Wonder = Joy. (And Joy Should be Shared!)

Longtime Radical readers know that there are few people who have influenced my practice as much as Dean Shareski.  Dean has pushed my thinking around everything from the role that humor and humanity should play in our digital spaces to the role that students should play in assessing their own learning.  When I look back at the practices that I use in my classroom, I see elements inspired by Dean everywhere.

That’s why I was completely jazzed to sit down and read through his first book — Embracing a Culture of Joy.

41tcpefpjrl-_sx331_bo1204203200_

Dean’s argument throughout the text is that in our quest to bring more rigor and accountability to schools, we’ve stripped away much of what it is that makes learning spaces inspirational — and without inspiration, genuine learning really isn’t possible.  Dean goes on to share several practical ideas about the steps that teachers can take to bring joy back into their classrooms.

The idea that resonated the most with me was Dean’s argument that a sense of wonder is often a prerequisite for joy.  Dean writes:

“Perhaps the most important thing we can do in our classrooms to create a greater sense of wonder is to simply value questions more than answers.  This is certainly contrary to how we’ve traditionally viewed schools.  Schools are places to learn things, find answers to questions, and leave with knowledge.  Questions suggest doubt, uncertainty, and mystery.  Yet the idea that we learn to ask really interesting questions is indeed what sustains us and what makes us true learners.”

As a science teacher, those words ring true.  After all, science is inherently about asking interesting questions about the world around us.  And I’ve always tried to push my kids to take an #alwayswonder approach to the world around them.  In fact, the only homework that I regularly give students is writing two interesting wonder questions per week in a journal.

But here’s the hitch:  I’ve never made time to celebrate those wonder questions during our regular class periods.  The reason is simple:  I’ve always believed that sharing those wonder questions steals minutes from an already short class period — and given the fact that we have an end of grade exam covering an enormous curriculum, the pressure to push forward has always won out over my belief that wondering matters.

What Dean forced me to wrestle with was that by giving lip service to the value of wondering, I was robbing my kids of the opportunity to revel in the joy that comes from curiosity.  NOT knowing the answers is a helluva’ lot more interesting than having to memorize a never-ending stream of answers delivered by the classroom teacher.

So I made a decision on Monday that I think is going to breathe a little more joy back into my classroom:  Now, we are going to start every single day wondering together.

Here are the details:

When my kids roll into class, they know to get out their wonder journals and have them ready to go.  Some kids are journaling on paper.  Others are using a Google Doc or a set of Google Slides to record their thinking.  I’ve simply told them to figure out a system that works for them.

As soon as class starts, I set a timer and ask students to write for five full minutes.  My hope is that they will write a new wonder question each day — but they are also allowed to polish previous questions or look for answers to a question that really moves them. The only rule is that they have to work for the full five minutes.  I’m finding that sitting in their own thoughts isn’t a skill that every student has — so building intellectual stamina is another goal of mine for this task.

When the timer goes off, students spend two minutes sharing their wonder questions with their table mates.  I’m emphasizing that “sharing your wonder questions” doesn’t mean simply reading them to one another.  I ask students to build on the questions asked by their partners — adding related questions, making additional observations, providing predictions or theories as possible answers.

Finally, I ask three students to share interesting wonder questions with our whole class — but they have to share a question asked by someone else!  That accomplishes two things:  First, they learn to see and to celebrate their peers as interesting people with interesting questions — which I hope will build community in my classroom.  Second, it gives me the opportunity to model the process of building on questions asked by other people.

That whole sequence takes about 10 minutes at the beginning of every period — and that’s 10 minutes that I’m more than happy to spend simply because the questions my kids have been writing are really, really cool.

Here’s five of my favorites:

“I wonder how brains work, like how do they send things to your body saying like your hurt? Does your brain also control how you move?”

“In class my teacher was talking about space and I woundered if space doesnt have oxygen and earth does how does the oxygen from earth not flow all the way to space does it just die out and stop flowing? It cant just stop flowing and die out it has to go somewhere and since we have already been to the moon and outer space there is no force that is keeping the oxygen from not flowing to outer space.”

“Today I was printing something for my mom, and I wondered how does an image that originated from the computer pas over to the printer and then the printer magically knows what colors to blend together, were to put them, and what shapes to make? I know that printers only come with 4 or 5 colors, pink, light blue, yellow, black, and maybe grey, so how does the printer create red and lighter colors, with only 4 inks?”

“I’ve always thought fingernails were weird. But, I wonder about is the process of a growing fingernail. Do they grow at the tip (like the white part) or, do they grow near the cuticle part.”

“I read every night, last night I didn’t read before I went to bed and I had a hard time going to sleep. I wonder what effect reading had on my mind before I went to sleep. And does reading help, or hurt your mind?”

All of that in and of itself seemed like a pretty good start at prioritizing wonder in my classroom until I had the chance to hear George Couros speak on Wednesday at the Convergence conference here in Raleigh about building the digital presence of your school .

George made a simple point that stuck with me:  When working in social spaces, your goal should be to make the positives so loud that the negatives are impossible to hear.  If we consistently share the best things that are happening in our classrooms, we can create a culture of outward celebration and build stronger relationships with the stakeholders that we serve.

George’s examples were all incredibly approachable:  Teachers using Twitter to record video reflections after days of professional learning, principals using YouTube to share videos of students reporting on the academic happenings at different grade levels, teachers using Instagram to post pictures of classroom activities.  “As a parent,” George asked,”what would you rather have:  A paper newsletter to hang on the fridge or a video of your child sharing what they’ve learned in class that day?”

So I decided to take my wonder project one step further:  I’m going to record short videos of students sharing their wonder questions and post those on Twitter using our school’s hashtag.

Here’s our first:

My primary goal with our #gnomeswonder Tweets is a simple one:  I want my students to recognize that it is okay wonder out loud.

I also want to give parents the chance to see the curiosity in their own kids and to see my classroom as a place that prioritizes questions over answers.  Finally, I’m hoping that we’ll get some dialogue started between my curious kids and experts in our community that might be willing to post answers to my students online.

Of course, I’ll have to check the video/photo permissions list before choosing kids to record daily wonder tweets — but my guess is that as more and more parents see what we are doing, they will be more than willing to sign our video waiver in order to have the chance to see their kids wondering live, too.

So whaddya’ think of all of this?

Will setting time aside for wondering be worthwhile — even if it means I have ten less minutes of instruction time every day?  Is encouraging my kids to share their wonders publicly a good idea?  Is this something you’d consider trying with the kids in your classrooms, too?

___________________________

Related Radical Reads:

How Limited Technology Budgets Failed My Students Today

More on the Challenges of Wondering in Schools.

This is Why I Teach:  They Always Wonder

 

People are Definitely Dumber.

Last week, Paul Horner — a creator of fake news sites who is convinced that his work helped to turn the tide in Trump’s favor in America’s presidential election — sat for an interview with the Washington Post.  In that interview, Horner explained why he thought that fake news stories gain so much traction in social spaces.

Here’s what he wrote:

slide-people-are-dumber-black-border

Stew in that for a minute, would you?

Here’s a guy who earns a living peddling lies — about world leaders, about important events, about controversial issues — who recognizes just how easy it can be to manipulate thinking in a world where no one questions the content that they come across in their online lives.  That IS scary, isn’t it.  After all, Horner ain’t the only guy with motivation to manipulate thinking.  He’s just the only one willing to talk about it publicly.

Acting responsibly in a world with no filters between publishers and consumers means recognizing that anyone with an agenda can push their ideas — no matter how intentionally flawed they may be — out to huge audiences with nothing more than an Internet connection.  If we are going to develop “global, critical citizens ready to change the world for the better” — a goal that I certainly believe in — our students MUST learn to consume content with a critical eye.

So what are YOU doing to teach those skills?

#goodquestion

Blogger’s Note: If teaching students to judge the reliability of online sources is important to you, check out this lesson on my Teachers Pay Teachers website.  It introduces students to three simple questions that kids can ask to spot fake news sources.  

———————–

Related Radical Reads:

What Kind of Kids is YOUR School Producing?

How Testing Will Change What I Teach Next Year.

What Are You Doing to Teach Kids to Spot Fake News Stories?

What Are You Doing to Teach Students to Spot Fake News Stories?

One of the most interesting conversations currently taking place around Donald Trump’s surprise victory in our Presidential election has been the role that fake news peddled and promoted in Facebook news streams may have played in swaying voters.  Mark Zuckerberg — Facebook’s charismatic founder — has called the notion that fake news is a problem on his site “a pretty crazy idea” and argued that a clear process is in place that allows users to flag suspicious or hateful content for further review.

But that position was openly challenged over and over again all week long.

Buzzfeed, a popular online source covering digital media and technology, opened the criticism by publishing the frightening results of an analysis of the election stories generating the most engagement — think likes, shares and comments — on Facebook in the final three months of the election.  Here’s what they found:

NPR went on to interview Facebook executives and employees to gain insight into just what happens when suspicious or hateful content is flagged for review on the site.  

Turns out, the process isn’t consistent, thorough or reliable.  It’s true that every piece of content is reviewed by a human being, but those human beings are mostly working in other countries simply because Facebook has subcontracted the work to save money.  Worse yet, while every decision is supposed to take the complete context of a situation into consideration before decisions are made, employees are evaluated based on the number of pieces of content that they review in a single day.

From the NPR article:

“Current and former employees of Facebook say that they’ve observed these subcontractors in action; that they are told to go fast — very fast; that they’re evaluated on speed; and that on average, a worker makes a decision about a piece of flagged content once every 10 seconds.

Let’s do a back-of-the-envelope calculation. Say a worker is doing an eight-hour shift, at the rate of one post per 10 seconds. That means they’re clearing 2,880 posts a day per person. When NPR ran these numbers by current and former employees, they said that sounds reasonable.”

Perhaps the most interesting article was this Washington Post interview with Paul Horner, who writes fake news stories for a living.  Horner reports making close to $10,000 a MONTH off of the clicks on advertisements included on the fake news sites that he maintains.  Every post that he writes on his slick looking ABC News ripoff website, for example, can make him rich, as long as it goes viral on Facebook.  And what does Horner think of the people sharing his content over and over again?

It’s not pretty:

“Honestly, people are definitely dumber. They just keep passing stuff around. Nobody fact-checks anything anymore — I mean, that’s how Trump got elected. He just said whatever he wanted, and people believed everything, and when the things he said turned out not to be true, people didn’t care because they’d already accepted it. It’s real scary. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Scrutiny of Facebook’s treatment of fake news and the hefty rewards paid to peddlers of lies by companies like Google who rely on advertising revenue have pressured both services into much-needed action:  They are working to develop policies that will effectively ban fake news sources like Horner’s from access to corporate advertising programs in an attempt to dry up the revenue streams that provide the motivation to pollute the web with hoaxes and lies.

But I think that’s the wrong solution to Facebook’s fake news problem.

We don’t need new policies and tools from tech companies to identify sketchy content on the web.  Instead, we need to develop citizens who take careful steps to verify that the information they are reading anywhere on the web is reliable.  That’s a new literacy in today’s complicated media ecology — and it is a new literacy that we give too little attention to in schools.

The good news is that teaching students to identify sketchy content isn’t all that hard to do.  

There are simple questions that kids can ask when evaluating the reliability of a web source that can turn them into top-notch bunk filters without needing any help from Facebook or Google.  Here are three:

How believable is this story to me?  

The first lesson that I try to teach my students when spotting sketchy news stories is that their common sense is the most powerful tool that they have for fighting back against misinformation on the web.  If a story just doesn’t seem plausible, it’s probably fake — and the fact of the matter is that the vast majority of fake news stories really ARE that easy to spot.  People with good common sense don’t get fooled very often — as long as they are willing to trust their intuition.

Try that with two recent headlines on Horner’s fake ABC News website:  Obama Signs Executive Order Banning National Anthem at All Sporting Events  and Obama Signs Executive Order Banning Pledge of Allegience from All Schools Nationwide.  Do either of those headlines seem even a little bit believable?  Would a person who served as President of our country REALLY want to ban things like the National Anthem or the Pledge of Allegiance?  No matter what you think about the people or parties leading our nation, chances are that they care enough about our country to protect our national symbols.  That’s just common sense.

And double-checking your common sense is super easy:  Just take questionable headlines and drop them into Google.  In most cases — including the notion that Obama is banning the Pledge of Allegiance — you’ll see that reliable sites like Snopes and FactCheck.Org that are committed to debunking lies on the Internet have already reviewed the claims in question.

What do I know about this news source?

I also try to teach my students that spending a few minutes researching the author and the website of every piece of news that they are exploring can help them to spot sketchy news stories.  Does the web address look reliable?  What can you learn from the “About Us” or “Contact” links found on the page?  What kind of search results are returned when you Google the name of the author of the article that you are reading?

Asking those questions about Dan Horner’s ABC News website would identify it as a fraud in no time.

The web address — http://abcnews.com.co/ — is the first giveaway.  Why would a major news network add a “.co’ to the end of its web address?  What’s more, the contact information on the site shows that the headquarters of ABC News is a Tudor style home in Topeka, Kansas — and just a few minutes of digging into the background of Dr. Jimmy Rustling, one of the lead authors on the site, brings up this tongue-in-cheek bio of the author and this set of Google Search Results explaining that “Jimmy Rustling” and “Rustle my Jimmies” are slang terms for evoking strong emotions.

Can I spot any loaded words in the piece I am reading?

The final lesson that I try to teach my students is that loaded words and phrases — descriptions that imply a strong emotion and/or position — are signs indicating that the author or source is trying to push readers to feel a certain way about a topic instead of simply reporting the news in an unbiased way.  They are an easy way to spot opinions instead of facts — and while opinions aren’t automatically wrong, they need to be questioned by readers instead of accepted at face value.

What’s interesting is that Dan Horner’s fake news site avoids loaded words for the most part — which is one of the reasons that it is so successful at generating attention.  Each piece sounds like an unbiased reporting of fact — even if those facts are impossible to believe.

But you don’t have to go far to find loaded words in news sources.  Can you spot the loaded words in these headlines from Fox News and the Huffington Post:  Arizona Presidental Electors Being Harrassed, This is What it Means to Imprison a Whole Category of People.

In the first headline, I’d want my students to notice that “being harassed” is a loaded phrase that could mean a heck of a lot of things.  Good readers would want to know what that harassment looked like before making a decision about the importance of the event.  In the second headline, I’d want my students to notice that “imprison a whole category of people” is a phrase designed to elicit fear.  Good readers would want to unpack that.  Are newly elected officials REALLY trying to imprison entire categories of Americans?  Or is “imprison” a metaphor?

In many ways, this is my favorite lesson to teach because kids LOVE looking for loaded words and phrases.  Spotting the sneaky ways that authors are trying to influence readers — and then trying to decide if the evidence in the article actually supports the author’s opinions — is like a scavenger hunt to them.

I’ve pulled all this content together into a handout that you can use if you are interested in teaching your students how to spot fake news sources.  You can find it posted online here on my Teachers Pay Teachers website.  

Does any of this make sense to you?  More importantly, are you taking active steps to teach your kids the skills necessary to spot sketchy news stories?

#youshouldbe

———————————-

If teaching students about managing information, thinking critically and engaging in collaborative dialogue resonates with you, check out Teaching the iGeneration — Bill’s book on using digital tools to introduce students to essential skills like information management, collaborative dialogue and critical thinking.  

 

Find Radical Resources on Teachers Pay Teachers!

One of the things that people have always appreciated about me is that I can whip up a fantastic handout!  

Whether it is for a professional development session that I’m delivering on the importance of a guaranteed and viable curriculum or for a lab that I am teaching to my sixth graders on the energy conversions involved in a pizza box oven, the documents that I create are structured to lead learners through experiences in logical ways.

While I share many of those resources and handouts here on the Radical, I’ve also decided to start sharing that content in a storefront on Teachers Pay Teachers.  

tpt-slide

I figure that there HAS to be teachers or school leaders out there who would find value in ready-made tools that they can use in their work — and a Teachers Pay Teachers storefront allows me to organize the content differently than it is organized here on my blog.

My storefront is still in its infancy — but if you stop by, you will find resources that you can use in professional development activities, resources for teaching science to middle school students, and resources for teaching students how to work with nonfiction text.  Over the course of time, I will be adding tons of resources on using technology in the classroom and teaching students to master essential skills like collaborative dialogue and critical thinking.

I hope that you’ll give it a look — and if you like what you see, I hope you will tell your friends to come and check it out, too!

What SHOULD Teachers Tell Kids about Elections?

I made a HUGE mistake today.  

After checking out this Washington Times article about an elementary school in New York that cancelled its mock election because students were showing open disrespect towards one another based on nothing more than the political party that they “supported,” I read through the comment section.

#badmove

Here’s a sampling of what I found there:

 “Nice going ‘educators’…you don’t realize it now, you think you’ve won because you stopped the Trump chant. You’ve lost, and lost big. The students just got an up close and personal experience with what marxist/communist/fascist tyranny feels like.”

“Agree with you. I taught my son the opposite. He knew that he was there to learn to read and write not for the opinions of the weak teachers or students. If one of his teachers started preaching their brainwashing, he knew to tun out!”

“It’s nice to see the youth of this island haven’t been corrupted and indoctrinated by the damn liberal teachers. To you “teachers”, what’s the matter, it didn’t work out the way you hoped it would? Children have figured out early that there is no assimilating the barbarians into Western culture? Why don’t you liberal dipschits move to Sweden and then you can write about how peachy everything is.”

“Go, kids, go! Lookit how their politically correct lefty narrative teachers scramble to cover it up. No doubt they all went to the transgender bathroom to make themselves feel less “offended”; the teachers, I mean. Fools. Morons. Idiots. It’s why all children ought to be home schooled.”

“It really is a necessity to check with your children about what was taught at school each day.  So you can correct the garbage fed to them by liberal-left unionized teachers.”

I wasn’t all that surprised by the hate being hurled at classroom teachers in these comments.  After all, the “teachers are trying to brainwash students to be slaves to the Democratic party” line of thinking — which makes me chuckle given that I’ve voted for as many Republican presidential and gubernatorial candidates as I have Democrats in the last three decades — has been a part of talk radio shows ever since  Rush Limbaugh first started calling people Sheeple.

But those arguments are pretty darn crazy, y’all.  Seriously.

I’ve taught for over 20 years and I’ve never tried to brainwash the kids in my classroom to support and/or oppose a particular candidate for public office.  More importantly, I’ve never had a supervisor order me to brainwash the kids in my classroom OR been handed sets of curriculum materials that were designed to trick me into brainwashing the kids in my classroom.  Turns out most of us teacher types actually dig the idea of helping kids to form their own positions.  In fact, my guess is that most teachers would flat out celebrate a student that made an articulate, informed argument in favor of positions that we personally opposed.

We call that critical thinking.

What drives me nuts is just how little people really know about the kinds of conversations that teachers are having with students about elections.

The fact of the matter is that the VAST majority of classroom teachers say little to nothing about elections to their students.  That’s mostly a self-preservation strategy.  Read enough stories filled with angry comments calling you a “politically correct lefty narrative teacher” or a card carrying member of a “Marxist/communist/fascist tyranny” and you’d keep your mouth shut, too.  The risk of being misunderstood by the wrong person and dragged head first through the professional mud far outweighs any potential reward that can come from talking to students about elections.

And that should FRIGHTEN anyone who REALLY cares about America.

You see, one of the primary goals of schools has always been to prepare students to be educated, respectful participants in our democracy.  Accomplishing that goal depends on teachers and other important adults — coaches, parents, preachers, neighbors, uncles, grandparents — who are willing to show students what “educated, respectful participation” looks like in action.  After all, “power to the people” is only an effective governmental strategy when “the people” understand how to use that power in positive ways to move our nation forward.

So what SHOULD teachers tell kids about elections?  

We should start by telling kids that the first step towards being an educated, respectful participant in our democracy ISN’T identifying candidates or parties that you believe in.  Instead, educated voters identify the causes and issues that matter the most to them.  For example, I care most about the economy, the environment, education and equality.  Those aren’t the ONLY issues that matter in an election, but they are the issues that I will use as a lens for focusing my study of the candidates that are running.

Then, we should tell kids that becoming educated about the issues that matter to them depends on studying a wide range of sources.  The saddest truth about the digital world that we live in is that it is all too easy to find content that is heavily slanted in one direction or another.  In fact, it’s darn close to impossible to find content that’s NOT slanted.  Kids need to be able to identify bias in the sources that they are studying and have a plan for countering that bias when working towards making important decisions.

Finally, we should tell kids to remember that people we disagree with are reasonable, rational people too — and that instead of demonizing them, we should sit down and talk to them.  Being educated means fully understanding what people who disagree with you feel about the issues that matter the most to you — and accepting that there are elements of truth that are worthy of consideration and respect in the positions of people who see things differently than we do.

If we could use election season conversations to convince our students that studying politicians and parties should ONLY happen after a voter has a clear sense of the issues that matter the most to them, has sought out unbiased information on each of those issues, and has had substantive conversations with people who see things differently, we’d leave our kids AND our country in a better place than it is right now.

#enoughsaid

 

If teaching students about managing information, thinking critically and engaging in collaborative dialogue resonates with you, check out Teaching the iGeneration — Bill’s book on using digital tools to introduce students to essential skills like information management, collaborative dialogue and critical thinking.  

———————-

Related Radical Reads:

The Curse of Our Online Lives

Pushing Against Incivility

Bill’s Resources on Teaching Kids about Collaborative Dialogue