An Inquiry into Time, Thought and Identity

Metacognition within perceptions of time and self mediates attention. As an approach to learning skill, metacognition involves knowledge of cognition, which allows a person to actively control thinking during the thinking process. Hence it is often defined as “thinking about thinking.” Approaches to learning such as ways to monitor understanding, evaluating process and progress of learning, and making decisions about use of time are metacognitive approaches (Livingston, 1997). When a learner is able to control thinking using different strategies or approaches, he or she is able to adjust, evaluate and readjust a myriad of factors surrounding the environment and process of learning he or she uses to improve learning. Metacognition supports self-regulation by allowing the learner to practice targeted attention (Goleman, 2013) to factors such as the learning environment, process, time, and personal investments in these.

Strategies allow for the abstraction of metacognition to become concrete, practical approaches. An example would be while reading actively, the reader uses questions as self-tests for comprehension and monitors the effectiveness of the strategy in terms of the learning objective (comprehension). The strategy of using questions is a cognitive move, while the strategy of monitoring its effectiveness is metacognitive (Livingston, 1997). Learners practicing metacognition while learning develop and use feedback systems to self-direct learning.

Cognitive Strategy Instruction (CSI) is a tool that is worth mentioning in instruction about thinking. A simple way of expressing this tool is to ask students to think of “How do I do this and why am I doing it this way?” The how is the cognitive move, while the why involves finding approaches to monitoring the thinking. CSI is based on the Self-Regulated Strategy Development (SRSD) model used in teaching writing. In the SRSD model, students who are producing text are asked to perform the following explicit cognitive and metacognitive moves (Council for Exceptional Children, 2009):

  • Self-monitoring as a goal is set and a process designed for students to make the process visible
  • Self-instruction as the students discuss the process and decisions made, use a checklist, use a visible guide for the writing process
  • Self-reinforcement can involve self-talk, use of additional reading or research to keep the flow of the process going
  • Metacognition through modeling think- or read-alouds
  • Self-assessment through a checklist or cue cards, or ways to use questions to evaluate own performance, such as developing a rationale for writer’s choices

An interesting idea in the inquiry towards nurturing agile thinkers is the effects on perceptions of time on how learners learn. Time to think is a requirement for effective self-directed learning.

Being busy without time for reflection creates a mental environment of ceaseless action without deep thought. With this condition, how might we allow for insight, solution design, and making connections?

Photo By Brocken Inaglory. The image was edited by user: Alvesgaspar - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Photo By Brocken Inaglory. The image was edited by user: Alvesgaspar – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0.

We know that engagement in immediate tasks at hand allow for the possibility of flow: concentration which stretches thinking and capacity. Time for self-reflection is crucial for tasks that ask students to find personal relevance through metacognition. When we think about our thinking, the expansion of our awareness involves knowing how much time to invest in a task and why. Because we become more aware of time constraints, we might also become more aware of changing craftsmanship –whether it is allowing more time or less time—as a function of what we know, understand and can do.

Time is a perception that can change the ways we know, understand and can do. It is a moment of optimistic intersections between all the things we are and the significance of our aspirations for what we must inquire into and rehearse. As time becomes less an external construct and more of an internal one for the learner, he or she allows for time to engage the self, binding identity to the task at hand.

Because the perception of time makes it relative to self, time can protract or extend as necessary within the perceptions of the learner. Challenges like open-ended tasks then allow us to perceive how we have significantly crafted use of time, and how we learn through strategies including metacognition.

Using Reflection

In lesson design involving approaches to learning like metacognitive strategies and use of time during tasks, it might be useful to use reflection as opportunities to develop both. When we stop to record a moment of learning, we step out of engagement in cognition to think about it and how it affects the time available.

This is the ‘trick’ of metacognition—to be able to step out of engagement to reflect on it, to integrate the moment itself and its experience with the reflective thinking as we take action and document its significance.

References
Council for Exceptional Children (2009). A focus on self-regulated strategy development for writing. Retrieved from http://s3.amazonaws.com/cmi-teaching-ld/alerts/3/uploaded_files/original_alert17writingSSRD.pdf?1301000388 on May 7, 2016.

Goleman, D. (2013). Focus; The hidden driver of excellence. NY: Harper Collins.

Livingston, J. A. (1997). “Metacognition; An overview.” Retrieved from http://gse.buffalo.edu/fas/shuell/cep564/metacog.htm on May 6, 2016.


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On a More Beautiful Question

In rethinking the shift to constructivist approaches in the classroom, one guiding principle stands out as key in considerations around inquiry. Warren Berger, in his book A More Beautiful Question, captures the process of inquiry, “Ambitious, catalytic questioning tends to follow a progression, one that often starts with stepping back and seeing things differently and ends with taking action on a particular question” (Berger 7). Designing inquiry into classroom learning accepts that the learning trajectory of students:

  • Follow individualized, personal processes
  • May use investigation cycles for guidance
  • Can result in shifting perspectives
  • Can result in taking action based on learning

Inquiry is individualized and personal

Students may be curious about different aspects of the big idea presented in the statement of inquiry of a unit. Teachers need to consider the scope of the unit, the time it is allocated, and what could be personal trajectories and choices students can pursue. Design considerations about the scope of the unit depends upon the scope addressed in the statement of inquiry. One suggestion might be to discuss with students as the group deconstructs the big idea or statement of inquiry.

For example, if the statement of inquiry is something like, “Several forces act upon people as they migrate, creating challenges for both migrants and natives of a place and diffusing cultures in unexpected ways,” some of the sub-ideas might be:

  • There are personal reasons why people migrate
  • There may be social forces that compel groups of people to migrate
  • The experiences of migration are both individual and social in essence
  • Migration does not happen in a vacuum, so there will be forces acting upon the movement of people, and these forces are experienced in a variety of ways.
  • Migration of people can create challenges for migrants.
  • Migration can create challenges for natives of a place.
  • Culture is diffused when people migrate, as immigrants bring their culture to a different setting.
  • Migrants must necessarily encounter cultures in the place to which they migrate.
  • When ideas collide, new ideas might emerge.
  • Diffusion of cultures can happen in unexpected ways.

Students might choose to investigate different aspects as each seems significant to themselves.

When this happens, teachers need to allow for this scope and variation in the lines of inquiry.

Inquiry is cyclical and iterative

Firestein (Berger,16) suggests that “One good question can give rise to several layers of answers, can inspire decades-long searches for solutions, can generate whole new fields of inquiry, and can prompt changes in entrenched thinking,… but answers, on the other hand, often end the process.”

A linear approach to lines of inquiry means that as soon as students find the answers to a question, the inquiry ends.

We know that effective investigations give rise to additional questions. This is inherent in investigations because all knowledge and concepts are interlinked in any number of ways. When students are taught that asking questions means being open to an interdisciplinary universe, they might become more open to extending inquiry as they progress through their investigations.

The usefulness of Criterion B in any of the MYP subjects is perhaps to anchor inquiries to subject-specific processes. A process “may not provide any answers or solutions, but, as one design-thinker told me, having a process helps you to keep taking next steps—so that even when you don’t know what you’re doing, you still know what to do” (Berger 33).

Inquiry can result in shifting perspectives

In the unit exploring the big idea “Several forces act upon people as they migrate, creating challenges for both migrants and natives of a place and diffusing cultures in unexpected ways,” students might discover these ‘answers’ which might give rise to the follow up questions (in italics):

  • Students will know the subject content of migration cases, various reasons why people migrate, and the choices that are enabled or limited by standards and laws of migration in different countries. How do laws limit choices?
  • Students will understand the concepts of change, causality, choice, and perspective. How does perspective frame the freedoms of peoples?
  • Students will apply the skills of constructing a research question and explaining its relevance. Why might one research question be more effective than another?
  • Students will use both qualitative and quantitative data to answer a research question. To what extent are qualitative and quantitative data valid and reliable? How do I know?
  • Students will prepare a synthesis of the information they have gathered through qualitative and document research. How does my presentation influence how I communicate?
  • Students will think critically about the concepts, cases and data gathered in various text types, including both written and visual texts and through interviews. How do we know that a source is reliable? How do I evaluate sources?
  • Students will discover various perspectives about migration and explain these. To what extent does perspective influence people’s choices?

Inquiry can lead to action

We notice that questions deliberately unpacked from a generalization such as a big idea transcend the content of a subject area. As the questions take students to inquiries around big ideas, the questions (and answers) they find that their inquiries touch upon issues of our human commonality, issues that we grapple with in the real world in our attempts to find viable, sustainable and fair solutions.

As students consider these issues with some depth of understanding, they just might find shifting personal perspectives, and be moved to responsible action.

John Seeley Brown writes that “a questioner can thrive in these times of exponential change” (Berger 28). Brown suggests, “If you don’t have the disposition to question, you’re going to fear change. But if you’re comfortable questioning, experimenting, connecting things—then change is something that becomes an adventure. And if you can see it as an adventure, then you’re off and running.”

 

References:
Berger, W. (2014). A More Beautiful Question. NY: Bloomsbury.
Lavina, A. (2015). Designing Understanding into Unit Plans. Amazon: Vitamorphosis.

Photo Credit: CC By Staff Sgt. Patricia McMurphy (https://www.dvidshub.net/image/1977195) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

 

 

 

 

Message in a Bottle

A teacher asked me today, “Why is it that my students do not see the value of poetry?” She had followed the literature text’s suggestions, asking guided questions so students could access the meaning of the poems in the text.

We dialogued on the flow of the lessons in her unit, and found that the design was deductive. Starting with the big idea of what poetry is, the lessons followed a general to specific study of poems, how they were constructed, naming devices, and then analyzing the devices to get to the meaning of the poems.

The students disengaged at some point, and the outcomes they achieved in analysis were mechanical, lacking elaboration, and the students grew increasingly incurious as the unit progressed.

As our discussion deconstructed the lesson, we established that the points wherein the students did invest curiosity were the sessions when they had a personal interest in the meaning that the poems held in relation to their own lives and when there were connections to concepts that organized meaning in their thinking.

We decided to investigate what might happen if we flipped the unit on its head and began by provoking thinking about structure from meaning.

I told this story.

Several years ago, a teacher brought to class an apology letter. It was a letter that was written to someone that the author had offended very deeply, and realizing the offense and the effect it had on the friendship, the author wrote the letter and meant to read it or send it to the friend who had been offended. But the friend was gone, moved away, and the author never got to send the letter or say the apology to the friend.

So the author wrote the letter. The teacher read it out loud with emotion. Then she asked the class to think of a situation where each of them had offended someone, but upon realizing the offense, had not had a chance to apologize. She asked them to write that apology in class.

They did. When they finished the writing, the teacher asked them to take that letter home and rehearse reading it, so that all of these devices would express exactly how they felt:

  • Pauses
  • Tone
  • Pace
  • Volume
  • Stress on specific words

Students were to read the text with the choreographed use of their voices and silence, and then the class would discuss the meaning that they understood from the reading.

When the class met again, the students did read their letters out loud. The class deconstructed how the devices they worked on in the reading added to the meaning of the text.

Then the teacher presented a problem: What if the text was a message in a bottle? What if a stranger picked it up after it had washed up on some faraway shore, and you wanted that person to read it as you had felt it?

The students discussed this new problem. They said, it was impossible to truly understand from reading the text. “The stranger cannot understand the meaning without the voice. Without the gestures. Without the pauses, the speed, the pace of the reading. These things gave the words meaning.”

The teacher then asked, So how do we show those devices in the structure of a piece of writing?

The students discussed further and came up with the following: We know emotion in text through the pauses, the breathing, the pace, sound, tone.

The teacher then asked them to rearrange the lines of text in their letter, so that these elements were represented in its structure.

And the students came up with line breaks, stanzas, punctuation, use of lower case and upper case letters and words. The apology letters began to look like poems.

They read the text out loud using the devices as cues for how it needed to be read, and the author gave them feedback on whether their reading illustrated the text’s meaning.

Shortly after the class constructed the relationship between structure and meaning in language, they began to study a variety of poems and inquired into how the construction of the poem, how it was crafted, influenced its meaning.

In the discussion of this instructional story, we realized a few important considerations.

  • The beginning of the unit on poetry started with personal relevance: the relationship in which the offense was made, the personal writing that would address a rift, an old wound.
  • The students engaged because of the personal connections they made to the writing task.
  • The task allowed an investigation into structure using situated learning, what Papert suggests is the experience of context as the driver of learning.
  • The problem of the message in a bottle presented an intriguing situation where students would need to manifest knowledge and understanding of concepts like purpose, structure, audience imperatives, style, context.
  • Connections were facilitated between structure and meaning.
  • Students discovered the relationships between structure and meaning through the concepts and the examples illustrating the concepts.
  • Students were asked to transfer their learning from analysis of the structure of a personally-relevant text to the analysis of unfamiliar texts.

The value of the what-if question is its inherent demand to think divergently. Asking, What if someone had to read and know meaning without the author providing the voice as a tool to convey that meaning? presented the students with a situation that called for making connections between ideas that were not usually linked together. Minds were opened, and students were able to make the connections, which gave insight into the relationships between structure and meaning.

Photo Credit: By Šarūnas Burdulis from USA – Sea-mail. You’ve got mail! Uploaded by GiW, CC BY-SA 2.0

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Getting out of the way

Have you ever asked yourself what might happen if you thought up a unit’s conceptual framework, and let the students use what they know and can do to design their own learning?

A unit taught recently began with explorations of the key concept and time spent formulating a definition of creativity by expanding the idea of the phenomenon. The goal was to see creativity as not just a manifestation of compulsion in visual and musical artists, which was a stereotype we wanted to break.

Students used video, photographs, memes, blog articles, social media articles and other cultural artifacts to provoke thinking about the definition of creativity. Together, the group refined their definition so that it no longer included only what visual artists or other traditional artists did, but also to encompass the greater uses of creativity in life –sports, problem solving at home in the DIY movement, reusing materials and reducing waste, cooking, making playlists—the list of what might become creative endeavors grew as the students explored portraits of creativity from different media. After they had defined creativity as “the ability to rearrange and reinterpret things to create solutions,” students wanted to know more background knowledge from creativity research.

The students engaged through questions. They created questions, which came from their personal interests. The variety of questions astounded. The students came up with questions that well illustrated the distinction between factual, conceptual and debatable questions. Also since the topic of creativity was new to many, students started with factual questions to learn what creativity was in different contexts, how it worked, and why some people were considered creative – questions which helped them to create further questions that gradually narrowed their research focus and further refined our definition of creativity.

  • What is the science behind creativity?
  • What is the Romantic idea of creativity?
  • What mental illnesses have been associated with creativity?
  • How is creativity used in architecture?
  • What are some ways creativity might be portrayed?

We see from the sample questions that the students were able to start with factual questions.

In a subsequent round of question-formulation, with many of their factual questions answered, students began to explore more conceptual questions.

  • Where does creativity come from?
  • How do you define a creative person?
  • Can wealth have an effect on creativity?
  • How does creativity impact lives and places?

After two weeks of answering and sharing what they had learned from factual and conceptual inquiry, students began to ask debatable questions.

  • Are some people more creative than others?
  • How is creativity helpful in everyday life?

The class discussed how we might expand our inquiry by addressing some of the debatable questions in a panel discussion with the community. Students and teachers were invited to a presentation and panel discussion.

At the panel discussion, each student spoke to his or her research questions and what was learned. The audience members were responsive, and asked questions of their own. Sometimes, the class would answer the audience’s questions; other times, the questions would be beyond the scope of the inquiries and remained questions to be explored further.

After the panel discussion, the students went after one more line of inquiry and then they began to prepare their summative tasks. The summative task was to capture what they had learned in a personal manifesto. All students opted to write a personal manifesto for creativity for life. They chose formats that they felt captured their creative identity.

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Getting out of the way was the best thing I did for my students.

The unit was completely student-generated. The decisions that the teacher made consisted of choosing the key concept, the related concepts and the approaches to learning to explicitly teach during the course of the unit.

These were the student decisions:

What materials might provoke thinking about creativity.
Students brought in different materials and used it to expand their thinking about what creativity is and where it is expressed.

What they wanted to learn

The questions that students created started with finding background information by asking focused factual questions.

The process of learning

Students expanded their questioning to include conceptual and debatable questions after they had found background knowledge about creativity. They chose their lines of inquiry and used a range of materials to explore and synthesize answers from the materials. Students also made unusual connections between ideas.

Often the worry about using open-ended inquiries is that students will go off on a tangent and never get the content, concepts and skills that we are supposed to guarantee they will learn.

It is not easy to let go of the control that teachers have over content covered through a highly structured scope and sequence. When we do, what might happen?

Students ask questions.

Students who ask questions that are relevant to them work harder than anyone else to find answers. They use a wide range of skills to find answers, too: research, self-management, organization, communication, collaboration, critical and creative thinking skills were evident in their inquiries.

Screen Shot 2016-04-22 at 12.30.29

Students ask more questions. Their questions reach complexity as a matter of course as their knowledge increases.

Students like authentic audiences. They prepare with care when they know that others want to, and will, learn from them.

At high school level, students are approaching independence in the ways they access knowledge and conceptual understanding. They have more experiences than before so they are able to make connections to real-life situations and multiple, global perspectives. If they had been provided rehearsal in making connections between ideas, they will form new connections when given opportunities.

And when they are given structured autonomy, students are able to inquire independently.

The most satisfying feature of the unit was the students’ ownership of learning and self-directedness in their learning process.

When what we want is a self-directed learner, and we might create environments where that can happen, we might learn that effective teaching is creating situations where people can be effective learners. Then we just let them be.

Changing where Learning Lives

A quote that caught my attention on Twitter the other day is “So much school reform, and so few results.” What are our hunches why?

Screen Shot 2016-04-04 at 19.03.24

Granted, there are a lot of moving parts to change leadership. Change is a layered, complex set of needs, thinking, action, assessment feedback, and iterations.

As we reflect on the shifts in the ways we think and work in schools, we might notice that there is a relationship between the complexity of the facets of changing schools and the ways educators need to respond. Our responses need to be framed within the complexity of the problems we face as we work toward coherent, aligned systems in which people –whether they are students, teachers, administrators, parents and the communities in which schools are situated—respond to the shifts we aim to enact.

At the Thinking Collaborative conference at Hong Kong Academy last month, a takeaway that resonates with me is that in the complex work of change management, there is a constant guiding principle of education that educators and school systems seem to seek: to be self-directed. To convey individuals and groups into becoming self-managing, self-monitoring, and self-modifying people.

If we aim to develop self-directed learners, how might the following support that aim:

  • If students are always told by adults what they have learned, how they have learned, and why they have learned and do not become invested in these facets of learning themselves through self-management, self-monitoring and self-modification, how will students learn how to be self-directed?
  • If teachers are always evaluated by someone else, in a process in which assessment of practice is something done to them instead of something they manage, monitor and modify, how will these teachers become self-directed?
  • If teachers and students both are assessed through mainly external processes on their learning and practice, how will they develop growth mindsets?
  • How might change leadership in schools allow for a change in the narratives of these schools, if the systems and processes in place do not allow for self-management, self-monitoring and self-modification?

Bob Garmston’s session on Adaptive Leadership mentioned the four facets of adaptive leaders: character, courage, compassion and capacity. Of these, we reflect on what might become an inception of systemic change so that schools can enact a culture of self-directedness. Courage stands out as a prime need.

Courage in change leadership might include some of these considerations:

  • How might we lead students to become self-managing, self-monitoring and self-modifying individuals through a stubborn and explicit embedding of approaches to learning skills in our programs?
  • How might we allow teachers to become self-directed learners through a practice driven self-assessment process in which teachers plan, monitor, and assess their own growth instead of relying on external evaluation?
  • How might we launch a culture of growth through structures and processes, which honor individual learning diversity, and how might this diversity in our communities fuel our own inclusive approaches to learning?
  • How can we align our school missions, in which “life-long learning,” “reflective,” “independent inquirers,” and other attributes populate our words, so that these words become the actions that populate our day to day results?

Alan Bowring [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Alan Bowring [CC via Wikimedia Commons]

It seems that when we change pedagogy or process, whether it is the approach to learning or the approach to teacher growth and other learning processes in schools, we change where authority or ownership lives.

By changing to more student-driven pedagogy, we transfer ownership of learning from teachers to the students.

By honoring teachers as developing learners themselves through a self-directed, self-monitored and self-modified process of assessment of practice, we transfer ownership of the art of facilitating learning into teachers’ hands.

By building an environment that values inquiry and intellectual risk-taking rather than just ‘the right answer,’ we transfer the improvement of a school into the hands of those who learn, and we bring to the forefront of our day to day actions the value of learning, which is a process enriched by mistakes and iterations.

Results are mere by-products of purposeful engagement and cyclical learning. In well-supported cycles of learning, we get better at what we know, understand and do. As we master the approaches to learning that we meet as cycles of learning increase knowledge, deepen understanding and strengthen skills, we gain the confidence to approach complexity –those open-ended, non-linear, dynamic problems that are usually unfamiliar.

By changing the conditions of places where learning lives for young and adult learners in our communities, we become self-directed organizations. And in these brave spaces, learning lives.

 

 

 

 

A Banned Books Week Manifesto

Starting tomorrow, libraries across America (and my library) will celebrate Banned Books Week.  It’s a celebration of the freedom to read, a celebration that people have the right to read what they like.

This year’s focus? Young Adult books, a commonly banned or challenged genre, mainly because the content includes violence, or sex, or drugs, (or sorcery, or religion, or profanity, or communism).

As an avid reader of YA lit, I can appreciate that there would be challenges to these texts.  I know that challenging books comes from good intentions, from the desire to protect a child.  I understand that reading about sex (or whatever objectionable content there may be) may be difficult for an adult to condone.

However, in my role as a youth librarian, I cannot allow a book with a serious theme to be removed from a library.  In fact, removing a book because someone finds it objectionable is the worst possible thing we can do to our students.

Now, I’ve found in my research about banned books that “objectionable” is a very broad word.

Take, for instance, the Captain Underpants series, one of the most banned children’s books.  There is no sex, no drugs, not much violence, but it was still challenged around the United States for being “unsuited to age group” and “encouraging disobedience.”  Harry Potter had a similar challenge, “a masterpiece of satanic deception” because the characters were liars, thieves and witches.  Harry Potter was so popular that this type of challenge resonated across the globe, being banned in other countries for violence, and even being called too complex for children.

Say what you will about Harry Potter, but those books got generations to enjoy reading again.  They were able to entice reluctant readers into books, and still have that ability.  John Green, he who has had almost ever books challenged somewhere, has a cult following of readers.  The Giver, Persepolis, Perks of Being a Wallflower… just a few more examples of immensely powerful and popular books trying to be kept from reach.

These books seek attention from us.  They have an intense power.  Maybe their objectionable content is part of that power, but it is hard to say.  People who try to ban books are forgetting that despite this content, this kiss or this swear word, the book is still teaching empathy and understanding.  At the end of a book, teens talk about their reactions to the characters and the emotions, not just the number of swear words and the sex scene.

Even books that seem to have no value, the ones that I call popcorn (a nice snack, but not really a meal), can still teach us about empathy and communication.

I say this from personal experience.

When I was a kid, I liked books.  After I read Goosebumps and Dear America, I moved on to romance novels.  First, I read romances for teens, and then I moved on to romance novels for adults.  As a teenager in high school, I read through the library’s entire romance section (in two different towns).  I remember that the librarian in one of these towns was not remarkably supportive of my reading choices, but my stubbornness overcame that.  I collected romance novels.  My bookshelves were right next to my bed, and included titles stacked in every available place.

I couldn’t even begin to count how many novels I’ve read, how much time I’ve spent lost in some formulaic story.  I know the ending to every story from the cover.  I can predict the majority of character traits within the first paragraph.  I am fully aware that these books are not mind-expanding fiction.

However, there is the occasional new vocabulary word, the cadence in reading the dialogue, the clarification of an emotional reaction, and the practice for reading a more complex book.  There is a benefit there.  I was allowed to read and collect romance novels anywhere and everywhere.  My mother (still) disapproves, but that’s never banned a book from my hand.  That may be, in fact, why this issue is so crucial to me.  If I hadn’t been allowed to read romance novels, would I still be a librarian?

It’s an odd thing to say, really.  Perhaps I would have found another genre (mystery, perhaps, or horror, because gore is less a problem sometimes), or perhaps I would have stop caring about books.

Either way, the content rarely detracts from the value or reading.

Graphic novels have similar, if not worse challenges.  They’re banned even more often than YA books, and the most banned and challenged book of this year: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian has graphics and images inside.  Captain Underpants, with its graphics of boys in underpants, scared the adults into action.

I, too, lacked appreciation of these books, and comics and manga, until quite recently.  I didn’t understand them, thought they were even less classy than my romance novels.  Fortunately, a YA literature class brought me stunning examples of graphic novels.  I took several books home with me for Christmas, with even more on CD for the 14 hour drive (not all graphic novels, obviously).  After finishing Maus I, I explained the premise to my mom, and she picked it up and read while I finished Maus II. This is amazing to me because I’ve never seen her read fiction.  The newspaper, sure, especially on the way to the crossword puzzle.  But a novel?  Only Maus.

She read both that day, and it opened up a conversation.  I also read books during that vacation about lesbians, high school secret societies, gossip, and vampires.  The reading brought questions that I wanted to ask my mother about, and I did.

I think about this when it comes to books, particularly YA books.  I’ve learned communication for books.  I’ve learned about emotions.  I’ve asked questions of myself and others, of the world around me.  I asked questions I didn’t know I would have.  With graphic novels, we’re able to consider the vision and the plot both.  We’re able to discuss serious issues in an even deeper way.

Look at the dramatic differences in artwork between these three stories: American Born Chinese, Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty, and Smile.  These books invite this conversation, in a way that you can only experience if you allow yourself to read them.  And they enhance visual literacy in the very best way.  Banning these books that kids are reading is detracting from the core principals of the IB and the core principals of education.  This content is still very valuable, even if you don’t agree with everything that every character is doing.

A long as a child is reading, the content doesn’t really matter.

They can read manga, or romance, or fan fiction, or John Green, or anything.  Whatever they are reading helps them to get into a story, helps them see a new perspective.  It’s scary to allow that freedom for them, to allow them to find themselves, but reading can give them new solutions to problems.

If they read about drugs, maybe they see that it’s not worth it, or that they should exercise caution.  They may read a book that features a normal boy who happens to be attracted to another boy, and realize that they are also attracted to boys.  They may read Harry Potter, where the main character has some serious issues with authority (seriously, did he ever follow the rules?).  Despite this, they may see that some things are worth fighting for, and that protagonists are rarely (and shouldn’t be) perfect.  Characters have flaws, but books help you realize that you can make those mistakes and still develop integrity.

Most importantly, books give you the opportunity to ask questions you didn’t know you had.  Books make you ask questions of yourself, your people, and your world.

Recently, some adults have said the same things to me.

“Well, how do we know a book isn’t too advanced for a kid?”
“What if a kid checks out something that they won’t understand?”
“What happens if there’s violence in a book and they take it the wrong way?”

Kids get things.  Kids are sensitive little humans.  They know that violence isn’t the way.  They know when they can ask a difficult question.  The online media is rich, and they can find anything.  Banning one book with violence doesn’t change the fact that the news is violent, and just takes away another opportunity to process that.  Banning a book with curse words doesn’t mean you’ll prevent a kid from cursing.  Banning a book because of sex tells a kid that their sexuality doesn’t exist yet, or that their feelings are unnatural.  We cannot take away the books that are dealing with these issues.

If it is too advanced, the child will likely abandon it.  If it’s an issue that they are ignorant of, they’ll learn about it and deal with it, or talk with their friends about it, but they’ll find a way to understand if they’re intrigued.  Have some faith in the child, and let them surprise you with their sensitivity.  Give them a little credit, and let them read.

Happy Banned Books Week!

Originally from Blog

“Why are we learning this?”

A TOK student brought this video in last week, enriching the class dialog about the value, purposes and limitations of school.


The video provoked some reflection on one principle that creates relevance, meaning and sustenance to the work of teaching and learning.

The video laments, among lots of other things, that “I wasn’t taught how to pay tax…” “… how to vote…” “I was not taught the laws for the country I live in.”

But the video ends with some statements one of which is

Screen capture of video (c)Boyinaband on Youtube.

Screen capture of video (c)Boyinaband on Youtube.

One of the threads that runs through the video is how worthless some of the topics seem to Boyinaband. Memorization on Mitochondria vs Learning about Health, for instance. Had Boyinaband and the legions of students who share his stance learned the conceptual connections between health and discrete cellular function, would the conceptual understanding that discrete cellular functions contribute to health of systems in organisms including the human being made the learning more relevant and meaningful, and useful? He might also learn that topics are useful, in illustrating and illuminating concepts, allowing for breadth and depth of understanding.

Taxes, voting and citizenship, and laws are micro-concepts of local, national, international and global issues. Had these been integrated in the study of social sciences, mathematics and other productive relationships between disciplines, would the student have found learning more relevant, meaningful and useful?

Creating contexts, which frame topics through concepts and authentic connections to the world and allow students to discover the significance of why we learn what we learn, is something that an IB education would have gifted Boyinaband and the learner he represents.

And what if Boyinaband had opportunities to transfer skills across and within disciplines, allowing him to learn that the ways of knowing in social sciences through the concepts of systems and change directly impacted the ways he understood systems and change in the natural sciences?

I wish we could have had someone like Boyinaband in a holistic, contextual, conceptual, integrated school framework (something like the MYP, which is research-based and follows a continuum of flexible education that is accepted globally and is known to prepare students well for problem-solving in a changing world).

Oh, wait. We do.

If I met Boyinaband as a student, I might say to him, “You are upset with school because what you learned through your schooling seems meaningless and useless to how you need to problem-solve in the world outside school.

“And what you want, is to believe that the school experience includes answers to the question, Why are we learning this?”

And if I met his parents in that faraway past when they are deciding about his education, I might take time to explore with them the following notions.

And I would say to the parents, here is an open secret. I know 4,267 schools worldwide that can answer these questions.