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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!

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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.

Last week I had a student tell me that he hates poetry.  A number of other students expressed a similar sentiment.  “Fair enough,” I told this student, “but I don’t believe you.  I think you actually like poetry.”  Presumptuous?  Maybe.  Then I showed my class this video:

It’s rare for my class to be so completely engaged in something that everything else fades away – yet  as I watched my students watch this video they were captivated.  When the video finished, instead of the usual chatter of opinions and thoughts, there were a few seconds of complete silence.  This isn’t a normal occurrence in my class!  A student asked if I knew of any other videos like this one – when I said yes, but that I was going to share them at some other point, I nearly had a mutiny on my hands!

I still get a lump in my throat every time I watch this video.

I’m in the very middle, right in the back!

Returning from Ottawa after receiving the Prime Minister’s Award for Teaching Excellence has been an interesting experience.  I couldn’t tell the staff at my school why I was going to Ottawa before I left, so when I came back to school on Monday everyone looked at me just a little differently.  It was great to be back, but getting praised by some colleagues and the silent treatment from others made me feel a little awkward.  It was also strange seeing my picture in various newspapers and on the district website – this is not something I’m used to at all!  Various colleagues and people I had never spoken to before would congratulate me after seeing my picture in the newspaper.   Finally, opportunities to share my story or teaching practices started popping up like gophers in a field – most of which wouldn’t exist if I hadn’t received this award.  I’m flattered, of course, and I jump at the opportunity to share my story, but I’m still coming to terms with all the attention.

Most people are genuinely excited about my accomplishment.  But every now and then I get the slightly raised eyebrow which generally means that the said eyebrow-raiser is surprised that someone with such a youthful complexion has received such a prestigious award.  Even if the question of age isn’t verbalized – it’s pretty easy to tell when it’s there.

As a teacher who hasn’t even reached the big ‘three-o’ and is only seven years into my career, I still feel very young – heck, let’s face it, I am young!  I was reminded of this time after time in Ottawa and then again when I got back home.  Perhaps it’s because of this that I have spent a fair amount of time reflecting on my PMA experience.  Here are some of my thoughts:

  1. Receiving this award has really confirmed what I’m doing in the classroom.  If you’ve been following me for any amount of time, you’ll know that for six years – and the last two in particular – I’ve been steadily working on and changing the paradigm from which I teach.  It’s been a very time consuming, arduous, and sometimes frustrating process (lots of joy and fun in there as well though).  There have been many times over the last number of years when I’ve had to question, “Is what I’m doing and the time I’m putting into this really going to make any difference?”  When I’m overtired and overwhelmed and a student asks me “What’s a theme?” for the hundredth time, it’s hard not to think futile thoughts as I question my effectiveness as a teacher!  Getting invited to Ottawa was confirmation that, yes, I’m heading in a good direction.
  2. The changes I’ve made in my classroom certainly weren’t done so I could be recognized; teaching isn’t exactly a profession that comes with many public accolades.  This being said, most teachers I know consider it a part of their job to to be the best teacher they know how to be.  So it can get a little awkward when suddenly I’m being recognized for all the work I’m doing in the presence of other teachers who work tirelessly every day and are doing amazing things in their classroom but haven’t been recognized.  It’s weird.  And sometimes a little awkward.
  3. Yet at the same time, I hope that lots of other young teachers start getting nominated for this award for the life-changing work they’re doing.  I hope that we will see more and more teachers who are still fairly new in their positions start challenging their own paradigms and then work to create new ones.  I hope that they won’t let their age or level of experience dictate what they can or should do.  If my story in any way challenges or encourages another teacher to pursue authenticity and relevancy in their teaching, I will feel more fulfilled in knowing that others have benefited in some way from my experience.
  4. Finally, if you know of a teacher who is doing amazing work and is changing lives (or has changed yours) – nominate them!  This has been a life changing experience that I will never forget.  It is an incredibly honouring and special opportunity that I wish other deserving teachers could experience.  I already have a teacher in mind who I hope to nominate for next year!  To find out how to nominate someone, go to the website and look at the nomination guidelines.  It takes some time to put everything together, but it is well worth the effort!

Any teacher who has taken students on any form of overnight adventure – especially if it involves the outdoors – knows that it is a huge headache.  There are a myriad different permission forms that need to be sent out: medical forms, parent and student consent forms, liability forms, my-child-will-be-good-and-will-obey-all-the-rules forms, acknowledgement of the ‘dangerous’ nature of the trip forms, and waiver forms for the waiver form.  And then you have to ensure that all the students bring in their forms.  Once you think all the forms are in and completed, you realize that half the students didn’t notice there was a backside to one of the forms and you have to send it back again.  It’s enough to make your hair go grey and fall out!

This was my life for the first three weeks of September.  Then, in the final week of September when all the forms were finally collected, I took my co-op students on a three day trip to Garibaldi Provincial Park.  We hiked up to a campsite at Taylor Meadows near Garibaldi Lake.  On our second day we started towards a mountain called Panorama Ridge.  Anyone who’s been to this area knows that it is one of the most spectacularly scenic areas in all of BC.  From the campsite, you walk through lush alpine meadows, where the autumn leaves on the low bushes are a fiery display of red, orange, and yellow.  While slowly gaining elevation, you get glimpses of the impossibly turquoise blue of Garibaldi Lake and a number of glaciated ranges in the distance.  Ascending the final ridge up to the peak is like listening to a forty-five minute rendition of the Hallelujah Chorus with a ever increasing crescendo to the very top.  And then you reach the summit.

Words cannot adequately express the majesty of the landscape before you.

Garibaldi Lake is spread out in its entirety before you – surrounded by massive crevasse-gashed glaciers and mountains that demand attention.  Garibaldi Mountain stands like a sleeping giant, wrapped in a heavy blanket of snow.  The Black Tusk, the leftover remnants of a prehistoric magma chamber stands dark and silent as it keeps a watchful eye over the surrounding landscape.  Even the large, surrounding  mountains seem to pay homage to this ancient sentinel.  The summit itself is rocky and barren – gradually eroding away – a whisper of its former glory yet still glorious.  The landscape is massive and wild – it demands respect and commands awe.

Despite the awesome beauty of nature that surrounded us, I think that my greatest joy came from watching and listening to my students.  Hearing them use the words beauty and beautiful over and over again or talking about how much the students who didn’t come were missing made all the paperwork and preparation stress seem trivial.

There is something very deep that happens in the wilderness – in some way, the mountains, the cool mountain air and amazing views have a way of speaking to the soul.  This may seem somewhat sensationalistic or perhaps overly sentimental, but I don’t know of any other way to describe it.

Evidence of this inner dialogue is clear.  Students open up in ways they never do in the classroom.  Conversations and conversation topics are different – somehow more real.  On top of this, I see things in my students that I would never see or get to see teaching English in a traditional classroom.

The beauty of the natural environment in itself is not enough to initiate this deep, spiritual, conversation within people.  If we had flown up to the summit in a helicopter and spent half an hour lounging at the top, it would have been a very different experience.  The power of the wilderness to transform comes from something very different – struggle and adversity.  Getting to our campsite at Taylor Meadows required a 7.7km uphill grunt with full packs – not an easy endeavor.  It was especially difficult because it was the first time most of my students had ever attempted something like this.  It took about fifteen minutes of hiking before most of them realized that it was going to be more difficult than they expected!  By the time we reached the six kilometer mark, shoulders were aching, backs were in agony, legs were on fire, and the lively conversation had gradually become subdued.  Thankfully, everyone made it the last 1.7 km!

The beauty of the wilderness is born out of struggle.  Trees have to fight other trees and plants for soil and moisture to grow; they have to endure harsh weather conditions and a short growing season in order to survive.  Mountains are created by fire and the movement of titanic underground forces, and are demolished by persistent weather and grinding ice.  Even the animals that live in this environment have adapted to survive – though life still isn’t guaranteed.   I wonder if it is only possible to really appreciate this beauty when it involves struggle.  For my students, the personal transformations I observed on this overnight hiking trip were made possible by the long, sweaty struggle up the mountain.  It was only then that the beauty of our surroundings could begin its work of transformation.

—     —     —

Finally, I hope that the skills and attitude necessary to enjoy the wilderness will transfer into the classroom.  Here are a few of the main points I hope will transfer:

  1. Having a good attitude is critical.
  2. You can accomplish much more as a team than by yourself.
  3. Know your destination – it will motivate you when you’re hiking through the trees.
  4. Wonder about everything!
  5. Encourage your peers along the way – they might not be having as easy a time as you.
  6. Push yourself – you’ll be glad you did.
  7. Learning, like hiking, requires stamina.

I’m about a month away from completing a two year graduate diploma program when I came to this interesting realization.  In almost two years, I haven’t actually shared a field study summary – my personal learning reflections after each term’s inquiry project – with a wider audience.  After doing some research into the idea of teacher reflection this past term, I realized that reflection without participation – without sharing – remains stagnant.

So I’m sharing my project and reflections with you!

It’s a pecha kucha – 20 slides, 20 seconds for each slide.  I welcome your questions, comments, etc.!  Enjoy!

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.

One of the things I love to do in my spare time is introduce people to the mountains that are tantalizingly close to where I work and live.  I find that most people really enjoy getting out into the wilderness but may not know where to go or who to go with – that`s where I come in.  Seeing people’s expressions when standing at the top of some striking peak must be one of the best experiences ever!  Although I’ve done a number of different solo trips, I’ve found that enjoying a mountain top (or most anything in the great outdoors) is best done in the context of community.

Although I love leading people into the wilderness, it’s not always the most relaxing experience for me – especially if I’m on a trail I’ve never been on before.  Not only do I have to ensure that we stay on the right path, I also have to analyze the terrain, route-find if there is no trail, and have a pulse on how my fellow hikers are managing – both physically and emotionally.  To err in any of these areas can have a devastating effect on a trip.  Generally speaking though, the adventure and fun had on such a trip far outweighs any added stress.

I feel like I’m on a very similar journey in my classroom.  For the first time ever, my students are embarked on inquiry learning projects; although I have a rough idea of where I want them to end up, I’m still not sure what the trail looks like between where we’re at right now and our final destination.  In many ways this ‘newness’ adds to the adventure of the experience for everyone, but it’s also somewhat unnerving for me as I let go of some of my ‘teacher’ control.  Yet at the same time, I know I am on the right track when I see the enthusiasm and excitement as my students throw themselves into their questions. I also know I’m on the right track when my students tell me that this process is really hard – yet they continue to persevere.

For some of my students this is the first time I have observed them fully engaged in the learning process.

I still have a lot to learning about the process of inquiry learning and am constantly tweaking the process along the way (and even in the process of writing this I’m realizing that there are some issues I’ll have to address tomorrow in class).  Regardless, I thought I’d share the basic framework of how I’m structuring inquiry learning in my classroom.

Bring on the Inquiry Learning!

Since the beginning of the semester (starting sometime late September) I let my students know that they were going to do an inquiry based project and to start thinking about questions they might be interested in exploring.  I reminded them about this at different times throughout the semester which made it much easier when it came time to craft their question at the beginning of January – most students already had some idea of what they wanted to explore.

The Question

Crafting a question was their first task.  And with it came my first dilemma – how much input do I give them on their questions?  Several of my students had questions that were so big I could envision them getting frustrated by the sheer amount of information they would have to sift through.  In these cases I encouraged them to consider focusing their questions down to something that might be a bit more manageable.  The big thing I had to keep on reminding myself during this process was that these are my students questions – not mine.  Although in many cases I could word their questions in a more powerful or convincing way (and my perfectionist English side was prodding me to do so), I felt that I needed to let them own their question.  In some cases I did offer suggestions to help clarify their question and I also asked numerous questions for them to consider – in some cases it prompted students to change their question.  By and large though, I’ve tried to keep my own vision for their questions to the side and let the process of learning take over.

Planning

After students had their question established, I had them work on putting together a basic plan for how they were going to pursue their inquiry.  They had to brainstorm about possible ways to do research, how they might want to present what they found, and how they would keep a record of their learnings throughout the whole process.

Research

Then the research started.  After a several days of research went by I could tell that the initial enthusiasm my students showed signs of waning.  Some of my students where having trouble finding reliable research and some where getting lost in the sheer amount of information that’s available online.  I gave a number of mini-workshops on how to find reliable information online and in some cases I would sit down with a student and help them find research online.  In other cases I taught students how to skim through large amounts of information and to glean only what they needed for their inquiry.  As the research portion of their inquiry is coming to a close, my students are much more adept at navigating the web and finding relevant, credible information.

The Missing Link

Last week my students began to wrap up their research and started working on how they were going to represent their learnings.  However, as the week progressed I felt strongly that something was missing.  After reflecting about what this niggling feeling could be, I suddenly realized that my students had jumped from their research straight into creating without processing and thinking about what the information they discovered means.  I had not allowed any time to make conclusions from their research.  So the next day I ground the entire inquiry train to a screeching halt and we talked about the missing link – reflection.  To help them in this process I’m getting my students to write informational essays where they are able to draw up some of their own conclusions about their inquiry.  Through the essay, I’m not only teaching my students how to write in a systematic and organized way, I’m also teaching them how to THINK in a systematic and organized way, which will hopefully allow them to make better conclusions from their research.

And that’s where we’re at so far.  The next part will be creating projects where students share their knowledge in a real way with an authentic audience.  I know one student is planning on creating a blog, another will create a series of posters that will go up in the school, and another is thinking about putting together the framework for a video game.  Others are undecided.  It’s been an interesting journey so far and I am looking forward to how all of this will wrap up in the next two weeks.

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