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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.

Another wrote:

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.

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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.

 

question

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.

 

 

My sincerest apologies to all of you who are following my blog – I haven’t posted anything in a long, long while.  Since January I’ve been working like a crazy person on my final masters paper.  I will resume service in mid April when I complete my degree!

Until then, take care!

The following is the result of an assignment I had to do for my master’s class.  We had to look at the painting below and connect it to the process of inquiry.  This is what I came up with…

looped painting

Looped Painting Exercise

When I look at this painting and think about how it connects to my journey as a teacher inquirer, several thoughts come to mind.  The black loops that dominate the painting are an obvious connection to the spirals of inquiry that I am currently engaged in.  The loops are not static however, they tell a story of inquiry – a narrative that is both unequivocally personal and wholly relatable by those engaged in the inquiry process.  I find it interesting that the black line has an obvious beginning but no end.  The line disappears off the edge of the painting.  My personal journey in teacher inquiry definitely had a beginning, but now that I’ve started in it, I don’t know how I could ever go back to a time where I am not inquiring in some way.I like how the line leaves the painting in an upward trajectory, indicative that another inquiry might be on its way if the painting were elongated.

Beside each thick black loop are thin black loops that detach themselves from the bigger loops.  These are like the tangents one might follow in the process of data analysis; sometimes they connect back with the bigger inquiry question like in the first loop, but at other times they don’t connect to anything and simply end – perhaps to be rediscovered in another inquiry down the road.  I like how the line is blurred and almost disappears during the second loop, when the question the inquirer is pursuing might seem irrelevant, the data confusing, and for a time, the researcher may enter into a dark night experience where the  narrative is lost for a time, only to be found again later, stronger than ever.  There are also moments of illuminated clarity, sprinkled throughout the paining as yellowish-green dabs, and moments of sustained clarity and insight as seen in the third spiral.

The bleeding of the black line is important too, as our findings, insights, and revelations bleed into other spheres of our life both personally and professionally.  I like how this painting can be examined through both a macro and micro lens; currently, I’m engaged in an inquiry that looks at the connection points between portfolio assessment and student autonomy, but if I zoom out, my story of inquiry started many years ago when I first realized that I was unhappy with the way I was teaching.  It was from that initial unhappiness that gradually lead me to discover the power inquiry could have on revitalizing and changing my practice.  Perhaps, if you were to zoom out even further, life could be seen as a series of spirals of tension and enlightenment – another expression of the natural ebb and flow that is the story of our lives.

The background of this painting is a little more elusive to me.  There appears to be a figure inside the first circle, indicative perhaps of the people who help shape our thoughts and ideas in the process of inquiry, both before we ever started down this road and during the process.  The chosen colours aren’t bright but rather muted.  Perhaps this reveals that the process of inquiry isn’t glamorous but, using the words of Nietzsche “a long obedience in the same direction.”

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.

Tomorrow I leave on a three day, camping adventure with my students!  I’m excited!  We’ll be camping in the serene wilderness of Garibaldi Provincial Park for what will undoubtedly be an unforgetable three days.  An update will follow after the trip!

There are events that happen in life – experiences we go through – that completely and unequivocally change who we are.  My most recent major change was born seventeen days ago – on the second day of the new school year.  My son is a (mostly) happy, healthy baby boy and I am a freaked out, in-love-with-my-son dad.  Life will never go back to what it was pre-baby – from this point on, everything changes.

This change will invariably influence my teaching and who I am as a teacher.  The most noticeable change right now is the diminished time I have available for planning and preparation.  But I wonder about the deeper changes that will happen in me.  Will being a father change the way I interact with or view my students?  Will it change what I think is important pedagogically?  How will these changes manifest?  What will I learn about learning by having a rapidly developing son in the house?  How will I balance raising my son with my love for teaching – will the two even be in competition?

I look forward to this new adventure and for the changes that will happen within me, for the tough choices that will have to be made, and for the new summits that will be reached.

It seems amazing to me that I’ve been blogging off and on for almost two years now and for the most part, my posts have been strictly educational in nature.

I’d like to start changing that – but only slightly.

Over the past year I’ve realized that I can’t divorce who I am from my teaching.  Whether I want to or not, I bring who I am outside of the classroom into my teaching.  I think that part of my journey to become a more authentic educator has meant that I’ve had to come to terms with how my personal life impacts my professional life.  This must be what it means to teach and live with integrity.  The hard part is understanding how to balance the two without jeopardizing my professionalism at work or my personal life while at home.  I think I’m moving closer to reaching this balance, but it will probably be something that I’m always working on.

I’d like this realization to be reflected here.  In the future I’d like to explore how different events in my personal life impact who I am as a teacher.  I hope you – my readers – will enjoy this slight change in direction!

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