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. 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.

Don’t try and hide!

'Hidden Intersection' photo (c) 2010, Hugh Lee - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/I 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.

Grad!

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.

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.

What does it mean to learn?

Earth and Saturns moons to scale.photo © 2006 Bluedharma | more info (via: Wylio)

This afternoon I had a fascinating read through Will Chamberlain’s blog: And what Do YOU mean by learning? It was fascinating in a couple of ways.

First I think that Will’s discussion of the disconnect in learning between the two different approaches, one more or less geared around the traditional view of tests and data, and one more less involved in realizing that learning actually has many facets and is a process, is an important discussion. It is one that needs to be had more often within our ranks and with those around us, including parents and especially decision makers.

The second reason that I found his blog very interesting was his discussion of his daughter’s progress with learning. It reminded me of something that I’ve been rolling around in my mind for the last several months. I have become convinced that it really is important for me to pay attention to how my child is learning. I have a five year old and I have really begun to pay attention to how he learns. Like Will I have been fascinated by my child’s process and progress. He learns not because anyone sits there and tell him he must learn, he learns because he thinks it’s incredibly interesting, and in the process figures out the details. As a high school teacher I too often deal with students who have had that wonder pushed out of them, and I have been interested in watching the beginnings of the learning process. If I were to measure his progress using standard methods of school assessment, he couldn’t be measured because he can’t write and read (at least not beyond the most rudimentary basics). Yet he knows, and is constantly assimilating knowledge because he likes it, because he asks questions, because he wants to be engaged in conversation. I often think that this is what I am missing in my high school classes. I teach those things that the students will be tested on. I surely try to engage them in conversations, to ask them questions, and to get them to like it. What my five year-old has taught me is that I have a lot more to do.

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!