Being connected

Thank you

There are many who may disagree, but one of the things that I have really liked this year has been then ease with which my students have been e-mailing me. There are some I believe that would say that they appreciate their privacy and while I understand that, I also know that the 10 seconds to two minutes that it may take me to answer an e-mail can be the difference between a student who is very concerned about something, and a student who feels that they can now tackle a problem. This weekend has been especially busy as a large number of my students have a very large assignment due Monday, and so I have answered over 20 questions already today from them. Was this an interruption to my day? Not really, I answered at all times, when I had a few minutes or a few seconds to give them, but never when I was spending time with the people that matter in my life or doing the things I like. So while I know there are more to come today and tomorrow, I was happy to receive this message from one of my students on her e-mails, it also reminded me that while I may be e-mailing them, they are all on Facebook behind the scenes talking about everything that’s going on.


Returning to the task

amaranth seeds and chaff

Sowing the seeds of life-long learning. Amaranth seeds and chaff, by blurdom

It has clearly been far too long since I took up writing on this blog. The reasons are common, and the reasons are not worth belabouring to any great extent. Suffice it to say: new year, new school, new responsibilities and a lack of commitment on my part. So the next question to ask might be: well why are you writing again? A good question and one that I hope to answer over the next year or so as my colleagues in the social studies department and I embark on a new plan: creating an environment that supports and fosters inquiry-based learning for our students.

I began this adventure a few weeks ago when I had the chance to hear from a colleague who was working on implementing this process in his classes. He gave me the inspiration to undertake the project. I listened to what he talked about and I thought that he was giving his students the skills and talents necessary for the future. As many people have pointed out what we need is students to have the ability to access knowledge and learn how to make use of that knowledge as opposed to merely being the accumulators of knowledge (and it should be pointed out often knowledge that is only retained for a brief period).

So after being suitably inspired I asked my principal if I could invite him to come out and speak to us and if we could set up a day for our department to discuss these ideas. With her encouragement I invited my colleague and the discussion that he led inspired us in the morning and gave us more things to think about in the afternoon when we had time to consider it for ourselves. As a group we agreed that this is most definitely the way that we would like to teach and frankly we want to do something better than what we are currently doing. Having made this step we all had to consider what are some of the challenges that we may face. The challenges vary from the availability of technology, challenges to students who need extra help and the reaction of the school community to these ideas. There is much research to be done and much thinking to occur, but I am thrilled to be working with such a dynamic group of individuals. We believe that this might revolutionize not just our classes at the grade ten level (which is where we’re starting) but all of our social studies classes.

To begin with we decided that we needed to come up with something that outlines the skills that we want all students to learn. Whether that’s being able to ask good questions, looking for issues, proper referencing, different applications for working on projects or presentation these are some of the things that we think all students would benefit from exposure level. We will be developing those over the next few months.

So in the future this blog will be the home for our departmental work in developing this new approach. We know it will be a trip well worth it.

Don’t try and hide!

'Hidden Intersection' photo (c) 2010, Hugh Lee - license: had a really interesting conversation with a student today. I had my students working in groups and as I was discussing with one group how useful Twitter was for staying up with current events one student looked at me and said : “You know Mr. MacCollum, I Googled you before the year began. I found your Twitter feed. I Googled all my teachers before the year began.”

One of the other students said: “That’s creepy.”

The first student responded with: “No it’s not, I wanted to know about who was teaching me this year.” Then they explained how they knew a lot about me before hand and how that made them really excited about starting class.

So who’s right here? Is it creepy? Or does it help relieve stress for some by knowing who’s going to be their teacher?

I think the second one. I built up my Google profile in part with this in mind, although admittedly I didn’t expect this to happen. It reminded me though that you can either control what is out there about you, or you can leave it up to the rest of the ‘net to decide. I’m glad I chose to define myself, for at least this one student (and maybe more) it made helped them more comfortable coming into my class. For those who haven’t considered writing a Google profile, consider that you control the content, not somebody else. This is the reality of the students that we are now teaching.

Swimming Lessons pt.1

This week and next I’m watching my 5 year old go through some swimming lessons. This is not the first time I’ve done this so I thought I’d share some quick observations. I have been amazed watching the difference between girls and boys in these lessons. Generally the girls seem much more relaxed than the boys. They listen to instructor without bouncing around and without too many worries. The boys on the other hand, in most cases (and admittedly particularly in my sons case) to be really excited to be there and always moving. It’s an interesting difference I don’t know if it’s a cultural thing or something more innate, but it’s fascinating to see! It also reminds me of hoe much respect I have for kindergarten and early childhood teachers. What a handful!

How about this?

'Questions?' photo (c) 2008, Valerie Everett - license:, after listening to George and Alec Couros give their presentation at the Reform Symposium I have crystallized a new introductory lesson for my classes this fall. One very different from my previous, pretty dry, opening (i.e. these are the rules, please follow them, etc. etc.). My first lesson for the students will involve several elements that I hope that they can learn from, and also let me begin my classes in a whole new way.

This year the student’s first lesson will be a question. I will ask them: ‘Who am I?’ In this case the I means me, and they will have a picture (or two) and my name to work off. They need to do their best to create an outline of who I am, my likes, my dislikes, my background, really anything that makes up who a person is. My guess is that the students will be somewhat dumbfounded by this, but for this they will get no help from me. I am interested to see what students come up with as far as answers to the question. Surely there will be wild guesses, but when they start thinking a little deeper than can deduce clues from my picture(s), my name, my profession, approximate age, etc.

The point of all this? Well I teach history, and in history we are often not looking at much more evidence when we try and describe the events and the people of history. How accurate is this? Is it all reliable? What clues do we look for?

Then there needs to be a discussion of what other ways they could use to find out information. Then, and this is where Alec (in conjunction with David Truss who wrote about Digital Footprints) inspired me, I ask the students to go to computers (or their personal devices, whatever) and find out all they can about me. Do a Google search and see what they can come up with. This is based on the idea that we really have very little privacy anymore, and if the students search my name they are going to find all kinds of hits. So then they should be able to fill in a lot more information about who their new teacher is. This is part of the transparency that George and Alec talked about. Since I can’t hide, I might as well put it all out there.

They will likely find a bunch of social media information. Information that (with only a couple minor exceptions) I have put up, including this blog! They should be able to fill out a lot more information about my background.

So here is the third part of this. A discussion of my digital footprint on the web. What are the students seeing, are they seeing what I want them to see? If so how does that change their image of who I am? Have they only looked at the first three or four Google hits and then just used that information? What would happen if they moved onto the second search page and found my ‘Ratemyteacher’ profile.

Lastly I would have them write down at least one question that they still had? Something that they felt was unanswered, as well as a hypothetical answer.

Hopefully at the end of this we will have been able to look at several elements, some of which apply to history, others which apply to their real-life:

  • Think carefully about the sources that you use.
  • Consider what questions your information generates.
  • Think about your digital footprint.
  • Do you trust what you are reading on the Internet? Why? Why not?

I am really looking forward to this. I thank Alec, George and David for the inspiration.

And yet…

well... goodbyephoto © 2008 Bárbara Bessa | more info (via: Wylio)
These last few weeks have been bittersweet for me at school. At the end of April I accepted a new position. I will be returning to being a full-time teacher. I am very excited about it. I will have my own classes again. I will be working with one of the most extraordinary group of professionals I could have ever imagined being assembled. It is at a new school, which means things are still fresh and shiny (and they don’t leak!). The technology is all the latest and greatest. It is the opportunity to join a school and help establish a history and routines that will have a long lasting impact on the school, well beyond my time there (however short or long that may be).

And yet…

And yet, I will really miss some of the things that I have been doing. The last two years as a teacher-librarian represent the single best professional development experience of my entire career. I have learned SO much! Really I could not have imagined looking at education the way I do now, a mere two years ago. In fact until I got my first iPod touch three years ago, I think you could have safely described me as an education Luddite. I will miss the ability to explore new ideas in much more detail than I will probably have being a full-time teacher. Don’t get me wrong I will never go back to the past, but maybe I won’t have quite as much time to follow those links.

And yet I will really miss the connections with students that I was making in my role. Completely different from all my previous experiences, I got to know a whole lot (a WHOLE lot) of students, many, I think, whom I might not have necessarily met had I been teaching regular classes. Clearly the relationship was different (less depth, more breadth), but very interesting nonetheless.

And yet I will really miss the students in the one class I did teach per semester. I taught a lot of great students, and wow were they willing to follow me as I took them down all sorts of new paths trying all sorts of new things. I really had a hard time telling them that I was leaving. I really appreciated their kind comments and wishes that they could have me as a teacher next year. I was sorry to disappoint them, although they will surely have great teachers in my colleagues and that disappointment will be temporary.

But …. A new path beckons. I am excited to proceed. Who knows where it will take me in two years! I certainly couldn’t have predicted the last two years.


Cap Tossphoto © 2007 Dave Herholz | more info (via: Wylio)
Today was our graduation. Of course this is a really interesting day for teachers and for the students, an exciting day. It is a day to celebrate achievements and success. A day for the students to come dressed in their finest and show it off to their parents and teachers. For some of us it is a little hard to recognize these students that we have seen in the hallways so regularly wearing something significantly less formal. For the vast majority of students it is a well earned achievement.

However, it is also a day when you might hear: “That student shouldn’t be graduating because (fill in blank with comment about marks, attendance or other perceived shortcoming). This is something that we as teachers can mutter under our breath, maybe we mean it, maybe it’s kind of a dark humour about our students. I’m pretty sure I’ve said it myself. Like so much there’s some truth to our darker thoughts.

Does allowing as many students as we do ‘cross’ the stage cheapen the whole graduation ceremony?

It can certainly be hot topic of discussion at staff meetings and in conversation around the building.

There is probably no right answer on this, but I think I would fall in the let them graduate, it’s not worth worrying about camp. Today was another reminder why. I came across a student who I had taught in my grade 12 social studies class last year. I have to say I have no idea whether or not he crossed the stage last year, but I know that he would have had many strikes against him. He missed a lot of class, he didn’t do really well on many of his tests (despite how intelligent he appeared to be on essays and in conversation), he could even be a little bit hard headed, he passed the class with not a whole lot to spare. Today I met a young man who’s going places. He’s completed the few courses that he was deficient in, he looks confident and self-assured. He’s off to college in the fall, he’s happy and looking forward to it. Some might have wanted to see him held off for lack of attendance, for lack of success, I think they would have been wrong. His presence wouldn’t have cheapened the ceremony, in fact considering some of his challenges, it would have added to it.