“Young people have a remarkable capacity for intensity….”

Those words, uttered by one of America’s leading public intellectuals, Dr. Leon Botstein, President of Bard College, has driven my work for the past six or seven years. It is incumbent on every educator, parent, and citizen to build upon each kid’s capacity for intensity otherwise it manifests itself as boredom, misbehavior, ennui, or perhaps worst of all, wasted potential.

Schools need to raise the intensity level of their classrooms!

However, intensity is NOT the same as chaos. Schools don’t need any help with chaos. That they’ve cornered the market on.

Anyone who has seen me speak is familiar with this photograph (above). It was taken around 1992 or 1993 at Glamorgan (now Toorak) the primary school campus of Geolong Grammar school in Melbourne, Australia. The kids were using their laptops to program in LogoWriter, a predecessor to MicroWorlds or Scratch.

I love this photo because in the time that elapsed between hitting the space bar and awaiting the result to appear on the screen, every ounce of the kid’s being was mobilized in anticipation of the result. He was literally shaking,

Moments after that image was captured, something occurred that has been repeated innumerable times ever since. Almost without exception, when a kid I’m teaching demonstrates a magnificent fireball of intensity, a teacher takes me aside to whisper some variation of, “that kid isn’t really good at school.”

No kidding? Could that possibly be due to an intensity mismatch between the eager clever child and her classroom?

I enjoy the great privilege of working in classrooms PK-12 all over the world on a regular basis. This allows me observe patterns, identify trends, and form hypotheses like the one about a mismatch in intensity. The purpose of my work in classrooms is to model for teachers what’s possible. When they see through the eyes, hands, and sometimes screens of their students, they may gain fresh perspectives on how things need not be as they seem.

Over four days last month, I taught more than 500 kids I never met before to program in Turtle Art and MicroWorlds EX. I enter each classroom conveying a message of, “I’m Gary. We’ve got stuff to do.” I greet each kid with an open heart and belief in their competence, unencumbered by their cumulative file, IEP, social status, or popularity. In every single instance, kids became lost in their work often for several times longer than a standard class period, without direct instruction, or a single  disciplinary incident. No shushing, yelling, time-outs, threats, rewards, or other behavioral management are needed. I have long maintained that classroom management techniques are only necessary if you feel compelled to manage a classroom.

In nearly every class I work with – anywhere, teachers take me aside to remark about how at least one kid shone brilliantly despite being a difficult or at-risk student. This no longer surprises me.

In one particular class, a kid quickly caught my eye due to his enthusiasm for programming. The kid took my two minute introduction to the programming language and set himself a challenge instantly. I then suggested a more complex variation. He followed with another idea before commandeering the computer on the teacher’s desk and connected to the projector in order to give an impromptu tutorial for classmates struggling with an elusive concept he observed while working on his own project. He was a fine teacher.

Then the fifth grader sat back down at his desk to continue his work. A colleague suggested that he write a program to draw concentric circles. A nifty bit of geometric and algebraic thinking followed. When I kicked things up a notch by writing my own even more complex program on the projected computer and named it, “Gary Defeats Derrick.” The kid laughed and read my program in an attempt to understand my use of global variables, conditionals, and iteration. Later in the day, the same kid chased me down the hall to tell me about what he had discovered since I left his classroom that morning.

Oh yeah, I later learned that the very same terrific kid is being drummed out of school  for not being their type of student.

I learned long ago. If a school does not have bad children, it will make them.


Recently, 5th and 6th grade girls in the school where I work came up to me in the hallway and volunteered, “I want to be an engineer.” While this is heartwarming, especially given the political rhetoric behind the importance of S.T.E.M. and the challenges of gender underrepresentation in the sciences, I would like to draw a totally different lesson for educators.

Anyone who knows anything about my teaching knows that I would never spend any time on “career education” with kids I teach. I create the context, conditions and projects   during which children are engaged in engineering. When building and programming robots, the kids are engineers – not contemplating a career for a dozen years later. The kids are smart enough to connect the dots and identify interest in a career related to their talent, interests or present mood, even if that interest is short-lived.

Time is the rarest of currencies in school. Therefore, time should be focused on authentic experiences, not meta experiences.

Affective qualities like collaboration, passion, curiosity, perseverance and teamwork are certainly desirable for teachers and students. However, these traits may be developed while engaged in real pursuits, even within the existing curriculum. All that is required is a meaningful project. This is why I question the use of “meta” activities like ropes courses, ice-breakers or trust-building exercises as a form of professional development or separate curriculum. Professional development resources are also scarce. Therefore, PD should be focused on learning to do or know. The affective skills should be byproducts of meaningful experiences intended to improve teaching.

Adults become better teachers when they enjoy firsthand learning adventures like they desire for their students. You can’t teach 21st Century Learners  if you haven’t learned this century. That is why I created Constructing Modern Knowledge.

Some educators have recognized that schools are too impersonal and that teachers should get to know their students. I could not agree more. However, the prescription is often to create advisory courses or extend homeroom to deal with pastoral care issues. The result is one teacher who gets to “know” students and time is borrowed from other courses where teachers should get to know their students formally and informally in the process of constructing knowledge together.

Sit next to a student engaged in a science experiment and talk with them. Lead vigorous discussions or chat with a kid about the book they’re reading. You don’t need a class period set aside for asking “How was your weekend?” or for building trust. Join a group of students for lunch. Say, “hi,” while passing in the hallway. Dennis Littky tells the story of making Time Magazine because as a school principal he greeted students when they entered school in the morning. Have we lowered our expectations so much that knowing students is some sort of awesome systemic accomplishment? Humane, thoughtful, even casual interaction between teachers and students does not require an NSF grant or special class.

When educators create a productive context for learning, achievement improves, students feel more connected and behavioral problems evaporate. For three years, Seymour Papert, colleagues and I created a learner-centered, project-based alternative learning environment for at-risk learners inside of a troubled prison for teens. When the needs, interests, passions, talents and curiosity of our students were put ahead of a random list of stuff, they were not only capable of demonstrating remarkable competence, but there was not a single discipline incident in ever that required a kid to leave the classroom.

Students can develop self-esteem by engaging in satisfying work. Classroom management is not required when teachers don’t view themselves as managers. Kids can learn “digital citizenship” while learning to program, sharing code and interacting online. They can feel safe at school by forming relationships with each of their teachers. Study skills are best gained within a context of meaningful inquiry.

Learning is the best way to learn. Accept no substitutes!

Welcome to Uzupis!

I enjoyed a lovely lunch today in the Republic of Užupis. In between bites of pizza, I couldn’t help but think of how many teachers are busily assembling the class rule and penalty documents for distribution on the first day of school.With each passing year, these reams of paper begin to resemble the US tax code in size, scope, severity and arbitrariness.

Welcome back kids! Here’s the list of ways we expect you to screw-up and be punished over the next 180 days. If you do not bring this document back to school tomorrow, signed by a parent, the cycle of punishment will begin with all due haste!

Don’t strain your back hanging the laminated set of class rules used for decades. Why not consider adopting the Constitution of Užupis for class governance?

Constitution of The Republic of Užupis

  1. Everyone has the right to live by the River Vilnelė, and the River Vilnelė has the right to flow by everyone.
  2. Everyone has the right to hot water, heating in winter and a tiled roof.
  3. Everyone has the right to die, but this is not an obligation.
  4. Everyone has the right to make mistakes.
  5. Everyone has the right to be unique.
  6. Everyone has the right to love.
  7. Everyone has the right not to be loved, but not necessarily.
  8. Everyone has the right to be undistinguished and unknown.
  9. Everyone has the right to be idle.
  10. Everyone has the right to love and take care of a cat.
  11. Everyone has the right to look after the dog until one of them dies.
  12. A dog has the right to be a dog.
  13. A cat is not obliged to love its owner, but must help in time of need.
  14. Sometimes everyone has the right to be unaware of their duties.
  15. Everyone has the right to be in doubt, but this is not an obligation.
  16. Everyone has the right to be happy.
  17. Everyone has the right to be unhappy.
  18. Everyone has the right to be silent.
  19. Everyone has the right to have faith.
  20. No one has the right to violence.
  21. Everyone has the right to appreciate their unimportance.
  22. No one has the right to have a design on eternity.
  23. Everyone has the right to understand.
  24. Everyone has the right to understand nothing.
  25. Everyone has the right to be of any nationality.
  26. Everyone has the right to celebrate or not celebrate their birthday.
  27. Everyone shall remember their name.
  28. Everyone may share what they possess.
  29. No one can share what they do not possess.
  30. Everyone has the right to have brothers, sisters and parents.
  31. Everyone may be independent.
  32. Everyone is responsible for their freedom.
  33. Everyone has the right to cry.
  34. Everyone has the right to be misunderstood.
  35. No one has the right to make another person guilty.
  36. Everyone has the right to be individual.
  37. Everyone has the right to have no rights.
  38. Everyone has the right to not to be afraid.
  39. Do not defeat
  40. Do not fight back
  41. Do not surrender

The motto of Užupis, “Don’t Fight! Don’t Win! Don’t Surrender!” would be swell for your school as well. This web site has a terrific tour of Užupis I recommend reading it.

As you begin another school year, my best advice comes from the great American philosopher Gerald Norman Springer, “Take care of yourselves and each other!”

NOTE: I am posting my response to a blog post here because Blogger presented an incomprehensible error that I think might mean that my response is too long…

Lee Kolbert, aka teachakidd, raised some provocative issues in her blog post, I’m Not Who You Think I AM.

Lee’s blog post is a reaction to another post on Will Richardson’s blog, A Parent 2.0’s Back to School Dilemma in which he and Alec Couros lament what they’ve observed as parents at back-to-school night. I interpret Will’s blog as a cry for help. I know I have felt powerless when I visited my child’s classroom and found that the environment, teacher or pedagogical practices not to my liking.

Lee wrote the following…

Read Will’s post AND the comments because reading it all made me realize this about myself: I suck!

I must be a fraud. I’m not who you think I am!

People in the edublogger community who once thought I was a great teacher would be appalled if they came into my room! Why?

  1. I also have rules about sharpening pencils. Have you ever had 6 students get up to sharpen their pencils while they should be working on something else. While they are sharpening they are horsing around? All the while you are trying to read with a small group of students? Truly, there HAS to be some organization in a classroom. My rule? Sharpen pencils in the morning and afternoon. Otherwise, take one of my golf pencils (you know the short ones with no erasers?)
  2. I also thank parents for sending in white board markers and copy paper because I’ve already spent $800. of my own money this school year alone. Every little bit helps. By the way, I still need sticky notes, if you’d like to send me some. I’ll thank you too.
  3. I often use the textbook as a guide or [GASP] teach from it, because I HAVE to teach to standards and I have to teach 5 subjects every single day and I don’t have time to create a project-based activity for every single lesson.
  4. If I had a parent send me “helpful” emails and copy the principal on them, that parent would become “that parent” and you can be sure communication on my end would as minimal as possible.
  5. If I had a parent who told their child he/she can ignore my homework because the parent felt it was unnecessary…. the child will still be held responsible for the homework.
  6. My students have assigned seats. They are allowed to talk when the talk is meaningful and productive. They are not allowed to talk when someone else is speaking to the group. My students are sitting where “I,” THE TEACHER, determine each student can do their best work.

And there’s lots more rules! Yes, I have rules in my room. Sometimes I even have to invent more based on some things that occur repeatedly.

Well, first of all I need to declare publicly that my respect for Chris Lehmann has gone up appreciably based on his response and practical suggestions for more civil, learner-centered alternatives to teacher-created arbitrary rules. THAT was a masterful demonstration of why educators should take him seriously.

Lee – I’m wondering why you felt compelled to write this defense of your teaching practices? If I told you that I disagreed with your pencil rules or seating chart, would you change your practice? Under what circumstances would you do so? If some guy from central office carrying a clipboard told you to get rid of the seating chart, or pencils, or rows of desks, or gum rules, THEN would you do it?

Or, are you defiantly proclaiming, “This is the way I teach and if you don’t like it…” ?

There is also a great deal of rhetorical conjuring taking place. Are you defending all teacher’s rights to do whatever they BELIEVE is effective, perhaps even in the face of evidence to the contrary?

Do you want all of us who follow you on Twitter or via blogging to agree with your classroom practices? Are you using your online popularity to dare us to disagree with you or question your pedagogical practices?

I love you to death, but I’ve only hung out with you in non-school settings or interacted via Twitter. Does your presence in social media bestow quality control? How am I supposed to know if you’re a good teacher? Should I trust your nice avatar and the fact that kids like you?

If a teacher spends hours each day lecturing/speaking/teaching, is it unreasonable to expect that person to have well-developed speaking skills or is capable of explaining herself?

I’ve been at back-to-school nights where a teacher had so little charisma that parents walked around the classroom, mumbled “I guess she’s not here” and walked out of the room while the teacher plaintively asked, “Why isn’t anyone staying?”  If a teacher cannot hold my interest for 8 minutes, why should I leave my child with him for 180 days? Should a teacher work on developing such communication skills?

I can tell you that here in Australia the teachers have (on average) exceptional speaking skills and as a result so do their students.

That said….

I think the more important point that Alec, Will, Chris and others have alluded to is, “What if my child is randomly assigned to your classroom for an entire year and I don’t agree with your rules, room arrangement, seating chart or a bazillion other classroom variables?

THEN what options do I have as a parent? What is my child to do? What is the fate of a child whose parent is not an education expert?