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.

June 1, 2009

In Summary

This goes with my last post.  It is a question I have.  Is there such a thing as summative assessment?  And if the answer is yes, are we looking at education all wrong?  

An idea: there is no such thing as summative assessment.  Or at least there shouldn't be.  Isn't it our hope that students will continue to learn...and expand upon and deepen their skills?  Then isn't all assessment, in terms of our students, formative?  Summative assessment exists only for teachers.  It is a way for us to wrap things up.  But do things need to be "wrapped up" (okay, I know you're thinking it...there's a good Sex Ed. joke here).  Seriously though, what if we viewed all assessment as formative.  Would it mean that we would be much more connected with the grades below us and above us (does this include post secondary)?  Anyways, just a thought.  I haven't explored it too much yet, but it is an interesting concept.

May 31, 2009

Leaving a Paper Trail

If somebody asked me "what is one thing you need to work on as a teacher" I would probably say assessment.  Most teachers might agree - assessment is a very difficult area.  I was talking with Gary Ball a little while ago about the benefits of PD.  One of the questions among our division seems to be: how do we, as teachers, grow through PD but not be out of our classrooms too much?  I am not sure there is a definite answer to this question.  Well, yes there is.  If we did PD on our "own time" rather than class time...but then there is the question of "do we get paid more?"  Anyways, I am a bit off topic.  I have missed a lot of school this semester, mainly due to PD.  And while I have grown immensely as an educator because of this PD, I feel my classes have maybe suffered a bit.  Gary simply asked me: has what you learned transferred into higher learning for your students.  I responded a most definite yes!  And here is my do I prove it?

One of my flaws lies in feedback.  Translation - I am horrible at handing assignments back in a timely matter.  But flawed as my system may works incredibly well.  I monitor student's progress throughout the year.  I note which skills they have mastered, which skills they are having trouble with, and factors that may have inhibited or encouraged success in the past.  I have regular conferences with my students.  I remember everything they have done and constantly "refer back" in our discussions.  We have an open forum in which assessment and success are constantly discussed.  Yet, when it comes to paperwork - I fail drastically.  However, I am finding that if I do "paperless" assignments (e.g. online learning), I am much more efficient.  So I have started to explore this further.  Although my system does need a lot of work, it at least is starting to achieve what I am aiming for - for the students to be focused on learning rather than grades.  

And I  guess this is a problem that I have struggled with - the way we traditionally think about assessment.  Assessment should not attempt to have students complete assignments - it should attempt to allow students to demonstrate their skills through numerous ways.  The biggest problem I see: grades.  I would rather not give them.  Assigning grades is too subjective and realistically, not meaningful at all.  What is meaningful is an in depth analysis and discussion of student's demonstrated skills.  Teachers focus too much on marks, and so do students.  Again, I don't want students to focus on their grade - I want them to focus on their learning.

Last week I attended a "First Steps Writing" training program.  We were given examples of students work and then told, in groups, to assess and classify students into their writing ability group (based on a rubric).  For the most part our groups agreed - but sometimes we didn't.  While we were doing this exercise I realized something.  This is what I want assessment to look like.  Even assessing in groups, the rubrics were still subjective.  But I believe we did a better job because we collaborated.  I did not take the papers back to my classroom to "mark".  Instead we discussed the student's skills.  It was the collaborative discussion focused on learning that was meaningful.  We did not assign grades.  We simply wanted to figure out what skills students had demonstrated, and what skills they needed to work on.  This is the kind of report card I want to hand out.  And this is the process that we need to use.  Just one more positive aspect to PLC's I guess.  One problem, students still need marks to go to University - I am not sure what to do here.

Final thought: I enjoy using sports analogies for assessment.  Professional hockey players practice certain things.  They, and their coaches know exactly what they need to work on.  They have goals.  More importantly, they receive constant feedback.  They watch footage, they conference, they collaborate, and they either get more or less playing time.  A player always wants his/her coach to let them know where they stand - what they need to work on.  This is what I should be doing with my students.  I need to get my students to, like the hockey player, take a deep interest in their learning...and I need to provide constant feedback.  Which I do.  But I am not good at maintaining a paper trail.  So maybe my problem is not so much assessment, but accountability.  I don't know - your thoughts?  Feel free to be blunt and honest.

May 27, 2009

A Day at the Rink

There is something I have been wondering for some time now.  It is something that I have tried writing about, have had conversations about, and still cannot come to a conclusion.  Everytime I have had a conversation or tried writing about this topic, I could not seem to figure out what I was trying to say.  I guess it's more of a questions - are we really the experts?

What I mean is, are we the educational experts?  Many would argue yes.  We have been trained in the fine art of education.  And our level of expertise varies widely.  We arguably reference ourselves as somewhat of experts.  We throw out names like cabers at the Highland Games.  Everyone knows who the big names are, and what they are doing in terms of education.  

But like I have asked before: where are the students?  Could they be the potential "experts" that we seem to be searching for?  I am not sure if our students know what they want, or need to learn.  I am not sure if they have any answers for best teaching practices or innovative education.  I am not sure if they would be able to help guide education in a much needed new direction.  But then again, I am not sure that anyone has ever asked them.  Sure, we've had brief conversations with them and maybe even included them in a conference or two - but have we really asked them?  Have we asked them on a continual basis?  Have we asked that them to help guide us?  Have we asked them to be educational consultants?  

We could argue that they, unlike us, have not been trained in the fine art of education.  But I think that that might be the beauty of it.  They have not been trained to educate.  We look for ways to teach, they look for ways to learn.  They are the ones who want and need something out of the system.  They are the ones who stand to gain, or lose, from ideas.  Why shouldn't at least some of those ideas be their own?

Don't get me wrong...I love the way that educators are sharing.  And to the extent that we are sharing.  But sometimes I question the dynamics.  Are we sharing what we are doing to pursue higher levels of learning?  Or are we doing it to advance our own names?  I often hear "you should see what this teacher is doing with his/her students!"  And yeah, I usually get excited...but is this the right way to approach it?  Why do we just assume that it is the educator who is doing the amazing thing(s)?  Aren't his/her students doing amazing things as well?  And why do I never, or seldom, hear about the students that are initiating the amazing thing - why is it always the educators?  I had this conversation with Gary Ball today.  He perhaps put into words (better than I could) what I was getting at: "Oh God!  We are hockey parents!."  Do we ever push our students to pursue things they are not interested in?  Sure, but we are getting better.  If a player excels on the ice, does the parent accept (partial) credit?  Do we accept credit for our student's success?

I started questioning our edblogosphere - most of what I read or hear refers to the amazing things teachers are doing with their students, and not vice versa.  Then I came across a blog post by Eldon Germann.  In it he referred to a previous blog post by Alec Couros.  It talked about an unfortunate incident he ran into with sharing photos on Flickr.  There were many comments left and one in particular caught my attention.  Aaron Dewald wrote: "I was in a discussion with my dad about this. He’s 54, I’m 29. He finds it amazing that I’m willing to put pictures of me, my family, friends etc… wonders what the world is coming to. I do it because that’s how I grew up. I do it because I like to connect and share."  It made me wonder once again - are we really the experts?  Our students are growing up in times that we, try as we might, do not understand.  Some of us are on the cusp of these times (regardless of age).  But our realities are different from that of our students.  No matter how hard we try, we may not be equipped to be "experts" of those realities.  Perhaps we need more student experts.  And perhaps we need to listen to them...closely.

And then I finished reading Eldon's blog.  He had shared Alec Couros' topic with his Grade 10 class.  But, rather than share we he had done with his students, he shared what his students had done.  He featured their blog responses on his blog.  It was suddenly no longer about what he had done with his students, but simply what his students had done.  It was no longer about the hockey parents, but the players.  After all, it wouldn't be much of a game without any players.  

May 21, 2009

Sitting on top of the blog bubble

9:10 a.m. - Everyone in the gym can feel the excitement building.  Students quickly shuffle back and forth from side to side.  Suddenly everyone seems to move fluently with the sound of the basketball dribbling down the court - everyone except me, I do not move fluenty.  In comes a student half my size - here's my chance, I go for the block but he fakes to my right.  Luckily I stopped his elbow with my jaw.  So here is the premise for this upcoming blog it building background information.  

Actually, this post has nothing to do with basketball.  I am just thinking ahead and using the elbow to the jaw as a potential scapegoat in case people greatly disagree with me.  What I do want to discuss comes from an experience I was part of a few months ago - E-journalism.  As I have already mentioned, it was an eye opening experience.  Students from different schools working together in a projects based environment with multiple teachers as guides.  This, I thought to myself, is what education should feel like all of the time.  However, something was "off".  Not everything was 100%.  We were covering a conference held for teachers about how to use technology to enhace student learning.  Although I had an idea of why I had an "off" feeling it wasn't until I watched the video featured in my last blog that I realized what was missing - the students.  Well, that's not true.  The students were there.  They were covering the conference.  David Warlick came and talked to the students.  He even hosted a panel discussion with the students.  So why do I say the students were missing?  Read on.

I didn't see any students being part of the other presentations.  Our E-journalism team showed videos during lunch, but we had mixed emotions about the response.  Overall, we felt like teachers in a disengaged class - many people seemed to not be paying attention.  Why do we do this?  Why do we as teachers hold conferences that are really about our students, yet not include our students?  Shouldn't we be listening to them?  Are we the experts?  Are they?  Do they know what they want?  Do we know what they need?  I don't know.  But we sure have a lot of "experts" and most of them are not students.  

Even now I am still having difficulty processing my thoughts.  All I know is that our students were covering a conference that was all about them, about teaching them and connecting with them.  A lot of people at the conference were our "tech" and "collaboration gurus".  You would think that it would be easy for our students to get immersed.  And it was.  And it wasn't.  Like I said, David Warlick came up and talked to our students.  He talked to them for quite some time.  And it was an interesting conversation.  Donna DesRoches was part of our team, and an organizer - but she found time to come up and "visit'.  Gary Ball showed up, so did Ryan Hackl.  Mark Kowalski came and helped us with our Mac problems.  But that was it.  Well, not exactly.  Students set up intereviews with they spent some time with those people as well.  And now I'm no longer sure.  Maybe there was more engagement than I thought.  

I guess it's kind of like my ideas about blogging.  I love blogging, but it's hard.  I mean, why do we really blog?  To converse with others.  To bounce ideas, to collaborate, etc...  But I am finding that it is time consuming.  I love reading other people's blogs.  And commenting.  I love when other people read my blogs.  And comment.  But does it benefit our students?  I think so...most of the time.  We are sharing ideas, and defining them, and redefining them.

But I think that there is a blog "bubble" and this is the part that is hard.  In this blog bubble are the more prominent bloggers.  We know who they are.  They are amazing.  And all of us secretely want to become part of that blog bubble.  But are we running the risk of losing our way?  And what I mean by that is: is anyone else worried that it might not always be about the students, and about education - but rather about us?  Are we focused too much on being in that bubble?

May 20, 2009

The skills they need...

This video was apparently shown at the last admin council meeting.  It was brought to my attention by my administrator.  The first thing I thought was "this kid is awesome".  Then I thought how valuable it was that he was being coached and taught these skills.  Then I was amazed at his message to teachers - here was a young boy telling us teachers what students need from us.  And this seems to be a current trend - I think we are doing a better job of listening to our young generations.  Ideally, we need to mesh experience with fresh ideas.  I love the fact that this young boy was the keynote speaker.  And then something dawned on me.  Despite all the PD events I have been to, I have not seen our students or other young people a part of it.  I have not yet, at any of our "teacher" conferences, seen a keynote speaker younger than myself.  Something is wrong here.  

Anyway, I showed this video to my Social Studies 30 as means to spark a conversation about current education systems.  To be honest, their response surprised me.  They didn't even seem that interested in the message that was being sent.  They were, however, interested in how that message was being sent.  Comments like "this kid could be the next President" were common.  Bottom line: they were amazed at how well prepared this young boy was to address a large crowd, and how fluently and intellectually he did it.  They were amazed at his public speaking and analytical skills.  They wondered about his education - and said that the skills he was learning would pretty much guarantee that he will be "successful".  The bell rang and my students slowly filtered out of my room - and I wondered if I was helping students develop the skills that would ensure their success later on in life.  If I compared the education I facilitate to the education this young boy receives....well, I think I would feel inferior.  

May 11, 2009

NOT Acceptable Use

In my last post I questioned our approach (as educators) to what we believe to be acceptable use (in terms of technology).  Basically, I am not quite sure that we are "on the same page" as our students - that we are missing amazing educational opportunities.  I used an example in which a teacher asked a student in my class to get off youtube.  That teacher was Gary Ball.  Now Gary and I have a great relationship and the example I used was meant to probe into deeper issues.  I used this example because Gary has a firm grasp of technological use and is really an innovative and progressive thinker in terms of technology.  I knew that Gary and I could talk about what happened and use it to benefit future education of our students.  This is one answer - to have collaborative relationships with your colleagues so that you can figure out best educational practice.  Anyway, here is a snippet of Gary's response.

I don't really like the idea of letting every teacher make their own decisions on THIS PARTICULAR ISSUE. The problem is that one classroom has the potential to affect the entire network. One classroom all on Facebook has less of an effect on all of us. We need to be consistent on an issue like this.

Anyways - I think that the discussion needs to continue. The real answer is more bandwidth - but until then we have to find some way to cope with our students educational needs and the limitations of our system.

I found this interesting - one because I didn't expect this to be Gary's response, and two - because what he says has some interesting implications.  Gary's argument is realistic.  He disagrees with leaving it up to individual teacher's discretion for one reason and one reason only - the "limitations of our system".  What we do online drastically affects other classrooms online.  This is because of bandwidth.  If a teacher is giving "free time" on the internet everyday, although that is an issue administration would deal with, it affects everyone.  I talked to Gary and had him clarify his reasoning.  Sadly what he says is true - we need to "find some way to cope with our students educational needs and the limitations of our system".  Now, we both disagree with this, but it is our reality.  What we would argue is that the limitations of our system are also limiting our students educational opportunities.  We need to change this and NOT be okay with it.  I have heard that more bandwidth is high on the agenda for the upcoming year.  Thankfully we are part of a progressive educational division that is in tune with the future of education.  

May 5, 2009

Acceptable Use or Accepting Use

Bell rings.  Social Studies 30 filters out the door.  And I am confused.  Why?  Glad you asked.  I showed my students a program they can use to create their own myths and legends (thanks Donna DesRoches!).  We have been learning about sweatshops etc.. and I thought this online program would be a good way for students to demonstrate their understanding of the issue.  So, we started making an example story together (it really is a cool website, seriously, go check it out...I'll wait) and the enthusiasm level in the room was quite high.  They started making them and I have to say that I wasn't quite prepared for what happened next.  Although they didn't finish, they were doing an absolutely fantastical job!  They were exhibiting a deep, deep, understanding of the issue - and being more creative than I had anticipated.  Wow, either this was a great opportunity for them to demonstrate understanding in a fun and super engaging way or - I am the best teacher ever and their learning is all thanks to me.  Yeah, #1 is more accurate.  Anyway, cool website - tons of potential...I will put up a video analyzing it in a little while.

So I told you that story to tell you this story.  Often, and I know it's hard to believe, learning takes place beyond our control.  Meaning: no matter what we try to "teach", students might find something else to learn.  This happened to me.  Everyone was engaged in the myths and legends lesson.  They were, well you know.  Two girls at the side of the room happened to wander on to youtube while they were creating their sweatshop story. Now, here's where my confusion lies.  Students today are extreme multi-taskers...this we know. And I don't mean like I can pick my nose while driving my car multi-tasking...they can do many many different things at once (like pick their nose and do their hair).  But seriously,  I think this is a huge issue in education.  And you know who's making it an issue - you, me, us.  We have before us a generation of students that can work on several different tasks at the same time and we are not capitalizing on this amazing talent.  We squander their skills. We create policies that ban multi-tasking behavior (no youtube, no facebook, no bebo, etc...) We ban multi-layered learning (no youtube, no facebook, no...), well, we allow it - but only on our own terms.  I know that we are not doing a very good job of being relevant in our student's eyes.  We ask them to operate in ways that don't make sense to them.  When they are at home working on something, or doing learning on their own, they are free to multi-task as they please.  Yet when they come to school we tell them that they are not on task.  But what if they are?  And what if we have trouble understanding this?  Maybe we need to pay better attention to our students.  This is something I have tried to do.  

A while back we were conflicted about our acceptable use policy.  Some teachers wanted to ban social networking and video sites (what, then, is the point of having the internet?), others wanted to police it, others didn't care.  A good argument was made - we are not teaching our students anything by banning them from sites...we need to teach them how to use the internet responsibly.  And I whole heartedly agree.  For awhile I was "get off facebook", "no youtube during class time" etc...  Not because I agreed (which I didn't) but because it was the general policy of our school.  Then we decided to teach them to be responsible - and all sites were open (within reason).  I should mention that we have always allowed youtube, bebo, etc... if it is being used directly for educational reasons.  However, I wasn't quite sure what our new use policy was (and am still confused).  I think that we decided that it would be up to teachers to "police" use.  That internet management is tied in with classroom management.  I am okay with this.  A gray area does exist though. - who deems what is educational?  Next paragraph.

Back to my story, the two girls at the side of the room...remember them.  Well, they're on youtube - I know it and they know I know.  You know how they know I know - because they aren't being secretive about it.  They let me know they're on youtube.  Most of my students enjoy listening to music while working on projects - they know that if it is okay with everyone in the room, it's okay with me.  Nobody had an ipod or mp3 player so they decided to use youtube.  Okay, so right now you might be thinking that "hey, that's not educational".  And you'd be right...on the surface.  What if I told you that music provides a background noise that my students actually think boosts their productivity (seriously, we have had many conversations about how and why).  Well, maybe that's a weak argument.  And maybe there was no real educational value to the youtube music video.  And maybe I should have done what I have done many times in the past and told her to shut it off because it is not related to her assignment and is eating up bandwidth and blah blah blah.  But like I said, maybe we need to pay more attention to our students.  So I listened.  The two girls starting having a conversation about music - more specifically new music; actually, new music videos; actually, which new music videos are the best and why; actually, what makes these new music videos the best and why.  They were talking about camera techniques and all sorts of stuff.  Here they were, sitting in my class - a class that I have designed to facilitate and foster critical thinking and analytical skills, and they were using those skills in a context relevant and interesting to them, on their own!  I pulled up the myths and legends program - can we add audio...yes we can! Sweet!  I learned something too and now everyone is more excited - plus two girls at the side of the room have just exhibited some amazing critical and analytical skills.  All because of a youtube video.  Now I could have told them to get on task - or I could have listened, which I'm glad I did.  My eureka moment was short lived however, when another teacher walked into my room, saw the one girl on youtube and told her to get off because it was eating up bandwidth.  She tried using her analytical and persuasive skills but to no avail.  Plus, she gave some lip - we'll have to work on respectful arguing.  

This has been my longest post yet.  And why?  Well I guess I'm trying to work through my own thoughts - but really, I'm looking for some answers.  The teacher that came into my room was not wrong for kicking the girl off of youtube (other than that he should have realized that I was probably okay with her being on it so in my eyes, there was some learning taking place).  But there is no way he could have known that some learning had taken place - he wasn't there for the background information - which is why I believe a "left up to teacher discretion" policy might be the best policy.   However, as often happens, it became a power struggle.  Now why is this?  Why do students protest?  If they knew what they were doing was wrong or saw it as completely off task they would be less likely to argue.  They probably argue because a) what they are doing is fun and engaging, and b) we are asking them to operate in ways that do not make sense to them.  If they are more interested in something other than my class - why is that?  Is my class boring to them?  Is it not relevant?  How can I use the tools they find relevant to help them learn?  How can I do this while following acceptable use policy?  Ultimately, how do we teach students in a way that best suits them.  Maybe they work better when they are allowed to peruse brief distractions.  Maybe they work better when they have multiple things on the go - maybe this makes them feel more involved and connected (today I had a student facebook chat her friend in another school about how to survive a bear attack because this is the project she was working on for my outdoor ed class).  But here is the big problem - bandwidth.  There is not enough of it.  Especially at our school.  What's it like at your school? Realistically, this is what people use the internet for.  And we can do all the listening and tuning in we want - but if the fact remains that videos and social networking sites eats up too much of our valuable bandwidth....

If our means don't meet student needs, what do we do about it? 

April 29, 2009

Some Questions

What if...
our curriculums are wrong?
our concept of traditional skills, standards and content are wrong?
what I learned about teaching English in university only 4 years ago has drastically changed?
kids can communicate just as clearly through shorthand text messages as I can in a formal essay?
we refuse to acknowledge any of this as plausible?

What if...
we are too self-centered and egotistical to think that things can change drastically in a short amount of time?
we are too ignorant to realize the entire planet is shifting and education is stuck in neutral?
we are too stuck in a model of what we think content areas should look like and include to be advocates for elaborate change?
I don't know how to keep up?

What if...
we think that kids should be learning what we learned?
we compare ourselves to our students?
we compare students from last year to students today?
we are stuck in a bog hole of stale ideas but view ourselves as fresh?

How do we.....
give students appropriate skills?
come to the realization that although we are the experts...we know very little?
we keep up with change? (and don't say some things never change?)

A few days ago Dan Meyer wrote a blog titled "In Defense of Digital Media". He said that although "[his] preference is also for the real thing over a digital simulation of the real thing" sometimes "digital media is preferable to the real thing". One example:

The real thing is too mathematically noisy for classroom use. Jason prefers a real demonstration of projectile motion using bottle rockets to my use of online simulators but that introduces acceleration and wind resistance— mathematical noise — into the system. Let's not romanticize the real or the digital. They are both deficient. They both require a cost-benefit analysis.

This got me thinking - how much of what we do is romanticized. Yes, we would love students to experience certain opportunities in the flesh...but how much of that is actually a benefit to student learning? But then I thought - we are educating students for a future that we know very little about. What are the most important skills for them to gain? Isn't mathematical noise a good thing (I am not a Math teacher)? Don't we want our students to be problem solvers in a real world context...shouldn't they be creative and face a variety of situations in order to prepare them for life outside the closed model system?

And then I thought - are we a closed model system that tries to avoid "educational" noise?

April 24, 2009

Lions, Crocodiles...and the WTO?

This video has been circulating for some time now - for those of you who haven't seen it it is a video that captures an extrodinary set of events. I had heard that it was going to be made into a National Geographic documentary and I guess that is true (look here). If you haven't yet seen the video, watch it first before reading on.

Wow! A complex video, and story, in so many ways. Not only are there evil villians (the lions and a crocodile), but also a happy ending (maybe not for the predators but certainly for the water buffalo). And then of course there are the people watching.

Okay, what? Well, as teachers, we always look for a learning opportunity. I was excited by this video, it interested me immensly...but now what? How can I use it? Well, it just so happened that in my Social Studies classes we were discussing what I like to call the 'big fish, little fish" topic. I offer a comic strip that shows a big fish about to eat a medium sized fish who is about to eat a little fish. The captions read (from big fish to little fish) "the world is just", "there is some justice in the world", and "there is no justice in the world". Now, for you Social Studies teachers you immediately understand that we will go on to talk about power and justice in the world...for you Math teachers, well...there are 3 fish. I next offer the comic strip that shows a big fish about to eat a little fish; the little fish then whistles and all his little fish friends show up and together - eat the big fish. The comic strip is called "organize" and the lesson is taken from the book Rethinking Globalization (check out their is a great organization).

Given this context you may begin to understand what an opportunity a video like "Battle at Kruger" offers for extended learning. We began to use the Battle at Kruger as an analogy for the world in relation to power struggles and justice. Who might be the big fish and medium fish (e.g. lions and crocodile). Oh, I see, well the lions could be the United States and Canada and the little fish could be India or Pakistan etc... Students then came up with some general analogies that I really liked. The lions and crocodile could be "developed" countries, transnational corporations, or world organizations (such as WTO) and the water buffalo could be "Third World" countries and governments. The people on the safari could be us. You see, the water buffalo finally realize that they are powerful through numbers and fight back. The people on the safari simply sit back and watch - they do nothing to interfere (and some eventually benefit from the video). We had been talking about sweatshops. Students applied this to the video. If Third World governments worked together to demand better conditions etc... the lions and crocodiles would have less power. And what about us, the safarians, what should we do? Anyway, students eventually developed their own in-depth analogies of the situation. Had it not been for this video I would never have thought of using the animal kingdom to connect learning of power and justice with a deeper context. But I guess that is the joy of teaching, finding those things that really connect and solidify student learning on a deeper level.

April 9, 2009


Well, I have been playing around with the idea of podcasts for some time now.  I finally figured out how to use them in a meaningful is a short clip of the first Pow-Wow mix my students ever made...they did it in about 15 minutes.  Now, I can either embed a player for everyone to listen here - 

Or...I can embed it to be downloaded (or so I think).  This would mean that other students could download songs (or even videos) we created and play them in their ipods.  Am I right? Any input would be greatly appreciated...Eldon, if you read this I'm looking at you.

Download this episode (right click and save)

Give me your ideas!

Here is a video one of my students made about a game called "Pos or Not".  I am beginning to see a huge advantage to having students do things like this.  It is interesting to see that while she guides us through the game she also engages with the material.  As she addresses topics she points the mouse to the part where she is talking about - too bad Jing doesn't let you highlight and draw on the screen while recording (Voice Thread?).  Perhaps the biggest benefits, are that her video has provided a model for other students as well as for herself.  After posting her video on her blog she started analyzing and critiquing herself - what could have she done better, what did she do a good job of - oh, she needs to speaker louder, etc...  Anyways, this is the first time I have had my class do something like this and I am super excited.  If you are way ahead of me in doing stuff like this with your students I would love to hear for you and gain some insight.

April 8, 2009

Sharing is caring

Just came across this sweet video!  Haven't watched it all yet as our internet connection seems to be getting slower by the day...oh well, check it out and let me know what you think...chances are you will be able to share your opinion before I can even finish watching it!

April 6, 2009

Sleeping on the couch?

I've noticed that as I get more and more involved in collaborative communities I have more and more meaningful conversations.  Well whoop de doo and la de da!  But just hold on a second, they are more than just conversations - they are enthusiasm generators and shift initiators...meaning that they get me excited about learning and teaching, and force me to think about myself - what I believe, if I am being effective, etc...  This last part is HUGE!  If we do not evaluate ourselves, constantly questions ourselves, and have dialogue with ourselves, and are we going to improve?  And if you, as a teacher, don't think you need to improve allow me to let you in on a little're wrong.  

Of course we need to improve!  We're part of a system that strives for constant improvement.  This is what we pride ourselves on.  It's how we measure student success...and our own.  Anyways, nothing new...same old song and dance just sung from a different mouth and danced with a new pair of shoes.  What I do want to talk more about, and explore, is learning.  I've dropped the "I need to be perfectly prepared for every class" mentality and adopted the "where are the teachable moments" philosophy.  Let me explain.  Yes, I need to be prepared for class.  But I also need to be prepared to change and adapt.  Real learning takes place on the fly, in real time.  This is something I am coming to understand.  So, someone shows me something cool they are using in class (e.g. getting their students to blog), cool - looks good, I want to do that.  Now I have two options.  Old Nickell would go home and test the idea out, try to figure it out and set up expectations for how it should be used in class.  New Nickell goes straight to his class and has his students start blogging while he refills his coffee cup...just kidding, but seriously.  Okay, what I have started doing is I go straight to my class and share my enthusiasm with my students.  I show them blogger and all the cool things people are doing with it.  We talk about how we could use it in class, what skills it could build, what they would like to do with it...and then we do it.  This collaborative culture that we talk's not just between teachers...but teachers and students.  And students provide an interesting perspective...they let you know what they would like to learn.  Anyways, learn and then do...or learning by doing...quite a concept.

Now I had planned to blog about something else.  I had planned to share a conversation that I had with my wife just a couple days ago.  She is an elementary teacher.  People sometimes say "that is great, but how do you ever escape work?"  Truthfully, why would we want to.  Learning is our passion.  So, back to our conversation.  We were talking about PLC's.  I told her that our staff had just started using exit questions in our staff meetings.  We had to create a question we had about PLC's and then research it, come back to the next meeting and talk about what we had found, and then revamp our question or create a new one - depending where our research had taken us.  Great people the chance to do some learning on purpose (courtesy of Gary Ball).  Not only that, but we can answer a heck of a lot more questions as a group.  Now, I am not sure if people saw it as an opportunity to learn and share, or simply a homework assignment that needed doing.  Hopefully the first, why wouldn't you want to help create a collaborative environment?  

Anyway, as we were talking my wife raised an interesting point.  She said that it is sometimes more difficult (e.g. time consuming) for elementary teachers to research or discuss such issues. Let me explain, one: because I am not being clear and two: because I don't want to sleep on the couch tomorrow night.  Some of the conversations we have as teachers (e.g. how to create a collaborative culture, shifting our ways of thinking about education , etc..) are easily transferable into a high school classroom.  I can discuss these topics with students, and the difference between my classes and an elementary classroom is that we can have an in-depth conversation.  Such discussions are also right up my alley in terms of my teaching assignment (ELA and Social Studies).  Translation, it is not more work to engage in such is my work.  Now take an elementary teacher.  They spend most of their day reading literature designed for young people.  They deal with issues and topics in relation to little people.  We deal with issues and topics in relation to adults (we have many adult students at our school) or young adults.  I think you see where I'm going with this.

So this is what I was going to blog about.  This was going to be my topic of discussion.  But then...I came home...and my wife showed me what she was doing with class blogmeister, and a site called  And I got excited.  I said, cool, I want to do can I use that in my class.  And guess what...tomorrow...well, you know the rest.  Then I showed her what one of our elementary teachers had done with class blogmeister (she came back super excited from a conference on Friday and boom,, she's doing it...yay her - learn and do!)  Then I showed her what I was doing with my classes and blogger.  Then we had fun looking on the internet at other cool programs.  Our discussion eventually lead to talking about autism, and FAS, and learning patterns.  The point - we had an in-depth conversation about learning...and it was a conversation that was directly related to our classes - even though she teaches elementary and I teach high school.  All we really need to do is find ways to connect and discuss topics in meaningful ways.  After all, we are all learners - and learning is a universal topic.

Life Long Learning

This blog is brought to you by a blog posted by Gary Ball...oh, here, and the number 5 (enter the Count from Sesame Street).  Okay, so Gary basically talked about life long learning and posed the question: "do you learn, or do you just teach?"  He stated how it is sometimes too easy to just put off that job related learning.  

The ideas and questions that Gary pondered raised some questions of my own.  How many teachers actually see learning as their job?  I know that I have, in the past, been a guilty culprit of putting off that job related learning.  "I'm too busy teaching", or "teaching takes up most of my time".  And then I realized something...teaching is not my job.  Learning is.  I did not become a teacher to teach, I want to learn and be part of a learning's the type of environment that I feel most comfortable and meaningful in.  And because I have been learning a lot about PLCs and collaborative environments another thought ran through my mind.  It is virtually impossible to be part of a collaborative environment and not learn something.  If you are part of such an environment and not learning something...then you are doing it wrong.  

Perhaps this is a touchy area, for it represents a shift in education - a change, and sometimes people have a hard time with change.  But, if you have a hard time with change and are not willing to learn, perhaps you are in the wrong profession. Learning is our job.  If we want our students to become life long learners then we have to be life long learners.  If we want to see a steep learning curve within our schools, teachers need to be part of that steep learning curve - and not as teachers but as learners!  Students no longer need teachers to be the center of the classroom.  Why would I want a student to come to me for information when they could find it on their own?  So I guess it is my job to help them develop the skills to find and process that information.  But I too must find and process information; I must do, on a regular basis, what I want my students to do...and I must do it with excitement and find learning opportunities within it.  I am finding that embodying this philosophy makes our jobs much more exciting.  I do not know how many times in the last while (a lot)I have been in Gary's, or another teacher's room discussing a new idea or learning how to do something. And you know what?  It comes through in my classes. And they are, as a result, more exciting - and a steeper learning curve takes place.  Whether it be sharing your learning with your class so that more learning can take place or sharing a new "how to", learning is exciting - and rewarding.  Oh, and to answer your question Gary - the last thing I learned on purpose was how to use Voice Thread (about 10 minutes ago).  Now I am excited to see how we (my students and I) can use it.  Thanks. 

April 1, 2009

Video games in the classroom

So I am in the process of getting all of my students to start blogging. Their first task - assess some of the online educational video games David Warlick pointed out in his session during the Emerging Learning Summit. You can find these games here. I posted a video to model what I want student to do. They have started looking at the games and the response has been very enthusiastic.

March 25, 2009

Shop Class 101

So I had more to write about on my last blog but...well, frankly, you are more likely to read two shorter blogs than one long one, so I guess I got you good sucker! Anyway, is exciting. And I don't mean like sit around the table every now and then or drive in your car pool and talk about students collaboration...I mean like authentic, learning centered, high energy, task oriented collaboration. And I must admit...I am a bit selfish. Yes, this ejournalism project was a wonderful experience for "our" students (meaning all students involved, we became a team and those students involved became our students...see last blog for more). They were given an opportunity to connect with students from other school cultures, which was huge. But it was also a wonderful experience for me, as a teacher. I really enjoyed working with teachers that I do not normally work with. And sure, it helped that these teachers just happened to be energetic, enthusiastice and great at what they do. But equally as important was why we were working together. We had a reason to work together, and that reason was to ensure student success. And then it hit me, why don't we do this more often?

I don't just mean why don't we do projects like this more often, I mean why, as teachers, don't we work together more often for a reason? And this lead to a couple of discussions with a couple of my colleagues earlier today. There is no reason that we cannot get together and solve problems. Let's take rural education for example. It's no secret that rural schools lack resources. It would be nice to have a shop in every rural school in Saskatchewan, but let's face's probably not going to happen. Now, we can sit and complain about this and tell the division office that they need to give us a shop...or, we can get together with other rural schools and the division office and figure out how we can our give students "shop" skills. As my colleague and I were discussing this we started talking about what the outcomes would be - perhaps building shops in central and accessible locations; hey, we could even tier students - those who knew they wanted to enter the trades upon graduation could receive intensive programming and those that just wanted to dabble could recieve less extensive training. Boom, two teachers, standing in a hallway for 5 minutes had already started trying to figure out how we could solve this problem. Imagine what 20 or 50 teachers could accomplish. How long would it actually take to come up with real solutions? I think you know the answer. Then why aren't we doing it?

I guess sometimes it is just easier to complain and do nothing. And in the past I have been a culprit of this, but from now on I am going to try to be less of a culprit. And in the future I will probably be a culprit of this...but I will be conscience of it and hopefully wake the hell up. I have sat with other teachers and said things like "well, we have an attendance problem", or "other schools don't have our problems", or "our school is different". Well, let's be honest and call it like it is, this is all bullshit. It is just a way to complain, pass the buck, and not do anything about it. I was looking for someone else to solve problems that I did not know the answer to, and it's okay to not know the answer, but it is not okay to do nothing about it. We need to start realizing it is our responsibility to work together to solve any problems we may have. Take an issue I have hear a lot about: the division is supposedly cutting 1 teaching position per school for next year. Now, if we believe that this is not a good thing, we need to get together and discuss it...and come up with solutions. And let's realize something: an "us" vs. "them" mentality is harmful...we know this. The "division" is not against student learning. The "division" is not different from "us". We are all educators; we are all here to make sure all students learn and succeed. I guess I just realized that although I am a relatively new teacher, I had already slipped into a rut of thinking that certain problems were beyond my control...but in reality - they are not. All we need to do is collaborate in a meaningful way. Sure, there are things that we cannot change...but let's focus on the things we can.

Get on the bus!

I recently attended the Emerging Learning conference in Saskatoon. I went as part of a division created Ejournalism team that had students cover the who's who and what's what of the conference. While I was able to sit in on some sessions (Yay David Warlick), my emerging learning came from being part of a truly collaborative environment

19 students, 6 teachers, 1 Learning Consultant, and a whole lot of collaboration. Wow, what an experience. So, here's what it looked like. Students were given tasks of covering sessions (taking notes, pictures, and video), writing blogs that conveyed their interpretaions of those sessions, making videos, making slideshows, giving presentations, conducting interviews, and much much more. I was amazed at the collaborative and learning centered environment that emerged. Students were given and task and whoosh...gone - they went and did it. And they did it very well. A student had a problem and whoosh...another student went over and helped. A student had some free time and whoosh...they were over asking what else they could do to help. 1 student went down the water slide and whoosh...all of the other students followed.

Now we could say that these particular students were amazing, and believe me...they were - and believe me...we said it. But was that it - was it enough to simply say that these students were amazing? And the answer my friends, is no. Something else was taking place; and it was somewhere between downing my last cup of luke warm coffee and watching students text and facebook their friends about what they were doing and telling them to "check our our website...NOW!" that I realized what that something was. I was witnessing in real life, the shift in education that we are all looking for. Students did not get in trouble for "playing with their technology". They did not get told to "sit down and do their work" when they were up and moving around. And perhaps this is because they were working. Because they were focused and driven and involved and engaged and interested and, well...learning. Or perhaps it was because they were involved in a task oriented, team driven, collaborative, supportive, and open environment. And perhaps it was because yes, they were given tasks and jobs to do...but they were also told to have fun.

There are several things that I cannot stop thinking about. First and foremost, is our students. And when I say our students I do not just mean our students at Cando. I mean our in we are teachers and these are our students. Yes, we need to take ownership of our students in our classrooms, but we also need to take ownership of all students in our school...and maybe, just maybe we need to take ownership of students.

Maybe I am not explaining myself "good enough" (that's for you Ruth!). The students involved in this project did not know each other. Most of the teachers involved in this project did not know each other. Yet we came together and created a wonderful educational utopia like environment of learning and collaboration. The question: why was this project so successful? The answer: because we worked collaboratively and made student learning our main priority. So to you PLC nay your face! But seriously, isn't this why we became teachers? To feel like we are a part of something great? To feel like we are truly making a difference in student's lives? And to feel, well, to feel excited about learning...and to share that enthusiasm with others? If not, I feel sorry for you...because we are finally "getting it". We, as an educational system, are finally catching up to society. Yes our schools are out of date. Yes we need to be more relevant in terms of what young people's lives are really like and reflect what is really important to young people. But we are getting there. To use Anthony Muhammad's analogy...we have started the bus. Are you on it?

March 15, 2009

Damn Trains

One of the last speakers I heard at the PLC conference in Phoenix was Robert Eaker. He talked about what it means to "be" a PLC. His words, I believe, summarized the challenges of becoming a PLC community...but they are challenges worth tackling. Just as Anthony Muhammed suggested at our division PD event, Eaker stressed that we as the educational community need to move away from traditional school thinking. At the heart of this is the shift from teaching to learning...we need to focus on learning rather than teaching - an idea that is at the heart of PLC's. He emphasized this point by stating that what we teach and what students learn are sometimes two very different things (he showed some funny slide examples but I cannot remember them...they must not have been too funny). He then ran over to Rick DuFour and bumped chests...not really but that would have been exciting.

Eaker asked if we ever wake up feeling energized and refreshed only to be "beat down" later by wave after wave of criticism and negativity. His point? The road to becoming a true PLC community will be bumpy...and I don't mean like highway #4 bumpy, I mean like 100th street in spring time bumpy. Like lose your car in a pothole bumpy. But that's okay, really... what we need to do is move from knowing to doing. In other words, first we have to change our ways of knowing. We need proper training - we need to immerse ourselves in the ideas associated with PLC and educational shift, and we need to do this in a stimulating way (may I suggest attending a conference in Phoenix headlined by some of the biggest names in educational shift?). Once we change our ways of knowing we then need to change our ways of doing. However, simply "doing" is not enough. In order to achieve the much coveted true PLC environment we need to enter a state of simply being. That is, we have to "be" a the point of not thinking about it. Sounds easy.

Eaker then went on to say that the work is far more important than the label. Actually, it is often counterproductive to "label drop". Have you ever had anyone in your school attend a conference on something new only to come back and drop a bunch of new terms and not actually convey anything meaningful? Eaker said that this happens all to often. He said that we need to be a PLC, don't worry about terms (e.g. SMART goals)...don't emphasize buzz words - people tend to think that new things are a fad.

But PLC's are not a fad. We already do PLC's...and have been doing them for years. We build common assessments, we align our curriculums...we just do not do it on a deep basis and most importantly, a routine basis. He suggested that we stop focusing so much on accountability of the "sticky icky", (e.g. year plans, lesson plans) and focus on making PLC culture a routine part of our school atmosphere. He also commented on placing to much importance on teacher's feelings. We need student learning to be our main objective. For instance, when trying something new instead of asking "how do we/you like it?", ask first "how is this affecting student learning?"

Finally, he talked about "teaching to the test". He had a unique perspective...and gasp...I do not agree with it. He said there is nothing wrong with it. He used a Tiger Woods analogy. Tiger practices the things he will need to do in a tournament. He also practices on the courses he will be playing on. Nobody would ever accuse him of cheating or imply that what he is doing is wrong. Then why do we say teaching to the test is wrong? Students are simply gaining skills and practicing those skills. However, that's all fine and dandy assuming that the test is curriculum based (which it most likely is), relevant to student's cultural background (which it most likely isn't), and will not be used for purposes of rating or in any other harmful ways. Whenever I think about large scale assessment I always think of my farming friend from high school. He was a farmer, he was going to be a farmer and that was that. He sometimes had trouble in math (especially on standardized tests). One day I was helping him haul grain. He was figuring out how much room was left in the bins (with advanced geometry), how many bushels he had taken off of each field, what the wheat was running, and how much fuel they had burned through....all in his head...and fast! I told him that he was doing math far beyond what we were learning in school, why wasn't he getting better marks. His response...those tests talk about trains (e.g. if a train leaves this station at...) and cylinders (e.g. if you take 1/3 of a cylinder...) - what the hell do I know about trains. In other words, if the math questions had been worded within an agricultural context he would have been getting far better marks. Too bad standardized tests can't achieve this. And that's why I like the idea of teacher made common assessments being the most important.

March 5, 2009

An Example

Here is a video that does not go well with my last post! Our intern from first semester had to make a video for his class. He chose the topic: "Are Teachers Stressed?" Apparently we are...keep in mind that much of our demotivational and cynical behaviour was deliberate. Well, that's our story and we're sticking to it! Note the part where I talk about PLC's (e.g. I think they're garbage). Oops.

Are Teachers Stressed?

Leader don't need to be inspirational?

Timothy D. Kanold: Becoming an Authentic Learning Leader: Whatever you Do, Inspire me! Sounds exciting right? Well, it was. This was one of the last sessions I went to and perhaps the one topic that I was most familiar with. i am a huge believer in motivation, positive energy, and inspiration. However, Timothy asked the audience how many people believed that their leaders must be inspirational and about 50% raised their hands (I raised two...and my feet). I was surprised by this...but apparently leaders do not need to be inspirational. Many teachers that I talked to saw it as a trade off: if someone is inspirational then they are probably not organized, or disciplined...etc... I am not sure where this type of thinking comes from. Anyway, Kanold said that people will work better for an inspirational leader.

Kanold then offered administration some advice: he urged to hire based on character first, then competency and committment to the cause. He basically said that we should hire teachers based on the type of people they are above all else. And really, this makes sense. When we think of the type of staff we want to be a part of, it is based on characteristics (an energetic staff, motivated, respectful, dedicated, etc...). Kanold then had us turn the mirrors on ourselves, and I urge anyone reading this to do the same. Do you create a positive emotional energy every time you walk into a room? If you are honest with yourself, this can be a tough question. Everyone has those mornings when they walk into their classroom or into the staff room and that's about it...we just walk in. We don't enthusiastically greet others. We don't smile. We don't give high fives and bump chests...well, you get the point. Although Kanold talked about different types of energy (motivational, relaxed, depressed, and angry) he also acknowledged that teachers have it tough because we are expected to be motivational all the time. Holding yourself at a high positive energy will only burn you out, but that's why you need a balance between school and home - you need that relaxed energy in your life. Besides, the type of energy you share drastically affects the school atmosphere, and wouldn't you rather be part of a high positive energy atmosphere? The other interesting question he asked was: would you love to be lead by you? E.g. would you love to be in your class, or be a staff member if you were principal etc...? Finally he offered us this "test"

Symptoms you are slipping into quadrants 3 & 4 (angry and depressed)
  • Chronic sense of never enough time
  • Increased irritablity
  • Constant physical tension
  • Pre-occupation with self and failure to notice others
  • Loss of sense of gratitude and joy
  • Talking fast and completing others' sentences
  • Fatigue - tired all the time
  • Poor listening skills and failure to engage with those closest to you

Not exaclty ending on a high note, eh? But nonetheless, something to pay attention to.

What to do on Monday?

Now that I am no longer in Phoenix and back to the ol' routine I can once again close my door and teach...pretending that the PLC conference never happened. Just kidding Tammy. Actually, one speaker did touch on this aspect: this conference I went to was by far the best professional development event I have ever attended. It came at the perfect time for me (I give credit to my administration and division for recognizing this "timing"). For one, I was under the assumption that PLC's were a waste of time...boy was I wrong. Secondly, I am only beginning my teaching career and am still figuring my belief system Timothy Kanold said of himself earlier in his administration days: "I did not yet know what I truly believed". Not only did this conference provide an in depth and optimistic look at PLC dynamics, it also helped me solidify some of my own pedagogical beliefs. However, as one speaker asked, what happens on Monday? I attended this conference by myself...which actually was kind of a bonus because it allowed me to focus entirely on the conference and the learning that was taking place...and not on the plus 31 degree weather or getting rid of my farmer's tan. But one thing I am struggling with is what happens Monday? Sure I can talk about what I learned and share with others the ideas that I encountered...but what will I do about it? How will I implement it? I honestly don't know...change takes time and as mentioned earlier, we need to first create the conditions to change. I guess the most obvious answer would be for our division to hold a conference just as this. I am not sure how economically feasible this would be...but I know that we would see positive change occurring at an unthinkable rate. This conference inspired a great amount of enthusiasm within imagine that enthusiasm on a division wide scale. Anyway, I am going to continue writing this blog, it helps me work through the ideas floating around in my head. However, for those of you who are interested in what the "professionals" had to say and could do without my blabbering, I have three speakers left to cover. One of them is coming to North Battleford very shortly...and just so you know, he was amazing!

March 2, 2009

Veggie Wraps and Southern Accents

So Fullan went over his time limit...oh well, he must be Canadian. It was off to lunch for some more pink mustard (won't get fooled again). However, the joke was on me...Chicken and pesto...I wonder what this wrap is like? The lady beside me, sensing my curiosty, leans over and whispers: "It's really good" it's some big secret that she has just let me in on. It must be good. Well, although it was good, like the pink mustard, it wasn't what it appeared to be. Pesto yes, Chicken no. And I am not one to eat vegetarian wraps...but I did anyway - after all, this conference was all about trying new things.

After lunch we heard Lisa Carter speak. Her Southern type accent had everyone's attention right off the what she was saying was pretty interesting too. She started by stating that meaningful change makes a difference and has a positive impact on student learning. She offered encoragement by saying that we must change what we now, for right now we are doing the best based on what we know. And this is one speaker said "I have not yet met a teacher that wakes up every morning and says 'I can't wait to get to school and make everyone's life miserable'". We are teachers because we want to be...because we see it as a chance to make a difference in this world. As Timothy Kanold would later say: "we are in the most important profession...we have the most power to enact change...politicians may try, but we have the most power to make drastic changes in society". I have to say that I agree with Timothy 100%...and based on what Lisa was saying - we need to make sure the changes we put forth are positive ones.

So, knowing that teachers truly do want to make a difference and impact the world in a positive way what do we need to do to ensure this happens? Well, as Lisa would explain, we need to create conditions to support our new ways of knowing - that is, we need to create conditions that support what we know and foster positive change. For example: some schools have said "we are now a Professional Learning Community - here is your team - here is time to do it - go forth and do good things". Obviously this won't work. When these PLC groups get stuck they are asked "what do you need to be can I/we help you?" Although the intent is there the conditions are not. If these groups knew what they needed to be successful, then they would already be successful. Lisa said that schools instead need to ask themselves "what conditions will we create to make sure things are supported and successful?" And yes, this is as easy as it sounds...but in a collaborative environment the answers to questions such as these come easier.

Finally Lisa talked about TIA (no it does not stand for "This is Africa", but rather - "Total Instructional Alignment"). What is that you ask, well pay attention. Total Instructional Alignment refers to vertical, rather than horizontal planning and makes a whole heap of sense (sorry, the Southern accent must have influence me there). Anyways, the first idea to wrap our minds around - and one that is really at the heart of PLC's - is collaborative planning. So rather than planning all summer by ourselves wouldn't it make more sense to plan collaboratively with teachers is similar positions to our own. One: it would cut down on our workload and two: it would ensure that classes are aligned. She offered this story as an example: two teachers were teaching the same grades of elementary school within the same school. The Social Studies curriculum had two units two it: one was on the global community and the other was on Tenesse history. Now these teachers never really planned together and as a result, did not know when the other one was teaching each unit...which would have been okay except... A new student showed up and had already taken Tenesse history. Since neither one of them was teaching the global community in the second semester, that student took Tenesse history twice. Granted he did very well on Tenesse history for the second time...but because their instruction wasn't aligned, he missed out on the unit on the global community.

But wait, she offered more. What if, instead of only planning horizontally (e.g. with other teachers from the same grade, we planned vertically as well [e.g. with teachers from grades below us and grades above us])? She said that this is what we need to be doing - we need to be planning with the teachers before us and the teachers ahead of us to ensure that our curriculum objectives are lining up. As a simulation, in a staff meeting we could have teachers sit at "vertical" tables and put a standard in front of them. Teachers would then need to come up with a way that they are going to meet that standard. Basically, we need to ask ourselves "do I know what the teacher before me and the teacher ahead of me are teaching?" If teachers from 3 different grades, for example, wrote about a curriculum objective that is similiar in each grade (e.g. knowing the difference between fact and opinion) each teacher may have different expectations for that objective (e.g. simply knowing the difference between the two, identifying the differences between the two, and demonstrating in writing the many differences between abstract and factual ways of thinking). See how students might get "lost". It is in most cases, not a logical progression of the skill. And why not? Well, the answer is simple: the problem lies with the system, not the people doing the work.

Although I know that you all probably "get it", I'll just hammer it home. TIA is simply making sure that what we are teaching, what we are assessing, and how we are teaching it is congruent from year to year. The focus is on natural (and we define natural) progression and improvement). Traditional ways of planning are focused more on the teacher (it is up to the individual teacher to interpret objectives and plan for classes) whereas TIA focuses more on the student (what specific skills will this student gain year to year, how will he be taught, what will he be assessed on etc...?) She also said that vertical conversations can start occurring right away, but the conditions first need to be created in order to ensure that we
become vertical planners.

Can I just say wow? I never thought about planning in these terms before. Some of you probably have...and some of you probably are (I'm guessing elementary because they always seem to have their &#*$ together). Whatever the case, I see this idea as extremely important to promote our "learning for all" motto.

February 28, 2009

Teachers on a pedestal

So I am here at the last day of the PLC conference listening to Robert Eaker, who is hilarious. He is the first of two speakers we will see today.  Yesterday was another great day.  In addition to Richard DuFour we saw Michael Fullan, Lisa Carter, and Timothy D. Kanold.

Michael Fullan began his session by talking about implementation.  He stated that, to nobody's surprise, in the first stages of implementation things usually get better before they get worse. But, he said, although it is important to make sure everyone has "training" and is ready to start, it is equally important to start.  Fullan asked that we adopt the "Ready, Fire, Aim" theory of implementation.  Think about this theory and what it means to do you think it would look and what would be the benefits of implementing something this way?  What about the disadvantages?

Fullan also talked about the importance of teachers and the system they are a part of.  First of all, Fullan believes that teachers need to be placed on at least an equal pedestal to students, that is, we need to create a system in which the teacher is at least equal to the student.  Out of this line of thought comes the idea that if something isn't working don't look for someone to blame...look instead at where the system fails.  

That is not to say, of course, that teachers shouldn't be held accountable.  And with that he moved on to his next idea, which was creating success in a collaborative environment.  Basically, within our traditional system, it is difficult to rate ineffective teaching without somebody getting defensive.  I know that if someone tells me something I am doing is ineffective, I am most likely going to get defensive.  Fullan demanded that we drop this type of thinking.  Identifying ineffective teaching and moving forward is a crucial development that the system needs to foster.  He also argued that it is possible to identify ineffective teaching and not be judgmental about it.  I am not sure, however, that he made that sound of an argument.  What he did say, in a roundabout way, was that a true collaborative atmosphere would ensure this type of thinking.  And then I got it.  If everyone is working together to improve student learning and their own teaching methods, then identifying ineffectiveness would be part of the system of that collaboration.  Teachers would be looking at getting better, not based only on their own standards, but by asking for feedback and comparing their success with that of other teachers.  

February 27, 2009

I have never had someone's words ring so true to me as did Richard DuFours today.  After my conference today I thought o myself, self, why are you at a conference in Phoenix and not going outside.  Well, self, I guess this conference just has me too engaged.  However, I have gone outside briefly - twice, and here was my experience: two homeless men were eating lunches out of the garbage can - our boxed lunches from the conference to be more precise - and one of them tried to dance with me.  This is when I realized that Richard DuFours words were more than just words...they were ideas that can actually change lives!  One can only imagine that the education system failed the two gentlemen I encountered on the street.  And why?  Did they get "left behind".  Did they not get supported?  And if not, why not?  If the teachers that taught these two men could see them now, then go back in time, what would they do differently?  And better yet, would they know how to do things differently?

Richard opened his session by talking about storytelling - something that is huge to me...especially within our school.  Stories are an excellent teaching tool - and who makes the stories about teachers...that's right - Hollywood.  So, we brainstormed movies that have been made about teachers: Freedom Writers, Lean on Me, Dangerous Minds, Stand and Deliver, etc....  Feel good movies that show teachers changing the world one student at a time.  But, as Richard mentioned, imagine the teachers in these movies 3 years down the road burned out and defeated...and why?  Because they are doing it all themselves.  Where are the movies about teachers being collaborative and working as a team?  And why don't they exist?

And this was really the main topic up for discussion - actually it has been a common theme for this entire conference - collaboration.  As I watched the homeless men sift through chicken and pesto wraps Richard words rang in my ear: "We are playing educational lottery with our student's lives".  His words were true...there was the proof, right there in front of me.  He stated that we are often inconsistent in our educational practices - some teachers let students retake tests, some don't, some teachers phone parents when a student is falling behind, some don't.  What happens when students don't learn -well, that depends on who the teacher is.  In fact, you could spend your entire careers not knowing if the teacher next door is having more success or doing a better job of teaching a skill than you are.  PLC's get rid of this.  Actually, to simplify, collaboration gets rid of this...which is what PLC's are all about.

In his school and in their division Richard asked: "Why has what to do been left up to the teachers?"  Example: "Boy I have this student that is really struggling, what can we do"...Division: "we don't know...we don't have a plan" (I am however, happy to say that this is not the case with our a teacher I feel fairly supported).  Well, Richard wanted to have a plan, they wanted to have a system. 

On that train of thought Richard continued to talk loosely about leadership and having a system.  He cited the walkthroughs that principals are doing and said that often direction is misplaced.  We need to be assessing learning - not teachers and teaching.  Granted, good walkthroughs do assess learning, but we need to be aware of the objective.  He took it a step further and said: "what if principals took the time they spent assessing teachers and spent it helping collaborative teams?  What would be better: sitting down with the principal once a year to discuss year plans etc...or sitting down and planning, reflecting, sharing, and discussing once a week with a collaborative team."  This type of thinking is a step toward schools becoming truly collaborative.

Think he's done...think again.  "We need to take an interdependent approach to schools....we should not be concerned with 'my' kids, but 'our' kids...we need to be concerned with all kids in the school".  Wow, this guy was on a roll!  He used an analogy that I particularly liked: many schools right now are like a "team" of marathon runners.  Can you really call a bunch of marathon runners a team?  No.  Why?  Because they are competing against each other!  Ahhh, but are they really.  Ask any marathon runner if they enter marathons to win and they will most likely reply no.  Then what are they there to do - JUST FINISH.  And if they beat their best time, great.  Now I don't know if he meant a teachers main goal is just to finish, but I do know that he meant we are like the marathon runners in that we are all part of the same "race", we all want to do our best, and we are not really competing against each other.  Yet we are not a team.  He encouraged us to instead be more like a rowing team, in which we need to work very closely as a team to achieve our common goals.

As a final thought the pressure to change and do better in terms of collaboration does not lie solely on teachers, and it does not lie solely on lies on all of us.  He did however briefly talk about how to change teacher's minds for them...anyone familiar with the Jedi?  Actually, he talked about how to influence teachers and he said (he quoted someone but I can't remember who) nothing changes someone's mind like cold hard data hitting them in the face.  Which is true, but not always.  He offered this example of a conversation between a principal and a teacher: Principal: "your students failure rate is three times higher than anyone else's, aren't you concerned about that? Teacher: "Well that's because I am the only one in this building that holds students accountable...I am preparing them for the real world".  And on that note he made a very interesting point in terms of "real world" preparation.  

Now how many teachers, and be honest here, have not let a student hand something in because they missed a deadline?  Now how many teachers have failed to hand in their marks on time?  Did the principal or vice-principal say "nevermind, we don't want your marks anymore!"  No, chances are they gave you a "talking to" and took your marks anyway.  In the real world there are consequences for missing deadlines...but responsible people still have to hand stuff in.  This should be our approach to learning...even if it means we will stand over the shoulder of that student until he/she gets it done...we will not let them fail!

He ended with this humorous analogy.  A mother and father say to their son: "son, if you don't mow the grass by Saturday then you won't get to come to grandma's house with us and you'll be left here unsupervised"  Well, Saturday comes and the grass still isn't mowed, so they leave him behind...and he has a party...and mom and dad come home...and the cops are there...and the cop is threatening to charge them with negligence etc...  "We're sorry officer, we thought he liked coming to grandma's house, we thought we were punishing him."  "Listen, you seem like nice people...a little naive, but nice, so I'm going to let you off the hook."  Next weekend comes and the same thing happens. Now, is that officer going to be so nice?  Probably not.  His question was, then why do we let ourselves, as teachers, get away with the same type of behavior?  Student: "you mean to tell me that if I don't hand in this assignment I won't have to do it...ever? And all I have to do is receive a zero?"  Well not all students would be okay with that...but some would.  So not only do we need to change the way we think, but we also need to change the way we do things...we need to change our system .  And PLC's and collaboration provide the vehicle for that change.