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: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/Tonight, 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.

What are we trying to do here?

This post was inspired by what were for me some completely unrelated conversations that I have had over the last month or so and that have stuck with me, and the crystallized for me this afternoon when I happened to catch this exchange between David Wees (@davidwees) and Chris Kennedy (@chrkennedy) when something clicked.

I really have no idea what they were talking about, even though our two provinces share a several thousand kilometre border, events in BC sometimes might as well be on another planet for all we get to hear about them here in Alberta. So I filled in the blanks in my head and came up with the idea that British Columbia had done that which I dream that province would do and eliminated some or all of their standardized provincial exams. I really have no idea if that’s true, but in the context of what I took it to mean it caused me one of those ‘aha’ moments. If BC has really done what I think it’s done than David’s comment seems to say that there has really been little change in the way assessment is done, and this concerns me. Why would teachers not take advantage of the opportunity to actually produce something better if the opportunity is there.
Danger de mortphoto © 2009 Frédéric BISSON | more info (via: Wylio)

Then I remembered two discussions that I had that were discussing assessment on our side of the border. In one conversation I engaged in about some assessment ideas I remember the phrase “but we have to train (the word practice might have been used but this is where my mind went) the students to do multiple-choice exams.” However I think that our students have probably been doing multiple choice since grade one, so how much more practice did they really need?

Another discussion was one that I had with a student who told me that their teacher had told them that they weren’t allowed to do ‘anything’ at home for assessment, since they might get help on it. I understand that fear, to a certain extent, especially within the system that currently exists in post-secondary institutions students do need to prove that they can do something. However which is the most likely course of action for somebody in the work world? They bury themselves on the problem by themselves or they seek advice from the multitude of people who usually offer help.

All this leads to the question I posed at the top of this post. “Just what are we trying to do here?” Why don’t we change? Really are we so overworked that no one can take the time? Are we just too comfortable in the way that we do it? Do we do it that way because that was the way we did it when we were in school? Are we phobic?

I know this is not a new problem for educators, others have produced videos asking similar questions, and I am just a lowly teacher tucked away in a cold corner of the world, but it strikes me that the urgency is now. In a globalized environment we have to think differently.

Something to learn

Florence Nightingalephoto © 2010 Simon Harriyott | more info (via: Wylio)

One of the greatest opportunities I have been given in my teaching career has been to teach Theory of Knowledge in the International Baccalaureate program. I simply love it. The concept of examining how we learn and why we learn are fascinating in and of themselves. One additional benefit it that I see students in this course being able to show me what they know and how they can apply. When I teach a standard class I often think that I asking students to show me what they don’t know.

Such was the case for me yesterday when I finished up a series of presentations that the students had been working on. We began by looking at Galileo and examining what he learned and how the people around him reacted to his new ideas. I asked the students to do something similar, to look at a ‘great thinker’ and talk about the challenges this thinker faced as well as why this thinker appealed to the student.

Helen Keller (LOC)photo © 1913 The Library of Congress | more info (via: Wylio)

In the end it was this last bit that turned into the key to making this something that my students really enjoyed and, it must be said, I enjoyed a lot as well. Initially I had thought it might be a good idea to have students research a great enlightenment thinker: Bacon, Voltaire, Newton, etc. In the end though I decided that it might be more interesting to broaden the focus and let the students choose someone that they were interested in. My students’ choices were awesome, and it must be said totally different from what I would expect: Florence Nightingale, Coco Channel, Helen Keller among them.

I have to admit to knowing almost nothing about any of these historical thinkers, and I learned a lot. I learned a lot about these thinkers, their challenges, their ideas, and their need to overcome. I also was reminded that one of the most important things that we can do is let our students explore their interests. As teachers we are likely to be amazed, and we are not looking to find out what they don’t know, but what they know.

Gobsmacked!

Write with Parkerphoto © 2010 Justin See (coming back) | more info (via: Wylio)I don’t even know how to begin this today.  Today was one of those days that I love about teaching and as always it had nothing to do with it, except as the witness.  What really made today was my receipt of a project by a student, and the result was totally unexpected.  The assignment was very simple, answer a question about globalization, but do so without using too much text.  Something which had a visual impact as opposed to something written out.  I am working with a group of grade 10 students that are ‘non-academic’ in our system and they have a whole variety of problems, not the least of which, for some, are literacy problems.  I hoped it would be more productive to get something which de-emphasized the writing process.  Indeed it seems that for those students who have been to class regularly (another issue), it seems that production is moving along, although in some cases haltingly.  This afternoon, however, a student walked up and slapped down a DVD with what he’d worked on at home.  I was more than a little surprised when I opened up the file (created with iMovie) to find an absolutely stunning answer to my question, a superb piece of work, something that would have impressed me had I received it from a student in the ‘highest’ academic-level class.  He answered the question beautifully, personally and with care.  I was gobsmacked!

'Le camion de Noël Coca-Cola arrive!' - the Globalization of Christmasphoto © 2009 Richard Allaway | more info (via: Wylio)Then I began to think about why this student had been placed in that level of a class.  How could someone who so clearly understood context and content wind up in that particular class.  Apparently it was a recommendation based on a test, and indeed the student in question is a recent immigrant.  He obviously struggles with writing, but his comprehension, based on this and a couple of other small projects he did for me, is far ahead of his ability to write and probably to do multiple-choice exams.  Apparently that’s the only way he’s been measured, and it was probably only on one day as well.  I keep on thinking about Sir Ken Robinson’s talk about ‘Shifting Education Paradigms.’  All I can think of is the fact that I have a very creative student and fairly bright student who has been placed in this group based only on a couple of test scores.  Seems to me like Sir Ken’s statement about putting students together based on nothing more than when they were born.

In the end what I have is a fantastic example of what can be done when students are allowed to show that they understand through methods other than just writing or doing a multiple choice exam.  It will also be an example of what you can do with a bit of creativity, and make it look astounding.

Blown hard against the rocks…

I’ve been trying to figure out how to write this post for the last couple of days.  We had a school professional development day on Friday.  It was, I thought, a very good day and one that included some wonderful elements.  Even my presentation on web 2.0 went well, although I wish it would have been better attended, but it’s a difficult concept for some to wrap their heads around, and the way it was set up, everyone could really only make one choice.  Much of what interested me however, was what happened in our morning session where we were looking at what we need to do to tackle reform in education.  I am continually encouraged when it comes to the way we are approaching education reform in my world (understanding that there may be some rose-coloured glasses involved because it’s what I earnestly hope for).  First off we watched Sir Ken Robinson’s wonderful RSAnimate video on shifting education paradigms.  A video which, even though it’s been made available in plethora of locations I think it’s worth embedding here, again.

What heartened me was the general reaction of so many who saw the video that really Sir Ken brings forward some awesomely powerful arguments.  That so many really want to buy into what he has to say.  It reminded me of how much more powerfully change can be affected with the use of things like YouTube.  Sir Ken certainly brings vitality to the education ‘reform’ debate, and the web allows us to be affected by what he says much more immediately than we might have been in the past.  Certainly there is no need for schools or other institutions to go spend thousands (tens of thousands?) of dollars to be powerfully impacted by people like him.  I also noted that even our province’s website that is advocating a discussion in education reform has Sir Ken’s speech embedded in it.

Not everything is rosy however, I guess nothing ever is.  It was driven home for me again today when I read Dr. Scott McLeod’s Dangerously Irrelevant post from Thursday.  The points that Dr. McLeod enumerated for why we are not changing included this one comment about teachers who feel they cannot change:

believe they can’t because of “the tests” (a claim for which I’m skeptical for numerous reasons, not the least of which is that we already did low-level instruction with kids before “the tests”)

This point of view was of course in evidence although certainly with many variations of the theme.  So what to do?  Do we just keep going around and around in a circle chasing our tail or do we actually try and make a difference?

Ultimately I believe that Sir Ken argues that the structure criticized by Dr. McLeod is not necessarily our fault it has just happened over a period of time much longer than any of us have been alive.  That our system was originally designed for some very different purpose than what it is now being used for.  I am now convinced more than ever that we, the teachers, who are in the front line need to follow the pathfinders we already have in our midst and figure out how we can move in a direction of more engagement and a more diverse approach to education.

  • Will it be easy? – Not by a long shot.
  • Will it be messy? – Absolutely!
  • Do we have a choice? – I believe we do not!

We can try and wait for those in charge to lead us, but we could be waiting a long time.  Let’s not let these winds of reform get blown hard against the rocks like so many attempts before have been. With modern technology and people like Sir Ken Robinson advocating for change, we might just have a chance.

Just as long as no one mentions money (uggh).