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.


A sea of conversation

Ocean Closed Marty Desilets Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial No Derivative Works

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.

One week in…

So the first week of my new adventure in teaching has come and gone, and there have been some interesting moments.  Some of the points that I am reflecting on are the following:

  1. Simple things like reminding the students to bring their ear buds so they could listen to the videos (and eventually podcasts) that I’d like them to follow in order to answer the questions I give them, were both easier and more difficult than I thought.  A lot of students had them, but surprisingly to me not all of them had them, so the first time I tried to have them follow a video we ended up having to watch it all together.
  2. Google Apps has been a wonderful discovery especially the power of the form.  I am able to ask the students a few simple questions to start the class and then we can look at the ‘data’ and discuss.  I was also able to collect the student’s e-mail in extremely short order.  Lastly by asking a few simple questions at the beginning of the first class I was able to get an overview of the class in a fashion that I have never been able to do.  I was able to find out and view in a generalized fashion a lot of information about my class.  I used to hand out sheets and have the students fill in most of this information, but I never really had the time to look for more than specific outliers, never to really get a sense of the class.  I was also able to assess their habits as far as social studies (reading newspapers, watching the news) and get an idea that if most of my class wants to go onto post-secondary study (another question) than a large number of them need to change these habits to help them become more successful.  Really the forms function has been wonderful, putting it all in spreadsheets and graphing it has been great, but I am still frustrated with Google’s word processing program as I find it very limiting compared to Microsoft Word.
  3. Another interesting experience has been working on getting the students to submit their work to me.  I would like the students to use something else besides e-mail but only a very small number had Google accounts, and the ability to share things otherwise seems a little bit limited.  I tried to introduce them to Dropbox, as a way that they could transfer their files simply between home and school, but then found a lot of them just e-mailed their files home anyway.
  4. A couple of students have their own laptops which is great because I am short a couple of computers if all the students show up, and even then it’s nice to have a buffer as sometime school tech works, and sometimes it doesn’t.  Like today when I was trying to load a DVD into my teacher machine and it kept on shutting itself down.  Annoying to say the least, and a giant time wasting experience to say the most.
  5. Lastly the biggest problem I’ve had with having computers in the classroom is that my brain seems to need retraining.  I want to do something new with the students but at the same time my brain seems to be defaulting to those things with which I’ve taught the majority of my classes in the past.  Hardly inquiring sort of stuff.  I want to do more, but it is just so easy to revert to what I’ve used in the past.  My mind is open but my brain seems closed.

The last of the problems is obviously the biggest.  I sometimes feel like I don’t know where to start.  It’s making for really long days!