One of the greatest challenges I face as a teacher is helping students visualize the forest instead of just the trees. A lot of times I get excited when students make connections because connecting ideas is actually a really difficult task! Often times, schooling and assessment reward students for mastering procedural work (ex: how to long divide) rather than applying a skill to a more complex system (ex: how a ratio might apply to cooking or engineering). It's not unordinary for me to teach an A+ student who scores super well on the quizzes, but can't really explain to me how Biochemistry actually relates to his/her everyday life. I strive to help my students make connections and help them focus on the big picture (so they can actually enjoy what they're learning!) but unfortunately a lot of students see school as a procedural series of obstacles rather than a creative endeavor. I want my kids to be creative problem solvers, not academic robots. And to do that, they need to be able to see systems, connections, and complexity.
Enter Hexagonal Thinking. I stumbled across Hexagonal Thinking while listening to the Cult of Pedagogy podcast (highly recommend for my fellow educators!). The purpose of Hexagonal Thinking is to 1) serve as a catalyst for group discussion and 2) help students visualize complexity and connections. Students work together (I tried groups of 2-4) to match related terms with each other.
Some examples of student work from this past week!
So why try Hexagonal Thinking?
1. There are dozens of correct ways that students can map a system from a given list of terms. And the endless possibilities is what sparks conversation among critical thinkers. Should they put "Life" in the middle of the map? Or "Biochemistry"? Either way will yield a different end product.
2. Once students realize there's no one right answer, suddenly there's more possibilities for creativity and debate. It was cool to watch students debate over which terms should connect with what.
3. Hexagonal thinking can be used in almost every subject area and works under both in person and remote learning conditions
4. It's a low stakes, group worthy activity that encourages students to make connections and think critically. A lot of kids told me it was harder than they expected!
One of my goals this year is to get my kids to become systems thinkers. One advantage of remote learning conditions is that kids are literally learning in their real worlds (rather than the bubble of school). What better time than now to get kids to think broadly and creatively rather than get stuck in the weeds of trying to cover as much content as possible. If you try hexagonal thinking, let me know how it goes!
Sometimes teaching can feel like throwing a basketball against a backboard. It's a game of back and forward, on and off, call and response, action and reaction. It's fast paced, and I like it that way. Students ask questions and they expect to get immediate answers. Or teachers try and teach something and we expect to get an immediate response from students. I often feel rushed when I'm teaching. We've only got 50 minutes to get through all of photosynthesis! Sit down and hurry up or we won't finish the lesson before the fire drill!
But part of the work of teaching is learning to slow down. And for me, that has always been really hard. I'm somebody who moves at 100 miles per hour. If you've ever walked with me anywhere, you know I mean this literally and symbolically.
Then along comes a global pandemic, where for once the universe forced all of us to slow down. Suddenly all of our external distractions either were cancelled, shut down, or rendered obsolete in the face of social distancing. Suddenly all we were left with was....ourselves. Just ourselves. Stuck in a moment of personal and national pause. With nowhere to go and with no end in sight. It feels like the universe is slowing the f*** down.
However, one thing the pandemic has taught me is not to panic when faced with moments of pause. In our fast paced and competitive society, we don't like to pause. We don't like to think or slow down. We want things to change for the better and we want that change right now! But there is peace and even freedom in being able to find moments of pause and marinate in them. I stumbled on a quote by the Australian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl that I think illustrates this idea well.
It's such a simple idea. I have the power to choose the outcome. I have the power to choose how a stimulus will affect me. As a woman of color in America, I was often told to believe that I have no power, that my ideas are useless or even wrong. But there is so much power in the ability to stop, find those moments of "space" that Frankl describes, and choose a reaction that best serves me.
Take teaching for example. Say a student has an angry outburst in class against me. Unless I'm able to engage with a pause, it's likely that I will respond defensively or maybe even offensively (I am the one in charge after all, right?) Part of the work of becoming better at classroom management has been practicing slowing down and marinating in that space between stimulus and response. The student gets smart with me. Pause. Think, why might this student be feeling so angry? And then engage with that student by prioritizing problem solving rather than fuel a power struggle.
But what about a pandemic? Suddenly the world shuts down and we are all living in this liminal space with no end in sight. At first I panicked. Why did we stop moving? I'm not OK with this! When is the quarantine going to be over? The ongoing pandemic feels like a global pause between what was normal and what will be normal. It feels like that space between stimulus and response that Frankl describes.
Then some beautiful things happened: people took the streets, people started speaking out, and I personally became more comfortable living in this pause that the pandemic brings- where the future is uncertain, people are putting their lives on hold until "COVID is over", and we're just left with ourselves....waiting.
So with the first day of school just around the corner, and with so much current and future uncertainty, how can this pandemic make us better teachers? I can only speak about what the pandemic has taught me. And I hope we as a collective can use these quiet moments of quarantine to reflect on the things that matter most to us. Because our lives don't have to be on hold while the pandemic is ongoing. There will be a life after the pandemic, and it's up to us to decide what that will look like and when we'll be ready to face it.
I know the last thing people want to read is another post about coronavirus. We're being advised to limit media intake to protect our own mental health, and then we're stuck at home with nothing else to do but scroll through more upsetting news.......how this is a marathon and not a race.....how "we're all in this together" (cute at first and now it's starting to wear on me.....I don't know about you). And as someone who has close family members working in hospitals right now, the reality of the situation doesn't feel real....because at least for now, thank goodness, the people close to me are unaffected.
But anxiety about the future still lingers, especially in moments of quarantined silence when all I have are myself and my own thoughts. How are we going to survive until April 30th? How many people are going to die today? I feel so helpless and I want to help....but the situation is so out of my control, and I hate that feeling (and who doesn't?) With all this uncertainty, unhelpful politics, anxiety about the future, and very real danger that surrounds us......it feels like the world is moving backwards.
I also worry about my students. As a 10th grade advisor, I have seventeen students that I'm tasked to watch over and check in with throughout the next few weeks/months. One of them hasn't left his house since March 13th. Another has been practicing baseball in his basement (also hasn't left his house). A few others have been diligently submitting assignments on Canvas, even though they know very well the assignments are ungraded and won't "count". Others text me during random hours of the night expressing their frustrations and worries over the uncertainty of school and life right now.
One of the things I worry most about is our human tendency to fall back into old habits during times of crisis. For my students, that means falling back into old patterns of waking up after 10 am and staying up playing video games until the early hours of the morning. For me, it means revisiting old patterns of being alone.....old patterns of thinking.....old ways of being that I thought were past but seem to creep up behind my back in moments of silence like this. Move forwards....not backwards I tell myself. Surviving takes real effort.
In moments of crisis, all I want to do is do something. I've been taking extra volunteer shifts with Crisis Text Line this week as well as volunteering to pack boxes of food....all in an effort to progress rather than regress. As we all try to find our own roles in this global mess we're in, maybe we can think of this time as a call for us to discover and move towards new ways of showing up for each other (and notice when we're falling back into old habits). What would it feel like to not just hope for survival but to actively channel our energies towards supporting our communities and ourselves?