In Which I Find Myself Relating a Little Too Closely to Lin-Manuel Miranda, and by proxy, Alexander Hamilton

“Why do you write like you’re running out of time?” Lin-Manuel Miranda

I got a request the other day from someone I had never met who politely wanted to know the end to the story I told in my earlier blog “Rise”.  It was pointed out to me that I never really told what happened after.  I am well aware of this, and it has bothered me.  It’s been my last thought as I drift to sleep and is often the first thing I think of as I rise.  It’s not that I didn’t want to tell it, or that I lost interest or that things turned badly.  It is more that I am not sure how to express all that has happened, or even if you’ll believe me.

Nearly 365 days have passed since I posted that blog about my tiny school’s fight to shine and do well at last year’s Khan Academy’s Learn Storm math challenge.  We will be headed back to finals in a few weeks after this year’s challenge.  We once again determined to do well — to defend our honor and prove that our being at that event wasn’t a fluke.  We performed well putting in 1,000s of hours on the computer.  We actually calculated it out — and if you added up the time each of my students spent working on math during this year’s challenge it comes out to 115 days!  115 days of math!

I, myself, finally polished off all of K-6th grade math, and am 98% of the way through both 7th and 8th grade.  I’ve finished off basic geometry and pre algebra and am not slogging my way through the math that I never understood the first time I took it decades ago.  I am determined STILL to make it all the way through to the end.

But, of course, none of that is the after story you really want to know — what about those kids?  What about those kids who’d never crossed a bridge, or driven far away or seen a company like google?

Everything has changed.

They understand the world is larger than they can possible imagine.  They understand that working hard in school and unlocks doors.  They understand that their thoughts and ideas and dreams matter.

I stood in front of my classes in late September this year and reminded them of what I had been telling them over and over, “Grit pays off.  If you work hard everyday, the world around you will notice.  You will not only get stronger and smarter but you will stand out.” They nodded their heads and sighed — they’d heard this story before, but then I told them the secret that I had carried with me since late June that their grit had paid off — that someone had noticed them.

We’ve spent the bulk of the school year being filmed by a major movie studio (think dinosaurs) for an upcoming documentary.  They contacted me after a conversation with some of my good friends at Khan Academy.  They asked Khan Academy, “Do you know of anyone who is using technology in innovative ways?”  And so they contacted us.

It has been the craziest year of my life.  We’ve had invitations to Google I/O.  We got to attend an event at Pixar Studios.  I was able to take some of my student to STEM events – further exposing them to a world they have never dreamed of.   At one point, my principal looked at me and said, “Does this always happen to you?”

No.  This is without a doubt the wildest year of my life.

I’ve spent the school year pushing my students to think of a real innovation that can improve their own community — something that is new and helpful and makes a difference.

I put my students in the driver’s seat.

It has been the most amazing thing I’ve ever done.  Kids whose own parents never finished middle school are saying words like, “Harvard, Berkeley,  and Davis.”  They want their own piece of that world.  They are no longer satisfied to be shut off from the larger world.

The result has been a whole lot of work for me — I’m not gonna lie.  Real learning – really growth is exhausting.  I’ve stayed late so many days so they can work on a project.  I’ve been to meetings during my lunch, and shown up early so someone can get on a computer.

Trying to navigate the classroom with four cameras is hard work.  I used to hear actors talk about their long grueling days and think, “Try teaching!”  Well, I’m here to tell you, being on camera is no joke!

I love my students.  They are so bright and beautiful and capable of the most amazing things.  The best part of this year has been watching a group of students share their project idea with “outsiders”.  You cannot begin to understand the power of a group of adults leaning in and listening as a group of fifth grade girls try to pitch their idea.  There is unspeakable power in being heard.

Now it is late April, nearly May.  In June this legendary year will draw to a close and the film will wrap, and we will go back to our “normal” lives, but I don’t know we will ever be the same.   We have been transformed by an idea that has grown and blossomed not just on our campus, but somewhere deep in our hearts.  It is the idea that every single child matters and that every voice must be heard.  My students learned to create and stand up for their ideas – they learned to make prototypes and code.  Two fifth grade girls and I tried to stumble our way through learning how to wire frame.  We worked on java script and SQL and HTML/CSS.  I spent my evenings in front of the computer trying to learn the next step so my students could truly create their ideas.  We learned that we are stronger when we work together, and that the world is full of things we haven’t learned, yet.

But we will, someday.  You give us a computer, a calculator, some graph paper, a pile of pencils, and strong cup of coffee for our teacher — and we will figure it out.  Just you wait.

An Article featuring our class

Speaking at Learn Storm 2015

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Non-Stop

 

Just you Wait

I’m going to talk about my students again.  I’m not even going to apologize.  These kids amaze me.  They are non-stop.  We are currently in week 4 of Khan Academy’s 9 week math challenge — Learn Storm 2016.  If you read my previous blogs, you know that THIS, this one math challenge set all kinds of amazing things in motion for our school.  Just yesterday, my students were again being filmed by Legendary Pictures for an upcoming documentary.

And it has everything to do with GRIT and a growth mindset.

If you know nothing about Khan Academy, or Learn Storm that’s okay.  The only thing you really need to know to understand this story is that I’ve got 6th and 5th graders willingly working on math on the weekends and in the evenings — on their own.  I’ve got a few of them who even say (privately, of course) that they work in Khan Academy  “for fun”.   True Story.

I know you are probably thinking — well, these must be math kids.  Nope.  Wrong.  In fact, just this morning a 6th grade girl said to me, “I keep working on this stuff, and I hate math.  Well, I guess, I used to hate it.”  She scrunched up her face and studied me for  a moment.  “Wait, does this mean I’m a math person?”

I love it.  How typically 6th grade — she has to put a label on it, and is shocked to discover just what that label reads:  MATH PERSON.

I am also “not a math person”, except, now I am.  Thanks to a lot of “free” time spent on Khan Academy, I can now understand the beauty and trans-formative power of manipulating numbers and sorting them out — it is the same joy I get from a well-constructed sentence; a properly solved complicated problem holds the same beauty as a well-crafted sentence.  They are suspended outside of known time.  Art.

Which, brings me back to my students.  Every 3rd – 6th grader at our school joins the Learn Storm math challenge.  They spend time, whenever they can, working on math – at their level, and trying to earn points for our school.  They earn badges, and energy points along the way — but earning those things requires actual hard work and mastery of skills.  It isn’t handed to them like a lollipop because they believed in themselves.  They had to work to earn it — and therefore it has GREAT value.

Every week, Khan Academy posts the names of the students and schools who are in the top 100 — kids who have earned the most points.  Every week we have 50 or so on that list.  The current 6th grade top 100 list has 17 of our students on it.  (One of the 6th graders pointed out — “That’s 17% Mrs. E.”  He had been working on percent in math and saw immediately a real-life application.

Our school is number one right now, and we are so thrilled, but more than being at the top of that list is this wonderful, glorious community that has been created.  Every 3rd-6th grader is working on Learn Storm. Every. Single. One.  Those who are considered “gifted” and those who are in special education.  All of them.  The beauty of Khan’s math challenge is this:  They all have an equal chance of being a champion because points aren’t only accumulated based on correct answers — points are gained by getting something wrong at first and then continuing to persevere until you get it right.  Khan calls these points “Hustle Points”.  They are the embodiment of grit.  One of my students was working on box and whisker plots — trying to match a correct plot with a list of numbers — no small feet for an eleven year old.  “This is so much work!”  She said.  She’s right.  it is.  She had to check the median, the range, the upper and lower quartiles.  She had to complete complex math processes to check each plot and determine which is the right one.  But she didn’t’ quit.  She kept at it.  I asked her why she didn’t quit.  “I have to master it.  If I don’t master this fact, I’ll never get this section completed.  It’s a pain, but I’ll get it.”

I’ll get it.  What a fabulous sentence.  I overheard a third grader tell himself the other day, “I’m getting really good at these!”  This is the true expression of growth mindset.  I’m going to get.  I’m getting better.

Learn Storm was created to promote the concept of grit — never quitting and determining to find the way through.  They’ve got a crew of very dedicated, very hard-working, talented intelligent people (I’m winking at you James, Murryal, Rebecca, Margaret, Erik, Mia and Winston — all you fabulous Khan-ers), who are determined to level the playing field so that everyone can have a world-class education.  They want everyone to be able to rise above whatever limitations and obstacles they face, and become the intellectuals they were meant to be.  It doesn’t matter that many of my students are homeless — they’ve can click on Khan Academy and study math, science, history — they can visit art museums and see the world beyond their poorly lit neighborhood.

They have learned that success requires something of them.  I’ve pointed out to them again and again, that Disney (although fabulously entertaining) lies to them — shows them that if you are pretty enough or smart enough — someone will find you, and the very next day you will become rich and successful.  They understand the truth — success takes constant steady work.  It requires sacrifice and dedication.  You can’t sit around the house watching cartoons, AND work on your math — you’ve got to choose.

The most beautiful aspect of Learn Storm, of course, has been the ways in which students perform without a specific tangible reward.  They aren’t promised cars or trips to the moon if they win.  Many of my students recently, after hours of work, have earned an official certificate from Khan Academy; a piece of paper.  They are stunned by this award.  They understand it represents hours of struggle.  They can’t wait to hold it in their fingers — and say, “I earned this.  I did.”

Looking at the metrics of our work in Khan Academy is crazy.  My students have spent 72,196 minutes WORKING ON MATH.  That translates to about 1, 203 hours or roughly 50 days.  FIFTY DAYS of solving math problems.  Of course, these numbers are already wrong because I calculated them this morning, and right now, even as I type this — kids are working.  It is amazing.  Day after day — WORK.  Khan Academy has cute avatars and wheel that spins and gives you points after you finish problems, but it isn’t a replacement for the latest PS4 game — it is actual math work.  The only way to get those points is by solving math problems — real ones.

I am amazed by my students.  I am so proud to see them willing to work hard and keep on going.  The math challenge lasts nine long weeks, and just yesterday I told them, “Now, that you are really clear on Learn Storm and how it works, we are going to start splitting our class time in half — half for Learn Storm and half for other things.”

“Ah, man!”  Said a small group of 6th graders.

That’s right.  My 6th graders were complaining that they couldn’t work on math.  I teach a technology applications course — so they are choosing math over doing other things involving computers and tablets.  They would rather do math.  They’ve experienced success and they are hungry for more.

Can we teach kids the importance of perseverance?  Can we really instill them with grit?  Having taught for over two decades now, I have seen the obvious importance of being a hard-working person of substance.  It isn’t my everything-comes-easy-to-me former students who are running corporations right now.  I look at my highly successful former students and recognize one thing they all had in common way back in the day — GRIT.  They were hard-working, go-getters who would not be told no.  They kept going despite all odds, and now those skills are paying off in spades.

My current students are learning the same lessons.  I have found that many of my best performers in this math challenge are the kids who struggle academically.  The quiet kids in the back who keep trying and trying and trying.  They know how to keep going, and for the first time in their lives, this skills is being recognized and honored.

We’ve nearly reached the 1/2 point in this challenge.  I told my classes just today, “This is when it might get tough.  You’ve finished all the easy lessons, and now you have to dig deep and fight your way through some tough lessons, but remember I know just how that feels, and you can do it. You can keep going.”

They nodded their heads.  They know I’m not just telling them a story.  You see, I am doing the math work too.  They’ve seen me.  I put it up on the big board for all the world to see.  I am currently 1/2 way through both 7th and 8th grade math.  I’ve done every single lesson up to that point — K-6th.  I didn’t do it because I just love math.  I didn’t do it because it is kind of fun, (although, I really enjoy it).  I did it because you can’t teach grit, if you don’t have it yourself.  I needed to lead by example.  They need to see that adults — that all humans — are learners.  They need to see me get problems wrong and try and try again.  Sometimes they need that more than any “teaching” I can give them.

We are a community of learners — all of us.  We struggle together and alone, fighting our way closer and closer to the light.

We are the intellectuals.  We are curious and brave.  We are quick to laugh, and quicker still to lend a compassionate word of encouragement to our struggling neighbor.  We know the pain of common denominators, and finding the GCF.  We sometimes forget to carry the one or line up the decimals.  We all face problems that cause us to sit back and scrunch up our foreheads in confusion.  We all experience the joy of finally figuring a problem out.  We are learners, and we will not be stopped.

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Starbucks Plain Red Cup = The Death of Christianity

  
My Facebook feed has been filled with the image of a plain red Starbucks cup lately. A year ago, if you went to Starbucks, you would walk out with a red cup that either had the image of falling snowflakes or a Christmas ornament. Apparently, they are no longer printing these images on their cups and a lot some people are upset about it.

Okay, maybe not a lot. Three. Three people in my feed posted rants about it, or at least have reposted an article where someone else rants about it.

At first it left me puzzled. The Starbucks holiday cup never made me feel closer to the true meaning of Christmas. I might have lifted up a prayer upon its receipt, “Sweet Jesus! Thank you for this badly needed caffeine!” 

And all the anger about Christianity being discriminated against confuses me too. Are these same people outraged if Hanukkah or Ramadan are also left out? Is the argument the lack of inclusion or a secular company’s refusal to support one particular belief system? I’ve no expectation that my internal beliefs, which are deep and real, will be publicly supported by H &M, Forever21, Starbucks or any other company. Why should they? It is a strange expectation and, unless their beliefs were true, wouldn’t it also be a heresy?

I’ve no expectation that my belief will be validated by the world around me. It has nothing to do with corporations. 

But, after much thought, I’ve come to agree with the radicals who claim that plain red cup is the death of Christianity in America. It is.

But not for the reasons they give.

At this very minute, on this rainy Sunday, nearly 600,000 Americans are homeless. They are shivering in the cold, while we drink from a plain red cup.  I am personally very aware of this. I know homeless people. They are sitting in my classroom.  One out of every thirty children is homeless. I can tell you the names of some of them; they come to my classroom and try to learn, while wondering where they will sleep tonight.

As your local Starbucks barista hands out those plain red cups this afternoon, nearly 30 million people who share the same planet as you, are enslaved.  60,000 of those slaves are in America.  5.5 million of them are children.

I like to remind my ten-year-old daughter, who doesn’t like to wake up for school, that 65 million girls who would give anything to take her spot, but they are denied their right to education.

I was talking about the tremendous issue of slavery to a friend of mine. His reaction was fairly typical of the reaction I get from “believers”. He furrowed his brows, and said, “Well, what do you mean when you say ‘slavery’?” If you are under debt bondage (the most common cause of modern slavery), you are enslaved. He argued that they were very different things.  He is a pastor, and he was holding a red Starbucks cup in his hand as he argued that debt bondage isn’t truly slavery. Despite the fact that the cup was festooned with a holiday design, it didn’t seem to be leading him closer to the heart of God.

Christians at large don’t want to talk about the homeless, the poor, the enslaved or the orphans.  They want to argue about immigration, sexual orientation and lack of strong family structure. It is easier to look away from the reality of the world as it is, and talk in the theoretical about how things “should be”.  

I’m not theologian and some will no doubt question if my faith is sincere. “She’s too liberal.” They might argue. “She’s too radical!” I don’t know about any of that. I only know that we were left with very specific instructions – “To love our neighbor as ourself.” with no other qualifiers. “Pure and undefiled religion, according to God our Father is this: to care for widows and orphans in their distress.”

My sister and I have this joke we say to each other when we aren’t paying attention. We say to one another (with great affection), “Look up, stupid!” 

Look up, stupid. 

The world around us is in distress, and if we can’t take our eyes off a plain red cup and do something about it, Christianity, as taught in the Bible, is dead.

The Strangest of Days

A long time ago I wanted to be a writer.  I believed deep in my heart that if I ever wrote a book I would truly be successful.  But over time, I’ve come to realize that my students are my book and it will take me my entire teaching career to write it.

If you read back through my blog, you know that my students managed to dig deep, and despite heartbreak, finish well in the LearnStorm challenge put together by Khan Academy.  I was so amazed by my students and thankful for th experience, that I wrote to Khan Academy to tell them how much I appreciated the challenge.

They circulated my letter through the entire company.

And then a few weeks later, I found myself sitting next to the owner of the 49ers football team, as Sal Khan introduced me on stage.  It was extraordinarily surreal.  And I was so proud of my kids.  I had said to them over and over, “Grit pays off!  Hard work pays off!  Look!  Look where we are!”

And it was wonderful and I thought it was over.

Then we got another email from Khan Academy, asking us if we would like to take five students to an event for kids at Google I/O.  Again I was amazed to find myself at the center of the tech world in the Moscone center with five students looking up with giant eyes of wonder.

And it was wonderful and I thought it was over.

I got an email in June from James Tynan at Khan Academy that told me they had been contacted by a film company who was doing a documentary about the influence of technology in the lives of kids.  They had asked him, if he knew anyone they should talk to, and he immediately said, “Yes.  You need to go to Phillips Elementary and talk to Jen Ellison.”  His email told me that they might contact me, and to know that they were a legitimate film company.

Twenty minutes later I got an email from Kip and Kern Konwiser.  “Would I be willing to talk to them about my students?”

Try and stop me!

I wrote a brief email back explaining that I would love to talk to them about my students.  I also explained that I was just an ordinary teacher caught in an extraordinary set of circumstances, and they might not find me all that interesting.  However, my students were infinitely interesting, and amazing.  I sent off the email, and knowing it was LA, I figured it would be weeks or months before I heard from them.   Movies take forever, after all.

Ten minutes later I received a sweet reply.  They wanted to set up a conference call so that I could talk to Kip, Kern and the third producer, Bess Wiley.  It was a strange turn of events.

They sent me some documentation and materials so that I could see they were a real, established film company and some creepy people with a camera and a van asking, “Do you have any kids we can film?”  I glanced over it.  To be honest, I trusted James, and believed them to be a real company so I didn’t look closely at the paperwork.

It was while I was talking about my fabulous students to Kip, Kern and Bess, that my husband got curious and decided to look at the information they’d sent to me. I was trying to maintain my cool talking to LA producers when he informed me that I was talking to people from Legendary Pictures.  That’s right.  The people who brought us all Godzilla and Jurassic World were also making a documentary about technology.

“How old are your students?”  They asked after I had told them the story of our amazing adventures at Khan Academy.

“It’s an elementary school.  I teach 4th – 6th graders.”

“Oh.”  They said and I could hear the disappointment in their voice.  “That’s pretty young.  We were thinking of working with older students.”

We talked a little more and then hung up the phone.  I was pretty sure that would be it.  I was disappointed and relieved that no one knew about the whole thing, except my husband and some close friends.  It would have been heart-breaking if the students thought maybe they were going to be in a movie, and then nothing happened.

Fast forward to July when I got an email that read:  “Dear Jen, We are going to be in San Fransisco next week.  Could you meet with us?  Could you bring one of your students?”

It was July.  The school office was closed.  No one was around.  How on earth was I going to get a hold of a student?  Many of our students go to Mexico during the summer.  Who was even around?

I finally got a hold of one of my fourth grade girl’s information.  But now I had an huge problem.  I am not a classroom teacher — I am a specialist.  The kids all rotate through my classroom for 45 minutes a couple times a week.  Parents don’t generally know who I am.  I had to call and convince a family to let me take their child to the city to meet with producers — and I would probably have to do it in Spanish.

Thankfully, Maria’s* parent’s agreed.  I picked her up early one Friday, and took her on her first BART ride ever.  She was wide-eyed and excited.  As we rolled toward the City, I turned to her and said, “So, here’s the thing.  They are looking for someone with a project idea.  And I know we haven’t talked much but see if you can think of something you’d like to work on.”

“Okay.”  She said cheerfully.

She had about forty-five minutes.

We met Kip, Kern and Bess at restaurant, and they told Maria, “Go ahead and order whatever you want for breakfast.”

“I’ll have a bowl of oatmeal.”  She said.  She told me later that she didn’t understand the menu, and the only thing she was sure was that she liked oatmeal.  It bummed me out!  She could have had her first Belgian waffle but instead she ordered a safe bowl of oatmeal.

“So, what were you thinking about working on?”  They said to her, and I held my breath.

“Oh, well I was thinking about an app that has math questions.  If you get the answers right, you raise money for kids who are hungry.”  She said without hesitation.  “Or maybe, I think comics are really, like a lot of people read them, but I’ve never seen one where the main hero is a Latina.”

I nearly fainted.  Maria is bright, eager and well-mannered.  I think it is a testament to her impressive intellect, that she was able to come up with two pretty great ideas in forty-five minutes.

They adored her, of course.  She’s a great kid.  After talking to her, and to me for an hour, I realized that there was something they didn’t know.

“You know,”  I told them.  “When Maria started school with us, she didn’t speak English at all.”

One of the brothers, actually fell back against his chair in shock.

“What?”  He shook his head in disbelief.  “You didn’t?”

It was a great day.  You can’t imagine the impact it had on her.  Three adults, who had never met her leaned in close and listened to what she had to say.  She was glowing.

And so, after endless calls, and meetings with district administrators, and lawyers, and parents, I found myself walking up to my classroom earlier this week, facing a new person crew, with four cameras and a drone.  They had already lit my classroom with the most lovely, beautiful lighting a classroom has ever had.  They had set up tables of equipment everywhere.  I tried not to pass out, as they went through the shooting day.  I was miked and lit and cameras followed me as I pitched our newest project to my students.  Four two days, they were with us.  They filmed recess and flag salute, and my classes.  They answered endless questions from students and flew a drone over our playground, filming my fabulous students.

They are some of the nicest humans I have ever met.  They were patient, kind and encouraging.  It is VERY intimidating to be surrounded by cameras.

“You are doing great.”  Kurt, the director of photography told me.  “You’ve relaxed really well, and seem to have a good sense of where the camera is at.  Don’t worry.  You are doing great.”

They were nice to my students, sweet to my own two children and friendly to everyone.  To be honest, I kind of miss the whole group.  My students were seriously well-behaved, and that made teaching a breeze, but more than that, a crew of adults who looked at my students the same way that I did — “These kids are amazing!”

They are coming back in about six weeks with a smaller crew, and will continue to film us over the next six months or so.  We feel very fortunate that someone is seeing our school the way all of us who work their daily do:  a special place with a great team of educators, and students who are ready to rise.

I think sometimes about writing, but I’ve come to accept that my students might just be my only book.  I’m proud of the students I’ve taught in the past and who they’ve become, and I’m proud of the students who will face me with upturned faces.  I believe in them; their potential.  I know they are going to create, dream,  and struggle.  I believe in them and all they hope to achieve.

I’ve even got a film team to back me up on it.

We are, all of us, stories still going, and I can’t wait to see what happens next.

You can follow or story on Twitter @The_Disruptors_

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The Power of Grit

This is me at Pixar Studios. 

  

You might not be able to tell from the picture, but I’m bubbling with joy and gratefulness. I was giddy with glee the whole time I was there.

You could say that the reason I’m standing at Pixar Studios has everything to do with the amazingly open spirits of a group of fourth grade girls who didn’t know they were supposed to find computer coding boring. Or you could say that I’m there because a small determined crew of 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th graders stayed after school for an extra hour of work because they believed that our little school could win a math competition. Or maybe, more accurately, I’m there because Sal Khan filmed some math videos in his closet to help out his cousins.

It is no exaggeration to say that Khan Academy dramatically impacted my students. The simple fact that so many of my students can now tell time on their classroom clock is the direct result of Learnstorm 2015. Returning from summer break several of my students said they were able to do math at home because of the free internet they won thanks to Khan Academy and Comcast. But more importantly, I overheard this conversation between two fifth graders yesterday:

Kid 1: I don’t know what to put. This is hard.

Kid 2: We can figure it out.

Kid 1:  But I don’t know it!

Kid 2:  You just don’t know it, YET!

That’s the changed mindset that is spreading across our campus and it is the heart of Khan Academy. We’ve learned the beautiful power of determination; of trying again and again; and the magical power of grit.

Which brings me back to Pixar.

  (The author with her family)

My friends at Khan academy have been working with the good folks at Pixar Studios.  Just last week they introduced a new series of lessons. I was invited to Pixar Studios to see a sneak preview of Pixar In A Box. This is joint venture between Khan Academy and Pixar Studios, allows students to go to Khan Academy and play with the same animation techniques used by Pixar Animators.  They are given the opportunity to create characters, add background, create lighting techniques and build scenery.  Pixar animators appear in brief teaching videos that guide students.

I listened as Ed Catmull, head of Pixar Studios and Sal Khan, spoke of the artistry that is found in math, science and art. They expressed the idea that creativity is problem-solving. Students must be allowed to be both artists and mathameticians. They do not have to choose; they can love the beauty of numbers and the beauty of words.

It was a wonderful, beautiful evening. I was surrounded by creative, intelligent passionate people who are determined to encourage and support the next generation of artists.

The very, next day, I let my 5th and 6th graders jump in and try it out. I didn’t tell them that hidden behind those animation lessons was some pretty complicated math. I didn’t tell them that it was intended for middle school and high school students. I didn’t tell them anything other than this: “The people you see in the videos really work at Pixar so they know what they are talking about.  Now, why don’t you see what you can do.”

   
 
I wish I could show you their faces. They were leaning forward, and that computer lab was nearly silent as they dove into those lessons.

One boy said, “This is complicated.” And I was just about to offer him encouragement when he continued, “But I like it. It feels real.”

I was stunned to see another boy, tell the friend next to him, “No, man. You gotta watch that thing about those curves.” He turned to me. “Mrs. E, how do you say that funny word?”

“Bézier.” I told him.

“Yeah, that’s it. Those curves. That’s what makes it bounce for real.”

It was the second week of school and two sixth graders were having a discussion about Bézier Curves. It was stunning.

My students have been known to struggle with very basic math facts. My good friend teaches math intervention. She’s got a group of students who she is working with right now to learn addition through ten. They are in the 4th grade.

Our students might have gaps in their understanding, but they are bright, and unstoppable when motivated. Pixar In A Box is motivating many of them to grapple with complicated math, but beyond that it helping them see that academics is the muscle and power behind art. They can see the connection between math and art, as well as the importance of understanding  both.  

Pixar In A Box introduces students to applied mathematics– math that serves a purpose; That helps a student transform a blank canvas into a fully realized character or place.  It opens a window to a world powered by grit; a world in which real people struggle and work everyday to create. It shows them a world built by their own hands through perseverance, struggle, sweat and grit. 

I tell my students almost daily, “The world is wide. Explore it.” Pixar In A Box allows them to do just that.  

That’s why my smile is so big. 

(Standing by the famous Pixar lamp with my teaching buddy, Mercedes Hutchens.)

              (Photo curtesy Mercedes Hutchens)

Try it for yourself! Pixar In A Box

 

Cast Wide Your Net

I think any teacher looking backwards at their career would probably cringe at their former self. I certainly do. When I was just beginning this craft, I was rigid and controlled. I was firm, loving and occasionally funny but I also believed I had “important” and “essential” knowledge my students needed. I would tell them, “Listen up! Listen! This is important!” and then I would tell them all the wonderful things that I knew and understood – My Important Things You Must Know. 

Two decades later I find myself at the beginning, again. My reboot is the result of transitioning from private to public school. I could write about the differences of my students – then versus now. I could talk about the buildings that housed those students – then versus now. I could talk about the shifting philosophy of education – then versus now. But that wouldn’t really explain anything.

The only thing that has really changed is me.

My job is not to dispense important information or to provide a calm recital of things I learned through my own toil, struggle and drive.  Plutarch said it best  so long ago, “The mind is not a vessel to be filled but a fire to be kindled.” 

I must let my students learn. I must let them struggle. They must fight their way toward understand. They must develop grit and perseverance. They must own their learning, growth and development. In fact, the only thing my students need to “know”  – the only thing I need to teach them is this: They can learn anything.

If that sounds familiar, it is because it is the core philosophy of Khan Academy. It is also the truest thing I know.

I no longer stand at the front of the room and say, “You need to know this and you need to learn that.” Now I ask questions like, “How can we change our community?” Or “What could you do if you had enough people backing you?” Or the simplest one of all, “What do you dream of creating?”

My students need me to support them, encourage them, direct them to the resources they need and then they need me to get out of their way.

I want them to wrestle with big ideas and dream of impossible things. I want them to believe that they can change their neighborhood; their city; the world.  

  
This is one of my students. She is a fifth grader who began her school career with no English. Now she speaks Spanish, English and Java Script. She hopes to learn html this year. She is amazing. She’s thinking about creating an app in which students answer math questions and when they answer correctly, hungry people are fed. She isn’t sure how to do it – yet. She Is also thinking of creating a comic book where the hero is Latina because “I’ve never seen that, Mrs. E.”

She is a fire and my only job is to kindle that flame. 

She will have to understand programming, math, geometry, basic story structure, and the rules of writing conventions. She will have to research nonprofit and charitable institutions. She’ll have to write letters to strangers and corporations. She will have to struggle, ask questions, think and persevere.

And she will do it herself. I can encourage, guide and answer, but I cannot struggle for her. I cannot problem-solve for her. I cannot learn for her. The journey is hers. 

The most powerful teacher of all is the dream that lives inside of the heart. It must not be squashed or mocked. It must be cherished and nurtured.  This is the very thing that causes one girl to raise her voice and say, “They cannot stop me! I will get my education,” even as a gun is pointed at her head.  It is the very thing that plants a dream inside the heart of boy to believe that one day we can all join hands and sing, “Free at last! Free at last.” It is this that causes a ten year old girl in Yemen to walk miles and miles on foot to demand a divorce from her 42 year old husband and to push her nation to end the horrible practice of child brides. Malala, Dr. King and Njood and countless others bear this one commonality – they cast their nets wide – dreaming impossible things.

If you think Khan Academy is just a math website, you are missing everything. 

Khan Academy is filled with countless videos, exercises, explanations and project challenges. But it is so much more than that! It is an ever growing wonderful collection of skills needed to accomplish those secret hidden dreams.  It’s not about the content as much as it is about what that content empowers students to accomplish. 

This is what education must be! My driving purpose should always be to say to those beautiful, bright, up-turned faces, “You can learn anything. Cast your net wide – throw it out even farther than you can possibly imagine because just beyond the horizon lies endless possibility.”

If our students learn only one thing let it be that they can learn anything, but even that is only half of the story. Tied to this important truth is one that teachers must learn – The only answer we must give our students is:  Yes. 

Yes, you can build it. Yes, you can learn it. Yes, you can create that web site, invent that app, write that book, make that movie, become a chef, fly a plane, make a difference and change the world. Yes. Yes, a thousand times yes. 

I cast wide my own net believing against all odds, statistics and data – that this child in front of me is the one who will change the world.

— Cast Wide Your Net —
Want to learn to create and animate? You can! You can learn anything! Click on the link below.

Pixar in a Box

Imperfectly Spun

I have tried for a long time now to be smooth and cool – to be the kind of person that you can take to a party and is able to talk to anyone.

It’s not me.

On my best day, I am strange and awkward. I say the wrong thing or talk too loud or too much. I definitely talk too much. I can hear a voice in my head (not a real one – don’t panic) saying, “Shut up! Shut up!” But I never listen.

I had hoped that my daughter would be free of this malady which plagues me – that she would be cool and smooth, but she is a lovely mirror of me; wild, passionate and wonderfully awkward.

We are imperfectly spun.

As she heads toward fourth grade she is still deeply passionate about My Little Pony and created a club for pony-lovers at her school. It has three members.

Including her.
She fights her way through school – both reading and math are a struggle for her. She reads constantly, but when it comes to a test completely freezes up. If you ask her what 17 – 9 equals, she is as likely to say green as 8. Numbers are space aliens to her.

She started talking at nine months and by the time she was one, could carry on endless conversations. She is nearly always talking – even asleep.

She bears the burden of being the child of a teacher and so the world around assumes she is a “top” student. Coupled with her intense verbal skills, a tremendous vocabulary and an inherent bossy leadership oriented nature, she seems confident and secure.

But looks can be deceiving. She is awkwardly shy – freezes completely in big crowds and gets overwhelmed when spoken to by “new” people.  Our refrigerator still bears the spelling test that she earned 8/20 on — an impressively high score for her.

I should be clear about something, when it comes to spelling tests or reading scores, I don’t care really. The child is highly intelligent and wonderfully creative. But she doesn’t fit any mold. At nine, she is nearly as tall as I am and wears a size 5 shoe already. She stands out in her predominately white school – one of a handful of kids who deviate from the norm of Ashleys and Brooklyns.

We live in a world at the top.

“My kid just earned her black belt! So proud!”

“My kid got top honors on their math test!”

“My kid took first and is going to state!” and even “my kid sold the most cookies in her whole troupe!”

Most

Top

Best

First

I applaud those achievements — I’m known to be pretty competitive. After my boss once told me, “Don’t worry. It will be fine.” I responded with, “But fine isn’t good enough! I want to be the best teacher you have ever seen; that has ever lived!”

But I’m not. Sometimes I’m impatient. Sometimes I get off-task. Sometimes I miss-read a student.

I am imperfectly spun.

And my daughter is just like me. Sometimes I worry that life in a world of most, bests and firsts, we fail to celebrate the important ordinary things like endurance, perseverance, optimism and grit.

My daughter approaches every single spelling test with faith that this time she will remember everything and get that elusive 20/20. She continues to enjoy school and see herself as a competent reader (which she is) despite that fact that the numbers she is measured by says otherwise. She continues to celebrate a world of magical ponies even if other girls shake their heads at her and claim “Ponies are for babies.” These are the most amazing achievements but aren’t the material for your standard Facebook post. They go uncelebrated.


I used to hesitate when friends asked how she did in school, wondering how she would fit in in this world of firsts and bests. Now, I simply smile and say, “Oh, she does fine.”

We have broken free of any expectations that shackle us to such small and ordinary adjectives and lean more towards words like unique, determined and even difficult. I long for her life to be filled with examples of real women who struggled, persevered and sometimes got lost along the way, while the world around her celebrates the shiny image of the newest Disney girl who is a pop star, top student and captain of the soccer team.

She is imperfectly spun just like me and probably, just like you. If we are to be first or best at anything, let it be at being willing to admit the truth, that there is so much more to celebrate than just those who shine.  Let us celebrate the small embers of all of us everywhere who fight to burn and glow, despite endless obstacles. Let our shouts of joy be not only for the 100s but for the 1 who has finally after months and months of struggle finally managed to sound out that first word. Let us celebrate the quiet children everywhere who learn determination early on out of necessity because they are beautiful too.

A Night Full of Stars

HOPEI SPENT SEVENTEEN years teaching in the private school system.  It didn’t start out as a conscious choice, but rather a result of circumstances.  When I graduated from the teacher credential program at Chico State (back when dinosaurs still roamed the earth), there were no jobs in the public school system.  I began taking interviews at private schools and was offered my first job teaching second grade at a small private school.  One thing led to another, and mostly due to a really awesome administrator, I ended up spending over a decade in the private school system.

It is strange to think that when I taught at school for wealthy families, I was pretty poor myself.  Private schools do not pay anywhere near the public school scale, and so I struggled to make rent while I taught children who vacationed in Hawaii and took regular trips to Disneyland.  They came to school clean and fed, and their parents made sure they did their homework.  Their parents had command of the English language and the energy to be in touch with what they were learning, and the means to hire tutors when they struggled.

Now, I teach kids who come to school hungry, and often times could use a bath.  Many of their parents are illiterate in both English and Spanish, and so feel intimidated about checking their children’s homework.  They work two or three jobs and come home too exhausted to go over math facts, or sometimes even have conversations with their children.  They care deeply about their children, but are caught in circumstances that prevent them from being able to help as much as they would like.  Many of the children I teach are part of the foster care system, or dance the line with frequent visits from CPS who watches them with a knowing eye.  They are caught too — in a web of drugs and poor choices made by the “adults” in their lives.  I am constantly stunned by the miraculous results of the accident of birth — where you are born and to whom you are born sets the road before you.

If I had been born in some other place or to some other family, I would never experience the thrill of cracking open a brand new book with an adventure waiting to be experienced hidden inside.  I can’t imagine being myself — with all my bossiness, and thirst for knowledge, but trapped in a culture that prevents women from learning to read.  I am amazed by this.  Those women – those children — are no less deserving of learning than I, but I had the good fortune to be born where choices are laid out in front of me like stars hanging in the sky.

I loved the kids I taught at that private school — you guys know this to be true.  And I don’t regret my time there.  Many of those students are now teachers themselves — some in the private school system, and some in public.  Many others have become nurses, are on the road to being doctors, writers, journalists, bankers and lawyers.  Most of them are in touch in enough with the world they live in that they are involved in service to others.  I am proud of them, and love them still.  They will always be my students.

But they didn’t really need me.

I had a hand in their lives, and I like to think that I encouraged them to love books and words — to overcome whatever difficulties that came their way. But they didn’t need me to teach them. They came to me able to read and add.  They came to me with the means to get whatever educational resource they needed.  They were already thoughtful, bright, and affluent.  They were not problem or stress free.  They faced difficulties and sorrows, and I hope that I have been a comfort to them when trouble came their way.  I hope that I taught them to persevere and to develop grit.  But unlike the students I now teach, they had some pretty tremendous advantages.  They started each day with a full belly and no fear of ICE breaking down their front door, or where they would sleep at night.

Poverty is crippling in so many ways.  It isn’t just that hunger makes it hard for your brain to function and for you to focus — it is the way it distracts.  How can you concentrate and truly learn when you are wondering if their will be enough lunch?  How can you begin to understand what a denominator or numerator is when you are wondering if the poor choices made by your mother will result in yet another strange man in your home at night?  How is it possible to build your reading fluency in a house where three families are trying to share a space and at seven you are responsible for the care of all the “little” ones?

I suppose we could digress into a political argument about immigration and socialism and public welfare, but none of that really matters when you are facing a six year old and asking, “Did you have anything to eat today?”  Those who spend their days tucked away in their offices debating this issues are cut off from my day-to-day reality.

I have students who need me, desperately.

My students need someone to guide them academically — they may or may not have support for this at home.  I must do everything in my power to make sure that they are capable as they move to the next grade and their next school.  Even more than that, I need to open the door to the world of academics. I need to talk about college and about developing a lifelong habit of learning and growing.  I struggle to make them understand that they are beautiful and thoughtful people whose lives are enriched by knowledge and learning.  I cannot falsely assume that their parents and guardians are talking to them about their future.  It is critical that I do it.

My students also need someone to guide them socially — they may or may not have support for this at home.  I have to help them navigate the complicated path of being part of a larger society.  They need to be taught how to maintain friendships, deal with their own mistakes as well as the mistakes of friends and how to ask for the things that they need.  According to research, children are only hard-wired with the emotions of sadness, disgust, joy, anger, surprise and fear.  Someone has to teach them everything else — empathy, shame, and humility are just a few that make life in society possible.  I must teach them these things.  A recent incident highlighted the glaring ramifications of this lack of training and the importance of thoughtfully developing my own empathy.

My classroom is the catch-all room.  After school care thunders in each afternoon.  Most of the time, I flee — moving to a quieter workspace, but sometimes I hang around.  Recently, I was present when a visiting chef came in to teach a group of children how to make various snacks.  They had already made the snack, and she had asked a fifth grade boy to distribute the bowls.  He did what came naturally to a child of poverty; he set the first bowl served down at his own desk.

“Don’t you have any manners?”  She exploded at him shaking her head.  “You don’t serve yourself first!”

His look of confusion and shame was heartbreaking and I wanted to tell her — “No, he doesn’t have ‘manners’ because he hasn’t been taught.  No one has ever explained to him that in polite formal society you serve guests before yourself.  His experience has been that there might not be enough to go around, so if your stomach is empty — you better take what you can.”  I understood her shock, and that her outrage came from the expectation that he had been taught this, but was selfishly overlooking societal norms.  She didn’t understand that he was missing key instruction, and that this was the perfect opportunity for him to learn.  No doubt her thinking was that he was in the 5th grade and surely by now, he had learned how to behave.

It can be easy to fall into the trap of complaining about what students have not been taught.  It can be easy to spend your days saying things like, “Students used to come already knowing  this or that.”  I’ve sat down to lunch in too many teacher’s lounges to hear complaints about this generation” over and over.  But I cannot waste any valuable seconds of my life decrying what my students have or have not been taught.  I’ve got far too much to teach them.   They are here, in front of me, ready and willing to learn.

Ghandi once said that we must be the change that we wish to see and nowhere is that more true than in the classrooms of the impoverished.  If we want a society that is empathetic, hardworking and respectful — we must teach it and model it over and over and over again.  We must ever have our eyes open to see those things that our students need.  We must fight to consciously and determinedly look for ways to empower them to be successful in the world.  It will never happen by accident.  It is our job, as a society, to take the dark sky that hangs above our children’s upturned faces and so illuminate it with stars that they are blinded by the choice and opportunity.

Rise

About three months ago, I decided my students should learn how to code. I teach 4th, 5th and 6th graders who live in poverty. I thought it would be great if they could learn to code now, create an app and sell it on iTunes. They could break free of the chains of poverty now.

So I found some excellent coding lessons on Khan Academy and set them all to work. You should see those kids coding! It’s amazing. I love watching my fourth graders, their heads all bent together next to that computer screen saying things like, “Have you tried plus, plus?” Or “No, dude, you need four parameters!” It’s beautiful.

And then one day, a little button popped up on my coach screen. “Do you want to add this class to Learnstorm2015?” And I clicked yes.

LearnStorm is a math competition run by the great folks at Khan Academy, in which students earn points by mastering math skills at their grade level. And so, I set them all to work. I watched in amazement as they dug in and fought their way through new concepts and through practice and determination they began to master math skills. I told my good pal Will, our 6th grade math teacher all about it.

“That’s awesome!” He said with a typically huge Will grin. He was impressed with their progress and effort. “It will be cool to see how they do.”

This conversation was about two weeks into LearnStorm and I had already been convinced of its greatness. I had begun to work on my own math skills — starting in kindergarten and working my way forward. Will laughed when I told him about my own math journey, but he also encouraged me. “You can learn it all, I bet.”

And after three months of daily struggle– after school Khan Club meetings, Saturday school sessions — we have reached the end of LearnStorm. My students understand grit — they have lived it out. They struggled and worked. They’ve hit a wall. “Mrs. E! I’m never gonna get this last skill!” I’ve hit my own wall and lived it for them to see. Sometimes, I would work on my own math lessons on the big screen so they could see me try and fail and try again and learn.

About six weeks in we began the real fight. We had mastered all the “easy” skills and were smack dab in the land of new learning. I was amazed to discover that ALL of my students needed to learn how to tell time, and measure, and I don’t even want to talk about fractions! But then the most amazing thing began to happen — our school was on the leaderboard. We made our way into the top five for the whole Bay Area. 69,000 kids and mine were showing up on the Leaderboard.

Determination.

Drive.

Grit.

We dug deep, encouraged each other and kept moving forward. Five of my students have their names in the top 100. One of my 4th grade girls is number 14 — out of the whole contest. I’ve never been so proud.

As for myself, I’ve mastered 438 math skills as of today. I got bogged down at the end of 6th grade math –don’t laugh– there is some seriously tough stuff in 6th grade now.

The last two weeks, we’ve held steady in 2nd place. My students. The same kids who spoke no English in kindergarten, who have no internet access at home, who I start each day asking one question, “Have you eaten?” — these kids are number two. They understand grit. They understand hard work and now they are witnesses to the benefit of it.

This Saturday, I am taking five of them to a final event  at Google headquarters. They will be recognized and encouraged. One of my girls didn’t want to go. “It’s an amazing once in a lifetime opportunity!” I told her.  “You have to go!”

Her response reminded me of the crippling effects of poverty. “I don’t ride in cars much.” She said. “It is far. What if I get sick?” She’s ten years old, and doesn’t often leave her neighborhood. Her family shares a car with her cousins. They walk almost everywhere. Driving an hour away might as well be the moon.

“I’ll sit next to you.” I promised. “You can do this.”

She turned in her permission slip and asks me daily if I really will sit with her. I will.

I cannot express how far they have already travelled and now five of them will go a little further — and hear Sal Khan, founder of Khan Academy’s, himself, praise their hard work.

“Mrs. E, y’a think that Sophia from the coding lessons will be there?” One of them asked me.

“I don’t know.” I told her.

“I hope so. That would be cool. If I heard her talking, I’d know it was her. I’ve listened to her lots!”

They have found new rock stars to admire. Sophia, Jessica, Sal. They look up to academics who’ve taught them to code, animate and tell time on a “regular” clock. I wish I could bring all 355 of my students, but I hope the five I do bring will be ambassadors to the rest — showing them there is a world outside their impoverished neighborhood.

And if anyone could understand this massive achievement, it would be my buddy Will. He was so excited about the contest and so proud of our students. But just four days after I told him about the contest, he died suddenly – a good man taken from us too soon. And so, it was with broken hearts my students dug deep determined to do well in the contest. “We gotta do it for Mr. B!” They said to encourage one another. “He wouldn’t want us to quit!”

I don’t know the end of our story. We will go to finals on Saturday. We will step onto that campus and for my students it will be like Neil Armstrong standing on the moon — a new world never seen before full of endless possibilities.

LearnStorm taught us about hope, endurance and grit. We learned to persevere even through grief and that even broken-hearted we can build something good. It taught us to encourage one another because everyone struggles. It taught us that you can learn anything. It taught us that we are capable of more than we can imagine.

Oh, and we learned some math, too.