Socratic Oath: Do No Harm—A Teacher’s Oath

Regardless of the age, location, or demographic one teaches, the first principle of all educators should be: do no harm.

So, yes, I borrowed this from the Hippocratic Oath—the oath physicians take before beginning their practice—and, yes, I can imagine a world where we educators take a similar oath before commencing our classroom practices. This particular component of an educator’s oath—let’s call it the Socratic Oath—is essential to keep in mind as too often teachers think their content and their curriculum and their assignments are the most important things in the universe and should be regarded as such by every student at all times. As a parent and facilitator of educational opportunities (the term “teacher” doesn’t work for me), I know this to be totally bogus. School is all too often an experience of being powerless in the face of adult domination which masquerades as guidance, and the young adults I teach seem to have picked up on this prior to their entering our classroom space as juniors and seniors.

Do no harm should be our first responsibility as educators so we do not force our Beowulf essay assignment down the throat of a student who has more pressing matters at home like: being child-care providers for their siblings while mom works nights, performing in a off-school grounds performance space like a theatre, working late at Chipotle and then going to check in on their ill hospital-bed-confined granny afterwards. Not sure where you teach and work, but where I am in the city in Columbus, Ohio such occurrences are not as rare as we might hope; in fact, based on the evidence I have, at least a third of my students find themselves in comparable circumstances at home. So what are we to do?

Do let them—at least occasionally—negotiate a mutually beneficial due date or altered task due to their circumstances—some might call this differentiation or personalization, both of which are, of course, all the rage right now.

Do hold them accountable to the freshly negotiated due date and altered task—no one is saying allow them to do less, just to take a path more appropriate given their external challenges in life. They are, clearly, at a disadvantage in life compared to their non-swamped affluent suburban counterparts, but they won’t catch up taking zeroes for missing deadlines.

Do let them feel safe enough communicating with you to open up about their circumstances, not only to build and strengthen rapport, but to foster your empathic drive as their instructor and—like it or not—as their mentor—every adult mentors every young person each time they are observed adulting, and the truth is how we treat them and how we act as adults sticks with them far more than the learning objective we point at the board and lecture about.

Do remind them that you want them to do the learning and to do the work as that is what is important—regardless of when it trickles in to you. Your main focus should be to help them learn and grow as human beings, not to teach them to meet deadlines and rigidly imposed submission timelines. Yes, deadlines are important and in life you have to meet them to survive and thrive, but, no, high school is not the time where meeting deadlines is the number one most important thing. The number one most important thing right now is to help our young people learn and grow a little every day, to aid them in working toward becoming their best self, and, yes, that does eventually culminate in a conversation and expectations about the importance of meeting deadlines for school, work, and beyond. That said, some projects and a given student’s home situation may merit an extension, and teaching young people to negotiate for extensions hones their interpersonal persuasive skills as well as their ability to ask for what they want from a person in a position of power over them.

Doing no harm also implies breaking any and all rules imposed by any entity that may negatively affect your students. You must be their caretaker, the one looking out for them, their protector, even. You may have some problems in your lap as a result, but any administrator worth their salt should understand your move was out of respect for human dignity, and not malice. As an example, I was once asked to have the students take their third practice ACT section test of the day. We had just spent the entire morning doing the same, and one more section may have emotionally broken this somewhat emotionally-fragile group, so, I opted out. I technically didn’t do my job in that one brief moment and I’ve zero regrets. Instead, we discussed best practices like mindful meditation breathing for managing stress, anxiety, and typical young adult emotional mindsets like the fear of the future, the fear of failure, and the fear of not being successful—of not being enough. The conversation we had as a class far out-weighed in value any practice ACT ever taken in history. Yes, practice tests are helpful and important, but, no, not in that moment, and as the professional on duty that day I knew my students best and I made an executive decision. Later, I did, I admit, inform one of my principals just to be open and do my due diligence as a professional, and luckily—as I’ve no union protection—they understood and trusted that I made the best choice available in the moment for the people with whom I was teaching and learning in the room.


Do recall Maslow’s Hierarchy which, from this article’s vantage, suggests the deeper work we aspire to work through with students is not feasible until their physiological needs are met—such as working that evening job so they can contribute to the family’s food supply or for their rent payment. Helping their uncle move, and thus being unable to meet their research paper topic deadline, is important for their sense of belongingness and familial affection and adjusting this deadline to help them cope through such a moment is the humane thing to do—and I will always be a human being before I am a teacher.

For me, do no harm also suggests we must teach material that is directly related and applicable to their lives and that, yes, it is our job to ensure this is happening and that we’ve properly persuaded the students of the value of our current educational endeavor. As author and consultant Simon Sinek suggests, explain “the why;” explain the reason behind the work in order to create more buy-in, trust, and engagement. We are teachers not just of content, but—more importantly—of life. Accordingly, we must give our students equipment for living in the context of our content areas every single day, not just when it is convenient or when it’s in the standards—these are standards, remember, ultimately dictated by politicians whose expertise is law (supposedly), and not education or the advancement of human consciousness (that’s our expertise, and we should own that without apology).

The standards of every teacher, if they want to avoid doing harm, must include matters that directly give students the tools they will need now and in the future to create a meaningful, happy, and purposeful life. Indeed, using the English Language Arts to make better decisions, to advance one’s personal perspective, agenda and objective, to stretch toward self-actualization, and to become the best versions of ourselves as human doings—is at the very beating heart of my practice. May the blood-jet of your practice be the same and may our students all benefit, adding value to the world we make together.

–Aaron Sherman is a facilitator of educational opportunities at Arts & College Preparatory Academy, a charter school, in Columbus, Ohio. He was able to make the leap from teacher-priest at a prestigious Catholic school in Toledo, Ohio to a primarily LGTBQIA, formerly-bullied, and artistic school community without issue because he adapts to fit his students, and not the reverse. He lives and works for his #5Family, and to bring about a better tomorrow today for all those with whom his students interact. If you have additional amendments to his idea of the Socratic Oath, please comment below as he’d love to hear your suggestions. You can find him on YouTube sharing everything he knows to all who will listen, one day at a time: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC9al6_jSyNthNs5E3838VOw and on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/aaron-sherman-b776b516/ and on Twitter here: https://twitter.com/Aaron_n_Wndlnd

Community through Video Production

As I’ve started thinking about the new school year, I’m focused on developing community in my classroom – in my AP Lit, Humanities English 10 (my PAGES class), and D-Town Video Production. The longer I teach, the more I see the positive effects community building has on my students’ learning as well as their ways of living with each other in the world. One of the more significant successes of community building at the end of this last year involved a group of students in my video production class. They were eagerly gathered around a computer to watch the final version of a video by my student Clay. He wrote, directed, filmed and scored a movie called “The Book Robber”. Screen Shot 2016-07-25 at 1.58.41 PMThis couldn’t have happened a year ago because Clay and three of his classmates from the Transitions classroom wouldn’t have been in my class. Our school’s Transitions students have a variety of developmental disorders, but several are identified as being on the autism spectrum and have characteristics thereof that preclude them from being mainstreamed, but their teachers are always in search of regular ed classes in which they can not only be included, but where they can become a part of the community.

 

A year and a half ago, my course had developed a reputation of community building through a small group project-oriented approach to making short films. Early last August, two weeks before school started, Miss Emily, a teaching assistant in our Transitions room, stopped by to let me know that we would be working together this year in D-Town Video Production, as four of her students had been added to my class. This was a joyful surprise to me; the students in the Transitions classroom had previously been successfully mainstreamed into gym class (for both the physical and social benefits). Administration and the Transitions lead teacher had decided that D-Town would be an ideal addition for some of their students. My four new students had varying degrees of autism, and the primary goal for them would be socialization.

Delaware City’s stance on inclusion is in tune with my own – we want our “regular ed” students and our “inclusion” students to have as much interaction as possible for the benefit of both of them. We grow compassionate, patient, thoughtful students who understand that the world is a blend of people of various abilities who all have something to offer.

Twenty years ago, I worked for Goodwill Industries in Columbus by teaching daily living skills to adults and young adults in their homes and in the community, most of that time being spent with a boy named Joey who had moderate autism. When we would be out in the community, I would be saddened by the way Joey was perceived and treated by others – as being so different as to be unaware of how negatively strangers would sometimes treat him. During our two years together, I often thought that my job was only half of what it should have been – I was helping him learn to be in the world, but often it was a world that didn’t know how to be with him. This new opportunity in D-Town would be a realization of what I had always hoped my time with Joey could have been – a chance to develop real community.

Going into last year, the goal I was given for these four young men was to provide them with opportunities to be in community, to build socialization skills. The “regular ed” (I dislike the term, but it is the one my context uses, so I’ll stick with it) students’ video production teams each invited a Transition student (the kids don’t use these words – for them they are just other students) into their groups. The Transition students might hold a reflector to help with lighting, or would even act at times, but I wanted something more for them.

Mid-September, I said to Miss Emily, “What would happen if we put a camera into one of your students’ hands and just let him go with it? What would the world look like to him?” So I asked Austin if we could work together to make a film. He had made attempts at storyboarding when we practiced the skill as a class, but the cognitive process of creating a plot would have required so much prompting from me that I feared the film might take on too much of my own vision. I wanted the film to be his as much as possible, so I asked him if he wanted to film one of the classes at the school, and we talked through which ones would be most interesting to capture on video. He decided to film the ceramics class.

Screen Shot 2016-07-25 at 2.06.14 PMBefore our first visit to the ceramics room, we talked through how he would tell the teacher about his idea for the film and how he would ask the students for their permission to film them. He did both wonderfully, and the students and teacher were enthusiastic about the possibility. Austin and I reviewed how to use the DSLR before class the next morning, then we went to the ceramics room and filmed for the period. I would remind him to watch the camera’s screen to make sure he was keeping the subject in frame, but otherwise he was in control. When we got back to our room the next day, we began editing. I showed him how to use Final Cut Express and guided him through the process, but left him in control. He chose music from a free music website we searched together. He made this film - “Ceramics”. Austin and I had discovered together how rich his and his friends’ experience could be in D-Town, far beyond just socialization.

A month later, I invited Ty’ron, another Transitions student, to make a movie with me. While less verbally communicative than Austin, Ty’ron loved to write on the board and windows of our room. His writing often included drawings, though both still required some interpretation – we were seeing into his way of thinking. So I was excited about the prospects of how he might be able to create more of a narrative than Austin had. Ty’ron showed up the next day with a complete script. The two of us spent the next few weeks working on his film. Again, I showed him how to use the camera and then rehearsedScreen Shot 2016-07-25 at 2.11.38 PMthe social interactions with him before he approached the teachers and students he wanted in the film, but otherwise he was in control. He even acted in his film, “New Things! My TKCCSV Things?”: a loosely narrative film in which he polls students and teachers about his favorite things to see which ones they liked best. When we showed his film to the student body in one of our monthly viewings in the auditorium, they cheered with support, both before and after. It was beautiful.

Clay’s project was my last collaboration for the year. He had made a film about lunchtime earlier in the year, but it never really felt like him – it was more of an imitation of the style of film Austin had made. Clay wanted to make a second film and came to me with a multiple scene script about a student stealing a book from the library and then being tracked down by school detectives. Clay was open to discussing and revising the script to make it meet the audience’s needs because he truly cares about movies. In fact, he has an encyclopedic knowledge of film. It is one of his gifts. And his film shows it – you can see gags, plot twists, and exchanges adapted into his film from the many he knows and loves.

We were making this film in the midst of my other students filming their final projects, so time was scarce, but five of the boys in D-Town happily agreed to give up a day and a half of class to act in Clay’s film. Clay described their costume needs and they actually all remembered to bring their materials on the right day (a victory and a rarity – really a sign of their caring for Clay).

I walked with the group to get them into the spaces they would need, but Clay was in control. Occasionally I asked Clay if he wanted to get a second shot of something just in case, but he declined, and he was right to do so. The film turned out wonderfully. For Clay’s film, I was a little more active in the editing process, as he finds the tedium of importing footage difficult, but then he made final edit suggestions and chose the music. He made a film that his new D-Town friends were proud to be in. They had fun making it, and as I watched them I understood it to be an act of caring that I’m not even sure they were aware of. It is just their way of being. Here’s Clay’s film -  ”The Book Robber”.

Our D-Town students, through filmmaking, have a chance to grow together in their compassion and understanding of each other. My love of this course has grown exponentially because of this, partially because of the community we have formed, but also because we no longer see boundaries. Everything is possible; anything could lead to an amazing experience. We just need to be open to the moment.

For this next year I am gamifying D-Town so that students work toward badges for the different filmmaking skills (lighting, editing, directing). One of the badges I’m most excited about is the Buddy Badge – I’m going to let go of the control I had this year and invite the regular ed students to partner with the Transition students to mentor them through their own filmmaking process as I have done. The potential for growth for all of them will be wondrous.

We are creating a space together in which we aren’t Transition students and regular ed students. We are filmmaking together, and honoring each other’s unique ways of being through art and community. We are learning to be human together.

Tom Hering, English Teacher

Students Answer Life’s Messy Questions Together

We don’t always have the answers to life’s messy questions.  Through the PAGES program, English I students had the opportunity to experience Girlhood and consider how one teenage girl attempts to answer these questions.  With very few resources or reliable people guiding her in the right direction, Marieme makes a chain of “bad” choices.

2016-01-29 13.48.38During our post-visit, the following messy questions were printed and cut into strips:

What is on the other side of this choice?
What if I dare to dream?
What does my voice sound like?
Whose life is this anyway?
How do you know it’s love?
What if I make “the wrong” decision?
Who do I think I am?
Who is in control of this situation?
What do I do now?
To get to tomorrow, what do I need to do today?

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Students chose one question that interested them and formed groups based on that question.  Within their groups, they discussed and wrote about the following:

    • If Marieme had asked herself this question at different moments in the film, what would have been her answer? At the beginning, the middle, the end?
    • Think about moments in your own lives. What do you need to know to be able to answer these questions?

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Students selected a peer from their group to report their answers to the class.  The resulting discussion proved that while small, these young students had big things to say! They were able to effectively analyze a film as a text and make connections to their own lives:

Even when she made a bad decision, it was HER decision, and she was in control.”

Showing love is love; it’s about what you do versus what you say. “

I picked this but I didn’t know what this meant until they helped me.”

You have to consider every outcome, not just the good.  You cannot ignore the bad effects of your choices.  You need to think critically about your choices.”  

“She lost everyone because of one bad choice.” 

“I don’t think the door was locked for her. I don’t think doors are locked forever.

“Don’t doubt yourself.”

 

’53 Ways to Check Understanding’

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Edutopia recently published a list with creative suggestions on how to acknowledge, assess student understandings. Opening up “measures” or ways to know what students know, allows for an assessment on not just an ability to retain content, but how that student can apply what is learned and understood. Tools like the ones suggested on the list, allow educators to take their own risks in seeing what students know, and give students outlets for their understandings versus disconnected destinations where students mark in multiple choice or essay, what they remember about a particular piece of content.

53 Ways To Check for Understanding
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This notion of, “now that I know this, now what,” expands application of Carol Dweck’s theory of “growth mindset”, where she emphasizes effort, application, as “variables students can control.”

We talked about this notion of mindset during the Pages summer training, and Laura Garber, recently refers to encouraging “growth mindset” in practice with her post, Teaching Failure, where she reflects on creating learning spaces that give students breathing room, opportunities to “fail”, stumble, face an obstacle or challenge, allowing for time to reflect, and reason to take those reflections, lessons, and try again.

This slowing down for presence in the learning process and the tools employed to engage that presence, gives students permission to think, feel, and grow, an alternative to simply memorization or retention of content.

-DCE

image source: therw.biz

Learning Space: Think, Believe, Share

Students are beginning to work on This I Believe essays.

In this image, students have paired up with a partner from across the room to discuss the strengths/writing strategies of their favorite This I Believe essays from the NPR site. Over the weekend, students read at least five essays, and from those five, chose their favorite, and will write an analysis paragraph about the organizational or stylistic strategies they saw the writer using in the essay. Students will post these observations to an online discussion, identifying and gathering the strengths and strategies we found present in the NPR essays, to build a rubric for our own This I Believe essays.

 

-Tom Hering

Learning Space: Summer, One Long Learning Adventure

This is a picture of a senior looking through the “Summer of Mo” (Mosaic) presentations.

Every summer, we ask our students to treat the summer like one long learning adventure and when they return, each student creates some sort of visual presentation of that summer to share. Students walk around participating in a sort of archaeological dig to learn about their mo-mates experiences!

 

 

 

 

-Kim Leddy

Learning Space: A Season of Firsts

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At 6:05pm, my classroom is all set up and ready for students to show up for their first day of school tomorrow. I’ve used Brandi’s Types of Thinking as a reference for students, and I’m really excited to do interactive notebooks this year, so I’ve created a reference for kids who struggle with open-ended creative responses to the text/notes I give them. It’s another year and I’m just as excited as I was the first year.

-Andrea Patton

Learning Space: We Looked, Then Looked Some More

Students explored this chilly morning, finding an object that appealed to them, looking at it for an extended period, and using words and pictures to describe their objects. Practicing focused looking and focused writing took energy they are unused to using, but by the end of 15 minutes, students had something to bring back to class and share. I enjoyed seeing students outside of our shared classroom space on school grounds; I enjoyed the particular care some took in handling their objects!

 

And then…

Our outside observations turned to writing.
writings

-Kim Swensen

Learning Space: Room 13

Back to School at ACPA: http://artcollegeprep.org. (Might there be a more boring way to announce the reinvigoration of our learning space in Room 13? Probably. And yet the phrase leaves me listless. Could be that I’m at an age where redundancies and repetition call up the yawn.)

How about:
Back to the Unveiling of Our Life’s Task.

Pretentious? Wordy? High-falutin? Maybe. Yeah, probably. Seems to get more to the point, though.

So I snapped the “Featured Image” for this post from my desk as I await students in less than twenty hours…nineteen hours fifty-nine minutes forty seconds…(I’m sure I’ll be ready, right?!).

I like my green wall.
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It’s a pleasant color, always one of my favorites. I still recall–with horror–the year I spent in a gray painted room with no windows two years back (if there was ever a personal research study on environment and the link to being bummed, that year was it).

You cannot see the window in the photograph of my current classroom, but it’s there, next to me, allowing me to stare out to day dream when a spare moment becomes the gift of working ahead. Green trees, blue skies, and white clouds can cure quite a bit, you know. I chose the desks for the photograph, however, because the young adults that will sit in those seats are my raison d’être this as in all years teaching. Not teaching though, not anymore: I facilitate educational opportunities–I’m a facilitator. That’s more accurate. Together the teacher, the teaching, and the pupil’s effort make the taught. All I can really do is allow space for students to take steps to self-actualization via our curriculum. And motivate them along the way. Try to spark their own decision to strengthen their intrinsic motivation to grow, build, add, and refine what it is to be.

The longer I stare at the photo the more I would like to exchange tables and chairs for a variety of seating arrangements student could choose from based on their mood: beanbag chairs, standing desks, a few standard student desks, a table, a bar stool or two, and maybe even a couch or recliner. I suppose this speaks to something we all endeavor for to some degree or another: personalization of the learning process. This is a great site on the subject: http://www.personalizelearning.com

My eyes also steer themselves inexorably to the green-yellow-orange-purple water color painting on the side of my podium. The masterpiece was created by my three year old son Trilby over the summer. Hanging up his artwork gives us both considerable joy. He is the reminder to persevere despite any mundane professional struggle. [Sidebar: If you ever are stuck on a place to hang up children’s artwork, try the garage wall–those walls are typically ugly anyway and a few tack marks won’t obliterate your home’s resale value, the imaginary realtor side of me assures you.]

Staring still further leaves me laughing at the old raggedy posters lining my walls, some of which have been with me since my first year of teaching. It’s probably time to find some new ones, but unlike a public school teacher friend of mine who receives a crisp Benjamin Franklin each year for supplies, I have to acquire my own. Since I teach at an arts school I’ll likely just collect more student samples and works of art to line the walls than I have in previous years. It’s nice to display student work in our learning space; it gives them some ownership of the space. It is our classroom, after all, and not just mine. Shared Community > Teacher Dictatorship.

I wonder if I could find a grant to get one of these built to and from Room 13’s classroom space? It’s tough not to smile shooting down a slide.

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