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.
If you like what you read, you might also like these related posts:
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.
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
Title inspired by Love in the Time of Cholera, which I’m thinking about reading when I’m done with the two books I’m in the middle of right now.
Where We Are Now
We’re in a different situation in Singapore than in much of the world. People are still going to work and we have not closed school. This is a neat graphic from UNESCO showing the spread of school closures globally and the number of students in different levels who are affected. Interestingly, Singapore is not on this map and I don’t know whether that’s because we’re still in school or because they forgot about us. As informative as it is, it also serves as a reminder that even reputable sources are not flawless.
We have not closed school in Singapore because the government has been down this road before. The requirements for travel declarations and the restrictions on movement, behaviour, and gathering began much earlier here than in Europe and much, much earlier than in North America. The first email from our deputy superintendent referring to “novel coronavirus pneumonia” was sent January 23. That was when the government first required travel declaration forms from everyone involved in an educational institution. On January 28, the day we returned from the Chinese New Year holiday, schools started taking everyone’s temperature on the way into the building. This has since been implemented at the community centre that houses my climbing gym (and I’m sure this isn’t the only one) and is part of the regimen in hospitals, movie theatres, malls, and recently some restaurants. On February 11, the WHO gave coronavirus a name – COVID-19. It wasn’t until March 6 that I finally received a message from a friend in the US asking how we’re doing here in Singapore.
We’re in a bit of a different situation at the moment in that we’ve been living with this for a long time.
And that’s the point – we’ve been going about our lives and living with this thing because Singapore has a disease outbreak response system that makes sense. We’ve been at DORSCON Orange since February 7. When it came out two years ago, I read The End of Epidemics by global health security expert Dr. Jonathan Quick. He cites Singapore’s response to SARS as a shining example of disease response done well and living through another round of that, I understand why.
Considering where we are and how Singapore has responded, it came as a huge blow to our students when the IBO cancelled May examinations on Sunday night. The IB has given itself until Friday to figure out next steps. The College Board AP, which my school also offers, is running 45-minute online exams. What is important to understand here is that AP and IB exams have a different purpose and carry very different weight and meaning for students. Unless our students are going to school in the US, they are accepted into universities on the basis of earning a certain overall IB score. Now that there are no exams, how will this affect graduation and university acceptances? We don’t know the answer to these questions right now.
Conversations with Young People
Understandably, my students were full of confused emotions in class yesterday. We spent some time just talking before getting down to business and I want to summarise our conversation. Hopefully it helps some of you figure out what to say (or not say!) to the young people in your life. They need guidance right now and we are there for them, even if we don’t have answers. The threads of our conversation went like this:
This is an emotional time.
My students told me that they’re feeling confused, upset, disappointed, and relieved. One or two were glad they didn’t have to study but the majority were crushed at losing everything they look forward to at the end of high school: prom, graduation, senior trip, and proving themselves on exams. We agreed that yes, it sucks.
What’s the point now?
Final exams have been the driver for much of what we’ve done for nearly two years and students, appropriately, wanted to know what the point is now. There are no exams . . . so what? What is there? We talked about learning for the sake of learning and about how far they’d come. We talked about showing themselves that they’ve come a long way.
We also talked about going on with life as normal. There will likely be some kind of end-of-course assessment. After all, we have already submitted required coursework to the IB and they will use it for something. We might very well run an assessment here in school, too. Additionally, there will still be grades on transcripts. These grades will come from somewhere, and they will indicate what students know.
Who are we supposed to turn to?
Multiple students expressed not knowing what to do and one put it very succinctly: “We’re confused,” he said, “and the people we’re supposed to ask for help don’t know anything either.” He’s right and it was important to acknowledge that. A student asked me to give my best educated guess about what might happen next and all I could say was that my previous educated guesses had been wrong so my best educated guess was to keep my mouth shut. “But what can you tell us as a friend?” he asked.
I told my students that they couldn’t turn to me for answers because I didn’t have any, but I did know that the world had been through a lot before and would not end with them. We don’t know what is coming next but we do know that these young people will complete high school and go off into the world to do something. We don’t know the path they will take to get there and we don’t know where “there” is, but we do know that life isn’t over. Look at what’s happened in China – students are going back to school!
I’m worried about what might happen next.
I reminded my students that when this all started two months ago, we were worried about schools in Asia closing and being disadvantaged for exams since everything in Europe was fine. We could not have predicted life returning to somewhat normal in China with the rest of the world closing its borders. Likewise, we cannot predict what is ahead.
We also talked a little bit about our families. With flights cancelled and travel restrictions across borders, we are “here” and our families, for many of us living overseas, are “there”. And we cannot get to them. With legal status determined by employment passes, student passes, and dependent passes, we don’t know if or when we’re going to be asked to leave. We don’t know whether our home countries will take us or if we’ll physically be able to get there. We do know that flights aren’t free and all of us have cancelled travel plans or had plans cancelled. What happens if our legal status changes?
I didn’t have answers but we had a conversation.
I gave up a lot for this.
After class, one student stayed back to talk. He said he’d sacrificed a lot to spend two years in the IB Diploma Programme and he would have chosen differently had he known it would come down to nothing. Ah, now this is something I can speak about with some confidence. Knowing the answer, I asked this student whether, knowing the options that existed at the beginning of grade 11, he could have chosen differently. Knowing who he was, could he have done anything differently over the past two years?
No, he told me. That’s true. That’s what made the most sense at the time.
And that, I said, is a way to approach being in the world, no matter the situation.
A Focus on Learning
We had to talk before my students were ready to get down to learning. I understand Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and I know that students who are hungry need to eat before I can expect them to do anything else. This felt similarly. My students needed to be heard and they needed my honesty in order to trust that I had their best interests at heart, and then we went on with our intended tasks for the day.
If necessary, as so many are doing, I could run my classes remotely. A colleague and I have been piloting online learning tools in a shared class and we could make it work. There are a lot of resources out there and many of them are free. The best practices of online learning have been sharpened and honed through the work, effort, and time of many of my colleagues, known and unknown, and I am grateful for them.
One thing that we do know is that human connection is really, really important. Last week, we ran our parent-teacher conferences through Google Hangouts and it was a real gift to be invited into my students’ homes like that. Everyone was calmer and more relaxed than usual. What would it take to have a quick video chat with my students, or set them up with a platform that allowed them to do the same? (I’m told Zoom has “breakout rooms” and this is worth exploring.) It was really important to talk with my students yesterday about what was on their minds before we were able to do what we were meant to do.
There has been a lot of focus in education over the last several weeks about how to put teaching and learning online and I understand this focus. I agree that it is important. But it was also important to acknowledge that my students, for whom life has remained comparatively normal, have questions, too.
In this sense, we all have a wonderful opportunity to learn a little more about who we are as individuals and as a collective group of humans. I spoke with my students about recognising their own responses to stress and anxiety and how to manage unknowns. No matter what happens next, they were heading towards a huge unknown anyway because they were planning to go out in the world and start their lives. They will still do that, just not following a path that someone else had walked before them. We talked about ways to accept what we cannot change or control, and we talked about what it means to live according to who we are and what is important to us.
Additionally, we talked about the resilience of humanity. While we have individually fragile moments, humanity has also overcome great adversity. Some of my students have lived this in their own lives and some are experiencing it now for the first time. It is important for them to know that this is not the first life-altering, world-spinning-out-of-control moment that they will experience, and it is important for them to know that they will get through this one and the next one and the next one. We can make all the plans we want, but we learn a great deal about ourselves when look at how we respond when our plans go awry.
And it is important for students to know that this, too, shall pass and we will all be stronger and wiser when it does.
Learning through COVID-19 does not only mean learning in school. It also means learning about ourselves and about who we are. It means learning to let go and wait patiently when we would much rather be in control, and learning to pause and breathe when we’ve spent too long with our noses buried in the news.
It also means learning to recognise what we are feeling and manage it in a way that allows us to live as fully as we can. We can only live what is now and it does not help to ruminate over what might have been otherwise. Instead, as my students are learning, we live with what is and sometimes all we can do is take it one moment at a time.
Peace. It does not mean to be in a place where there is no noise, trouble or hard work. It means to be in the midst of those things and still be calm in your heart. – Anonymous
Photos, travels, musings, and ideas on education by someone trying to make the world a better and more peaceful place