Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The 20% solution and Summer Vacation

My good friend Tzvi Pittinsky posted this week about how Google comes up with all of the cool tools that they have (many of which most people do not even know about). They apparently demand that their workers use 20% of their time, or roughly one day per week, to work on their own projects. The thinking is that given "free time" at work to dabble and be creative, these workers will try to improve the product in ways that would not be thought of if these workers were simply going about their normal workload.

Tzvi wonders out loud what would happen if we allowed our teachers and students to do the same - if school is a knowledge industry, then imagine the ideas that would flower forth if we allowed these ultimate knowledge workers to be creative for a few hours each day.

It seems to me that, at least as far as teachers are concerned, we already have that 20% time - it's called summer vacation. Mathematically, it works out to about 20% of the calendar year, but that is not my point. For many, many teachers, summer is the time to work on new ideas - new curriculum elements, new uses for technology, new pedagogic techniques, and on and on. The school year is a time when we are so put-upon with papers and grading and preparing for the next few classes that there is simply not enough "free" time for the type of creative thinking that brings about the next great idea or even the next small but significant shift in teaching.

I am speaking from immediate experience. Our students' last day was last Wednesday, and report cards were due at midnight that night. Since Pesach, I had been inundated with not only the work involved for the classes that I teach (included producing and marking three full sets of long finals), but also with all of the various scheduling of events and proctoring for the final two months of the school year, putting together graduation, and myriad other administrative tasks.

Then the clock struck twelve on Wednesday night. Classes were over, report cards were entered, activities were completed. Summer had begun, and with it the chance to begin to think about larger plans and ideas. I had been jotting down one-line reminders for myself for weeks, with the hope that I would get back to many of those ideas once the school year ended. Now that the year was over, I felt the creative juices begin to flow. Vague ideas started becoming concrete sets of notes, and hopefully I will have more to share as the summer progresses.

Sure, not every teacher spends their summer working. And every teacher spends some time taking a vacation (which, in my opinion, is very necessary after working with kids in groups of 20 or more for ten months). But most teachers - more than you know - spend significant time over the summer using that relative freedom from their daily routine to brainstorm and create better and more engaging ways of teaching.

Now if we could just get the kids to use their 20% of the year the same way...

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Last Day of School

Eventually, there has to be a last day of school. No matter when you choose to end school - late June, early June, mid-May, Pesach - there has to be a day that is the last one. For many teachers and administrators, this day is to be dreaded - it is hard to do meaningful learning on such a day, we may have spent the better part of the past week wrapping things up with our students and having class parties, and the final day may only be a half-day anyway. Thus, the challenge presents itself of how to do more than twiddle one's thumbs on the last day of the school year.

I like to think that we have developed a nice approach to the final days of school. Sometime during the final week, most classes get into what I will call "siyum" mode - having the last homework, the last test, learning the last few psukim or vocab words or math problems. In our Middle School, we end finals with several days still to go in the school year and conclude with a final chessed project (this year we cleaned up some local parks), a final advisory program, and student council elections for next year. Teachers had a chance to return finals and offer final messages to their students.

When it came to the absolute last day of the year, we adhered to what I consider to be the three messages to send on the last day of school:
1) We had a great year!
2) Have a great summer!
3) Go (name of school)!

How did we do this? We asked all of our students to come in wearing the school colors (and we even slightly relaxed the dress code for this). We said goodbye to those students who are moving elsewhere and recognized those who had excelled in non-academic areas during the year. We played a Jeopardy-style game that reviewed all sorts of things about the school year - from subject matter to school and current events to teacher trivia. Finally, we watched a student-prepared "highlight video" of the entire year and counted down from 10 to the final bell. Our students left happy, excited for the summer, and proud to go to such a wonderful school.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Authentic and Manufactured Experiences

We took our 8th grade class on their senior trip to Niagara Falls a couple of weeks ago. We ditched Washington in the wake of 9/11 (nothing was open) and we never looked back. Our thinking is that seniors do not want to see museums - they just want to hang with each other. In theory, we could spend three days on the bus and they would be more or less OK with that.

At any rate, on the third day we did the actual Falls - first the Maid of the Mist boat ride, followed by the Cave of the Winds, where you walk right into the "bridal veil" falls and get beyond any previous notion of wetness that you ever imagined. I love these activities - I have done them every year for the past nine years and am already looking forward to doing them again.

What struck me was a sincere and unprompted comment from one of our students. We walked from the Maid to the Cave (about a 10 minute stroll around the corner), and while we were doing so, one young lady remarked to me that her family never takes trips like this. Now, mind you, her family has gone on plenty of vacations to plenty of "vacation hot spots." So I asked her what she meant, and by way of explanation she commented that when her family goes on vacation they spend a lot of time in the hotel, but do not generally do things as undoubtedly real as Niagara Falls.

To my mind, this comment was refreshing and thought-provoking. It was refreshing in that it was good to hear a student self-aware enough to realize that simply going to Florida or the Bahamas or even Israel is not really an experience if all that you do is go there without experiencing the place itself.

But more important, the comment was thought-provoking in that, more and more, it seems that the experiences that we provide for our children are more manufactured than authentic, more defined by accumulating lists of locations visited, restaurants eaten at, and official "chavayot" than by experiencing the wonders of nature or having a moment of quiet reflection and spiritual contemplation. As we drove the 6-7 hours to Niagara Falls, passing through some beautiful upstate New York countryside, most of our students had their eyes securely fastened on some form of a screen. When we went to a Toronto Blue Jays game on one night of our trip, some of our students undoubtedly marked off in their head that they had made it to one more stadium in their vague goal of going to all 30.

However, when we stood on the Maid of the Mist, coming as close to the powerful Canadian Falls as possible, watching the walls of water on either side of us and the massive mist rising in the middle, it was simply impossible to think anything other than "awesome". To my mind, no roller coaster in the world can offer what Niagara Falls can - an unbridled encounter with the enormity and undeniability of God's might and the amazing wonders of nature that He created.

And that was, I believe, what touched something inside the student mentioned above. She had been to plenty of nice places and stayed in plenty of nice hotels and eaten in plenty of wonderful restaurants. But at a certain point, one realizes that none of those things offer more than external, physical comfort. Something inside this student was longing to be impressed, to be touched, to be inspired. Niagara Falls did it for her. As educators, it is our job to open our students' eyes to the experiences that will do the same for them.