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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.

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.


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!

On October 2, I left for Ottawa to receive the Prime Minister’s Award for Teaching Excellence from Stephen Harper.

It was an amazing, three day experience.  I joined sixteen other teachers, fifteen early childhood educators, and was lucky enough to have my wife and four-week-old son accompany me.  On our first full day in Ottawa, the teachers were given a behind-the-scenes tour of the Canada Science and Technology Museum which definitely was a neat experience.  Afterwards, we cleared security at Parliament and took an in-depth tour of the library.  Following that, we were taken to a small room and prepped to receive our award from Stephen Harper.  My meeting with the Prime Minister was short but memorable!

When it was my time to receive my award, I walked into a small, ornate room where Stephen Harper was standing.  He reached out his hand to shake mine and asked what grade level and subjects I taught.  Then he turned around to pick up the award on a small table he was standing beside and we posed holding the award – *click *click went the camera and away I went with the Prime Minister’s Award for Teaching Excellence!

The whole experience lasted no more than thirty seconds.  Although my time with the Prime Minister was incredibly brief, it highlights a six year journey to revitalize my teaching.  Today I’m teaching from a completely different paradigm than I was six years ago or even two years ago.  My identity as a teacher has been transformed.  Receiving this award is an honour I’ll carry with me for the rest of my teaching career and life – a phenomenal summit experience after an arduous climb.

It was a big day!

Our second day proved to be just as eventful.  In the morning, we attended a reception hosted by the Speaker of the House of Commons and numerous MP’s were also present from the different ridings represented by the recipients.  It was really enjoyable talking with Mark Warawa, the MP from my riding.  After lunch we bussed over to Rideau Hall for a tour and photo op with the Governor General of Canada, David Johnston.  As soon as he entered the room, I liked him.  He walked in with the confidence of a man completely comfortable in his skin.  He came across as intelligent, funny, and very personable – qualities that were made clear as he addressed us and then opened up the floor for questions.  As soon as the discussion finished, we were whisked back onto the bus and driven to 24 Sussex where Mrs. Harper hosted a reception for us!  What a treat!  What made it doubly special was that she held Caleb (my son) for quite a while as she exchanged pleasantries with us!  This was definitely a memorable moment of the trip and one that I will always treasure.

The day of our departure came too quickly.  By this time, I knew many of the recipients much better and was getting to know their stories and the phenomenal work they were doing.  It was truly inspiring to be in the company of so many teachers who are changing the landscape of education across this great nation.  On the final day, all the recipients were broken into subject/topic groups and each recipient was given five minutes to speak on a panel.  It was amazing.  It was something I wish every educator in Canada could’ve been to – I was blown away and challenged hearing what others were doing in their classrooms.  Truly inspiring!

And then I was on a plane heading back to Vancouver.

To call this a whirlwind experience would be an understatement.  To say it was surreal would be trite.  I don’t know how many times I exclaimed to my wife at the end of a long day that I was still having a tough time actually believing all this was happening.  I was still buzzing when I stepped back into my classroom on a cool, rainy October morning the following week.

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!

Last week, for the first time that I can remember in my career as a teacher, I hit the wall.  It was epic.  One minute I’m saving my students from illiteracy and then WHAM – I hit the wall like Wile E Coyote.  In reality, I was teaching an English 12 student how to write an academic essay and she got stuck and couldn’t seem to get unstuck.  And then I got stuck.  I tried pretty much everything I knew how to do to help her understand and nothing seemed to help.  I felt like a vehicle stuck in deep mud or snow and no matter how much you push down on the gas, the tires just keep spinning – going nowhere.  And it wasn’t like I was dealing with a disengaged, couldn’t-care-less-about-school student.  She’s bright and highly motivated.  What kind of teacher can’t teach an engaged, smart, highly motivated student?  Hi.  My name is Jonathan, and I have a problem teaching students who want to learn.  Ok, maybe it wasn’t THAT bad, but there were a number of extended moments during which I began to question my ability to teach.

So I swallowed my professional pride and I did something that isn’t normally in my top list of strategies to use when a student is having difficulty with something in my class – I sent her to another teacher to get some help.  I asked for help.  It was liberating for both me and my student.  When she came back into my class, she had a much better understanding about how to approach her essay and felt encouraged as well.  In talking with the teacher who helped her afterwards, I learned about a number of different approaches that I hadn’t previously considered.  At the end of the day, it was a win-win situation for everyone!


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