Tag Archives: Bookends

Bookends: Volume 3: Honesty may be the best policy, but it’s not necessarily the easiest!

Dear Alex,

So much time has passed since you posted, and it seems that my thinking is evolving every day – not just in response to the posting itself, but also in response to real-life, face-to-face conversations we’ve had since then. The time is long past to try to crystallize this thinking into something to share with others – as you said at lunch on Family Weekend, sometimes you just have to sit down, write and see what comes out.

What you are doing with your “Theory of Knowledge” students, helping them make their thinking so intuitively transparent to themselves that they can’t help but take charge of their own learning, is impressive. Furthermore, you are doing it in such a way that it infuses the intellectual life of the school, bursting the bubbles inside which it can be too easy to retreat and which serve only to impose artificial divisions. (More on that, perhaps, in my next post!)

That is, of course, pretty much the same thing we have been trying to do in the middle school. One of our primary tools is the student-led conference. This consists of a half-hour presentation by each student to her parents and advisor about not only what she is learning and doing in all aspects of her school life (even community service!), but also what she thinks about her accomplishments and further needs.

Beginning one to two weeks before Family Weekend, we distribute a series of self-reflection sheets to our classes. These require the students to think very specifically about what they have accomplished and what else they need to be focusing on. Through prompts such as, “What are three of your strengths in this course?” or “What did you find to be the hardest part of doing research for your paper?” or “What are two things you’re doing to improve your work in this course?,” students can access fairly abstract thoughts through concrete thinking about specific actions. I won’t pretend there aren’t occasional groans when we first start passing the sheets out, and certainly some students do respond better than others. At the same time, it’s often rewarding and just plain fun to track an advisee over two years and see how much deeper and more sophisticated their thinking can become. By now, ninth grade teachers know they can count on our middle school graduates to be quite self-aware of how they learn, what they do well and where they need support.

Part of what we teach the students is to be honest with themselves. Giving themselves praise is often the hardest part. As my Humanities 7 students pored over their forms last week, several worried, “I don’t want to say what I really think because it will sound like…” and I completed, “bragging?” Their faces relaxed, perhaps because I had made it okay to name the problem, and they agreed. I told them that being honest about what they do well isn’t putting anyone else down for their own accomplishments; they thought about it for a moment and said, “Yes, but it’s still hard.” On the flip side, they sometimes have a hard time thinking about where they need to improve, at least at this early stage of the year. Several were inspired to write that self-reflection itself is what they most need to work on. Fair enough, although I suspect the student who wrote, “self-confidence” had really hit the nail on the head. It’s tough to be a girl growing up in our society, feeling pressure both to be perfect and not to be better than anyone else.

Most parents love these conferences. In our first year, one of the Founders’ moms told me, “This is so much more useful, and enjoyable, than when you sit alone with the teacher and they tell you everything your daughter is doing wrong.” This weekend, one of my advisees absolutely nailed her conference. She spoke with authority and in great detail about what she was doing, where she was going, and how she could know she was going to get there. At the end, thinking about the first 7th grade conference a year ago, her mother teared up from a combination of deep pride in her daughter and the reminder of how fast she is growing up. She got a long, warm hug from her beaming daughter. It was an image I will always remember.

With things like this, we have begun our journey which will lead these girls, five years down the line, into your “Theory of Knowledge” class. They will know so much more then than they do now, about themselves and about the world. Their brains will be more developed, with parts that aren’t currently pulling their share of the load having fully kicked into action around the age of 15 or 16. And, just as I knew with absolute certainty five years ago that the six-year Seniors would be an extraordinary group this year, so too can I tell that this crop of 7th graders will be amazing in five years.

But then, they are already. As is true every year!

Sincerely,

Bill

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Bookends: Volume 2: Allow Me to Burst Your Bubble

By the time students enroll in the IB Diploma Programme they have amassed a great deal of knowledge.  My job, as their Theory of Knowledge teacher, is to make them forget it.

Alec Peterson, the first Director General of the IB and a TOK teacher, wrote that the aim of this course, and the reason it rests at the heart of the IB, is to address two weaknesses common to most upper secondary schools: the failure to make explicit in the minds of the students the different forms that academic learning and knowledge take; and the tendency for students to study their different subjects in discrete, insular compartments.

In other words, I need to help these girls recognize their developing powers of the mind and the ways these methods of thinking can be applied to new situations in any context.

Their powers of scientific deduction can reveal much about the structure of a concerto. The implication of a word problem in calculus demands the close reading skills learned in studying poetry.  All of this makes sense, indeed its value to the invested, active participant in life and learning is undeniable. But how to teach this?  I thought the girls would probably do a better job than I could.

I asked them first to do some talking and writing about what they mean when they say “I know.”  They took this in some wonderful directions, with answers ranging from investigations of empirical knowledge versus faith, to dismissive appeasements of parents and siblings.  No need to worry about honest self-assessment with this group.  What I did not expect was how quickly this metacognition would pervade their lives.

The heart of their homework for the week was to identify a moment in another class that required them to decode connotation.  By lunch the next day, reports were coming in from other teachers of TOK students’ demands and accusations.  Higher Level IB Math became a discussion of ways that we decode.  In Spanish, a simple request to translate a word brought talk of everything that “what does it mean” can mean. Students began to suspect (correctly, I might add) that their other teachers were in on this plot.

And that’s another part of what I get to do: help these girls forge and map the connections between their disciplines.  One of the great strengths of SBS, one that makes the IB a natural fit, is the faculty’s eagerness to make connections.  There is an infectious enthusiasm for understanding and synthesis, and as these girls and I work to integrate their tools of learning we find that everywhere we look this approach is being modeled.  The bubbles around disciplines are bursting.  But that’s how this conversation with Bill started.

-Alex Bogel, TOK and IB English Teacher

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“Bookends: Volume 1”

“Bookends” is the ongoing conversation between Alex Bogel, “Theory of Knowledge” and standard-level IB English teacher and Bill Ivey, Humanities 7 teacher. It is an exploration of metacognition and their students’ developing skills in critical thinking, reflective learning and more.

During orientation they took a few moments to interview each other.

Bill: Alex, what is the “Theory of Knowledge” (TOK) class?

Alex: TOK is such a dangerous course to sum up, in some ways. It invites us to examine the nature of knowledge and all the different ways in which we know, the inadvertent and determined ways with which we as knowers shape and define our knowledge and that of others. It’s an opportunity to understand not what we know, but how and why we believe that we know.

If I’m getting to work with these girls in the final two years of their time at Stoneleigh-Burnham, how does that tie in to their middle school formation as learners?

B: Since Humanities 7 does not have standard content but rather is created by the students out of their questions and passions each year, what unifies it from year to year is precisely how you go about learning and expressing what you’ve learned, on your own and in the community. In that sense, it mirrors TOK although we get so immersed in learning sometimes we don’t even notice it happening. That might be a difference.

A: It’s certainly true that TOK is determinedly reflective.  That said, these courses mirror one another in their student-driven approach to content.  As quickly as possible, TOK students will be providing the course’s texts: moments of knowledge drawn from their other courses, their lives, their cultures, and their questions.  In this way the content of the course is largely irrelevant; it is the approach to the knowledge issues that arise that is vital.  As I’ve seen in your class, this approach leads students to a natural and profound investment in their learning.  

B: Thank you. And I do think, when my students look back on their work, they generally have internalized a clear (and growingly sophisticated) sense of what they have accomplished. I also think my own metacognition, whether or not it is always visible to them, plays a role in that process, if only by role modeling. That’s one of my hopes and expectations here (and it’s already happening!), that as I learn directly from you and indirectly from your students, my own metacognitive skills will rise as will, in turn, those of my students.

A: Absolutely–I realized as soon as you proposed this project that my not taking this opportunity to reflect (determinedly) would be disingenuous.  As you say, so much of what we teach, we model: process, results, and joy and investment in both.  Just think how much we’ll have to say once we start teaching.

B: I am! So, until next time…

-Bill Ivey, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School Dean & Alex Bogel, TOK and IB English Teacher

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