Friday, June 5, 2015

A Restorative Conversation goes really well

May 28, 2015:
A restorative conversation stops a spiraling Tiara.

This morning, I walked into an SBAC testing room and saw that there was cereal on the floor around Tiara’s desk (Tiara is a 6th grade student at our school, and, of course, this name is a pseudonym.) Ms. Napoleon was texting the phone, and Tiara was sitting back at her desk and sulking.I said, “I’m going to pick up this cereal. Tiara, would you mind helping?” I started picking up the cereal, and Tiara started helping. When we were done, I said, “Tiara, can I check in with you?” and walked out of the room with her.

We walked to the dining hall, which was empty - I didn’t walk us upstairs (toward the reflection room) because I didn’t want Tiara to feel like she was being removed from the room. When we sat down, I said, “Tiara, I’m proud of you. A year ago, if I would have asked you to help pick up the cereal, I don’t know that you would have said yes. But just now, you chose to help. You’ve come such a long way.” Tiara smiled, a little bit. I paused for a few moments.

Me: “So what’s going on?”

Tiara started talking quickly, in a high-pitched voice. I couldn’t really understand what she was saying. This is how many of her meltdowns start. I said, “Tiara, I can’t understand you and I just want to hear what’s going on.” She was still mumbling somewhat, but I did my best to hear what she was saying and listen actively.

Tiara: “We were in class and they said we could talk but I was by myself in the back so I asked if I could move and he said no.”

Me: “Who is he?”

Tiara: “Mr. Landshark. So I got mad and that’s when I threw some cereal on the ground. Then Ms. Napoleon was texting for me to get removed and I was mad about that, too.”

I repeated the key facts, then asked, “what were you thinking about when that happened?”

Tiara: “I was mad because he didn’t let me move, and yesterday we already had an issue so it was already bad.”

Me: “Are you saying that part of your anger was carried over from yesterday?”

Tiara: “Yes.”

Me: “What have you thought about since this happened?”

Tiara: “I’m feeling a little better.”

Here, I decided to teach Tiara a little bit about how we, as humans, react to stress. This is where I was hoping most of the learning would take place, both from the perspective of Tiara understanding herself (personal growth) and from the perspective of Tiara understanding others (empathy.)

I explained what some call the “compass of shame”, which I instead called “the four stress responses”:

Whenever we go from a positive feeling to a negative feeling, it causes stress. This is something that happens to everybody: Our brains release a chemical, and whether we notice it or not, we tend to react in one or more of the following ways (I draw the compass):
  • Withdraw: We actually leave the place we are.
  • Avoid: We stay where we are, but we do everything we can to avoid the issue.
  • Attack other: Usually not physically - often this looks like us saying mean things about the other person in our minds.
  • Attack self: Also not physically - this is most often us putting ourselves down in our own minds.

Like I said, we all do these things. Sometimes we do more than one of them. Like when I trip on shoes that I left out and I get mad at my wife. I say in my head, “why didn’t she move those shoes!?” [points to “attack other”] But that’s absurd; it has nothing to do with her! It’s just my response to the stress of going from feeling good to feeling bad that happened when I tripped. Sometimes I’ll say something and somebody else will say something about what I said, and I have a stress response and say in my head, “that was so stupid. I can’t believe I said that. I’m so dumb/inconsiderate/mean.” But I don’t really believe those things about myself; it’s just a stress response.

I ask, which of these stress responses do you think you had today?

Tiara points to “attack other.”

Me: “What happened? Please know I’m not going to share any details of mean stuff you said in your head.” We both smile.

Tiara, “I was just thinking mean things about Mr. Landshark.”

Me: “Thanks for sharing. Again, that’s a normal stress reaction. It’s not what you chose to do; it’s just what happened...did you do any of these other things?

Tiara pauses and studies the compass. Finally, she points to “avoid.”

Me: “That’s what I was thinking. Say more about that.”

Tiara: “Well, when Ms. Napoleon was texting the phone, I was just kind of avoiding the problem, kind of in my own world, trying not to deal with it.”

Me: Sounds like a very normal stress response.

I explained the significance of knowing about this:

There are two reasons it’s important to know about stress responses: One, because it helps you recognize when you’re having one so you can stop it. You’ll notice that you are saying mean things about someone in your head and be able to say, “wait, this isn’t a choice I’m making; I’m just having a stress response.” And then you can give yourself a minute to let your body get rid of the stress chemicals. Because if you don’t notice it, often you’ll do something you didn’t mean, which will cause more stress, and then you’re stuck having a bunch of stress responses in a row.

The second reason is because another thing that causes us to get stuck is when we’re not right with someone else. That feeling is stressful and, if we don’t deal with it, it leads to even more stress responses.

Me: So you said you already felt like you weren’t right with Mr. Landshark. It sounds like that had something to do with what happened today.

Tiara: Yeah.

Me: So in these situations, the way to become right with somebody again is to figure out what harm was done, and then repair the harm.

Tiara: You mean apologize?

Me: Maybe. It probably depends on the harm. Let’s start with Ms. Napoleon. How was she impacted by what you did?

Tiara: She might have been confused because she had just come into the room.

Me: That’s a good start. How do you think she felt when she was texting?

Tiara: Maybe a little concerned, because she was trying to help me but I was avoiding it.

I wrote down: Ms. Napoleon - confused, concerned.

Tiara: And Mr. Landshark, I don’t think he cared because he didn’t notice what I did.

Me: That’s possible, but be careful with that. Just because somebody doesn’t say something doesn’t mean they didn’t notice. If he did notice, how do you think that affected him?

Tiara: He would have been mad...or maybe frustrated.

Me: Great. Is there anybody else affected by this?

Tiara: The kids around me, I don’t know if they saw it, but they might have been confused about what was going on.

Me: There’s one more person who I think has been affected by this, and it’s not me :) Who do you think that person is?

Tiara: Me.

Me: How were you affected by what happened?

Tiara: I was angry. But I’m feeling better now.

Me: What do you think was causing that anger? Were you embarrassed by the way you acted?

Tiara: I think that was it.

Me: Remember, that’s just a stress response. But it made you feel embarrassed, then you got angry. So - do you forgive yourself for having that stress response?

Tiara: Yes.

Me: OK; we’ve been talking for about 10 minutes. I’m curious - what have you learned?

Tiara explained the stress responses to me, fairly accurately. I asked why they matter, and she explained that they’re normal and we have to know they’re happening so we can stop them.

Me: How can you repair some of this other harm? What do you think you could do?

Tiara: I could tell Ms. Napoleon I’m sorry, that I didn’t mean to make her upset.

Me: That would probably help. What about with Mr. Landhsark?

Tiara: Same thing?

Me: What’s that?

Tiara: I think I should tell him I’m sorry, that I was just having a response to my anger and it wasn’t really about him.

Me: Do you think that will make the two of you right with each other again?

Tiara: I think so.

Me: Great! I’ve been learning about this stuff and I find it helps me to explain a lot of things that have happened in my life. Have you found this helpful?

Tiara: Yes.

Me: In what way?

Tiara: Because it helps me know why sometimes I start saying things about myself, but it’s just because I’m stressed.

Me: Thanks; that’s helpful to know. Let’s go back to class and crush this SBAC, OK?

Tiara: All right. [she smiles]

We walked back to class and, on the way, I said, “now, when you go back in there, know that you’re sitting next to some people that sometimes have their own stress reactions that sometimes affect you. Keep in mind when you see them having stress reactions, and notice when you’re having a stress reaction to what they’re doing.

Tiara came into the room, got right to work on her SBAC, called Ms. Napoleon over and said, “I’m sorry for what happened earlier. I didn’t mean to do it”

Ms. Napoleon asked me a minute later, dumbfounded, “what did you SAY to her!?”

Ten minutes later, Tiara and Mr. Landshark checked in outside. I asked her how it went afterward, and she said it went really well. “You’re all right with each other?” I asked. “We’re all right,” Tiara said, and she smiled and got back to work on her test.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Close Reading + Teacher Time Outs

Last week, I had the pleasure of working with one of our teachers for three days straight, trying to learn as much as we could about Close Reading.

Some background:

1. I wrote about Close Reading before. If you're into problem-based mathematics, you are probably the type who would like reading instruction centered on close reading.

2. Close reading is something that Achievement First has been taking fairly seriously for 2-3 years now. It is, at this point, central to our model. This is one of the areas in which I feel very lucky to have been at the right place at the right time, because I've been able to learn about something so powerful from people who really know what they're talking about.

3. Our school's "greenfield" model for next year has small-group close reading at the core of our humanities instruction, bolstered by a barrage of content knowledge, daily small-group writing with feedback, and twice-weekly seminars for students to discuss the big ideas of what they're learning, grounding everything in the myriad texts they've read.

4. The teacher I was working with, Tanesha, is a phenomenal teacher who is leading the close reading in our 5th grade next year, who has taught in a lot of ways and is eager to learn more about close reading. We've worked together in the past, and I'm ecstatic that she is joining our school community (and that she will be one of my own kids' teachers in the near future.)

5. Our close reading teaching cycle takes two days, and consists of
  • A 45-minute intellectual prep meeting, in which teachers get to know the texts (together) and target outcomes deeply and prepare a hybrid script/menu that will allow them to help students draw out key findings from the text while ensuring that the teacher's mind is squarely on student thinking (i.e. listening to students, rather than listening for specific answers.)
  • Day 1 of teaching (45 minutes), with real-time coaching
  • Studying student work and intellectually preparing for day 2.
  • Day 2 of teaching (45 minutes), with real-time coaching
  • Studying student work to determine next steps
6. For what it's worth, our math teaching cycle is fairly similar, except that the two-day cycle doesn't always hold.

Here's what was great about this:

For these three days of "training" (training is in parentheses because it was more like co-exploring than a transfer of knowledge), we only worked with three students (all at the same time). We asked a teacher for a few kids with different levels of reading proficiency and ended up pulling Jordan, Marc, and Tina (pseudonyms, of course). There is something really special about getting to know a small group of kids as learners.

The text we selected, Because I Could not Stop for Death by Emily Dickinson, is simply a great poem. It's a lot of fun to read with kids of different ages. In this case, we were working with fourth graders...I'm not sure I would want to read the poem with kids younger than this, but I remembered the last time a teacher and I read it with a group of fifth graders, one of the kids, Jacob, said it was his new favorite poem OR song. There is a lot of joy in reading great texts with kids. There is also a lot of joy in reading great texts without kids - we did plenty of that, too, and it was exhilarating to dive deeper and deeper into each of these texts together.

By day two, Tanesha was getting far more out of the texts than I had gotten in my multiple reads. She was on fire, and bringing a close reading lens to everything she read at this point. I kinda expected this, because she's amazing, but it's nice to see your concept of someone validated so beautifully.

Probably the most fun we had was in teaching the kids, because of something I learned in a conversation with Elham Kazemi while at the NCTM national convention. I missed her talk at #shadowcon15, but you can catch the re-runs here. Tanesha and I had a lot of fun taking a liberal amount of time outs, asking each other things like:
* How about that line of questioning? Was I really having kids doing the thinking there?
* Should we ask for more evidence or push for more ideas?
* I want to ask this - is it too leading?
* Given what Jordan said, how do we figure out if he understands this? [points to anticipated response from planning page]

At one point, Marc called a "student time out", and the students started discussing the ideas in the poem on their own, without teacher intervention. This was great because it showed student ownership, it was a subtle way for Marc to make fun of us in a collegial way, and it gave us some necessary feedback that we probably weren't spending enough time sitting back and letting kids discuss.

All in all, the experience solidified my belief that reading great texts with great kids and great teachers is a pretty incredible way to spend my days. I'm looking forward to the next round, to seeing this in action with math and science lessons, and to continuing to grow through our school's collective wisdom and ongoing iteration!

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

An exhilarating conversation

Sebastian: Daddy, do you want to know what happened in school today?
Me: Of course I do.
Sebastian: My teacher was subtracting and said, we can't do 2 minus 8. So I raised my hand and said, "yes we can; it's negative 6." My teacher said, "you're ridiculously smart."*

I made a quick decision to ignore the fixed-mindset compliment and instead focus on the positive by focusing on the negative (so to speak):

How did you know 2 minus 8 was negative 6?

Not the best explanation, but the thinking is there.

At this point, you're likely thinking that I'm a math teacher, so I'm probably patting myself on the back for having taught Sebastian how to subtract in this case. I have not. About a month ago, he started asking me what negative numbers were, and I talked him through a conceptual explanation (something like counting down from three, then beyond zero). I was excited not because he was doing 'advanced math' but because he had applied his conceptual knowledge to this new situation.

So I thought to myself, I wonder what this kid can do. I remembered a story my parents told me (about asking about square numbers at an early age) and wrote this on a piece of paper:

0^2 = 0
1^2 = 1
2^2 = 4
3^2 = 9
4^2 = 16
5^2 = ___

10^2 = 100

...and I read it aloud:"Zero squared equals zero; one squared equals one; two squared equals four," and so on, ending with "what do you think is the value of five squared?"

When I returned a minute later, this is what the paper looked like.

 Three things jumped off the page:
1. The kid got it. Nice!
2. His explanation focused on how he knew the answer was 25, not on how he knew what "squared" means. We call this a "what-how" explanation...not nearly as strong as a "what-why" explanation.
3. He decided to go one step further and write 20^2 = 200. I love everything about this, even though it's not correct.

I asked him about the 20^2=200. How did you figure that out? He explained: If 10 squared is 100, then 20 squared is 20 times 20, which is 200. I asked how he knew and he said that 20 was twice as much as 10 so it was 200 instead of 100. I asked him how he could check it and he said, "I could count by 20s." I stayed silent. He started counting by 20s and, when he finished ("...320, 340, 360, 380, 400. Four hundred!") he said, "I don't want to cross it out, so I'll just write 200 plus 200."

My heart sang. And then things got even better when I thought: Let's see if you can do these, too. These might look like your typical exercises, but, given where Sebastian is mathematically, they're at least one step above your average "now that you've seen one solution, try five identical problems."

Sebastian counted by 6 (aloud) to get an answer of 36. Then came 7^2, and he said, "I need to add 7 to 36." I asked why.

He tried it out. He got halfway through and stopped. "Wait," he said, "first I need to add six dots and then seven dots, so I need to add thirteen dots."

How did you get thirteen?

His response was somewhat messy. There was a lot of what-how talk thrown in there ("I need to add seven and six, so I need to add 13, so I know that four more gets us to 40, and then...") and a lot of false starts where he was trying to get to the answer while talking through his method, but his answer boiled down to this: "It was six groups of six but if I add six dots it will be six groups of seven. Then I need to add seven more dots so it will be seven groups of seven."

There are so many beautiful things about this response. The kid is seeing groups in his mind. He's understanding the nature of multiplication. He's using the concept of multiplication to make connections between two multiplication problems. He's using a pattern he discovered to determine that he even needs to multiply in the first place. He's up at 9:30 at night doing math because he (and his dad) just can't get enough.

He then spent about 10 minutes going down a rabbit hole, coming up with various answers that were not the actual value of 7 squared, partly because he was accidentally adding 13 to 30 (not 36) and partly because he was thinking really hard and his working memory was filled with a lot of things and he kept trying to decompose 13 different ways to make the addition easier.

The only helpful nudge I gave was to point to 43, point to 36, and say, "if it were 10 more than 36, what would it be?...but you added more than 10, so it should be more than that..."

At one point, I made what I consider a critical mistake. I said something like, "you're doing it right, but 36 plus 13 is not 43." The second half is fine, but the first half reinforces the idea that there is a 'right' strategy. I should have instead validated that his strategy made sense or that his strategy seemed like it was based on solid reasoning. That's OK. I like Sebastian's mistakes here, and I like my mistake too - if I had not said this, I don't know that I would have reflected on this idea.

He figured it out from there: He laughed at his handwriting-based mistake, used his tens and ones chart, and quickly got 49.

I asked him how he could check to see if he was right and he said, "I could count by sevens, but I don't know how to count by sevens." Then he counted by sevens anyway, and when he landed on 49, his face lit up.

Feeling confident, we strapped on some wax-and-feather wings and tried to see how high we could fly: 14^2. Here are some action shots:

That last picture is his sticks-and-dots representation of 14+14+14....+14 (14 times), and his tens-and-ones chart that he used to figure out what 14 tens and 56 ones added up to.

Here are a handful of brief takeaways from all of this:

1. Sebastian was able to do all of this math because he has been taught everything in a highly conceptual way. From the concept of subtraction to the concept of multiplication to the visual representation of multiplication that allowed him to find the link between 6x6 and 7x7, everything that he has been taught set him up for success here.
2. To take #2 a step further, I would argue that he was able to do math he hadn't yet learned explicitly precisely because he has not been taught a series of procedures. Teaching kids a bunch of procedures means they know those procedures but don't know how to approach procedures they have not been taught. "But his tens and ones are an example of a procedure!", you say. You're right, but this procedure is backed up by his conceptual understanding. When he learns the standard addition algorithm (with the corresponding conceptual understanding), it will be a natural extension of what he has already figured out.
3. To all you engineers out there complaining about how your child's common core math homework is far too complicated, a. in many cases, you're probably right, and b. you're looking at otherwise simple problems seemingly made complex by nonstandard strategies; it may be worth it to also check if your kids can do something you wouldn't have been able to do at their age because of their developing conceptual framework.
4. I'm grateful that Sebastian has teachers who have embraced the Common Core math standards and have committed themselves to teaching things conceptually.
5. Hearing and pushing kids' thinking is a lot of fun.
6. Kids, in general, are capable of more than we often give them credit for.
7. Notice how this "real-world" math was so engaging!
8. More than a handful.

Special thanks go to Sebastian for his hard work, to his teachers at Elm City College Prep Elementary for doing such a great job teaching him mathematical concepts, and to Joseph "Compadre" Yrigollen for his encouragement via text message while all of this was going down. Thanks also to you, loyal readers, for indulging me in a long-winded monologue about the virtues of talking math with your kids.

*The use of "you're smart", while clearly well-intentioned here, is dangerous because it discourages mathematical risk-taking, particularly in relatively high performers who want to preserve their image of being "smart", and discourages relatively low performers from trying - if another kid is just "smart" then no amount of effort is going to get me there anyway. Beware the small phrases that reinforce fixed mindsets!

"We can't do X" is troublesome because it implies that, in math, there are things we can and can't do. The less arbitrary rules we impose on math, the better. After all, even the famous "can't divide by zero" edict really just means that dividing by zero is problematic. I mean, of course you can take a pile of money and try to split it equally among no people. Of course you can take a pack of M&Ms and put them into piles of zero M&Ms. It's just problematic, which is not always a bad thing. Every case of something you "can't" do in math seems to come down to constraints anyhow.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Seven for Sebastian

Hey everybody,

I haven't written in a long time because I've been spending most of my time listening. Also, I've got this quote stuck in my head from Jorge Luis Borges: No hables a menos que puedas mejorar el silencio. Don't speak unless you can improve the silence. I've been following what is happening in Ferguson (and, by extension, America) and have read a few great, thought-provoking books, and I spend most of my non-coaching working hours listening to different ideas about how to make our school better. I'm enjoying all of the listening and learning a lot; it just means I haven't gotten to write much.

But since I'm writing now, let me share a few stories about my son. Barbara often gets to be the star of this blog, but Sebastian gets to be the star today. Yesterday was my birthday, but I haven't written since his seventh birthday, so this one's for him. Here are seven stories so you can get to know him a bit:

1. He came to me one day and said, "I commented on a YouTube video." I was scared and asked him for the details, and he shared that he had commented on a video showing a 'time travel tunnel' that set people's cell phone times back a minute or two. He wrote that the electric lights probably created a magnetic field that interfered with the cell phones' operation.

Preparing, just in case

2. He likes to climb up the walls and do pull-ups on the door frame, and every time he jumps onto my bed he jumps straight into a forward roll.

3. When I told him that I saw the Administrator of NASA Charlie Bolden at the train station, he later asked, "So Daddy, did you eavesdrop on NASA?" For the record, I did not, but I loved his choice of words.

4. He carries his older sister (age 8) on his shoulders and walks around the house. They are inseparable, to the point that he often says, "I'm going to go to Barbara's room now because I don't want her to be alone."

5. When we were at the zoo last week, he said, "Is that a bear?" and I replied, "Nope. Chuck Testa" and he thought it was the funniest thing in the world because he spends his time watching YouTube videos by a couple of lovable goofballs who taught him who Chuck Testa is.

6. He told me a story about how his teacher had him walk to the board to write something and he couldn't reach, so she picked him up so he could reach. He concluded with, "and that was my first time ever being picked up by my teacher." He is way small.

7. This summer, we visited my cousin Sarah's science lab, where she set up a sweet visit with demonstrations and the like, and after one of the experiments instead of a simple "good bye," Sebastian went up and gave the guy a big hug.

With all the good and bad in the world, I'm just happy I get to spend plenty of time with this little guy.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Reflections on Montreal: 1,4, and 5

Avid reader Kerri writes: 

"Considering that I will be taking my 11 year old daughter to Haiti in the summer, where french creole is the language, and which we know none of...I'd be interested in all of the above topics but especially 1, 4 & 5."

Ask and ye shall receive! I'm so glad the two of you have this chance to travel together - it will definitely be one of the most memorable experiences she'll have from childhood, and hopefully will continue to strengthen the already-strong bond between the two of you. I can't wait to hear how it goes and all you learn while you're there!

1. How being a clear outsider in a new setting builds empathy (involves power structures in the US)

First, it's impossible for me to give an honest account of what it is like being a stranger in a strange land without noting that, here in the United States, most of the country's structures are set up so that I, as a straight white male, feel 100% comfortable. When we crossed the border back into the United States, I instantly felt more comfortable, which I'm not sure I would feel if I were somebody else. Many African Americans have reported feeling this same sense of relief upon entering Africa, because they feel like for once they are not seen as unwelcome or "other" by legal, political, and/or social forces.

Second, traveling as an American is never the same as being an immigrant to America. As Americans, we are sometimes looked down upon due to various stereotypes but, more often than not, we are welcome as tourists. There are no real long-term pressures to conform, and there is nobody actively seeking to have us removed from the country.

With all of that said, there is something really powerful about looking around and knowing you don't really belong here. This manifests itself in hundreds of very small ways: Being in a restaurant and realizing that you don't know what to order because you don't understand the menu, people asking you a lot of questions that you don't know how to answer, walking down the street and not even having a sense of what anybody else was talking about around you, not being able to make small talk with the people who cleaned our room or the receptionists or cashiers or anybody else, really - we weren't able to adequately express our appreciation for all the nice things people did on our behalf or our interest in the lives of others. On this trip, because we spent much of the time walking down the street, hand in hand, I suppose we looked like I might have the answers to some of these questions, all asked in French:

Which way is the insectarium?
Which way is the lake?
At what time do the parking meters stop charging?

My answers to #1 and #2 were "that way" (in English), and #3 was "je ne sais pas". But I was also asked a handful of other questions that I didn't understand, to which I replied, "je ne parle pas francais." It's one thing to be able to say, "hey, I'm sorry, but I have no idea" and another to basically end the conversation.

In any case, being unable to communicate with people in the way you'd like happens to be a great catalyst for considering the plight of others. (Caution: It's not the same; it's never the same. I wouldn't ever say, "yes, I know exactly how ___ feels because I, too, have felt this same way while traveling.) Feeling out of place is a good reminder that there are millions of people who feel out of place in America. Remembering that we're feeling out of place by choice makes this even more powerful - think of the people who feel out of place and have no choice in the matter.

This is all a fancy way of saying that stepping out of our comfort zone is generally a good thing, particularly if - like me - your comfort zone is really comfortable, because it reminds us that all this comfort is something we often take for granted.

But wait - wouldn't this be possible without international travel? Couldn't we just go to another part of the United States, or even another part of our own city?

4. My obsession with language and, in this case, inability to grasp even the most obvious dialectical differences (involves some technical linguistics and, ultimately, why we went to Montreal over, say, Toronto, or another part of New Haven)

I spent the summer of 2001 in Puerto Rico, studying music and dance (because college is great), and while I was there I met a man named Ali who sold scented oils on the streets of Old San Juan. He was born in South Carolina and called himself a citizen of the world, and we had a couple conversations that have stuck with me. The vendor next to him was from Argentina (call him Carlos), and Carlos and I had been talking about Argentina because I had spent a previous summer working and traveling there. Ali asked me about my travels and I asked him about his, and at one point he asked me why I did all this traveling. I replied that I wanted to get another perspective about how people lived in different places, and he said, "well, if you really want to see how people live and experience the world differently, you don't need to come all the way over here. Go to the American South. Stay with a black family in Mississippi. See what their life is like."

Ali's point is a great one. Did I (do we?) travel far away to forget that there are immense differences at home? Was I uncomfortable with the prospect of experiencing firsthand the sense of being an outsider so close to home?

Probably. But there's also something else: I love language in general, and the Spanish language in particular. I wanted to learn to speak Spanish really well. I wanted to hear the differences in how people spoke Spanish in different places. I found it fascinating that people in different places could have the same thought - the same word in their head, even - and that their mouths could consistently produce the sounds in such unique and beautiful ways. I wanted to be surrounded by a bubble of language.

So that's why our family went to Montreal: I wanted us to be surrounded by another language. Yes, we went to some fun attractions and had fun at the park and ate poutine, but this was really because I wasn't going to be able to convince my kids to sit still on a park bench and just listen to people (also, because there is some fantastic stuff to do with kids in Montreal and I wanted the kids to get the most out of it.)

On this trip, as on so many others, I found myself obsessing over both the phonetic (how it sounds) and social (how people use language to interact with one another) aspects of language

In Montreal, "bonjour" is pronounced, at least 50% of the time, as "bonshour" (the j is not vocalized.)

Vowels after a nasal consonant are often nasalized and seem to be formed differently from what I've heard before, which I can only due justice by referring to the "main" as in "whatcha doin, main?"

In terms of other differences between Parisian and Quebecois French, I have no idea. I looked it up afterward but I didn't recall hearing any of it firsthand; it is fascinating to think that these accents most likely sound completely different to native speakers of French, but I could listen to somebody for an hour and not be able to tell where they're from.

5. How we grappled with culturally appropriate code-switching and never quite figured it out (what we learned and didn't learn about being non-French speakers in a French-speaking city)

This primarily involves the social aspects of language.

Everybody we met spoke French to one another and, initially, to us. After three days, I never figured out the etiquette of how to tell people that we don't speak French or whether to let it become known through blank stares or badly pronounced, mis-timed ouis and nons. I understand about 50% of what people say to me, and about 10% of what is said around me, but when it's time to speak, I can't really communicate much other than "I don't know", "yes", "no", and "I am a pineapple." Throughout our trip, we tried greeting people with:
* "Good morning" (to get the point across),
* "Bonjour, good morning" (in an attempt to get our point across but show a little deference first), and
* "Bonjour" (which did not get our point across and was often followed by a French question, a quick yes/no reply or blank response from me, and then a lot of English.)

Then, after having an entire conversation with somebody in English, some folks would wrap it up in French, which seemed to be a reminder that, hey, we're still in Quebec, and the language here is still French.

In any case, though code-switching is something most of us to do some degree, this trip required a level of code-switching that I don't yet understand very well - it reminded me of when I was first learning Spanish and found myself in all Spanish-speaking situations, and I didn't know whether the more respectful thing was to butcher the language (look, I'm not going to force my language onto you) or not (look, I'm not going to butcher your language and pretend like I'm doing either of us a favor here.) My response to that set of awkward circumstances was to get better at Spanish really fast, but I don't know how much time I'll have to get better at French right now, or whether that's the best way for me to choose to spend my time. But next time we're here I'll probably figure out more of the rules, and we'll see where things go from there. 

Any advice here? Does anybody out there have a good way of letting people know you respect and love their language but have no idea how to use it to communicate?

Friday, April 18, 2014

Montreal: Choose your own adventure

Hello, friends!

The kids and I just spent a few days in Montreal. We had a great time, but that's not a very insightful post in itself. I have a lot of insights from this trip, but don't want to write 10 pages of insights. What do you want to know about?

1. How being a clear outsider in a new setting builds empathy (involves power structures in the US)

2. How direct experiences such as travel are so much more effective at building academic background knowledge than just about everything else (involves anecdotes about the trip that will stick, and why)

3. If I were to take a class to Montreal, how would we prepare? (involves Rafe Esquith)

4. My obsession with language and, in this case, inability to grasp even the most obvious dialectical differences (involves some technical linguistics and, ultimately, why we went to Montreal over, say, Toronto)

5. How we grappled with culturally appropriate code-switching and never quite figured it out (what we learned and didn't learn about being non-French speakers in a French-speaking city)

6. The nexus of circumstances that have led us to be so fortunate to be able to take this trip in the first place (involves why we will never take this sort of opportunity for granted)

All of the above, of course, involve funny and touching anecdotes about Barbara and Sebastian.

Vote in the comments! Or send me an e-mail! I'm happy to write about any of this but think putting all of it together defeats the purpose of sharing any of it. Let me know what you want to know, and I'm happy to oblige :)

Tuesday, March 4, 2014


If you're curious, you can read my preamble to this project here.

I subscribe to the philosophy that simpler is almost always better. Keep that in mind as you read my macro-structure for teaching character in writing class.

Every Thursday in writing class, which is already #ThrowbackThursday, we currently play classic jams from the 80s and 90s (and some 00s, though that makes me feel old) - it's heavy on Destiny's Child, N'Sync, Backstreet Boys, and other staples of my late adolescence. We also invest heavily in teaching sentence frames (much gratitude to Doug Lemov for the inspiration) but we haven't yet put the two together with character - until now.

Assume the following:
1. Our kids know the names of the "big seven" character strengths and their definitions, with some level of background for each.
2. We have 10 minutes every Thursday for this activity, in writing classes of about 30 kids each.

We start #ThrowbackThursday by reviewing two character strengths (the ones we're focusing on) and a couple sentence frames (see below)

We then show a "protagonist card" (e.g. Justin Timberlake, Beyoncé, Frederick Douglass), two "sentence frame cards" (e.g. sentences beginning with "despite" and sentences that include the words "neither" and "nor"), and a "character strength card" (e.g. "grit", "social intelligence") and have students use the Rally Robin structure (whereby students take turns writing as many creative responses as they can) throughout the duration of the #ThrowbackThursday song that use the protagonist, one of the sentence frames, and the character strength in a grammatically accurate and plausible way. Does the song have a character-themed message? Of course it does! Does the song incorporate one of the sentence frames at some point in its lyrics? Maybe! 

Bonus points (utterly worthless bonus points, that is!) will be given for responses that incorporate a reference to the song that is playing at the time, but our debrief will focus largely on creativity, correct use of the sentence frame, and students' interpretations of the character strength being described (e.g. In your sentence "Despite her quarrels with some of the other members of Destiny's Child, Beyoncé showed a lot of social intelligence by speaking well of them even after launching her solo career," how does this action show social intelligence? Are there any other character strengths Beyoncé showed through this action? What have you done in a similar situation? What would you hope to do next time?)

For good measure, I'll ensure the debrief highlights the grit it took to continue generating increasingly ridiculous sentences, the social intelligence it took to let your partner have a turn when you really wanted to just write your next sentence already, and, of course, the character strengths exemplified in the student-generated sentences themselves. Throughout, we'll have a lot of fun (see zest.)

I don't mean to plant any ideas in your head, but allow me to highlight that I'm planning this before doing it with students (some may say "proactively"), it's a student-centered activ(e)ity, the character strengths align to both the song lyrics and the actual student actions during the activity, and this activity recurs every Thursday.* I should also point out to the hashtag-averse that all the kids are doing it, and its use gives us permission to play cheesy music under the guise of being "hip to the groove" (as all the kids are saying these days.)

Let me know how you would simplify or otherwise improve this macro-structure!



*For full points, here's one piece of relevant research: Seligman's research is not limited to character growth in the "Big Seven", but underscores the importance of using one's own "signature strengths" as levers to improve in the "Big Seven", which is the reason behind expanding our list of character traits beyond the seven that seem to get most of the air-time. Boom. Two points.