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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The Next Step

5829426287_97719620a8_mYesterday I accepted a new position with my division.  Starting Friday, I’ll be the Vice Principal at Lindale, a K-8 school in our division.  I’m excited that I’ll be with kids everyday. I’m looking forward to the energy & enthusiasm, both mine & theirs. I’m also going to be teaching grade 6 & 8 math.  And it terrifies me.

Partially I’m struggling with how to come into a classroom that isn’t mine & start over, essentially. It’s not like I’ll be picking up where they left off. I only teach one way — an inquiry, pbl, tech-embedded classroom.  So we’re going to need to imagine, together, what learning can look like. We’ll need to unlearn a bit, and figure out what independent learning looks like in grade 6 & 8 because the truth is, I have no idea.

And then there are the questions. What if I can’t replicate what I’ve done in the past? I know I’ve created this environment for learning before and my kids thrived, but what if I can’t do it again?

Secondly, and likely most ironically, I was terrible at math in school. I hated math. It made me feel incompetent & unintelligent.  And as soon as I could stop taking math classes in school, I did. For many years, I thought of myself as someone who was not “a math person”, then I became a Chemistry teacher and realized I could probably do “normal” math.  The truth is, I still have no idea what the purpose of the Pythagorean theorem is, and now I’ll be teaching it.  How do you teach students to think mathematically, when I’m not sure I even think mathematically?

I’m incredibly thankful for serendipity & the network that I have. This morning I read Shannon Smith’s post Minds on Math.  And it’s helped me realize there are a number of things much larger going on in a math classroom.

Math is as much about identity as it is about math. This is especially true of middle school students who have such a fragile and confused identity to begin with.  While we learn math, I need to give my attention to how students construct their identity as someone who can solve problems and become numerically literate.

Secondly, I need to learn how to foster curiosity about problems, while helping kids think about their thinking and identify where they are struggling.   It’s about patterns & relationships and developing curiosity and understanding about them. In truth, I never thought about math like that in school. For me, it was about memorizing the equation.

Finally, it’s important that my students do a lot of the talking & discovering and I listen around the edges.

As a teacher, I know what it’s like to hate math & to struggle with it.  While I want my students to struggle, I want them to understand that struggling is good. It means your brain is trying to create synaptic connections & pathways are trying to mylenate. Beyond this, I want them to love learning. I do.  Even if it’s math.

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The Struggle

5523432259_6115cd280dA little over a year ago I blogged that I was leaving my classroom to accept a consultant position with my school division. I’ve been in this position for almost a year. And in all honesty, it’s been a struggle.  In fact, this past year has probably been the most difficult year of my teaching career.

At first I thought it might be an identity thing. I knew how to be a teacher, but had no identity as a consultant. Maybe it would go away.  But the truth is, it hasn’t.  In December, I let both my coordinator and my superintendent know that I was deeply struggling with being a consultant. However, I couldn’t specifically pinpoint the exact problem. I work with great people. I’ve learned a ton. I’m treated with respect. What more could anyone want?

After having the conversation with my boss, I spent the next three days in bed sick, and almost every waking moment I spent pondering this dilemma. What exactly is wrong?

And then it hit me — it’s not the position; it’s me. Everyday since I’ve left my classroom, I’ve missed it.  Everyday I have missed kids. I miss their energy and enthusiasm, their optimisim. Their quirks. Their struggles. Their hugs. I miss the energy and noise of a school.  And even though I work in classrooms, those kids are never mine. They always belong to someone else.

Beyond this I miss pushing the envelope, trying what’s new.  Innovating. Failing.  And learning in the most intense way I’ve ever experienced.  I love taking risks, problem-solving the glitches and the intensity it requires of my brain. It makes me feel alive.

And as hard as this year has been, I don’t regret it. I’ve learned so much about teaching & schools that I never could have learned in my classroom. I’ve learned in vivid, sometimes startling ways, how important the administration of a school is for setting the tone, creating the culture, and supporting change.  I’ve learned how curriculum, instruction and assessment intersect in valuable ways with student support to provide an education that matters for all. I work with some of the most amazing people.  Consultants who are incredibly generous and talented, and I have learned so much from so many of them.  I’ve learned that we do so many great things in elementary school to support students that all but disappear by high school, and in order for our kids to be successful, they need to continue.

But I’ve also come to realize that I need to go back to the classroom. At this point, I don’t know exactly what this will look like or what the timeline will be or even where I’ll end up. But I’m open to whatever possibilties open up.

My ideal would be to move into an administrative role in a K-8 school in the fall, so that I can still teach part-time. And I have reasons for this. I’ve heard many times from skeptics that I can do this inquiry/pbl thing because I teach older students. I want to prove them wrong. I want be able to work in grade 1 classrooms to create pbl & blended learning environments.  And I’m excited at the possibility of working in middle years to foster independence & responsibility for their own learning and create thin walls in our classroom, so they can collaborate with classrooms elsewhere.

At this point I have very few answers. And sometimes that feels a bit scary. But I trust that I’ll end up where I belong.

Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail. Ralph Waldo Emerson

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The Problem of Student Engagement

AdamBindslevWhenever I hear talk of student engagement I wonder what the problem is. I doubt that it’s the students, their role possibly — but not them personally. I don’t buy into the idea that most of our students are lazy or incompetent.  Instead, I think they’re bored.  Every student I’ve taught could learn, just often not the same thing, or in the same way.  And when I’ve asked my students about it, I’ve always found they love to learn; they just don’t like school.

The research around student engagement has changed over the past 40 years.  During the 1970’s, student engagement research largely dealt with a marginal population that was disengaged from school and at risk of dropping out.  Jump ahead 40 years.  While this problem still exists, student engagement research deals with a sizable population of students.  In fact, the majority of our students aren’t engaged in their day to day learning. Depending on the survey, anywhere from 50 to almost 70% of our grade 10 to 12 students are not engaged in their learning.  That’s shocking.

When I first learned this statistic I was stunned. Moreover, research shows that the longer our students are in school, the less academically competent the feel (Covington & Dray, 2001) — even students who are considered “successful” in our current system experience this problem. That’s a pretty big deal. School shouldn’t be something you have to recover from, and for too many of our kids, it is.

What do I mean by the term student engagement? There are as many definitions for this term as there are words in this blog post.  Engagement is often broken down into different categories: social/psychological, behavioural, academic/cognitive, or some variation of these. Some deal strictly with behavioural compliance in a classroom, but that’s not what I’m interested in.   For me, engagement is  a genuine disposition for self-directed, deep learning, fostered from an early age and continues life long.  That’s the point of engagement, not to coherse kids into performing the tasks we want them to do.

One might think that our “top” students are engaged in their learning. Studies show most aren’t.  Successful students often describe their learning experience as “boring, hectic, stressful and disconnected from the real world” (Dunleavy & Milton, 2009, p. 11).  Many are simply jumping the hoops or “doing school” — hoping to move onto a better educational experience once they’ve graduated from high school. Unfortunately, with today’s current university system, many will be disappointed.

Too often I’ve heard students talk of their desire & need to escape the day to day educational institution. It saddens me because I know it can be so much more.  At the same time, it frightens me because research shows that a boring environment has a more powerful thinning effect on the brain cortex than an exciting or enriched environment has on cortex thickening (Diamond, 1998).  That’s a really big deal.

Starting in grade 6, student engagement begins to plummet, until about grade 9, when it bottoms out at about 30%.  I’m curious as to why this starts in grade 6. What happens in grade 6 psychologically or neurologically that prompts this freefall? And  just as importantly, can it be stopped or reversed?

Currently, I have a directed reading course on neuroplasticity & learning.  The change in an adolescent’s brain is immense, with large portions of the executive function and the prefrontal cortex maturing.  There is also a significant proliferation in dendrites & synapses that causes the adolescent cortex to thicken, before it goes through  6 or so years of intense pruning.  It’s vitally important that our students be deeply engaged cognitively during this period.  The brain works on a use it or lose it principle. So you can see why a boring environment having a more powerful thinning effect on the brain cortex than an exciting or enriched environment has on cortex thickening is a big deal. Boring classroom environments might actually be harming our students ability to think.

For my PhD dissertation I’ve decided to research student engagement, but not typically how it’s been done.  One of the gaps in the research is the absence of student voice.  Research tends to talk about kids, not with them. I hope to use youth participatory action research, as a means to not only amplify student voice around this issue, but also to empower students to change the circumstances in which they learn.  Participatory action research “seeks to understand the world by trying to change it, collaboratively and reflectively”. I think this process sounds a lot like me.  And I think it sounds a lot like the kids I’ve taught.  So many of our students come to school everyday hoping they’ll do something that makes a difference and engage in real work that matters.

Participatory Action Research allows students become partners and co-researchers in creating the education they want and need.  They identify the problems in their current circumstances and co-create the solutions. They write. They speak. They change, not only themselves but also the environment around them. In short, they make a difference.

My framework will likely be critical theory, which is about emancipation and transformation; it seeks “to liberate human beings from the circumstances that enslave them” (Horkheimer 1982, 244).  I think that might not be too far off from describing some of our schools.  It questions current power structures and seeks to understand the ways in which various social groups are oppressed. I include many of our students in this group.  They’re stuck jumping through hoops, most often without meaning, that someone else has created for them.  Most importantly, critical theory empowers students to transform their education.

My initial thought is to use a method like Photovoice, which I think authentically gives power to students.  Through photographing the everyday events of their lives and merging these with story, students will share what school is really like.  It is often used among marginalized people, and is intended to give insight into how they conceptualize their circumstances and their hopes for the future.  Photovoice attempts to bring the perspectives of those “who lead lives that are different from those traditionally in control of the means for imaging the world” into the policy-making process.

Our schools need to change, and the voices of our students need to be heard for this to happen successfully. I hope to use technology as a tool to give a voice to students who are normally silenced, while at the same time empowering them to use technology to create an educational environment that allows and fosters self-directed, deep learning. Now I just need a classroom…

Photo courtesty of cc. Flickr: Adam Bindslev

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I used to think…

3246596357_46b575e8c1I used to think that giving homework the first day of school set the “tone” for our classroom, that this was an academic class that had rigor and demanded their best. Now I realize that I was trying to intimidate my students so that they would work hard and know that I was the one in charge.

I used to think that compliant, well-behaved students were the ideal; now I’m afraid for them. I’m afraid for the kids who think that scoring 90% actually means something in the real world. I’m afraid for the kids who believe the academic hoops they jump through so effortlessly guarantee that they will be successful at life. I’ve come to believe that being good at school might mean you’d make a decent academic, but it isn’t a guarantee of much else.

I used to think, as a high school teacher, that reading was someone else’s job to teach. Now I think it’s important for learners to be taught these strategies across the K-12 spectrum.

I used to think that some kids weren’t cut out for school. They were lazy, unmotivated, and not “academic,” as if being academic was the most important thing in the world. Now I’ve come to realize that it’s the cutout school that’s the problem. Kids love to learn and do it quite naturally. They just might not be buying what I’m selling.

I’ve learned about self-regulation

Self regulation is defined as the process of taking control of and evaluating one’s own learning and behavior. Self-regulated students are learners who can reflect critically and accurately about their own thinking and learning.

Look at the research:

“Self-regulated learning (SRL), as the three words imply, emphasizes autonomy and control by the individual who monitors, directs, and regulates actions toward goals of information acquisition, expanding expertise, and self-improvement” (Paris and Paris 2001).

In particular, self-regulated learners are cognizant of their academic strengths and weaknesses, and they have a repertoire of strategies they appropriately apply to tackle the day-to-day challenges of academic tasks. These learners hold incremental beliefs about intelligence (as opposed to entity, or fixed views of intelligence) and attribute their successes or failures to factors (e.g., effort expended on a task, effective use of strategies) within their control (Dweck & Leggett, 1988; Dweck, 2002).

Finally, students who are self-regulated learners believe that opportunities to take on challenging tasks, practice their learning, develop a deep understanding of subject matter, and exert effort will give rise to academic success (Perry et al., 2006). In part, these characteristics may help to explain why self-regulated learners usually exhibit a high sense of self-efficacy (Pintrich & Schunk, 2002). In the educational psychology literature, researchers have linked these characteristics to success in and beyond school (Corno, et al., 2002; Pintrich, 2000; Winne & Perry, 2000).

To be honest, until 8 months ago I’d never heard of self-regulation. Now I believe it’s one of the most important things we need to develop in our students, starting in Kindergarten right through to grade 12.

No more “fill-er-up”

I used to think that my job as a teacher was to “fill” my students with the knowledge I possessed, even if I’d just acquired that knowledge from the internet the night before. Lecture was the primary modus operandi in my classroom.

Now I believe that an inquiry/pbl classroom is both empowering and liberating. The most important skill I can model for my students is how to learn and how to talk about learning. Instead of seeing my students as empty vessels, I believe they are reflexive learners, capable of change, who have much to offer to my own learning. My students have proven themselves to be competent researchers.

I used to think I needed to “run the show.” Of course this would be the only way to avoid discipline & behavior issues. Now I know that my students are able to be co-designers of our learning environment — from choosing which curriculum objectives we will work on, to unit and assignment creation, to co-constructing the criteria for the assessment.

I used to think that content was the most important thing I could teach. What was I thinking? In a Google world, most of the content I once valued so highly can be accessed in seconds, making the role of content provider obsolete.  Now I think skills, like collaboration, critical thinking, and being able to locate rich, reliable information are much more important. So now I use content to teach skills. I’m a skills provider.

I used to think that ranting at students about their lack of engagement and their apathy towards learning might get a positive response. Now I realize that if you’re learning about and working on a project that is worthy of your time and attention, you don’t have to be cajoled. Students will devote everything to worthy work, in ways you can’t even imagine at the outset. Students will often defy our expectations if we give them the opportunity to do so.

I used to think homework was important. Now I believe most of what I assigned didn’t do much to enrich my student’s learning.

I used to think the essay was the Holy Grail of the English classroom. Now I honestly believe it’s one of the least useful forms of communication I teach, at least in the 5-paragraph essay format. I still believe it’s important for my students to be able to persuasively argue, but now they learn how to do it via blogging, social media, and using visual and audio formats.

What does 82% really mean?

I used to think marks were important. Now I think they’re arbitrary at best. What does 82% really mean? I’ve asked my students that question. They don’t know, and the truth is, most often, neither do I. I would like to get rid of all marks, and move solely to feedback, and the more often this feedback can be verbal dialogue the better. When my students receive lots of formative feedback they know where they stand as learners. Then it’s about learning, not marks and grades.

I used to think teaching an AP class of top students was the pinnacle of a high school teacher’s career. Now it would feel like I was wearing a straitjacket.

I used to think technology was for searching and sporadic use during end-of-unit projects. Now I believe it has to be infused, authentically, into every step of the learning process.

I used to think exams were vital at the end of every unit. Now I believe that deep learning is much too complex to capture well in this format. Learning needs to be expressed in multiple formats, over a period of time.

I used to think our current K-12 format made sense. Now I believe it fails so many of our students. I look at students who are in Grade 1 or 2 and struggling to learn to read at the teacher’s pace. For some of them, their little brains just aren’t quite ready yet — all they need is more time. But the current system we have doesn’t allow for it. Kids are pushed along the assembly line and many develop not only large learning gaps, but a lack of self-efficacy.

I see this in high school too. Some kids take longer to develop abstract thinking, and struggle with math and other abstract concepts. The truth is that in high school I couldn’t understand Chemistry. Now I teach it. I could learn it in university, as an adult, because my brain was ready.

I used to think I knew what good teaching was . . .

I used to think I was a pretty good teacher. Now I realize that I did the best I could with the knowledge I had, but my classroom was woefully inadequate for many of my students. I failed to equip them with what they needed.

During the past 6 months, working in multiple schools, I’ve learned so much from modified & alternative education students. These are the kids at the margins, the ones who don’t jump the hoops properly. Many of them, by the time they reach high school, don’t feel good about school, about themselves, or about learning.

Unfortunately, many drop out. As much as so-called “regular” kids need our schools to be better, these kids need schools to change even more.

I’ve come to realize that every student deserves to be in an environment that helps them grow and learn, and makes them feel good about themselves. All kids want to succeed. It’s my job to help them find ways to do that. I now believe my students are competent to show me what they need, if only I take the time to listen and ask authentic questions.

I’m becoming a better teacher by giving up a lot of what I used to think.


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