January 17, 2012

It's Not About the Hat

So here I am sitting in a staff meeting talking yet again for the umpteenth time about our School's Hat Policy. Apparently we voted on it (must have missed that) and decided that students could wear hats on special occasions but that was it. This all stems from a surprising student push that happened at the beginning of the year. Students, mainly our grade 10's, like to wear hats. They feel more comfortable with them on, I guess. They started a petition and handed it to staff. Some saw it as challenging and defiant, some were disappointed that they had wasted their efforts on something so meaningless, I was proud of them - they had decided to take action in a respectful way - it was a form of activism. Sure, it was only about hats…but as much as the issue is downplayed trust me, a hat policy is extremely important to many teachers. Anyway, their petition wasn't in vain…it did add some leniency to our current hat policy.

Fast forward 5 months….still talking about it. Some teachers aren't enforcing it (I am one of the guilty ones) and I guess we all need to be on board. Now I understand the need for teachers to be a single unit and to get on board with things. But hats, really? Is this that important? I guess I'm a rural boy that likes hats, but to be honest I don't really care that much. I am not pro-hat if that's what you're thinking. My problem is with our approach. It is a power struggle. I don't really know of any real reasons for banning hats. The only arguments I have heard are that it is disrespectful and we need to teach kids how to dress properly for certain places. Two things with those arguments that are interesting: knights used to remove their helmets when they were in the house of friends - when they were among people they trusted; and perhaps students feel that hats are appropriate for school - how we view school and how students view school may be different. I wouldn't wear a hat to school as it would be unprofessional, but I would and did wear a hat to my university classes. But really, who cares…seriously…isn't this a bit ridiculous? I feel silly even writing this.

I talked to a gentleman a few years back at a conference. He actually travelled around the country giving a presentation "It's Not About the Hat"….seriousy! Weird hey? And I guess that is my struggle - it's not about the hat. I feel, that as a staff, we are setting ourselves up for failure. Every hat discussion always comes from a negative place: a lot of complaining about students and how they are so defiant and disrespectful. People get pretty excited about making students take their hats off - that it somehow represents our power over them and you're going to be damned sure that we exercise that power. I have several grade 10's that slip their hats back on, often…but they are doing well in class and I enjoy them. So, tomorrow I am supposed to start harping on them about their hats. I usually just give gentle reminders, and sometimes I get caught up in learning and forget about hats. It's not like I'm making a point of letting students wear their hats - I do enforce it. I just don't get too carried away about it. I guess that's supposed to change. I'm not really sure how I feel about this. I feel like I'm being asked to get involved in power struggles that I don't want to be involved in. Sure, students should be able to comply with this simple request. But our Grade 10's are…challenging…and perhaps we need to focus on different things…like attendance, and building relationships, and academics, and building confidence. I have no problem with reminding a student several times to take their hat off and perhaps even asking them to put it in their locker or give it to me. I do have a problem with sending that student out of my class - away from a group learning environment - and down to the office for a possible punishment…all for simply wearing a hat. But, I do want to be a team player. Any suggestions?

October 4, 2011

Searching for the Perfect Pepsi

I love Malcolm Gladwell. I was completely blown away by his book Outliers.  It was one of those books that changed my perspective; it started in motion a huge paradigm shift in how I view success.  Not long after, I searched his name on TED.  Recently, I had my high school ELA students watch his presentation: "Malcolm Gladwell on Spaghetti Sauce".  I was intrigued by what they came up with and inspired by the conversations it generated.

Analogies are very effective.  In his TED Talk Gladwell really uses one big analogy.  He talks about how Howard Markowitz totally revolutionized the food industry through statistical analysis.  More importantly, Markowitz looked beyond the numbers and tried to understand the "why" - something that Gladwell is very familiar with.  I love Markowitz's quote "there is no perfect Pepsi, only perfect Pepsis'!"  Howard's job was to sell products: actually, to help companies sell products by figuring out what people wanted.  He existed in a time when companies spent extensive hours collecting data about what variety of food/drink/whatever people liked best.  Markowitz started going about it differently - he grouped people together and created products based on groupings.  This was a sophisticated marketing move and Howard made many companies a lot of money.  Gladwell touches on Howard's work with spaghetti companies like Ragu and Prego.  Rather than make one spaghetti sauce that appealed to the highest number of consumers, Howard consulted his companies to make several different varieties (36 actually, in 6 varieties) to meet many consumers wants/needs.  Gladwell ties it all together and makes sure that his viewers/listeners understand his analogy: "in embracing the diversity of human beings we find true happiness."

I couldn't help but apply Markowitz and Gladwell's thoughts to the educations system.  Wouldn't it be wonderful if someone like Markowitz would come and revolutionize the Education System.  First, the system would be tailored to the needs of students - it would be built to meet the desires, wants, and needs of students.  Secondly, we would take into account the needs, wants, desires of groups of students.  Granted, we already do this to some extent, but not anywhere near how Howard recommended for the food industry.  After all, what's the payoff?  Prego made $600 million from Markowitz's suggestions of groupings and diversity.  But that's different - that's the corporate world.  Education is not the corporate world.  There is one teacher for every 17 students; we are very clear on the rules and where we stand on the possibility of embracing diversity.  Do what you can seems to be the message.  We understand the principles behind flexible grouping and tailored programming ; we understand the need for it; what we don't understand, is how to actually implement it effectively.  If, however, there was a possibility of making $600 million I am sure that we would find a way.  We need to make the conscious effort to invest in student's futures.  After all, the payoff is bigger than any monetary denomination: and if you don't agree with that then you are in the wrong profession.

August 26, 2010

A Meshing of Realities

I have been on facebook for quite some time now. Actually, I think I was one of the first people I know to join. It didn't seem like much of a social networking site in the beginning simply because there were not many people I knew using it. I didn't even use my real last name. Since then I have learned to use my grown up name - to be myself and manage my online identity. I learned that this is a valuable lesson, and strive to help my students come to the same realization.

My first meaningful encounters on facebook actually came as a teacher. I created a teacher account and had my students sign up. We used it as an online classroom. This too, was before many people had joined. At the time we didn't really realize how quickly the site would grow and change. It did however, offer me (and my students) a wonderful opportunity. From the very start, we saw the academic potential of facebook (because this is solely what we were using it for).

It is no wonder then that when I took a job at a different school that I quickly created another teacher facebook account and started using it in much the same way. Interestingly though, the students took some time to come around to the idea. You see, they had been using the site on their own, with little or no "adult" influence. A few other teachers followed my lead and created teacher accounts as well. They started doing some wonderful things that I had never even thought of. Without even thinking about it we began meaningful conversations with students about being responsible online and managing their online identities. Today we discussed just how much of a positive change we have seen in just under a year.

So now I have three facebook accounts. My personal one, my old school teacher one, and my new school teacher one. Every day I sign on to each one and network with three different groups of people. I have debated meshing all accounts into one, but have my reasons for not doing so.

This last June my father came along on an outdoor ed canoe trip. He acted as our guide. In just under a week he formed some pretty positive relationships with my students. After I got home I logged on to facebook and found that he and 3 of my students had become friends. Tonight he posted a happy birthday wish to one of my grade 11 students. He said "have fun, and behave". They messaged back and forth a bit. I'm not sure what this all means. I do know that my 3 different facebook "realities" have often overlapped. But not to this magnitude. Here is my father, one of my role models, being a role model for some of my students. All because of social networking sites (he lives 5 hours away). It's a little strange, and a little exciting - because I know that in some indirect way I am helping provide positive role models for my students, as well as helping them to realize that an online community is still a community. It is full of real people. Your actions still have consequences. And your connections can be real and potential filled. Now to decide - start meshing some of my personal facebook connections (ie: my father) with my teacher ones?

May 26, 2010

My Friend Colin

I just finished watching My Sister's Keeper. Talk about tough. For those of you who haven't seen it, be prepared to cry. The storyline centers around a girl with cancer (leukemia to be specific). She is a daughter, and a sister.

Cancer. I don't know if there is a more powerful word in the human language. It is a word that strikes fear and emotion deep into the heart of everyone that hears it. And why? Perhaps it is because everyone of us, every single one, has been affected by it. And it's not so much that somebody close to us died from it as it is we know somebody who has had it. We have all seen it (some closer to it than others). For me, it's not the physical ugliness of the disease or the threat of death that grips me, but the struggle it possesses. If you have ever been close to cancer, you know that it is a long, hard, emotionally draining battle. A battle that nestles deep within your heart and mind. It is, for lack of a better description - like being dragged through hell...or watching somebody being dragged through hell and being powerless to help.

About 3/4 of the way through the movie something struck me: why do we not have schools that are dedicated to finding a cure? Stick with me here. Elementary schools, high schools. Why don't these schools exist? And not just cancer, issues plaguing humanity. Why don't we have schools whose mission statements are to find solutions to these issues?

We have schools that prep students for business careers, sports careers, etc.. These schools are specific. I have had friends that attended "hockey school". Why not "cancer school"? Is there not a demand for this sort of thing? Is becoming a successful businessperson or hockey player more important than finding a cure for cancer?

And then another idea struck me, and another, and another. Now the rest of this will not make sense because I have not worked through it yet. We know that there is a push for educational reform. We also know that this push is being met with much hostility. After all, schools are one of the hardest institutions to change. Driving this push is the center and most important issue. It is an issue that often gets overlooked and buried: connectedness.

Our students today are connecting with others in ways that we not too long ago only dreamed of. Partly because we are ignorant and partly because we are stubborn, we tend to "ignore" this issue. We need to dive deep into the world of connectedness. We need to embrace and encourage it, and not just write it off as "technology". We need to do this because it is important, not just for our students, but for humanity. It is within this connected world that "cancer schools" will appear. I think you understand this...if not, try harder.

One final story. When I was in high school a good friend of mine received some horrible news. He had cancer. It was very tough for him and everyone involved. The doctors gave him a 20% chance to live. Luckily, he made it. I remember talking to him on the phone and having to wait while he threw up. He often was too weak to talk so he would sit there and listen to us. If we were at a friend's house, we would put him on speaker phone for the entire night - just so he felt like he was there. Today, we might use something like Skype.

I once asked him if he was afraid. His response - I'm lonely. He wasn't afraid of the disease, or dying. He was afraid of facing it alone. He later told me that he found strength only after he met others in his situation. But up until that time, and even when he would come home, he felt alone. I would hope that today it would be easier for him to find support in our connected world.

His older brother told me about their visits with Colin in the hospital. They would stay there all night. Even though visiting hours had long passed. And then he said something that still touches me to this day: "the doctors could see that the term 'visiting hours' did not apply to us'. In that statement he was able to sum up every emotion contained within that one battle. So, I leave you with this: as educators let us show the world that "visiting hours" do not apply.

May 1, 2010

The Upward Trend?

Not too long ago I found myself involved in a conversation with another educator about extra-curricular activities. This educator was under the assumption that as we become more experienced educators we devout less time to students. I do not know if this is true, so I took a look at my extra-curricular hours.

Internship: 200hrs
Year One: 432 hrs
Year Two: 500 hrs
Year Three: 567 hrs
Year Four (current year): Projected: 700+hrs (note: this is time spent directly with students...and awake. Time spent sleeping: 200hrs

Now I am not a math person, but according to my calculations this means by the end of this year I will have spent close to 1000hrs away from home because of extra-curricular activities. I could figure out what percentage of a day, month, year, etc... this all represents, but I don't want to. It might scare me a bit. All I know is that it has been time very well spent. I have developed relationships outside of the classroom that I would otherwise not have been able to. Honestly, my planning suffers a bit because I simply do not have enough hours in a day. But I think that the pros far outweigh the cons.

So, it would seem that I am on an upward trend - that I devout more hours each year, not less. However, this trend must soon change. Eventually, there will be a point in which my hours decrease (because there is not enough hours in a day, and because I will soon be a new father). Understandably, our priorities change as we get older and as a result, we devout less hours to students. The question: will somebody else pick up these hours, or will student's simply lose them? Does there need to be a healthy mix of "experienced" and "new" teachers? Or is this all a lie and "experienced" teachers contribute just as many hours?

There's only one way to find out - leave a comment below that indicates how many years you have been teaching and approximately how many hours you donate to extra-curricular now.

March 4, 2010

Google in the bar

A few weeks ago I went to the local watering hole with some teammates after one of our hockey games. We got into an argument over who was the NHL's all time winningest coach. I remembered that Extra gum aired a commercial last year that featured Pat Quinn chewing gum on the bench. A fact popped up on screen that had the words "winningest coach" and then "must be the gum". After a few minutes of discussion about this very topic, I googled it. It turns out Pat Quinn was not the winningest coach, but he is the most winningest coach that is still active. Our argument was settled and the conversation quickly turned to how readily available information is and how different this is from not that long ago.

I have used my smartphone many a time in situations just as this. And while it is true that the smartphone is sometimes a damper on man's favorite pastime - arguing about sports (funny how the truth sometimes kills the argument)...it is even more fun to be able to access the truth with the touch of a button or two. Go to any bar...or even any public place - you will most likely find people doing just this: accessing information and connecting with people via a tiny piece of technology.

Now go to a classroom. Will you find the same thing? And if not, why not? Perhaps our schools need to look more like bars (kidding, well... sort of). Perhaps we need to actually realize that teachers no longer need to, or should be, the center of the classroom universe...instead of just saying that we need to realize it. We no longer teach...we guide, we assist, and we inspire. Instead of banning handheld devices and blocking IP addresses from accessing our wireless networks maybe we should embrace the technology and capitalize on its educational value. I believe we are starting to understand this (yay us!), but I also believe that this understanding is long overdue (boo us!).

November 4, 2009

Facebook is weird

The other day Alec Couros Tweeted about facebook and its weird new "tool" that allows you to reconnect with people you have not connected with in a while. He pointed out that people were angry because facebook was asking them to reconnect with people that are now dead.

Well, this happened to me yesterday. This last August one of my former students passed away in a car accident. She had just graduated. She was going to be a carpenter. Her name was Megan, and I have had a hard time accepting her passing.

I found out about her accident on facebook. In real time. One status update still haunts me. One of her best friends wrote: "Megan, they are saying you were in the car and you are gone....please let this not be true, I don't know if you are okay or not". Another person wrote (I think it was her relative): "dude, I think she's gone".

That last statement hit me hard. I was getting bad news in real time. I was also watching people react in real time. Facebook statuses soon echoed her name and the news everywhere. People created memorial groups and used facebook as a way to cope.

This next part was foreign to me. I have never had someone younger than me and close to me die before. And it was a really hard thing for me to accept. Although facebook provided somewhat of a grieving process for some, I found it difficult. Megan still has a facebook profile. I saw that people were writing on her wall and found myself checking her profile. It makes it harder for me to accept the fact that she is gone.

And now this. Yesterday, under suggestions, I saw that facebook had suggested her as a friend to reconnect with. I do not even know what to think about all this.

Jump off the bandwagon?

We've all heard it..."it's the new bandwagon". Odd statement. What does it even mean? Well, at least in education, here's what I think.

We educators use this term a lot. Maybe because there are a lot of new "bandwagons" to jump on. But what are we really saying? Yes, the term is used to describes something new. But it is more than that. We use it to describe new things that we are not yet sure of, or not yet familiar with. And I'll go even one step further. We often use it to describe things we do not agree with, or do not have the time, energy, and patience to look into. We use it as a cop out. It's our way of saying "I am not willing to look into this or consider it". We simply write it off as the "new bandwagon".

Why do we do this? It's not because we're lazy. It's not because we don't get excited by new ideas. But here is why:

1. Traditionally, a "new bandwagon" means more meaningless paperwork handed down by administration.

2. Many teachers have been in education a long time and (sadly) do not see a need for change. We think the system is just fine the way it is.

Yes, there are a lot of "new bandwagons" out there. And no, we do not have to jump on every one. But, we should at least take time to inspect the bandwagon. To see if it could help us or hurt us somehow. If we don't, we're doing our students an injustice. So please, next time you catch yourself saying "it's just the new bandwagon" realize that this is a cop out and that the education system needs more from you.

September 6, 2009

Face Time

What I am about to say hear is not anything new. It is not anything even remotely new. It is just me working through my own thoughts. A process of reflection if you will. I have been thinking about this post for a while now. I guess it's finally time.

Betcha thought this was going to be something controversial, something interesting. You were wrong. Anyway, I am a teacher that uses technology as much as possible. I get excited about new ideas. I try to bring technology into the classroom in order to make education relevant for our students. I feel that our schools are drastically out of date. They are physically and technologically out of date. Students are connected in ways that we are not. Technology is part of their lives. Or is it?

How many times have I just assumed that students are doing something (e.g. texting, facebooking, etc..)? A lot. How many times have I been wrong? A lot. Oh, don't get me wrong, they are doing these things....but maybe not to the extent that I think they are.

Last year we had a baseball game at school. Students from varying grades participated. I hit a couple home runs but that is beside the point. During that time I did not see one student with a cell phone. We were having fun. We were connecting in a personal way. I thought to myself: "self, maybe you focus on technology too much. Maybe you need to focus more on personal connectedness as well". I could have had students answer an academic question before receiving their pitch. I could have done all sorts of stuff. It was something cool and fun, and it was without the use of technology. Sometimes I forget this side of education.

This summer I was with my wife at the West Edmonton Mall. I saw a lot of young people texting while walking. They weren't even paying attention to the friends they were with. Suprisingly, I also saw a lot of dads texting while dining with their families. Two different generations, both missing out on the world around them because of their cell phones. I stereotyped, both groups were connected - one to a huge network of friends, the other to a network of work and respnosibility. In either case they were missing out on the personal relationships right in front of their face. Sometimes I forget this side of education.

This is a common argument against technology. Students spend too much time on devices and not enough "face to face" time. This was a concern at the beginning of this year when my new school rethought our cell phone policy. It was, previously, no cell phones in the school. It is now, no cell phones during class time. I argued for this. This is how our young people function and connect. I do not fully understand it. I fear that "face" time is being lost. I do not text a lot. I do not need to know what my friends are doing throughout the day. However, this is a reality for my students. Why keep them from it? Shouldn't we try to find an educational avenue here? After all, it is what our students are familiar with. Our students are functioning in ways that we do not fully understand. We are not being relevant to their realities. We need to rethink our system and ourselves. We need to ask ourselves questions and reflect. Maybe technological devices are replacing face time. Maybe there is more to this than just negative connotations. I never forget this side of education.

June 18, 2009

Higher Expectations

Last week we took our Outdoor Ed class to Kananaskis and Banff. We went hiking, tented in below freezing weather, endured a snowstorm and went whitewater rafting. One of the teachers who helped (and by helped I mean did most of) with the hiking plans had lived in the area. She is a maniac. We nicknamed her little Hitler. Her hikes were hard. The first day we hiked through 2 - 3 feet of snow to get to a frozen lake at high altitude. The second day we climbed a mountain - a very steep mountain. Our first hike was 15.4 kms round trip. The second was a little shorter. It was hard (especially with an ankle sporting some torn ligaments).

The thing I came away with - we need to have higher expectations for our students. This is nothing new. We have heard it over and over. This was the first time I have truly witnessed the effects of having those higher expectations. The students were challenged - they could have given up; they could of complained; they could have said "this is too much"...and they might have been right. But we expected them to do it. And they did. And they were extremely glad they did. They had a strong sense of accomplishment. And they had tons of fun. Plus they weren't going to let "hop-a-long" beat them up the mountain.

One female student had, in the past, had a near death experience with canoeing. Her life jacket got stuck on some branches in a set of rapids. She almost drowned. Yet she came whitewater rafting - and she even did the cliff jump into freezing cold water...actually everyone did! She was glad that we had pushed her to do it. The most interesting part - the high expectations were easily transferable. Students started having higher expectations for themselves, and for each other. All this accomplishment and a highly successful experience just because "Little Hitler" believed in us. Thanks Little Hitler.