Returning to the task

amaranth seeds and chaff

Sowing the seeds of life-long learning. Flikr.com 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.

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Guilty as charged – now what?

Cucciolo colpevole- Guilty puppyphoto © 2008 Mauro | more info (via: Wylio)
A couple of days ago I wrote about my questions about what we are trying to do as an education collective. Then I started reflecting on what I know, and what I’ve been doing. Then I read The Innovative Educator – Lisa Nielsen’s wonderful entry on engaging students. And I have something to confess: I am guilty, guilty of everything that she suggests in her blog. The only thing I can say to mitigate it I am not guilty of everything all at once, but I am certainly guilty of all of them at some time or another.

I have been guilty of these in the past, and I am guilty of some of them still today. I hope that I will not be guilty of them in the future, but I have to admit it is hard to let go.

It is hard to let go of everything that I have been, and have learned. It is hard to see new ways of doing things when the things I used in the past kind of worked.

So what do I do? Well I take into account that I do have some skills when it comes to teaching. I keep up my efforts at trying to integrate technology into my classroom, and I will continue to work with what the kids bring as opposed to an outright ban on things, which as Lisa points out in her blog, is the easy way out.

A few days ago I wrote about some of the problems that I see as an education collective, I have to also say that there are a lot of failings that I am working on as an individual.

Apathy – to what extent is it my problem?

Avoid Apathyphoto © 2010 break.things | more info (via: Wylio)
Apathy has been on my mind recently. It has been highlighted in my mind by the current federal election that we are having in Canada. There has been a lot of talk about how disconnected young people are from our leaders. To make a long story short this has got me wondering to what extent this is my problem, or even to what extent am I responsible. As a social studies teacher for the last ten years I have worked with a large number of very dedicated colleagues and one of our fervent hopes has been to produce active, thriving, functioning citizens. When you look at the Alberta Program of Studies for Social Studies it says: “Social studies provides opportunities for students to develop the attitudes, skills and knowledge that will enable them to become engaged, active, informed and responsible citizens.” It has said roughly the same thing for quite a while, I would guess right around 35 years. Yet in those 35 years there is no evidence whatsoever that more of students are actually becoming engaged, active, informed and responsible citizens. I want my students to become all these things, and I am sure that some of them have become that, but I question whether many are. So if that’s the case, why? What are we doing?

The answer of course is much bigger than I could possibly discuss in one blog post, but here’s an observation I noted over the last couple of days. I have several students who are actually quote interested in knowing details about the current election and how government functions in general. They have a lot of questions about it. They may have been taught in the past how it works, but we all know the difference between teaching and learning can be pretty large sometimes, and they are hungry for answers. How many times though in our race to tackle the ‘material’ that we feel we need to cover that we rush through these questions without really answering much. I asked my students to complete the CBC vote compass and got a whole lot of questions about issues which are of interest to Canadians, yet at the same time I felt I couldn’t possibly explore the issues adequately. Of course I can answer their questions, but how long will that answer stick with them. I am convinced that as a social studies teacher I am missing something.

I also don’t think there’s one answer. I found this wonderful video today which highlighted some societal issues and practices (which can in many cases be applied to schools) that certainly help play a role. However if I was presenting this video I might add that we are not being very successful in school in getting students to be engaged. We probably would not be able to engage all students in society, but, at least from a social studies teacher’s perspective, we are missing something really important.

So yes it is my problem, both as a social studies teacher and a member of society.

Why I love teaching!

The Treadmill of Happiness!photo © 2007 Peter Burgess | more info (via: Wylio)The last two days have been our annual teachers’ convention. It is a time to to run into colleagues that we haven’t necessarily talked to in a long time. A time to enjoy some good presentations by many different people and just generally to peruse the displays of the various people interested in selling us stuff. Generally I find teachers’ convention something that I look forward to on an annual basis because it can be so hard to actually have a real conversation on education issues unhindered by time constraints and requirements of meetings. This year was no different and you might think that that would be the reason for me titling this entry the way that I did, but that’s not entirely true.

In truth I have found this year very trying for so many reasons, and in so many ways have found myself feeling inadequate about the job that I am doing and pulled in far too many directions at once. More than most years I have found it stressing, and no doubt it is one of the reasons why I have had such a hard time motivating myself to, among other things, make more entries on this blog. Sometimes it’s just an overwhelming exhaustion.

Yesterday however I happened to have two chance encounters that really helped re-invigorate my feelings toward what I am doing. I ran into two people I hadn’t seen in a long time, but this time they were former students of mine. Wow, what a great feeling to run into them. They reminded me that what I’m doing has actually, ACTUALLY, had an impact on someone’s life. Unfortunately , at least initially, I barely remembered both these students, but in some ways that was also good. These were students that weren’t necessarily ‘stars’ in my class, and in both cases had provided me with some challenging moments (in retrospect, after scraping the callouses off my gray matter). Yet there they were, one who has become a teacher and who is beginning his career, and told me that it was because of some advice that I had given him. What advice that was, I can’t quite remember, but the fact that he took it to heart, and is now such a professional looking, happy member of our profession left me speechless, and deeply honoured. The other was a student who I thought had no interest at all in social studies, that was disinterested and sometimes hostile to it. Turns out she likes arguing (something I think I remember) and she had decided to try a political science course just to see what it was like (apparently she didn’t hate social studies completely). It turned out she loved it and she is now studying it. To say I was speechless would be an understatement. While I was impressed with that, I was also totally impressed with the poised young woman with whom I had a wonderful conversation. In short these two very short meetings reminded me exactly why I love the job that I do. It also reminded me that the students that I have in the desks in grades 10, 11, and 12 are still becoming who they will be in life, and there’s still lots of growing going on! Maybe I don’t influence every student in my class, but I have apparently influenced some, and that is what made this last two days totally worth, and what makes this job totally worth it!

Quick thoughts

I don’t have time for anything substantial today, but two things happened that brought a smile to my face about some of the work I’ve been doing, both of them helped reinforce things that, in my mind are very important.

Jumping in

Flikr.com Attribution Noncommercial No Derivative Works Some rights reserved by Xosé Castro

The first was a conversation I had with a colleague this morning.  She came into my office just beaming and really excited to invite me over to have a look at her Animoto video on which she had spent the weekend working.  She had created a video for her mom’s party that she was having this week.  The video was very good, and I’m sure it will truly touch her mother and the family when they see it.  What really impressed me however, was when she started recounting the process that she went through to build this.  She spent hours working on it, tackling issues, and problems and by the looks of it overcoming them.  She also told me a couple of things that I didn’t know about Animoto (did you know that it does allow for more than one song, so choose your song length carefully).  What this reinforced was exactly what I think needs to be done in education.  She had played with the application, found it met her needs, and then dove in head first.  She had already started working tentatively with Animoto in her class, but now she can’t wait to have the students expand what they are doing.  The one thing that she mentioned was that the students really appreciate producing work that looks so ‘professional.’  The other neat thing is her enthusiasm for the program is rubbing off on her students, I am looking forward to the opportunity of going into her class to see what her students are working on.  I have long believed that ‘playing’ has to be a major plank in our approach to introducing technology into the classroom.  If the teacher uses it at home, they become confident in it, they learn to troubleshoot (because it’s their project), and when they introduce it to class they come in with enthusiasm.  Should this be the only method, absolutely not, but it is a vital method, and based on my colleagues reaction today it contains the ability to provide a level of fun and satisfaction for the teacher.  Something which I think we often overlook all too easily, after all education is serious business.

Child pulling parent

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My second a-ha moment occurred this afternoon when I was talking to a pair of students.  One of them had missed my ‘introduction’ to web research a week ago and I just wanted to be sure that she knew where she could get the information.  What thrilled me was the reaction of her friend, who simply raved about what I’d shown them.  Now I have no illusions and don’t think it was that good, but I was particularly happy to hear that she had taken some of the things that I had told her about home and showed them to her dad.  Apparently her dad found some of the tools (especially Diigo) to be just the thing he’s looking for as he surfs the web.  This highlighted another thing that I need to make sure that I do better, I need to include parents more in this technological revolution.  I need to look at setting up some time for parents to come in and work with some of the tools that their children are going to be playing with.  I’m not sure if it’s time just yet, but I somehow think that it will arrive soon, and that one way to lessen resistance among students is to get fathers like this one supporting our transition by spreading the word to other parents.  There is so much potential for this and it is something that I need to continue to explore.

A sea of conversation

Ocean Closed

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This is part of a phrase that one of my colleagues mentioned to me sometime ago and it has been floating in my mind ever since.  The whole phrase was actually: Learning occurs on a sea a conversation, and I think it totally encapsulates what we should be doing as teachers.  It’s really just an extension of the idea that all learning is really social.  It is however something that I think I have lost sight of in my desire to push ‘content’ I have lost this, and it is really beginning to bug me.  In my mind the ‘sea’ of conversation in my class has not been very open.   I am becoming more and more convinced that my students are leaving my class and with a quick brain dump are not long in possession of what I hope that they learn.  So I am resolving that I need to bring the conversation back into my social studies class.  It’s not like I’ve totally ignored asking questions, it’s just that I think I haven’t done a very good job ensuring that students (all of them) are learning something.  I know this seems like such an obvious statement, but I think it boils down a realization that there are things that I can do about this.  It especially hurts when I think of the fact that I am teaching one of the most resource rich subjects that exists.  I am literally teaching something which pretty much has a direct application from the real world almost every day.

So this means that I am on the hunt for new ways to engage my students in this conversation and also to try and make it more authentic for my students.  Of course I have tried to encourage my students to follow the news, and bring questions to class, but as I have mentioned I don’t think this has been effective.  This is where the idea of technology as a tool to achieve something great.  I want my students to engage in conversations within and outside of the class, but not just with people that they might know, but with people they might meet on Skype, or who would respond to a blog post.  It’s time, I no longer want my ‘ocean’ to be closed, I want my sea of conversation to flow easily.

Do I deserve your attention?

The first thing I wish to say is that this is not an original title (See George Couros’ entry), and  I borrowed much (including the above video) from Dean Shareski’s keynote speech yesterday at the Alberta Technology Leaders in Education.  It was a great presentation and I really enjoyed listening to it, but this was the phrase which stuck with me.  It has stuck with me all through yesterday and all through today as I’ve wandered and thought about what it is that we are trying to accomplish at school.  It totally struck me today when our school was lucky enough to have a Spencer West as a guest speaker.  Spencer West is a really unique motivational speaker that is part of Craig & Marc Keilburger’s Me to We group.  This video is well worth watching, and it gives you a bit of a sense of how unique he is.

He delivered a really unique message to the students, and you know what, he had their attention, their whole attention, all 1000+ students.  You could have heard a pin drop in there, for about an hour (I saw the odd flash of cell phone, but for some reason those devices were put away as quickly as they came out).  Now I understand that he is a motivational speaker, and certainly he has a great story to tell, but it really drove home what I thought was Dean’s message.  Students will care if you give them a reason to be engaged and to feel like they are getting something out of it.  I think one of my key questions going forward is going to be: “Do I deserve to the attention of this group of students?” and if I don’t have it, I need to work on different approaches to try and get it.