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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.

 

Omada Teambuilding

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.

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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!

A couple weeks ago I had what I think might be my biggest insight this school year.  For the last two years I’ve experimented with different forms of inquiry learning with my students with varying degrees of success.  For most of my students it has increased their level of engagement and some amazing learning has happened.  But during this last semester I began to see something that started to put up red flags for me, and for months I was unable to articulate why these flags were going up (partly too because I didn’t take the time to properly reflect on what was happening in my classroom).  My students were learning but it seemed too…haphazard.  It wasn’t focused learning.  For some it was distracted learning.  For others it was trying to prove their own biases.  There was a very small contingent of my students who truly possessed the skills necessary to learn effectively through inquiry learning.

Then one day it hit me.  I was doing some research online when I came across a chart outlining the habits of mind that are necessary to effectively learn.  It was then a 1000 watt light bulb was flipped on in my mind (seriously – light was shooting from my ears and my eyes started watering!) –

effective inquiry learning can only take place if students have the habits of mind to learn in this way.

By the time this insight illuminated my mind from the aforementioned 1000 watt light bulb it was too late to change what was happening in my classroom – the semester was almost over and my students were nearing the end of their inquiry projects.  It became abundantly clear to me though that things will have to change for next year.

One thing that I did really well this year was teach my students about how they can know if they’ve learned something.  I spent almost a full day teaching the six facets of understanding as outlined in Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe’s “Understanding by Design.”  We used their language of understanding over and over to reinforce how they can know if they’ve learned something.  The next step for me will be to teach the necessary dispositions to effectively reach these understandings.  I’ve come to realize that one of my overarching goals as a teacher is to create students who are self-regulated learners.  They will be able to take the skills, dispositions, and ideas learned in my class and be more effective students in all the other classrooms they visit throughout their high school career and beyond.

To be honest, I sometimes wish I didn’t have to teach these things.  I wish students came into my classroom – whether in grades 10, 11, or 12 – and already have the understandings about learning to jump right into the course without me having to bring them up to speed on how they know how to learn.  It takes a LOT of time to teach these things and then even more time to reinforce them while at the same time weeding out the jumping-thought-hoops learning that most of my students are so accustomed and comfortable with.  If these ideas were taught, reinforced, and validated in every class from grade one on with ever growing sophistication, imagine the learners we would graduate!

I feel like there is an ever growing movement towards inquiry based learning.  In fact, in almost every pedagogical workshop/presentation I’ve been too this year there has been some mention of inquiry learning.  This is a good thing and it reveals a fundamental shift in how educator think about teaching, learning, and school.  However, after my light bulb moment, my concern is that teachers are going to throw their students into inquiry based learning without laying a foundation that will enable their students to effectively use this model of learning.  Perhaps the cart is being put in from of the horse – which almost never ends well for the horse!

I look forward to my next season of learning about self-regulated learning and habits of mind to make this possible.  If you have any book, blog, article, or video suggestions that will help guide my thinking – please feel free to send them my way!

It’s amazing how much students have changed in my six years of teaching.  They are increasingly immersed in technology – all of my students have cell phones and many are avid gamers and (all?) are involved with social media in some way or another.  It’s neat to witness this transformation, but with it comes some serious questions.  How is all this technology changing who we are?  Why are we so enamored with gaming?  Is technology robbing us of important human experiences?  Should we be concerned about the rapid growth and development of technology?

To help me explore some of these questions with my students I show them a short film called “Play.”  It’s a gritty and somewhat disturbing glimpse into the future of gaming and technology.  It’s totally unpredictable.  And because of these things it is also incredibly engaging.  Watch it – you’ll enjoy it.  It’ll make you think.


If you enjoy it and want to use it with your students, there is a lesson plan that you can access here plus a bunch of other mindbending, short films that give compelling visions for the future.

Watching this video was like having my eyes opened to a new dimension that I want to go to as an educator.  Although the ideas are not new, the way they’re communicated really resonated with me.  High Tech High is a school based out of San Diego that is changing the way school works.  Enjoy…but watch at your own risk!

 

Quotes that (really) connected with me:

“Rigour is being in the company of a passionate adult who is rigorously pursuing inquiry in the area of their subject matter and is inviting students along as peers in that adult discourse.”

“If your kids are producing work that’s worth doing and that has lasting value and learning that’s worth learning, you’re a good teacher.”

– Larry Rosenstock

Yesterday I did something I haven’t done in quite a while – I went to McDonald’s and had a double cheeseburger.  Although many people might cringe at the idea of sinking their teeth into a greasy McDonald’s burger of dubious content, I have to say that it hit the spot.  As I was happily devouring my double cheeseburger of dubious content, I started to take stock of my surroundings.  Much had changed since my last visit!  The old linoleum floor had been replaced with attractive stone tiles.  The plain walls were covered with an appealing combination of paint and wood paneling.  I sat on a modern bar stool across from a private, four person booth.  TV’s were strategically placed in different parts of the room, and when I entered the main doors I was greeted by a sign stating that free internet was available.  The menu signs had all been updated – including many new menu items such as different coffees and healthier options.  Even the exterior was sporting a new, modern facelift.  I was impressed!

Unfortunately, my positive feelings were quickly dashed on the greasy floor of reality.  The nice stone floor was literally shining with grease and was in desperate need of a mop.  The tables were also coated in greasy spots that refused to be wiped away without a heavy-duty industrial cleaner.  There were numerous tables with trays of garbage that hadn’t been cleaned up.  The washroom – although modernized – could have kept a pathologist (and plumber) in business until the global markets stabilize.  And my double cheeseburger of dubious content was still the same double cheeseburger I remember – with the same McBowel Movement that I somehow forgot.  In essence, it was still the same old McDonald’s only with a new, ‘hip’ look.

Almost as soon as I finished my deliciously dubious double cheeseburger, I was struck by another thought – what if all my attempts to change the way I teach are also just nice facades hiding the same old greasy reality underneath?  Am I really making progress as a teacher or simply giving my teaching a tech friendly, pseudo-authentic, hip facelift?  Are the changes I’ve been working so hard to implement really dressing up an antiquated paradigm – or do they t truly reflect the demands and needs of a rapidly changing world?  Are the changes I’m making and the impact they have on my students ‘dubious’ like my double cheeseburger?

Although most of the changes happening in the educational realm are beneficial to students and their learning, I sometimes wonder if the reform that’s happening is simply covering up an antiquated system underneath.

Personally, I want to get out of the McDonald’s, fast food model of education altogether and move to something where my students can sit down and really engage with their food.  The issue with the McDonald’s style of education is that there is no engagement.  Students come in, quickly gobble down their food from a select menu that isn’t all that good or useful for them, and then leave.  Maybe feeling a little sick.  There is little personal connection and the food is cheap.

Instead, I want my students to come in, sit down with the expectation that they will be staying for awhile.  I want them to engage and eat deeply of their learning.  I want my student’s learning to cost them something.  True learning is never cheap, and where deep learning is occurring it will cost students their lives.  It will mean something.  But in order for this to happen the very ethos of my classroom needs to change, and perhaps this is where all transformational reform is aimed.

For the last five years I have been making McDonald’s-like changes to my classroom and it’s been good.  However, as I was sitting and eating my double cheeseburger of dubious content I realized that I need to continue getting out of the fast food industry style of education.  It’s a change I think my students will eat up!

I’ve noticed something paradoxical about the way many of my students think about their education.  On the one hand they want their education to be relevant and real.  On the other hand, when given the opportunity to do something that is real and meaningful, many choose to do the more traditional, ‘boring’ option.  For example, when my students were researching their inquiry questions last semester I encouraged them to find someone in the community to interview as part of their research.  Most were really excited about this idea.  They were excited to do something outside the walls of their school.  So I created a permission form that allowed them to be off school property in order to conduct their interviews.  All of my students had it signed by their parents.  But not one of my students actually did it.  What gives?

Sometimes I think that my students behave like animals that have spent their lives in captivity.  When offered freedom, many captive animals are extremely apprehensive about leaving their cage.  There is a sense of safety in their cage – it is familiar and known.  If a cage is all you know, it feels normal.  Why leave?

In many ways, schools are cages and most students have grown accustomed to learning in this caged environment.  They are used to the rituals of school and are familiar with how the system works.  They know how to jump through the hoops and how to be within this system.  And then they come into my classroom and I throw open the doors and say, “You’re free!”  The idea is exciting at first!  But then then they walk to the threshold of the door and look outside and realize that they don’t know how to do school out there and the rules are different from what they’re used to.  There is a lot of risk involved and with risk comes fear and the potential to fail.  So they move back to the inside safety of the classroom because that’s what they know.

Perhaps this also explains why when I ask students what they’d like to learn about in my class, the vast majority give me the infamous blank stare treatment.  As if they’ve never been asked that question before.

I think there is a growing movement happening across the country to uncage our students.  How are you uncaging your students?

“Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.” – Leo Tolstoy

Over the past several years, I’ve become increasingly aware of the conversations happening in both the visceral and virtual world about educational reform.  At the core of these conversations is the idea that the old, factory way of learning and teaching is no longer satisfactory; there is an acknowledgement that the world is a fundamentally different place today than it was five, ten, or twenty years ago.  Consequently, teaching needs to change in order to accommodate this shift and to properly prepare our students for life in this new world.

Although there are very few educators out there who would argue that change is not needed, I’m troubled by the number of excuses for why some are unwilling to change.  So here is the uncomfortable truth about educational reform.

Educational change is not dependent on the government or the ministry of education.  Nor is it dependent on changes in your district, school, or your lackadaisical administration.  Educational reform does not require more funding and it doesn’t require that you have more access to technology in your classroom.  At the end of the day there is only one thing that will bring about educational reform –

You.

Now don’t get me wrong, everything mentioned above can greatly aid in fostering and encouraging educational paradigm shifts within your school, district, and province.  However, at the end of the day, you will have to personally make this shift within your practice.  You will have to become uncomfortable.  Change and reform are only possible if educators within the system are uncomfortable with the way they’re teaching.

Margaret J. Wheatley articulates this idea succinctly and powerfully in her book, Turning to One Another:

As we work together to restore hope to the future, we need to include a new and strange ally – our willingness to be disturbed.  Our willingness to have our beliefs and ideas challenged by what others think…We have to be willing to let go of our certainty and expect ourselves to be confused for a time (p.34, emphasis mine).

I love the idea of “willing to be disturbed.”  As educators, we need this willingness as we examine and reflect on our classroom, our students, the curriculum we teach, and our profession as a whole.  Only when you find yourself disturbed by how or what you’re teaching, will you truly desire to change the way you teach.  Personally, this moment came fairly early on in my teaching career when I realized one day that I was becoming bored with how I was teaching and my students were bored along with me – this conclusion freaked me out.  However, because of this realization, I started on a five year journey to revitalize my teaching and I am a totally different teacher today. 

My guess is that there are a number of reasons why teachers – even if they are uncomfortable with the status quo – don’t take the steps to initiate and sustain change in their practice:

  • They don’t have a clear vision for what or how to change.
  • They feel they are too overworked as it is and don’t have the time to make these changes.
  • They feel isolated in their desire for change within their curriculum area or staff.
  • It’s uncomfortable being uncomfortable – so the way I’m teaching is fine (because it’s worked for the last 500 years thank-you very much).

Although there are many possible solutions to these concerns – there is one that stands out to me – community.  Entering into a community of educators who are questioning and challenging the very idea of school is perhaps the most powerful way to start moving towards change.  It eliminates the feeling of isolation, can help create a practical vision for how to change your classroom, and you will enter into a community of educators who are uncomfortable and striving for change.

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