Get Real

I have a confession. I LOVE NFL football. That’s somewhat strange because I’m a Canadian female. We have our own professional league. I’m not sure if you knew that. Basically, it’s a lot of players who can’t play in the NFL. There is the occasional quarterback that has played 5 or so years in the CFL, and during that time completely dominates our league winning our “Super Bowl”, the Grey Cup, and then makes the jump to the NFL — Warren Moon, Joe Theisman, and Doug Flutie are some of the more notable ones. But there are also Canadian players too, of course, or it wouldn’t be the CFL.


But I love the NFL. I love the whole thing. I’m part of a survivor pool when football starts. I watch sports commentary shows. I understand what’s going on with every team. Every player. Right now, free agency and hiring season. Love it! And then the night before the draft. I watch Kevin Costner’s Draft Day. Love that movie. I love to see which team drafts well. The Jets were the superstars last year. That was amazing! I obviously love to see what my team does too; we don’t need a quarterback anytime soon. 

I once told my husband the NFL is really just the male version of Desperate House Wives. It should be called The Real Lives of the National Football League. Always drama. Baker? Lamar? AB? Watson? Right now one of the most storied teams in NFL history is waiting for its quarterback to make his decision to play for them, another team, or retire in a dark room for the next 4 days. I could go on… 

So to actually get to the post. I watch a lot of sports shows. And I’m always looking up commentators, and I usually end up on their Wikipedia page. I want to see if you’re a former football player and you know what you’re talking about, or if you’re a journalist. I frequently look to see if they won the whole shooting match and do they have the golden jacket. There’s a strip down the side with all their accomplishments. Their awards, pro bowl selections, MVPs and Super Bowls, and of course, if they’re in the Hall of Fame. 

I also use it for all kinds of things. Sometimes I’m interested in players I know little about. Sometimes I’m comparing quarterback heights because I find it interesting how certain quarterbacks seem to play differently because of their height. Right before the Super Bowl, I learned how different the paths to the NFL the two Kelce brothers had. It’s all in Wikipedia. I’m guessing someone maybe wrote an article on it, but I’d have to Google, and to be honest, I wasn’t actually looking for that. I found it interesting that physically they are almost night and day different – and I lamented for their parents. Their grocery bills while those boys were teenagers must have been through the roof. One is a first ballot hall of fame centre – at 295 pounds and 6′ 3″ the other is an offensive weapon that is 6′ 5″ and weighs in around 250 – also a first ballot hall of famer. 

My husband and I were talking about a former quarterback turned analyst and I asked my husband if he was a good quarterback. He did go to the Super Bowl. His passer rating was in the mid 70’s. Then to compare I looked up Tom Brady’s. And then Burrow’s. Mid-70’s is not going to get you into the hall of fame. As I looked at Burrow’s page. I looked at the bottom. It’s been recently updated. As recent as two weeks. I read through all of it. I know the story. There were a few things I learned. But there are actually things I could add. I would have to go find the source. 

I remember when I was a kid when we did research we copied it out of the Encyclopaedia from the set we owned — word for word. That was our research. Our teachers had to have known it was copied word for word. I’m sure in our copied-back versions of the Beaver or the Ottoman Empire or whatever our 10-year-old selves were studying didn’t sound anything like our everyday language.

Will Richardson told me a number of years ago, there are as many errors in Wikipedia as there are in hard-copy Encyclopaedias. Wikipedia actually tried an experiment where they put errors in one of their articles -intentionally changed it. And over so many hours 3 or 6. They were changed back. After hearing this, I always allowed my students to use Wikipedia.

Free agency is about to open, Wikipedia changes are going to occur rapidly, some with great anticipation. And then, then Draft Weekend… Which means another wave of information is going to change in some what close to real time. 

Here’s the rub How many times do we get kids to do REAL THINGS?

Our students all have a passion for something. They all love something. But let’s teach them how to research, take that passion, and use it for something real. Something the world can use like Wikipedia. 

I don’t know who created the Joe Burrow page. Or who adds to it. Are they fans? Journalists? The day the Queen died, someone thought to add it to her page and decide what the reputable source was. Or the day Brady really retired. And someone will think to add whatever he transitions to next. 

Sean Payton recently signed with Broncos, as their head coach. His page just changed, as did the Broncos. There are rumours that Rex Ryan might be his DC. Do you want to get kids interested in local events, in the world events, you already have guys who are excited about sports, and girls too.

More than the 5 Paragraph Essay

Can we ask more of our students than the 5 paragraph essay with 3 or 4 sources. Can we stop thinking so little of them? I once had students research enough to create a Holocaust Museum — that’s weeks of research. The greatest gift we have to offer our students is that we should be the best learners in the room. We should be able to help them learn how to learn, and how they best learn. I’ve written blog posts on these. Can they research and learn enough about their topic, and it can be something they really love to add to the world is some way? I once had two students, who loved NFL football. When they did the typical hero essay, he wrote about Kurt Warner. This kid knew everything about him. His story to the NFL. How he never gave up. Warner was still playing at the time. Now he has the gold jacket. But I bet my student could’ve added to his wiki page, and would’ve done so with enthusiasm. 

Students do amazing work if they know others are going to see it

I’ve had students create a Holocaust museum that people came to visit for 3 days. I’ve had students raise over 22,000 to rebuild schools in wartorn countries. And they’ve made videos against slavery. 

My English Curriculum states that it exists to:

Understanding how language works (e.g., discourse,
registers, sociolinguistic features and functions, cues
and conventions) and using purposefully “grammatical”
conventions for purpose and effect

Using visual, multimedia, oral, and written communication
competently, appropriately, and effectively for a range of

Participating in, contributing to, and making connections
with the world beyond the classroom.

There are a whole lot of teachers who are missing the contributing and participating in the world beyond the classroom — that allow students to tap into what they like and help them begin to understand who they are.

In Wikipedia, there are pages changing all the time with news stories and current events, and biographies of people as they change. Some biographies and stories are incomplete and need more help. They tell you so. What if your classroom could be the one to help give authenticity to a page? Conversely, you may find errors and clear them up. 

Is there something in your town/city that a Wikipedia page could be created for? Is there a festival you have? Something unique to your location — it can be a place, building or item that is historically significant. Let’s help our students give back to the world and be content creators, not just consumers. 

Free agency opens March 15. NFL Draft Day opens April 27, 2023. We’ve seen mock drafts. We think we know how the draft is going to go. But we really don’t until it opens. Remember Pittsburgh taking their quarterback in the first round? And the Patriots first pick? 258 lives are going to be changed that day. You’ve got time to prepare your class. You’ve got time to look at previous bios. You’ve got time to look at what they used for their sources. Are you ready to jump and be part of history?

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The Process of Project-Based Learning

People have asked me when I teach project-based learning or inquiry, do I teach my students about the process. Yes. The process is really important to what students are learning: So at the beginning, student are introduced to the stages of the process and are eventually given more and more responsibility and freedom over the process as they acquire the skills needed. At the same time, I don’t belabour the process, because, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to them without action behind it.

One of the things many teachers have also mentioned to me is “there is content to teach”. We all have content to teach. However, content is not meant to covered. Blankets are for covering things. The role of the teacher is to help students discover.  Content can actually be discovered, and I’m not talking about assigning page 89- 92. Discovery is how they learn best.  Students should Discover how to fail. Discover how to create. Discover how to reflect. Discover how to collaborate. Discover their voice. Discover who they are. All of this should be happening in our classrooms.

Inquiry or Project-based learning does not mean the classroom is a free for all.  Great Inquiry requires planning. For example, if I were to create an inquiry unit around the Golden Age of Islamic Discovery I would start with my essential questions:

  • How did the Arab empire become so large and influential?
  • As a historian, research and evaluate one area of the Arab Golden Age that influenced modern society.
  • How did this vast, knowledgeable Empire disappear?
Core Competencies in Islamic Golden Age Unit:
Use Social Studies inquiry processes and skills to: ask questions; gather, interpret, and analyze ideas; and communicate findings and decisions
Assess the significance of people, places, events, and developments at particular times and places (significance)
Determine what is significant in an account, narrative, map, and text(significance)
Characterize different time periods in history, including periods of progress and decline, and identify turning points that mark periods of change (continuity and change)
Determine what factors led to particular decisions, actions, and events, and assess their short-and long-term consequences (cause and consequence)go
Make ethical judgments about past events, decisions, and actions, and assess the limitations of drawing direct lessons from the past (ethical judgment)
Explain different perspectives on past or present people, places, issues, and events, and compare the values, worldviews, and beliefs of human cultures and societies in different times and places (perspective)

By outlining the three questions for my students, I start with a What do we Need to Know Chart, and they can fill it up with all the things we need to might need to know. This is a working draft.  We can come back to it at anytime. I then create a second chart, How might we learn these? You might get a kid who says the internet, but I always have them try to dig deeper than something that easy.

For this particular unit, I would then introduce the unit with this video

What’s interesting is that the Roman Empire is often considered the largest to ever conquer the world. And yet, if you look at the map

of the areas under Muslim rule, it was a much larger empire. This is something I would consider exploring with my students. Is it true? How do we find out? Why have we been sold the bill of goods that the Romans were so much bigger? Why are we taught about the Romans every year in grade 7 and why do we never hear about the Islamic Golden Age even though its discoveries are still incredibly influencle today?





Using Content To Teach Skills

One of the reasons I teach the inquiry process is because I intentionally use the content to teach the skills. The first skill is summarization. I’ve found over and over, even at the high school level, my students cannot effectively summarize a text into a paragraph, or a paragraph into a sentence I start by giving  them 2 different techniques they may choose to use.

Here is how it works:

First I teach the difference between summarization and paraphrasing. There’s a difference. Many kids don’t know that. Some adults don’t either.

Read the article or section of text.

Create and fill-out a 3-2-1 chart like this:

3 Things You Found Out from the passage 2 Interesting Things from the passage 1 Question You Still Have after reading the passage





  • From these 3-2-1 points you collected you would then write a short paragraph to report your findings.

Reading for Gist

The word Gist means to look for the essence of the text or the main ideas.  To help you do this, you would identify the 5 W’s (who, what, where, when, why) and the H (how) of the document.  

Here is how it works:

  1.    Read the article or section of text.
  2.    Fill in the 5 Ws and H

With the understanding of the 5 W’s and H, you then use these details to write a short GIST summary.

Students are then given a text to read. This begins to give students additional background knowledge they will need before they will be able to dive in further to the inquiry. At the same time they’re building valuable skills.Once students have read the text, they will submit the formative assessment below.


Question:  What is the Islamic Golden Age of Discovery?

I used the ____________ summary technique (3-2-1, GIST or Underlining) for this text because __________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Note: What are three of the main ideas of this historical text you would like to feature:

  1.    ___________________________________________________________
  2.    ___________________________________________________________
  3.    ___________________________________________________________

Step 1 – Make and overarching comment about the Inquiry Question.

Step 2 – Write a sentence or two about each of the main ideas that stood out to you.

Step 3- Write a final remark to summarize the answer to the Inquiry Question.


Time for you to practice and show me what you have learned.

Assignment Rubric:

4 Points 3 Points 2 Points 1 Point
Main Idea Correctly identifies the main idea in a clear and accurate manner. Correctly identifies most of main idea in a complete sentence. Identifies an important idea but not the main idea in a complete sentence. Identifies a detail but not the main idea.
SupportingDetails Clearly states 2 or more important details using own words or statements. States at least 2 important details with some paraphrasing of information. States at least 1 important detail. Demonstrates little if any paraphrasing. Includes unnecessary details. Does not demonstrate any paraphrasing.

I would do this several more time with articles or various texts to build background knowledge around the topic and to begin developing students ability to summarize.

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The Difference

Martin GommelI think for as long as teaching has existed, there’s likely always been “that” teacher. You know the one. The one riding out the last couple of years until retirement arrives.  None of his students are really receiving the education they deserve, but nobody says much.

Except, this year, my 12 year daughter has “that” teacher. The teacher who yells. And intimidates. And does little.  Then throw in all of the middle school drama, and you get a horrible first 4 months of school. The difference now, however, is that riding out ones’ time can be veiled with the guise of “collaborative, student-directedlearning”, which is what the curriculum advocates. Right?

Not so much. Inquiry, student-driven learning, personalized learning, whatever you’d like to call it doesn’t leave kids in the dark. It doesn’t let kids flounder and flail in an immense sea of confusion and lack of instruction. Instead, it guides and supports students so they can become strong, self-directed learners.

I’m often asked how this is accomplished. How does a teacher start? Start with one subject, and keep in mind that you’re using content to teach skills. I start with new learners in a tightly designed and defined learning environment.

When we start learning about a topic, I provide my student with a number of curated resources of different media: a video, a podcast, and an article or two, and tell my students they can learn in any way they want. By doing this my students begin to get a feel for how they learn, while learning some of the background information they may need. Do they need to hear it or see it? Do they need to read it? Do they need to take hand written notes or can they type? I also talk about my own learning. I prefer to read things, but I also learn well if I hear something and write it down. I have to physically write it. Typing doesn’t work. No idea why.

I then begin to give my students tools to research and to bookmark.  If there’s one essential question they’re answering they can choose their area of interest. For example, if the question is how has the Roman Empire impacted today’s world?, they can choose any one of a large number of things based on their interest.  I provide tools to allow them to curate their research, my favourite being OneNote, but I’ll write a whole post on that.

Finally, the first time we do this, I give them 3 options in how they can show their learning. That’s it. If they have a different way, that’s great, they can come talk to me and we’ll discuss their choice. But limiting choice in the beginning is important for students, so they don’t become overwhelmed, which is easy depending on the student and their age. Even high school students can become easily overwhelmed, if they’ve been spoon-fed everything.

Personalized learning is never a free-for-all. Ever.  Over the next couple of weeks I’ll write a number of posts talking about how I’ve personally designed learning environments so that students are equipped with the skills they need to take on more and more responsibility for their learning — allowing them to passionately pursue their interests, while meeting curricular requirements. It takes a lot of thought to create this type of environment, but our students are better off for it.



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The Jagged Edge

3081313302_52c663eb6a_m-2When you  lead change, when you engage in innovation, when you go against what is safe or the status quo practice, you live on the jagged edge.

And when you live on the jagged edge, you’re going to bleed.

When I first began this journey five years ago, it came as a shock when I ruffled feathers. When people didn’t like what I was doing.  Or when they didn’t understand it. Or, at times, when they even tried to oppose what I was doing. There are people who jumped to conclusions without even asking me, or talked behind my back. Some people were bolder and emailed or said it to my face, the latter being quite rare. Sometimes it hurt so much I cried.

I would love to give some pollyanna account that 5 years later it doesn’t bother me. But I’d be lying.

I’m still often misunderstood, even by people who ask for my insight. I receive email that cuts so deeply that I’m shocked at the meanness of it. Today I’m dealing with this very situation. The first time I read it, there is this moment where what is being said about you begins to sink in, and you feel the pain because of it.  The second time I read it, I felt the full force of it, and I cried.  And then I shared it with my husband.

Thankfully, he’s a wise man. He told me to never read it again. To delete it. There is no good to come of reading it over and over.  I think he actually used the phrase, “Haters, gonna hate”, but I’ll let that one go. And he’s right. There are times when you need to confront people, and there are times to disagree and let it go. Even when it hurts. A lot.  Rereading or replaying those situations only does more damage to us.

I don’t say this flippantly or dismissively. It doesn’t mean I don’t hurt; I do. It doesn’t mean I don’t get angry or frustrated; I do. It doesn’t mean I don’t get hung up on it at times and replay it far too often; I do. It doesn’t mean that I don’t feel like walking away from the whole thing; I do. Trust me, I do

Instead, I need to be reminded why I do what I do.

For me, it comes from an unlikely source. I don’t watch NFL football; so for me, it’s not about the Seahawks, for which many of you are, likely, thankful. I’ve watched this video four times today. Sometimes I close my eyes and listen to the words over and over and over.


When you lead change, there are people who either can’t change or won’t.  There are people to whom you are a threat. But we cannot allow ourselves to dwell here. There are too many kids who desperately need their voices to be heard. Who need change, so they can discover and develop their gifts, passions and minds. There are teachers who need to be empowered and are hungry for learning and developing new ways of teaching and learning.

It takes courage to act. It takes courage to start over again.

So in spite of today, I’m in control here. I’m coming back. And I’ll be stronger and better because of it.

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When Life Happens.

6989656297_c73f114556_mI haven’t blogged in a long time. I used to blog a fair amount, and in truth, it’s often the way I process  what is going on in my teaching and thinking. At times, it has been a place where I’ve shared what is going on in my life. Not often. But sometimes. To be honest, I struggle using it this way. Friends like George Couros and Dean Shareski often talk about their lives on their blog. But for me, I’ve seen this as a professional place. And yet, so often the two things collide or intermingle.

What I’ve learned in the past couple months is life can change in a second. It’s the phone call. The diagnosis. The knock on the door.

My story revolves around my parents.

My dad is diabetic and, for whatever reason, it’s been very difficult to manage. At the end of August, he had his second leg amputation. My dad is a strong person. He’s a farm kid.  The “let’s get on with it” type.  Rehabilitation was going well, and then, all of a sudden, he had pneumonia, and was hospitalized for several weeks.  The consequence of this is he no longer had the strength to continue his rehabilitation.

Then the phone call came.  Dad was being moved to long term care. I woke up that morning with one life, and then, with that call, I had a different one. My mom, suddenly, became the sole caretaker of the house they’ve lived in for 45 years.  A house too big for her to take care of. A house we would now need to sell.

Consequently, during the last month and a half, I have downsized 45 years worth of my parent’s possessions, so we can sell the house.  I have reflected, deeply, over how much time we spend amassing possessions that, in the end, are put in a box and sent to charity.  At the same time, I’ve tried to support my mom as she deals with the loss of her husband and her first home.

It’s been exhausting. It’s been difficult.  It’s been overwhelming. And most of all, it hurts. I’ve had to learn how to help my mom best. How to figure out what’s most important. How to deal with our new reality. And how to help encourage and keep my dad’s spirits up. It’s difficult to see your parents age, and nobody really tells you that.

As the dust has settled, we’ve decided to sell our house and move to Regina to buy a house with a suite for my mom. It’s important to us to give my parents the best quality of life possible. But quite honestly, I think the benefits will go both ways. My girls are excited to be able to spend more time with Grandma. She can sew and knit, and they’re both keen to learn. And they also want to be able to visit Grandpa more.

I’ve also recently accepted a position as Assistant Director of Curriculum Development with an online school. A position I’m excited about, but is not without difficulty. We’re at the beginning of course rewrites in response to a new curriculum. We’re creating courses that are inquiry, project & problem based, and allow for a great deal of student choice. My goal is for as much authentic learning to occur as possible.

I’m also excited about students shifting from consumers to creators. In the fall, I’m going to be facilitating an online version of Genius hour and hour of code.

Additionally, I’ll be starting my doctorate at the Werklund School of Education, at the University of Calgary, in Learning Sciences this summer.

As I reflect, one of the most important qualities I’ve had to rely on is resilience.  In all of the complex and minute details of this, I haven’t been faced with a true or false question, and I didn’t get fill in any blanks. I wasn’t given a multiple choice as to whether or not we wanted our lives to change.  My life changed. And I needed to respond. You only become resilient by fighting for it.

We need to help kids develop resilience.  They need to wrestle with problems. They need to to fail. They need to persevere.  They need to be faced with many questions or problems that have no one right answer.  Or maybe are to big to answer. Some of these problems, like social justice issues, should be so big and passionate they hurt. And they make you cry. Because you need to be able to hurt and get up again.

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How to create a student-centred classroom? One small step at a time.

Teachers who are interested in shifting their classrooms often don’t know where to start. It can be overwhelming, frightening, and even discouraging, especially when no one else around you seems to think the system is broken.

A question I’m asked often is “Where should a teacher begin?”  Should teachers just let students go or is there a process to good student-centred inquiry?  I’ve reflected on  this a fair amount, and I think small strategic steps are the key.  I think letting students “go” without any structure will likely create failure, especially if students haven’t spent much time collaborating.  Skills need to be modelled.

Many teachers have likely engaged in some type of inquiry or project-based learning, but with frustrating or dismal results. I hear things like, “students weren’t on task”, “one student bossed most of the kids around”, “the end product wasn’t very good”, and many more. I’ve had these same experiences.  What I’ve come to realize when I see these “behaviours” for lack of a better term, it’s likely telling me students are missing skills, or a structure to help them through the learning process. It’s my job to ask kids questions to find out what’s really going on.

When I start with a new group of students, the design is tight.  Choice is given, but I often pick the topic and options for student voice. I model skills like collaboration, thinking out loud about my learning, and explicating integrating tech and why it’s being used. I also add particular group activities that help kids develop these skills, and use rubrics, like those found on the BIE website, to help them assess their own ability to collaborate, etc.

I’ve also discovered I need to teach the difference between collaboration and cooperation. Most students have been taught to cooperate. “Play nice in the sandbox”.  Collaboration is an entirely different thing. Many adults don’t know how to collaborate well.


Start with creating one inquiry unit in one subject. You can jump in and change everything at once like I did, but that’s slightly crazy. Instead, if you design one unit in one subject, at the end of each day, or week, you can analyze what worked and what didn’t. While teaching doesn’t always leave a lot of time for luxuries like reflection, it really is the key to figuring out inquiry learning, and as the teacher, it’s one of your most important roles.

Sometimes you may not understand why certain things aren’t working. Ask your students. I’m often surprised by how much they know and how adept they are at articulating what they need.

Two of the best resources I’ve found for creating an inquiry classroom are Carol Kuhlthau’s work and Alberta Learning’s Guide to Inquiry Learning.

If you don’t know how to create an inquiry classroom, ask me. I’m happy to help. You can begin by posting comments here. If you need resources, I can probably point you to some. Over the past year, I’ve had the opportunity to email, Skype and, if distance allows, have teachers, administrators and superintendents visit my classroom to see what we do.


Talk to your students about their learning — a lot.  Especially in the beginning, I talk to my students about why my classroom is structured differently than every other class in our school. I show them Ken Robinson’s talk about how the 20th century school system doesn’t really prepare students anymore.  I also show them Chris Lehmann’s TED-X talk emphasizing howeducation is broken and Karl Fisch’s Did You Know?.

I tell my students that essentially I’m preparing them for jobs that don’t currently exist, that will use technology which hasn’t been invented yet, to fix problems we’re not currently aware of. They get the point. It’s about developing skills and habits of learning, and we use content to do that.

But I also talk to my student’s about stuff like how their brain works, and how neural connections need to be made. That often, in order for students to learn something new, it needs to be attached to things they already know. Just before the recent break, during the last week of school, we talked about cognitive dissonance and Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development. They like to know there’s a reason for the way they feel when they don’t “get it.” And they like to know that everyone’s zone of development is different. In fact, they were amazed to find out everyone’s brain is different.

And, yes, I use the big words. I simply explain what they mean. I don’t use them to sound smart. I use them because it makes my students feel smart; most of our society doesn’t treat our students like they’re capable of understanding or doing much. I do.


Embed technology in ways that are authentic to the learning process. The first tools that I teach my students are Google Docs, Diigo or Delicious to bookmark their research, and Symbaloo to house their tools.

Experience has taught me that the first day I introduce a class to Google Docs, we will get nothing done. To them, it’s the most amazing thing ever. They usually spend most of the class typing back and forth to each other in the doc. No big deal. However, eventually, my students open Google Docs without me telling them to. I have students who literally use them for every lab, essay, and assignment. And the ability for a group to work on and edit the same document at the same time, more than makes up for the initial class we lose.

The social media tools we used to show our learning in our slavery unit seemed like the most natural and logical tools to use. As a learning community, we want our learning to extend beyond the four walls of our classroom. So we have a discussion, or likely multiple discussions, about what that should look like. We also want our projects to have “real world” implications. What’s more real world than advocacy against modern-day slavery using social media?

Essentially these are the two criteria we use to assess the product we’re going to create. How do we extend our learning beyond our classroom — and how can what we do here make a difference to the real world?  Our tool selection is guided by the answers to these questions.


Remember that inquiry learning is an emotional process. Each stage of learning has specific emotions attached to it, and at some point, you and your students will likely hit the wall. That’s normal.

I’ve found that we need to talk more as an inquiry class. My role is to be well aware of how my students are doing emotionally, especially when we’re dealing with a weighty, overwhelming topic like slavery. While this may not matter much in a traditional classroom, it can completely blow apart a community learning through inquiry.

I won’t promise you that any of this will be easy. It’s not. You’ll likely have days when you wonder why you ever started it. But trust me, it’s worth it.

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Your Turn.

untitledI love social justice.  I love empowering people to make a difference in their own lives. It’s what I do with my students. It’s what I try to do globally, as well.  One of my favourites? Kiva. And this month, in honour of International Women’s Day, you have the opportunity to help a woman change her life, and the life of her family — at no cost to you. Seriously.

On March 8, millions of people worldwide will celebrate the 104th International Women’s Day. While many gains have been made, the dream of women’s equality is still far from reality. The truth. In the year 2015 inequality is still all around us. Opportunity is not equal. Education is not equal. Wealth is not equal.

But dreams… all dreams are created equal. And that’s where we can start.

In honor of International Women’s Day – and the days that follow – Kiva has launched to spotlight the power of women to create sustainable change when everyday people lend their support.

By visiting you can back a dream by choosing a woman that Kiva should lend $25 to. There is no cost to you. By choosing her, you help her to follow her dream of starting or growing her business, sending her children to school, and gaining financial independence.

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Pardon, me?

522627013_3421e45562_mI learned early in my teaching career that the simplest things are sometimes the most powerful. Like the power of communication.

During my internship, I had one student who I didn’t get along with. At all. Day after day we seemed to be at odds with each other. I had no idea why. And being new at this teaching thing, it didn’t occur to me to ask. But that all changed with one phone call. You may be thinking I called his parents to discuss his disruptive, antagonistic behaviour. I didn’t. It was actually the exact opposite. I called to tell his parents how well he was doing in my class. It was true. He happened to get one of the top marks on the assignment we did that week.

From the first week of my internship, I took the time every Friday to call the parents of students who had done well on assignments, projects, or tests in my class. His parents must have said something to him because after that our relationship completely changed. He became the student I connected with the most. One phone call.

Over the past 15 years, I’ve taught students from grade 9-12, and over and over, when I call parents to express praise of their child. There tends to be the same response. “Pardon, me?” or dead silence at first. Too often the only communication that comes from a school is negative. Or if things are going well — none.  I wonder if a step as small as this can pay huge dividends towards creating relationships between teachers and parents. Every child does something well. I especially love when an answering machine picks up because then the child can hear it. And some will play it over and over.

And too be honest, I loved the stunned reaction of parents. It told me I was doing something right.

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Please, Stop Calling Students Lazy.

I hIMG_1712ate it when teachers call their students lazy. Or when they refer to having the class from “Hell”. When teachers say that do they really know what they’re saying? I’m offended when I hear that. I think a student’s parents would be offended to hear it. What about the students themselves?  If a teacher thinks that poorly of their student or class, do we think that can be easily hidden?

I’ve actually never met a lazy student. Bored? Yep. Disengaged? Yep. Unmotivated by irrelevant academic hoops? Yep. But lazy? No.

The truth is I was one of those kids. Most of my marks throughout elementary & high school were pretty dismal. Usually it was because I was bored. Worksheet after worksheet. I skipped most of high school. I even skipped most of University. One can only handle so many lectures.  It wasn’t until Grad school that I began to flourish in academics. Most places, things haven’t changed a lot, so let’s not blame our students.

Yesterday, I FaceTimed with my 10 year-old. School had been boring, except for Gym. Yet, the one thing she talked animatedly about was her upcoming school science fair prIMG_0946oject. She loves the project fair. Why? Because she can study things she cares about. For as long as I can remember, she has wanted to be a marine biologist. Poor girl. We live in a land locked province. Two years ago her project was on dolphins. Last year, sharks. This year the coral reef. She’s excited about designing one. Bored? Yes. Lazy? No. She reads voraciously. She’s read the Harry Potter series. The Hunger Games. And is just finishing the last Percy Jackson book. She just turned 10. But she never talks about what she reads in school. Is she lazy? No. Bored? Yes. This is the same girl who figure skates 4 times a week; twice a week this requires her to get up at 6:30 in the morning. She has a variety of interests, but school rarely touches on them.

That’s not to say as a teacher I haven’t had kids with challenging behaviours. My students learned very quickly that I wouldn’t tolerate being disrespected, but I cared about who they were and what they need. At the same time, I use to rant about kids who wouldn’t do what I wanted them to do. And that’s really the key. It’s what I wanted them to do. For a long time I didn’t take into consideration the voices of my students. However, once I started to, the whole dynamic in my classroom changed.

Too often teachers are the ones who value academics that don’t really matter. I’ve been giving this a great deal of thought lately. Is it crucial to anyone’s life that they know what a synecdoche is? How many of you reading this need to Google it to know what it is? Yet, your life has probably gone on quite fine, maybe even better, without knowing what it is. No. I’m not going to tell you. I’ll make you do the work.

How often do we major on the minors? I’ve never taken calculus. I don’t understand it. I don’t want to. Does that make me lazy? Unmotivated, sure. But, lazy? Most people who know me would not choose that as an adjective to describe me.

Let’s think really carefully before we label kids lazy and classes from Hell. Yesterday I tweeted out how much I hate when teachers call students lazy. Another educator responded:

A teacher at my gym bragged about posting article showing area test scores to remind his class about “how lazy they are.” WTH?

In turn, I responded:

Wow. If area test scores were posted to show how lazy teachers are, there would be outrage. At the very least.

And I know that happens too.

I think what teachers mean when they talk like this is kids who aren’t compliant. Who won’t jump the hoops or play the right game. And yet, often as adults, these are the innovators who are lauded for their ability to go against the crowd, think differently, and not be dissuaded by public opinion. Sometimes these are our heroes.

School should be a place where kids can discover what they love. They should be able to ask the questions that matter to them and pursue the answers. They should discover what they are passionate about, what truly sets their hearts and souls on fire. They should discover they can make a difference now. Above all, they should leave school knowing what they are good at. I fear too many are judged by if they’ll do what we “want”.  And if they don’t, they’re lazy or they’re labelled as the class from Hell.

Our school system doesn’t need to create kids who are good at school. Instead, we need to create an environment that engages learners, fosters creativity, and puts responsibility for learning where it belongs – with our students.

Instead of rote learning, teachers need to use content to teach skills. We need to build environments that allow our students to get messy and build things. Places where students learn how to learn, and know how they learn best. Where students engage in significant research, and learn how to identify credible resources amidst a plethora of information that, at times, may seem overwhelming.

And if we don’t do that. We can’t blame our students for not engaging. So please, stop calling students lazy.

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The McDonaldization of Education: the rise of slow

5792035508_fb667bdb01_zSlow.  I love this word, and yet it tends to have many negative connotations  in education. Which is too bad because it’s the very philosophy we need to save our education system, and give kids the time and space necessary to grow into the thoughtful, articulate citizens we desperately need them t0 become.

The 20th Century is known for many things. It’s mass destruction. Statistics show we managed to destroy each other and plunder the planet at a rate unequal to any other time in history. At the same time, it was also a time of great exploration, innovation and technological advance. The exploration of space. The eradication of disabling and fatal diseases. Increased global awareness. Gaining at least some measure of equality for groups who are disenfranchised.

However, the thing that stands out most vividly is what Canadian journalist Carl Honore describes as “the cult of speed”.  Slow ways of life have largely disappeared. Many see them as ancient, naive, or largely impractical.  Instead, we live in an instant world, where most often if you ask someone how they are, the reply is busy, as if the response justifies one’s existence on the planet. Few people stop to ask if what we’re so busy doing is actually worth the energy we’re expending.

According to Honore, fast and slow “are shorthand for ways of being, or philosophies of life. Fast is busy, controlling, aggressive, hurried, analytical, stressed, superficial, impatient, active, quantity-over-quality. Slow is the opposite: calm, careful, receptive, still, intuitive, unhurried, patient, reflective, quality-over-quantity. It is about making real and meaningful connections with people — culture, work, food, everything.”

Unfortunately, our education system, at least in North America, has been deeply influenced by the “need for speed”, or what George Ritzer has termed “McDonaldization” — that is, “the process by which the principles of the fast food industry are coming to dominate more and more sectors of the world.

Ritzer outlines four characteristics of this mechanistic worldview: efficiency, predictability, calculability (quantifiable results) and control — or at least the illusion of control. In regards to education, McDonaldization attempts to wipe out any of the messiness or inefficiencies of learning. Instead, it attempts to reduce it to a commodity that can be packaged, marketed and sold. Rather than cultivating a deep, holistic love of learning that touches every aspect of a student’s life, learning has been reduced to an assembly line. In reality, we’ve imposed a mechanistic view of life onto how people learn, which is largely an organic process, and at a great cost.

Education continues to rapidly adopt short-cuts that reflect the dimensions of McDonaldization. Essentially, this imposition seeks the most efficient (read, easiest) way to get a student from kindergarten to grade 12 .  In an assembly line, things are homogenized as much as possible. In education we tend to see this in the assumption that the most important thing a group of kids have in common is the year they are born.

Efficiency has also the birthed the idea that teachers can be replaced by Khan Academy, and the ridiculous class sizes that many teachers now have to deal with. I don’t doubt that the Khan Academy can transmit information, but that’s assuming that the transition of information is the most important part of learning. Can it help to develop our children into thoughtful , ethical citizens, who critically evaluate, rather than being swayed by the flavour of the day? Does it create citizens, instead of consumers? When learning is treated as one more product to be consumed, a horrible disconnect occurs in our students. It becomes about the mark. It becomes about the diploma. It becomes about the end justifying a lot of terrible means.

And if a student is not quite ready to read when it’s introduced, if they’re “slow”, if they mess with the efficiency and control of the system, then they often pay the price for the rest of their lives. Kids are labelled as being not “academic”, as if being academic is the most important quality a child can possess. Creativity is quashed. Curiosity is quelled. It may also explain the huge amount of student disengagement we see in today’s classrooms.

Predictability causes the standardization of a curriculum, and the way it’s taught, with little or no regard for student interest, background or ethnicity. Every student must be able to display the same skill (or regurgitation of content knowledge) at the same time. However, it’s important to be able to calculate if any of this is making a difference, so a system of high stakes testing is introduced.

In some cases, test scores are up, whatever that means. But our students are also more stressed and disengaged from their learning. They can jump hoops, but most have little idea about what they’re passionate about. Of course, another caveat is that it’s not clear what the long term costs of all of these methods will be. What does it do to a child to spend 12 years stressed out by tests or not measuring up to an arbitrary standard usually created and advocated by someone who can’t pass “the test” themselves?

And of course, there must be a way to control those involved. Fear. Fear of losing one’s job. Fear of losing funding. Fear of embarrassing test results being published. Fear of one’s child not being able to get into college to get a “good” job. There’s an awful lot of fear in education today, and the truth is, we have no idea what the long term cost of this is either. We know in the short term, we lose a lot of new teachers in the first five years. We know that others quit early or need stress leave. We know that children are more heavily medicated now more than any other time in history. So how do we change all of this insanity?

Enter the slow movement

For awhile now, I’ve been researching and thinking deeply about the slow movement. The Slow Food movement is a grass roots movement that began in 1989 in Italy. Over the past 25 years, it has branched out to other areas of life that have been co-opted by speed & efficiency.

The Slow Food movement abdicates the industrial food conglomerates, and seeks to reconnect citizens to the richness of a common life with the neighbours who grow and prepare our food. The Slow movement is a call for intentionality, an awareness of our mutual interdependence with all people and all creation. And it seeks to root people in their community.

Slowness doesn’t require everything be done as slow as possible. Instead, it seeks to do things well & at the right speed.

So what does the Slow movement mean for education? It asks us to reimagine what it means to be a community of learners.  It requires us to admit to, and evaluate the organic, messiness of learning. It requires admitting that a large part of what is happening isn’t good for our children, our teachers, or our communities. Rather than a top down industrialized and homogenized assembly line of education, we need a grass roots development of education that takes into account what real learning looks like and what children really need.

Instead we need a reimaging of what learning can be: Slow Education. As Honore states, “We are doing a great disservice to our children by pushing them so hard to learn things earlier and earlier and by keeping them so busy. They need time and space to slow down, to play, to be children. Across the world, parents, politicians, adults in general are so anxious about children nowadays that we have become too interventionist and too impatient; we don’t allow them enough freedom. ”

The principles of the Slow Food movement are good, clean, and fair. I imagine the principles of the Slow Education movement as authentic, individualized, and formative.

Authentic education requires that learning not be based on worksheets, standardized tests, or the myriad of other terrible things we subject children to. Instead, it allows children of all ages to engage in real, meaningful work that matters to them and their community. Learning that gives them an authentic purpose and a role in society, other than consumer-in-training. It allows students to discover the everyday citizens in their community and how they are working to make it a better place. Furthermore, it empowers kids with the opportunity to identify and seek solutions to the problems in their community. As a consequence of these changes, it seeks to re-educate our communities to see students as authentic, active participants in community life. Authentic education is also an act of justice. It’s about allowing kids the chance to explore social issues and helping them become ethical citizens who speak out and make a difference.

Individualized. Enough homogeneity. Education must be responsive to the real needs of students. We need to shift to using content to teach skills, student interest and most importantly teaching kids how to learn. It needs to put the onus of learning on those who have the most at stake: students. It requires teachers to become co-learners, and let go of control. It requires districts to trust administrators, administrators to trust teachers, and teachers to trust students. It requires a great deal of conversation about what real learning is and why it matters. It allows kids to explore what matters to them, to build things that don’t work, and to figure out why. It requires them to form opinions and justify them based on solid evidence. And it requires adults who care and can speak carefully, and honestly into the lives of their students. Supporting all of this is a community that is deeply connected to the life of the school.

Finally, all learning should be formative. We talk a lot about formative and summative assessment. But I honestly wonder why we even have summative assessments? Bottom line? To give a mark. To give the test score. So kids can have marks for college. Marks should be abolished. I realize that’s a strong statement, but I have good reasons for saying so. In addition to being an arbitrary symbol that we’ve given an awful lot of power to, it means very little. What does 82 mean? Really. I’ve asked students that question. I’ve asked parents and other teachers, as well. No one really knows. Does it mean you don’t know 18% of the stuff? And which 18%. What if it’s the really important 18%?

I once broached the topic of abolishing marks with a senior administrator in my school division. The response was, “Do you know how big that is? Do you know how much work that would take?” Yep, I’ve probably briefly pondered it. So is the reason we don’t do what we know is best for our children because we don’t have the guts or because it’s too much work?

On the other hand, formative assessment allows kids to reflect on their learning. To figure out how to create better. Why something works. Why it doesn’t. What did they do well? Where can they improve? It allows for more failure and less judgement. It provides feedback that matters to students. It provides voice. And it allows me to know everyday what my students can do well and where they need to improve. I’ll take that over 82% any day.

If we slow down education, kids might learn less. Yep. But often less is more.  A slow education values understanding over covering content. I truly question how many students are learning anything now, other than how to do school, or that they’re not academic. Instead, we have the possibility of educating kids in a way that helps them to develop into people who are happy, healthy and humane.

So what is the bottom-line of the slow education movement?

✓ We abolish the busy, controlling, aggressive, hurried, analytical, stressed, superficial, impatient, quantity-over-quality education environment that prevails today.

✓ We educate parents and communities about the risks of today’s current model, including the drawbacks of “edubusiness.”

sanders-learning-fair2 ✓ We create learning environments that are carefully crafted, receptive, still, intuitive, unhurried, patient, reflective, quality-over-quantity and engaging.

✓ We develop curriculum that has greater depth than breadth.

✓ We make sure our curriculum takes into account local culture and celebrates the uniqueness of our local community.

✓ We don’t isolate skills development but let students grow their skills as they engage with important content.

✓ We construct learning environments that foster questioning, creativity and innovation, such as the maker movement and project/problem based learning.

✓ We find the courage to have serious discussions about abolishing standardized testing, classroom marks and grading, and the use of “birth year” as our primary criterion for sorting students.

✓ We lobby our governments for funds to assure true equality in education for all children.

✓ We discontinue the ranking of teachers and schools.

learning-about-slow-food ✓ We replace our egg-carton grades with flexible, personalized learning that takes into account when students are ready to engage in and acquire important skills.

✓ We make time for teacher collaboration a top priority.

✓ We expect all classrooms to connect students globally so they can learn from others around the world and apply what they learn in their own communities through meaningful projects and service.

✓ We make student voice and choice an integral part of everyday teaching and learning.

It’s time for the rise of slow. It’s time for environments that nourish children’s minds, hearts and souls. To create spaces that allow kids to learn at their own pace, in their own way. Do I believe any of this is easy no. It will be real. It will be messy. It will be worth it.

Slow. For me the question isn’t who will let us; the question is who will stop us? It’s time to do what is best for students. It’s time to do what’s best for teachers. It’s time for a grass roots movement that comes together to change the tide. Are you ready?


Photo courtesy of flickr cc: Daniel Oines

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