An Educator's View

How can history class support our understanding of diversity?

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What do you remember about your middle school history textbook?

I don’t remember much of mine. Its lines of text were blurred with images of the past I could scarcely care to think twice about. And why should I have? Growing up in a calm, Pleasantville-like suburb of Orange County, I had very little reason to believe that I needed to retain information on ancient pyramids, medieval knights, or even memorize the finer details of our constitution’s preamble. The past was the past. All I needed was that “A”.

And I got the “A”, time and again, by playing the game.

I took multiple choice tests, reproduced facts, and performed skits with my classmates. I colored in maps of the world, studied battle strategies, and created dioramas of great architectural feats.

The textbook helped me do all this, but I don’t remember any of it. Not one line of text, not one image, not one question stands out to me. It took me a while to understand why this was.

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Choosing Hope

b_770_346_16777215_00_images_IMG_1743.JPG6th Graders reading Maniac Magee ask: 

  • How are we to treat people? Are all people to be treated equal?
  • On what basis should we / do we evaluate our fellow human beings?
  • On what basis should we regulate our association with other people?
  • What is a human’s basic purpose in life?
  • Are humans basically good or evil?
  • How can a life gain significance?

Last week, my 6th graders read various articles on homelessness in the U.S. to gain a bigger picture of the novel that we are currently reading, Maniac Magee, by Jerry Spinelli, which touches on homelessness as well as issues related to race. I asked my students to choose two of the seven articles that I had assigned them on Newsela and instructed them to write questions on the board that were coming up for them while reading. As students went to the board with their markers, I was surprised, but also proud to see that their questions focused much more on issues related to racism than I had anticipated. I was proud in that moment because I knew that my students felt safe at IVA to ask these types of questions. Some of the questions included, “Are other minorities treated the same way in different areas?  “Why is there so much racial discrimination in the U.S.A?” “Why do people judge by race or gender, and when did this start?” “In what states is racism most realized?” Not only were they asking questions about homelessness, they were making connections between racism and poverty.

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Family Advisory: Studying Empathy

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Topic: Empathy

Season to use: the holidays

Process: Visually represent your response to a video meant to invoke emotions in you and discuss. 

Directions:

Disclaimer! IVA thrives in guiding students to learn and live well. This family assignment is not intended to invoke moral practice but for your family to get to practice intellectual virtues together as you think and talk about the ideas around empathy. Use any part of this Advisory guide that works for your family. 

  1. Check in: IVA is focused on equipping students for meaningful growth intellectual virtues – or good habits that we use when we are thinking and learning. This lesson explores empathy. For a quick academic discussion (only if you really want to) on whether empathy is moral virtue, skill, or capacity – read this chapter introduction. For our exploration purposes, we can think about empathy in general terms of caring, and/or sharing, and/or knowing. With this focus: ask one of the following questions from each person to get started:
    1. Who is the most empathetic person in our family? What makes you say that?
    2. When did you realize the world was not revolving around you? 
  2. Intellectual Exploration:
    1. Watch the following video that is supposed to make even the most “heartless” choke up and talk about how did we see empathy exhibited in the video.
    2. Visually track when did we feel empathetic ourselves - like an EKG graph or something. Use this graphic to point to moments in the video and discuss whichever of the following questions that interest your group.
    3. Process the video and the visual you created with these questions:
      • What types of empathy were in the video?
      • The video suggests that empathy is not easy – is it a sacrifice to feel empathetic? How else can you think of it?
      • What are the benefits of empathy? Which ones that were presented in the video appeal to you specifically?
      • Bonus question: the man in the video “practiced” empathy. Can you grow in empathy? How?
      • Bonus question: Why is an insurance company proposing empathy?
    4. Try it out! Take a Sensitivity IQ test. Have fun as a family by either:
      • Taking the online test together here OR
      • Write a bunch of emotions on a pieces of paper and play charades to guess the emotion. To get some ideas of complex emotions look at the online test. How do you do?
  3. Reflect: The idea of intellectual character development is that you can grow in your thinking and learning habits and practices – which of the intellectual virtue practices would help you to practice empathy? Look at the definitions of the virtues, can you be intellectually virtuous and not be empathetic?  

Family Advisory: Controversial Topics

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Topic: Any topic with potential for controversy or differing family beliefs - hot button topics. 

Season to use: This process was first created to address the presidential election in Advisory but for your family it can be used for any controversial topic where you might have divergent responses. To use for any topic replace the italicized words. 

Process: Micro Lab Protocol Thinking Routine with Question Prompts 

Directions: The election was on our minds election week for both students and teachers. Our staff staff worked through how to give students the space and time to process their thoughts while modeling and facilitating intellectual virtue practice to support students' listening to each other and avoiding overwhelming emotions or name calling. In a few classes, the teachers processed using the thinking routine Micro Lab Protocol. This is a routine that allows students to process and listen together without being dependent on a teachers' comments or personal feelings. This routine develops intellectual autonomy and open-mindedness. 

  1. Check in: Think of a time when the family discussed something together in what you would call a productive way. What was that time and what did you like about it? OR What types of topics might be the most controversial for our family? What sort of intellectual virtues would be best to hold onto to protect our treatment of each other?
  2. Intellectual Exploration
    1. Select a guiding question for a Micro Lab Protocol
      • How are you impacted by the election?
      • How are politics a part of your life or your families' life?
    2. Once the question is selected set your timer for 2 or 3 minutes (everyone will get the same amount of time) and have one person start. That person will use the whole time to respond to the question in any way that they want. 
    3. After each individual respond require 10 seconds of silence before the next person begins. Reset the timer each time. It is important that there is no "cross-talk" or interruptions. 
    4. Process the protocol: What was it like to listen to each other in this way?
    5. Open Discussion: After every person has responded then you can open up the conversation for open discussion with some possible follow up questions:
      • What conversations have you heard during this election cycle that demonstrate good intellectual character?
      • What would a bad intellectual character look or sound like? What makes you say that?
  3. Reflect: What did you learn about each other through this process? 

Family Advisory: Fixed vs. Growth Mindset

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Topic: Fixed vs. Growth Mindset

Season to use: Any time a student is struggling

Process: Open Discussion with Question Prompts 

Directions

  1. Check in: Everyone share their "highs and lows" from the week OR favorite intellectual virtue and why
  2. Intellectual Exploration:
    1. Watch or read one of the following texts together:
      1. NPR Story: The Struggle For Smarts? How Eastern and Western Cultures Tackle Learning
      2. Chart below compiled from Carol Dwek's article: "Even Geniuses Work Hard"
    2. Process the texts with any of these questions or create your own:
      • What have you struggled or failed in over this year? How did it feel?
      • Did you take on more of a fixed or growth mindset in that situation?
      • What virtues did you practice? What could be practiced more?
      • How do your practice of virtues impact the rest of the family (be brave on this one!)
      • What virtues do you want to grow in this year? How will you know if you’ve grown?

        Growth Mindset

        Fixed Mindset

        Intelligence is inborn. You have a certain amount and that’s it.

        You can develop your intelligence over time. 

        Tends to value looking smart over anything else

        Values challenging work as an opportunity to grow

        Says, "I can’t do this"

        Says, "I love a challenge, mistakes are my friend"

        Doesn't like effort: if you have the ability it should come naturally – if you have to work hard you feel dumb

        Appreciates the effort: even geniuses have to work hard

        Doesn't like setbacks because they call intelligence into question – self-condemnation or defeat

        Remains involved even under and obstacle, seek resources, try new strategies – opportunity for growth

3. Reflect: Celebrate the opportunity to grow in this next year together! Do you want accountability together? Will you check in, if so then when? What virtues did your family practice together in this discussion?

Gratitude

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(The following is a short speech by IVA math teacher Cari Noble delivered at the promotion ceremony of IVA's first graduating class.)

I used to think that the best thing about teaching was the look on a student’s face when, after a long struggle, they finally “got it”. I still think that it is pretty great. But now I think that the best thing about teaching your class is the gratitude you show.

There are students in this class who say “thank you” after each and every lesson. Every single time, it hits me that I am so lucky to be teaching students who are grateful to be taught. It is something that I feel from all of you, even if you don’t say it. You see learning as a gift and you are thankful for it. You recognize our efforts to create opportunities for you to think, and you appreciate it.

Today, it is my turn to express my gratitude to you.

First, to the parents: You took such a huge leap of faith three years ago. Thank you for trusting us with your children, your babies. Thank you for letting go, even when it was hard.

To the students: Thank you for the kindness you showed to all of us, your teachers and your classmates. Thank you for the way you welcomed new students with open arms. Thank you for the generosity you had, giving people fresh starts when they needed them most. Thank you for pushing me to explain clearer and be a better teacher. Thank you for struggling through POWs and projects. Thank you for laughing at my jokes and making learning fun. Mostly, thank you for the questions and wonders.

Next fall, IVA will open its doors and, for the first time, you won’t be there, but really, you will. You have made this school what it is. I hope that you look back with pride at what we created together. I know it is not likely that you will all remember how to find the area of a trapezoid or the quadratic formula, but I hope you learned to love thinking, and I hope that you continue to be grateful for any opportunity you have to do so.

 

 

Learning and Living Well

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(The following is a short speech by IVA Board Chairman Eric Churchill delivered at the promotion ceremony of IVA's first graduating class.)

You guys did it! The inaugural class of IVA is now moving on to high school! It seems like such a short time ago that I was standing in front of you talking about myrtle trees and all the work a small group of people had done to build this school. I also said that it is the hope of everyone here that you will take advantage of this opportunity and make this school great by being great thinkers and citizens—and that if you do that, not only will IVA be successful, but the world will be changed, for the better.

Does anyone remember that? Probably not, and that’s okay. But I was intentional! You see, we knew that if we could help shape your intellectual character then that would affect how you view the world. Learning well leads to living well; the two are related. As an example, now that you have learned what it means to be intellectually open-minded, you should be quick to listen to others, and if you do this, you will learn about other opinions, beliefs, and values that shape our world. This, in turn, will impact how you live your life. If you don’t, you will miss a great opportunity.

Our school’s motto is to learn and live well, and during your time here, while you may think we have only been focusing on learning, we have also been teaching you how to live well. Through the virtues, thinking routines, and relationships with your teachers and other students, you have been given the freedom to be yourselves and to think deeply in a supportive academic environment.

So what are the next steps for living well in that far-off land called high school? And how will the world be impacted by what you learned here at IVA? Here are three things you might want to remember:

  1. Always be curious about the world. Follow your nose. The world is full of wonderful things, places, and people for you to be curious about. Always ask questions, but do so with the intent of seeking understanding. With understanding comes engagement and when you do this you form your own opinions. When you form opinions, you begin to care. When you care about something, you will be passionate about understanding it’s cause. So, ask questions about the causes of poverty and homelessness, ask questions about the causes global warming and how it impacts our environment. Always be curious, and don’t stop caring! This will change the world.

To quote Albert Einstein, someone who was constantly curious: “The important thing is to not stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality.”

  1. Have the courage to take risks. When you came to IVA we taught you that taking risks is good. It’s okay to fail and it’s okay to struggle. This is how you learn. As you move into high school, and as you ask more questions about the world, this will be even more important. Curiosity and risk go hand-in-hand. As you ask the deeper questions about the world in which you live, your understanding will be challenged. You may not want to dig deeper because it’s too hard, but remember what you learned here: intellectual courage is a readiness to persist in thinking or communicating in the face of fear, including fear of embarrassment or failure. Ask the big questions. Don’t back down in the face of fear. Respectfully stand up for what you believe. This will change the world.
  1. Share what you have learned about intellectual virtues. This school was built for you and the other students that will come behind you. But, you are the ambassadors, the first students to leave and go to different high schools. IVA is unique; there is no other school doing exactly what we do, and you get to be the ones who go out and talk about it! This could be as simple as just talking about intellectual virtues. As an example, when you see a student in class who is afraid to ask a question, pull him aside and say, “it’s okay to take risks; be intellectually courageous.” When you are in a study group and someone says, “let’s just answer with a couple of quick sentences,” you can say “lets dig deeper and be intellectually thorough. This will change the world.

You might be thinking, he keeps saying I can change the world; but I am only only one person. IVA gave you the tools to be intellectually virtuous. And if we did our job correctly, you will never view education and learning the same. You will view the world with curiosity and thoughtfulness. You will ask the big questions. You will be humble. Ultimately, if you remain rooted in your intellectual character, you will serve as an example to others, which will change the world. IVA will be known as a school that equips students to engage the world with curiosity and thoughtfulness, to know themselves, and to live well. You will be the examples of that. You will change the world. 

I am excited to follow your progress through high school and beyond. I am so very proud of you. I am so very proud of this school. So, go be foxy!

 

 

The End and the Beginning

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(The following is a short speech delivered at the promotion ceremony of IVA's first graduating class.)

By Ian McCurry, English and History Teacher

I still remember the first day of school. We had our beautiful ceremony out in the courtyard, with all the excitement, all the expectation. And then half of you came with me and half of you went into Ms. Noble’s room. And I remember looking at you, and seeing you looking at me, and I was bursting with questions. What would this be like? I wondered what questions you had. What were your expectations? What did you want to know? In fact, I asked you, right there in that moment what were your questions.

“Where do we change for P.E.?”

“Do we get lockers?”

“What class do we go to next?”

“Can I go to bathroom?”

“Can I start a club?”

I knew of course that you had other questions. Deeper questions. And I would come to love some of those questions throughout the next three years. I’ve been listening these last three years. I’ve been listening most intently to your questions.

“What were the first human beings like?”

“Are there undiscovered hominids still somewhere else in Africa?”

“Why did Bilbo go with the dwarves to the dragon Smaug when he was so afraid?”

“Why was the town in Maniac Magee split between blacks and whites?”

“Why were so many Jews, like Anne Frank, killed?”

“Why did Maycomb decide Tom Robinson was guilty?”

“Why do people tell stories?”

“How do writers come up with their stories?”

In short, your questions have said to me, “What is the world like?” “And why is it that way?” and “Could the world be different?” “Could it change?”

Your questions have said a lot about who you are and who you will become.

If I had to give you all a gift—the most valuable gift I could think of as you leave our school—I would give you something you already have. I would give you back your questions. Because I believe, more than anything else, these questions will help you walk through this world with a sense of wonder and excitement.

So in a sense graduation, commencement, promotion are endings. It is the end of a school year. And for you 8th graders it is the end of middle school. And there is, of course, a sadness with that. But graduation, commencement, and promotion are also beginnings. Today marks the beginning of your next journey. And as you go to your various schools, I encourage to go with questions. Keep asking questions. And keep seeking answers to those questions.

Leaving a Mark

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The following is the first in a series of blog posts reflecting on the promotion of IVA's first 8th grade class ...

By Danielle Montiel, Program Administrator

“We’re all so close…I can’t believe it’s ending and we won’t be all together next year,” said an 8th grader during our Advisory meeting. Similar sentiments followed: “Remember when we didn’t even know each other’s names?” “I can’t believe we actually founded a school.”

Yes, 8th graders, you have a left a mark on our young school. Not just a mark, but a legacy. You inspired our weekly Virtues Ceremony, you test-drove our first year of Advisory, you inaugurated Virtueen, you completed dozens of POWS and participated in (hundreds?) of thinking routines … and you found a mascot!

And I’ve watched you, and eight of you more closely (my advisees), journey through this process of high school choice.  Along the high school choice way, I’ve noticed how IVA has left its mark on you.

As you explored your options, your refined educational palate told you what to look for. You came back from shadow days saying, “I liked when I saw students actually engaged in the learning, but I didn’t like a teacher talking at or down to students.” You know authentic engagement! You have an appetite for an educational culture that puts you at the center of the learning. You know what it looks like and feels like to think deeply.

As you evaluated your options, your knowledge of your mind and self guided you. You know you’re strong in math and sciences, but you couldn’t do life without art. You know what you’re curious about. And, you know how to process your decisions. You can access what’s behind your fear or apathy or closed-mindedness and move toward growth and clarity.

Finally, as you prepare to leave IVA, you’re “grieving” well. You’re reflecting on your experience and thinking about how you’ll carry a sense of educational community with you. You’ve developed a sort of “learning empathy,” a way of coming alongside a classmate and venturing into unknown territory and communicating about your limits, mistakes, and progress. You will be a gift to your new educational community, wherever that is.

I can’t reflect on the importance of this moment with 8th graders without feeling a deep sense of appreciation for their parents. Parents, you took a risk! You were autonomous and courageous, especially during a time when you are in the position of “managing education” like never before.

And I can’t help but look forward to opportunities ahead. I’m excited that a team of visionaries and innovators is developing a place where a group of 9th students will experience the bonding, risk-taking, and personal growth in the process of founding a high school. And when they graduate, they will process their college choice with valuable self-knowledge and decision-making skills -- just one way to experience learning and living well.

POW!

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By Jana McAdams, Math and PE Teacher

Here is a checkerboard. How many squares are there on the board?

If there are three bats that can see from their left eye, one that can see out of its right eye, and four that cannot see out of their left eye, how many potential bats are there?

A farmer dropped and broke all of her eggs. She knew that in certain groupings, there were some eggs left over and in other groupings, no eggs were left over. How many eggs did she have?

Instructions: Explain every step you went through to solve the problems. Write down what you thought, when you thought it, and how you thought. Is there a correct way to solve the problem? Is there more than one solution? Illuminate your thinking. Expand on it. Tell me more.

This is a sampling of “Problems of the Week” (POWs), which are a regular part of the math curriculum at IVA. From a teacher’s perspective, giving students POWs is an opportunity for them to think like a mathematician. It aids them in systematic processing to think through problems in a deep and meaningful way. As students progress through POWs during the year, the goal is for them to come away with tools that they are able to pull out and use when confronted with any type of difficult problem. We are asking students to tap into the intellectual virtues that will ultimately help them in pursuit of becoming a lifelong learner.

In a recent reflection on POWs, one sixth-grade student realized the value of a growth mindset. She commented: “I was able to realize that a growth mindset can help you expand your curiosity and weaken your fixed mindset.” She also recognized the importance of curiosity in aiding her toward success, saying that “you had to be able to have many questions and thoughts when you write your prompt ... I had ideas and thoughts on how different ways could work to solve the problem.” The natural outpouring of this growth mindset contributed to the demonstration of intellectual virtues which led to deep understanding.

The POWs are structured in a way that is intended to lead students towards deep understanding; it just does not happen at first glance. Along the way, students must also demonstrate intellectual humility in recognizing that they may be incorrect in their original thinking. Another comment from this student put it beautifully: “When you solve a problem ... be honest with yourself and write down what you don’t know for sure and what you think; you could be correct. That may make you feel better and stronger about yourself.” Sometimes original ideas can be correct and sometimes they are not, but students must be able to be intellectually humble in admitting that they are attempting an idea that could be wrong. Many times, growth in learning happens when students see how they were incorrect. If one is not willing to accept this failure, there is little chance to grow.

At the end of the process, it is a teacher’s hope that students come to understand themselves better as thinkers and learners. It is a long process that involves many roads with blocks or bumps along the way, but it eventually leads to a clearing. As students come to understand their own selves, their road may still contain struggles, but these struggles can now be met with confidence. The same student explained how this self-understanding has made her a better thinker overall: “I have discovered the true mind I have, where I am able to think and learn thoroughly and let my strengths grow and my weaknesses die. That is because what POWs try and teach you is that your abilities are a big part of what’s inside you and that you can think deeper when you are into learning. If you make learning fun, then your brain can become curiously expanded to any subject.”

What does your road to learning look like? When there are detours in the path, are they met with confidence?

A Kind of Double Vision

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(image by Bulgarian photographer Aneta Ivanova)

 

By Dr. Jason Baehr, IVA Co-founder

When a good event or idea gains very wide exposure, some kind of backlash or criticism is inevitable. A case in point: Mark Zuckerberg recently announced that he and his wife would contribute 99% of their shares in Facebook to charity, making for a $45 billion gift. Two days later, there was a debate in the New York Times about whether their decision was effectively a “tax dodge.”

In education, the concept of “grit” has been on the rise in recent years. As “grit guru” Angela Duckworth defines it, grit is “perseverance and passion for long-term goals.” Many educators have felt that Duckworth’s ideas about grit capture an important and sorely neglected aspect of good education—that teachers and schools need to do more to help their students become grittier. Consequently, “grit” is now a familiar educational buzzword. Educators across the country are eager to learn more about what grit is and the kinds of classroom interventions that can help foster it. (For the relationship between grit and intellectual virtues, see this earlier post.)

Unsurprisingly, the turn to grit in education has had some detractors. Last week, The Atlantic published an essay titled “The Limitations of Teaching ‘Grit’ in the Classroom.” Citing a recent talk by Tyrone C. Howard, the associate dean for equity and inclusion at UCLA, the author argues that the present preoccupation with grit is obscuring the fact that many students fail to succeed, not because they aren’t gritty enough, but on account of a very different set of personal or environmental challenges, including poverty, problems at home, homelessness, past trauma, and mental health issues. The author contends that schools and teachers need to pay at least as much attention to these other factors as they do to trying to instill greater grit in their students.    

Interpreted as an objection to “educating for grit,” this argument falls short. We can address the social, emotional, and related needs of students while also doing what we can to help them grow in grit. However, understood as a reminder that a focus on grit must be accompanied by an understanding of students as “whole persons” with individual histories and lives that extend well beyond the classroom, the argument is cogent and relevant.

The mission of the Intellectual Virtues Academy is to foster “meaningful growth” in virtues like curiosity, open-mindedness, intellectual courage, and intellectual tenacity or “grit”—and to do so “in a thoughtful, challenging, and supportive academic environment.” The mention of a certain type of environment in IVA’s mission statement is no accident. We take very seriously the idea that intellectual virtues arise in supportive relational and cultural contexts. This recognition is reflected in several features of the school:

First: there is a pervasive focus at IVA on cultivating and maintaining positive relationships, including between the principal and her teachers, among the teachers, between teachers and students, among the students, and beyond. Our goal is to shape students’ “habits of mind.” And we realize this can only be done in environments in which students feel respected and cared for by others.

Second: there is also a pervasive focus on creating an overall school culture that is supportive of intellectual character growth. This involves addressing the basic social and emotional (or, where necessary, even physical) needs of students and aligning the basic practices, values, language, and other culture-making elements of the school with this goal.

Third: in keeping with the first two points, IVA also takes a very careful, thoughtful, and relational approach to discipline and conflict resolution. Here as well students are treated with respect and as whole persons. An emphasis is placed, not just on their behavior, but also on the beliefs, attitudes, feelings, and other psychological (even physical) factors that give rise to this behavior.

Fourth: IVA has a unique advisory program in which students meet weekly in groups of eight with a trained adult advisor to explore topics they are intrinsically curious about, and to do so in a thoughtful, structured, and interactive manner. While the primary goal of the advisory program is to nurture students’ curiosity, we recognize that students will feel “safe” to explore and expand their intellectual interests only if they feel known and cared for. Therefore, a primary responsibility of advisors is getting to know and being an ongoing supportive presence to their advisees.

Fifth: adult stakeholders at IVA seeks to practice a kind of “intellectual therapy” with students. This idea comes from a recent paper (forthcoming in this book) by IVA co-founder and board member Steve Porter. Porter argues that some students fail to experience intellectual character growth on account of inhibiting “representations of self” (e.g. “Anything less than perfection means I’m worthless” or “If I am wrong about something then I am the stupidest kid in the class”). As a remedy, he recommends that teachers and other adult figures do what they can to help students adopt alternative, growth-oriented views of themselves (e.g. “We all make mistakes sometimes and that’s okay” or “If I try hard to learn, I often succeed”). However, Porter emphasizes that these efforts will be effective only in the context of a “reparative relational experiences,” that is, only when the teacher forges a relationship with her students marked by care, attentiveness, acceptance, and trust.

The distinction between character and environment is an important one. As educators, it can be tempting to focus exclusively on one or the other. This temptation must be resisted. A kind of double vision—maintaining a focus on the intellectual character of students and the environments that shape and inform this character—is essential.

What's the Point?

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By Katherine Lo, high school English teacher in Anaheim, CA

Recently, a friend and fellow teacher brought this story to my attention, which describes the experience of a 17-year-old student who left his high school for a trimester to study and learn completely independently. He was motivated to do this because, in his experience with school, “It just feels a little bit like you just have to keep doing one thing after another, but without a whole lot of thinking about an education in general.”

This statement really struck a nerve with me, naming an issue I have wrestled with as a high school English teacher for the past nineteen years: the haunting reality that all too often, we teachers regularly explain concepts to our students and give them tasks to complete without ever (or very infrequently) discussing the reasons why. Or that the only reasons we do provide are fairly limited and superficial—to gain the skills and knowledge to be able to go to a good college and get a good job. These are good and motivating reasons, but they are also fairly vague and far off in the future, which means they lack the power to provide real meaning and motivation to the bored and restless student who is counting the minutes until lunch time. In my experience, there are three types of students in every classroom: those who come in with some type of intrinsic motivation and/or curiosity already in place and are genuinely interested in the material; those who don’t particularly enjoy the content or experience but realize they must do the work to please parents, teachers, and achieve their long-term goals; and those who don’t care about the material or completing the work at all and show up to school every day because their parents make them. As a wise colleague once pointed out to me, student compliance is not the same thing as student engagement.

In the course of my career, I have often been guilty of mistaking student compliance with student engagement, and that is something I’ve been working to address in the past few years. Where I used to start the school year with a few ice-breaker activities followed by an explanation of class rules and my grading policies, I now start my classes with a reflection activity. I ask my students to think, write about, and discuss questions like Why are you here in school? What do you think the value of an education is? Do you see struggle as a positive or a negative thing? What comes to mind when you hear the words ‘smart’ and ‘intelligent’? Do you think intelligence is fixed or can change? In my sophomore classes, after they have discussed their answers in small groups, I compile a class list of reasons for going to school—everything from “it’s the law” to “so I can learn new things”— and have them take their lists home and ask their parents to add two more reasons and sign the paper. The next day, we discuss the parents’ reasons and how they compare to the reasons the students came up with themselves. When I ask how many of the students have never talked to their parents about this before now, the majority of them raise their hands.

These questions and this discussion then leads to an introduction to the concept of intellectual character and the notion that developing intellectual virtues can provide a much more deeply meaningful and motivating purpose for their time in school than “because I have to,” and that it connects and gives context to many of the other reasons like “so I can learn” and “so I can have a better future.” Teaching for intellectual virtues provides, as I like to think of it, a metanarrative for their entire learning experience. Instead of their day being fragmented into classes and activities with no seeming connection to each other or to the students themselves other than as a bunch of tasks to complete, each experience becomes connected to the continuous and ongoing process of developing their own intellectual character and habits—traits and habits that have the potential to not only benefit them in the future, but can also benefit and bring meaning in the immediate moment.

This approach also provides a helpful framework for me as a teacher. For example, instead of simply saying, “I want you to write an essay that has a clear thesis and strong topic sentences,” we first talk about the value of developing good writing skills. I also have them reflect on what intellectual virtues they might be strengthening or developing in the process of writing the essay. For students who have long viewed themselves as “bad writers,” it’s an incredibly empowering shift if they can view this struggle as a way to develop their perseverance in at least trying to get all the way through it or if they get praised for their intellectual humility when they admit they don’t know how to begin. It is an entry point for true engagement and an experience of learning that can give them a taste for more, which is, ultimately, what we want for all of our students.

 

Why PE Can be More Than Ugly Gym Shorts and Awkward Moments

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By Jana McAdams, Physical Education teacher

I am not sure that it is a normal thing to text friends and colleagues about how much I am enjoying grading students' projects. It is for sure not a normal thing to post an Instagram of my grading with the caption that I enjoy reading my students' thinking!

However, that is where I found myself this weekend. Recently, I assigned my students a project that required them to break down Track & Field events into specific skills, their movements, and the importance of these movements. I was blown away by their insightful responses. They inspired me to send a text to a friend of mine saying, "Sounds silly, but I am SO loving grading my students' work right now and getting really excited. They are saying and explaining things that make me think, ‘Yes! That's an amazing thought!’" I also texted a colleague, a credentialed teacher and chief academic officer at a nearby private school, with a reflection quotation from one of my students, telling her how amazed that I was with their thinking. My students were making such profound statements! Here is a brief sampling of some of their thoughts:

I care that people as fast as me are there so we can have a great race...I would rather come in last having a good challenge then come in first with people not as fast as me.

I also wonder if I am going to win when I run. When we do the relay races, I get really nervous when it is our turn and I always ask myself, "Am I getting the team down?" Then I realize that we all make mistakes.

I wonder if it is better to have the fastest runner on your team run first, second, third, or fourth and what place the slowest runner should run at.

I have noticed that is can be very helpful to focus on all the other contestants that seem to be doing well and see what they are doing. Look at what seems to make them do better than everybody else. Try to mimic them.

Even though physical education is my passion, I had never considered that these learning opportunities were possible. Now I recognize that as I have grown as a thinker at IVA, it just comes natural to have students engage in new ways of thinking as well, and no class is an exception.

Three Ways Physical Education Has Been Changing ... For the Better

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By Jana McAdams, PE Teacher

The words “physical education” have the ability to evoke a variety of thoughts, memories, and feelings. Thoughts of glorified free-play or the “easy A class.” Memories of the weekly mile or the football coach teacher. Feelings of anxiety about having to dress out or of pride as you were the first one picked for kickball.

In an education system of constant change and growth, it is no surprise that physical education has been evolving along the way. Long gone are the days of synchronized calisthenics and drills, of a teacher just rolling out a ball, of students being singled out in large elimination games. Although there still may be faint traces of these old ways of “learning” in some physical education classes, a more positive shift towards teaching students to become lifelong movers has been emerging. This fun and informative three-minute video does a good job of explaining some of these themes.

Here are three ways that physical education has been changing its focus over the years:

  1. Teaching students about health-related concepts. When students begin to learn how to assess their own physical fitness and demonstrate knowledge of how to improve their health in this area, they are able to make good, autonomous decisions about their health that will impact their future. Students can apply this knowledge when they are no longer in physical education class and are able to use these principles to lead them towards being a lifelong mover.
  1. Encouraging movement in all types of activities. Introducing students to a wide range of activities helps them learn various strategies which in turn helps them develop new movement skills. This way of teaching supports the ideal of lifelong movers, rather than possibly lowering interest in students by starting off focusing on sport-specific skills. If students are using strategies to learn skills through games and activities rather than through sports that they may have a negative mindset about, they will experience a higher level of enjoyment in physical activity. Students will feel competent in basic fundamental movements, which will more likely lead them to be active throughout their lifespan.
  1. Engaging students’ minds. It is important for students to be able to engage in thinking as they take part in moving. Learning strategies, understanding how to do movements, and transferring concepts across activities deepens students’ knowledge as movers. If students regularly engage their minds and thinking, they will be able to use critical thinking to make wise decisions about their health in the future, leading them towards a lifetime of health-conscious behavior.

As students begin to experience the new path of physical education, they will be able to emerge as competent thinkers and movers who can make autonomous decisions that will positively impact their health for the rest of their lives.

Virtues in Action: The Educational Research of Ron Ritchhart

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By Ian McCurry, English Teacher

At Intellectual Virtues Academy of Long Beach, our goal is to “foster meaningful growth in intellectual character virtues.” Quite a lofty goal. As I speak to friends, family members, and prospective parents about our school and our mission, a response I often receive is: “This all sounds great! But what does this look like in the classroom?”

Ron Ritchhart, both his writing and leadership, have helped provide an answer to this question. Two of his books in particular, Intellectual Character: What it is, Why it Matters, and How to Get it and Making Thinking Visible have been instrumental as I’ve sought to create an environment in my classroom where students’ intellectual characters can grow and thrive.

The focus that Ritchhart and his colleagues place on “thinking” in the classroom is right in line with the values of IVA. Many of the activities my students engage in on a regular basis revolve around the “thinking routines” that Ritchhart and his colleagues developed. Thinking routines are simple, step-by-step exercises that require students to practice intellectual virtues like attentiveness, open-mindedness, and curiosity. For example, following a recent school field trip to the Los Angeles Museum of Tolerance, I had my students write a reflection using the thinking routine, “I Used to Think…Now I Think…” This routine has students reflect on knowledge and understanding they had prior to a learning experience and reflect on how that knowledge and understanding has changed following the learning experience.

The field trip was a culminating experience following the reading of Anne Frank: The Diary of Young Girl. This simple prompt elicited thoughts and ideas from my students that got right to the heart of Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl and the tragedy of this time in world history. Students were able to dig deep within their own thoughts and experiences and use those to reflect powerfully on the staggering disregard for human dignity of World War II. Students were able to gain a more complete understanding of the Holocaust and see how their original thoughts and ideas were missing some of the big picture. A few of their words have been copied below:

“I used to think that the Nazis and Hitler were the only people to blame for the Holocaust. Now I see that it was also ordinary people to blame for not helping people escape and for helping Hitler.  What I mean by this is if certain countries would have let Jews escape, including the United States, less people would have died…there would have been more survivors.”

“I used to think that the Holocaust was a really bad thing that happened in the past. Now I realize the full implications of the Holocaust and understand it more fully. I now know of the terror and death that lived in those dark times, and I realize that the Holocaust is much worse and more cruel and inhumane that I had thought before.”

“I used to believe that the Holocaust was just another tragic moment in history…The Holocaust was extremely tragic, yet there is so much we can learn from it like why tolerance is so important to our world and why human dignity is so important to us as a whole.”

“I used to think that the Holocaust was the only large genocide of the 20th century, but now I think a lot more happened that has been covered up by society. While the Holocaust is better known there was also the Gulags from the Soviet Union and the Armenian Genocide.”

Ritchhart’s acute focus on how to get students thinking promotes rich discussions in my class. His writing has prompted me as an educator to think critically about the kinds of questions I am asking my students. He has helped me reevaluate the types of assignments and feedback I give students. Often I’ll find myself asking, “What type of thinking does this task really require? What is it I really want my students to do here?” The fact that I still, after more than three years, find myself thumbing through his books for ideas about an upcoming unit has persuaded me that his work in education is more than just another passing phase. Ritchhart emphasizes thinking and learning. And good schools will always be eager for ways to better facilitate thinking and learning amongst their students.  

Just a Few Minutes of Courage (A Letter to My Students)

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"Introduce yourself in your most confident and resonant voice and tell us what you will be singing."

I was standing on a stage in front of a few dozen people. It was exactly at this point that I realized what an epic mistake I had made when I signed up for singing class at family camp. My legs, whose previous employment had been to hold up the rest of my body, had turned in their letters of resignation. My heart, sensing the impending doom, was banging on my chest, begging to escape. My brain tried to maintain control over its subjects, pleading for them to get their acts together. I dug deep for my “most confident and resonant voice” but what I found was neither confident nor resonant. The best I could come up with was squeaky and shaky. “My name is Cari Noble, and I will be singing ‘Notice Me, Horton’ from Seussical the Musical.”

Then the accompanist played the first note on the piano, and I was beyond the point of no return. In a panic, I scanned the room for a friendly face and found a bright-eyed and sweet 12-year-old girl that reminded me of all of you. I locked my eyes on her, took a deep breath, and started to sing. “It’s taken all my courage to approach you, not to mention all my stamina to follow you across the hills and deserts.” She knew the song, so she mouthed the words along with me (which was incredibly lucky because my brain, realizing it was the captain of a mutinous ship, had finally surrendered). And then, before I knew it, it was over. I was done. People were clapping and smiling, and I felt like I had just climbed Mount Everest after winning the World Series and all the while discovering a way to reverse global warming. I’m pretty sure I jumped in the air while spinning in circles a few times on the stage. It was exhilarating! I had done it! I was just about to head back to the safety of my seat in the audience when … the teacher asked me to sing it again. (What? I had barely survived the first go-around!) And, again. (Really?!?) But what I noticed was that each time, it got a tiny bit easier. Each time my voice got a little bit more confident. It still wasn’t comfortable. My knees were still shaking and my heart was still racing, but I also didn’t die. I eventually got to sit down and bask in the glow of my accomplishment. Not the accomplishment of singing well because I’m pretty sure I didn’t do that, but the accomplishment of being brave, even for just a few minutes.

There is this great scene in the movie “We Bought a Zoo”. A boy, who is too embarrassed to tell a cute girl that he likes her, gets this advice from his dad. He says, “You know, sometimes all you need is twenty seconds of insane courage. Just literally twenty seconds of just embarrassing bravery. And I promise you, something great will come of it.” The boy’s twenty seconds of courage got him the girl. My twenty seconds of courage got me out of my chair and onto the stage. Maybe for you, it takes twenty seconds of courage to raise your hand and admit that you don’t understand something in math class. It could take twenty seconds of courage to parachute out of an airplane or kill the cockroach you found in the shower or stand up for someone who is being put down or apologize. All of these twenty seconds lead to amazing things like love, friendship, a better understanding of math, and a roach-free shower. These are all great things in their own right, but, really, the greatness isn’t in getting the girl or singing on stage or even understanding math. The greatness is knowing that you can be brave.

Why Do We Read?

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By Mr. Ian McCurry

As someone who loves to read and especially as someone who is an English teacher, I’ve often asked myself this question. Many famous authors have provided answers to this question.  C.S. Lewis said, “We read to know that we are not alone.” George R.R. Martin in A Dance with Dragons wrote, “A reader lives a thousand lives…The man who never reads lives only one.”  While these are wonderful answers, there is something about the question that necessitates a personal response, “But why do you read?”

Over the years as I have thought about my own answer to this question, I have also thought about my students’ answers to this question.  

The peak of my speculation about the purpose of reading in schools came during my second year teaching high school English at a charter school in Los Angeles.  I realized that I wanted my students to love reading, to love books, to love beautiful language and incredible stories.  But was this the message my students were getting from me. One day, my curiosity overcame me and I threw the question out to one of my classes.  “So, why do we read?”  I was a little nervous asking the question,

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It's Not Rocket Science. But It's Being Like a Rocket Scientist

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By Danielle Montiel, IVA Program Administrator

On a recent field trip, IVA students toured NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena. What an amazing place! Observation decks, clean rooms, control rooms, museums, lecture halls, time-sensitive visitor badges (don’t try to linger beyond your scheduled tour), and even deer roam the beautiful campus as if to affirm: this place champions the natural world. 

I was giddy passing the scores of rocket scientists and watching them work. I was proud of our students’ questions and, I won’t lie, their exemplary behavior.

But the sense of excitement that grew in me throughout the tour was related to hope. Why hope? I was compelled by this thought: Here we are among the top scientists in the world, and ANY ONE of our students could join their ranks, because every day at IVA, they are BECOMING LIKE rocket scientists!

Across all subjects, IVA students are becoming curious and learning to wonder and ask “why” about topics that may not initially interest them, just like rocket scientists. They are learning to own their intellectual limits and recognize that humility serves them as students as well as the common good in the student body’s quest for understanding. They are becoming self-directed thinkers (autonomy). They are learning how to stay focused and notice details (attentiveness), avoid intellectual pitfalls (carefulness), and go deep into their subjects (thoroughness). They have been encouraged to value others’ perspectives (open-mindedness), flex their courage muscles as they face challenging tasks, and invoke their tenacity when giving up feels tempting. Et voilà, we have people whose minds are shaped similarly to our exemplar rocket scientists.

As tour guides led us around JPL’s campus, they told stories of both successful and failed space projects, and it was easy to identify the nine master virtues at work in the scientists’ processes. In the literal background of these stories, the rocket scientists lingered on campus enjoying their coffee breaks and snacking on microwave popcorn and I thought: these folks don’t just have more knowledge and skills than the average scientists, it’s likely that their intellectual character has been developed in such a way that this body of knowledge and skills gets maximized.

And so we at IVA strive daily to nurture the small decisions that marry deep learning and intellectual character, so that one day our students are ready to be—in knowledge, skills, and character—the kinds of people who fit right in among a culture of great thinkers.

A pleasure to have in class

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"A pleasure to have in class."

This is the comment that I see most often on my children’s report card. Don’t get me wrong: I like hearing it. To me, it says that they are respectful and polite. It makes me happy to know this. After all, one of my goals as a parent was to raise respectful and polite children.

But that is not why I’m sending them to school. I’m not sending them to school so that they can demonstrate their ability to say "please" and "thank you," and raise their hands. If I were, I would be sending them to cotillion. I’m sending them to school to think and learn. Such comments tell me nothing about how my child is thinking and learning. I want more!

I have three children -- two of which are very good at jumping through the hoops of schooling. They turn in thorough work, on time, and do well on tests. They pay attention in class. They get good grades. I hope that these grades also mean that they are good at thinking and tackling difficult problems. I’m not always sure about that, but I hope.

My third child is not especially interested in the more mundane aspects of school. He does not always remember to turn in work. He forgets major deadlines. His grades are not always what they could be. On the other hand, he is genuinely interested in learning. He reads voraciously. He plays music on any number of instruments. He participates in class discussions. He is engaged. Knowing this about him, I’m not convinced that his grades say a lot about the kind of thinker he is. I wish I knew what his teachers thought about him beyond his sweet disposition. I want meaningful feedback and ways I can help him grow.

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Common Core Testing - A Practice

b_191_273_16777215_00_images_9cdf606745adb9f8fe467ee8b1c25347.jpgI used to teach Advanced Preparation, or AP, Language at the high school level. The most amazing statistic about AP testing is that students who took the test, even if they didn't pass, were statistically more likely to graduate college in four years than peers who did well in the class but didn't take the test. There is something about just taking the rigorous test that builds stamina, confidence, and a self-awareness that you can do it. We are excited about this year's test as a chance to learn and practice a new challenge. 

IVA, along with thousands of schools across California, is participating in a field test aligned to the Common Core State Standards for math and English. This test is designed to help shape teaching and learning in the classroom. Known as the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress -- or CAASPP -- these computer-based tests replace the STAR program. 

Part of the goal of the field test this year is to determine how well individual questions allow students to demonstrate what they know and still need to learn. We are taking this opportunity to see how we meet the technological demands of the test and to see what resources our teachers and school may yet need. 

Finally, and importantly, this year also gives your student an opportunity to try out the new system without consequences. All of this means we will not be capturing scores this year. Instead, we will use what we learn from this field test to help ensure a successful full launch of the system in the 2014-15 school year. 

We will be administering the field test within the testing window, April 7 to May 16.

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A Culture of Upstanders

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On Tuesday, our student body and staff participated in a full-day training program from Community Matters. Tuesday's training made me realize that, even though we have only 54 students on our campus, our middle-schoolers still experience exclusions, putdowns, unwanted physical conduct, and the more rare intimidations. While these mistreatments might appear trivial to larger middle schools, we recognize that each unaddressed instance of mistreatment sticks with our students and affects the culture. 

We examined mistreatment on campus, and learned steps to take so that we can become “upstanders” rather than bystanders. We were asked to step across a line when a statement matched our experience. Every single student in our school stepped across the line in response to "I have felt mistreated by another student in our school." Almost every student stepped across to admit, "I have mistreated another student in our school." So, how does this type of mistreatment on campus affect us?

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A Good Work

b_200_0_16777215_00_images_blogimages_courage.jpgI might not have realized how much work it takes to start a charter school. I might not have realized how many questions there are to answer, and how many details there are to put in place. I thought I did. In my fifth day as principal, I still do not have a cognizant response when I am asked how I feel in this new position. All I can be clear about is that there is much to put in place, and that what I am not feeling is fear -- and I know why.

I am not afraid of this daunting work, because what we are creating in a school like IVA will provide life. As a high school teacher, especially teaching 9th-graders, I saw kids in my class on the first day that had already given up on caring about school. Whether it was the experience of failing for so long, or the fear of embarrassment in front of their peers, a light had already been turned off. These kids were not lost to learning forever, but they had already defined a part of themselves in their habits and character that would take so much to redirect.

I am not afraid because I just cannot wait for that first day of school, when new 6th-graders walk into their classrooms and into an entire school culture designed to create careful, reflective learners and curious thinkers. This is not middle school as we know it. Not one student will leave IVA and walk into her 9th-grade teachers’ room with a light turned off.

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Momentum

b_200_0_16777215_00_images_blogimages_post-it-art.jpgI’ve spent the past nine weeks on this blog offering brief sketches of IVA’s Nine Master Virtues. These don’t exhaust the full range of intellectual virtues. But they’ll provide us with a more manageable and immediate focus as we begin “doing education” in a way that’s aimed at nurturing growth in these important qualities.

In recent weeks and months, I’ve received countless emails from all over the world expressing interest and enthusiasm about what we’re doing at the Intellectual Virtues Academy of Long Beach — from Italy, France, England, New Zealand, Australia, and Philippines, to name just a few. These are in addition the many emails and phone calls I’ve received from across the United States. One thing is becoming very clear: what we’re doing is striking a chord.

My own (admittedly fallible) take on this is that a certain pendulum within education has reached its furthest point in one direction (a point marked, among other ways, by the No Child Left Behind legislation passed in 2001) and is beginning to swing back in a direction that favors a richer, more personal, and holistic approach to education — one that does not result in an obsessive concern with standardized testing, teaching to the test, and related unintended but manifestly bad consequences of the previous paradigm.

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