Tagged: character

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Building calm in the classroom through meditation

favicon Frazzled. That’s the way I describe most urban public high school teachers at the end of October.

You’re tired, and you’re behind, and you have so much to do. Plus, your students are insane. Quarter grades just came out, resulting in various manifestations of anxiety. And there’s Halloween and a World Series parade tomorrow. It seems like everything is designed to distract and disrupt.

Last year, I felt the same way (and it wasn’t even a tough year!). In “Can I Get a Little Quiet?” I argued that quiet is so rare in schools that many teachers give up seeking it. But a sense of calm benefits everyone, even extroverts and kinesthetic learners.

That’s why I’m happy this year to see teachers promoting quiet in their classrooms. A few teachers employ an “opening song” at the beginning of class. For one minute, students sit in silence, listen to a song (usually instrumental) of the teacher’s choosing, look at the lesson objective, and think of an intention for the day.

Kevin Brookhouser, a teacher I respect, begins his classes with 60 seconds of silence. Take a look. (I secretly like the bell.)

In fact, meditation and other forms of “mindful breathing” have become popular across the country over the past few years. A good friend and former colleague leads her students in guided breathing exercises. Quiet Time, promoted by the David Lynch Foundation, offers schools in San Francisco training to practice transcendental meditation so that students suffering from trauma, stress, and other behavioral issues like ADHD can find more calm in their lives.

As a teacher, I’m leery of such programs (take a look at the “Room to Breathe” trailer; it gives me the heebie-jeebies), but I do appreciate the efforts to provide young people a safe environment to monitor themselves and their feelings. After all, students cannot learn if they don’t know what to do with the distracting and challenging thoughts that are bombarding them.

What I’d like to see more is quiet during lessons, not just at the beginning or end. There’s nothing wrong, for example, with silent reading and silent writing. Of course, student talk should also pervade the classroom, especially when it adds to the academic discourse. Talking just to talk doesn’t always lead to calm.

Please let me know what you think. Should teachers give time for focused quiet? Is meditation going too far? favicon

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Teaching and assessing character: Part 4

favicon Is “teaching character” just code for “teaching conservatism?”

That’s the argument advanced by detractors of Paul Tough and Angela Duckworth. Students with grit may know how to regulate themselves, delay gratification, and demonstrate perseverance, but they’re not always happy people, plus they buy into the conservative bootstraps metaphor of success.

Leading this charge is Alfie Kohn. Yes, he’s the guy who extols intrinsic motivation, the development of the whole child, and the extinction of homework. (I respect his work — but go back and forth on what I think about his views.)

A few years ago, he wrote an essay titled “Why Self-Discipline Is Overrated: The (Troubling) Theory and Practice of Control from Within.” (You can also find it at Iserotope Extras!) Prof. Kohn is an excellent writer, and I like how he first defines his terms of self-discipline and self-control:

Self-discipline might be defined as marshalling one’s willpower to accomplish things that are generally regarded as desirable, and self-control as using that same sort of willpower to prevent oneself from doing what is seen to be undesirable or to delay gratification.  In practice, these often function as two aspects of the same machinery of self-regulation.

Soon after that excellent introduction, Prof. Kohn organizes his opposition to self-discipline into three areas: psychological, philosophical, and political.

His psychological argument — that too much self-control is bad, just as too little is bad — is a good one. If a student is too self-disciplined, she is always looking toward the future and never enjoying the present. Prof. Kohn writes:

Dutiful students may be suffering from…the “tyranny of the should” — to the point that they no longer know what they really want, or who they really are.  So it is for teenagers who have mortgaged their present lives to the future:  noses to the grindstone, perseverant to a fault, stressed to the max.  High school is just preparation for college, and college consists of collecting credentials for whatever comes next.

Unfortunately for Prof. Kohn, most of the students I teach do not suffer from the above problem. Indeed, some may suffer from anxiety, but that anxiety does not usually come from an overabundance of academic self-control. It usually comes from trauma and a lack of self-discipline outside (and sometimes inside!) school.

His philosophical argument — that teaching self-discipline means you’re telling students to obey authority, no matter what — is stronger than his first. He quotes George Lakoff, who says that exhorting self-control comes from a conservative worldview. Young people, goes this theory, are bad and must learn to respect their elders. Prof. Kohn writes:

A commitment to self-discipline may reflect a tacit allegiance to philosophical conservatism with its predictable complaint that our society — or its youth — has forgotten the value of hard work, the importance of duty, the need to accept personal responsibility, and so on.

Here Prof. Kohn gets me thinking. Surely I don’t want to go down the path of placing too much pressure on the individual when I realize that many factors go into a student’s trajectory. At the same time, there’s nothing wrong with a little personal responsibility.

After that strong philosophical argument, too bad Prof. Kohn loses me on the political one: that the real problem is how power gets negotiated in the classroom. Prof. Kohn has long criticized schools for their capitalistic structure and teachers for their conveyor-belt pedagogy. He wishes for a more open environment, where students construct their own knowledge and where young people do not need to exercise self-control:

Why does the teacher ask most of the questions in here – and unilaterally decide who gets to speak, and when? If the question is:  “What’s the best way to teach kids self-discipline so they’ll do their work?”, then the questionisn’t: “Are these assignments, which feel like ‘work,’ really worth doing?

Um, Prof. Kohn, though I like to be student-centered, if I chose not to “unilaterally decide who gets to speak,” there would be less learning. Simple as that. And while I may occasionally harbor some (jaded?) assumptions after 15 years of teaching, I think it’s safe to say that strong teacher presence is critical for student achievement, particularly in urban public schools.

Overall, though I disagree with Prof. Kohn’s article, I appreciate his thoughtful opposition to the teaching of self-discipline. It’s important, after all, not to follow a trend in education just because Ira Glass talked about it on This American Life.

But what’s clear to me is that self-control and self-discipline are worth teaching as long as the goals worth striving for are the student’s, not the teacher’s. If I’m doing a good job helping a student define and focus on her passion, and if I’m coaching her to get closer to her long-term aspirations, then I’m doing my job well. And if that’s “teaching character,” then it’s a good thing.

I’d love to hear your thoughts! favicon

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Teaching and assessing character: Part 3

favicon There has been a lot of talk lately (this radio show, this book) about how teaching character skills can promote long-term academic achievement and life success among students.

In my first post, I narrowed down a lengthy list of 24 performance skills to a tidier, more manageable five.

In my second post, I tried to define those five character skills: zest, grit, self-control, empathy, and integrity.

Now comes the post about why. In this era of No Child Left Behind, in this time of standardized testing and academic achievement and content standards, why would I — why would any teacher — devote class time and energy into the teaching, assessment, and development of performance skills?

One way to answer that question is with a moral argument. In addition to teaching my students how to read and write, I believe strongly that it is my job to help my students become good and strong people so that they can persevere, advocate for themselves, and keep learning.

(The statistics that Paul Tough offers in his book is also pretty convincing.)

OK, that’s a start. But can’t I do that informally? In other words, do I need to make performance skills a dedicated part of my grading scheme?

I think yes. What I value is what I give time for in class and what I grade. I can talk about grit all I want, but until I explicitly teach it (by naming it, defining it, modeling it, identifying it, and having students demonstrate it) and assess it, then I’m just hoping that it happens. By making character skills a part of my class, I send the message that they’re important and that they’re not personality traits — rather, that they are attainable skills that all students can practice and improve.

Now maybe I’m getting somewhere. But over the past few years, I’ve tried to move toward standard-based grading — or at least in the direction of moving my gradebook toward mastery-driven skills. Wouldn’t grading performance skills be a shift away from that goal?

Perhaps, but I think I’ve come to terms that grading shouldn’t be entirely standard-based. Instead, grading should be about what is valuable to be learned. I got rid of my traditional grading scheme long ago because I don’t value quizzes and tests and projects and homework in and of themselves. Rather, I value reading and writing and exhibiting solid habits of work. Therefore, if I believe that character skills are important, then they should be reflected in my grading, even if it’s impossible for students to master them.

After all, I believe there is a part of standard-based grading that is disingenuous. It may seem right to base grades on student achievement on an outcome; it doesn’t matter where you start as long as you master an objective by the end of the semester. But frankly, if the standard is to analyze a fictional text at the ninth grade level, and I’m reading at the fourth grade level in September and then the eighth grade level in June, shouldn’t I rewarded as much or more for my grit (and other character skills) than the kid who began reading at the 10th grade level?

Yes, this is getting both too abstract and too complicated at the same time. But it’s a first stab at figuring out why teaching and assessing character skills matter. And it’s also a little foray to suggest that there is no such thing as a fair grading system, so I might as well grade what I think is most important.

Your thoughts? favicon

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Teaching and assessing character: Part 2

favicon Since finishing up Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed (now #6 on The New York Times list of hardcover nonfiction best sellers) I’ve thought a lot about how to incorporate character skills into my classroom the next time I teach.

In my last post about character, I narrowed down a list of 24 character to a more manageable list of five: zest, grit, discipline, empathy, and integrity.

It’s a working list that might change. For example, I think I prefer “self-control” over “discipline.” And a few readers suggested “self-awareness” as a critical character skill to include. (Thank you, readers!)

Given that the final list may evolve — and perhaps I will involve my students in the process — the next step is to define the skills. That way, students can demonstrate them, and I can teach them.

Here is what I have so far. These are just from my head. Later I’ll consult other resources. Please feel free to challenge and improve:

1. Zest
Being joyful and positive and open to life and learning
Being present and participating fully

2. Grit
Working hard and conscientiously on an important long-term goal
Bouncing back from and persevering through challenges and failure

3. Self-control
Maintaining focus amid distractions
Controlling impulses and emotions, staying calm when irritated

4. Empathy
Respecting the dignity and feelings of others
Understanding how your actions affect others

5. Integrity
Doing the right thing even when it’s challenging
Being honest in your words and actions

So what do you think so far? Am I missing something huge? Or are there too many? Should I change my list or modify my descriptors? I’m interested in what you have to say!

Coming up: A little bit more about why. favicon

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Teaching and assessing character: Part 1

favicon Reading How Children Succeed has gotten me interested in how teachers could teach, build, assess, and grade students on their character skills.

The first step is to get the original list of 24 skills down to a manageable size. I’m hoping you could help me with this task.

Here they are:

  1. zest
  2. grit
  3. self-control
  4. social intelligence
  5. gratitude
  6. love
  7. hope
  8. humor
  9. creativity
  10. curiosity
  11. open-mindedness
  12. love of learning
  13. wisdom
  14. bravery
  15. integrity
  16. kindness
  17. citizenship
  18. fairness
  19. leadership
  20. forgiveness
  21. modesty
  22. prudence
  23. appreciation of beauty
  24. spirituality

Which ones do you vote for? Which character skills do you find most important and related to students’ academic success?

From that list of 24, KIPP chose seven to include on its Character Report Card:

  1. zest (approaching life with excitement and energy, feeling activated)
  2. grit (finishing what one starts despite obstacles)
  3. self-control (regulating what one feels and does, being self-disciplined)
  4. social intelligence (being aware of feelings of other people)
  5. curiosity (taking an interest, finding things fascinating)
  6. optimism (not on the list of 24)
  7. gratitude (being aware and thankful of the good things that happen)

What about that list? Do you think KIPP made good choices from the original 24?

For me, I’d like to get the list down even further, maybe to three or four. Here is my current thinking.

In general, I like what KIPP has done. Zest is one of my favorites, and I think optimism and curiosity both fit into zest nicely. Grit is great because it captures having a goal and not giving up, even over large periods of time. The concept of self-control is crucial, but I prefer the term discipline. And social intelligence is important, too, but it seems too long and not powerful enough. Maybe empathy instead? Finally, I’d like to add integrity from the original list of 24.

So this is my working list:

  1. zest
  2. grit
  3. discipline
  4. empathy
  5. integrity

What do you think? Any I’ve missed? Should I go fewer? Any better (and perhaps four-letter) synonyms for these terms? I appreciate all feedback!

Next step: Where does this go in my grading scheme? And how to assess it? favicon

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I recommend How Children Succeed, by Paul Tough

favicon If you’re a teacher in an underfunded urban high school, it’s sometimes difficult to keep hope alive. No matter how hard you work, failure is all around you. And it’s menacing. And there’s a lot of it.

Even worse, failure is often predictable. The statistics are strong, and the patterns are unwieldy. You see students drop out. And even those students who succeed do so haltingly. You wonder if they’ll make it in college.

But then, if you’re lucky, you read a book like How Children Succeed, by Paul Tough, and all is well again.

I highly recommend that you read this book.

Mr. Tough’s argument is that the greatest determiner of success in school is not academic skill. Rather, it is character. Qualities like grit, self-control, social intelligence, and zest separate students who succeed from those who don’t.

(For many of you, these character traits seem foreign. Grit? Zest? What about integrity and compassion? you ask. I thought the same thing. In the book, Mr. Tough divides aspects of moral character from those of performance character. For poor kids of color, who have experienced severe stress in their childhoods, performance character skills like grit are what matters most.)

Leaning heavily on the research of Angela Duckworth, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, Mr. Tough emphasizes that character is malleable and can be taught. A ninth grader may enter high school with significant academic skill gaps, but if that student builds her performance character, she will have the resilience necessary to meet her long-term goal.

Although the last chapter left me wanting more how-to specifics, the rest of this short book is filled with bright and hardworking folks dedicated to the growth of young people.

And it got me thinking about my journey last year as an AP English teacher. A few weeks into the class, several students approached me and wanted to drop the course. It was too hard, they said. I was grading too harshly. There was no way they could do the work. At first, I was shocked by their low stamina and their willingness to quit. But then I read Mr. Tough’s article in The New York Times Magazine, and I realized that I needed to teach grit as much as I taught analytical reading of obscure and challenging texts.

So one day, as I passed back another set of mediocre essays, I introduced the notion of grit to my students. For several months, the word — which is funny to say, is similar to grits, and is evocative of dirt — became a little joke in our class. But the students soldiered on, bounced back from struggle, and kept going. I suppose I was teaching character.

Too bad my students did so poorly on the AP test. After all, this story would’ve had a better ending if they all passed with 5s. But that’s not reality, and that’s not what happened. I am hopeful, however, that my students, even though they did not reach that marker of success, will this year demonstrate the grit necessary to persist in college.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that one of my students tonight wrote the following on Facebook: “Life doesn’t get easier. You just get stronger.” favicon

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This American Life 474: “Back to School”

talfavicon I’m not always a big fan of This American Life. But Ira Glass nailed last Sunday’s episode, “Back to School,” and I recommend that you listen to its entirety.

It’s about pretty much every important topic concerning education today. It’s about teaching and testing, about the effects of poverty and whether we can do anything about it, and about the importance of teaching character to build resilience.

Plus, the episode introduced me to Paul Tough’s new book, How Children Succeed, and to Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, who works in the Bayview here in San Francisco.  They’re both inspirational.

Please listen to the episode, and if you do, let me know what you think in the comments! favicon

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Stealing takes just a second. Character takes longer.

 I love the students at my school, and that’s one reason why I’ve stuck around for 12 years.

But unfortunately, they steal a lot of my stuff.

The thieves like tech. This year, it’s been my computer speakers, my timer, and a cheap webcam. Nothing major — nothing like last year, when my netbook was stolen, or a few years back, when it was my video camera.

I try to keep stuff locked up, but sometimes, that’s not the first thing on my mind. Besides, you can’t use computer speakers, timers, and webcams if they’re always locked up in the cabinet.

But this is not a post about how kids are bad, or how I’m frustrated. Rather, it’s a post about the limits of community.

At our school, teachers and students have a strong relationship. There is a sense of family. Our vision focuses on personalization so that students feel valued and do not fall through the cracks.

But no matter how strong the community, it’s not as strong as the power of poverty. Community takes months — even years — to build, but the act of stealing takes just a second. It takes time for us to instill strong character and moral values, and in the meantime, that iPod left on the table sure looks nice.

To be clear: In no way am I pardoning the students who have taken my stuff. It’s their fault, and it’s sad that they’re stealing from me and from their education. Sometimes I think, “If they respected me more, they wouldn’t steal.” But I know that it’s not personal.

Still, it’s irritating to have to buy the same thing twice, especially when it’s something that many richer suburban and private schools provide their teachers. It gets me to question whether teaching is worth it.