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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.


One of my MA assignments for next week was to talk about my image of students.  For the past week I’ve been grappling with what my image of students looks like.  It’s interesting that in all my years studying and working in the field of education, I haven’t ever had to articulate my view or images of students.  I also recognize that whatever image or images I hold says just as much about me as it does my students.  After some consideration, there are two images, one metaphorical and the other more concrete, that encapsulate my perception of the student.

The first image is of a locked treasure chest.  I see my students as having amazing potential, but often this treasure is tightly locked away, and it’s my job to unlock the creativity, knowledge, skills, and thinking inside.   The majority of students who come into my class seem unaware of the great potential that’s inside them, and if they are aware, they may not know how to access or free their abilities.  Once they have access to what’s inside of them, it becomes my job to teach them how to use it without ‘spending’ it on meaningless or destructive things and going broke.  Unlocking this treasure involves asking lots of questions, challenging their self-perception, worldview, and assumptions about life, and unlearning certain pre-conceptions about school.   I should also clarify that I don’t see my students as objects that need to be fixed or ‘opened’ because I understand that the process of ‘unlocking’ a student requires relationship – it can’t only be done using the curriculum.  This means that I have to look at each student as a unique individual, which, by default, means that the curriculum must be appropriated accordingly.

The second image is a picture I took during a hike with the Adventure Cohort this last fall – in many ways it captures the way I see my students.  Each student in the picture is very unique, each has different strengths and abilities, each has dynamic personalities and gifts.  I love this picture because each of the students is becoming unlocked – they are beginning to be engaged in school, learning, and life.  They are having fun!  Despite the fact that they wouldn’t normally hang out socially, they have come together and are enjoying a moment together – in fact, it is in the act of coming together that many of their strengths are brought to the surface.

Dog Mountain

Several weeks ago I had the amazing opportunity to share about the theoretical framework that informs what I’m doing in my Adventure Co-op at the BCTELA (BC Teachers of English Language Arts) conference in Surrey, BC.  Three other learning centre English teachers and I presented a workshop entitled “Re-engaging the Disengaged” where we spoke on different strategies we’ve found effective for engaging students.  Although there is much more I could’ve shared, time was not so generous, and I could only briefly mention the biggest ideas that support some of the new ways I’m thinking about learning and teaching.  The (edited) notes from this workshop are below.

Risk Taking

I think I discovered why my students didn’t choose the creative assignments I created in my first year of teaching at the learning centre.  Choosing new, creative assignments involves risk and risk can lead to failure.  And many of my most disengaged students have been told that they’re failures by the school system, their parents, friends, and/or society.  A key goal of my co-op is to deconstruct the idea of failure.  To do this we played a computer game called “bloons” (

  • Students experienced failure, but continued trying – they learned from their mistakes.
  • These ideas have started to be embraced in my class.  I told one of my students he had to do part of an assignment over again, to which he responded, “Hey, I failed!” with a big grin on his face!


I’ve stopped giving grades for student work.  How can I expect students to take risks if they’re getting marked on what they do?  Rather, I provide written/verbal feedback for student work so they have the opportunity to improve.  I’ll collect marks at the end of the course when students have had time to learn and practice how to read, write, and think.  This way of assessing takes the emphasis off performance (which can often lead to hoop jumping) and focus on real learning.  When we went over this in my class it was almost as if someone had released a steam valve in my class – the pressure was released.


Another key part of my co-op is rooted in UBD – understanding by design.  When I go hiking I have a destination I’m aiming for – I always know where I’m going.  Unfortunately, until this year, my course was like walking through a thick fog.  Not knowing the purpose behind why you’re doing something is deflating and de-motivating – personally, I get stressed out if I don’t understand the purpose behind an activity or task.  The same should apply for my students.  As such, I created two big questions to guide my entire co-op:

  1. How can I live an adventurous life?
  2. What does it take to be a successful person in the 21st century?

These questions give purpose behind why my students are in my class and are hopefully relevant to their interests and the real world.  For a disengaged student (for any student really) – knowing where they’re going is important.

I’ve also created six essential questions that give focus and direction to my Communications 12 and English 12 students – below are the essential questions for Com 12.  These questions were not haphazardly chosen but carefully and systematically crafted to reflect the big ideas in the PLOs (Prescribed Learning Outcomes) for Com 12.

1.  How can I avoid being controlled by the media?

2. How can I manipulate others through effective communication?

3. What does it take to be a powerful reader?

4. What does it take to get into my dream career?

5. How can I learn to think critically, creatively, and reflectively?

6. How and why should I learn to work together with other people?

Mastery Learning

Another important shift for me this year is a focus on mastery learning.  I want to avoid hoop jumping and ensure my students are actually learning and improving their skills and knowledge base.  To do this, I’ve tried to eliminate all assignments that are not very meaningful (like writing formal letters to the editor) and focus on assignments and projects that give me the most bang for the buck.  Students want to know that they will learn – I guarantee it in my class.

I remember quite clearly when I started my long practicum and my veteran sponsor teacher came up to me with the ‘don’t re-invent the wheel’ spiel.  There was much wisdom in these words during my practicum; however, I think we are approaching a time when perhaps we need to re-create the wheel.  Thoughts?


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