I went to a friend's magic show on Thursday. He's a pretty good magician. In the middle of his performance, he told us he was getting into motivational speaking. I was a bit skeptical, but after he made his case, I realized he had great insight into the human condition that was worth sharing. 

He essentially revealed that magic is about creating moments of delight, transporting someone out of time and into a moment. Most people, he claimed, want to learn magic not because they actually like the magic tricks, but because they want the reaction that magic creates. To create that moment, doesn't need magic, he argued. You just need to break people's routine.

This got me thinking. As adults, it seems like that is where delight breaks in--when routines are interrupted, when anomalies occur, when the unexpected strikes. Adults get into habits and patterns of living that can start to feel monotonous. We feel the need to alter routine with vacations, new jobs, and new experiences. The adult routines feel like something humanity bucks against. 

But then I compare this with our knowledge of a child's development. Children need routine. I have both been told this repeatedly by educators I respect and have seen the need first-hand. My students freak out when a subject goes overtime or I deviate from the schedule written on the board. If a meeting runs longer than the anticipated time, and I get back to my class in an hour rather than the expected thirty minutes, the rest of day looks like the Lord of the Flies. Routines, knowing what is going to happen next, seem to provide a degree of safety. When they aren't in place, there seems to be anxiety.

There is also this--I have a series of what I believe are engaging, entertaining, and extremely productive activities that I intersperse throughout the school year. One for example includes learning how to use Google slides and then creating presentations on a variety of topics. I can do about three of these before they start to lose interest and I have to change it up somehow. So here, they seem to get tired of the routine, of knowing the steps and outcome. I have to modify the activity to include a novel element, such as turning it into a group project or changing the audience from their classmates to the sixth grade class. It seems as if routine has its limits.

I need to change desks periodically, introduce new cooperation games, new comprehension activities for our reading, and a variety of other changes to maintain engagement and excitement. 

So I have these two human needs--routine and novelty. Holistically, we probably need both as humans. We need an idea of where things are going to go but also hunger for novel experiences that stimulate us, and consequentially, lead to our growth. That boredom on my student's faces that forced me to stop daily oral language four weeks in could just be a manifestation of their minds needing to discover and learn something new.

Side note: I believe that school can always be exciting. Through relevance, real problems, and instruction that has been planned in response to watching and knowing your students, education can always be exciting.

So, it seems like the answer is an amalgamation of both. It's like the paradox of education Locke identifies; that children need government (structure) but also to be prepared to govern themselves as rational and free adults in society. Is that a good example? Is the entry into self-governance what I am seeing when they get board with an activity? Maybe children transition into the freedom of adulthood on their own account. Maybe the desire for freedom is natural and drives them to obtain it. Freedom seems like something you never need to sell a kid on. So that transition to self-governance that is endemic to adults is initiated by the child, but then given in manageable increments by adults. Like the loosening of a leash, based on what the governing adult feels they are equipped to handle.

This makes me think of my family's cat, when we brought her home for the first time. She stayed under my bed for the first day without moving, then began to leave for short periods of time as she became acclimated to the sounds and smells of the new home. If there was a new noise or person, she would quickly dart back under the bed. After a few days though, her times out became longer and longer until she didn't return to the bed, wandering freely around our home at ease.

I wonder if this a good analogy for children. They need the structure of routine only so they have a safe place to rest in before their desire to grow forces them to venture outside of it. They need routine as a place to return to for reflection and safety when the learning feels too much. Maybe routine is this support structure that needs to always be present in a child's life, always being reworked to fit the growth of the child, so that child has a safe foundation for taking risks, learning, and growing. 

The application for education is that teachers would need routines perpetually in place, but also the flexility for them to be broken or reworked. This would also mean the routines are flexible in the sense that teacher is always gauging whether the routines are a good fit for what the students need at that stage of development. 

That feels more settled. Children need routines and opportunities to depart from them. 

I wonder though, what routines exist in schools out of the need to manage large groups of children with limited adults. To say that a different way, what routines are in place to support our industrial educational model? What routines are in place not for the welfare of the child, but to help teachers maintain control? 

So, can we create a safe environment for children that facilitates risk-taking without routines?


...a new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example.
— Jeremy Bentham

The Panopticon was a prison concept designed by the philosopher Jeremy Bentham in the late 18th century. It's goal was to make prisoners feel continuously watched (or seen) by the prison authority. If the prisoners felt constantly watched, he believed, they would be more inclined to control their own behavior. 

Though the idea wasn't a wild success in the penal system, it seems to have fit quite well into education. It feels like a great amount of energy is exerted by teachers and administrators to make children feel like they are always seen by authority. The way teachers walk their students through the halls, at the front of the line, facing backwards, is so the students see that the teacher sees them. A book on creating class literacy centers advises to not make eye contact with students who are having difficulty focusing during read-to-self, not mentioning their behavior in the moment but instead opting to make note of the behavior and conference with them later about it. This is so they would be given the impression that even though you aren't looking at them, you see them and know what they are doing. Give children this impression, the book states, and they will develop their own reading stamina. Another book on creating a classroom culture at the beginning of the year says that early on, the teacher should call out all student behavior, good or bad, to set the understanding that the teacher sees all so that students conform their behavior to the teacher's expectations without a reminder or explicit instruction to do so. 

I have to wonder if the impression of constant observation is the tool we want to use to conform student behavior. There is something that doesn't feel ideal about it. Some questions:

  • What happens when they realize they aren't being watched, or even better, they realize they aren't actually being watched when the teacher is pretending they are? Sounds kind of like ripping back the curtain to find the wizard is just a man. Would that break faith in the teacher? Do students need to trust their teacher?
  • What sort of people will children grow up to be if their "good" behavior is predicated on being seen, and by default, the fear of being punished. Is being seen effective in controlling behavior because it implies more consistent and sure punishment for wrong behavior? If thats true, do we want students behaving in accordance with authority out of a desire to avoid punishment?
  • Is there a more effective/more beneficial/more caring way to achieve positive student behavior than creating the perception of always being watched? How do we decide what positive behavior is? It feel like so many expectations we have of student's behavior is rooted in needing to control a large group of children, not because it is actually good for the individual.

I want to explore that last idea--what is "good behavior" and how did we come to agree on what it is? That feels like a big question that I don't have the resources to answer. But I see a problem when we tell children to tell the truth so that we as the teachers can have an easier job of figuring out "who done it" and therefore who needs to be punished. I asked a co-worker the other day to give me the reason we tell students stealing is wrong, and she couldn't come up with anything substantial (I couldn't either). But the point of that is that we ask students to demonstrate or suppress behaviors that we have agreed are "wrong" or "right" as a society for reasons that seem to often be merely self-serving. I don't want to have to mediate disagreements between students, so I insist that they not tattle and learn to resolve their own conflicts. I don't want to hear from parents or have my principal think I have a problem controlling my students, so I tell them stealing is wrong. 

Now, if the desired student behavior is there, does it matter what my motives as a teacher are for instilling it? I would argue yes. Yes because the way I present it, talk about it, and instruct it will be fundamentally different depending on my motivations. If my motivation for getting the students to resolve their own conflicts is so they grow up to be people that care for others, are able to express their emotions, and make peace so that they find greater happiness, rather than reconciling their own problems because it makes my job easier, I am going to have (what I believe) are good reasons when explaining the desired behavior to my students. I feel like students are able to distinguish between good reasons and bad ones. If not now, especially when they get older. 

Also, if students see that I believe something is inherently valuable, whether that is academic or social instruction, I have noticed that they are more likely to listen and receive it. 

But back to being watched. My biggest concern is whether the behavior actually sticks (is internalized) if it was created by extrinsic pressure rather than internal desire. Can we get children to internalize ethics? This is a question I am intent on exploring. I think though that it starts with figuring out exactly what ethics are and whether we agree on them socially. We talk like there is an implicit understanding, while that conversation hasn't really happened yet. Without that conversation, we find ourselves stumbling over words when a student looks up at us and asks, "Well why shouldn't I take his eraser?" I feel like I owe my students, real answers that I have arrived at through committed thought, answers that make sense to their reasoning. 

So maybe the question of "what is good behavior" isn't really a digression. Before we get into how to teach "good behavior," maybe that's where the conversation needs to start.



"Sounds noisy in there," said the teacher that occupies the classroom next door as I opened the door to ask her something. I couldn't help but take it as a derogatory statement. The way she said it made it sound like there was something wrong with the noise. She could have just as well said, "Wow, you should do something about your classroom. That's not what a classroom is supposed to be like."

And in a way, I agree with her. I get a little nervous when there is noise. All the teachers I had growing up wanted silent classrooms. Most of the teacher's I've observed valued quiet. So I should too...

This week we have been making silent films based on a novel we read. The students are working in groups of five to act out the big moments. They were making costumes, debating how they should portray a certain scene, and generally moving around the room. The book we read includes a dog race. So...they were practicing their dog racing. 

Yes, there was noise--because collaboration sometimes requires talking. I wonder where this idea of a quiet classroom equating learning came from? Is quiet a requirement for learning?

I know some students, if not most, greatly benefit from silence when they are trying to focus. Sounds and movement distract them. But it seems like they can also learn where there is noise and movement. Is it a different kind of learning? When I watch their scene preparation, I see them converting words on a page to actions that are meant to be understood by others. They are exchanging and building on ideas. They are learning how to share their vision for this project with their peers, then how to agree on a course and keep it.

The learning is there, it just feels like "lesser" learning. Things that don't really need to be practiced as much. Maybe it's because we don't test for those skills.

Rational Creatures

When I say therefore that they must be treated as rational creatures I mean that you should make them sensible by the mildness of your carriage and the composure even in your correction of them that what you do is reasonable in you and useful and necessary for them and that it is not out of [caprice], passion, or fancy that you command or forbid them anything.
— John Locke, Some Thoughts Concerning Education

I have a portrait of Teddy Rosevelt nailed high up on the wall in the back of my classroom. The kids haven't noticed it, or if they have, they haven't said anything. It's up there as a reminder of his one famous quote, "Speak softly and carry a big stick." It's mostly up there for the speak softly part. 

I have him up there because I don't speak as softly as I should. I needed a reminder. My voice gets loud, harsh, and anxious because I often find myself experiencing emotions. Like fear. And frustration. And desperation. This happens when that one student is wrestling for the second time that day or talking to their friend during read-to-self or the lesson is an utter failure because I wasn't paying attention to them as much as I should have been. So I harshly call out their name from the other side of class. My voice is strained and hurried when they ask for help on a math problem. I remind them that I explained it three times already in an effort to divert the blame to them instead of owning the reality that I apparently didn't teach it well enough if I had to explain it three times. I hate that. Speaking to them from this place of negative "passion" doesn't feel right and doesn't seem to result in good things.

I've had a few teachers tell me that you can't let them see that they made you feel something, because then they would know they won. I have many issues with that idea (like, the understanding that you shouldn't be at war with your students), but mostly, because I don't think thats the best reason for why not to react out of those negative emotions. I'm not saying that we should teach as dispassionate Vulcans, but I think when negative feelings drive reactions, the constraints and expectations of an environment become undefined and arbitrary.

Emotion is somewhat unpredictable and hard to account for. What makes me feel one way today could make me feel diametrically different tomorrow. So if I am not in control or aware of how I am feeling, I risk subjecting the kids to a standard that they can't really account for. A student's talking might not really be that big of a problem, but I may react to it like it is because I'm bringing feelings from other moments and life into the present situation. 

If a teacher is actually going to "speak softly," it seems that they would need three things: to be in control of themselves, grace derived from an understanding of child development, and a rational basis for teacher actions and requests.

That last thing is what it sounds like Locke is getting at in the quote above--that we shouldn't respond, act, or ask something of a child merely because we feel we should in a fit of "caprice, passion, or fancy," but because it is "rational, necessary, and useful." The requests, expectations, and boundaries that meet those qualifications are ones that students can anticipate, that will feel fair, and that we can feel good about holding them to. 

But the problem is that it requires thought. We would have to actually think about what we are asking of them. Thinking takes energy and time. Its work, which is why we have to train ourselves to do it. If we are going to create a clear and safe environment for students, teachers have to actually put thought into it. I'm also realizing that it is habitual thought rather than one-time. 

There are so many things we ask kids to do, expect of them, and keep them from that we don't really have a good reason for. Our actions instead come from what feels, in that moment, to be the right thing.  Why can't they go to bathroom without asking? Why do they need to walk in a straight line? Why do I assign homework? Why do my student's need to practice handwriting? It's not they they are necessarily wrong, but have we even asked those questions?

Asking questions like those can be fighting words in the right teachers lounge. 

There have been a good amount of times where I stop and notice that I don't actually know why I am asking a student to do something. It's humbling to admit that, to back-peddle and confess that you don't know. But it builds trust. It grants you the freedom that comes with being honest. It forces you to think.

And it helps you speak softly. 


Today I received a call from an after-school program director regarding one of my students. The retired teacher that volunteers there was getting frustrated with my student because he told her he finished his homework and turned it in, which he did. This was an issue because they have a forty minute homework time. So you can see the wrench this throws in the machine. If there is a forty minute homework time and a kid has finished their homework and there is an retired teacher there that expects the kids to have homework, there is going to be a problem. The system doesn't work without homework. People get frustrated, kids get in trouble, things crumble. 

This conversation made me realize how much the whole educational apparatus expects and in some way relies on homework. Administrators expect it as proof that you have high expectations for your students and are pushing them to achieve. For the after school programs I know of, homework is a major part. Parents expect it as something for their kids to do at home, something they can make them do while they're making dinner or taking a well-deserved rest after working all day. 

I started the year with no homework and then acquiesced after too many people couldn't conceptualize the absence of homework. They had had homework growing up, so their children should too. School=homework.

But it seems that in some areas, it's become merely a tool to keep kids occupied, to keep them busy. There is a lot of research out right now that actually shows homework isn't that valuable, especially in the primary years. There is something to be said for the work-ethic and habit it develops, but at what cost?

Time with family. Interactions with peers. Interactions with the world. Enjoyment of life. The cost of homework. Which may be okay, just as long as we understand that exchange and are sure the benefit outweighs the cost.

There are so many pieces of this educational world that we have come to just accept. We don't question a lot of it. James Herndon, long time California educator in inner-city schools, wrote a book called The Way It Spozed to Be. In it, he hammers the point that this system we are perpetuating was created for a different time by people that are long dead. We do things in the classroom because that is the way things are "spozed" to be done, not because we believe those things to be good for student learning and development. And I agree to a certain extent--we reproduce what we experienced and what everyone around us is doing, largely without a challenge.

Yet here I am, giving out homework.