Tag Archives: Students

What does learning look like?

Play a game with me. (I love games.)

Picture a teacher. Any teacher. A teacher you’ve had or a teacher you wish you’d had. A teacher you liked or a teacher you didn’t. Picture that teacher in a classroom. What does the classroom look like? Where’s the teacher? What’s the teacher doing? Put some students in that room. Where are the students? What are the students doing?

Try to keep that picture in your mind while reading the description of what my grade ten classroom looks like on a typical day.

Current Classroom
All students have laptops. They’re working, some talking with others but mostly just sitting quietly. Some are listening to music. The desks are in three clusters of four, one cluster of five, and two rows of three. I’m not sure who set them up that way. The students go back and forth from our class blog, which contains links to all resources they’ll need for the day, to whatever it is they’re working on. Some have printed copies of the linked resources and some are using pocket translators to help. There are notes from whatever we’ve recently discussed on the board. As the teacher, I’m either sitting in a spare student desk or on top of the cabinets at the side of the room. I have a laptop, too, and I’m probably on it.

We spend the beginning of each class reading through and then sharing the news. We discuss or review a few things together as a large group. Students complete a task, we discuss, students complete a task, we discuss. Sometimes these tasks are done independently and sometimes they work together. Sometimes students submit responses or assignments on GoogleDrive and sometimes they comment straight onto the blog. Often, they do neither and we periodically discuss for a few minutes after students have talked in their groups.

I’m willing to bet my classroom doesn’t look much like the one in your head.

The classroom in your head probably involves a teacher standing at the front of the room. Depending on how old you are, the students are probably in rows, though maybe groups of four. If you’re picturing a high school class, the students are probably taking notes while the teacher talks. Maybe there’s a PowerPoint presentation that the teacher is using, or maybe there are notes written on a transparency or perhaps on the board, again depending on how old you are. In this classroom, I’m willing to bet that the teacher is “teaching” and the students are “learning” and that the roles and responsibilities of both are clear. Anyone walking in could see that the teacher has the information and the students are supposed to take it in and understand it.

And if that’s not the classroom in your head, I’d love to hear what the classroom in your head looks like!

Even though my classroom might not match what we often think of when we hear “classroom” or “teacher” or “learning”, I have no doubt that my students are indeed learning. I can make this claim based simply on what they say in class, whether we’re having a discussion or they’re asking for clarification while working. I can make this claim based on individual conversation I have with students while checking up on their progress. If necessary, and sometimes it is, I can also provide samples of student work and show you the data I’ve collected and tracked on each student.

Anxiety
And yet.

And yet there’s some anxiety, anxiety for me as the trained educator in the room. What am I actually doing when others walk in or walk by the room? What am I actually doing that requires me to be there? I feel a sense of insecurity because I’m doing what I think is right by my students but looks inactive as compared to what others may do in their classes. The reason my classroom looks the way it does and I organize my classes the way I do is because I know, because I have learned, that with access to curated resources, assistance as needed, and feedback on their progress, my students will be just fine.

I might not be “teaching” in the traditional sense, but the point isn’t that I teach; it’s that students learn.

A few months ago, I read Michael Horn and Heather Stacker’s book Blended, which argues for disruptive innovation in schools. The authors explain that disruptive innovation comes from attempts in the business world to make products and services available to more people at lower cost. It was while reading this book that I began to rethink (yet again) the way that schools run and, more specifically, what I could do within my own classroom to meet students where they are and let them learn in the ways that make the most sense to them.

Future Classroom
Disruptive innovation in schools means making education and educational opportunities available to more people in ways that education may not have been in the past. In order to receive a diploma, everyone used to attend a building called a school. Considering schools in the context of disruptive innovation makes us ask, is that necessary anymore? Horn and Stacker describe models of schools that are a mix of remote and in-person learning experiences, either determined by the students themselves, by a the student in conjunction with a counselor, or by the student’s results on assessments. The very idea of a classroom, then, is called into question.

If I could, I’d design a school that looks like the one described in earlier writing here. I still believe that building peace is the purpose of education and that our students need a toolkit to make the world a better place. As much as I can, I design my grade ten curriculum around the real learning that is necessary for solving world problems and realizing one’s role and responsibilities as a citizen of the world. While my students have due dates, deadlines, and specific assessments, I’m trying to make my classes more flexible by providing students access to a wide range of resources and a choice about which ones to use.

There’s a long way to go. I know. There’s a lot of working, dialoguing, and understanding that has to happen. None of this happens quickly and I’m trying to be patient. I’m trying to be satisfied with one small change at a time. This isn’t the type of change that happens quietly, either, which is why I write about it.


Play a game with me. Design your ideal classroom or school or learning environment. Why do you think it should be this way or look like this? Comment below or send me a message.

Thank you for your thoughts, as always.

Judaism Without Religion

The Most Current Version of You
Being in a new place provides incredible freedom to be the most current version of yourself. We are all constantly learning, changing, growing, and adapting, but sometimes it’s challenging to openly do that around people who have certain expectations of us, certain experiences with who we are and desires for who we should be.

In a new place, however, meeting people who have no experiences with, or expectations for, you and your behavior means that you enter with a clean slate. You present the newest version of yourself because that’s who you fundamentally are in the given moment. There’s no one telling you otherwise, surprised when you respond a certain way, or waiting for you to do A when you really want to do B.

While I’m not new to Singapore, I am meeting new people both at work and outside of work. This has given me an opportunity to present myself with the background of the past year, a year during which I learned a lot, experienced a lot, read a lot, and gained some clarity about the way that I understand the world and myself.

My Jewish Self
About two months ago, I had a conversation with a new friend in which I described myself as culturally Jewish and denied feeling a sense of traditionally “religious” connection to the group that I’ve affiliated with for my entire life. I talked about religious practice as a way of connecting with a community separate from having any sort of “belief” in anything supernatural. I also acknowledged that this understanding, the separation between culture and religion, had been an extended process, one that I was only beginning to feel comfortable articulating.

Recently, my friend reminded me of that conversation. “But,” he added, “I think you’re a lot more spiritual than you said. Maybe not quite religious, but you’re not just doing what you’re doing and thinking what you’re thinking in order to maintain a cultural connection with a group. It seems like there’s something else.”

I smiled. He wasn’t wrong. I had described myself as spiritual rather than religious for years and have only recently (in the current iteration of myself, in fact) stopped doing that, opting instead to speak more broadly of culture. So in that sense, my friend wasn’t right, either.

Reflecting on that conversation, and appreciating both my friend’s perceptivity and his willingness to highlight what he saw as incongruence between what I said about myself and what I did (specifically in reference to taking off work on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, so that I could go to synagogue and pray), has left me thinking about my trek from a belief in a higher entity to where I am now.

Religiosity
Being religious means following the letter of a specific text for no other reason than the text is called sacred. It means believing that there’s a higher being, likely omniscient and all-powerful, controlling the Earth and the skies, the world and its people. It’s the tradition of replying, “Blessed is God” when asked how you’re doing, of ceasing all work after sunset on the day of rest, of avoiding certain substances because of their uncleanliness or mind-altering properties.

Being religious means praying about real questions, like whether to go ahead with plans that seem dependent on the weather, and believing that you have been given (though not that you’ve found) a real answer. Often, being religious also means denying scientific explanations for phenomena that we see in nature and in ourselves. Instead of searching for the answers, being religious means trusting (having faith) that the answers will be revealed, all in good time.

Truly, I do not want to sound disparaging. I did not grow up in a religious household but I did attend a religious school. As a child, I was taught many of the views and practices described above and I clung to them because they helped me organize my world. They helped me find comfort in what I did not understand and could not otherwise handle. From that perspective, I appreciate the good that religion does for individuals. I have experienced its calming influence and sense of security.

But, as a student and teacher of history, I have also learned to be wary of religion. Countless wars. Death. Destruction. Avoidance of responsibility. Lack of political action. Barriers to scientific research. Discrimination. Hatred.

No one person’s belief should cause such anguish to others.

What I Used to Call Spirituality
It has been a long time since I’ve held any specific religious views and a very long time since I’ve sighed with resignation and performed (or not) an action because of a supernatural being. But I still find joy in community experiences that have religious origins. What stands out to me in these experiences, however, is not the religion but the collectivism, the understanding that we are all coming together because we value one another as individuals and have chosen to create a community.

An example to illustrate:

I was last in Israel with the grade 8 students at my school and we spent our first Shabbat (Hebrew for Sabbath) together as a group in Jerusalem. According to Jewish tradition, the day begins at sundown (because, as scripture says, “It was evening and it was morning. The . . . day.”) and we walked up to a sort of promenade overlooking the Old City. It was dark and we could see some cars still out and about, but for the most part, it was quiet.

We sat in a circle for the Friday evening prayer service, which is full of singing to welcome Shabbat. At one point, a few of the kids stood up and starting dancing. Before the rest of us quite knew what was happening, we were all on our feet, singing and dancing, laughing in our circle overlooking ancient history, juxtaposed with modernity in the cars and neon lights just below us.

My heart caught in my throat and there were tears in my eyes. To feel so much a part of something, to be in this beautiful place with my friends and my students. There was a very real collective energy in the air, an understanding that each of us had a place in the community we had created.

So for me, it wasn’t the prayer. It wasn’t the religious aspect of ceasing work Friday night to sing songs welcoming the day of rest. It was the fact that we were all together as a group, that everyone was welcomed and valued as an integral part of the community. For many present, this was a religious experience. But for me, this was a moment of transcendence because of the community itself regardless of the religious elements around which the community coalesced.

And that means that none of this has anything to do with spirituality at all.

What is Actually Cultural . . . and Then Some
Talking this over, another friend reminded me that finding joy in shared experiences is a common element of humanity. As humans we strive to connect to others, to relate to them and find a sense of belonging with them. Humans are social, tribal animals and we develop groups to help us feel a sense of safety and security. We like to be together because we survive better in groups than we do on our own. We support others in order to feel a part of their lives and to let them in as a part of ours. Culturally, we seek out connection with those around us because it makes us happier.

Additionally, sharing this experience with students was a moment of pride for me as an educator. My students had set aside their differences for a time and come together out of the sheer joy of the experience, the release of inhibition that comes from total engagement singing and dancing in the open air.

Looking around at my colleagues, I saw my own happiness and love reflected on their faces. We’d been traveling with students for about three days at that point and we were anxious and tired (and getting tired of them) but in that moment, it didn’t matter. That was why we worked as hard as we did. That was why we put up with what we did. We had worked to build a community and we were watching it develop and grow.

What was significant, then, on that promenade overlooking Jerusalem, was the sense of belonging that comes from being part of a group and the joy that stems from positive engagement with others. For me, then, this was a cultural experience.

A cultural experience . . . and then some. We can think about culture in terms of the anything that makes up the way of life of a group of people. This includes what we immediately see (food, clothing, celebrations) and also what we don’t immediately see but might be able to figure out given time (concepts of beauty, ideas of success, what constitutes a good life). Belonging, connection, relatedness, and shared experiences are all part of culture but exist on their own, too. So this experience was cultural, yes, but there’s more than culture that matters here. There’s an emphasis on shared humanity that transcends the culture of any one group.


As always, I’m glad for the dialogue that sparked these reflections. I’m glad to have a deeper understanding of myself from looking through the eyes of others and letting their ideas probe my own. I’m always willing to think, discuss, and clarify and it’s helpful to be around people who are responsive to that.

Schools Are Not Boxes

A friend recently (and innocently) sent me this quote: “School is a building which has four walls with tomorrow inside.”

I read it, I read it again, and I couldn’t get it out of my mind.

Because it is so wrong and so troubling.

Here’s why:

  • Schools should not be only buildings. Schools are places where we learn. This can happen anywhere and anytime. If we focus more on the learning and less on the physical structure in which it takes place, school and learning look very different.
  • Tomorrow isn’t wrapped up neatly inside any walls. It’s happening right now and our students are likely unprepared for it. Tomorrow isn’t waiting. It’s here.
  • Learning cannot be static. It must be responsive to the real needs of today’s students, which are to live and thrive in a world that looks nothing like the world that created schools-as-boxes.

To be fair, we could (and should) conceive of schools as labs that develop tomorrow. We could implement the ideas of school I’ve linked above and we’d have buildings or spaces where young people create the future while being part of it. That’s where we should be heading, but usually we’re not. That’s what I found so troubling about that quote. It uses the buzzwords. It creates a pretty little picture. But learning is organic, messy, complicated. Learning is constant, multimodal, self-directed. We don’t need to fit it into four walls.

My classes right now are learning about social norms and conformity, which we’ll use as a way of introducing the topic of genocide in preparation for spending a week in Cambodia in November. And I know that I’m not alone among my colleagues, here and elsewhere, in trying to make real learning happen. But it’s frustrating to constantly explain the need for authentic, relevant, meaningful learning. As adults, we find ways to understand things when we realize we don’t. Our students are no different when we give them the chance.

So let’s rewrite, “School is a building which has four walls with tomorrow inside.”

I propose: “Schools, spaces where learning happens, are all around us. Learning, which cultivates growth and development, never ends.”