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 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.

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.

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.

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.

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!

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.