Wednesday, February 29, 2012

What Do You Wish You Would Have Known?

Copied entirely from Paul Graham here. Some minor cursing (a warning for the easily offended), but my goodness. Imagine if someone had not only sat you down and told you this when you were younger but that you had also had presence of mind enough not to ignore it. Share it with a highschooler you love.

January 2005

(I wrote this talk for a high school. I never actually gave it, because the school authorities vetoed the plan to invite me.)

When I said I was speaking at a high school, my friends were curious. What will you say to high school students? So I asked them, what do you wish someone had told you in high school? Their answers were remarkably similar. So I'm going to tell you what we all wish someone had told us.

I'll start by telling you something you don't have to know in high school: what you want to do with your life. People are always asking you this, so you think you're supposed to have an answer. But adults ask this mainly as a conversation starter. They want to know what sort of person you are, and this question is just to get you talking. They ask it the way you might poke a hermit crab in a tide pool, to see what it does.

If I were back in high school and someone asked about my plans, I'd say that my first priority was to learn what the options were. You don't need to be in a rush to choose your life's work. What you need to do is discover what you like. You have to work on stuff you like if you want to be good at what you do.

It might seem that nothing would be easier than deciding what you like, but it turns out to be hard, partly because it's hard to get an accurate picture of most jobs. Being a doctor is not the way it's portrayed on TV. Fortunately you can also watch real doctors, by volunteering in hospitals. [1] (added: notes can be reviewed by visiting the link above)

But there are other jobs you can't learn about, because no one is doing them yet. Most of the work I've done in the last ten years didn't exist when I was in high school. The world changes fast, and the rate at which it changes is itself speeding up. In such a world it's not a good idea to have fixed plans.

And yet every May, speakers all over the country fire up the Standard Graduation Speech, the theme of which is: don't give up on your dreams. I know what they mean, but this is a bad way to put it, because it implies you're supposed to be bound by some plan you made early on. The computer world has a name for this: premature optimization. And it is synonymous with disaster. These speakers would do better to say simply, don't give up.

What they really mean is, don't get demoralized. Don't think that you can't do what other people can. And I agree you shouldn't underestimate your potential. People who've done great things tend to seem as if they were a race apart. And most biographies only exaggerate this illusion, partly due to the worshipful attitude biographers inevitably sink into, and partly because, knowing how the story ends, they can't help streamlining the plot till it seems like the subject's life was a matter of destiny, the mere unfolding of some innate genius. In fact I suspect if you had the sixteen year old Shakespeare or Einstein in school with you, they'd seem impressive, but not totally unlike your other friends.

Which is an uncomfortable thought. If they were just like us, then they had to work very hard to do what they did. And that's one reason we like to believe in genius. It gives us an excuse for being lazy. If these guys were able to do what they did only because of some magic Shakespeareness or Einsteinness, then it's not our fault if we can't do something as good.

I'm not saying there's no such thing as genius. But if you're trying to choose between two theories and one gives you an excuse for being lazy, the other one is probably right.

So far we've cut the Standard Graduation Speech down from "don't give up on your dreams" to "what someone else can do, you can do." But it needs to be cut still further. There is some variation in natural ability. Most people overestimate its role, but it does exist. If I were talking to a guy four feet tall whose ambition was to play in the NBA, I'd feel pretty stupid saying, you can do anything if you really try. [2]

We need to cut the Standard Graduation Speech down to, "what someone else with your abilities can do, you can do; and don't underestimate your abilities." But as so often happens, the closer you get to the truth, the messier your sentence gets. We've taken a nice, neat (but wrong) slogan, and churned it up like a mud puddle. It doesn't make a very good speech anymore. But worse still, it doesn't tell you what to do anymore. Someone with your abilities? What are your abilities?


I think the solution is to work in the other direction. Instead of working back from a goal, work forward from promising situations. This is what most successful people actually do anyway.

In the graduation-speech approach, you decide where you want to be in twenty years, and then ask: what should I do now to get there? I propose instead that you don't commit to anything in the future, but just look at the options available now, and choose those that will give you the most promising range of options afterward.

It's not so important what you work on, so long as you're not wasting your time. Work on things that interest you and increase your options, and worry later about which you'll take.

Suppose you're a college freshman deciding whether to major in math or economics. Well, math will give you more options: you can go into almost any field from math. If you major in math it will be easy to get into grad school in economics, but if you major in economics it will be hard to get into grad school in math.

Flying a glider is a good metaphor here. Because a glider doesn't have an engine, you can't fly into the wind without losing a lot of altitude. If you let yourself get far downwind of good places to land, your options narrow uncomfortably. As a rule you want to stay upwind. So I propose that as a replacement for "don't give up on your dreams." Stay upwind.

How do you do that, though? Even if math is upwind of economics, how are you supposed to know that as a high school student?

Well, you don't, and that's what you need to find out. Look for smart people and hard problems. Smart people tend to clump together, and if you can find such a clump, it's probably worthwhile to join it. But it's not straightforward to find these, because there is a lot of faking going on.

To a newly arrived undergraduate, all university departments look much the same. The professors all seem forbiddingly intellectual and publish papers unintelligible to outsiders. But while in some fields the papers are unintelligible because they're full of hard ideas, in others they're deliberately written in an obscure way to seem as if they're saying something important. This may seem a scandalous proposition, but it has been experimentally verified, in the famous Social Text affair. Suspecting that the papers published by literary theorists were often just intellectual-sounding nonsense, a physicist deliberately wrote a paper full of intellectual-sounding nonsense, and submitted it to a literary theory journal, which published it.

The best protection is always to be working on hard problems. Writing novels is hard. Reading novels isn't. Hard means worry: if you're not worrying that something you're making will come out badly, or that you won't be able to understand something you're studying, then it isn't hard enough. There has to be suspense.

Well, this seems a grim view of the world, you may think. What I'm telling you is that you should worry? Yes, but it's not as bad as it sounds. It's exhilarating to overcome worries. You don't see faces much happier than people winning gold medals. And you know why they're so happy? Relief.

I'm not saying this is the only way to be happy. Just that some kinds of worry are not as bad as they sound.


In practice, "stay upwind" reduces to "work on hard problems." And you can start today. I wish I'd grasped that in high school.

Most people like to be good at what they do. In the so-called real world this need is a powerful force. But high school students rarely benefit from it, because they're given a fake thing to do. When I was in high school, I let myself believe that my job was to be a high school student. And so I let my need to be good at what I did be satisfied by merely doing well in school.

If you'd asked me in high school what the difference was between high school kids and adults, I'd have said it was that adults had to earn a living. Wrong. It's that adults take responsibility for themselves. Making a living is only a small part of it. Far more important is to take intellectual responsibility for oneself.

If I had to go through high school again, I'd treat it like a day job. I don't mean that I'd slack in school. Working at something as a day job doesn't mean doing it badly. It means not being defined by it. I mean I wouldn't think of myself as a high school student, just as a musician with a day job as a waiter doesn't think of himself as a waiter. [3] And when I wasn't working at my day job I'd start trying to do real work.

When I ask people what they regret most about high school, they nearly all say the same thing: that they wasted so much time. If you're wondering what you're doing now that you'll regret most later, that's probably it. [4]

Some people say this is inevitable-- that high school students aren't capable of getting anything done yet. But I don't think this is true. And the proof is that you're bored. You probably weren't bored when you were eight. When you're eight it's called "playing" instead of "hanging out," but it's the same thing. And when I was eight, I was rarely bored. Give me a back yard and a few other kids and I could play all day.

The reason this got stale in middle school and high school, I now realize, is that I was ready for something else. Childhood was getting old.

I'm not saying you shouldn't hang out with your friends-- that you should all become humorless little robots who do nothing but work. Hanging out with friends is like chocolate cake. You enjoy it more if you eat it occasionally than if you eat nothing but chocolate cake for every meal. No matter how much you like chocolate cake, you'll be pretty queasy after the third meal of it. And that's what the malaise one feels in high school is: mental queasiness. [5]

You may be thinking, we have to do more than get good grades. We have to have extracurricular activities. But you know perfectly well how bogus most of these are. Collecting donations for a charity is an admirable thing to do, but it's not hard. It's not getting something done. What I mean by getting something done is learning how to write well, or how to program computers, or what life was really like in preindustrial societies, or how to draw the human face from life. This sort of thing rarely translates into a line item on a college application.


It's dangerous to design your life around getting into college, because the people you have to impress to get into college are not a very discerning audience. At most colleges, it's not the professors who decide whether you get in, but admissions officers, and they are nowhere near as smart. They're the NCOs of the intellectual world. They can't tell how smart you are. The mere existence of prep schools is proof of that.

Few parents would pay so much for their kids to go to a school that didn't improve their admissions prospects. Prep schools openly say this is one of their aims. But what that means, if you stop to think about it, is that they can hack the admissions process: that they can take the very same kid and make him seem a more appealing candidate than he would if he went to the local public school. [6]

Right now most of you feel your job in life is to be a promising college applicant. But that means you're designing your life to satisfy a process so mindless that there's a whole industry devoted to subverting it. No wonder you become cynical. The malaise you feel is the same that a producer of reality TV shows or a tobacco industry executive feels. And you don't even get paid a lot.

So what do you do? What you should not do is rebel. That's what I did, and it was a mistake. I didn't realize exactly what was happening to us, but I smelled a major rat. And so I just gave up. Obviously the world sucked, so why bother?

When I discovered that one of our teachers was herself using Cliff's Notes, it seemed par for the course. Surely it meant nothing to get a good grade in such a class.

In retrospect this was stupid. It was like someone getting fouled in a soccer game and saying, hey, you fouled me, that's against the rules, and walking off the field in indignation. Fouls happen. The thing to do when you get fouled is not to lose your cool. Just keep playing.

By putting you in this situation, society has fouled you. Yes, as you suspect, a lot of the stuff you learn in your classes is crap. And yes, as you suspect, the college admissions process is largely a charade. But like many fouls, this one was unintentional. [7] So just keep playing.

Rebellion is almost as stupid as obedience. In either case you let yourself be defined by what they tell you to do. The best plan, I think, is to step onto an orthogonal vector. Don't just do what they tell you, and don't just refuse to. Instead treat school as a day job. As day jobs go, it's pretty sweet. You're done at 3 o'clock, and you can even work on your own stuff while you're there.


And what's your real job supposed to be? Unless you're Mozart, your first task is to figure that out. What are the great things to work on? Where are the imaginative people? And most importantly, what are you interested in? The word "aptitude" is misleading, because it implies something innate. The most powerful sort of aptitude is a consuming interest in some question, and such interests are often acquired tastes.

A distorted version of this idea has filtered into popular culture under the name "passion." I recently saw an ad for waiters saying they wanted people with a "passion for service." The real thing is not something one could have for waiting on tables. And passion is a bad word for it. A better name would be curiosity.

Kids are curious, but the curiosity I mean has a different shape from kid curiosity. Kid curiosity is broad and shallow; they ask why at random about everything. In most adults this curiosity dries up entirely. It has to: you can't get anything done if you're always asking why about everything. But in ambitious adults, instead of drying up, curiosity becomes narrow and deep. The mud flat morphs into a well.

Curiosity turns work into play. For Einstein, relativity wasn't a book full of hard stuff he had to learn for an exam. It was a mystery he was trying to solve. So it probably felt like less work to him to invent it than it would seem to someone now to learn it in a class.

One of the most dangerous illusions you get from school is the idea that doing great things requires a lot of discipline. Most subjects are taught in such a boring way that it's only by discipline that you can flog yourself through them. So I was surprised when, early in college, I read a quote by Wittgenstein saying that he had no self-discipline and had never been able to deny himself anything, not even a cup of coffee.

Now I know a number of people who do great work, and it's the same with all of them. They have little discipline. They're all terrible procrastinators and find it almost impossible to make themselves do anything they're not interested in. One still hasn't sent out his half of the thank-you notes from his wedding, four years ago. Another has 26,000 emails in her inbox.

I'm not saying you can get away with zero self-discipline. You probably need about the amount you need to go running. I'm often reluctant to go running, but once I do, I enjoy it. And if I don't run for several days, I feel ill. It's the same with people who do great things. They know they'll feel bad if they don't work, and they have enough discipline to get themselves to their desks to start working. But once they get started, interest takes over, and discipline is no longer necessary.

Do you think Shakespeare was gritting his teeth and diligently trying to write Great Literature? Of course not. He was having fun. That's why he's so good.

If you want to do good work, what you need is a great curiosity about a promising question. The critical moment for Einstein was when he looked at Maxwell's equations and said, what the hell is going on here?

It can take years to zero in on a productive question, because it can take years to figure out what a subject is really about. To take an extreme example, consider math. Most people think they hate math, but the boring stuff you do in school under the name "mathematics" is not at all like what mathematicians do.

The great mathematician G. H. Hardy said he didn't like math in high school either. He only took it up because he was better at it than the other students. Only later did he realize math was interesting-- only later did he start to ask questions instead of merely answering them correctly.

When a friend of mine used to grumble because he had to write a paper for school, his mother would tell him: find a way to make it interesting. That's what you need to do: find a question that makes the world interesting. People who do great things look at the same world everyone else does, but notice some odd detail that's compellingly mysterious.

And not only in intellectual matters. Henry Ford's great question was, why do cars have to be a luxury item? What would happen if you treated them as a commodity? Franz Beckenbauer's was, in effect, why does everyone have to stay in his position? Why can't defenders score goals too?


If it takes years to articulate great questions, what do you do now, at sixteen? Work toward finding one. Great questions don't appear suddenly. They gradually congeal in your head. And what makes them congeal is experience. So the way to find great questions is not to search for them-- not to wander about thinking, what great discovery shall I make? You can't answer that; if you could, you'd have made it.

The way to get a big idea to appear in your head is not to hunt for big ideas, but to put in a lot of time on work that interests you, and in the process keep your mind open enough that a big idea can take roost. Einstein, Ford, and Beckenbauer all used this recipe. They all knew their work like a piano player knows the keys. So when something seemed amiss to them, they had the confidence to notice it.

Put in time how and on what? Just pick a project that seems interesting: to master some chunk of material, or to make something, or to answer some question. Choose a project that will take less than a month, and make it something you have the means to finish. Do something hard enough to stretch you, but only just, especially at first. If you're deciding between two projects, choose whichever seems most fun. If one blows up in your face, start another. Repeat till, like an internal combustion engine, the process becomes self-sustaining, and each project generates the next one. (This could take years.)

It may be just as well not to do a project "for school," if that will restrict you or make it seem like work. Involve your friends if you want, but not too many, and only if they're not flakes. Friends offer moral support (few startups are started by one person), but secrecy also has its advantages. There's something pleasing about a secret project. And you can take more risks, because no one will know if you fail.

Don't worry if a project doesn't seem to be on the path to some goal you're supposed to have. Paths can bend a lot more than you think. So let the path grow out the project. The most important thing is to be excited about it, because it's by doing that you learn.

Don't disregard unseemly motivations. One of the most powerful is the desire to be better than other people at something. Hardy said that's what got him started, and I think the only unusual thing about him is that he admitted it. Another powerful motivator is the desire to do, or know, things you're not supposed to. Closely related is the desire to do something audacious. Sixteen year olds aren't supposed to write novels. So if you try, anything you achieve is on the plus side of the ledger; if you fail utterly, you're doing no worse than expectations. [8]

Beware of bad models. Especially when they excuse laziness. When I was in high school I used to write "existentialist" short stories like ones I'd seen by famous writers. My stories didn't have a lot of plot, but they were very deep. And they were less work to write than entertaining ones would have been. I should have known that was a danger sign. And in fact I found my stories pretty boring; what excited me was the idea of writing serious, intellectual stuff like the famous writers.

Now I have enough experience to realize that those famous writers actually sucked. Plenty of famous people do; in the short term, the quality of one's work is only a small component of fame. I should have been less worried about doing something that seemed cool, and just done something I liked. That's the actual road to coolness anyway.

A key ingredient in many projects, almost a project on its own, is to find good books. Most books are bad. Nearly all textbooks are bad. [9] So don't assume a subject is to be learned from whatever book on it happens to be closest. You have to search actively for the tiny number of good books.

The important thing is to get out there and do stuff. Instead of waiting to be taught, go out and learn.

Your life doesn't have to be shaped by admissions officers. It could be shaped by your own curiosity. It is for all ambitious adults. And you don't have to wait to start. In fact, you don't have to wait to be an adult. There's no switch inside you that magically flips when you turn a certain age or graduate from some institution. You start being an adult when you decide to take responsibility for your life. You can do that at any age. [10]

This may sound like bullshit. I'm just a minor, you may think, I have no money, I have to live at home, I have to do what adults tell me all day long. Well, most adults labor under restrictions just as cumbersome, and they manage to get things done. If you think it's restrictive being a kid, imagine having kids.

The only real difference between adults and high school kids is that adults realize they need to get things done, and high school kids don't. That realization hits most people around 23. But I'm letting you in on the secret early. So get to work. Maybe you can be the first generation whose greatest regret from high school isn't how much time you wasted.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Creative Thinking - As Simple as Jelly and Peanut Butter

If you could think more creatively by changing one routine thing, one habit, would you?

According to a study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, something as simple as changing your regular routine,

"...can help people break their cognitive patterns, and thus lead them to think more flexibly and creatively,” according to a research team led by psychologist Simone Ritter of Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands."

Among other things, the study asked Dutch students to make a sandwich in the conventional way using bread, then butter, then chocolate chips. They asked a second group to butter the bread and then to scatter chocolate chips on a plate, using the buttered bread to pick up the chips.

First of all, butter and chocolate chips? Yes, please!

By approaching a standard task in a non-standard way (e.g., switching sandwich assembly order), participants in the study demonstrated more flexible thinking in the tasks that followed.

So what could this mean for schools?

Most teacher-training programs stress the need to establish a routine in the classroom, and up until very recently, parents, teachers and researchers have told students to approach studying in a systemic, linear fashion. This new study, although not necessarily refuting those strategies outright, could demonstrate the need for the occasional shakeup in the normal pattern. Some schools flip schedules completely mid-year (6th period become 1st, 5th becomes 2nd, and so on), and most teachers recognize the need for a break in routines at times. There are students who need to have predictable routines to function well (e.g., autistic students anywhere on the spectrum, from moderate to profound), but others might benefit from looking at a task in a different order, or approaching the day outside of the usual routine.

Food for thought.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Would You Hire Your Own Kid?

So let's move beyond the conversation about testing, standards, curriculum maps and cut to the chase:

If you owned a business, would you hire your own kid?

If not, why not? What is missing?

Tony Wagner suggests there are seven skills that school should be teaching (with the implication, of course, that schools are not currently teaching all, if any, of them).

1. Critical thinking and problem solving

Critical thinking and problem solving are examples of divergent thinking, a practice that is generally frowned upon in school these days. Instead of getting the one, right answer, students should be encouraged to examine the problem or idea from multiple perspectives. This is teaching HOW to think, not WHAT to think.

2. Collaboration across networks and leading by influence

Mike Summers, who is Vice President for Global Talent Management at Dell Computers, said that his greatest concern was young people's lack of leadership skills. "Kids just out of school have an amazing lack of preparedness in general leadership skills and collaborative skills," he explained, "They lack the ability to influence versus direct and command."We should be teaching kids to work together as a group instead of blindly competing against one another. Doesn't mean everyone gets a medal, but it does mean that we more fully explore the idea that kids should be learning to collaborate locally in person and globally through webtools.

3. Agility and adaptability

Adapt or die - basic Darwin. The only thing constant is change - basic business speak. If we are raising kids who cannot be flexible and utilize new tools and ideas if they are the new norm, we will have kids who will not be able to keep pace with the speed of innovation in the world. This is not to say abandon all tradition or simply speed up; this means being more agile and less rigid in thinking and skillsets.

4. Initiative and entrepreneurialism

Mark Chandler, the Senior Vice President and General Counsel at Cisco was one of the strongest proponents of these traits. "Leadership is the capacity to take initiative and trust yourself to be creative," he told me. "I say to my employees if you try five things and get all five of them right, you may be failing. If you try ten things, and get eight of them right, you're a hero. If you set stretch goals, you'll never be blamed for failing to reach a stretch goal, but you will be blamed for not trying.

Risk-taking: not taught in school because risk = bad. Not so. There is stupid risk (drinking and driving) and calculated risk (think experiments with alternate road materials, like solar panels, to solve the energy crisis). What employer would not want a confident employee who takes initiative?

5. Effective written and oral communication

Schools like to think they do this well, but identifying a noun in a sentence is not "effective written and oral communication." Writing and public speaking are taught less and less in general, and writing and speaking for a purpose even less than that.

6. Accessing and analyzing information

Kids have the world at their fingertips, and in their purses and in their backpockets, in the form of iPads, iPods, tablets, etc. They are inundated with information, but so what? Plagiarism is rampant, so kids are not transforming the information they find, simply copying or parroting it. Do they know how to vet a website, or do they believe what they see because it is written down, and are we teaching this skill? Not so well.

"There is so much information available that it is almost too much, and if people aren't prepared to process the information effectively it almost freezes them in their steps."

7. Curiosity and imagination

Daniel Pink, author of Drive and A Whole New Mind, writes that "Even in our best schools, we are teaching kids to memorize much more than to think. And in the 21st century, mere memorization won't get you very far." This goes back to #1 and is closely tied to divergent thinking. There is more than one answer, but if students only have four to choose from their motivation to go further deteriorates rapidly. To put it in global business terms, China is thrilled with the test focus in the US; conversely, they are developing more programs to teach creative thinking and are banking on the fact that they will move from simply manufacturing American ideas to manufacturing their own, cheaper and more quickly than the US. Best quote from this article? The Chinese professors laughed [and] said, ‘You're racing toward our old model. But we're racing toward your model, as fast as we can.'"

So where does your kid fall? Do they have any of these skills, and, if not, how will you help them?

Would you hire them as they are?

Saturday, February 25, 2012

21st Century Enlightenment

Shedding a little light on the subject of enlightenment and change in the 21st century.

Comments are also quite enlightening!

Friday, February 24, 2012

100 Teaching Tools You Should Know About

This is not just for classroom teachers and homeschoolers; this list encompasses technology and learning tools that can impact both work and personal life out side of the classroom. A great Slideshare presentation!

Happy Friday!

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Growing a Community Through Food - Food Revolution Blog!

Here is the student blog published on Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution site:

Feb 2012
Story by Sicily

We are a non-profit private school just starting out, a one-room school house on five acres. My mother is our teacher; she started HoneyFern in 2010 when she saw that kids need experiences and a voice in what they learn.

Growing A Community Educated On Food

As we started the second half of our first year, we started to look around for community service opportunities, eventually finding Pastor Leonard and Hollydale United Methodist Church right down the street. Recognizing our common desire to help our community, even though HoneyFern is a secular school, we started running Hollydale's food pantry a year ago, helping families with a no-questions-asked food donation twice a month, relying solely on pantry items donated by church members and other people in the area.

Hollydale's congregation is a very low-income one; 90% of students at the local elementary school are on free or reduced-price lunch, and the church assists them as well with a brown paper sack of food every Friday, too (so they will definitely have some food over the weekend).

Many food pantries have two problems today: they are a never-ending supply of food, and they are a never-ending supply of (often) low-quality food. Every week we see the same people, if people know that they will have a constant food source for free, they may not try to supply the food for themselves. But sometimes the food they are being supplied with is extremely unhealthy. If we want to try and help people eat healthy at home, why are we giving people horrible food? Pastor Leonard also realized that all food given out is usually boxed, and filled with preservatives, additives, and all kinds of sugars. In the long-term, this didn't seem like we were helping our community at all.

At the end of 2011, HoneyFern met with Pastor Leonard and talked about the idea of helping without hurting; what could we do in our partnership that would take the people of the community out of their 'crisis mode', which is ultimately self-destructive and limiting, into a self-sustaining place of helping themselves?

We realized that opening the food pantry was a good idea if we just want to put a Band-Aid on the wound, but it was not great if you wanted to heal the wound. In this conversation we discussed the idea of starting a community garden; in this way we can either educate people how to grow a garden at home if they have space, or they can come to the garden and have a plot of their own, with support and education to start providing for themselves. We have decided to try to get fresh herbs and vegetables on the plates of the people who come to our food pantry.

Planting (and eating from!) a garden relaxes your mind and body. Eating healthier benefits your body because it builds strong bones and gives you less of a chance for blood clots, and it just makes you feel more alive. You have more energy to do things, and personally it makes me feel happier. Growing a garden is healthy for your mind, too. While you are weeding weeds you are also clearing your mind of weeds and focusing on one thing. You forget about car payments and mortgages and focus on the garden, the plants getting stronger in the sunshine and the good you are doing for yourself and your environment.

We hope to educate people on healthy eating so they can take that home and make healthy meals for the entire family; although we do not live in a food desert, the people in our community have limited incomes and many have fallen into the pattern of dollar menus and cheap meals in boxes, some of which we have provided through the food pantry. Although we will not give up the food pantry, as it does provide immediate food aid and relief to people who are truly in crisis, we feel that the community garden is the direction that will sustain and grow our community, long term.

This is our Food Revolution: helping bring healthy eating to those who are less fortunate than us. We hope that our gardening 'plot' (no pun intended) will help our community get back on its feet and gain independence in the world.

This is our first spring, and we are ready to break ground on a new beginning for our community; won't you come with us on our journey?

About the author:
Sicily is a 6th grade student at Honey Fern School.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Taking a Test With...The Arts?

I believe with all my heart the following statement: The arts and arts education are an integral, imperative part of a school.

For years now schools have been jettisoning their arts programs in favor of focusing on The Test and classes to prep for it, writing the arts off an expense that does not add value to the school.  Nevermind the following assertions by multiple groups advocating increased presence of the arts in schools:

Benefits of Arts EducationSource: Americans for the Arts, 2002
  • Stimulates and develops the imagination and critical thinking, and refines cognitive and creative skills.
  • Has a tremendous impact on the developmental growth of every child and has proven to help level the "learning field" across socio-economic boundaries.
  • Strengthens problem-solving and critical-thinking skills, adding to overall academic achievement and school success.
  • Develops a sense of craftsmanship, quality task performance, and goal-setting—skills needed to succeed in the classroom and beyond.
  • Teaches children life skills such as developing an informed perception; articulating a vision; learning to solve problems and make decisions; building self-confidence and self-discipline; developing the ability to imagine what might be; and accepting responsibility to complete tasks from start to finish.
  • Nurtures important values, including team-building skills; respecting alternative viewpoints; and appreciating and being aware of different cultures and traditions.
Source: Young Children and the Arts: Making Creative Connections, 1998, Introduction
  • Plays a central role in cognitive, motor, language, and social-emotional development.
  • Motivates and engages children in learning, stimulates memory, facilitates understanding, enhances symbolic communication, promotes relationships, and provides an avenue for building competence.
  • Provides a natural source of learning. Child development specialists note that play is the business of young children; play is the way children promote and enhance their development. The arts are a most natural vehicle for play.

Well, now there is additional research that proves the art-axers wrong; not only do the arts enrich the lives of students on an aesthetic and emotional level, they also raise test scores on The Test without any additional emphasis on skill-and-drill.

Sounds like plenty of added value to me.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Accidental Montessori

I am familiar with the work of Maria Montessori, but I never set out to pattern myself on her practices (which are also similar to Reggio Emilia systems of schooling). Turns out I have inadvertently set up something very Montessori-like here at HoneyFern, and other schools are using this as a way to restructure and improve schooling in the older grades.

Turns out, student-led learning actually works, and it works just as well for the older grades as it does for children in the earliest stages of school.

As quoted in the article above,

"It’s a different style of teaching, another option for children who learn differently,” she said. “It’s geared towards students who are exploratory, that like to discover things. Middle school kids by nature like to have a voice and are very inquisitive. Developmentally, the Montessori program sits very well with the middle school-aged child who is curious and likes to have more ownership to his or her own learning.”

Sounds about right.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

You Have To Be Willing To Take The Long View

Recently I got into a disagreement with a friend on Facebook when I said that one in five children in the United States suffered from food insecurity. She refused to believe that assertion, even when I supported it with reliable research. We have a safety net, she said, and no one falls through it; my church alone provides food items, she said. Still, children go to bed every night not knowing where their next meal is coming from, and it is especially difficult during summer breaks from school, I argued. Just because you can't see it around you doesn't mean it does not exist.

What if I told you that some children have never been in a car? Or a parking garage? Or that middle-class children come to school having heard 35 million more words than a child living in poverty, a staggering inequality that results in lower reading levels achieved much later for low-SES kids?

Crazy talk, and yet it is true and happening in our country. The response from one school has been shockingly simple: experiences. Take kids to lots of different places, expose them to things they would not see in their daily life (the zoo, the parking garage, a museum) and have them write and reflect on what they see.

But, one might argue, I see these supposedly "poor" kids with brand-new shoes and iPhones; why don't their parents educate them? That is a knee-jerk response to the issue; Ruby Payne's groundbreaking work on poverty has shown that parents with a lower socioeconomic status (SES) demonstrate love through things (shoes, clothes and electronics), while parents with a higher SES demonstrate love through expereinces (classes, trips and such). This results in a kid with nice shoes and no understanding of how a parking meter works, a child who is handicapped before the real work of school even begins.

So if adding experiences works for the (shrinking) middle class, it stands to reason that it would work for kids in poverty. If you can show a student another option, broaden their horizons while teaching them something new (and piquing their interest in learning further or studying something related), why would you stay in the classroom?

Perhaps this quote is the best way to summarize why more schools do not recognize and address this uneven distribution of life's most basic experiences:

Daniel Feigelson heads the network of 30 schools that P.S. 142 belongs to. He said that he wished more principals would adopt the program but that they were fearful. “There is so much pressure systematically to do well on the tests, and this may not boost scores right away,” he said. “To do this you’d have to be willing to take the long view.”

Friday, February 17, 2012

Friday Resources!

Science on the brain this week, along with ESL and math. Here is a compendium of links that have been very helpful this week:

ESL Tutor Resources

Honestly, this is also good for plain old English classes for native speakers. Lots of clear explanations and activities for learning grammar and vocabulary!

Brain Games

A great list of interactive and sometimes kinesthetic games for kids to review parts and functions of the brain.

The Great Plant Escape

A CSI-type interactive game that explores plants. Fun for 3-6 or as an introduction for slightly older kids with less background knowledge.

Bodies - Atlanta

Our field trip this week. An amazing way to explore the human body and all of its systems. We had originally planned to study all of the body systems and then go, but I overruled me. Exploring first is so much more fun!


Interactive, problem-solving algebra for high-performing math students. Helps develop critical thinking, is self-paced and FREE. (you're welcome)

Hope you had a great week!

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Changing Paradigms

A fabulous animation of a talk given by Sir Ken Robinson on changing the paradigm of education. Enjoy!

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Hierarchy of Needs for Education

Gotta love Maslow. He's the dude that tells us that until we fulfill our most basic needs we will not be able to be "self-actualized" (which I define as being the very best a person can be, guided by their own internal compass towards a work and a life that is fulfilling and joyful). Maslow based his work on extraordinary people (Einstein, Eleanor Roosevelt and Frederick Douglass, among others) rather than what he termed "...crippled, stunted, immature subjects." Here's a visual of the result:

Maslow's hierarchy.jpg

The first three are the easy three; it's the last two that are killers. Food, shelter and belonging can be rustled up pretty much anywhere in the United States, even if it initially takes a little effort. The last two are the killers, and they are the stages where students (and adults) get stuck most frequently.

Self-actualization can take a lifetime, but esteem is the major roadblock. Some people never get past that stage. Esteem - self-esteem, confidence, achievement, respect for self and others - this is the stumbling block.

And why is this? Is it because kids get hollow praise and a ribbon for just showing up these days instead of working hard and earning a reward? Is it our school system  which emphasizes one right answer instead of many divergent answers, thereby stifling creativity and self-sufficiency necessary to move through the stages to self-actualization? Is it many parents' tendency to rescue their child from suffering or feeling any type of struggle intellectually, eroding the child's confidence in their ability to rescue themselves? Is it because adults in our society increasingly lack persistence and perseverance?

Yes, to all of the above. Esteem is not simply feeling good about oneself for merely existing; esteem is having confidence in what you are capable of, a sense of actual achievement for a job well-done and the self-respect to do it on your own. Esteem is not warm fuzzies that are fleeting, the result of hollow praise received when you know you haven't done your best but you "win" anyway. Esteem is learning through trial and error, success and defeat, setbacks and advances. It is not a smooth one-way street on which there are no potholes or speed bumps.

We need to allow our kids the space and time to struggle and then succeed anyway so that their achievements are real, laudable and their own. Otherwise we are growing generations of people stuck meeting just their basic needs, nevermore. Imagine what we will lose if that happens.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

What is Mindset?

Read these two statements:

"You are so smart!"

"You worked so hard!"

Which one produces higher achievement? Which one is a self-fulfilling prophecy?

If you choose the latter, you are correct (and so smart!). Recent research from the Department of Brains v. Effort has concluded that the former statement produces far less, pound for pound, than the latter. In Carol Dweck's work on "mindsets," the first statement represents a "fixed" mindset, whereby

...people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits. They spend their time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing them. They also believe that talent alone creates success—without effort.

In the second, a "growth" mindset,

...people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment. Virtually all great people have had these qualities.

What a great way to look at students in education! No, this is not the same school of thought that believes all students are gifted and proceeds accordingly; this theory (expanded upon here) takes all students where they are and looks to help them develop the traits of a growth mindset (remarkably similar to the 16 Habits of Mind, which are qualities that educated people cultivate to help them when they don't know the answer. This is an entire curriculum based on developing these - go, Vermont!), starting with four simple ways to change your mindset. The idea that everyone is capable of greatness, regardless of native intelligence, shouldn't be revolutionary, and if you talk to a school administrator, they will say that they live by that credo. In practice, though, the education machine proceeds quite differently; classes are leveled, kidsa re tracked and divided biologically, individuality is stifled in the name of The Test, and there is little time in the school day to cultivate the growth mindset.

Small changes, though, babysteps. Thinking about how we talk to kids about their work (statement #1 v. statement #2) is a great place to start; if we can look to persistence and hard work as harbingers of success, as opposed to test scores and IQ, imagine how much farther our kids could go! Empowering kids and parents can make a hige difference in this process, too, as noted in Time magazine:

"The message is that everything is within the kids' control, that their intelligence is malleable," says Lisa Blackwell, a research scientist at Columbia University who has worked with [Carol] Dweck to develop and run the [Brainology] program, which has helped increase the students' interest in school and turned around their declining math grades. More than any teacher or workshop, Blackwell says, "parents can play a critical role in conveying this message to their children by praising their effort, strategy and progress rather than emphasizing their 'smartness' or praising high performance alone. Most of all, parents should let their kids know that mistakes are a part of learning."


Monday, February 13, 2012

12 Most Compelling Reasons to Homeschool

The writer of this article is a mental refugee from the public school system, too, except unlike myself, she is still working in the system. Her advice to parents looking for answers to their issues in education is often to leave school and homeschool, and she offers 12 excellent reasons why; I would add that these are the 12 most compelling reasons for coming to HoneyFern, as well. We are a hybrid private/home school, which means you get the accreditation of a private school with the flexibility and individualization of a home school. The list, annotated:

1. Learning is customized, not standardized. Students at HoneyFern follow their own curriculum; we work together for science labs and on special projects, but other subjects are based on what a student wants to study (or what they need for their future goals). This can be a challenging part of the school, as many students who come out of public school are institutionalized and don't know how to direct their own learning. It is a lot of freedom to have.

2. Associate with those you enjoy rather than those who share your birth year. I have always been a proponent of multi-age, looping classrooms. As a small school, we try very hard to have a mix of students who enjoy each other, too, and this summer we are planning several get togethers for new students to relax and get to know them, thereby reducing first-day anxiety.

3. Freedom to learn with their tools. We still have some texting restrictions during the day (please don't disturb your friends in public school!), but otherwise students can bring in and learn with their iPhones, iPads, iWhatevers.

4. Socialize with those who share your passions not your zip code. We are identifying mentors, teachers and learning partners who we can work with, something that would be difficult if not impossible for a traditional classroom.

5. Real life measures are better than bubble tests. We take a standardized test at the end of the year for accreditation, but I am not even sure what is on it. We also test our adopted stream, publish our writing nationally and compete in several national academic competitions every year. Which do you think students get more out of?

6. Don't just read about doing stuff. Do stuff! Building a community garden, designing a future city, going to see plays...check.

7. Travel when you want. Flexibility in our schedule makes this a possibility for all of our families!

8. You are more than a number. This is hard for institutionalized kids who are used to melting into the back row, and when I talk to prosepctive families, I point this out. Not everybody actually wants to be front and center, and it is difficult when your teacher knows exactly what you are capable of and when you are not doing it. Sometimes kids say this is what they want...but it's not really. A big consideration.

9. Do work you value. This is a big one for me. Students need to care AT LEAST as much about their own success as I do, and one way to get there is to let them guide their course of study to things they value. Some students are not interested in figuring this out, though, and I don't blame them; I blame the factory model public education they receive, the one that leads them by the nose from meaningless task to meaningless task. The longer students are in this model, the harder it is for them to even know what it is they want to learn because "learning" has become an onerous task. There is no joy, no fun and, thus, no value.

10. Independence is valued over dependence. I am a facilitator, a gatherer of resources and, at times, a clarifier. Ask me a question, and I will ask you one back or give you the tools to answer the question. Sometimes we sit down and figure it out together, but generally the goal is for independent, self-sufficient learners. Again, see #9. If it is valuable to the student, they will be motivated to learn and be more independent.

11. You don't have to waste time learning with standardized tests. How does one even "learn with" standardized tests? An oxymoron.

12. No more meaningless worksheets and reports. Does this mean that there are no worksheets or reports? Not necessarily. The key word here is "meaningless."

It is s big step to eschew the traditional public education, and some people are not ready for it. Whenever I think of how we learn as adults, though, I don't imagine rows of same-age adults (a class of only 40-year-olds) sitting in rows, plodding mindlessly from one 50-minute class lecture to another. Why should our kids be warehoused in the same way?

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Anxiety Dreams?

Last night I had an anxiety dream that focused on teaching. This is becoming less common for me. When I was teaching in public school, I had these dreams, always the same one, two to four times a month. I am in a classroom full of students, and I cannot get them to listen to me. They are walking around, talking, throwing things: anything but listening to me. I wake up frustrated and miserable.

Since I quit and started HoneyFern, I have had two in two years, and last night was the second one. This one was very different, though, and I don't know if it exactly counts as an anxiety dream anymore.

It started out the same, with me at the front of the class, kids in rows (which is also strange because I was never that kind of teacher and usually never had desks in rows), kids not listening, only this time, one of the kids stood up and told the other kids to be quiet. Then another kid stood up, and he was about seven feet tall, and he proceeded to tell all of the other students, point by point, why it was important to be quiet and pay attention. Then he looked down at me, smiled, and sat down.

This represents some sort of shift in my subconscious, and I like it.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Taking a Break in Education

In this article, a college student argues (persuasively) for taking a break in education, quoting Sir Ken Robinson: "Life is not linear; it's organic!"

I agree wholeheartedly. I am a big proponent of the gap year, and I think that even in our K-12 schooling we need to have time to pause and reflect (especially if you are in a traditional public school setting, which doesn't leave much space for deep thought or reflection). We are still so concerned with test scores when all research points to their uselessness; we are so concerned with keeping up with other countries that we are fallig behind on creativity and innovation.

If you think about times when you needed to learn something (or you were motivated to learn something) think about how you did it. You may have found someone to work with; you may have completed the task under thier guidance, watched them do it and discussed what you learned. You may have done research on the internet or asked for opinions on Facebook; you may have gone to a class. In the middle of the learning there was certainly practice, failure and refinement (there probably was not a multiple-choice test or one test that let you move on). These breaks for practice and refinement follow a more organic cycle of education, one that we should cultivate in our schools and our students.

A pause for reflection is valuable and helps students stay focused and figure out their own direction, working towards becoming fully actualized adults. What is more important: finishing school in a certain time frame, or actually learning?

No-brainer for me.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Five Qualities in Adults That Matter Most To Teens

A great article on the five qualities a teen wants in a role model:

1. Passion and the ability to inspire
2. A clear set of values
3. Commitment to community
4. Selflessness and acceptance of others
5. Ability to overcome obstacles

These five qualities should be what we all strive for as human beings, but some are certainly more difficult for others. I think the ability to accept everyone without judgment and to persist to overcome obstacles are the hardest for most people, this writer included, but when kids see that you are reflective and working towards that it helps tremendously. I think it starts with accepting yourself and stopping the negative inner chatter that pops up when something is difficult, and I think it also starts with sending positive messages to the world through your actions and your works.

To this list of important qualities for adults working with teens I would add the following:

1. Genuine interest in working with the teen. This is not the time to worry about padding your resume; this is someone's life, and you need to be genuinely interested in helping them succeed, showing them other paths and offering guidance when needed. If you have ulterior motives, perhaps volunteer somewhere else.

2. Total acceptance of the teen. This means taking them as they are, not as you think they should be. You are not there to remake them in your image; your are there to help them become the best parts of themselves and to show them another way. Many teens who seek out mentors do so because they do not have role models in their daily life. The last thing they need is someone to point out all the bad things; they are aware.

3. An ability to be an honest cheerleader. Teens know when someone is lying or being dishonest; they also know when false (or overblown) praise is being given. Your job is to be supportive but honest. If, for example, a teen asks for help practicing for a job interview or writing a college essay, they are asking for honest feedback to help them get the job and write clearly. Praising their clothes choice for the interview (instead of teaching them to make eye contact and work on a firm handshake) or telling them you like the effort they put into their essay (without pointing out gaping holes or false logic) is not doing them any favors.

4. A willingness to like the teen you are working with. Yes, as a mentor, you have to like the teen you are working with. This may not be a popular opinion; many people assume that mentors/teachers like all of the teens/students, but that just isn't so. If you are working closely with a teen and trying to help them change their life, you need to develop a relationship built on trust, respect and, yes, friendly affection. Teens are notorious for being surly and uncooperative, and liking them helps you get past that. Keep in mind the more they like you, the surlier they are apt to be. They know you will still like them at their grumpiest, so they don't hold back. It's a compliment.

Working with kids is the most rewarding, frustrating, challenging and joyous work on the planet, I believe. It changes you and makes you a better person. It is work worth doing.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Big Things Are Coming!

Spring has sprung (very nearly; it was 66 degrees on Saturday, although night temperatures are still in the thirties), and along with meeting potential students for next year and finalizing a schedule of AP classes for the fall, HoneyFern is working on some pretty cool stuff. Here are just a couple things:

Thing #1: We are starting a community garden with Hollydale United Methodist Church (the church we run the food pantry out of), and one of HoneyFern's students has been asked to write a guest blog for Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution website. She has done so, the blog has been accepted, and now we just need to take some pictures. Stay tuned for the blog link.

Thing #2: HoneyFern is getting trained this Saturday for another level of monitoring on our adopted stream, Olley Creek. We currently monitor chemically (pH, conductivity, dissolved oxygen, etc), and now we are being trained to biologically monitor. Once we learn how to count frogs (!) we will be fully trained on stream monitoring; this is a big responsibility. We are the protectors of this stream, its "first responders" if anything is wrong.

Thing #3: One student has been studying Victorian England and has moved on to westward expansion in America and the pioneers. We are planning to live like the pioneers for several days (possibly up to a week) over the summer; the plan is to spend the spring making suitable pioneer costumes and planning activities and getting a site ready, and then...out go the lights and it is cooking over a fire for us. If all goes well, we may open it up to guests.

These are just a few of the things we have going on; the design/build of the garden is going to be a big move for us, as is sewing Victorian costumes. All in a day's work! Big things ahead!

Monday, February 6, 2012

Face to Face is Better Than a Screen

This article is almost from the Department of Duh...but not quite. A recent study shows that pre-teen girls have better social and emotional health the more they interact with people face-to-face (as opposed to texting and email) and the less they multi-task.

This makes sense; people learn social cues from being social - reading responses and body language - and it is difficult to do that through a screen; even Skype is imperfect due to delays and fuzzy images (and, as the article points out, the fact that many of us do other things while using Skype, as opposed to directing all of our attention to the screen). The more time spent in front of a screen, the less time we have for personal interaction.

This screen time and multi-tasking is endemic and certainly present at our house. Some evenings will find us with the TV on and all on our own device (laptop, iTouch, etc); a news show called this "alone together," and The Child points it out on occasion. It is not a good feeling when your kid looks around the living room, takes it all in and says with a chuckle, "Alone together again."

In the past couple days my family has spent less time on screens and TV, and I think it coincides with the fact that the weather has been beautiful. Yes, we still have school and work online, and we have been watching a video of an old PBS show called "1900 House" (a family lives as Victorians for three months), but we have alos been walking the dogs, working outside and leafing through catalogs and magazines together.  There have also been lovely, leisurely picnics, and two of us spent non-screen time lounging on a boat over the weekend, returning home happy, relaxed and rested.

Our family dynamic is better when we sit at the table for dinner and ask about each other's day; we are kinder to each other when we are not in front of screens first thing in the morning. The Child would like to forgo all technology for a week and live like the Victorians (problematic in many ways; I have asked that we start with a couple days and do it over the summer), but I don't think one needs to give it all up in order to benefit.  Setting limits on screens and encouraging face-to-face communication strengthens relationships and bonds all people, not just pre-teen girls, and it is a good priority to have.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Why Is It Wrong To Always Be Right?

Excellent TEDTalk on this very question.

Using the example of Wile E. Coyote and what he feels when he is wrong.

Think of being the new being right.

Have a great weekend!

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Grasping At Straws

Moments before my father died, I was walking down the hospital hallway and the floor starting rolling up and down like the sea; it felt like the tiles were waves under my feet. I wasn't about to pass out, but I threw my hand out towards the wall. I was in the middle of the hallway, so it made no difference as there was nothing to hold onto, and I continued walking towards my father's room. About an hour later he died.

I have had similar experiences when life is about to take a turn, only recognizing them after the turn happens; the ground under my feet literally wobbles, and I throw my hand out to hold on.

Similar events are happening now, only when I throw my hand out, I am finding some support.

For example, in this article, it turns out that everything we thought we knew about learning is wrong, and I have been deliberately cultivating the correct way to learn without having read this research (more of a gut instinct).

I have been moving away from tests and grades and more towards a collaborative approach that breaks down the steps of thinking, much like this article advises. We are thinking of moving towards a design-based curriculum, planning projects that benefit the community as well as the students.

I am trying to cultivate imagination and wonder, thinking ahead to jobs that may not exist right now but might in ten years.

The disconnect for me is when I am confronted with the standardized thinking of traditional schooling. What are we trying to accomplish here with our kids, and does it really work for all kids?

HoneyFern may not work for everyone; maybe we are too far out in our constructivist view of education. I believe that students are excellent shapers of their own curriculum, and that the role of a teacher is a guide and a resource-gatherer. I think that kids, given time and encouragement, will delve deeper and go farther than traditional eductaion will take them. I believe it is harder to work the way we do, both for me and for the student, but the results are far more rewarding than handing back a bubble sheet; our results go deeper than a simple letter grade or percentage.

 I do not believe in testing for the sake of testing, multiple-choice answers or reading and answering the chapter questions. I do not believe in molding all kids to be like their same-age peers, and I do not believe that a beaurocrat is the best person to be deciding what our kids should be learning, when.

We are publishing writing, monitoring the health of a stream and organizing a community garden. We are living as Victorians (well, only The Child and myself, and not until the summer). We ask questions and get involved. We are outside every day, and we take time to watch the clouds go by, to collect eggs from the chickens, to eat lunch together and cook for each other. Yes, we do daily math, we memorize anatomy and we write multiple drafts. But we also dissect and draw and create.

We are still seeking community members committed to the vision of persistence, creativity and hard work that matters. We know that it is not for everybody, and that is okay. If it is for you, get in touch and let's talk.

I agree: this is radical, earth-shaking stuff.