Touching the Eternal

Is a class in argumentation—where we analyze complex issues like immigration, police policies and food stamps—necessarily a good educational experience? Yes, it seems in today’s world we need to be able to function with this capability—to take a stand, see the other side and be able to draw reasonable conclusions using evidence to support our judgments..

End of story?

No, not so fast. There’s more to this kind of analytic experience when presented during a several weeks’ course.

I had the pleasure of sitting in on Andy Snyder’s course at Harvest/Collegiate School here in New York City. Harvest/Collegiate is part of the the New York Performance Standards Consortium, where teachers create their own benchmark assessments—rigorous, authentic challenges—that can be used to monitor students’ intellectual growth over time.

At the end of the semester I asked Justin what he got out of the course. What was most important to him?

Justin reflected, “This class gave me the ability to consider things from the other side of the glass. . . caused me to care and understand others’ point of view. . . [It gave me] a new sense of empathy. . . Good not to take anything for granted, to understand how others felt.” (Barell, 2016)

He went on to tell me about living with his uncle who had very different ideas, for example, about who deserved to receive food stamps— “We shouldn’t give something for nothing.” Justin concluded with his own feelings of having to go to bed hungry on occasion, without sufficient nutrition.

Why are these reflective questions important?

I suggest that this reflective experience is one we often overlook. Students take the test, we enter grades and, often, press on to the next topic without pausing to ask what our students found important, what they learned from our instruction, what was most significant. These student reflections just might differ from our planned expectations.

Justin’s observations provide us with his own personal meanings and understandings about the importance of argumentation. “The goal of high school is not success,” Andy told me after our visits. “It should be about gaining deeper understanding of an issue, being able to ask good questions to refine or clarify [the complex situation]. What we need is an openness to inquiry throughout. That’s how we gain wisdom.”

What strikes me now about Justin’s comment is how he transcended making an argument. He has touched upon fundamental characteristics of the human condition, what it means to be a person living in our world. Part of the human experience for all of us is to encounter differences such as what Justin observed, but to be able to empathize with another person and his experience.

Such empathy provides us with a Mazlovian sense of Belonging to the human family, to that which is greater than ourselves.

This, I think, is what is implied in Reinhold Niebuhr’s claim about the nature of human beings:

“Each individual faces the eternal at every moment and in every action of his life.”

What is “the eternal”? Well, it will have different meanings for each of us. But, for me, “the eternal” here represents what it means to be an individual living in communities of others who have very different backgrounds, beliefs and aspirations all across the planet.

“The eternal” also refers to those fundamental principles, laws and universal truths about living within nature—on this planet, within our solar system, galaxy and entire cosmos.

Justin is here transcending argumentation to gain a sense of belonging to the nature of all humans across the planet, living within nature described by the laws of science.

When we teach, we have opportunities to extend students’ search for meaningfulness, as well as our own, by challenging them before, during and after instruction, to consider these extended meanings. We do so with such questions as:

“What is important to you here?
How does this apply to you? To all of us?
How does this relate to other subjects, to your experiences beyond school?
What are the general truths we are discovering about being human living in nature?”

In an exhibition for high school graduation I asked a physics student these questions about her research into the aerodynamics of lift-off runway lengths at LaGuardia airport for a 767.

“It tells me how the world works.” For example? “Well, how the subways I take everyday rely on the same basic principles of physics.”

There you have it. She has begun to see how physics helps explain everything around us. Helps her use these laws of physics for the betterment of all.

Why are these students’ understandings important?

They help them feel connected to the larger community of people who have similar experiences. We are not alone. We belong to the human race.

And we humans inhabit a physical world that we can know, understand and learn to explore for our own purposes, thereby achieving what one planetary scientist, Carolyn Porco (in charge of Saturn’s Cassini project) called

“. . .a deep spiritual quest—to grasp, to know, to feel connected through an understanding of the secrets of the natural world, to have a sense of one’s part in the greater whole.”

“To have a sense of one’s part in the greater whole” may bring to some of us the comfort of expanding our humanity, of knowing that we, like all our kin, are searching for meaning and understanding.

With such relationships to “the greater whole” also comes the ability to control nature to some degree.  Hence, we have landed three rovers on Mars, explore Saturn’s rings and mount ever more powerful telescopes to search the origins of our universe.

Education is a search for meaning for all of us, from infancy to more maturity, one that brings us into ever closer and closer union with the eternals of nature and our human condition.
Barell, J. 2016 Moving from WHAT to What if? Teaching Critical Thinking with Authentic Inquiry and Assessments. NY: Routledge.

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Who’s listening? Who’s talking?

Posted on  The Space of Jeans .

The much discussed concept of learners identifying problems – not only solutions is at the forefront of mind today. There is much talk around teachers who talk too much. We know this is real. We know we all do it. So why is it that teachers feel they should reword, finish sentences, provide their perspective  and step in so often? It puzzles me.

Today I sit with a Year 6 child who is on her PYP Expedition. Her teacher feels that she might be a bit lost. She starts off by reading “her questions” to me. They seem rather abstract and I dig a bit deeper. She tells me how someone helped her “make them up”. We chat a bit more. It seems like in forcing her to ask questions, rather than view her area of interest and analyse the parts (the thing routine Parts, Purposes and Complexities, shared by Project Zero’s  Agency by Design would have extended this thinking), has hindered her from exploring what she really wants to find out about.


I listen while she talks and I create a mind map of her thoughts and suggestions. When she is finished talking, I ask her to think about the lenses that she will be using in her exploration and she immediately identifies the concepts that will scaffold her thinking.


When our time is up she says,”This feels more like what I want to be doing”.

I am left pondering some of my own “big questions” …

Who’s  doing the listening when children are talking?

Who’s  doing the talking?

What message do children get when their voices are shut down?

What buy in is there from learners if there questions are forced; paraphrased and contained?

Do we all have an idea of why it’s important to know ,”Who’s listening and who’s talking”?

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What can materials do?

 “In any environment, both the degree of inventiveness and creativity, and the possibility of discovery, are directly proportional to the number and kind of variables in it.”- Simon Nicholson, Architect


Over the past few weeks, we have been researching what materials can do.

We offered a proposal to G5s- Could materials help us connect to our passions, interests and unanswered questions? We wondered if this exploration might eventually lead to self-directed learning projects.

‘This is amazing stuff’

‘It’s all so beautiful”

“Isn’t learning fun?

Teacher- Do you think playing with the materials was valuable?

“yes- more valuable than money”

Oskar: #kidsneedplay

Issac: #playisvaluable


Teachers have also played with materials and discovered how they could be used as a metaphor to connect their values to their work and a catalyst for reflection and digging deeper into our practices in the classroom.


Open ended, loose parts have lived in educational research since 1972,  when architect Simon Nicholson developed the Theory of Loose Parts.  The idea that loose parts; materials which can be moved around, designed and redesigned, and tinkered with; create infinitely more opportunities for creative engagement than static materials and environments.

‘Creativity is for the gifted few: the rest of us are compelled to live in environments constructed by the gifted few, listen to the gifted few’s music, use gifted few’s inventions and art, and read the poems, fantasies and plays by the gifted few. This is what our education and culture conditions us to believe, and this is a culturally induced and perpetuated lie.’  -Simon Nicholson (Read the entire study here)

Loose parts allow for open-ended exploration, creating innumerable possibilities for students to play and try out ideas. Loose parts don’t offer a fixed experience or answer, but by their very nature suggest that the “player” is the designer of the experience and the driver of the learning.

‘If you don’t play, the learning is too consequential- the great the danger- the narrower the learning will be. The object of school should be to make learning less dangerous.’ -Jerome Bruner

We wondered how offering materials to other students might provide them a language to tell us more about themselves and their lives within and outside of school. As G1 and G2 have been getting to know wire, feathers, collage and other materials, we have been getting to know the students.

 Oskari: I’m making 6 rings because there are 6 people in my family.

John: I would need to make 10 because there are 10 people in my family.

Student whose mom is sick: I’m making this necklace for my mom.

The conversation that followed detailed the different family relationships and their roles within the family.


Teacher: Do you want to play with the blocks?

Student: yes, but I don’t know how to ask them.

While we were learning about the students, the students have also made discoveries. They discovered that materials awaken their memories.

Jacob: Fire, I’m stating a fire (rubbing sticks together)

Johnson: Yea a fire

Jacob: Like when I went camping

Ashley: Don’t start a fire here

Jacob: No, I’m going to put it on the camping logs

Ashley: We don’t go to camp

Ava: No we’re too little

Jacob: I’ve been camping


Ava: I was a flower girl in Mr. L’s wedding. I think I was the youngest one there. Well maybe the 2nd youngest. It’s a little bit embarrassing being a flower girl.

Teacher: Why?

Ava: Everyone is looking at you.

They discovered that materials can help them make connections.

Lucas: I know where they found these feathers. They came from a Kukaburra.

Teacher: What’s that?

Lucas: He lives in the old gum tree

Jasmine: Kukaburras are in Australia. They laugh a lot. I come from Australia too!


After making rings together with wire:

Griffin: Ms. Katie you know when I go back to Canada in 2 years I don’t think this ring will still fit me, but I’m going to take it with me to remind me of this special moment.


The painting table was quite busy. From across the room, Yatong watched her classmates paint and play together- and then she joined them!


As I was wondering what other ways we might use materials, I remembered a blog post from a Grade 5 classroom at Opal School where materials were used to help students reset.

‘Often times at Opal School, we find that working with materials can not only help support these conditions of optimal learning but can also serve as a reset.  We all need a reset every now and then, whether a reset after an overload of information or a reset after an emotionally charged experience or a reset after being completely focused on a single idea or project for a period of time.  Resets offer a moment to breathe.  They serve to refresh, to rejuvenate, to offer different perspectives, to think and open new possibilities.  Resets might look like reflecting on an experience through the lens of a new material or simply losing oneself in the stroke of a paintbrush or the mark of a pen.’  (Read the entire post here)

And this post where Grade 3s were using materials as a tool for thinking and expression.

‘But like any material used as a tool for thinking, communicating and expressing, its greatest power is in reflecting us back to ourselves. What children show they can do in many ways determines who they believe themselves to be. The tools we give them matter. That we give them tools matters. The materials we use to make ideas make our ideas visible to others but also to ourselves. Beautiful questions explored through beautiful materials make beautiful ideas. What might happen if all children grew up in environments intentionally designed to invite them to see the beauty that is their birthright as human beings? What if adults planned, as a first priority, for that beauty to show up in school?’   (Read the entire post  here)

Materials are not usually the first “language” we offer children in our classrooms. I wonder what assumptions we might have about their purpose, value and the roles they play in our classrooms. Can we come play and see what we discover together?

This post was originally posted on 

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Not Yet, But Soon

I have been reading many blog posts and tweets on expectations for ourselves and our students and I continue to look at the power of “Yet” as a place marker for moving on. Two post from my archives that continue to have me wondering. and

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An inquiry into homework


It comes as no surprise that the issue of homework in elementary classrooms is quite the hot topic these days. In thinking about starting my year back in the classroom I decided that I – like many other teachers around the world -was going to outlaw homework!

… then I began to reflect on my decision and wondered if choosing for everyone not to have homework, was any better than choosing for everyone to have homework. Either way you slice it, I as the teacher, was the owner of that decision and that was something I was no longer comfortable with in trying to achieve more democratic classroom.

So I decided to take a collaborative approach and invite students and parents in on the decision making. Here is how it went!

Tuning In

Before delving too deep I wanted to tune into what students already thought about homework. So I posted “agree”, “disagree”, “sometimes” and “I’m not sure” around our classroom and I projected the following quote:

“Homework is essential to learning”

There were a range of responses and as students shared the reasoning behind their opinions, many students shifted from one group to the next.


Then I invited students to watch this Alfie Kohn interview to provoke their thinking about homework. They backchannelled throughout the video to share their thoughts, questions and connections.

Finding Out

After that, I told them that they would be deciding if they had homework – together with their families – but in order to make an informed decision we had to explore all the perspectives surrounding homework. To help with this we used to Visible Thinking Routine – Circle of Viewpoints.


Then we divided into teams that would each inquire into a different perspective. Each team had a different approach to collecting data:

The “student” team posted a Twitter poll and collected tallies at recess.


The “parent” team sent a Google Form home to all the parents.


The “teacher” team walked around the school and collected quotes from teachers about homework.

The “administrator” team sent the principal, assistant principal and superintendent an email.

The “media” team explored articles and videos I shared with them.

The “other schools” team browsed this school’s blog about their homework inquiry.

The “our school” team looked at the homework policy in the school handbook.

Sorting Out

Once all the teams had their data they had to go through it and decide what was important, what was worth taking note of and how they were going to consolidate and display it.

Some wrote a summary:


Others used graphs:


Some used statistics:


Others used quotes:


Some used hyeperlinks:


Others used photos:


Making Conclusions

Then we put it all together and emailed this Google Slideshow home to our families. From there, families explored all the perspectives together and made a decision about whether or not they wanted homework in Grade 4.

Final results: 9 chose homework 14 chose no homework

Taking Action

I pulled together the 9 students that opted to have homework this year and together we used the Start With Why framework to make a plan.

First students focused on why they wanted homework, then how they wanted it to work, then finally what specifically they would do to accomplish those goals.


Some students made themselves choice boards:


Other students planned out each night of the week:

image image

Next, I provided feedback about their plan and then they brought it home to get feedback from their parents as well.

Now we are finally ready to put these differentiated, student-led, family supported homework plans into action!

My Reflections

  • there was so much math and literacy in this inquiry
  • it was a great way to explore the concept of perspective
  • the format allowed for students to express their discovers using new literacies and multimodalities
  • the parents were amazing partners in this inquiry

Now that it is all over, I can rest assured that the students and families who want homework have it and the students and families who don’t want homework don’t have it. Everyone is happy and the ownership and control rests with the learners themselves… as it always should.

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SPT Conferences: Lost & Found

Originally published in my blog Ser y Estar:


Conferences have always represented a moment to emphasize the importance of the relationship that must exist between learners, teachers, and parents. Most importantly, I have always regarded these occasions as an opportunity to, collaboratively, move away from practices that destroy the learning spirit of a child; from ideas that cause us to lose a learner; from generalized agreements / assumptions of what cause false expectations, and cause us to ignore that children and all of us, for that matter, are not the same people we were in the last conference. Reflection is transformational and visualizing its impact should be the goal of all conferences.

Clearly, I love talking about learning and achievements, and about learning targets. Nonetheless, my favorite part of conferences is the human, socio-emotional aspect, because…

It’s important to remind parents that:

  • their children are kind.
  • their children arrive at school with a smile on their faces
  • words such as thank youplease, and would you mind, among others, are part of their everyday language.
  • their children can be the best kind of communicators as they exercise active listening.
  • their children see their peers as equal and support they wholeheartedly.
  • their children are brave when they take chances to explore learning opportunities that some find indomitable.
  • their children have a voice that makes others turn around and hear them.
  • their children constantly look for different ways of doing things.
  • learning with their children give us moments to reflect on what it means to learn for life.
  • all processes are learning opportunities for us teachers and that, conversely, it implies a learning curve for them.

Most importantly, I feel, these occasions are important because parents need to be given a stimulus to go extend the dialogue at home, to deepen the inquiry, and to make home feel like an extension of the school: a safe space where the way one perceives the world matters; and where there is room for different perspectives.

In this past conferences at my school, not only was I impressed by how eloquently my grade 7 students spoke about their learning process, and explained to their parents how they perceive their growth. Needless to say, seeing the stories that were born in parents’ eyes as their witnessed how their children talk about learning was my biggest take away.

Las week, as I spoke to parents and students, I was happy to see how my advisees, their children, helped me sent their parents home knowing they had found a side of their children they may or may not have thought they’d lost or didn’t know existed.

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Will It Help or Hurt to Review Scores With My First Grader?

This post was originally published here. I’d like to also add that since I wrote it, I have come across the video below, “Animal School” by Raising Small Souls. As a parent and teacher, it makes me further consider whether our good intentions to help our children grow can bring unintended negative effects as we push and push–and what can unfold when we instead patiently pull.

“What I’m saying is, when we treat grades and scores and accolades and awards as the purpose of childhood, all in furtherance of some hoped-for admission to a tiny number of colleges or entrance to a small number of careers, that that’s too narrow a definition of success for our kids.” (Julie Lythcott-Haims‘ TED Talk)

This quote comes to mind as I review my 6 year-old’s first academic report from the first month of school. I look at the paper and wonder what I should with it (besides discussing it with my daughter, as per the instructions at the bottom).

Should I high-five her or take her out for a treat because she has high scores in literacy? If we did that, what exactly would we be celebrating? The scores or the literacy? And if we celebrated scores when she has only ever read or written because she loves reading and writing, would she start loving the scores more than the reading and writing?

Should I have her stop writing so many stories after school to make way for more math practice because her scores aren’t quite as high there? If we did that, what exactly would we achieve? Raised math scores? Lowered writing scores? A sense of pressure associated with mathematics?

All these thoughts swirled as I obediently reviewed the report with her, when suddenly, she stopped me and asked, “Why are you telling me all these numbers?”

It made me stop and wonder, why was I? Was I conveying the idea portrayed in educator Edna Sackson’s comic below?


So far, scores don’t mean anything at all to her. She simply sees herself as a reader, writer, mathematician, scientist, thinker, and artist. Why should I should I get in the way of that by pushing her, when there is already such a strong intrinsic pull toward learning? As Edna also so eloquently shared years ago,

“School is often about push. Push to succeed. Push to get high grades. Push to achieve. Push to fit in. Push to participate. Push to comply. Push to work harder.

But the above might not be the most motivating ways to engage students and promote learning…

Learning is about pull. A strong provocation that awakens curiosity. A powerful central idea that excites interest. Essential questions that draw students into meaningful learning. Learning experiences that encourage wondering, exploring, creating and collaborating. Opportunities to construct meaning and transfer learning to other contexts.”

Don’t get me wrong. I do appreciate the report and I deeply appreciate all her teacher’s efforts in conveying her progress. The comments regarding her behavior were especially valuable in our discussion.  And had her numbers conveyed concerning trends (ie, consistently low scores and signs of significant struggling), I would be anxious to be aware in order to work with the teacher for interventions and support.

But for now, she learns because of her intrinsic love of learning. And I’m happy to continue to provide opportunities at home (and hear about those that occur at school) that continue to help pull that interest and enthusiasm.  

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Stop, Pause, Inquire

Just recently, I’ve had to stop and pause in our mad rush to get everything done: the rush to bring the students up to speed in their conceptual math understanding; to read with passion, to engage in our calming, writers’ workshop flow and to kick off our new unit.

But stop and pause…There’s some authentic inquiry and action happening and I’m not listening…

My teaching partner told me in passing that the students had been complaining about the cafeteria food. In their mother tongue, Bengali, they had been thinking about how the food isn’t good and how there’s so much food thrown away. They thought maybe the cafeteria was loud because students weren’t busy eating the food.  They even thought they might write a letter to see if they could take some action about it.

When I heard about it, I was in a rush. We were on our way to a meeting, coming from another meeting. We were completing planners, doing paperwork. I casually said that maybe they could work on some of their Bengali writing skills by writing a letter to the principal.

And then, I stopped and paused. Wait.

Our students were just coming up with their own authentic inquiry: their own passion and call to action, and it almost slipped by. My teaching partner had told me that the students were upset and engaged. They were trying to make connections and already thinking forward to action. They actually were practicing their process of analysis, which we had just learned and practiced in our last unit.

And I almost missed it.

So now…to incorporate their passion. We need to make time for their inquiry. We need to help guide them in their research into the issue–surveys, observations, interviews, talks with the administration and board. We need to show them how to slow down to analyze this issue their concerned about. And then we need to let them evaluate different ways to take action.

I remember when my 5th graders in Yokohama took their-own initiated action in a water bottle protest. It took us over the course of months, incorporating math, language, tying in with units, and everyone remembered it as being one of the best learning experiences.

This inquiry could be similar…and I almost missed it.

Stop, pause, inquire…It’s what authentic learning is all about.

Originally published on Solid Ground.

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Inquiry is the answer, what are the questions?

Inquiry is the answer, what are the questions?

This quick task was assigned to a group of teachers at a recent workshop on inclusion, highlighting how a simple, open-ended provocation can provoke curiosity, allow access for learners with diverse learning needs and simultaneously assess knowledge and understanding.

Many of the questions, based on a view of inquiry as a stance, were evidence of our strong beliefs about inquiry learning…

  • How can we make learning successful for all?
  • What is it called when we learn by questioning and investigating?
  • How might we ensure child centred learning?
  • How can we encourage students to take responsibility for their learning?
  • How do children learn best?
  • What approach to learning is most inclusive?
  • How can we make learning engaging?
  • What approach to learning fosters learner agency?
  • How do we open doors to collaboration, construction of new knowledge and development of skills?
  • What type of school learning emulates real life learning?
  • What helps us to learn about the world around us?
  • What encourages us to become life long learners?
  • What helps us to construct meaning?
  • How can I move forward in my learning?
  • What can help me discover my interests and passions?
  • How do children become knowledgable, contributing citizens of the world?

and my favourite, addressed to adults who all learned in a more traditional, direct way:

  • What was missing in your education?

What would your questions be?

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Modelling being explorers on an expedition…

This post is cross posted from my personal blog.

Graham Baines (aka @PYPChef) shares a great blog post that questions whether the PYP Exhibition should be viewed as an exhibition or an expedition. It raises a great question – one that makes us carefully consider the way in which we name processes. We chat about it informally in a year level meeting in the morning and then we all head off in different directions.

I feel fortunate that I get to spend my days with lots of children and lots of teachers, in different classes. The first class  I  go into today is discussing the five essential elements of the PYP for their personal inquiries. They spend a great deal of the time thinking about what action means. They decide that it is when something changes …

So, when I go into another Year 6 class later in the day, the action I see, taken by the teacher to start, is like a ray of sunshine in the day. She has taken the discussion from earlier in the day (exhibition vs expedition) and she has asked the children to discuss what they think their learning is about.

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I have to say … there is no doubt in m y mind that the Year 6 teachers are taking action! They are modelling what it means to be inquirers and they are true example of what explorers on an expedition do, before they share in their exhibition!

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