Shifting the Classroom, One 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 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.

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.


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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Because Sometimes Life Happens

DonnaGraysonI haven’t blogged for awhile. There’s a number of reasons for this. Those who know me know that I’m a huge advocate for inquiry and PBL. And after the past few months, I’m an even bigger advocate. Why? Because sometimes life happens.

You never really know what life is going to throw at you. Sometimes there is only one right answer. But rarely in life is that the case. And rarely in life is the answer found in the back of the book, although too often that’s what our students learn. Maybe as teachers we’d like to believe that too. It’s easier.

Sometimes there’s an economic downturn and you lose your job.

Sometimes your marriage falls apart.

Sometimes you’re diagnosed with a chronic illness.

In my case, it’s the latter. Four days into the school year I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and put on medical leave. The short version of fibromyalgia, for me, is that almost every muscle in my body is in pain all of the time. Often, it’s exhausting. There are multiple theories as to what causes it, but no one really knows. There’s no cure. There’s no medication for it, although there are medications that have been developed for other things that sometimes help alleviate symptoms. There’s not even a “typical” fibromyalgia case. Each is distinctly different. I’ve had to learn a lot.

Some people are able to manage their symptoms successfully and live a pretty normal life.  However, approximately 1/3 of people who suffer from it are unable to work or are severely limited in their daily activities.

So what does this have to do with inquiry? For the past four months my life has become my inquiry project. Those who manage to live successfully with this syndrome are those who take control of their life.  They research. They create a team of experts to work with. They exercise & eat properly. They rest. They become their own advocates. This is what I’ve spent the last four months doing.  Western medicine has little to offer those with fibromyalgia, so a lot of alternative therapies are necessary.

If you want to plunge into a mountain of research that often contradicts itself, fibromyalgia would be it. I’ve had to wade through the minutiae, trying to figure out what I believe to be true and what works for me. And more times than I’d like to count, I’ve learned what doesn’t work, rather than what does.  And I’ve learned it the hard way.

When it doesn’t work, it’s more than getting a bad grade. It means I can’t get out of bed. Or I miss my daughter’s skating practice. Or I don’t feel like eating for three days. Getting it wrong really matters.  And along the way you have to have the tenacity to pick yourself up and try again. Are today’s schools instilling this in our kids?

Furthermore, it’s a highly emotional process, just like any inquiry project. When I work with teachers around the topic of PBL & inquiry, I always make sure to emphasize this point. It really matters. The most important job I had as an inquiry teacher was to be aware of the emotional climate of my classroom. Emotions can derail you.


There are days I feel optimistic about the future because I’m ambitious and strong. I’ve overcome a lot in my life. I’ve worked hard, and I love trying new things. However, there are days I feel overwhelmed, frustrated and doubtful because my mind is as sharp as ever, but my body won’t do what I want it to. It leads me to wonder, “What if this is as good as it gets?” “What if the rest of my life is like this?” Do most classrooms prepare students to deal with these emotions?

And after 6 months at home, I’m bored. I like to be challenged. Thankfully, I have a masters in Ed Tech to fall back on, and I’m able to work as an instructional designer for two post secondary institutions designing on-line courses, mostly from my kitchen table. As an instructional designer, I’ve been able to learn new content and skills. But I miss teaching. I would love to be able to teach on-line, but currently, that’s not something my school division really has. So if you’re looking for an online teacher, let me know. I’d love to talk.

I’ve come to realize that I may never be able to go back to the classroom, and that I may not be able to resume my PhD work. It’s hard to let go of something you were pretty good at, and that you really loved to do. I’ve had to learn to hold these things in an open hand. To figure out what really matters. And in some ways, redefine myself.  Do our current school systems foster this type of resilience?

 I know that being an inquiry teacher has greatly benefited me throughout this process. It’s made me more flexible, thoughtful, curious and bold. Fibromyalgia can’t be fought, only embraced.

I haven’t blogged lately because I’m not sure what to do in this space.

But I’m more aware than ever that our students need inquiry classrooms. They need to know how to research. They need to know how to check sources and try out what works. They need to know how to advocate for themselves and others. They need to know how to think critically, creatively, and to evaluate multiple viewpoints. I honestly believe the most important skill we can foster in them is the ability to learn, unlearn, and relearn, as Alvin Toffler so wisely stated.

Because someday, their lives may depend on it.

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Academics: What’s it good for?

Moose Jaw-20110829-00007Academics. Most of our current school system revolves around it, and yet, I think it falls miserably short of what our kids need. To be honest, I think our academic system of education is highly overrated, at best. At worst, it destroys a number of our kids.

Hear me out. I’m not saying that our kids shouldn’t learn to read, or do math, or develop other valuable skills. But too often, the focus of our kids’ school day is Content with a capital C, with little connection to why it matters. Instead of learning together, many of our students spend hours filling in worksheets or copying down lecture notes that they could google in 30 seconds.

Too often the lectures they listen to are boring and irrelevant to their lives. And from my experience, most of this content is simply memorized, spewed out for an exam and then quickly forgotten. But beyond this, there’s often only one right answer, which frequently cultivates in our students a fear of failure.

Schools value hoop jumping

For the most part, kids who we consider “academic” tend to be good hoop jumpers. They’ve figured out the system and can navigate their way through the predictable demands of the system. But they are seldom truly engaged. Rarely are they transformed by their learning. They’re going through the motions.

Research shows that some of the least engaged students are the highest achievers. Think about that. They do well because they know how to “do school.” Is this really the best we have to offer them?

What if you’re not “academic”? Most of these kids pass through too many years of their young lives feeling like they don’t measure up. Feeling stupid. And for some, it radically alters their trajectory of their adult lives. Unfortunately, too many students have to recover from school once they graduate. Is this really what we want for them?

I used to teach this way

In all honesty, I have to admit that I used to believe in this academics-oriented system. For too many years my students sat in straight rows. I asked the questions. I had the answers. I controlled the learning.

The truth is I did this because it’s what I knew. It’s how I’d been trained. It’s what I saw replicated in universities and in other teachers’ classrooms. I sincerely believed that good grades mattered.

I’m an English teacher, and I subscribed wholeheartedly to the belief that the pinnacle of success in English was the ability to write “the essay.” But I’ve radically changed my position. I’ve come to believe that the traditional essay is one of the most useless things we teach our students.

Recently, I’ve started to ask people I know, “Do you ever write an essay?” I’ve never had one person say yes. I wonder how many teachers, except those who are taking university classes (or writing an opinion piece like this), ever write true essays. If I may be so bold, I wonder how many English teachers frequently write essays.

I’m not saying our kids shouldn’t be able to write. On the contrary, I think our students should be able to argue gracefully and persuade powerfully. They also need to know what they believe and why. I simply think the essay is a medium that has outlived its usefulness, at least in high school.

Academics for the academicians

I’ve come to realize that being “academic” doesn’t tell you much about yourself. It tells you you’re good at school, which is fine if you plan to spend your life in academia, but very few of our students do. It doesn’t indicate whether or not you’ll be successful in your marriage, raising your kids, managing your money, or giving back to your community. All things that matter much more than being good at school.

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.

Today, I think most kids graduate only knowing if they’re good at school or not. Often our students have many talents; they just don’t fit in our current curriculum because their talents are likely not considered “real knowledge.” And what is that? In the Biology curriculum that I’ve taught for the past several years, one of the objectives that my students need to know is earthworm reproduction. Really? Out of all the things we could be teaching a 17-year-old about biology, someone (a whole panel of someones, we can guess) decided earthworm reproduction was essential?

Our students lose their curiosity

We are born curious. Babies explore their environments to learn; they do it naturally without being told. Three-year-olds constantly, at times annoyingly, ask, “why?” And yet, by the time my students arrive in Grade 10, they have all but lost their curiosity. Consequently, when I get a new class of students, we start by unlearning.

We begin by imagining what school could be, instead of what they’ve known for 10 years. Only then can we move into the work that will help them become lifelong learners who truly enjoy the search for answers, rather than the mark at the top of their exam.

Recently I’ve been reading Amanda Lang’s The Power of Why. In it she states:

Curious kids learn how to learn, and how to enjoy it – and that, more than any specific body of knowledge, is what they will need to have in the future. The world is changing so rapidly that by the time a student graduates from university, everything he or she learned may already be headed toward obsolescence. The main thing that students need to know is not what to think but how to think in order to face new challenges and solve new problems (p.14). 

Learning how to learn and fail and learn some more

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.

Furthermore, our students need to be able to problem-solve, innovate and fail over and over again. Throughout all of this, our kids should be collaborating with each other, as well as virtually with students across the globe. They need to be able to communicate powerfully using the mediums of print, photography and video.

Three questions to guide student-driven learning

3-questions-160As I’ve worked with my students, we’ve come to realize they need to be able to answer three questions, regardless of what we’re researching:

• What are you going to learn?

• How are you going to learn it?

• How are you going to show me you’re learning?

How they get to this last question is often their decision. And what they come up with never fails to surprise me.

My classroom hasn’t always looked like this. But over the past three years we’ve shifted to a constructivist pedagogy that has transformed not only my thinking, but my students as well. Now we learn in an inquiry, PBL, tech-embedded classroom.

The journey at times has been painful and messy, but well worth the work. The biggest lesson I’ve learned is that my students will often exceed my expectations, if only they’re given the chance.

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Start with Why: the power of student driven learning

3177240743_28279f4bb3I know a high school student who is quite amazing. She’s keen. She’s hungry. She wants to be challenged. She’s also bored out of her mind. Frustrated. Angry. Because the truth is, she’s just jumping through hoops, and she knows it.

In the graded world, She’s a 95-percent student, and like many of our most capable students, she’s disengaged from her learning. Studies have shown that many of top students are simply “doing school.” In fact, an entire book has been written about it.

She’s a student who would thrive in an environment that allowed her to co-create her education.  An environment that would allow her to spend 20 percent of school time pursuing her own interests — that would challenge her through inquiry, learning to collaborate on projects with students in other cities, provinces and countries.

She would thrive after being asked: “What do you want to learn?” “What do you want to read?” “What matters to you?” And then taking her answers and the curricular outcomes and designing a learning plan that incorporated all of this, plus embedded technology.

But she can’t

She’s stuck in a traditional school, in a traditional classroom, and she’s just putting in time. What a waste. But the truth is there are thousands of students bogged down in this exact situation.

In all honesty, I used to run one of those classrooms.  But at a pivotal point in my teaching journey, I was presented with the opportunity to do things differently.  I won’t pretend for a moment that it’s been easy.  It hasn’t.  But it’s been worth every moment, to see my classroom come alive.  I shared part of the story here in a recent TEDx talk:

We start in the wrong place

So often in education we focus on the wrong things. Test scores. Marks. Awards. Simon Sinek has it right. We need to start with why. So often we start with other things like the what (curriculum) and the how (instructional strategies). I’m not saying content isn’t important. I want my doctor, lawyer & accountant to all know their content. But we’ve lost sight that it’s what you do with the content that matters. Memorizing & regurgitating falls miserably short of equipping our students.

As Sinek states:

Very few people or companies can clearly articulate WHY they do WHAT they do.  When I say why, I don’t mean to make money — that’s a result. By WHY I mean what is your purpose, cause or belief. WHY does your company exist? WHY do you get out of bed every morning? And WHY should anyone care?

I think teachers and school organizations need to ask themselves the Why questions, beginning with: Why do we own the learning and not our students? Or, as Will Richardson so eloquently posits, Why School?

Why do we have so many students like the one I know, frustrated and bored, just waiting to be challenged? We’ve made education about manipulation and hoops instead of inspiring our students to pursue learning that matters to them — learning that can help them make a difference in our communities and the world.

When I ask someone why they became a teacher, often it’s because they “love kids” or “want to make a difference.”  That’s a pretty vague why.

 So what do I believe? What is my why?

I believe students are fully competent to be co-creators of their own learning environments.

I believe that students can change the world; they are not the future; they are right now.

I believe that students need skills that go far beyond the content of most curricula.

sticky-eyesI believe that students want to learn, but often they lack the environment that sparks the emergence of passionate, life-long learners.

I believe that my students have a voice and it should be heard.

I believe students can read at their appropriate grade level and still be illiterate.

I believe that each of my students has unique talents and interests that should merge with our learning environment at school.

I believe my students are not empty vessels waiting to be filled.

I believe that my students need to develop metacognitive skills and make their thinking visible.

I believe that students are fully capable of differentiating their own learning.

I believe my students are creative and can teach me important things.

I believe school shouldn’t be a place where young people go to watch older people work hard.

I believe, if given the chance and the right support, my students will become more than they ever thought they could be.

I believe that once students begin to see their talents and gifts, they will grow in confidence.

As a teacher:

I believe that my classroom should be a place of joy, engagement, learning and play.

I believe that I should be less helpful.

I believe that I should ask more questions, and offer fewer answers.

I believe that I should model what learning, failing, grit & perseverance look like.

I believe that I should take risks, even when I’m afraid.

I believe it’s crucial to use content to teach skills.

I believe that the most important question I often ask my students is, “What do you need?”

I believe that I am not the all-knowing guru, nor do I want to be.

I believe I need to be transparent with my learning and who I am.

I believe that kids need a life outside of school, so I don’t believe in homework — at least not the rote, meaningless stuff that’s usually assigned.

The how and what come from our why

What we truly believe about our students informs the structures of our classrooms. Whose voices are heard most frequently? Whose are silenced?  Our beliefs about students dictate who designs and drives the learning.

Shelley-slavery-3In my own classroom, the how has taken the form of an inquiry-based, PBL, tech-embedded classroom. My students drive the learning, and starting with curricular outcomes, outline what they’re going to learn, how they’re going to learn it, and how they’re going to show me their learning.

The what has resulted in my students creating a Holocaust museum, launching a multi-media campaign against modern day slavery, and (as you heard in the video) raising over $22,000 to help rebuild schools in a war-torn country. They also work on much smaller projects, individually and collaboratively. But we never start with what. We always start with why.

What stops teachers from putting the Why first?

Fear. I think we’re afraid. I think we’re afraid of losing control and looking incompetent. I think we’re afraid of not knowing what will happen. I think we’re afraid that we won’t figure out how to shift our classroom or use the new technology. I think we’re afraid of being different than the other teachers in our school — of being an outcast.

The truth is, I’ve felt all these fears and experienced all of these situations. But I still wouldn’t teach differently than I do now.

There’s a power in student-driven learning that’s contagious and exhilarating. Being an inquiry teacher has made me a better thinker and learner. It’s made me a better Educator with a capital “E”.

If you want to join me in making a difference, start with WHY.

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Be You.

Be yourself, everyone else is already taken – Oscar Wilde

5807208_08e151f86c_mI love this quote. For me it’s come to epitomize a significant journey that I’ve been on.  The past year and a half have been the most difficult of my teaching career.  In many ways I’ve felt like I’ve lost who I am. I’ve come to realize that not every path or opportunity is the right one to take.  That just because I can do something, doesn’t mean I should. It won’t necessarily make me feel happy or fulfilled.

As Ken Robinson states, your element is where your talent meets your passion.  And I haven’t been in my element for a long time. Why? Part of it, I think, is because I left my classroom. During this time, I’ve learned a lot of things I don’t like to do.  To be honest, I prefer to learn in the affirmative, rather than the way I have been, but I know that I’ve grown a lot.

I left my classroom to become a learning consultant for my division, and while I don’t regret this decision, it was a difficult year.  I took this position because I wanted to help schools & teachers move forward in inquiry & using technology in their classrooms. It wasn’t what I thought it was going to be, and to be honest, I don’t think I had a really clear picture in my head of what it would be.  For many reasons that I won’t get into, I didn’t enjoy this job. I didn’t feel fulfilled or strengthened by it. The largest reason is I missed kids. I missed being in the midst of the excitement and energy of the classroom everyday, and I missed pushing the envelope of what is possible in a student-driven learning environment.

Five months ago, I accepted a temporary Vice Principal position with my division, and it has been a real struggle. And at this point, I can’t specifically state why. It could be because I teach a subject I’m not passionate about. It could be all of the managerial aspects, such as paperwork & discipline.  It could be because I moved from high school, where I’ve spent my entire teaching career, to elementary.  But it’s taken a toll on who I am. Almost everyday I think about quitting teaching.  I don’t blog. I rarely tweet.

It’s driven me to ask, “What do I really want to do with my life?” “What have I done in my life that I’ve loved?”  “What does success look like?” “What is enough?”  These are the questions I’ve been pursuing for the past couple of months. And I still lack many of the answers.

Part of the problem has also been caused by the PhD direction I chose.  Originally, when I applied to the program, I outlined my dissertation interest as looking at mobile technology to promote education & literacy in developing countries, especially in areas that are remote and currently lack educational structures.  Social justice has been one of my passions for a long time. But I walked away from it because I’m white & middle class & live in North America.  What in the world do I know about education in a developing country? So instead, I chose to pursue neuroplasticity, an area that is an interest, but it’s not something I’m deeply passionate about.

I realized several months ago that I need to pursue what really matters to me. I have no grand illusions that my dissertation will change the developing world, but it will be authentic to who I am.  In all honesty, I wonder if the developing world doesn’t have something to teach me.  For all of the technology, expertise & education we have here, we still largely lack the ability to revolutionize education for our kids and offer them an education that matters.  If anyone’s stuck, it’s us.

This past year feels like it’s been characterized by a lot more failure than success. And after watching this video again, I feel okay about that.

Recently, I was reading a book by Marcus Buckingham titled Find your Strongest Life.  According to Buckingham, he’s identified 9 life roles that people tend to live.  One of them is a teacher, but the interesting thing for me is that’s not one of my two dominant roles. Mine are motivator & pioneer.  And it’s the pioneer role that seems significant.  Buckingham states you know you are a Pioneer if:

  • You are quickly bored
  • You are always thinking of new ideas
  • You are excitable and curious
  • You don’t read instructions
  • You are an early adopter of new technology

Your strongest moments are when:

  • You’re starting something new
  • Your plans change suddenly and you have to improvise
  • You push yourself beyond your limits
  • You’re talking about what’s next
  • You’re not quite sure what’s about to happen

This was one of those rare epiphany moments. When I read this, it clarified a lot of things for me, and helped to begin to explain why this past year and a half have been so difficult. It also explains why I’m an inquiry teacher. I thrive on the unknown. Chaos is energizing to me.  It’s also helped me realize when working with other teachers, that they may not have the  same affinity for charging into the unknown as I do.

So now what? In the fall I’ll be returning to the classroom. Not the same school I was in. But I’ll have high school English & Social Studies.  I think tech or media studies. And I’m excited about the possibility of teaching a photography course.

I know that I used to love teaching.  I would wake up in the morning excited to see what the day had in store.  Frequently I would think, “I can’t believe I get paid to do this job.” At this moment, that all seems like a distant memory.

So I’ve given myself one year. If I don’t rediscover a passion & love for teaching, then I need to leave. Kids need teachers who love being there & love them. Who are passionate about learning & can model what it’s like to be a joyful, intentional, thoughtful adult.

I still have a desire to help create a school that is inquiry-based, but I’m not sure it will be as an administrator. I’m not sure there’s enough in that job that I love. However, I think there are other positions that can be powerfully influential. In all of my soul searching, I’ve come to think that working as a teacher-librarian in a school that has a learning commons might be a good fit, at some point. However, pursuing this idea will require me to leave my  current division, since we have neither.  I think to continue to grow, I will always need change, so over the next couple of years, I will begin to pursue what this might look like & where this will take me.

Do what you love. Be you. The world will be better for it.

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Beta: The Courage to Fail & Change

3312922051_580a6e9625_nMost of this post is actually a post I wrote over two years ago.  It’s interesting that you can write something and then forget about it, and then you stumble across it one day and think, “I forgot about this. I needed to read my own words.” The truth is, I needed to remember. And this is one of the reasons it’s important for us to tell our stories. Sometimes others need to hear them. Sometimes we need to hear them again. Because we forget. Because we fail. Because we get hurt.

For a long time, I’ve been a perfectionist. I’m tired of it. I’ve decided to live my life in Beta. Always incomplete. Always failing. Always trying to get better. What if our schools and education systems were in Beta? Learning by failure. I’d like to see a school division really embrace that motto.

What if our kids learned that failure is a good thing, something to be embraced, instead of something to be avoided like the plague.  What if teachers were set free to teach messy, fail often & “fail fast”, as Seth Godin says. What if we taught in Beta so that our students could tell us what works & what doesn’t? What if teaching & learning was a fluid process that was never finished? What if we co-created schools based on what works for our community?

I’ve failed a lot this past year.  And at first I felt terrible about that. I felt like a failure. I felt like a huge disappointment, and then I re-read this post:

I think all teachers must have times when they’re faced with the decision to continue on the safe road that they know, or radically depart on a way that they believe to be better, but the specific route and outcomes are unknown. At least I’ve been faced with this decision. And in all honesty, sometimes I’ve chosen the former, and sometimes the latter. Although for the last five months, I’ve consistently chosen the latter, and they have been the most challenging and fulfilling five months of my career.

What is the path I’ve chosen? Changing to a student-centered, skill-based, technology embedded classroom. A mouthful, I know.

One evening, last semester, I decided to take the plunge, and I haven’t looked back. Instead of a teacher-centered, textbook based Biology classroom, I shifted mine to a collaborative learning network. Instead of lectures, my students researched each unit. Sometimes individually. Sometimes in groups. Often they were responsible for teaching their peers. For in-class assignments, they often had to apply their knowledge to solve problems. Additionally, we created our own on-line textbook. How did it turn out? I’ll let you be the judge:

However, it still isn’t easy to change the new classes I’m teaching this semester. I continue to be faced with the same questions. Do I risk changing my teaching practices to reflect 21st C. skills and technology, or do I go with what is safe? Or in some cases, what is easier? Do I fall back on what I know “works”, in the most basic sense, even though deep down I understand it’s not what my students need or what engages them? Or, do I accept the challenge and move forward on a new path?

A voice inside my head whispers, “You don’t need to take this chance.” “No one will know, if you don’t.” I will. And that’s what matters. I know that if I don’t take this path, the part of me that is courageous is somehow diminished, and next time I’m less likely to do what I know I need to do. And I believe in all honesty that I’ll be failing my students.

Why do I believe in this?

My students need the kind of education that requires them to think critically, problem solve, and learn skills of collaboration, rather than memorize for an exam and forget everything the next day, or believe that there’s only one answer to a problem. In our 21st century world, any problem that is significant requires complex answers, none of them necessarily “right.”

Furthermore, the top 10 jobs in 2010 didn’t exist in 2004. How do we prepare our students for jobs that don’t exist now, that will use technology that hasn’t been invented, to solve problems we don’t even know are problems yet? By teaching them skills, not solely content.

Content is easy. Google it. We live in a world where content is ubiquitous. And in a wi-fi, 3G world, accessible almost anywhere. We need to teach our students skills to be able navigate and make sense of such a world.

How am I doing this?

First, my science, technology, and English classes are paperless. This is a big change for me and my students. All the information for our class is housed on our wiki. My students are in the process of adapting to being responsible for their own education. Instead of having things handed to them, whether it be the answer, or a piece of paper with their assignment on it, they are now required to take initiative and access all the information they need.

This semester we’ve also switched from a traditional Holocaust novel study Q & A, to a framework that scaffolds group discussion. Some weeks they’ll meet in homogeneous groups, with those who have read the same book. Other weeks they’ll meet in heterogeneous groups, with those who have read a different book from their own.

Today was their first day of novel discussions. One word for it — painful. Many of my students lack the skills necessary for an insightful conversation surrounding their book’s characters and motivations. They’re not familiar with the kinds of questions that don’t necessarily have a right answer, let alone more than one. And so, haltingly and awkwardly, they answered the questions that were set out for them. Few poured forth deep, poignant insights. There was no critical dialogue. Yet.

Sometimes when we’re changing, success can look like failure

What did I do? I walked around the room and listened. And thought, “wow, there are easier ways to do this.” Easier, yes. Better, no. Even though I know what the beginning of this process can be expected to look like, it still feels like today’s class was a failure. But I know it’s not; it’s the first step in skill building.

I wonder how often, as teachers, we have classes that feel like failures, but they’re really not. Instead it’s a messy, awkward success, given the stage that our students are at. How often do we want the end result — engaged, articulate, deep discussions — without being willingly to do the hard work to get there? Instead of seeing all the struggling as the necessary first step, we see it as a failure and don’t try it again. I know I’ve been guilty of this.

I find in the beginning that it takes as much work for me not to jump in and rescue the conversations as it does for my students to have them. So today I walked around and listened, and told myself over and over, “This is painful, but next week it will be a little bit better. And the week after that will be a little bit better still.”

My students are in the process of developing the skills they need. It’s not quick. It’s not even efficient or easy. But it is necessary for their development as creative, critical problem solvers who will live, and work, in our complex world.

Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgement that something else is more important than fear — Ambrose Redmoon

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Things I’ve learned as an Elementary Vice Principal

I have to admit, when I started this job 2 1/2 months ago, I hated it. Really hated it. I think the reasons for this were many.  I’d just spent the past year at the board office as a learning consultant.  The pace was different. I worked mostly with adults. My schedule was flexible, and  I tended to work largely at my level of expertise.  And when I wanted quiet, I could book office time, close my door & work.

Then I moved to an elementary school. In truth, I haven’t been in an elementary school since I was an undergrad, and there’s a good reason for that. Even though I taught in a K-12 school for 8 years, I rarely ventured down to the little end.  My domain was grade 10-12, and I worked hard for years to become proficient in my areas.  Now I had things to deal with like recess supervision, and 6 year-olds who are sent to my office because they’ve punched/kicked/hit/fill in something else, each other for no logical reason.  What in the world am I supposed to do about this situation?  My usual options when something like this occurs in my life are sending my children to their room, taking away their DS, or banning them from TV or speaking to each other.  None of these options were feasible. Or what about the grade 8 who decides it’s a good idea to put blue tack in his buddies hair?

On top of this, my teaching assignment was grade 6 & 8 math. I’ve never taught math or middle school in my life, and there’s a reason for that. Pretty sure I failed math in high school at least once.  Additionally, for me, it has to be the least interesting subject there is.  I love subjects that I can become passionately involved in — that change me, my students & hopefully some small part of the world. In math, the only thing we’re changing is our signs from positive to negative. Secondly, middle schoolers I avoided like the plague. They’re moody, emotional, hormonal.  Need I say more?

For the first couple months of this job, I struggled so much.  Partially because I’m an inquiry teacher, and I haven’t exactly figured out how to do that with math.  While I’ve had breakthroughs here and there, it’s far from what I want it to be. But through this process, I’ve come to realize that there are three things that really crucial to the success of a teacher, any teacher, regardless of experience:  classroom management, pedagogy & content knowledge. And because I moved so far outside of what I knew, I had none of these anymore.

I’d like to think I was a pretty decent high school teacher.  I didn’t have classroom management problems, and I hadn’t for years. My students, including the new ones coming into my classes each year, knew how high my expectations were for their behaviour & learning. I had no idea until leaving, how crucial this invisible influence was to my success as a teacher.

Additionally,  I knew my content well. I’d been teaching it for years.  Because of these two things, I was able to play with my pedagogy a lot. We could experiment with PBL & inquiry, problem based learning & student teaching.  We could succeed & fail because I had strength in the other two pillars.

However, I’ve learned it’s very difficult to figure out all three of these areas at the same time. It might even be impossible to do so and stay sane. Currently, my content knowledge is shallow, at best.  I don’t understand how all, or even some, of the concepts can be intertwined to create PBL units.  While my management has improved greatly, my younger students struggle with self-regulation to the point that it makes doing PBL projects difficult, if not impossible, at times.

I’ve learned that being a “good teacher” is relative.  As a high school teacher, I was a strong teacher, who could empower students to take responsibility for their own learning.  In all honesty, I’m a mediocre middle years math teacher at best. And this has been an incredibly humbling experience. Over the past two months, I have watched how hard elementary teachers work, some under extremely difficult circumstances. And they do it every day.

Over the past two weeks, I have come to deeply enjoy this job. I love watching the grade 1’s go through their morning routine, popping into classrooms to watch show & tell, reading stories to early elementary, hearing the stories of the Kindergarteners,teaching tech to grade 3’s, random hugs, & putting on bandages when kids are hurt.

While I still don’t “love” math. I enjoy figuring out the puzzle.  Last night, I finally understood for the first time why two negatives equal a positive. In school I had simply memorized the rule. Last night I realized they become a postive because it’s the same concept as English. A double negative cancels out and creates a positive.  These epiphany moments have been incredibly rewarding.

I’m also surprised how much I enjoy teaching middle years.  Today, while learning linear equations, I student looked at me and said, “Mrs. Wright. I got it. I really understand it.”  I looked back at her and said, “Isn’t that an amazing feeling?”  She smiled and agreed. That was an awesome moment.

Today I found out that I will not be returning to this position next year.  The permanent VP, who  was filling the Principal’s position, was not hired for it permanently, so he’ll be returning to the VP position in the fall. Leaving me, I’m not sure where. Even though I knew in the back of my mind this was a possibility, I’m shocked. I wasn’t prepared for how painful this is. The grief. Or the depth of loss I feel.  These kids are starting to become my kids & soon it’ll be time for me to leave.

Leave to what? I’m not sure. At this point, I’m not even sure I have a job for the fall.  Everything feels a bit precarious & raw at the moment


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Sometimes it’s Hard

Sometimes tMartin Gommelhis inquiry, project-based, student or learner centred, tech embedded, or whatever you may call it, thing can be hard. Sometimes you feel alone.  Sometimes you feel misunderstood.  And the truth is, sometimes you are alone & misunderstood.  Sometimes it’s frustrating to have to explain, again, what it is you’re doing and why you’re doing it. Sometimes you feel ostracized or attacked.  Sometimes it hurts.  Sometimes you cry.

I’ve received countless email, some from teachers needing to stay anonymous from their co-workers, of stories just like this. I’ve experienced teaching just like this.

Sometimes you wonder why you go on. The textbook would be easier. The unit exam would be easier. Not teaching digital fluency or self-regulation would be easier. Sometimes you get tired of being the change you wish to see in this world.  Sometimes it’s hard.

But there’s a reason why we do what we do. We’ve seen kids catch fire, ignited by the passion of discovering something they love.  We’ve heard kids articulate their learning in ways that take our breath away.  We’ve seen students grow in confidence after struggling and struggling and struggling.  I teach this way because I know it changes kids lives.

We teach this way because we want what we do to matter —today.  Kids want work that is relevant, meaningful & authentic, engaging and inspiring.  And the truth is we want our job to be all these things too.   And through the course of all of this, we become more human, compassionate & empathetic. And aren’t these some of most important goals of education?

I teach this way because I know being a life long learner, who is curious & teachable, is the only way to live. But sometimes it’s hard, and I need to remind myself one more time, I’m not here to fit in; I’m here to contribute.

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I struggle: lessons I’ve learned from being an inquiry teacher

8475376072_bd2422be64_nFriday afternoon, while sitting in an airport, I read a  recent post by George Couros entitled “I’m tired“. I was incredibly impressed, not just because he’s a friend, but because of the sheer audacity & frankness of his words.  How often are people in leadership that honest?  Reflecting on that post for the past three days has led me to writing this post.

I struggle.  I struggle with where I am & what I’m doing. I struggle with the educational system as we know it. I struggle with the painfully slow pace of change.  I struggle with people in power who say they care about kids, but don’t do the hard things to make a really huge difference in creating a learning environment that matters.  With all the research that exists, we know what’s good for kids. Let’s not pretend otherwise. I’m tired of all of the talking and very little of the doing. All the tinkering and cosmetic changes in education mean little. Having Macbooks in a classroom means nothing if they’re little more than a glorified pencil.

Part of this struggle has likely been prompted by my PhD.  At times I feel like I’ve enterd the Matrix.  Systems of power become apparent, and either I have the choice to deny what I’ve seen, or struggle with the sense of disillusionment in light of the truth.  I’ve thought about quitting a billion times, which my supervisor tells me is normal.  That’s not comforting. Sometimes I’m tired. Sometimes I’m angry. Mostly I struggle.

So what does this have to do with being an inquiry teacher?  As much as we talk about inquiry being good for kids, it’s good for teachers too. I’ve grown a shocking amount during the past couple of years because of it.

First, I’ve learned how to struggle.  When I taught traditionally, I didn’t feel I could show the struggle, even though it was there under the surface.  Learning to struggle has helped me to ask questions, in fact, pursue them, even though I might not like the answer. We need inquiry classrooms because struggle is such a normal part of our lives, and kids need to see it modelled and embraced as something good and life sustaining.  When we stop struggling, we stop growing.

Secondly, I’ve learned that I don’t have to be in control. That’s a big deal.  Here’s why: I’ve been teaching for almost ten years, and I’ve had a dawning awareness over the past while that I want to do something else. Not necessarily leave education. I’m passionate about education. But I want to do something else, and at this point, I don’t know what that is.

I want to do something new — likely in the area of my ed tech degree. Something not in a traditional classroom. I’ve even thought, for the first time, possibly something in higher ed. I want to do something that requires me to grow & stretch, at times to the point where I feel like I might shatter.

This is really surprising to me. For most of my teaching career I thought I would put in my 30 years, retire, and then move on to something else.  Safe. Easy. And it comes with a great pension. Sometimes life requires more risk than that. Becoming an inquiry teacher, I’ve learned to take risks.  Not necessarily not to be afraid, but to keep going despite the fear. I want to do something innovative that pushes the edge, where I can collaborate, take risks, have things fall apart & then figure out how to make it work. I’ve come to the conclusion that a change of this nature will probably require my family to move, most likely out of the province.  I’ve lived here my entire life, which leads to the next lesson.

I’m okay with the ambiguity & the mess.  I don’t know all the details.  A couple of years ago that would’ve freaked me out. But one of the great things about teaching in an inquiry classroom is that you never know what’s going to happen. On the flip side, one of the scary things about teaching in an inquiry classroom is that you never know what’s going to happen.  I’ve learned to roll with the punches, to improvise, to problem-solve when things get messy and the path seems unclear.

And at this point, that’s all I know.

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Math: Small Steps

5807208_08e151f86c_mI learned something this week.  You learn your subject area and classroom management and introduce pbl & technology and expect to co-construct criteria all at the same time.  It won’t happen or you’ll go insane making it happen.  So this past week I focused on the first three.

In the past, I could do large-scale inquiry & PBL because I had extensive background knowledge in the areas I was teaching.  My classroom management was solid.  I knew my students & what they were capable of and this gave us the freedom to experiment with inquiry, tech & co-constructing criteria, assignments and units.  But things are very different now.

This week I started teaching grade 6 & 8 math, a completely new subject area for me.  I also discovered that I have few classroom management skills for grade 6.  Things I took for granted in high school I can’t take for granted here.  So for the next couple of weeks we’ll be discovering what routines make things easier to learn.

We began with ratios, percent & fractions, and I’ll admit, I used a boring worksheet to provide a formative assessment. I really had no idea the capability of a grade 6 student or their background knowledge in this area or how to figure it out otherwise.  I found out quickly they could convert pretty well between the three, but the bigger thing for me is can they actually use them? I’ve read in numerous places of students being able to plug information into a formula, but not being unable to use it in “real life”, so we began our first PBL.  Using ratios, my students have chosen something in real life and are scaling it down to create it.

When beginning a course of action like this in high school, I would have to spend a great deal of time “unteaching” much of what they’ve learned the past 10 -12 years.  In grade six, I wasn’t sure to expect.  I showed them the Welcome to my PLE video created by a grade 7 student.  I asked if they wanted to learn like that. They were in. That’s it  None of the cynicism or apathy that I encounter in high school.  They were excited.  Too excited and that’s what I’ve been trying to reign in all week.

While it’s great to create projects, they also need to teach the skills we’re working on — using ratios. It’s important to create the scale & blueprint before they start building. Instead, they want to build right away. They’ve come up with terrific ideas volcanoes, NHL rinks, McDonald’s, our school library.  And I’ve learned in explaining scale & ratio over and over to each small group that they don’t really understand the math.  So I end up saying things like, “so every centimetre on this piece of paper, is equal to five feet in real life”  and then the light goes on.  I find it interesting that they can do the math on paper, but the truth is they don’t necessarily understand it.

I’ve come to realize this week that PBL & inquiry is incredibly important for this age group.  Developmentally they’re at an age when they’re searching for independence & responsibility, even though they might not be able to articulate it that way.  But in order to be independent & responsible, there are a few self-regulatory skills that need to be learned. I think that’s why PBL can go awry when teachers try it for the first time with this age group, and yet I think these are some of the most important things middle years teachers can help students with. It’s using content to teach skills.

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