to say goodbye to my grade 12 students. In lieu of speaking with them in class, I recorded a video in which I told them what I wanted them to know. In the email with the video link, I added that there might be a blog post to follow.

Here is that blog post to follow.


The dates on the faded newspaper clippings tell me that I started my scrapbook when I was 13. In truth, that scrapbook was more of a phase than anything else. Its activity waxed and waned at various points but keeping it up was by no means a practice. The scrapbook probably looks like many scrapbooks by teenage girls: There are articles or comic strips pasted on pages decorated with stickers, attempts at calligraphy, and my commentary in the margins. There are pages of quotes culled from magazines and newspapers, as well as a page cut out of cardboard that may have come from the back of a cereal box. The middle of the scrapbook is devoted to quotes that I remember typing on my dad’s computer, each with a different font. I grouped them by category and wrote a few words of advice to myself on each page.

The change in my handwriting (unfortunately very little of this scrapbook is dated) indicates that time passed. What did not change through the years, however, is what mattered to me and how I understood the world. The comments in the margins of articles still make sense and the comic strips still make me smile. The quotations continue to move me in some way, though I have a more recent list elsewhere.

There is a quote by John Holt on a page that I titled “Character”. It’s typed in a font that I haven’t used in years and the smiley-faced stick figure at the bottom of the page suggests middle school. I just looked up John Holt for the first time and I think it fits.

The true test of character is not how much we know how to do, but how we behave when we don’t know what to do. – John Holt

As we learn to walk in the world, there are times when we know what is expected of us. There are times when we know who we are and where we are. We are confident and comfortable when we feel safe and at home and among friends.

Now, this confidence is not always a good thing. It might stop us from seeing another perspective or asking a challenging question. It might prevent a difficult conversation that could lead to a better understanding of who we are and the world around us.

Holt suggests that character, the way we are made, is best seen in the situations that make us pause. These situations might be uncomfortable or scary, or perhaps just new. We might be facing an unknown time in our lives or a person who is unfamiliar to us. This is when we do not know how to behave. And this is when we see not only who we are, but who others are, as well.

My grade 12 students are about to walk into a new and unfamiliar world full of new and unfamiliar people. This is true for students pursuing higher education, taking a gap year, going to work, or joining the military. This is true for all of us who step outside of what we know and welcome what we do not know. And this is true for everyone right now in this world that we could not have imagined.

This is a good opportunity to watch ourselves closely, carefully, and critically and learn who we are. It is a good opportunity to better understand those around us. Significantly, this is a time where we can look closely, carefully, and critically at the world around us and ask the questions that we might not have asked before when we allowed systems to flow unquestioned.

And once we have watched ourselves, once we understand how to act in the different environments that life presents and around the people we encounter and engage with, we can make a choice. We can choose to remain unchanged by what we see and to continue doing what we have always done. This is easy. This is what we know how to do.

Or we can do the difficult thing, the unknown thing. We can do the hard thing, the right thing, the good thing. We can look at ourselves, the people we know, and the world around us. And as we look, we can make choices about how to act, who to be with, and how to create the world we want to live in.

It is never too late to be what you might have been. – George Eliot

Interlaken, Switzerland – January 2020

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

In transition

It’s interesting to watch the mind shift and change, ebb and flow. It’s interesting to experience from the inside, noting the sensations and thoughts at hand, while also experiencing from the outside. That is, watching the self have the experience.

This is what I was doing yesterday when trying to come to terms with what I will call “the dark streak”.

Ever since I can remember, I have always had a streak of dark thoughts. These are the not-so-pleasant ideas that I know are there and every now and then under times of self-doubt, uncertainty, or stress, make their presence known. The dark streak, which I have previously also called the “demons“, is common enough that I am not especially bothered by it anymore. Rather, I am curious.

After yesterday’s encounter with the dark streak that annoyed me because I really hadn’t planned on it being there, I sat down to deliberately make observations. This is what I noticed:

  • The dark streak is likely to rear its head when I experience a sense of isolation. It goes away with a tangible reminder that I am actually not as alone as I might have thought.
  • The dark streak is imaginative rather than destructive. It likes to ponder a range of possibilities and actually gives me a lot to think about when I follow it.
  • The physical sensations that I experience at these times are more closely linked to the part of my brain that is observing the experience. The dark streak might be running hot but my body and mind remain calm and cool if I am watching the dark streak rather than running with it.
  • While the dark streak can paint a vivid image that stays with me, there is a difference between experiencing the image from inside and watching myself experience the image from outside. The latter perspective is that of the observer that I mentioned above.

I don’t ask why this happens – I’ve had help figuring that out. Instead, I can simply ask whether this is normal. But with that question on the tip of my tongue, I can also think of the idiosyncrasies that people have pointed out over time and all I can do in response is shrug. Put all the weird things together and that’s what makes us individuals, right?

There’s a dark streak in me and that’s okay. It’s hardly surprising that we’d become acquainted again.

Society has been experiencing a dramatic transition in the last weeks and months, and this will continue for the weeks and months to come. There will be economic and political effects felt for years, and perhaps a reckoning of social structures that have gone unquestioned for far too long. With transitions come the opportunity to change, reinvent, renew, and restore. Transitions allow us to look around, to ask questions, and to take the time (after all, we are not so busy any more) to do the hard work of figuring out who we are and who we want to be.

I will not romanticise here and claim that I am grateful for this time. (Rest assured, I was crushed when Singapore announced on Friday that we’d be joining the ranks of the rest of the world with school closings and movement restrictions.) But, as I have said for a long time, we need to take much more time to think and much more time to understand ourselves and one another. We have this time. Use it wisely.