The promise: schools for sanity?


Here's what I'm wondering: should our schools' bedrock promise to parents be that we'll cultivate sanity? A stray thought stuck in my mind yesterday, while driving to meet a friend: the problem of the 21st century life is staying sane. So many of us struggle with being overbooked, overcommitted, overwhelmed. And we feel like much of the work we do — and especially, what our kids do in school — borders on meaningless.

What if a new kind of school could design itself around providing the opposite?

This is a fresh thought, and I'd like your help in fleshing it out — and deciding whether how useful it is.

Here are a few consequences I'd imagine coming from our schools dedicating themselves to sanity:

  • Minimal homework in grade school and middle school. There seems to be ample evidence suggesting that homework in grade school isn't useful, and in fact may be counterproductive for students' academic achievement. I'm wondering if the harm goes further: I hear stories of my parents-of-middle-schoolers friends who talk about having to walk their kids through literal reams of homework past 11pm most nights. This amount of homework is not good for families: not for the middle-and-upper-class families who can (sometimes) achieve it, and not good for the lower-class families who cannot. School shouldn't be easy, but it should be simple — at least, simpler than this.
  • Meaningful homework throughoutWhen we give homework in the early and middle grades, it better damned well be meaningful! For example, we could encourage families to let their child help make a big family dinner once a week. (Eating dinner together, not incidentally, correlates more strongly with academic achievement than does doing homework. But it's also delicious, and a great ingredient for sane living!) Or, for a different example, we could have students pose some of their weekly questions (posed and hunted in our question-posing and answer-hunting curricula!) to their parents, siblings, and extended family, as well as to other community members (e.g. the mailcarrier, the Starbucks barista). Homework can be a vehicle for intergenerational connection — it can make us more sane. 
  • No AP classes. I took two AP classes in high school, and both were excellent. (Quick shout-out to Rudy Mueller and Mary Ann Penglase!) But I've observed that these are the exceptions: through my SAT coaching business, I work with so many smart, hard-working high schoolers who torture themselves through AP textbooks, understanding almost nothing and hating every evening of it. I heard a friend who started a Froebelian kindergarten once say that her school aims to be "intellectual, but not academic". There's something wonderful in that. I've noticed that one of the most prestigious local Seattle high schools (Lakeside Academy) flaunts how it doesn't have AP classes — I wonder if we should want to do the same.

Thoughts? And how else could the experience of schooling be less maddening?

(Thanks to for the image!)

Our language curriculum


Becoming a skilled user of language... is not fast or easy.– E. D. Hirsch

A few words, used with care, can destroy a person —or create a world!

Language is amazing. With language, we enter into each other's minds. With language, we can fine-tune our own thoughts, and spread them across continents and down generations.

But most people graduate from high school barely able to type an e-mail.

What if a new kind of school could help all students fall in love with language, and delight in using it brilliantly?

To cultivate readers, our schools —

  • nurture pleasure reading by turning classrooms into libraries, devoting whole periods to free reading, and organizing book tastings.
  • teach beginning reading through a combination of synthetic phonics and delicious literature.
  • train older children to read difficult nonfiction analytically, and read authors against each other.
  • teach kids to speed read, so they can shift their reading into multiple gears.

To cultivate writers, our schools —

  • practice storytelling and public speaking.
  • train children in calligraphy, penmanship, and touch-typing.
  • unveil the secret origins of words and harebrained spelling rules.
  • help kids master fussy ("Standard English") grammar, but also a profusion of different dialects, accents, and styles.
  • train kids in the art of dissecting sentences.
  • lead kids to identify and emulate authors they love.
  • engage in meaningful writing projects — assignments that help kids think better about questions they value, and that other people actually want to read!
  • go beyond the oversold "five paragraph essay" model, and have kids read and write poems, letters, short stories, songs, scripts, novellas, parodies, and so on.

And to cultivate people who can read, write, and think in more than one language, our schools —

  • don't teach young students a foreign language, but teach young children in a foreign language.
  • teach older students a foreign language using a system of learning in harmony with contemporary cognitive psychology, so kids master accents, remember words easily, and actually approach fluency.

Susan Sontag (writer, filmmaker, activist, philosopher) was once asked if there was anything she thought writers ought to do. She responded:

Several things. Love words, agonize over sentences, and pay attention to the world.

Through all this, our schools cultivate students who love words, and use them expertly.

Our humanities curriculum

We have created a Star Wars civilization, with Stone Age emotions, medieval institutions, and god-like technology. We thrash about. We are terribly confused by the mere fact of our existence, and a danger to ourselves and to the rest of life.
– E.O. Wilson

We are all part of an epic, unfolding, story! Our world is congealed history — of brilliant ideas and terrible mistakes, of beautiful works and villainous schemes. We're daily affected by the millennia-old works of humanity: philosophies and religions, migrations and cultures, social and economic systems, politics and technology.

We don't really know where we're going.

We live inside of this human mystery, and have the chance to influence it. And yet schools wall children off from the world, and present it to them as facts in a textbook.

What if a new kind of school could re-connect children with the real, epic world?

Our schools prepare students to understand, and play their part in, the world of adults. We —

  • engage kids in the big stories of human history, and prehistory, from an early age.
  • prompt kids to wrestle with the Big Questions — like Where do we come from? Who are we? Where are we going?
  • help kids explore (and internalize) the shape of the world — from continents all the way down to local streets.
  • put kids into conversation with local adults for authentic conversations.
  • embrace a diversity of world cultures through stories, food, music, art, and dance.

Our hope is to bring students into intimate contact with the world of adults — religion, politics, philosophy, economics, psychology, and sociology — that most schools would love to do, but never quite manage to squeeze into their curriculum.

Our 'observation' curriculum


"We see nothing at first glance."–Milton Glaser

Observation is a basis for everything we want to achieve. Too bad we notice very little!

Understanding comes from noticing. So do all the skills we care about:

Mathematicians are people who notice patterns. Novelists, poets, and orators notice words. Physicists, chemists, and biologists notice the world around them. Designers, artists, and architects notice the built environment. Storytellers and psychologists notice what drives people, and Sociologists, political theorists, and historians notice how these drives tie together to create all our problems!

What we observe makes us who we are.

The trouble is that we're awful at observing the world! We take in only a slim fraction of what's right in front of our faces.

What if a new kind of school could cultivate people who noticed?

Our schools ground students in paying attention. We —

  • teach kids to draw realistically, so they can pay attention to how things fit together.
  • take kids into the smallest details of the biological world.
  • lead kids to repeatly encounter what edible chemicals do as they cook lunch together each day.
  • immerse kids in paintings and sculpture.
  • help kids unpack the patterns in buildings and public spaces.
  • instill in kids a mindset of craftsmanship as they dissect and build technology.
  • practice mindfulness meditation to get a sense of what's going on inside us.
  • guide kids to asking, and slowly processing, the big questions.

Our goal is to immerse children in the raw splendor of the worlds of numbers, of atoms, of stories, and of ideas.

We don't aim to just make abstract thinkers, but people who think, feel, and perceive together.

Our thinking curriculum


Contrary to popular belief, the brain is not designed for thinking.It's designed to save you from having to think, because the brain is actually not very good at thinking. – Daniel Willingham (cognitive psychologist)

We're not naturally good at thinking — but few things are more important than becoming a good thinker! And we all can become much, much better thinkers. The components of thinking (knowledge, logic, innovation, rationality, and observation) are skills that can be improved, but most schools shy away from training in them.

What if a new kind of school could cultivate the many components of thinking?

To cultivate knowledge, our schools —

  • immerse kids in the riches of history, science, math, philosophy — and more!
  • foster a culture of geeking out.
  • prompt kids to value the most interesting things they've learned.
  • use software to help kids remember the crucial things they learn forever.
  • give kids a taste of what really in-depth, Ph.D.-level understanding really tastes like.
  • coach kids in the art of asking questions, and finding answers.

To cultivate logic, our schools —

  • make math easy by breaking down everything complex into easy-to-process bits — and then connecting them back together.
  • train in computer coding.
  • entrust kids with dumbfoundingly complex issues to puzzle through.

To cultivate innovation, our schools —

  • pepper kids with math riddles that require creative leaps to unravel.
  • provide kids with thought journals, and the time to use them.
  • drill kids in de Bono's thinking tools to prompt out-of-the-box ideas.

To cultivate rationality, our schools —

  • ground kids in the multitude of cognitive biases.
  • engage kids in the scientific method throughout the curriculum.
  • coax kids into, and help them work their way out of, the various ideologies that portray the world as simple.
  • expose kids to a grand diversity of ways of seeing the world.

The goal of our schools is to help develop students who can think clearly, and think wonderfully.

Practical superpowers


A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.– Robert Heinlein (novelist)

Educators sometimes talk about practical and intellectual skills as if they were opposites — as if a school needed to choose one or the other, or strike some balance between them.

And so we get, for example, national debates about the merits of vocational tech vs. college prep programs.

Nonsense! This is based on a false dichotomy: understood properly, practical and intellectual skills are two pieces of a whole. Real intellectual skills are practical — and real practical skills are intellectual!

What if a new kind of school could destroy the false divide between practical and intellectual training?

In our schools, we help students —

  • speak eloquently.
  • cook scrumptiously.
  • garden attentively.
  • code precisely.
  • engineer innovatively.
  • problem-solve passionately.
  • design elegantly.

And many things more! We develop practical superpowers. 

Our schools attempt to be more business-practical than vocational tech schools, and more vibrantly intellectual than college-prep schools.

The natural world

Note — I'm in the process of turning this blog into an actual, honest-to-goodness website! My plan is to have the basic ideas of our schools accessible to anyone in a few minutes, with no need to hunt through the blog archives. Below is the draft of the "natural world" page. If you've any feedback, I'd love to hear it! (The real thing will include lotsa links.)

“The universe is not a world of separate things and events, of external spectators and an impersonal spectacle. It is an integral whole.”

–Ervin Laszlo

We're spawned from a complex, amazing universe — filled with neutrinos and molecules and Venus flytraps and great white sharks. The natural world abounds with excitement and puzzles and joy! And yet science classes often feel dry and dull.

What if a new kind of school could connect kids with the great blooming, buzzing confusion that is the natural world?

Our schools take students into more depth and complexity by grade school than many of us got in college. We —

  • ground kids in a rich history-of-science curriculum which prompts students to puzzle out natural riddles alongside the likes of Galileo, Darwin, and Marie Curie.
  • bring a diversity of animals and plants into the school grounds, and have kids observe their anatomies and behaviors.
  • turn the kitchen into a laboratory and pay close attention to why chemicals act the way they do — why do sugars brown, egg whites whiten, and fruits ripen?
  • dissect toasters, light bulbs, and other technology and puzzle out how they work (so we can make them ourselves).
  • vigorously study the geology and ecology bound up in a single, local natural site.
  • help kids feel the glory of nature by getting them into the woods.
  • connect everything we study back into the 13.7 billion-year-old history of Life, the Universe, and Everything!

Our goal is to help every student become something of a naturalist, and fall in love with the complexity of the world around us.

We strive to re-enchant the cosmos — or, better, to show kids that it already is enchanted.

How to teach evolution, creation, & the giant cow that licked the world into being


Where does everything come from? This is how our new kind of school has started off our year of Big Spiral History: by telling stories about the creation of the world.

That's stories, plural. Whose stories, you ask? As many peoples' as possible!

In order: we're teaching the Norse story, the Greek story, the Hebrew story, and the Ojibwe story. That's our first week.

Norse cow

(This is, of course, the cow that emerged from the primordial ice to nourish the first of the frost giants. Y'know, the bad guys in Thor? It's a pretty generous cow.)

Then, we're telling the creation stories of the Chinese, the West Africans, the Maya, and the Aborigines. That's the second week!

And the third week, we're slowing down to tell just one creation story: that of the Big Bang, and the evolution of multicellular life, up through us humans.

Go ahead: ask why!

First off, we're beginning at the beginning: the dawn of Life, the Universe, and everything.

The way that history is typically begun in schools, we think, is foolish. I've criticized this before, but the long and short of it is this: in grade school, kids don't begin with the beginning. Rather, they begin with the close at hand: their own selves, their own neighborhoods, their own cities. They're plopped in the middle of reality, and are held back from looking at the big picture.

This approach is designed around an outmoded theory of children's reasoning — that they can only understand things that they've actually experienced. (How these old theorists would have explained children's lust for a certain movie series that begins A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away... — well, that I'd love to know!)

By the time the curriculum gets around to talking about any beginnings, it's already middle school. And the beginnings don't go back far at all — mine went back only to the Fertile Crescent. Fail! The Fertile Crescent was one particular origin of "civilization" — that is, city-centered state-level society — but not of humanity, in general.

And the origin of humanity? And of life? And of anything? Those are thought to be scientific questions, not historical ones. They're not part of the story of humanity — they're held apart in another class.

Which, of course, is ridiculous. Drawing a sharp delineation between "questions of history" and "questions of science" might have made sense two centuries ago, but at the start of the 21st century it's just foolishness.

The humanities and sciences have linked up, and we now possess an all-but-seamless narrative of all of cosmic history. This is the result of decades of daring acts of research — it's one of the great successes of human intellectual life!

Your atoms were forged in a supernova. The oxygen you just sucked in was breathed by Triceratops and Velociraptors. Life blooms, proliferates, and adapts. And you're part of it: your amazing qualities are the inheritance of millions and billions of years of biological experimentation.

But we don't let this paradigm shine in the curriculum. We don't use it to orient kids, and invite them to ask the big questions.

Instead, we bury it.

So the first reason we're doing this mad-rush through creation stories, is to follow the advice the King in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland:

Begin at the beginning, and go on.

It's only sensible.

We're beginning at the beginning: the Big Bang, and all that.

But why all the other creation narratives? 

(Note: this is contentious. Political, even! We Americans love to hate each other's views on this. And, according to various polls, we're about equally split — 50% think the universe is about 6,000 years old, and 50% think it's about two million times older. I'll be treading boldly into this fray — but I hope, also, politely and kindly.)

So why are we starting the year with multiple creation narratives? Well, a host of reasons, actually!

  • We want to introduce kids to the awesome mystery of where the Universe comes from. (Approaching this question from a multitude of previous attempts helps kids appreciate the mystery.)
  • We want to expose kids to a multiplicity of human cultures and their stories. (Think of each story as a hand-shake to a culture they'll be hearing more about later.)
  • We want to help kids see that stories matter — that where we think the world comes from can inform how we think about ourselves. (Stories — origin stories in particular — shape worldviews, and worldviews shape lives.)
  • We want to get kids used to the idea that differences of opinion are the norm, and that they can be fertile grounds for great conversations. (A disagreement is a great opportunity.)

In my mind, though, there's one great reason that we're starting by luxuriating in a multiplicity of creation stories: to make kids question our authority when we tell them something is true.

In our schools, truth is rarely — if ever — handed down on authority.

If people in the real world disagree about something, then it's not our job to pick a side and tell the kids to swallow it. Rather, our job is to expose kids to multiple viewpoints, and help them reason through them.

Perhaps I'm speaking too blithely here — perhaps I'm coming across as if I think our schools should champion every idea equally.

No — quite the contrary! What I'm saying is that our teaching shouldn't champion specific ideas at all.

What I'm saying is: science.

There is a world outside our heads. We can approach it through observing carefully, interpreting carefully, and concluding humbly — and then inviting criticism of our conclusions.

A shorthand for this: the scientific method.

We're starting our school by putting all creation stories on an equal footing. We're not ending there!

All of the above, I think, would be a bad approach if it were performed in a school that simply Delivered Answers. But ours is not — we pose questions, we hunt for answers, we practice science and philosophy continuously. We splay ideas on the wall; we sit in mysteries and slowly unravel them.

I'm not advocating this curriculum for most schools: I'm announcing it for ours.

Allowing the world's true diversity of hypotheses to be considered honestly sets an important standard: we are a kind of schooling that is willing to ask the big questions, and to help children form their answers thoughtfully. 

And it's hard to do this with just one story. Differences spawn productive thinking! But setting up just two stories leads to tribal warring — "you're either with us or against us!" What we need is a plurality of stories.

I'll pause here to acknowledge something obvious:

Some of our parents will be evolutionists who fear (quite legitimately) that the scientific narrative will be lost amidst the flush of other origin stories.

And others of our parents will be creationists who fear (quite legitimately) that the Genesis account will be lost, too.

I owe answers to both groups of parents. And here it might be useful to disclose my own origin story. I'm convinced the story of Darwinian evolution is true — but I didn't used to be — and the story of how I got from there to here is a bit unusual.

I grew up in an evangelical home, but my childhood intellectual life was shaped more by dinosaur books than it was by Sunday school. (I was a dinosaur fanatic. Still am, sorta!)

I only became a creationist in 8th grade, when my (public school) science teacher decided to transform our classroom into a courtroom, and to put the theory of evolution on trial.

He himself, I believe, supported evolution. And I think he thought the evolution side would come out as the obviously true one.

He picked me to lead the prosecution: to argue against Darwinian theory.

And, as a result of that, I became a creationist: not because I was indoctrinated into it, but because I became convinced of the evidence.

(Note: looking back on this, the evidence against evolution that I was looking at was really terrible stuff — since then, I've seen many creationists criticize it, and criticize fellow creationists who use it. The much-mocked "teach the controversy" idea, I think, really is fantastic — but only in an environment in which kids are helped to develop a B.S. detector. Our schools can do this — and, I think, are!)

After we finished the debate, I kept reading. (It really was interesting stuff!) And, slowly, my conviction that the world was made six thousand years ago faded. The arguments (even the better ones) really weren't that strong. When I looked deeply into them, they were convoluted and riddled with holes, and seemed to depend on giving lots of weight to oddball discoveries — for example, what might be a Mesozoic-era human footprint, if you squint just right.

The arguments for evolution, meanwhile, seemed straightforward and robust. Given what we knew of DNA (and math), it seemed impossible that evolution wouldn't happen. And the evidence was everywhere. I realized, at some point in my freshman year of high school, that the earth almost certainly was very, very, very old, and that natural selection was the best way of explaining the evidence — maybe the only way.

And so I became an evolutionist. 

I came to my conviction the old-fashioned way: through personal exploration, helped along by a community of people. (Though, in my case, the community was mostly people who wrote books, and who posted online.)

I think this is a much better way to become convinced of evolution. Why? What does it matter how one becomes convinced of some truth of the world?

One reason is that approaching truth through doubt and exploration made me humble in my beliefs. I recognize that I've changed my beliefs before; I'm likely to do so again!

I said a minute ago that I'm an "evolutionist". I hate that word: the -ist suffix makes it sound like evolution is something I "believe" in. I suppose I do, under certain definitions of "belief" — but what's wonderful is that I'd upend these "beliefs" in a heartbeat if I found good evidence to the contrary.

This is a better way to hold a "belief": humbly, and carefully. The strange thing is that such beliefs aren't weak: they're actually very strong and resilient. 

A second reason I think it's better to come to true beliefs through doubt and exploration: doing so allows you to see beliefs from the inside. And when you do, you see why people love them.

I don't think the Genesis story is true — but boy, do I love aspects of it!

Genesis paints a picture of original harmony — humans didn't slaughter animals; animals didn't even slaughter other animals! Pain and suffering weren't originally part of humanity — a state we can perhaps strive to reach again. And humans were designed to be careful stewards of the natural environment, not exploiters.

So often, in online debates, evolutionists portray creationists as stupid. What they fail to see is that creationism is a beautiful poem — one that can have wonderful implications for how we structure our society.

Our schools don't only seek to immerse kids in good scientific reasoning — they seek to make kids better at understanding all humanity.

Here's another reason I think it better to come to true beliefs through doubt and exploration: by doing this, I became acquainted with what in-depth understanding feels like.

Exploring creationism and evolution meant learning a lot of science — paleontology, biology, geology, and some chemistry and physics.

Even better, it meant appreciating what really is good evidence and good reasoning — and what only seems to be.

I'm a deeper knower now — a much more careful knower — than I would have been without this.

Sometimes, when I feel really passionately convinced of something else (say, some political idea), I'm able to reflect on how that feels different. It feels ungrounded.

I'm not saying, of course, that our schools should lead kids through false beliefs before they get to true ones. (What an effort that would take!)

And I'm not saying that in-depth understanding can only come from leading kids through wrong theories. (Our Learning in Depth curriculum in particular will also aim to develop this sort of understanding.)

I'm only saying that, when a student believes anything to be true without good reason, we should be delighted for the opportunity to patiently lead them through thinking about it. Because on the other side of that patient reasoning lies actual, hard-won wisdom.

This is part of what good teaching is. We should look for more opportunities to cultivate it in our curriculum.

So what can I say to parents who fear the scientific narrative will get crowded out? Just this: that it's only when the scientific narrative is placed amidst the earlier narratives that we can really appreciate what makes it wonderful.

And what can I say to parents who fear the Genesis narrative will be crowded out? Just this: that in most public and private schools, the Genesis narrative is entirely ignored. And in evangelical schools, it is believed woodenly and thoughtlessly (something many evangelical thinkers are critical of). Both of these approaches are tragedies. The Genesis narrative deserves to be taken seriously, both scientifically and poetically. And the role of teachers in our school is not to direct students to this or that belief, but to help them think carefully about all beliefs.

There are, maybe, two other reasons I'm happy to not only tell just the Big Bang story of creation by itself.

First, this doesn't result in accurate belief.

Last summer I went to a presentation by evolutionary scientist Steven Pinker. He talked about how about half of Americans don't believe in evolution. That's bad, he said. But there's something that's worse: that most of the people who say they believe in evolution don't actually understand what evolution is.

"Believers" in evolution tend to think it's goal-directed, Pinker said. That organisms are trying to evolve "upward".

What they actually believe in isn't natural selection — it's something that more closely resembles the medieval "Great Chain of Being".

If you want people to understand evolution, I suggest, help them try to attack it. Help them be skeptical. Help them construct their own understanding of it — and point out where things don't make sense.

Second, telling the Big Bang story by itself — in a culture that believes lots of things (from young-earth creationism to alien intervention) — sets up a very stupid sort of rebellion.

As a teacher, there's something that terrifies me about many of my high school students:

They're so prone to conspiracy theories. 

Aliens, Bigfoot, evil government cabals that encourage vaccinations to murder people and keep the population down — you name it, I've seen kids believe it — worse, zealously adhere to it, even in the face of obvious, overwhelming evidence to the contrary!

And why are they so difficult to convince otherwise? Well, many reasons, no doubt:

Conspiracy theories

But one big reason seems to be that they see themselves as the rebels. They're stuck in a framework that sees common sense as "dominant, corrupt opinion" and see anyone who departs from it as a freedom fighter.

"Hey, I'm just being skeptical", it seems like they're saying.

No, they're not. They're being the opposite of skeptical: they've picked an opinion, and are zealously clinging to it against evidence.

They haven't realized that being skeptical means, among other things, being skeptical of yourself. As physicist, samba-player, and all-around-amazing-human-being Richard Feynman said in a commencement address:

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool.

The way to teach evolution is to start by teaching it along with other stories, and to keep coming back to the question, "How would we know if any of these is true?"

And this turns out to also be a great way to get kids interested in many human cultures.

And to enjoy telling some awesome stories.

That's not it for our first few weeks of Big Spiral History — and it's certainly not it for teaching about the creation of the Universe (no, seriously — where does the Universe come from? what happened before the Big Bang?), nor about Darwinian evolution.

But this is a great place to pause, and seek out clarifying questions. Obviously, certain online communities can get pretty red in the face when it comes to talking about origins — I'm hoping that we can use a bit of that to help us fine-tune how we engage students in these questions.

One question on my mind: Is there a danger in our schools becoming too relativistic? What else would need to come later in the curriculum in order to avoid this?

A second question: does any of this run afoul of the church/state divide? Though we're starting this new kind of schooling with two private schools, we have our eye on eventually starting some charter schools. The church/state question isn't relevant for now, but it might be, later.

So, if you've got questions as to how, exactly, we're going to pull this off, please ask them! Join the conversation on our Facebook page. (And like us, to get updates!)

We're creating a civil community, and any posts that smell of dissing "the other side" will be deleted (ah, I'm sorry I even have to say that, but: the Internet!).

But every other piece of commentary will be appreciated, and considered!

Continuous feedback


A problem:

Feedback is necessary, but terrifying. 

Feedback is crucial for building skill and understanding. A school that takes "mastery" seriously has to not just endure feedback, but embrace it (teachers and administrators as well as students!).

Yet receiving feedback is famously difficult. Every piece of feedback threatens our sense that I'm just fine, thanksverymuch. And if we build lots of feedback into a school and it doesn't work out, school could become Hell.

We need to proceed cautiously, but forcefully.

Our basic plan:

  1. We make a ritual in the school: every assignment and production gets feedback. 
  2. The feedback should be specific. Getting a "B" is unspecific feedback; getting a suggestion for precisely what to consider doing differently next time is specific feedback.
  3. The feedback should be succinct. Being told five things to do differently next time is too much for most people to focus on; being told just one thing is more helpful.
  4. The feedback should be a suggestion. Because no one is innerrant, feedback shouldn't pretend to be authoritative; feedback should (usually) be given as advice — "why don't you try this next time?"
  5. The feedback should prompt a response. Students shouldn't be expected to take feedback passively; they should respond to it, perhaps commiting to trying it out next time, or explaining why they'll go in a different direction.
  6. The feedback should come from the community. Teachers should be wiser than their students (otherwise, why are we teaching?), but they aren't the only sources of wisdom. Suggestions should come from teachers, from other students, and from the student him or herself.
  7. The feedback should accumulate. Advice should be collected, and students should be prompted to see if they're incorporating it into their recent projects. (This can serve as an ego-builder: "I may still be struggling, but not with the same old things!")

Our goals:

We hope to...

  • Create a culture of mastery.
  • Create a culture of embracing criticism. When we hear a kid say, "Sure, I know that this is good — but tell me how I can improve!", we'll know we've succeeded.
  • Create a culture of mutual help. When we hear one kid tell another, "I was really impressed by how you've changed in x," we'll know we've succeeded.
  • Build resilience. Kids are not these fragile things; they're strong. They don't need to be fazed by criticism. (But the only way to learn that is by dealing with criticism.)

If you walk into our classrooms, you might see:

  • Students scribbing down brief feedback after another student completes a speech, or a piece of art, or a meal.
  • A student and a teacher conversing — and maybe arguing! — over the quality of a recent assignment. (When we get a frank but respectful exchange of views, we'll know we've succeeded.)
  • Students spending a few minutes each week reviewing previous feedback about (e.g.) essay writing so they can incorporate it into their new essay.

Some specific questions:

  • Should we aim for a specific ratio of positive to negative feedback? There's a danger in getting too much negative feedback. There's a danger, too, in getting too much positive feedback. Perhaps it would be best to allow the student to say how what ratio they'd like to receive. (That might make students feel more in control, and thus make them more likely to embrace the feedback they receive.)
  • How should we store this feedback? Should a regular assignment be that students copy in their feedback (or a segment of it) into a year-long Google document?
  • Should students give teachers feedback? Doing so could help teachers (and thus everyone) improve more quickly. It could demonstrate our respect of our students.

Kids cleaning the school


A short, hopefully provocative query today: Should we have the whole community — faculty and students — take charge in cleaning the school?

A little background:

I'm a devotee of — think of it as a "Yahoo Answers" written by people who aren't entirely idiots. Some time ago, someone asked a question like "Why is Japan so free of litter?"

There were a number of good responses, but one stood out — that Japanese schools teach kids to value cleanliness.

I've lost the original post, but here's a similar explanation of how Japanese schools do it: by having the kids do the cleaning. (Yes, even toilets!)

I'll admit that I'm really drawn to this idea, but can't quite explicate my excitement for it. I'd be curious to poll our small community — what do y'all think about having kids and teachers do the cleaning?

Conference feedback: People in your neighborhood


This continues our regularly-scheduled series of feedback I got when I presented on our coming schools at the annual IERG conference. Here's the original post, if you'd like to reference it!

People in your neighborhood

Ask the students who they want to hear from — brainstorm to get possible questions to ask.

Ah, see, I'm seeing that I constantly need to hear the "let students have partial control over this, too!" I believe in it — I just sometimes forget it. Thanks, anonymous commenter!

Bring seniors into schools, giving them opportunities to share their wisdom (that they may have even forgotten they have).


Utilize elders!

For years I've been wondering how our schools can help bridge the youth–elder divide. And then I developed this curriculum piece, but didn't see that it's a way to fix this problem.

Thank you!

Cross section of adults, especially in a small community.

Fascinating — a totally different way to think about our goals for bringing in adults. I had been thinking in terms of representing different, say, vocations, or religions, or philosophies — but we'll need to consider whether we want our guests to also represent different socioeconomic classes and ethnicities (even if we never say so aloud).

Enriching people's visits with stories about their professions... and how these professions have had an impact.

I wish I could ask this commenter to explain this more. Do they mean that visitors can share stories about their work lives? Because that's already part of the plan. Or do they mean that stories can be told (by the teacher, possibly) about the history of the profession? (When a hair stylist visits, can we tell the story of where the red-and-white barber pole comes from? Should we set each job in Big History?)

I sort of like that — especially as it's nice to introduce the speaker. Maybe the teacher (and eventually a student) can prepare a 1-3 minute introduction.

They must tell a story, not so much about work, but about life!

Yes! Though with a proviso that putting the word "must" in becomes tricky — we can't control visitors.

I think I'd be happy if a baseline was "students ask honest questions, and the visitor gives honest answers", and if we use all our wiles to tease out fuller stories.

Can the kids return the visit? Choose adults they can have a day with in "their" workplace.

Like a Take Your Daughters or Sons to Work Day? Hmm — possibly! The logistics seem difficult, but there's something compelling in that possibility. (Maybe we could just actively celebrate the fourth Thursday of each April, encouraging parents to let kids come to work, and providing a curriculum for kids to do there — things to watch for, questions to ask.)

This can be a very powerful way of learning — there would need to be a clear template on how to pick these adults (ones who will be fun, interesting, appropriate, who know your learning journey and would make the learning relevant to the students, etc.)

Absolutely correct! At present, I've no idea on how to set this up. Lee, save me!

My most amazing learning experience ever was a visit to William Head Penitentiary. They put on dramatic productions — storytelling. They shared the true struggles of life.

If we could ever take our kids to a jail or prison, it would be amazing. Simply amazing. It would be a sign we'd succeeded in doing important things with children.

Another thing (not responding to a comment, now) —

Last quarter, I tutored a college class about finding one's careers. As one of the assignments, students had to pick three potential professions and research them. What sort of education do they require? How much do they pay (in money, and other benefits)? What are the job prospects like for the next 10–20 years?

Going through this with my student, I thought: my goodness, why did I never do this in school?

I just fell into a career. And I've done fairly well for myself, don't get me wrong — but some advanced scoping out of the possibilities would have been wonderful.

My college student did this in a formal way — better still would be to tie informal stories in with big data.

I'm still not sure exactly how we could do this, but just having students visit the U.S. Labor Department's Occupational Outlook Handbook after each visitor comes in could be a strong start.

We can raise our students to understand the broader world of work.

Kids creating songs


My mulling over our song-a-day curriculum has me thinking: what if we had students regularly create their own songs? I'm inspired by this by the band They Might Be Giants, which...

...long maintained a "Dial-A-Song" phone line. Every week from 1983 to 2006, they'd put up a recording of a new song — anyone could call the number and listen to it.

Sometimes the songs were great; sometimes they were awful! The bad emphasized quantity — and out of that came quality.

Could we do the same with our students?

Writing a song can be scary: perfectionism rears its ugly head. Being required to write many songs fixes that. Throw some notes together! Hum a ditty, slap some lyrics on it, and you're done!

We can set the bar very, very, very low: parodies would be just fine. Can't come up with your own melody? Just take the French national anthem and re-write the lyrics to be about your breakfast.

Why am I in love with this idea? (And, to be clear, I am.) A few reasons.

First, this could be educationally wonderful for the other things the kids are learning: instead of just asking kids to create a song about anything, we could ask them to create songs about something they've been learning about.

Within months, the class could produce dozens of songs about the digestive tract, the chemistry of fire, plate tectonics, and the despotic rule of Trujillo in the Dominican Republic (or whatever it is that kids will be learning about — which will always be dozens of things).

This positions kids as teachers: they'll need to distill information, and find what's most wonderful in it. Ahhhhhh this would be wonderful.

(This aspect of the idea comes from Kristin, by the way).

Second, this would cultivate creators. This is something I've been kicking around: ours are schools for creators. (Or makers, if that word is more appealing.)

Third, creating songs gives a direct purpose to listening to songs. Especially songs of various genres. We can expect to see little snippets of classical, jazz, and rap show up in student-created songs.

Fourth, creating songs also gives a direct purpose to music theory — learning notation, and tempos, and keys, and things even more complicated.

Finally, creating songs could be really, really enjoyable. About that, 'nuff said.

An issue that this brings up: do we want all our students to learn an instrument? I think the answer is yes, but my battery's about to run out, so I'll post about this idea later.

Conference feedback: A song a day


More commentary on the commentary! (We're getting Talmudic, here...) All quotes were given at the IERG conference a week and a half ago. To refresh you memory, you might re-read the original post on a song-a-day — or either of our two posts on dancing!

A song a day

Music is so fundamental to our experience, so I love this idea!

Yeah! Since presenting on this idea, I've been noting how much use I make of music to keep myself engaged, upbeat, serious (or frivolous)...

Music is medication. Perhaps that's why we've developed it, as a species. It's unfortunate most schools make so little of it.

Slowing down a bit. Maybe a song a day is too much too fast.

Maybe! Lee, thoughts?

I like the simplicity of saying that some things are daily, and other things weekly — even if we don't always meet that goal.

Choreography to song

Love it! The more we could integrate it with the dancing curriculum, the better (I assume).

Though I'll admit that I have no idea how to do that. I have some leads on dance instructors in Seattle — Lee, do you have any connections to dance instructors on Hilton Head?

Watch Ben Zander TED talk (very IE).

Zander's talk is "The Transformative Power of Classical Music", and it's quite worth watching!

Near the beginning, Zander says, "In the classical music world... there are some people who think that classical music is dying. And there are some of us who think you ain't seen nothing yet."

I have to admit — this is going to be something that makes me sound very snobbish — I keep returning to the question of whether our schools can have some primacy on classical music.

Classical feels so different to me — relaxing, restorative. I recall once refilling at a gas station that was playing classical — it was an ecstatic experience; purifying, almost. No other form of music (and I enjoy many different genres) makes me feel that way. And I think I'm not alone.

And this ability of classic to calm seems to be helpful, in a school.

So I'll ask (though I feel nervous about sounding like a snob) — any thoughts on whether classical music could have an outsized role in schools?

Listening. Listen to sounds of nature. Listen to the voices of many people. In particular, listen to the voices of trained classical singers!

I'm moving toward (I've mentioned this on this blog, I think) an observation-first model of creativity. If you want to cultivate creativity, cultivate observation. I've grounded our realistic drawing curriculum in this, but that's just visual observation. We should develop a parallel track for auditory observation, through music and otherwise. I've got to think about that.

Individual experience then public, instead of the reverse?

Interesting. This doesn't seem compelling to me right now, but I'll think about this.

Part of my "meh"-ness, I think, stems from the fact that I imagine public listening to be, in large part, private.

I'm thinking that each new song should ideally be played three times. Familiarity brings affection (something advertisers have long known). Each time, though, the classroom should be otherwise absolutely silent, so everyone (even the most ADHD of us) can feel safe in focusing entirely on the music.

With the song the only thing that anyone can hear, listening corporately seems a lot like listening privately.

(Lee, some notes: if we want to make auditory experience so crucial to our schools, we'll need to invest in sound-dampening technologies. If we can ever design our own buildings, that'll mean soundproofing, and classrooms that aren't just separated by folding walls. In the short-term, however, that might mean white-noise generators, of either the electronic or waterfall-y varieties.)

Did this with The Outsiders. The students chose characters and developed albums with song lyrics and visuals. Works very well.

Oh, jeez — there are probably loads of great ways to go deeper into the literature or history curriculum through music! How'd I not think of this? Thanks, anonymous commenter! I'll be on the lookout for more of these.

Oh, by the way!

I've been pondering how we should choose songs. Again, we want to bring in songs that (1) are super-diverse and super-high-quality, and (2) songs that are personally meaningful to teachers. Obviously, there'll be a good amount of overlap between those two categories — but!

I think I have an idea. It turns out there a lot of lists attempting to pick the best music of every genre. The most helpful (for our purposes) list that I've found may be 1,000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die, by NPR music reviewer Tom Moon. I haven't yet read it (I'm caravaning around the Midwest at present), but it looks pretty danged good: the cover indicates it includes jazz, reggae, oldies, opera, folk, soul, and more. (A perusal of the table of contents points to traditional Mongolian singing, rap, funkadelic, rock, and, well, take a look! Here's a very positive review on NPR.)

So here's my thinking: we alternate days. One day, a song chosen from the book; the next day, a song chosen by each teacher. Some back-of-the-envelope arithmetic suggests that between kindergarten and twelfth grade, students will be in our school for about 2,000 days.

Again, there are 1,000 songs (well, "musical pieces") in Tom Moon's book. That means it's about to as close to even as we could ask for.

Alternating like this would also allow for school unity (important, as building a culture requires shared music, art, stories, and other experiences) but also class unity (important, for the same reasons).

Lee, your thoughts?

I've been working on another idea that stems from this, but I'll post it separately. (It's that cool!)

Conference feedback: Making lunch together


More feedback (& my commentary) from my presentation at the IERG conference last week! For the original posts on our (crazy fun) practice of making lunch together, see this long initial one, and this pithier one.

Making lunch together

My own young adult children can not cook thanks to my control-freakish nature! My bad. I wish I could remedy that by turning back the clock.

Ha! That makes perfect sense.

Perfect sense, I mean, because teaching kids to cook takes time, and is dangerous. It takes time (not to mention saintly patience) to teach kids to cook. And when you leave them to their own devices in the kitchen, there's always the chance they'll burn the house down.

Our society has seen wisdom in allowing professionals to take on a similar task: teaching our children to drive. It's time-intensive, and boy, is it scary.

My hat's off to parents who choose to teach their own kids to drive. But for the rest of us, there are driving instructors.

The same thing makes sense with cooking, I think. Only better — once the kids learn to cook with some skill, they can cook together with their parents at home.

Hot dang!


Cultural content: gyoza, dumpling, etc. Could lead into history...

Yes, absolutely! (How fun, too, to not just learn about the culture the food comes from, but the history of the food in that culture.)

Many kids don't know certain foods.

Y'know, I forget about this. There's more low-hanging fruit than I'm prone to acknowledge: how much fun will it be just to introduce kids to, say, sorbet? Or a scone? Or a wild rice soup?


Stories about how spices have affected history...





Food sensitivities, religous restrictions, etc.

Man have I thought a lot about this. The conclusion I've come to is that we'll need to mostly handle this on a case-by-case basis.

(The following thoughts apply to our future school outside Seattle — I won't try to speak for Lee and his school on Hilton Head. Different cultures call for, unsurprisingly, different food norms!)

Since we're taking seriously the ability of food to knit together, community, our reflexive move should be to be as inclusive as possible: if one student can't eat peanuts, then we should avoid peanuts in our meals. I presume there will be exceptions to that — times when we'll make a dish, but serve it on the side, so everyone can participate in the main meal.

As a general rule, I think we should de-emphasize meat. When we prepare it, it should be sourced from a farm that we're happy to have our kids visit. (Whatever the other virtues of industrial meat production, it serves to distance people from their food. We want to war against that.)

Lee, your thoughts?


This was a point that participants made repeatedly: how will we ever have time to do all of these fun curricular things, if we're making food every day? Some participants were quite pessimistic on our ability to pull this off; others were quite optimistic. I appreciated hearing both sides of that.

Lee, here are my thoughts as to how we need to approach the "we're trying to squeeze an ocean into a swimming pool" problem.

  1. A lot of these fun curricular things are done by individual students, during their independent work time — not as a whole class, together. So students will do some of them daily, but others perhaps weekly — or even less frequently than that.
  2. We can have students form teams, and take turns making lunch. One team can make the food, another team can prepare the table, another team can clean up afterwards. This'll limit the time that any one group spends on lunch.
  3. We should guide students to get faster, as they gain experience. I'm not thinking about "fast-food" speed — that's too quick to get kids to think about the chemistry and biology of what they're doing — but a faster pace than they otherwise might fall into. Speeding up could be particular help toward guiding students into a flow state. (Imagine this: cooking lunch as a group flow state. Oh happy experiment we're embarking on!)
  4. We should make sure that our heavy skills-building periods are intense. I've heard this from many homeschoolers, and as a tutor I can confirm it: when students want to learn, and the teacher is prepared, a lot of learning can happen very quickly. In order to justify these other curriculum aspects that could be maligned as "froofy" (cooking, handwriting, place-study, people in your neighborhood…), we need to guarantee that the academic core is strong. (Measuring student progress will be useful here.)
  5. Lee, how long will your school days at Island Academy be? With our Seattle-area school, I'm interested in looking into a longer school day. (Especially if we can abolish/restrict homework.)

More land-based cooking: take part in a hunt, field dressing, skinning, prep, & cooking/smoking, etc. Bridge traditional methods with modern culinary practices.

Whoa. I'm having a hard time imagining pulling this off. (I can only imagine a mother in our office screaming "WHAT DID YOU TEACH MY SON TO DO TO A SQUIRREL?")

But: I love it. I agree that, at least theoretically, this would be a very good thing to do with kids (at least those who aren't ethical vegetarians).

As I continue to mull over this, I wonder if there are a few halfway-steps that we could definitely do:

  • Have kids grow some of their food. (I didn't mention this at the conference, but it should become a very important part of our school.)
  • Collect wild mushrooms. (Dangerous if we don't do it right, so we should do research, and then go out with an expert.)


Can kids choose what they make?

Boy, how did I not think of this before? Yes, they should have a voice in this. It shouldn't be a totally free choice on their part (for one reason, part of our purpose is to take kids outside of their comfort zones), but they should be part of the steering committee for what we're preparing in future weeks and months.

Lee, how can we allow students choice in what foods we'll be eating?


All right, that's it for now. I'll be going camping for the next few days (for the record, we're bringing along our own industrially-prepared food!), but when I come back, I'll be hashing through the feedback I got on our Song-a-day curriculum, and our People in your neighborhood curriculum.

And then, I'll actually start talking about new things!

Conference feedback — Big Spiral History Stories


Continuing to share and comment on the feedback I received at the delightful IERG 2015 conference! For the original posts I've made on our Big Spiral History (BSH) curriculum see these posts on the scope and sequence of BSH, and these on the actual story-telling.

Big Spiral History Stories

Kids need these, because they long for heroes.

Huh — I actually hadn't brought "heroes" into my thinking of the BSH stories. Which is funny, because I've thought a lot about the need for heroes (and the dangers of heroes) in the curriculum.

All right, I'll think about this as I actually begin to make these!

History from whose perspective? Perhaps you should do a change in context — e.g. the colonial vs. the aboriginal perspective.

Yes yes yes! Brilliant, beautiful. I had already been thinking of things like this, but hadn't quite landed on this so neatly. I'll generalize this idea:

When we're telling a story of a struggle between peoples, tell the story first from one side, then from the other. 

I've done something like this when teaching American history — I've had my high school classes read a very liberal book (Howard Zinn's People's History) at the same time as a very conservative book (Paul Johnson's History of the American People). For each historical period — slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, etc. — they've gotten both perspectives.

This is good — great, really — but it's not the same thing as what this commenter suggests: I had my classes engage different ideological perspectives, but not different participant perspectives.

I suspect engaging different ideological perspectives may be better done with older kids (though now that I say that I'm not so sure). Engaging different participant perspectives can be done when kids are quite small.

Why do we teach history?

My usual stump speech:

History isn't a subject, it's the subject. All the subjects are history, to some extent: math and science are the guided re-discovery of ideas that were first mastered by the ancients; art and literature and music are guided encounters with what past people created.

So everything we learn in school in some way comes from history. The difficulty is to understand them all together: to get the big story.

That is: history allows us to understand how all our studies fit together.

Of course, it's not just that we study things that come from the past: we live in a world shaped by the past. Faulkner (I believe) wrote, "The past isn't dead — it's not even past." The things that bedevil us — the craziness of modern parenting, religious conflict, environmental destruction — are just slivers of much bigger story.

That is: history allows us to make sense of everything we encounter.

Also — crucially! — history can be fun. It's fun to enter the heads of other people, especially ones whose minds were shaped in contexts so different than our own.

Who is telling the story?

Initially, the teacher (with help from me, who'll be crafting a "here's some material to tell this story from" kit for each story). Then, after the story has been told, the students take it on themselves, as an activity in their independent work time.

We are storied into existence, our sense of meaning derives from the narratives our forebearers laid out for us. Consider the ethical dimensions of the stories to tell & re-tell. They are the foundations of reality.

Focus on ethical choices — will do! I love it.

Whose story is important?

An epic question!

I suppose the answer is something like "everyone's, but some stories are more important than others." That might sound fighty, but I just mean it to state the obvious. To pick an easy example, my story is not as important as, say, Mohandas Gandhi's. (And if you disagree, well, thanks!)

Gandhi's story is more important because it changed so many other people's stories. So there's one metric for how important a story is: how many other stories did it change?

That's helpful, but educationally it's not enough. One goal for our history curriculum is to understand how the world has been shaped, but another is to understand something of the wild diversity of humanity. So another criteria of inclusion will be whether a story gives insight into minds different from our own.

"Diversity" has become a flashpoint in the culture wars, which it's sometimes (tragically) been flattened into "ethnic diversity".

Ethnic diversity is important, but it's not the only important diversity. Our history stories should also include religious diversity (Christians and Muslims and Buddhists and seculars and Zoroastrians…), ideological diversity (conservatives and liberals and socialists and fascists…), personality (extroverts and introverts and sociopaths and altruists…), economic (rich and poor and middle class…), social (rulers and outcasts and serfs…) and a flurry of other considerations. (I wrote up a list of all of these at some point, but I'm not sure I can locate it again!)

The following are from the same commenter:

Love this idea because I've seen from experience how much more students remember from stories. Things to think about:

  • How will you train teachers so they are comfortable doing this?

I don't know. (Great question.) I'm currently looking into curricula that train people to become storytellers. (I assume that virtually anyone can become a great storyteller.) I think this will be a large part of our teacher training.

How wlil you ensure there is enough of a debrief that students know it was more than just a fictional story (historical empathy)?

Wow — hadn't thought of this at all! I'm not sure — Lee, let's be on the lookout for opportunities to talk about the truth value of these stories (which will get complicated).

How will you ensure the "stories" are historically accurate (not embellishing for dramatic effect — which is what students end up remembering)?

Hmm — I know how do this, but I haven't thought about how to pass along my convictions to other teachers. A very helpful question!

This is all made more complicated by the next question.

Some clarity on history vs. story?

You might expect that, in telling history stories, we'll hew to the facts. No make-believe! We'll only tell things that we have good reason to believe actually happened.

I, too, once assumed we'd do that.

We're not going to.

At present, I'm planning to include a number of mythic stories in Big Spiral History: for example, the Iliad and the Mahabarata.

I'm doing this in part because it's hard to find historically accurate stories from the ancient period: so much of the best stories are fictional.

But a larger reason I'm willing to mix historically accurate and non-historically accurate stories is because it allows us to neatly avoid some impossible-to-navigate choices when teaching religions. Did Abraham exist? Scholars disagree. If we limited ourselves to teaching accurate historical stories, we'd have to have an opinion on the existence of Abraham. No thanks.

Saying "this is a story that people have told for thousands of years, opinions vary" allows us to duck out of a debate that can only hurt us.

And there is, also, a pedagogical reason I'm wiling to mix historically-accurate and non-historically-accurate stories: it gets students wondering what's true, and what's not.

To some important extent, it's not my job as an educator to settle these issues, because that rips a crucial task away from the students.

I'm very open to persuasion the other way on this topic, by the way. What are y'all's thoughts?

Are we losing contextual recitation and a sense of "time" by swapping characters, etc.?

This refers to my statement that, when students re-tell stories, one of the fun things they can do is swap out characters (for example, Gilgamesh for Pericles).

Short answer: yes! By swapping out characters, students will be losing the sense of how a specific character fits in their historical story.

Long answer: no! Switching characters (I suspect) can call attention to how different characters do fit inside their contexts.

For example, swapping out Aristotle (who asserted that some were naturally born as slaves) for Gandhi (who fought to end the caste system) could — at least I hope — get students to recognize how dependent our beliefs are on history.

Or maybe I'm wrong? Maybe a student wouldn't naturally see this? Hmm — I suspect that's right. There really is a danger to lose the sense of history by doing this.

So I propose that, when we have students do this work, we prompt them to consider exactly this question, and give them lots of guidance in answering it!

Thanks, commenter!

Some stories can be very brief — just give a hook!

Thanks! Because of this, I won't insist on four-day stories for everyone — I'll be more bold in spending those four days on a sequence of related characters.

Tomorrow, I'll share the feedback I got on Cooking lunch together.

Conference feedback — public speaking


I'll continue to post about the wonderful feedback I got from participants at the IERG Conference this last week. (Note: If you're interested in our school, you'll want to consider coming to next summer's conference — held in Vancouver, B.C., the first few days of July, 2016.) The following are written comments I got after presenting our ideas about cultivating public speaking superpowers in our kids.

Public speaking

It might be interesting to have another perspective to public speaking… read Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain. There's a TED talk, too.

Ah, I've been wanting to read this book for years, and am now one step much closer! Thanks, anonymous wise commenter!

I'll say this for now: I think that getting all students skilled at public speaking would be even more useful for introverts than for extroverts. The typical extrovert can pick up public speaking abilities — and might even be prone to, just in the normal course of her life. The typical introvert, however, might rather be eaten by eels than stand in front of a crowd. And yet (as Susan Cain found out, once she rocked the TED stage) the benefits for being able to do so can be tremendous.

I should still, however do what our commenter suggested: re-think the whole question of public performance from the perspective of an introvert. (By the way, we endeavor to build our school on neurodiversity — extroverts and introverts; calm people and ADHD wall-crawlers; empaths and people on the autism spectrum. And there are a lot of anti-neurodiversity assumptions built even into progressive, "whole-child" education — such as that kids should always be working in teams.) We need to pursue this carefully.)

One-minute speeches on pre-determined topics & working up to impromptu speeches (pick out of a hat).

Yes! Let me re-state that more generally: we should work from a pre-designed speaking curriculum that starts easy (and fun), and only gradually builds in difficulty. Toastmasters has a children's division — Gavel Clubs. They start with games. I've been meaning to snoop around their curriculum — Lee, count on me to report back to you soon on what I find!

(Oh, by the way — it actually can be easier to work up to pre-planned speeches — the opposite of what our wonderful commenter suggested. Planning is stressful, and imagining yourself on the stage, even moreso. That's the way it works for most adults, anyhoo — I'll check to see if the same is true of kids.)

Will it include debate? drama? great speeches of the past? (e.g. Martin Luther King's "I Had a Dream")

See, this is why it was so worthwhile to float these ideas in front of clever people — yes, we should totally design debate and drama into this! And great historical speeches! (In fact, I think savoring great historical/literary speeches could be a good way for us to cultivate a culture of good speaking.)

Right now, I have no idea how to do this, but it's tucked away in the back of my mind. Lee?

Does helping each child become a good public speaker select against 'introvert' qualities (which can be very important) or would there not be any direct conflict… hmm...

Wow — wow. I'll take this question into my reading of Cain's book (and, what the heck, my re-watching of her TED talk, later today.)

How to resist powerful "beautiful" public speakers (e.g. Hitler and his future heirs).

Yeah — I like this! Arming oneself with rhetorical abilities helps us see through others' rhetorical abilities. "Defensive public speaking".

This next one was written in response to the last:

Should the world be run by people who can move a crowd...

Ah! If someone changes the world to make this no longer true, then I vow to consider taking public speaking out of the curriculum!

Dale Carnegie's program on public speaking might be a useful resource. Also Toastmasters for activity ideas?

I've just added Carnegie's book (Stand and Deliver) to my library queue! Thanks! And, as a proud Toastmaster (really, I believe in the power of anyone to become an amazing speaker because I'm in a Toastmasters group who routinely pulls this trick off), I'm excited to bring what we do to kids.

Love the idea of giving students life skills — this will definitely set them up for success.

Agreed! And "success" as defined a whole lotta different ways, way beyond the workplace. (I've become a much more confident person in the last few years, and I suspect that's due in large part to Toastmasters.)

No matter how many times you perform on a stage, there always seems to be a little fear when you step onto that stage...

This commenter is right — for most people, at least. (A few people really do seem to entirely lose their fear, but they're in the minority.) I overspoke when I presented, saying something like "students can lose all their fear". I'll try to stop saying things like that. The general idea, however, really is true, and powerfully so: we can make the horror of speaking (so bad it detracts from the speaking, even when it doesn't debilitate the speaker entirely) extinct, once and for all. — excellent unit with TED talks on public speaking.

I think the commenter is referring to this unit (I've just e-mailed the person I believe wrote that to make sure). I'll look into it!

In any case, this comment suggests two things to me —

  1. We can learn a lot about public speaking from TED talks — both speeches that are about public speaking, and all the other speeches. We can even learn from speeches that are done poorly — in fact, we might be able to learn more from poorly-done speeches! It suddenly strikes me that we should make a plan to bring lots of TED talks into the school week. I do my daily boring 7-minute workout (the link is to a NYTimes article) while watching a TED talk — we might similarly pair up something dull with that.)
  2. We should consider encouraging our teachers to make their lesson plans public, as this website allows them to do. Eventually I'd like to publish whole giant sets of what we teach in a special site that we give for free to the world — but in the interim, I wonder if we want to encourage teachers to do this for private money. It'd be a way to (1) get these lessons out to the world, and (2) get our teachers to polish their curriculum. If we do this, we'd need to explicitly work out the weird legal situation having to do with the ownership of the curriculum — it partially belongs to the school (because we'll be developing the broad strokes of it) and partially to the teacher (because they'll be refining and personalizing it). Anyhow, that's something to think about.

Do all students need to become public speakers?

Oh, a powerful question! I think that the limited answer is "no", and that the expansive answer is "yes".

No, not all students need to become public speakers in the professional sense. "Public speaker" is a particular job that one can put on a business card. There's a limited need for that sort of person.

But everyone can benefit from having the skills that being able to speak publicy brings. Public speaking brings confidence (at least to those who were scared of it before). It brings the power to clarify: to prune down a thicket of thoughts into a single message that anyone can follow. (It actually might do this better than writing, which can afford to be more complex than speaking.) It brings presentation skills: how can you shape your body to express certain emotions? How can you shape your voice? How can you connect, or disconnect, with your eyes? It even brings (or supports) one of the most powerful skills: story-telling.

It strikes me, actually, that all the skills in Egan's Mythic toolkit could be aided with students' ability to communicate verbally to a crowd.

Tomorrow, I'll share and respond to comments on our history curriculum!

Wonderful feedback from a wonderful conference! (Question-posing)


I attended the glorious IERG (Imaginative Education Research Group) conference these last few days, where I presented a workshop on some of the curriculum practices that I've been posting to this blog! After presenting our ideas to about a dozen wonderful people, I asked them to scribble their radically honest feedback on some posterboards I scattered around the room. The transriptions of their comments (with some grammar corrections and clarifications) are beneath the jump!

Question-posing / Answer-hunting

Big questions about cosmology bridged with traditional stories & narratives.

I think this commenter is saying "incorporate many cultures' stories about the beginning of the universe into your Big Spiral History curriculum, and use those stories to ask the questions that matter!" If I'm interpreting this rightly, then check! We're doin' it!

Questions are so important, but you can have a question on some "content". So, productive questions are generated in the "quest for some content". So I question making question posing an independent period.

Ah, I love this! Of course we do want kids to be asking questions throughout the school day — in math and history and everything! There's some danger that other people (or even the kids, and future teachers) could interpret a separate question-posing period as meaning that we shouldn't ask questions thoughout the learning experience.

Any thoughts on how we should delineate this?

Philosophy for Children.

Yes — and actually, I attended the semi-annual international Philosophy for Children conference earlier this week! Earlier I had posted that we wouldn't have a special P4C (oh, we educators and our acronyms) period — that we'd rather infuse it through the day — though now I'm wondering if that's wise. Maybe we should have a period a few times a week that just aims at philosophical conversation. Or maybe we should infuse our fiction curriculum (which I've yet to post on) with philosophical pondering.

"What questions did you ask today?": an alternative for parents to ask when their kids come home from school, instead of "What did you do in school today?"

OH MY GOSH YES! This is great way of engaging parents into the educational process!

An interesting question comes from this: should we encourage students to take their commonplace books home, or to not take them home?

At some point Skype an expert... from anywhere! After kids get great questions ready!

Yes! Why didn't I think of this?!

Imagine that kids had gotten interested in what fire is. Though this is a simple question, it's doesn't have a simple answer (or, at least, its simple answer is not at all intuitive, and requires an in-depth understanding of a lot of chemistry).

The kids shouldn't ask an expert when they're just starting to explore the question. First they should debate the question among themselves and parents, then they should look for explanations in books, and maybe finally they should look for online sources (this video may be the best on the web).

Only after they've gone through all that, and continue to discuss the matter, should we bring in an outside expert. And imagine the questions the kids would have at that point: questions about real chemistry, asked with an understanding with what the "book answer" says, and with a understanding that they don't understand what it means.

Our grade schoolers may be able to ask more scientifically-brilliant questions than undergraduates.

Maybe I'm being too optimistic: we'll see. But I think we can use teleconferencing to help our kids attain a level of understanding far, far beyond what most K-12 students are able to even imagine.

If asking an expert turns out to be as powerful as we hope it is, we might want to cultivate a small number of experts with whom we have regular calls — maybe once a month, for 15 minutes or so. (I'm imagining a chemist, a historian, a mathematician, a biologist, an engineer, and so on.) We could award those experts a teaching honorific — something for them to feel pride in, and put on their C.V.

Instructions/Background on how to develop a good question or just go with intrinsic abilities and develop along the way?

Great question — I think the answer is to start with kids' skill in asking questions, and tease out an art and science to asking better questions.

There are a few frameworks I think we'd be wise to consider — The Right Question's framework most of all. (We should probably collect a list of potential frameworks.) There might be wisdom in having a framework ready to bring in shortly, as soon as we can identify the ways in which our students' questions are being stymied.

T'morrow, I'll post on the responses we got from the Public Speaking curriculum.

Leitner box


A problem:

We leak memories. In school, we stock up knowledge and understanding — but it evaporates. Forgetting is quick and brutal, and impedes future comprehension.

We leak memories even of things that we value. College, for me, was a never-ending series of wows! (It probably helped that I picked my classes mostly on whim, based on which struck my interest.) And yet I can hardly remember anything from my history degree. I learned this the hard way when I tried to teach a European history class, and couldn't remember any of the delightful little stories I had obsessed over in college. Sometimes, now,  I flip through my class books, and can't believe I've ever read them — there's just no memory there.

We're not even asked to value what we learnIn school we learn, and learn, and learn, but we're not given a chance to determine what things, specifically, we love.

Our basic plan:

Students keep, and regularly review, a collection of what they've found most valuable, or interesting, or wonderful, or important.

Each day each student adds to their collection, creating 1–2 flash cards that encapsulates what they've learned that they most love. Flash cards are made elegantly (however the student defines that) and are stored in a Leitner box.

Each day each students reviews their collection, using a spaced repetition system wherein newer cards get reviewed more frequently, and older cards get reviewed less frequently.

Over weeks and months, everything that students enter into their Leitner boxes gets engraved in their memories: they carry around their favorite knowledge wherever they go, and will for the rest of their lives.

The act of reviewing can be a delight: a chance to re-taste some tasty bits of knowledge and to re-visit their past selves ("Why did I ever think this was interesting?!"). It's also a chance to combine knowledge in new arrangements, making connections between information that was previously unrelated.

Eventually, we may transition the cards to a computerized spaced repetition system, like Anki.

Our goals:

Theologian James K. A. Smith writes:

our identity is shaped by what we ultimately love… what, at the end of the day, gives us a sense of meaning, purpose, understanding, and orientation to our being-in-the-world.

Our hope is that the Leitner boxes provide a chance for students to consciously ponder and freely choose those things, and to reflect on them more deeply (and ultimately build them into themselves).

Thus the goals for this really are that students experience more autonomy in school, see what they learn in school as an opportunity to build themselves, and ultimately care more deeply about what they learn.

If you walk into our classrooms, you might see:

Students slowly going through their day's reviews, smiling in reverie.

At the end of the day, the whole class pausing for ten minutes to reflect on what they've learned, and to carefully make two flash cards out of the choicest bits.

Some specific questions:

  • Each kid should get a specific box, but what sort of box that is, and how it looks (or is decorated) should be up to the individual student.
  • "Flashcard" connects soul-crushing tedium, but these flashcards are exactly the opposite! Should we avoid the word "flashcard"?
  • 1–2 cards per day — is that a good number?