A couple weeks before spring break I did something I hadn’t ever done before – I brought an author and publisher into my classroom using Skype. My students were starting to work on some memoir writing and, in a moment of inspiration, I thought to myself, “Why not Skype a publisher to hear his or her perspective on what makes a memoir good?” So I Googled “publishing companies in Vancouver” and followed the breadcrumbs until I found myself at the Harbour Publishing website and speaking with Howard White, a renowned BC author and publisher. Three phone calls later, he Skyped into my classroom and was talking to my students about what makes a memoir good and the process of writing in general. He was brilliant, and my students were totally engaged.
The experience of having a professional writer in my classroom was in itself totally worth it, but there was another completely unexpected byproduct of this Skype conversation.
In university, I started writing a treeplanting memoir for one of my classes; I continued working on it for a number of years after my degree was completed. But then, due to the busyness of teaching, completing a masters, starting a family, and a myriad other excuses, I fell out of writing and it lay dormant for years. As I was listening to Howard speak to my students about the writing process, I found the dying ember of my writing beginning to burn again. What an unexpected joy! Since then, I’ve found myself inspired and looking for excuses to write.
Perhaps then, it is an axiom that authentic learning experiences have the potential to inspire both students and teachers alike.
If there is one resource that I would recommend to English/Socials 10 -12 teachers who want to embed more aboriginal content in their courses, this would be it. Seriously. It’s a fantastic collection of poems, short stories, and essays from Canadian aboriginal authors. If you would like to become more familiar with the themes and ideas found in aboriginal literature (especially important in light of the aboriginal competencies within the new curriculum), the best way to get started is to immerse yourself in it. This resource is where I’d start.
I think it’s time to bring God back into the classroom.
I had this revelation as my class and I were concluding an intense week looking at some of the research and literature around the idea of happiness – part of our semester-long inquiry, “What does it take to live a happy life?” On one of the final days, we looked at the differences between meaning and happiness and whether it’s more important to have a meaningful life than a happy life; the research seems to say that the two ideas are definitely not synonymous. It was during this discussion that I had the realization that we needed to talk about God. Not a God. Not the God. Just God. Whether you believe in some supreme power or not, there are billions of people in the world who find meaning in life through faith in a deity.
To introduce the topic of God, I showed the following videos to my class – both are worth a watch.
What I love about the clip from “The Great Kahuna” with Kevin Spacey and Danny DeVito is its admission that to be human means to have questions about God. To wonder about God. It’s a profound clip. To complement this video, I found one that examines the question, “Is God Useful?” in a much more philosophically rigorous way. Both of these videos effectively opened up the door for my class to talk about their thoughts, fears, and ideas about God. It didn’t take long for me to realize that all of my students (who come from a wide variety of ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds) have thoughts about God, spirituality, and religion. Some of my students are going through a profound period of time where they are critically analyzing what they believe, and their identities are hanging in the balance. The discussion was rich, and the journals that were written afterwards were profound.
Nothing was decided at the end of the class; no conclusion was reached except for the fact that talking about God is important, and that our belief, or lack of belief in God has significant implications in our search for meaning and happiness.
I think that talking about God in school is important. Not what to think, but how to think about God. There seem to be very few opportunities for people, whether you’re a high school student or about to retire, to talk openly and honestly about God. It seems to be a topic that makes people uncomfortable, perhaps because of their own unanswered questions. But it’s those very questions and the unknowns that can make this conversation so rich. It’s in the search for answers that we find meaning and purpose. And if schools are to develop students into the critically-reflective individuals and citizens we want to see in the world, we need to provide the tools and space to address the deep things they’re thinking about.
What better place to do this than in school?
For the second year, my Adventure Co-op class is studying the idea of happiness in the English language arts component of the course. The inquiry question that is guiding this process is, “What does it take to live a happy life?” I’ve seen students’ lives changed in the process of better understanding this question because everyone is pursuing happiness in one way or another. It’s perhaps the most relevant idea to study in school, especially as my students are currently laying foundations of being that will shape their decisions and interactions as they move from their high school context into other realms of life. We started out by looking at some of the science and research that’s been done on happiness as well as some of the big ideas that contribute to a person’s level of happiness. We are now starting to dig a little deeper.
Yesterday we delved into the importance that relationship has on a person’s happiness. To do this, I started off by showing my students the final scene of the movie “Into the Wild” – a true story about a young man who starts a three year journey from America’s east coast to Alaska in order to fulfill his fanatic idealism. Along the way, he cuts every meaningful relationship out of his life, including his parents who don’t hear from him for two years. Unfortunately, when he arrives in Alaska he experiences a series of events that ultimately leads to his death, but not before he has a profound insight into what it means to be happy.
After watching the clip and having a short discussion on the connection between relationships and happiness, I got my students to record their thoughts in a journal reflection. What I thought would take maybe ten minutes took forty. What I thought might be a paragraph for most, turned into a page for many. For young adults who are in a very visceral process of identity building, understanding who their friends are and the impact they have on their lives is a very real process. One student wrote:
Even though I only watched a short part of the video, it hit me like a ton of bricks… the relevance of this story to my own life, today and in the past week has been on my mind for a while now.
I’ve never had an opportunity to open my fun side and didnt get an opportunity to connect with people the way i do now, its like a whole new me i can now do things that i couldnt do before. I make my own choices, i do whatever i want, because i found a set of friends that know what the meaning of life means, the friends that i had before didnt care about school…
It was made very clear to me in the all of the journal reflections I got that my students are very much thinking about their relationships and understanding what they mean. They know and are surprisingly articulate about how much their friends influence their level of happiness. For some of my students, having the opportunity to think and process some of these ideas may lead to real change.
Over the years I’ve found that something amazing and profound seems to happen when you connect yourself to one end of a 10mm rope, the other end to a stranger, and then climb 40+ feet up a tree. How could it not? Not only do you have to overcome any fear of heights you might have as you make a vertical ascent up a tree, but once you’re up the tree, you need to accomplish some feat involving balance, cables, and crossing an open void between earth and sky. To top it all off, you have to trust that the person at the other end of the rope – the person you might have only known since that morning – will support you and hold you up in case you fall.
When I took my students to Omada Teambuilding in the first full week of school this year, there was an almost tangible moment during the day when the entire ethos of my classes shifted – from a group of individual students participating in my Adventure Co-op, to a community of students who were beginning to care and support each other. It is because of this shift that I take my students here every year. Although I know there are many effective tools and strategies to establish community within the classroom, I have found no better way to quickly and effectively create this community than by throwing my students into situations where they are forced to problem solve together and work together as a group to reach certain objectives – both on the ground and in the trees.
I’ve come to realize that allowing students to work together in an environment of supervised ‘safe’ risk provides some of the richest soil to cultivate trust and community within a classroom. With support and encouragement from their peers, students are able to conquer fears and connect with each other in ways that are very difficult to duplicate in the classroom. On top of this, as the teacher, I get to see sides of my students that may not be easily seen between the four walls of my classroom. I see the leaders and those who get discouraged easily. I see the encouragers and those who thrive on risk. I see how students interact with each other in both positive and negative ways. In short, it allows me to be a better teacher and helps create the community and trust needed to learn effectively.
I had a crazy experience today.
It happened as I walked into a store with my one year old son and immediately recognized the store clerk as she was helping some customers. Although I had no idea where I recognized her from, as I was squeezing the stroller around her customers she noticed me and stopped what she was doing.
“Hey! I know you from somewhere,” she said. “I know! I had you as a teacher; you’re Mr. Rempel!” At this point I felt a little bit awkward because I couldn’t tell you the first thing about this young woman and a little bit embarrassed because of the attention I was getting and because her customers were now also scrutinizing me. However, I was also amazed because I knew that I didn’t recognize her from my time working in the learning centres which meant that I must have taught her when I was working as a substitute teacher eight years ago.
She enthusiastically continues, “I remember you because you made an impact on my life!”
“Thank you” I say in appreciation, “but I’m sorry, I don’t remember which school you went to.” She told me which school it was and after a bit more friendly chit chat and not finding what I wanted at the store, I left. As I walked home with son, who was making loud exclamations at every car that passed by, I suddenly remembered when I taught her – it wasn’t when I was substitute teacher, it was when I was doing my student teaching nine years ago! At the very most, I would have been her teacher for six weeks, and let me tell you, I really struggled in my curriculum development and delivery during my practicum. Yet somehow, despite all my inadequacies as a beginning teacher, I made an impact on this young woman – enough for her to remember my name nine years later.
I don’t know about other teachers, but it’s rare for me to run into former students. Sometimes, at random moments on any given day, I’ll think about past students and wonder what they’re doing in life – about whether anything I taught them made a difference. It’s comforting to know that it’s not only about the quality of my lessons or my use of technology that has an impact on students, but in the genuine care and belief we as teachers have in who our students are as individuals.
I floated through the rest of the evening.
About five years ago I came to the startling realization that my teaching lacked direction. I didn’t really have any idea where I was going pedagogically and, as a result, my students didn’t either. I was the captain of a ship that was guided by the whim of temperamental winds and leaderless currents. Interestingly, none of my students ever really questioned me about where they were supposed to be by the end of the course – they simply assumed that I knew where I was going like sheep following a blind shepherd. If a student ever did question the direction and purpose of a course, I could easily pull together some pat answer about learning how to read and write better. Boring. Uninspiring. The hardest part about this realization was that I would’ve hated being a student in my class. I would’ve hated not knowing where we were going and would’ve quickly lost motivation.
It was through backwards design and inquiry that I began to find direction in my teaching. Backwards design helped me understand what I wanted students to know or be able to do after they completed a course with me and inquiry gave me the framework to reach these goals. It took me four years to refine an inquiry question that had the longevity to inspire and engage my students for a whole semester – a story for another post. To make a long story short, I found that the questions themselves need to engage – they can’t simply inform. As such, I’ve tried to make my essential and inquiry questions somewhat provocative – questions that would capture the interest of a room full of teenagers. The question that my students and I have pursued this semester is:
How can I live a happy life?
I also have four questions that guide the learning in my classroom:
1. How can I accurately interpret a text for meaning?
2. How can I manipulate others through effective communication?
3. How can I avoid being controlled by the media?
4. How can I become a powerful reflective and critical thinker?
These questions challenged, guided, and engaged my class this last semester and there is still lots (LOTS) of room for improvement. However, I feel like my class has a direction and purpose that was seriously lacking in my early career as teacher.
If you’re a teacher in the Lower Mainland (and most likely in the rest of British Columbia as well), it doesn’t matter where you look, the call for educational reform is there – in your face. Teachers and principals are talking about it. The Twitterverse and blogosphere are filled with the call for teachers to reform, to implement more technology, to fall into the loving arms of inquiry. There are workshops, professional development days, district conferences, edcamps, and all manner of un, dis, anti, and re learning opportunities. Yet despite all of the push for teachers to think about teaching and learning from a new paradigm and the evidence that demonstrates that it’s needed, there are still educators resistant to change. Why?
No matter how many ultra-inspiring workshops a teacher attends or passionate presenters they listen to, these alone are not in themselves enough to inspire long lasting change. How many of us have been inspired by an amazing presentation only to find ourselves teaching in our same old ways a week or two later? If your hand isn’t way up in the air, either you have only been to one really amazing presentation or your nose is getting longer! The truth of the matter is that lasting change must come from within.
Although this answer probably doesn’t surprise you, I haven’t been to a single presentation that has really unpacked this idea. This doesn’t mean that workshops or presentations can’t inspire change, only that if they are going to lead to transformation, a work of change must have already started within the teacher. The most difficult part of change is coming to the place where you can admit to yourself that change is needed. That perhaps you aren’t happy with what you’re doing or how you’re doing things. I think that the realization that you’re unhappy is often very slow in developing, resting in the subconscious until one day you’re going for a walk, or eating breakfast, or driving home and suddenly you’re face to face with the fact that you’re unhappy. It is at that point that deep, transformational change is possible. A question that can tease out whether you’re ready to start thinking about change is simply complex:
“Are you happy and/or passionate about how and what you do as a teacher?”
I haven’t met a single new teacher who is lackluster or unmotivated about getting into teaching. Most enter into the profession because they are passionate about their subject area, teaching, and students. In contrast, I have met numerous teachers who have taught 10+ years who seem jaded, unmotivated, and unhappy. What happens in the those years? What is it that can steal the joy of teaching and replace it with resignation or apathy? There are lots of reasons that could contribute to this unhappiness: overcrowded classrooms, lack of funding, lack of support, lack of resources, government interference, or student disengagement. To be fair, these are real issues that present significant obstacles in the classroom. However, I’m convinced that to let these issues steal the joy and happiness that comes from teaching is unfair to both the teacher and the student. The late Steve Jobs said in a commencement address to Stanford University grads in 2005 that, “I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And whenever the answer has been “No” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.” Is there anything that you need to change in order to bring back your passion for teaching?
Another equally important question that might serve as a litmus test that change is needed is below:
Are your students learning in a meaningful and relevant way?
If you are happy but the learning in your classroom isn’t meaningful or relevant for your students, this is another indication that things need to change. If the answer to either of these questions is ‘no,’ the next critical (and very difficult) question is: What do I need to change to restore my passion or effectiveness as a teacher?
This is the topic for another post!
As an English teacher, there is something about this video parody that brings me great joy. Thanks Weird Al!