Just one student…

Another post from the unpublished archive of Ellie Trees. This one is from July 2013, inspired by Lou Mycroft’s keynote at the TeachDifferent conference. I’m not sure why I didn’t post it at the time. All I’ve done today is delete one half finished sentence and add a clearer reference to the Angel Olsen quote.

“If just one of my students goes on to change the world, all my hard work will be worth it” People say versions of that sentence all the time and I tend to believe them because I believe it about my own work too, though I might phrase it slightly differently.

My teacher Lou Mycroft, speaking at the Teach Different conference at Northern College on Friday gave me a deeper understanding of the idea by following the statement with “For Myles Horton at the Highlander Folk School, that student was Rosa Parks”. Lou has a knack for bringing huge names–and with them powerfully inspirational victories–in social history into the room with us. Into our everyday thoughts and actions in a way that instils radical confidence in our own ability to step up to the challenge laid down by Myles, Rosa and countless others.

What really struck me about Lou’s words were that they crystallised something I had been thinking about for months. That any great teacher sets their aspirations for their students higher than they know they themselves are capable of reaching. This is especially true for those teaching world changers.

It reminds me of a drama teacher I had in high school. It was common rumour that she had tried to be an actor, but had in some way failed and so had become a teacher. But she was the best damn teacher in the school. She taught us confidence, she drew out talent and brilliance and her love of the work lit up every moment. She must have known how hard it would be for those pursuing an acting career. Surely she was aware that her dreams for her students were the dreams she had failed to live up to. Of course in this case she didn’t fail really. Even if none of her students became successful actors (and one or two did) she taught generations of people that their creative expression was important for the world.

But what about me? Teaching young people about the need to dramatically reduce our dependency on fossil fuels is hard when I know that my generation is failing spectacularly, and that for their generation it will be exponentially harder because of our inaction.

This summer when I support a group of young people to discover the power of collective action to change their communities for the better, I will do so as someone who has felt the paralysing heartbreak of activist burn-out through trying (and failing) to do the very thing I expect from them.

Is there any truth to the old saying ‘those that can’t, teach’?. From this perspective it seems like there might be. People want to be empowered. White supremacist capitalist patriarchy doesn’t want to be overthrown. Bringing the values and experiences I had found in activism to teaching helped me recover from disillusionment and burnout. I found my lost hope in the brilliance and potential I saw in people who the authoritarian school system had all but given up on. In effect what I was doing was looking to others to take on a battle I had no energy left to fight.

Depressed yet? Don’t be. I didn’t write this a month ago because I didn’t want to leave it there.

In Counterpower by Tim Gee I found a way through in the form of ‘accumulated heritage of resistance’; the process by which social movements grow and develop, sometimes seeming to die only to spring back stronger armed with what has gone before (a community of praxis, one might say). To illustrate the point he quotes Joe Slovo, a South African anti-apartheid activist: “until the moment of successful revolutionary takeover, each individual act of resistance usually fails”.

Angel Olsen’s ethereal country track You are Song illustrates this concept beautifully with the line   ‘You are silence now but you are always song’.

As a recovering activist, this idea was incredibly redemptive. As a teacher struggling to find personal integrity whilst demanding the impossible from my students it was just as powerful.




Queer Feminist Values – Update

I thought I’d posted this two weeks ago but apparently I haven’t. Its a bit out of date but I don’t have time to re-write it.

Hello magical internet world!

I wanted to check in and say thank you to everyone who commented and talked about my last post. I have genuinely changed my practice because of the conversations we had and have more confidence in myself as a teacher. You are the best.

So where am I? First a story to illustrate how far I’ve come:

Yesterday I was digging alongside two learners, one of whom suggested we use a prostitute (meaning a hoe… ha) to which I happily started up a conversation about how its called a hoe and anyway the more respectful term is sex worker. In the end the lad apologised for offending me which wasn’t entirely my point but I did get the feeling it was a productive and non-confrontational conversation.

There have been other moments too. I am particularly proud of an incident where I calmly channeled anger in reaction to a young person’s sexism by accidentally using NVC speak ‘When you laughed at that comment I got really angry…’ but I won’t recount that whole story, it would take a while.

Using a potent mixture of social media and real life interactions I’ve been able to make these interventions because I’ve felt there’s a group of people that have my back. There’s a space to reflect and grow, and its not just the inside of my own head. Its the secret of resilience and it reminds me of the best moments in activism. The way you get braver the more connections you make with other activists, and the more you trust each other, the more daring you all become. “My veins don’t end in me”.
What I’m learning…
  • ‘I don’t know if I can change you, I don’t know much about you yet’ This is me adapting the words of the wonderful Sarah Kay saying ‘I don’t know if I can change the world, I don’t know much about it yet’. I’ve learnt that feeling like you are building a relationship of trust with learners means that it is easier to question and challenge; to have a dialogue that changes people.
  • You never know until you ask who your allies will be. Its probably worth finding out.
  • The fear of conflict and of being disliked or disrespected is one of the things that blocks me from challenging attitudes but it fades the more I think about and discuss all this.
  • How active I am in challenging sexism depends very much on who the staff I’m working with are. If they are men, I am much less likely to speak up. I think this means my fear described above is so much more with colleagues than it is with learners and that I have this assumption that the men I work with won’t be on my side. This is definitely an unhelpful assumption, but I haven’t worked out how to move through it yet except that all the above certainly help.
There are other things, like why I never trusted Ray Mears that are less directly related to my teaching but are still interesting and useful.
My favourite poem….

Like You by Roque Dalton (original is in Spanish and a bit more beautiful)

Like you I

love love, life, the sweet smell

of things, the sky-blue

landscape of January days.

And my blood boils up

and I laugh through eyes

that have known the buds of tears.

I believe the world is beautiful

and that poetry, like bread, is for everyone.

And that my veins don’t end in me

but in the unanimous blood

of those who struggle for life,


little things,

landscape and bread,

the poetry of everyone.

How can I embed my queer feminist values into environmental education?

Today I have been reflecting on a buschcraft session I taught to a group of adults last week. We did carving, fire building & cooking, tied knots and ID’d trees. It was really fun and I got on with the group well; they all had something to offer and something to learn. The one negative that has really stuck with me though is a recurring theme that I really want to face up to and do something about. Half way through the reflection (which turned into the below blog post) I realised that the achievable goal I needed to set myself was to ask for help overcoming this problem. I’m not getting very far on my own. This post, therefore is an explicit plea for help. I’d be very grateful for any response.

Frequently I am the only woman in sessions. Society doesn’t make it easy for women (or anyone who isn’t a man) to access outdoorsy physical activities. Frequently I come across attitudes to gender (from colleagues as well as learners) that I think are problematic. The more men in the room the more sexist attitudes seem to come out. One of the learners even made a comment that implied that if I wasn’t there it would be worse. In a positive light this highlights the idea that my presence in a typically male space is a form of challenging gender norms and embedding diversity, but does it really change attitudes when the implication is that men just suppress their sexism when women are in earshot?
When I feel like I’m picked out because of my gender, or think a sexist attitude is present in sessions I find it harder and harder to assert what I really think. I even have less confidence in my abilities as a teacher. Things ‘slip’ and I don’t feel as though I can pull it back or challenge attitudes, which affects how and what people end up learning from the session. I really hate this dynamic & it seems as though it’s a bit of a vicious cycle.
Part of it is that my perspectives on gender are different to the majority of people, even feminist people. In my personal life I am constantly engaging with radical queer* politics and identity which asserts that gender is NOT innate, that society coercively assigns and expects certain behaviours from individuals based on a messy collection of biological sex characteristics (which in themselves are arbitrarily separated into ‘male’ or ‘female’ when there is infinite grey areas).
What I want people to understand is that if we expect a person to act a certain way, and shape their whole world and identity around that; that is what they will become. If we divide society down the middle and treat one half differently to the other and construct the world to reinforce that, it will be easy to ‘prove’ that that’s just how it is. That women’s brains are just wired differently, that men are from different PLANETS!
What I want to ask people to do is to act as if this isn’t true. BECAUSE IT ISN’T. It is only true because we believe it to be true and so we construct that truth on top of our belief. I am weak because you told me I am weak by implying I can’t carry that box of tools and somewhere deep down I believe you are strong because that’s how the world works, even though you are skinny and wobbly and I know for a FACT that you will struggle with that box.
I want this not just because I want women to be equal to men but because I want to destroy a society that keeps us in those two factions and rejects anyone who doesn’t fit neatly on either side. I want this for me, for the men in my sessions and for my strong (most of the time), beautiful (always) loved ones who get punished daily for being too ‘diverse’ to fit into societies gender norms.
But how do I work for that in a two day bushcraft course? And if I were able to, would it be ethical to embed a radical queer liberation agenda into sessions with people who didn’t share that worldview? My answer to that when sat writing is a resounding yes, but I’m not so emphatically courageous when faced with a fire circle of kind hearted, slightly sexist men.

Can you help me?
How do I challenge subtly sexist comments made in sessions?
Should I go in right off the bat and explain that I won’t tolerate sexist attitudes? Wouldn’t this just mean people hide their attitudes from me, leaving no space for change?
How do I wrap up ‘emphatically courageous’ and carry it with me into every teaching situation (actually every life situation!) like a shiny queer forcefield to protect me from the trembling, scared little woman feeling I get when I’m blindsided by the patriarchy?
How do I embed gender diversity (and equality) into my sessions in a way that changes attitudes and actions?
How do I ask people to change when it hasn’t occurred to them that change is needed?

* If you don’t know what queer means aside from a homosexual slur, I invite you to look it up! I just typed ‘What does queer mean?’ into google and found a great HuffPost discussion. There is a culture within queer communities that says it is not the responsibility of queer people to educate the wider world about their existence. I am fully behind this because I know its terrifying to be expected to discuss the most private parts of your identity with a world that is mostly hostile towards that part of you. The respect that is shown by self-education is a great place to start these conversations because once you find the language, you find a way to navigate your uncertainties with real people without being unintentionally hurtful. I am a teacher & queer so I willingly take that responsibility at certain times and within certain boundaries. This, as you can probably guess is wholeheartedly one of those times. I’ll let you know if for some reason that changes.

Maths Stupid

At the beginning of my teaching course, I had to fill in a box in an initial assessment that asked me about my maths skill. To be a good teacher of anything it’s good if you understand basic maths. I believe this to be true because I would like to embed maths learning into my teaching, so that the people I teach don’t have the fear of maths that I do. I hate Maths. I’m really bad at it. When I try to do it in front of people I start feeling sick and this panic curtain (imagine the fire curtain at old theatres, but instead of saying fire curtain it says MATHS STUPID) comes down and I don’t know what 4 + 3 is (even now, with no-one in the room, three fingers have to micro-twitch in turn).

So I wrote down that I needed to work on maths and then conveniently forgot about it for a bit. Then the other day I started researching dyscalculia, which is like dyslexia but with maths. I haven’t been tested for it but I’m guessing that if I did I’d have a middling to mild version of it (I think a lot of my problem now comes from the panic curtain and feeling stupid, but that came from somewhere, and a sense that things just didn’t connect right).

I found a website by a group of people who had designed a computer game for children with Dyscalculia here. They had this to say about how we learn about numbers and maths:

Our brain can process numbers in several different ways: visually as digits (“3”), verbally as number words (“three” – written or spoken), and concretely as a quantity (♥♥♥) or a position along a mental number line. Each of these is a different way in which the brain represents numbers, and there are specific brain circuits for handling each representation.

Different arithmetic tasks rely on different representations of number in the brain. For example, the digit representation is used when reading numbers written as digits or when writing them. The verbal representation is used when talking or listening to someone saying numbers, and also for storing multiplication facts in our memory (“three times five is fifteen”). The quantity representation is used to decide which of two numbers is larger, or to quickly approximate quantities.

Our brain can also transform numbers from one representation to another. For example, when we read aloud the number 5, our brain must understand the digit, transform it to its verbal representation, and instruct our speech system to say aloud the word “five”. At the same time, the brain also transforms 5 into a quantity, and we get a sense of how large the number 5 is.

The ability to handle the different representations of numbers is the cornerstone of numeric literacy. For example, if we could not transform digits into number words quickly and efficiently, reading digits aloud would be difficult for us. Being able to transform numbers into the quantity representation is especially important, because we usually see or hear numbers as digits or words, but it is the quantity representation that makes us understand the “meaning” of a number and have a sense of how large it is.

So there is a lot more going on in our brains than we are told about when we learn to handle numbers. I suppose most people don’t need to know exactly how we understand and translate the same concept into different forms. They pick up that translation skill just by being told that 5 is five is ooooo. But it stands to reason that some people are better than others at it, and if teachers knew that, they might be better at understanding why some people just don’t seem to ‘get it’. If I could go back in time 20 years and tell six year old me that this was a skill I’d have to really pay attention to, I think maths would have stressed me out a lot less during my life.

As part of my maths development I’ve started using Khan Academy. It has video tutorials and practice exercises that are mapped onto a diagram that connects different subjects from very easy to very difficult. Suffice to say, I began at the top, only avoiding the ‘telling the time’ cluster, thankfully I got that skill more or less down by the end of primary school. This ‘mind map’ way of understanding what I had to learn was great for my visual tangle-brain, but not the best thing about Khan Academy. My two favourite things are:

  • A video tutorial cannot make a judgement on what you should know, but the practice exercises can assess what you do know.
  • Video tutorials have pause buttons.

After realising this myself, I watched Sal Khan’s TED talk and realised that both these concepts have become important conscious elements in his work on Khan Academy (even though they may have been stumbled upon by accident originally). I recommend watching it.

These two factors overcome my two main obstacles to learning maths. Firstly, the ‘panic curtain’ I mentioned earlier comes from the inevitable millisecond surprised look even the most well-meaning people give me when I fail to do a simple sum, and the implication that I have internalised: that I’m maths stupid. So the panic curtain doesn’t come down nearly so hard if no-one is making a judgement of my skill against who I am (a fairly intelligent 26 year old). It does sometimes come down anyway; I can’t just erase my own judgement against who I am, but crucially, I can usually see through it enough to attempt the job at hand. Brilliant.

Related to the panic curtain is the feeling of falling behind and being rushed through everything. If I feel like I’m losing track, the panic curtain comes down pretty quickly. In maths classes my brain always worked slower than the speed the teacher explained things. I might understand eventually, but more often than not it wasn’t in the classroom, or if it was it was by accident a few classes later when I had to use the concept in something more complicated (that I obviously was going to struggle with!). On Khan Academy I can watch five minutes of a lesson, pause it and stare at the screen for 3 minutes, go back 2 minutes and play the bit I’m just beginning to understand again. No pressure. Brilliant.

This very process led me to really comprehend how to do long multiplication for the first time in my life. I could do it in high school, I had to re-learn the steps on Khan Academy, and I did with a bearable level of stress. But I just knew what I was supposed to do, not how it worked. I’m sure that’s how I managed all maths all through school. I decided to watch the tutorial again to see if I could make a bit more sense out of it. Half way through he said ‘but of course the two isn’t really a two, it’s a twenty’. I paused the video. I stared at the video. I stared at each of the numbers in the sum in turn. Then they became one number, not individual numbers. I said four hundred and twenty five in my head while looking at the number(s). I let the video play until the result was up on the screen and paused again. I read it out as a whole number, and looked at each of the digits in the sum in turn, even the little carried numbers, saying ‘twenty’ or ‘four hundred’ to myself instead of two and four. The digits began to join up in my head, the ones on the bottom linked with the ones on the top. It began to look like one of my tangled diagrams because I could ‘see’ the connections they had to each other. I pressed play and watched another few sums go by, pausing occasionally. I had comprehended, instead of accepted the foundation concept of our entire calculation system. Its called ‘base ten’. Now I get it, its kinda cool. Someone really smart must have invented it.

So. There was an important shift in my thinking that on the surface might not look all that different. The difference between accepting something to be true, and understanding why its true. Maybe knowing how to go through the steps of long division is enough to do long division. But what about the next step? It seems to me that to become mathematically literate, you need to comprehend each step, as they each represent important principles that you will later have to apply to different situations.

But how on earth do you assess the difference between acceptance and comprehension? I know my maths teachers would try. They would ask me over and over if I understood, and I would look vaguely confused and say yes. As I’ve said, I understood the steps. This was as deep a knowledge as I knew, and so as far as I knew, I did understand. I just kept getting things wrong. And the next step was impossibly hard, because I had to start over with the accepting, instead of using my set of useful principles. And my teachers would ask me to listen more carefully. Or they would go back to the previous step and I’d feel like they didn’t understand that I understood; that they thought I was just stupid. Looking back, I now know I had some brilliant maths teachers, even though at the time I hated them. But I must have been difficult for them. They didn’t understand that I didn’t understand, or how to teach in a way that helped me comprehend. But we found a way, and that got me my GCSE C, an achievement I’m still very proud of, purely because of how difficult it was.

I want to learn from this. I want to find a way to teach people concepts in a way they comprehend rather than accept. If only because it makes things easier for them. I doubt I’ll ever be a maths teacher, but I think all of this can be translated to most subjects. I would love to teach in a way that assesses comprehension accurately, and doesn’t expose anyone to concepts that rely on comprehension of previous lessons until they are ready.

Sal Khan taught me that time and space away from teacher is extremely important. My own experience taught me that understanding how I learn helps me to learn, and communicating this to teachers is the ultimate challenge. And of course, as a teacher this concept is important in reverse. How do I understand how individual learners learn?

Ok, back to the sums, I’m still getting them wrong.