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.

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.

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!

A sea of conversation

Ocean Closed

Flikr.com 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.

Using wikipedia

How is Wikipedia used in real life?

I recently read a great post from Christopher Dawson on ZDNet appealing to teachers to stop the prohibiting the use of Wikipedia.  He makes a lot of sound reasonable arguments for using Wikipedia, and he is right it is a great starting point that is a lot more interactive than Encyclopedia Britannica was in our day.  Personally I like Wikipedia, a lot, it is far from perfect, but it can be used effectively, and quite frankly I know of nothing better to use for answering questions surrounding pop culture!  However I always try and keep this post in mind when I am talking about it, because there are certainly things to be concerned with.  I quite liked this particular ‘how-to’ guide to Wikipedia, it visually represents the things that I have always tried to tell my students, but for which I could really use a visual reminder.

All of this was a preamble to the picture I’ve included in the post: it appeared in my Facebook feed, I’m not sure that this is an appropriate use.  Or perhaps they need to put the ‘how-to’ guide up in hospitals!

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).