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7 Life Lessons: A Letter to My Students

Graduations remind me of diving boards: parents and teachers become spectators, waiting to see each student jump, spring, and dive into ...

Monday, 7 November 2016


On Reading:

The Book Whisperer, by Donalyn Miller
Reading in the Wild, by Donalyn Miller

Book Love, by Penny Kittle

Proust and the Squid:  The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, by Maryanne Wolfe (brilliant and beautiful, but more complex than the titles above; this is one of my all-time favorite books)

Reading in the Brain, by Stanislas Dehaene (a little more scientific and technical, but a very interesting read.)

On Early Childhood (Great for parents as well)

Your Child’s Growing Mind, by Jane Healy

Einstein Never Used Flashcards, by Hirsch and Golinkoff

What Every Kindergarten Teacher Should Know, by M.B.Wilson

On Math:

What’s Math Got to Do With It? By Joanne Boaler (some interesting insights, even though I'm generally critical of Jo Boaler's approaches, which have fuelled so much of contemporary "reform" Math instruction in the US)

Number Sense, by Stanislas Dehaene (quite scientific, little more difficult but interesting)

On Teaching Character

Mindset, by Carol Dweck

How Children Succeed, by Paul Tough

The Whole Brain Child, by Daniel Siegel

On Schools/Education/Learning more generally

The One World Schoolhouse, by Salman Khan (founder of the Khan academy)

Education Nation, by Milton Chen

Why Children Don’t Like School, by Daniel Willingham

Beyond the Tiger Mom: East-West Parenting & Education for the Global Age, by Maya Thiagarajan (Lots of great info on math, reading, memory and other hot-button education topics.)

On Assessment

Embedding Formative Assessment: Practical techniques for K-12 teachers, by Dylan Williams

On Learning and the Brain/Neuroscience

How the Brain Works, by Donald Kotulak

The Jossey Bass Reader on the Brain and Learning, Edited by Kurt Fischer

The Shallows: What the Internet is doing to our Brains, by Nicolas Carr

Brain Rules, by John Medina

On the Importance of Nature for Children

Last Child in the Woods, by Richard Louv

On Curriculum Design and Pedagogy

Essential Questions: Opening Doors to Student Understanding, by Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins
Understanding By Design, by Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins

Making Thinking Visible (multiple authors)

Cultivating Intellectual Character, Ron Ritchard (I found this book really interesting, and it certainly had a big impact on my teaching.)

On East-West Differences in Education and Learning

The Cultural Foundations of Learning, by Jin Li (very academic, but very interesting)
Beyond The Tiger Mom: East-West Parenting for the Global Age, by Maya Thiagarajan

On Multiple Intelligences

Frames of Mind, by Howard Gardner

Multiple Intelligences, by Howard Gardner

Emotional Intelligence, by Daniel Goleman

Other Important Books for Educators

Quiet, by Susan Cane (on introverted children)

Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life, by Winifred Gallagher (on focus and attention)

Flourish, by Martin Seligman (on Positive Psychology)

 What books would you add to this list? Please let me know!

Wednesday, 2 November 2016

And the real culprit is...overstimulation

Bleary eyed. Heads down on their desks. Yawns.

Why are these kids always so tired?

Everyday, my students walk into class looking exhausted. When I ask them how they're doing, invariably the response I get is, "I'm so tired." And increasingly, kids tell me that they feel anxious, overwhelmed, and stressed.

Parents and teachers tend to assume that the culprit is too much schoolwork. If we assign less homework, the kids will be fine. If we have fewer assessments, the stress will dissipate.

But I don't think that schoolwork is the primary culprit.

The primary culprit for rising levels of exhaustion, anxiety, and stress is overstimulation, something I've written about here. Students today have too much going on in their lives -- and between the floods of emails, digital notifications, pings on their phones, visual images, tweets, back-to-back enrichment activities, social engagements, assignments, deadlines, commitments, sugar binges, sports tournaments, and snapchat -- they're just so overstimulated that their bodies and minds can't actually handle it. (The same is true for many working adults as well, I think. We're just way too overstimulated.)

Call me old-fashioned, but I don't think that speed is always a good thing. And I'm not sure that "efficiency" and "productivity" (all words that describe machines and the mechanization of society) are the goals that we should be working towards. The fact is, we're not machines, and our job is not to "process" vast quantities of information and "perform" one task after another. If you ask me, human=machine is a destructive metaphor.

We're people. We're human. We're reflective, contemplative, emotional, irrational, and complex. And that's what makes us so interesting and creative.

And the reality is that our bodies and minds haven't yet caught up with the frenzied pace of an overstimulated digital and global world. And while we may think that "working like a machine" is a good thing in this age of machine-like multitasking, efficiency, and speed, the fact of the matter is that we're destroying ourselves by trying to be more machine-like, more overstimulated, more busy than we can actually handle.

So my goal for my own children is to lower the levels of stimulation that they encounter at home.
  • They don't need sugary snacks and lots of treats; they need vegetables.
  • They don't need social media; they need cuddles and real life, face-to-face conversations with their parents and grandparents.
  • They don't need a flood of bite-sized superficial bits of information, they need old-fashioned books, the longer the better.
  • They don't need back-to-back enrichment activities, they need time at home to read, daydream, play, and rest.
  • They don't need so much breadth -- so much exposure to so many, many different things all at once; they need depth in their lives. Let's do less, much less, but let's do it better.
  • They don't need to "work like machines" and "multi-task" and "be efficient." They need to work like humans -- slowly, reflectively, contemplatively, creatively. You know what? They need some time to daydream, imagine, and think. They need to slow down.

And here's the catch. If they have a little more time to get their homework done, slow and sustained academic work may actually help them feel more centred, more focused, and more calm. Like I said, I don't think that it's academic work that's the problem. It's all the other stuff .... the hyper-stimulated world that our kids live in.

What Does It Take To Be A Great Teacher?

So what really makes a great teacher? Last year, I asked my graduating class this question and their reply was interesting: great teachers are ones who care about students.

And this, to me, I think is the most important and rewarding part of teaching. Great teaching always happens in the context of a strong, supportive, and mutually respectful relationship. When a student knows that a teacher genuinely cares about his or her well-being and learning, then the student becomes deeply invested in the learning process. The more I think about it, the more I think that the teacher-student relationship is, in fact, the most essential pre-requisite for great teaching and deep learning.

I would add that the next essential element is a deep passion for one's subject matter and the teacher's own love of learning. If teachers are to inspire students, they need to be inspired themselves. They need to be scholars and model intellectual excitement for their students.

And finally, teachers need to work hard. Great teaching is very hard work. It's intellectually, emotionally, and even physically draining.

Increasingly, I find all the raging discussions about pedagogy somewhat irrelevant. Some great teachers are constructivist, others may use a more traditional approach. Some great teachers may run tightly ordered classrooms with lots of rules, others may run more relaxed classrooms. Some great teachers may engage their students in lots of activities, others may choose more traditional lectures and discussions. Pedagogy, I think, is important, but in the larger scheme of things, it's not what defines a great teacher. The reality is that kids can learn in a wide range of ways, and great teaching can happen in many different forms.

However, what great teachers have in common are the following:
- They care about their students. And their students know it.
- They care about their subjects, and they demonstrate a deep love of learning themselves.
- They work hard. Very, very hard.