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teaching reflection

A Scary Idea

Zooming out over the open ocean on the Bay Scout this morning with Chris Maxey, in the still brightening darkness just before sun up, haunted by hints of the Halloween festivities on campus from the night before, we both agreed: it was scary. When young people are given the creative space to work towards a common goal that excites and motivates them, what they can do is scary, startling, if not downright astonishing. Yesterday,Island School students were charged with the opportunity to plan and perform the annual Haunted Campus for Deep Creek Middle School students. Each fall semester The Island School designs and opens up a terrifying, bio-diesel curdling Halloween celebration that will make the hair on your mosquito bites stand up.

DCMS students arrived in full costume and began the evening with fun and games, bobbing for apples and pinning the broom on the witch. Then, led by teenage guardians of the underworld, they were ushered around campus to visit the half-dead orchard, an insane asylum, a boat house scuba massacre, and the med-room gone maniac. As the night progressed and as sonic screams echoed off of solar panels, I found myself started by the most unexpected thing. It was not Geoff, the head of facilities, running around with a chainsaw that caught my eye—he does this every year—nor was it the ketchup dripping mouths on faces pale with baby powder that stopped me in my tracks, what I was most surprised by was the sheer intensity of energy and creativity our students demonstrated.


Students had all of an hour and a half at the most to plan for the event. The night before, I had given them basic instructions about expectations about the idea of a Haunted Campus for DCMS. They split into groups and spent about one hour of study hours brainstorming and planning. Then, the day of the event, they had only the time during and after meals to actually design, decorate and prepare their haunted spaces. Then, in a final surge of energy as day turned into night, during the half of an hour after dinner, they put the finishing touches on. They adorned themselves with the fake injury make-up that was left over from our Wilderness First Responder class here this summer, and they were ready for show time.

I hope the images  attached here will give you some hint of the passion and imagination that Island School students demonstrated last night. It was an overwhelming success, the best Haunted Campus I have seen yet, and undeniable proof of what young people are capable of.

Kids today are not lazy. They are not dispassionate or distracted. They are not apathetic. Any amount of evidence that might suggest otherwise is actually just proof that the context is all wrong. Young people need the right goals. They need the space to achieve them creatively. They need activity and engagement and things to get excited about. Yesterday, I watched as students rallied together and performed the kinds of critical skills that educators everywhere hope to cultivate in their students. They designed and created, solving problems as they arose, petitioned faculty for resources when they could not find them on their own, allied staff and students toward a common goal, and all under extreme time constraints. Their creative ingenuity was mind-blowing.

As Maxey and I reflected together this morning, crashing through waves at daybreak, so proud of our students’ success, we thought together about how to translate that enthusiasm, drive, and imagination into the classroom. Maxey looked over at me and said: “Why can’t schools look like that? Why can’t students everywhere do what we did last night?” Now that is a haunting question that we should all be asking ourselves.

Thinking About Design

Backwards design. It’s something that we think about a lot here, as teachers. Start with the results. What kinds of behaviors and ideas do we want to see in our students after a semester of classes? In Literature, I want to see my students thinking figuratively. I want them to look at the ocean and see more than just an expanse of water that spans 71% of the earth. Though, I want them to see that too. One of my students looks at the sea and thinks about her first memory. In her grandpa’s arms, playing in the waves, he told her that the ocean was the glue that holds us all together. To her, the ocean looks sticky. I want my students to look at the ocean and see the O in Omeros: the white foamy hair of Seven Seas and shells clinking like skulls from bodies lost in the Middle Passage. I want them to see livelihoods there, fishing regulations, conch preservation and conch fritters. I want them to see the first time they were stung by a jelly fish and how that made them feel. I want them to not want to lose these things (even the stingy jellyfish). I want them to look at the ocean see the complexities of an expansive and diverse ecosystem with the capacity to imagine the eventual possibility of a barren waterscape. A floating trash heap the size of Texas bobbing around in the Pacific Ocean. I hope they see that.  When I think about lesson planning, when I think about assessments and end goals, I start at the end: what activities, conversations and assignments will challenge my students to look at the world objectively and think about its complexities. And it’s more than just thinking figuratively, we focus on a building a variety of skills within our curriculum, by first thinking about how to get them there. This is backwards design. Last Friday a candidate visiting for our Head of School position, asked us to think this way about our semester program as a whole. What kinds of behaviors and ideas do we want to see in our students after a semester of The Island School. Kayak trips. Community meetings. Dorm life. Morning exercise. Advisory time. Ceremonies. Celebrations. Legacy Days. What do we want our legacy to be? How do we teach culture? What do we want a student at the end of the semester to look like? In a year? In five years? And most importantly, how do we get them there? Backwards design.

He arranged for student leaders to organize small groups of Island School students and one group of faculty in attendance, to think about an element of our school’s mission statement: “creating an intentional community whose members are cognizant of their limitations, abilities, and effect on others.” This is one goal of the Island School mission. Each small group, including the group of faculty, was lead by two students. I sat on an old wooden Pres Room chair, in a circle with the same colleagues sitting in the same chairs, that I face every day: morning and evening circles, circles around tables at faculty meetings, stretching circles after exercise; but, as we sat there facing each other, the ideas that encircled us were new. Facilitated by Franky and Jane, we discussed a critical element of backward design: How will we know when our mission is accomplished? We were charged to make a list of questions that we could ask Island School alumni to evaluate whether those individuals were “cognizant of their limitations, abilities, and effect on others.” Groups split up. The faculty all stayed together as one group, as students led by students, began to discuss their roles as students here.

An aside here to note that some educators out there might likely be unsettled at the idea of un-monitored students alone in rooms assigned to accomplish a task without faculty there to supervise. Shocking. But, for the record, I think that it is exactly this kind of activity that cultivates exactly that which we are discussing…

More shocking were the results.  Though I appreciated the chance to sit down with my colleagues and weave our intensions into a blanketed approach, it was when the groups rejoined and students shared-out, that I found myself with an agape mouth and an admiring mind, totally awed at their self-awareness and critical thought.

The following is a list of questions that our students crafted to reflectively and authentically appraise the people they will become when they leave this place: (Any alumni reading might ask themselves how they would answer the following questions)

How does this person help and support his/her peers? How does this person challenge him/herself? Does this person urge others to challenge themselves? Does this student express him or herself as an individual within the community? Is this person engaged fully in activities? Does this person have a flexible outlook on life? Does this person show appreciation for the opportunities that they are given? Does this person actively pursue his/her own passion(s)? Does this person exhibit leadership when the situation calls for it? Is he or she confident in striking up a conversation with anyone in the community? Does he or she contribute to the well-being of the community, even when not asked? Does he or she understand his or her impact on the natural environment and is proactive towards a sustainable goal? Does he/she have the courage to ask questions and go outside of his/her comfort zone? Does he or she accept challenges and execute them to the best of his or her abilities? Does he or she motivate without dictating? Does he or she respect others’ opinions while still staying true to his/her own? Do they respect their peers and elders? Are they appreciative of what they are given? Are they afraid to ask for help? Do they take initiative? Do they give up when challenged? Do they motivate others who want to quit? Do they look at a problem and try to solve it logically? Do they have an open mind? Is the student readily adaptable to new situations? Is the student able to do things outside of their comfort zone? Can you understand your community/culture/sense of place? Can you relate to and tolerate people who are completely different from you? Can you connect with every person in your community? Does the student voluntarily assist others? Is the person aware of all the ways their actions will impact others? Can the student make decisions for themselves? Can the student be considerate of other people’s values and ideas? Has the student ever done something they told themselves they couldn't do?

Concentric circles of questions echo around my mind like the eddies pooling around our bodies the next morning in Swim Track. It is our second extra-long morning exercise block—we have them each Saturday—and after swimming three quarters of a mile along the shore, we enter the The Current Cut. Years ago when they were developing the marina, a long stretch was dredged to connect two small carved-out harbors. Now, as the tide shifts around Powell Point on the southern-most tip of Eleuthera, a fast current pulls water from one end to another. Between pulls the water calms for slack tide.  Then the current picks up, reverses, and the force of the tide causes the river to run backward. Over and over each day, The Current Cut shifts like an aquatic teeter-totter.  The odds were against us as we entered the mouth of The Cut.

Having traversed the small harbor inlet, dragging the big cumbersome swim weenie (one of the mechanisms in place to support student safety in the water) behind me like a buoyant parachute, I came upon AJ, Jamie, and Katie H. standing up on the shallow rocks under the bridge that marks the entrance to The Cut, the current was ripping and they were holding on to the bridge pillars thinking about the impossibility of making it any further through the motion of a swim stroke. Has the student ever done something they told themselves they couldn’t do? I swam up next to them and through the open-eyed protection of my swim goggles, I watch their balancing feet on the rocks below me as I pull harder and harder with my stroke against the current. I passed them, stood, and looked back.

“If I can swim against the current while dragging this big weenie, then you definitely can…” AJ laughs.

“There is no way,” she says, still laughing and nervous.

“What do you remember about swimming against current? What is the best approach?” I remind them of a briefing they were given before the swim. Do they look at a problem and try to solve it logically?

“Stay close to the edge and out of the middle of the channel,” Jamie responds.

“So, where it is bubbling right ahead of us, not in the smooth water in the middle?” AJ confirms. On my skin, I can feel the vibration of the little water circles coming toward us. I point out the crux of the swim, a single corner just ten feet ahead.

“Swim as hard as you can, it’s going to feel like you are not going anywhere, but you will be moving by inches. I promise. It will take a minute or two of sustained sprinting but you can do it.” They look at each other. Is this person engaged fully in activities?

“Okay,” agrees AJ as Katie and Jamie wave their heads in agreement. “Jamie, you go first; you are the fastest,” AJ points out. Does this person exhibit leadership when the situation calls for it? Jamie takes a deep breath and lunges her body forward arms stroking ahead of her pulling forward and barely, just, slowly, moving, forward.  A minute passes like this. AJ and Katie are screaming and cheering, things about how Jamie can do it, and swim harder, and you’ve got it! Does this person urge others to challenge themselves? She makes it to the corner, the crux, and grabs on to the rocks, her body flailing in the water rushing past her like an aquatic windsock. She is breathing and yelling about how hard she was swimming and how impossible it is to make it around the corner. AJ, Katie and I are all screaming and cheering back at her. As she catches her breath, AJ decides it is her time to try. Following in suite, she lunges toward the point where Jamie is recovering, ten feet up stream. AJ is thrashing and pulling and kicking and reaching—which are not necessarily the best strategies to swimming hydrodynamically through the water, but are certainly indicative that she is going for it. Does he or she accept challenges and execute them to the best of his or her abilities? Ready to try again, Jamie’s hands forget the rocks and return to the water rushing past her.  Jamie is moving by the centimeter, AJ creeping up by the inch. Katie and I are cheering.  AJ joins Jamie at the point where the current is almost too strong, they both grab onto the rocks again, to rest, again. Now, its Katie’s turn. Following the path measured out in front of her, she begins inching along.  This time, as their bodies wave out behind them, arms outreached and holding on tight, AJ and Jamie are doing the cheering.  It goes on like this: inches of swims, hands creeping along rocks, lurching forward, current resisting, always cheering.

Along the opposite bank of The Cut another group fights the resistance of the tidal creek. Swimming. Trying. Cheering. Together. I stand waist deep, swim support weenie pulling at the harness around my back, thinking about the incredible level of real support I am witnessing, as students pull each other forward.  Again, I find myself with an agape mouth and an admiring mind, totally awed at what they are capable of.

By the time turn around time comes, all three girls had made it around the corner.  I watch as they reappear beyond the point, enjoying the tidal ride downstream.  They are giggling, exhausted and proud. I hear AJ as they pass: “That was sooo worth it.” Does this person show appreciation for the opportunities that they are given? Feeling the echoes of the questions in my mind, I turn and head backward towards school thinking about our design.

The Funny Thing About Island School

“Hey Ashley, you wanna hear the funny thing that Island School has done to me?” Alec asked me with his slow sarcastic Midwestern monotone.  “…I am excited for three continuous study hours on Friday.” Last week, Alec may have been one of the only sixteen year old boys in the entire western hemisphere looking forward to three continuous hours of study.  Except of course, for the other 20 boys who live here in the dorms with him.

And this got me thinking about all of the funny things that Island School has done to me.  I am excited when I have time to clean my toilet.  Cleaning my toilet feels like a day at the spa: refreshing and so luxurious.  I am a brand new woman with a fresh clean toilet.  I appreciate the littlest of things like I would appreciate winning a brand new car on The Price is Right.  A curtain opens and Ta Da: my bright shining toilet.  What a gift! This is my Island School perspective.

I remember one day last fall, I woke up and looked around. I was dressed as a pirate, screaming “Yarr’s!” at students during Pirate Day morning exercise. I realized that I had spent the last 4 months screaming things at students between the hours of 6:30-7:30 a.m.  I had screamed so many things at students: “Just one more minute, you’ve got it!” or “This isn’t WALK-track!” that I thought that maybe I was the single person who screamed more things at teenagers between the hours of 6:30-7:30 a.m., than anyone else on the planet.  I never thought I had so much yell in me; I don’t even like the sound of my loud voice.  But there I was yelling “Yarr!” as my boss was wallowing in the sand, eye-patched and parrot shoulders, “Yarr! We yelled, together.  “Yarr!” And, I remember thinking to myself: “How did I get here?... isn’t this funny?”  But the funny thing about Island School is more than the silly things we do.

Alec’s clever insight got me thinking about all of the funny things that Island School does to the people who live here, to every single person who steps foot on this campus, who comes to know and feel the incredible energy and force of this place.  Mail day is like Christmas.  Sunday is a week long holiday.  A ripe banana shines yellow like gold.  My advisee Elizabeth recently wrote “This place is INTENSE. But, I am honestly loving it right now!”  This is a curious way to feel about a place.  She has also described it to me as “the good kind of hard.”  Funny, Maxey said that very same thing to me just a few weeks ago: “Hard is good.”

I made two students cry yesterday.  That was really hard.  That was not funny at all.  But it was unexpected, and I think that is what Alec meant by funny.

The Island School changes your perspective in unexpected ways.

Yesterday we had mid-term student-teacher meetings.  In ten minute blocks, over the span of five hours, each student met with each of his or her teachers.  I met with twenty-four students.  And mostly, I told them the same things. I spent hours asking students to speak their voices.  The same feedback, over and over: put yourself into your words.  Find your voice.  Speak yourself.  Be liberated.  Share.  Yourself.  Your words.  Speak.  Speak!

Just one student I told to hush.  The hush was crushing.  Yesterday, I told a student that “the greatest thing that words can do is empower others.”  Except that the hidden message of that message was: stop oppressing others with your dominant voice in class.  This was a hard thing to tell a kid, even if it needed to be said, even if she needed to hush in order for her silence to give space to the timid.

As she sat in front of me in pain, I thought of another student who had sat across from me just an hour before: a more timid, soft spoken student.  This girl had cried because she had so much voice that she could not speak.

I returned to the second student, crying because she spoke so much that that no one could hear her voice.  I could not help but notice the irony.  I sat watching, welling with empathy, as the funny things that Island School had done to them, rolled out of their eyes, like unspoken jokes.  How funny.

The funny thing that Island School has done to me is make students cry.  As far as I know I have never made students cry before.  I believe that my students can never be told enough the gifts they possess for the world, the good they can do, the way that they inspire others, or the power they have inside them.  I am not the kind of teacher that makes students cry.  But there I was: one lion, one lamb, both crying in front of me.  How unexpected.

My first semester at Island School sometimes felt like I was at Island School, like a student.  Sometimes it feels like the only difference between the students and the faculty is that we stay. We face all the same struggles: the funny thing that Island School has done to me is that I am looking forward to three continuous hours for lesson prep tomorrow, that yesterday I cried over the power of words.  I see myself reflected in my students.

The Island School has changed my perspective in unexpected ways.

I believe that hard is good.  I believe that hard makes easy look like winning the lottery, like a shiny new porcelain trophy, like it is The Price is Right and “Come on down…You win!”  I think that we need to appreciate the growth and humility that results from profound struggle.  We should find joy and deep gratitude in little small bits of things.  I think that three hours of continuous time to study can be something to look forward to.  I think that there is a good kind of hard.

I believe that tears are as necessary as clean toilets.  And, I think that is a pretty funny thing to think about the world.