Sunday, 30 December 2012

Showing Some Resolve

New Year's is traditionally the time for making resolutions for change and personal improvement. Resolution is a curious word with many possible meanings. Definitions vary from an intention or promise to do something, to acting with tenacity and purpose, through to putting a satisfactory end or effecting a solution to an issue. How apt! For many of us New Year's resolutions run that entire gamut too! They are formed with good intentions, started with some determination and are usually designed to put an end to some sort of challenge. offers a pretty common list of the Top 10 New Years Resolutions. They include things like spending more time with family, losing weight, getting more fit or healthier and helping others - all fairly positive and noble goals, but all equally pie crust promises, as Mary Poppins might have put it, easily made and easily broken.

In digital photography the term image resolution equates to a complex set of variables that can be basically summed up as the greater the resolution, the more detail an image can display. (I received a new digital camera for Christmas this year so learning more about resolution is currently higher on the priority list than normal!) The digital definition of resolution fits nicely with the other definitions in that they all require bringing the details into greater focus.

Its fine to make broad stroke resolutions for the coming year, but if real progress is to be made towards attaining them, success or failure will stem from the attention paid to the details! Education is often full of good intentions. Both learners and educators want to do the best they can but just wishing won't make it so. The proof of the pudding, as the saying goes, will be in the eating!

So this year whatever resolutions you might make,  I'd urge you to put some resolve behind them. Great efforts and solid results will trump good intentions every time!

Monday, 17 December 2012

Have A Dickens of A Time: The Best Present Ever - Revisited

Last year about this time I posted "The Best Present Ever" - an entry that extolled all of us to make the most of the holiday season through a positive attitude and by giving, wherever possible, the gift of time to those around us.  I cited an article by Dr. Leslie Becker- Phelps of Psychology Today who addressed the four domains of better organizing personal and professional commitments, taking care of one's health, accepting present personal limitations and setting realistic goals for the future to help make a person more present, and subsequently more of a gift to be around.  I also referenced Diane Dutchin of The Positivity Blog with her suggestion that time is the greatest gift people can give or receive, and using it wisely is the best way to reward ourselves. 

In preparation for the holiday break my students have been reading Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. The classic 19th century tale underscores the idea the need for all of us to make the most of the time we are given. Spirits of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come combine to redeem Scrooge, causing him to change from a bitter self absorbed miser to a man who "knew how to keep Christmas well". 

Hopefully the coming holiday season will afford all of us time to enjoy the season, feel more positive and make the most of our time together. A recent tweet from our superintendent summed up this message nicely "This year, let your presence be your present". And as  Dickens wrote, "Let that be said of us, and all of us! And as Tiny Tim observed "God Bless Us - Everyone!" 

Saturday, 1 December 2012

The Homework Debate

"If you can't complete this assignment in class then please do it as homework!" Students groan and the bargaining begins.

"Do you know just how much homework we already have?"
"Why does every teacher think their assignments take priority?"
"Will we have more class time for this?"

My grade 11's are, for the most part, motivated and hardworking students, so when they complain about too much homework, I try to listen. Personally I'm not a big fan of homework. I prefer to have assignments completed in class where I can monitor them for progress and understanding. There is very little point in sending work home if students don't know what to do in the first place. Practice done poorly is worse than work not done at all. However, I'm not against students taking work home to complete it in a more polished and complete manner.

The debate around homework must be as old as school itself. Those in favour argue homework remains a valuable tool for reenforcing presented concepts and instilling a healthy work ethic. Opponents say homework is overused, has limited value,  and that drill and kill is a counterproductive learning strategy.

Cory Armes gives a fair and balanced view of the issue in her blog post The Great Homework Debate Is Homework Helpful or Harmful?.  Amongst her key points is that time spent on homework should be age appropriate with 10 minutes per grade guiding the maximum. Other take aways include keeping homework tied to specific learning outcomes and ensuring that if its assigned, its also checked and prompt and effective feedback is given.

The homework debate really hit the news earlier this year when the newly elected President of France vowed to ban homework outright. As reported by Global tv Edmonton, Francois Hollande told reporters that students aren’t on an even playing field when it comes to homework because some kids get help from their parents. "Education is priority. An education program is, by definition, a societal program. Work should be done at school rather than at home,” he said, according to French media reports. Hollande's comments need to be viewed in the context of a proposed overhaul of the entire French education system. Some of his other proposals include adding an extra day of instruction to the week and shortening summer holidays, but given that BC is also looking at radical changes to its education system through the BC Ed Plan,  his ideas warrant some consideration.

Ultimately, I'd have to say that homework shouldn't ever go away completely. Provided students are given a good grounding in what is being taught in class, and that homework is checked, evaluated and given proper feedback in a timely manner, homework will always have a place in my classes. Time spent at home refining and practicing skills allows student to "polish the rock" as it were, and turn their initial efforts into work they can be sure of and be proud of. Hopefully what students are taking from my class can be used beyond the classroom, and the homework that that they complete proves to them that their education matters.

Sunday, 25 November 2012

The Better Story - How Movies Promote Reading!

Ang Lee's interpretation of Yann Martel's novel, Life of Pi opened this week at our local theatre. Pi has been one of my favorites both as a personal read and as a novel for classroom study ever since it first came out back in 2001. While much of the buzz around this story centers around Pi's relationship with the tiger, Richard Parker, the novel goes much deeper than that, exploring themes of spirituality, courage, survival, and the value and meaning of life. Its question of which is the better story, always gets students talking.

As a rule, I don't like film adaptations of great books. By their very nature, motion pictures offer a limited vision that illustrates a director's interpretation of the story.  Such interpretations are often at odds with the version I imagined in my own reading. Lilly O'donell describes just such a point of view eloquently in her recent article Ang Lee's Visual Splendor Will not Live Up to the Book. Ms. O'donnell may be in the minority however. Students in my English class are keenly anticipating movie treatments of some of their favorite titles including The Perks of Being a Wallflower  and Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children.

Movies undoubtedly have the ability to generate interest and turn young readers on to a title or author. Film adaptations of books like The Hunger Games,  The Hobbit,  and Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows have, or will soon have, thousands of young readers either checking to see if the film has been loyal to a beloved text or being introduced to new and exciting worlds only a turn of a page away.

So whether one is a printed word purist, or an advocate for using more modern media to broaden student horizons, anything that gets students reading must have an upside. Life of Pi was just one of more than half a dozen titles available to students in our lit circle unit. Having the movie come to town inspired many to take on, and enjoy, this challenging but ultimately rewarding read. Whether they like the film or not remains to be seen, but even if they don't,  their interest was piqued, and they are better read now than when they entered the class! (And as Pi might have asked "isn't that the better story?")

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Must Be Nice - Teaching Talented and Gifted Students

"Must be nice" I am often told "to work with a class of such talented children".  I do have the good fortune to teach English to a secondary class of 32 talented, gifted or honours students. The class can be extremely rewarding, but also enormously challenging. Far from being a homogeneous group of quiet overachievers, this class is as diverse and different as any I've ever met.

 Many people believe that talented and gifted students should be a dream to work with. They envision a group of diligent, well behaved over achievers who meet all deadlines, and exceed all expectations. That description might fit a few students in my class, but the majority are very complex young people of wide ranging abilities.  They include students with attendance and motivation issues and others who are obsessively anxious about their work and grades. There are those that will happily do whatever the teacher asks and others who will challenge every assignment for relevance, necessity or interest. We have our introverts, our extroverts, the class comedians and the students who would love to be anywhere else but at school. The class includes 3 different grade levels, 11 students on individualized education plans (IEPs), and 6 students preparing for required provincial exams. Outside of class many are balancing heavy academic loads, active commitments to jobs, sports teams, fine arts pursuits and busy personal social lives. In short, there is very little about working with such students that is straight forward or easy. Congregated as they are, they are as challenging as any special needs group. Their needs are just different.

The CNN Education blog Schools of Thought recently ran an excellent piece on gifted education. Written by Carol Coll, the entry is entitled My view: Ten myths about gifted students and programs for gifted. After noting how educators have struggled for decades to properly even define giftedness, Coll outlines ten common misconceptions about gifted students. She accurately harpoons stereotypic beliefs about how gifted students look, how they interact with teachers and other students, how they work and how they behave. She also takes on the critics who alternately suggest that either all students are gifted or that gifted students really don't require any specialized assistance. (My personal favorite is myth #7 -that  teaching gifted students is easy).

For a gifted class to function well there can be no coasting, either by the students or the teachers! These kids very much represent the individualized 21st century learners described in the BCEd Plan! Different students have respectfully challenged nearly every aspect of my instruction and assessment practices. When things are going well, such students produce amazing results. However, these same students are very quick to speak up or act out when they find lessons less than stimulating or to challenge assessment practices they don't like or completely understand. I'm fortunate to be assisted and supported by two other talented instructors. Our district principal of student learning, and the district itinerant for gifted education are also actively engaged with the class. Through collaborative efforts, we generate and design lessons that work to student strengths and interests, analyze our practice for what works and what doesn't,  and generally act as a support network for each other. In addition to noting those practices unique to gifted instruction, we also look for techniques that might be used to advantage by all teachers and students. 

So what do I say when I'm told "It must be nice?" It is,but working with gifted students has challenges, just like every other class. Really, its just nice to be working as a teacher, helping students and helping to ensure their education matters.

Saturday, 10 November 2012

Keep It Creative: Student Perspectives on Education

Recently, my English 11Honours students read an excerpt from A.A.  Milne's classic Winnie the Pooh story, Rabbit's Busy Day. Before anyone gets too excited about my literature selections for grade 11s, they should consider that this story has a very grown up subtext about education, its value, and its impact on imagination. In it  Rabbit wonders where Christopher Robin has disappeared to in the mornings. Piglet and Eyeore each observe and express opinions about a letter A. Piglet thinks it might be some sort of a trap. Eyeore regards it as "A great and glorious A" something of tremendous value to the educated, until he is disillusioned by discovering that A "is something a Rabbit knows'.
Class discussion on this reading raised the idea that formal schooling often stifles imagination and creativity. Several students submitted written responses on the theme that public education in the 21st century needs to promote creativity, not smother it with more formal or outdated instruction. 

With the students permission here is a listing of some of their ideas.
1. School pressures children to grow up too fast. The expectation that they should know what they want to be in life by their teens comes way too soon.
2. In kindergarten students write stories and draw pictures. By grade 8 the stories have stopped and students are thrown into the bitter world of the 5 paragraph expository essay. School starts creative fires just to choke them out again.
3. Schools need to provide alternate pathways to learning. The accomplished artist isn't always great at math, but aren't both skills valauble?
4. Students are to told to grow up and put away their arts and crafts and yet some teachers still treat them like children. Perhaps the system needs to get its messaging straight!
5. Educators need to stop forbidding drawings or art that depicts violence or death. War is a modern reality and death is part of life. Pretending these things don't exist does little to prepare students to cope with them.
6. Teachers need to let students think for themselves rather than always tell them what to think. Sometimes even well intentioned instruction can close minds rather than open them.
7. Grading practices need to change. The current percentage letter grade system of ranking can cause a student to feel stupid when potentially they could be a genius in another way.
8. Bring more music into classrooms while students are working. Some learn better to a rhythm, others find it a calming force and still others can find inspiration in a familiar or favorite song.
9. Allow more sharing of lives like the show and tells that happened in primary. Not being able to share and connect with teachers and other adults can lead to the build up of tremendous personal pressures, sometimes with tragic circumstances.
10. Students should not be pressured to feel worthless or to feel they need to change their views on creativity. Students should not be called out based on grades, race, gender or physical attributes. Such interactions make students feel like its not ok to be creative and just themselves. By urging conformity teachers can suppress the urge to create for years.

The students have some notable supporters. Scholars like John Abbott and Sir Ken Robinson are also spreading a similar message.  In a recent visit to Fort St John, John Abbott spoke of the instinctive need for adolescents to do things for themselves. His views are outlined further in his book "Overschooled but Undereducated". Sir Ken's views can be seen by viewing the TED talk Schools kill Creativity, where he speaks to the challenge of using the methods of the past to sort out an unknowable future. These creative thinkers are recognized world wide for their innovative ideas. It should be exciting to know that we have access to minds every bit as clever right here in our own schools. Our students have strong opinions on how to better their education. Our challenge will be to listen to them and act on their advice!

Saturday, 3 November 2012

Time to Learn

This weekend, while the rest of the world is turning its clocks back an hour to mark the end of daylight saving time, in the BC Peace, time will not change. It won't fall back, it won't stand still. Just as the Steve Miller Band sang back in 1976, time will just keep on slip, slip, slippin, into the future!

Time is a funny and paradoxical thing. There never seems to be enough of it to do a job well or properly the first time but later,  time can always be found to fix a problem. Many devices proclaim their value as "time savers" even though its not often terribly clear what the time is being saved for.  Others urge people  to spend "quality time" on things that "really matter" as opposed to just "marking time" on matters that are trivial or numb the spirit. Instead of wasting time we are urged to manage it wisely. Saved, spent, running out, being marked, managed or wasted, time seems to have a powerful role in our lives.

With life expectancy in Canada nearing 81 years, the average lifespan is about 700,000 hours. Between the ages of 5 and 18 Canadian children will spend about 14,000 of these hours at school. While that amount may amount to about 12% of their youth, school time will actually only take up between 2 and 3% of the average Canadian's total lifespan. Compared with the 30% of a lifetime that will be spent sleeping,  formal education has an all to brief a window into a person's life. Recognizing the brevity of the opportunity, it  becomes even more important that educators and students not waste it.

Identifying just what needs to be taught and learned, and the best ways to do so in a short period of time has been a challenge dating all the way back to the Bible's 90th Psalm with its reminder to "number our days that we may seek a heart of wisdom". British Columbia's BC EdPlan, with its emphasis on 21st Century learning, is one of the latest efforts to define better ways to utilize time spent in schools. While some degree of reflection is inevitable and healthy, its important to recognize that time, as the proverb says, waits for no man. Ultimately, the goal remains to provide a meaningful education that inspires and engages learners in the very short time they spend within the formal school system.

Friday, 26 October 2012

Every Step Counts

Sunday I will have the pleasure of running the James Cunningham Seawall Race  in Vancouver with my daughter. The weather will likely be cold and wet, the English Bay view shrouded with mist and heavy rain but that won't dampen our enthusiasm. We'll be outside taking active steps towards maintaining lifelong fitness.

My daughter has not always been a runner. Sandwiched between a very competitive older sister and an athletic over achieving younger brother,  she mostly left the running to her siblings. The few times we managed to lure her out to a run her style could best be described as grimly determined. That she  became an ardent adult runner is a tribute to her character. That she sometimes invites her father to join her is a pleasure I thoroughly appreciate!

When asked why she runs my daughter's answers are both pragmatic and wise. She stays active because its a smart thing to do, because she enjoys the time alone with her thoughts, and because she likes how it makes her look and feel. She's not a fanatic, nor is she out there to break any records. Her style is still determined, though not particularly grim any more. As a child she had positive role models (both her mother and I run and walk) and she's internalized the message that her teachers and coaches put out about the benefits of lifelong fitness.

Both my daughter and I keep score on how far and how often we get out. I use a pedometer, a GPS watch and a logbook to track my progress. I have nearly 25 years of data. The Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada recommends that most Canadians shoot for 10,000 steps a day in order to maximize the benefits of walking and to minimize the the risks associated with a sedentary lifestyle. My daughter goes high tech. She has pace and distance apps on her ipod and iphone that allow her to stay informed, encouraged and connected to her tunes as they log her distance. While she confesses it is sometimes a little disconcerting to get recorded messages of encouragement from the likes of Tiger Woods and other celebrities, she does enjoy combining her music with her exercise.

So what's the connection to education? Getting kids moving has never been more important.  With Partipaction Canada now indicating that up to one third of school children are overweight or obese, it is imperative that teachers provide positive role models and make getting active part of everyone's day. Breaking out the pedometers and harnessing technologies to find out how far and how often students move each day can help to make doing the right thing the fun thing. Students live what they learn. As evidenced by my daughter's example, giving kids a good foundation in active living helps them develop life long fitness habits. Come this Sunday, rain or shine, my daughter and I will be out on the Stanley Park Seawall making every step count.

Post Script: To be fair to Vancouver, the weather was great and the run was wonderful! Both my daughter and I posted personal bests for the course! We now have matching limps from stiff muscles and unhappy knees but every step was worth it! Now I just have to wait for the next invitation - next year's Sun Run might be just about right!

Saturday, 20 October 2012

The Power of PBL!

Returning to the classroom this fall, I continue to be  conscious of the fact that it had been a while since I was in charge of a class,  I've had to be reflective and selective in regards to the practices I bring to my instruction. So far its been a great opportunity. What better way to promote tenets of 21st century teaching and learning than to model them?  Its one thing to talk about project based learning, but something else again to put it into practice.

The Buck Institute points out that  it is the process of students' learning and the depth of their cognitive engagement— rather than what they produce—that distinguishes project based learning (PBL) from busywork. In their article Seven Essentials for Project Based Learning authors John Larmer and John R. Mergendoller point to key practices in giving students meaningful work. For them, the two most critical details are that students must perceive the work as something important that they want to do well and that a meaningful project fulfill an educational purpose. They suggest that well-designed and well-implemented project-based learning is meaningful in both ways.

In our class, student voice and choice help promote student engagement. This element of project-based learning is key. In terms of making a project feel meaningful to students, the more voice and choice, the better. While making sure that all students cover basic curricular learning outcomes is important, giving them a say in how they do it has generated more enthusiasm and genuine student buy in. All our assignments include a menu of options for creative products that allow students to decide what they will create, what resources they will use, and how they will structure their time. Students can frequently modify aspects of a project's topic and driving question to suit their own talents.

Effective feedback and assessment loops have been another key to success. Developing a sense of pride in production has involved urging students to "polish the rock" before declaring a project complete. Using rubrics,  peer review and other formalized processes for feedback and revision has helped make learning meaningful. Constructive feedback emphasizes that creating high-quality products and performances is an important purpose of the task. As well, students are learning that most first attempts aren't of a high quality and that revision or polishing is a frequent feature of real-world work. 

 So far the results have been excellent. Students have covered themes of identity, the world wide impact of English and a Shakespeare play. Class attendance, participation and enthusiasm has remained uniformly high. Students are actively engaged, are producing some amazing work, and achieving very high grades. Projects have included presentations of self,  parodies of famous poems, invention of unique portmanteau languages, and debates around the value and ethics of imposing English as a worldwide language. We've had students explore aspects of stage combat, provide analysis of literature via video and explore the impact of classic literature on more modern pop culture. Presentations have been made orally, in writing, through the use of visual and performing arts and through many different electronic or creative media.  Perhaps the true power of PBL is its ability to combine creativity with a sense of accomplishment for all learners. More than that, it has made learning fun and satisfying for all!

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Don't Just Think About it!

Read this post standing up! No really, if you are sitting down to read this blog stand up now! Don't just think about it - Do it - Do it - Do it!  Those of us of a certain age might recognize this encouragement not as some deranged Nike ad but as the the catch phrase of Participaction, the program the federal government used years ago to urge Canadians to get up off their couches and out exercise the proverbial 60 year old Swede! In schools the program manifested itself as the CFT - the Canada Fitness Test - a series of drills that had children sitting up, arm hanging and shuttle running their way to awards of excellence, gold, silver, bronze or perhaps just sweaty frustration.

Participaction is back with a new motto and a new initiative encouraging us all to "Get Moving" and to "Bring Back Play".   The "Lets Get Moving" campaign reminds Canadians that "by moving more and having fun, we can become a healthier country". The message is supported by a website filled with tips to help people get moving, along with the latest news and research about physical activity.
Particularly useful are the tips for including more activity in every day life - simple ideas like parking one's vehicle further away from one's work place in order to add a few more steps to a daily routine.  I can personally vouch for this one. Having moved my own parking sport from a reserved spot close to the office to one in the far corner of our admittedly small lot has added about 100 extra steps to my routine. That might not seem like much but multiplied by twice a day for forty weeks a year  the steps add up!

For children Participaction's focus is the "Bring Back Play" program. Staying with their theme of making getting active easy and fun Participaction reminds us that "active play may be fun, but it’s certainly not frivolous. Play allows youth of all ages to try new things, test boundaries and use their imaginations. In addition to the physical health benefits, active play offers cognitive, emotional and social development benefits. It has been shown to improve and foster motor function, creativity, decision-making, problem-solving and social skills, the ability to control emotions and preschoolers’ speech."

Participaction data indicates that as much as 63% of Canadian kids free time after school and on weekends is spent being sedentary.  And if the kids are not moving the statistics are even worse for adults. Sedentary pursuits are supersizing all of us and the consequences will be played out in decreased fitness and increased health problems. We need to get moving, and Participaction's got plenty of great ideas, tips and information on bringing more motion into our lives. Like standing up to read from your computer!  Did you follow the direction at the beginning of this post? If so well done! If not its time to get active. Don't just think about it DO IT! DO IT! DO IT!

Sunday, 7 October 2012

Uphill Into the Wind Both Ways

We all know the story.  An older person will tell a younger audience how tough they had it back in the old days. 'When I was young", they'll say "We had to walk three miles to school, uphill and into the wind, both ways". Sometimes, just for emphasis, extras details are included, like how they were barefoot and slogging through three feet of snow as well!  "It built character" the older person invariably concludes. Young people chuckle and shake their heads sadly. The trouble is, its starting to look like the older persons have a point! Increasingly we seem to live in an age of distracted, over fed and under exercised children. While not an advocate of sending under dressed school children out to walk marathons in blizzards, it does strike me that today's kids do not take enough steps to ensure their own fitness.

Want some evidence to back up this claim? Stop by an elementary school just before the start or end of the day and count the number of vehicles stopping by to pick up or drop off children. School boards often hear from principals or parent groups looking for support for plans to ease traffic flow or increase the size of parking lots. "Its a safety issue" the board will hear. "The current set up is not adequate for the demand. Its unsafe. A child could get run over". On all counts they are correct, but perhaps not in the way that they hope. Schools are not set up to accommodate lots of cars because in the past students either walked to school or arrived by school bus.  The lack of safety from too many drivers is easy to see, but there is another bigger danger in play - with increased screen and seat time our children are getting fat!

The CBC recently reported that as many as one third of Canadian children between the ages of 5 and 17 are now obese. The numbers jump to two thirds when considering overweight adults. The problem is the result of the collision of several trends. High calorie fast foods are cheap, readily available and omnipresent in popular culture. At the same time technology has provided a plethora of screens to distract us. Besides the traditional outlets of tv and movies, video gaming, texting, facebooking, social media, smart phone apps, ipods, ipads, tablets, e-readers, kobos and other screens now draw our kids' attention. While some of these apps are mobile, the majority are sedentary pursuits easily combined with snacking. Screens plus sitting plus snack foods quickly adds up to plus sized children.

At the same time as we are getting bigger, we are also becoming less aware of the changes. In a recent Globe and Mail feature, reporter Carly Weeks suggests that fat has become the new normal. Weeks points out that few parents ever recognize their child has a serious weight issue, even if the child is obese. A study in the Canadian Family Physician Journal found 63 per cent of parents with overweight children said their child’s weight was normal; 63 per cent of parents of obese children classified them as overweight. 

Schools can be part of the solution, but programs like daily physical activity (DPA), quality physical education programs and classes to educate students about proper nutrition and exercise can only go so far. Solutions have to be found closer to home too.  Dr. Mark  Tremblay, director of healthy active living and obesity research at the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario, says possible solutions are as simple as making neighborhoods more walkable so that children can get to school under their own power rather than in the passenger seat of a car.  Who knows? If more families take up the challenge and add steps to their children's routines, in future maybe those children will be able to tell their own stories about how they too had to walk to school up hill and into the wind both ways!

Saturday, 29 September 2012

Learning to Get Out of the Way..... of Learning

 My return to the classroom this September has me learning all sorts of things both from colleagues and students. I've always loved teaching but the whole 21st Century learning model has me rethinking and reworking some of my professional practice. Students past (and present) tell me that my teaching style is enthusiastic and engaging. I like what I do and who I work with, and hopefully it shows. That won't change. What's changing is my role within a class.

Many of us have heard the old saw about being a guide on the side instead of a sage on the stage. Priming the learning pump and getting out of the way however can be harder than it sounds. English is one of those subjects that, if presented well, should excite and engage students through literature, composition, critical thinking and considered discussion and debate. Getting the ball rolling is the easy part. Extricating oneself from the discussion and letting the students really get into their work is the hard part.

Recently my class examined the Robert Browning poem, "My Last Duchess". After an initial reading of the poem and a short discussion for meaning and clarity, students broke into groups of three and began to really delve into the work analyzing structure and content as it related to our theme of identity. Listening to discussions between students about the characters of the poem, their identities and how they interacted or might have responded to one another was both exhilarating and exhausting. I really wanted to jump in several times with some nugget of knowledge or a clever redirecting question, but without exception the groups all managed to work deep into the themes, structure and content of the assignment without needing my assistance. Instead they sparked off of and came to the assistance of one other, with the result being that every student achieved a top grade. The fact that I was present and available to help if needed, provided students with the structure and confidence they needed to achieve the task without overt guidance or instruction. My job was to set the assignment and spark the initial discussion. I was there to provide structure and support, but more importantly I had to stay out of the way as students discovered things for themselves. The time flew by, and before any of us knew it the class was over, the assignments were complete and I was worn out from the effort of keeping quiet and out of the way.

I'm not alone in this experience. The website (Powerful Learning Practice - professional development for 21st century educators) recently posted a blog by science teacher Marsha Ratzel entitled Teaching by Getting Out of the Way. It relates a similar experience to my own in the context of a middle school science lesson. Ms. Ratzel calls her inquiry based teaching style being present without hovering or hammering home the message. She relates that, "By the end of the period, I think they were shocked at how well they were capable of managing their own learning. And it was a revelation to me. I gained so much insight into what my students, individually and collectively, were capable of doing."  Such knowledge helps teachers to build a strong sense of community and caring within the classroom. Students know that their teacher values both them and their efforts, and in return the teacher gains insights into the students and is better able to tailor lessons to meet their needs.

A month has passed and together, my students have done some great work. Absenteeism is not a problem and nobody is falling behind. Positioned, as it is, at the very end of the day, our English class could very quickly become an irksome challenge if it were not interesting and engaging. So far, by structuring interesting and challenging lessons and then getting out of the way of student learning the class has been something all its members enjoy and look forward to!

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Advice For Teachers - A 3 H Approach

This fall I am teaching a class. Through good fortune and creative scheduling I get to teach English Literature to 30 very bright students at North Peace Secondary. There are several unique facets to my teaching assignment. I am part of a teaching team that includes the district principal of student learning and the district itinerant for gifted learners. My class includes 14 students with a gifted designation and congregates students who would normally be in grades 9 to 12. It is a very innovative, motivated and unique class.

On the first day of instruction students were asked for advice for teachers. Their journal essay topic for the day (they write 300 - 700 words daily to start each class) was what would they tell teachers about how to better reach their students. Their responses were enlightening. Students wanted their teachers to have a passion for what they taught and to be pleasant and interested in who they taught. There was an understanding that teaching is a tough job, and that adolescent behavior can be challenging to deal with, but overwhelmingly the students emphasized that if teachers obviously liked what they were doing, and enjoyed working with students, students were more likely to enjoy and engage in their class.

One could argue this is a unique group of students, but their advice is supported by considerable research. In their work"What Do Students Expect of Teachers?" J Jones and K P Kwan summed up these ideas as the 3 H approach - Head Hands and Heart. Head represented knowledge of the subject or grade. Having a teacher who knows their stuff gave students confidence that they were in good hands. Hands spoke to a persons teaching skills and management techniques: how well teachers could present materials clearly and systematically, their ability to pitch the teaching at the appropriate level, their creativity and their ability to arouse the interest of the students. Could they encourage students to learn actively and stimulate them to think critically and independently?

Finally, and perhaps most importantly is heart: the appropriate attitudes and values concerning the job of being a teacher. Students want teachers who care about their job AND their students. They don't necessarily want the teacher to be their friend, but they do want the teacher to be cheerful, encouraging and approachable; to enjoy doing what they do and to enjoy being with them.

So far its been easy to take this advice to heart. Being in the classroom is often the best part of my day - and I've let the students know how much I enjoy working with them. In return they have been producing copious quantities of excellent work. The job is not without its challenges. I have a few reluctant and stubborn learners in the class. The marking load is impressive and the time to properly prepare adds hours to my day.  However, bringing head heart and hands to work every day is helping me look forward to every class!

Sunday, 2 September 2012

Anxious to Be Back!

School starts Tuesday and many staff and students are anxious to be going back. Anxious is one of those curious words that can be taken one of two ways. It can mean wanting something very much or, it can mean experiencing worry and nervousness about an upcoming or imminent event.

I'm anxious to get the year underway - anxious in a good way! The challenge of getting the year off to a good start is both exciting and a little scary. Every start up brings its own unique set of circumstances, but its dealing with the unexpected that makes me look forward to getting back. A positive growth mindset coupled with hard work and a desire to do good things for others make getting back to work something to look forward to!

Others will be anxious about going back - anxious as in worried to the point of dread! This anxiety about school runs deep in the public psyche. One has only to look to how the end of the summer holidays are portrayed in popular culture and advertising campaigns. Rather than celebrating the opportunities and potential education has to offer, such campaigns often play up feelings of fear and dread. A few years back the clothing chain Old Navy epitomized this movement with a series of School is Coming ads that likened returning to class to living out scenes from famous horror movies!

So what can be done to ease the dread? Normalizing the event helps. Getting enough sleep, establishing positive routines and celebrating the good things about getting back to school all help. Media outlets, like the Globe and Mail and The are running articles this week offering more tips on how to help students deal with their back to school anxieties. Common to most of these stories is the advice to listen to and recognize the fears being expressed.

Listening and helping each other overcome our anxieties, find and reach our potential ,and build on our successes definitely takes the sting out of going back.  Hopefully as this year unfolds all of us can overcome any nervous anxiety we experience and help us to be more positively anxious to make the most of the opportunities coming our way!

Sunday, 26 August 2012

The Most Wonderful Time?

The summer holiday is coming to a close. As the last days of August pass, its time to again consider Education Matters. As much as I've enjoyed the past weeks of rest, recreation and regeneration, it's time to start looking ahead and think (and blog) about the coming school year.  To that end I recently went to one of our local stationary stores, you know - the one with the easy button!. The store was instrumental in providing me with two images of how the coming year might be perceived.

The first scene played out in front of me in the checkout line. A young mom with two small boys, her elementary supply list in hand, had gathered all the things her children would need for the coming year. The younger boy looked to be about grade 2 age, and he watched in obvious rapture as all his shiny new school supplies were rung in, bagged and handed to him. "Look at all my stuff" he exclaimed to his brother. "I can hardly wait for school!" His brother, slightly older, perhaps grade 4 or 5, was not so overtly enthusiastic, but he did eagerly accept the bag his mother handed him, and fished out one of the notebooks to run his hand across its unblemished cover and flip through all the blank pages.  New school supplies have such a sense of promise and anticipation about them.

Later that evening the second image flashed across my tv screen. The same store is running its back to school commercials. The one that particularly caught my attention features a happy parent dancing through the aisles happily loading up on school supplies while his two depressed children trudge slowly behind. "They"re going back!" the voice over exclaims over the unmistakable strains of the Christmas carol "The Most Wonderful Time of the Year". I'll bet when Andy Williams recorded the song in 1963 he never imagined it would be used to flog school supplies.

Its the children in these images that really catch my attention. Live at the store, the children saw the coming school year with a sense of wonder and anticipation. The ones on the commercial look like they are being led to their own funerals. The challenge for educators is which image will we promote? How do we build on the enthusiasm and anticipation students bring to a new year? Once the supplies come out and start being used will we stoke the enthusiasm and help the learning energy build or will we cause it to wane until students truly yearn for the next holiday break?  In a few days we will all be headed back to classrooms, hopefully just as eager as the two boys I saw at the store.  Here's hoping we'll all strive to ensure that a most wonderful time is had by all!

Friday, 6 July 2012

The Great Holiday Debate

July has arrived and with it holidays have begun for students, teachers and administrators. As always there is debate over whether the break is too long or not long enough. On one side are education reformers arguing for year round schooling in order to close learning gaps and maintain student achievement. On the other side parents and educators who suggest the break is needed in order to recover, re-energize and better prepare for the next school year.

In April, BC Education Minister George Abbott  proposed ammendments to the School Act that could lead to the elimination the standard September to June school calendar. “These amendments to the School Act will provide school districts with additional tools to support personalized learning,” the Education Minister said. These actions are consistent with the new BC Ed Plan that seeks to give students, families and educators more say on how, where when and what students will learn. The Plan clearly states "In many cases, the way classes and schools look might change. School calendars may change if boards of education see that as benefiting students".

Proponents of year round schooling suggest benefits include decreased costs and improved student achievement, especially for students of families that cannot avail themselves of organized summer activities. Experts cite "summer learning loss" as a major problem for North American students. Some suggest the current summer break model is inefficient with students spending their Septembers engaged in review of the previous year's learning. Other jurisdictions such as the UK, New Zealand and Australia use a year round trimester model with the same number of days in session but with shorter breaks interspersed throughout the year.

Opponents of year round schooling suggest the longer break is necessary for teachers and students to get some proper rest and recuperation time. Many teachers have traditionally used the summer break for professional development; attending courses at university to work on their masters degrees or to upgrade their qualifications.  In a research report dedicated to the subject of whether year round schooling improves student learning, the BCTF argues against altering the traditional schedule, suggesting that there is insufficient evidence to support the claims of those who support year round schooling and that where positive results have been found, the bias of the researchers or flaws in the methodology make those findings suspect.

Perhaps the greatest obstacle to year long study is tradition. Summer break has just always been the way things are done, and until there is compelling evidence that doing it differently would be better, institutional inertia is likely to continue.  If it was good enough for us, many parents believe, its good enough for our children too. Fear of change seems hardwired into the human psyche, and so long as there is insufficient evidence to show that year round is better, many will remain reluctant to change.

Regardless of whether the breaks are scattered through out the year or concentrated in one long stretch I know I always look forward to them. I'll be taking advantage of the current summer break to rest, read and recreate so postings to the blog may be fewer and further between. Here's hoping everyone else gets a break this summer too so that the fall finds us all ready to return to Education Matters.

Sunday, 24 June 2012

From 3 R's to 4 P's

At a recent meeting in Vancouver educators from a number of BC school districts discussed what it will take to ensure that students keep getting quality teaching and learning experiences as they move deeper into the 21st century. Hard to believe but we are already more than a decade into the new century and still many educators talk like its something new. In the last century education dedicated itself to providing students access and proficiency in the 3 R's - reading, writing, and arithmetic. (As an English teacher, it still seems ironic that alliteration took precedence over spelling!) In the new century it appears that the R's, while still important, may need to give space to three P's - play, passion and purpose, if education is to keep students meaningfully engaged.

3 P's are prominently featured in Tony Wagner's book "Creating Innovators - The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World". Wagner identifies a pattern—a childhood of creative play leading  to deep-seated interests, which in adolescence and adulthood blossom into a deeper purpose for career and life goals. Play, passion, and purpose become the forces that drive young innovators. Wagner also discusses the education system and how it might better promote such a pattern.

Certainly the the three P's resonate within the BC education system. Though elements of all three P's should be present throughout a student's school career, the play, passion, purpose progression aligns neatly with the primary - intermediate - secondary system currently evolving in Peace River North.  Channeling the energy and enthusiasm that is common within our primary grades into increasingly individualized learning in the often turbulent middle years, should generate secondary students who learn with purpose and drive.

A strength of such a system is that everyone has a role to play. Educators certainly need to innovate and engage students, but the students themselves, and their families have to play their part. Awakening, developing and exploring possibilities must be a shared responsibility, and all parties need to keep the others accountable. Tuning out and turning off when things get hard or do not come easily cannot be an option regardless of whether one is in the class, in front of it or supporting it from home. Partnership becomes the fourth, and possibly most important P!

Saturday, 16 June 2012

Thinking Outside The Box Moves A Meet Inside

Last week our district held its elementary track and field championships. With well over 400 student participants, dozens of officials and hundreds of events, heats and events, staging this annual event is a major undertaking. Throw in the challenges of an uncertain labor climate and people start to think the challenge may be too much. Add inclement weather that turns the outdoor facility into a bog and cancellation becomes a near certainty.  Not for this school district.  Thinking outside the box, a small group of individuals rallied to pull off this year's meet in a unique fashion.

Discussion about whether or not to cancel this year's meet began back in February. With job action dragging on, it was unclear whether the staffs of the two hosting schools would be willing or able to participate. Veteran administrators who had staged the event before expressed concerns but the young administrators responsible for this year's event remained confident. A month prior to the meet principals were surveyed to gauge school's interest and willingness to contribute time to help officiate the event. A decision was made to go forward, recruiting a retired teacher with a long history of expertise in track and field to serve as meet coordinator.

As the meet approached some of our veteran staff came forward to take on roles they had held at past meets. Everything looked promising. Then the rains came. Four days of torrential downpours turned the venue to a muddy lake. The event looked literally dead in the water. The initial date was washed out and there was no hope the track would recover in time for the back up date four days later.

That's where this story takes a twist. While returning timing equipment to the Pomeroy Sports Centre (PSC),  our winter sports complex, our meet coordinator explained our problem to the facility manager. She then suggested the meet move indoors and utilize the speed skating oval, free of ice for the summer as our track. Long distance events could be held on the walking track on the third floor and the field events on the dry floor space where the hockey arenas sit. The idea was not without challenges but with the cooperation of the city, the support of district staff and maintenance, and hours of tireless innovation from our meet coordinator and his core group of volunteers the winter facility was turned into an indoor track and field facility in only 72 hours.

As luck would have it the weather was fair the day of the meet but no one really minded. The meet came off on time and with only a few minor tweaks - not unlike what would have happened outside anyways. The staffs at the two hosting schools pitched in with enthusiasm, a free canteen was provided for all participants and the event finished on time to many positive reviews. Administrators from all across the district donated their day and officiated the event. With the event happening inside the instructional day teacher coaches were able to participate with their students. The event became a success for everyone. There's even a suggestion that the meet should now be held at the PSC every year.  

One end of the PSC houses our SD 60 Energetic Learning Campus. Staff and students wear tee shirts that read "you know you're Canadian when your school is in a hockey arena" It must make us even more Canadian when our track meet is held there too! The whole event demonstrated the power of collaboration, cooperation and creative thinking as many diverse groups pulled together to benefit students. Following tradition would have left the meet 'dead in the water". Some creative "outside the box" thinking brought the meet indoors and provided everyone with a great day.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

What Students Need to Bring to Their Education

Recently the BC Ministry of Education distributed a video entitled "What Do You Want From Your Education System?" The two and a half minute video features students, teachers, parents and community members stating their desires and ambitions for BC public education. The video includes many diverse ideas like having  persons use their own technology to communicate better with teachers, ways of supporting student career aspirations,  and  providing an interesting though more concise curriculum.  Good as far as it goes, the video describes only half of what is essential in a positive learning environment - providing what  people want. The other essential piece is what people are prepared to do to get what they want. 

Much has been made of the need to engage students and to provide them with opportunities that interest and challenge them. It might also be appropriate to promote an increased level of commitment from the students as well. In January of 1961 president elect John F Kennedy challenged Americans and the world with his famous "ask not" inaugural address. The much quoted "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country" line was preceded by a series of statements that begin "let both sides......". Kennedy's speech eloquently underscores the need for both parties in any partnership to be bring their best to the table.

. Julia G Thompson, author of "The First Year Teacher's Survival Guide"captures the frustration of many teachers when she writes:
"There are many reasons for the unwaveringly feeble effort that many students present at the first sign of a challenge. For many students, the fear of their work not being “good enough” is paralyzing. Rather than earn a failing grade from a teacher, they give it to themselves by just not doing the work.  Other students are so accustomed to overly helpful adults who respond to their learned helplessness with so many hints and clues that they do not really have to think for themselves. Unfortunately, this pattern of behavior is all too recognizable. These are the students who ask others for the page number rather than check a table of contents, ask dozens of anxious questions rather than read the text for information, of who put their heads down on their desks rather than work independently for any length of time. Whatever the reason, it is possible to mitigate these patterns of learned helplessness." 

Thompson goes on to provides an extensive list of 'how to" tips to assist teachers in developing patterns and habits of persistence in students. While no one questions the obligation of education systems to provide quality education opportunities, the responsibilities of the learners should also be remembered. Students certainly need to be passionate about what they are learning, but they also need to be persistent, tenacious learners capable of dealing with adversity, resilient in the face of set backs and willing to patiently put in the time and effort required to acquire and hone new skills.
 It is also useful to remember that there really is no substitute for hard work, or putting in the time and effort needed to master a skill. The 10,000 hour rule, first postulated by Anders Ericsson and made popular by Malcolm Gladwell"s book "Outliers" argues that attaining expertise in any skill demands a dedication to meaningful practice. Gladwell repeatedly references the "10,000-Hour Rule", claiming that the key to success in any field is, to a tremendous extent, a matter of practicing a specific task for a total of around 10,000 hours. In short, hard work can be measured in terms of the amount of time one is willing to devote to the task. In our modern fast moving world, with its bias towards easy and instant gratification, there is a real danger that the message that real learning takes time and hard work can be lost.

Its important to ask what people desire from their education system. The answers the BC Ed Plan is receiving should help develop a better system for everyone. It is also important to remember what an education system requires of its members. Passionate, persistent, dedicated learners, willing to put in the time required to master skills will also help push BC's education system to the forefront in the quest for quality 21st century learning. 


Sunday, 3 June 2012

From Hard Talks to Courageous Conversations

As the year winds down educational leaders will assess the year that's been, and plan for the year to come. Many conversations need to happen. There will be conversations around district targets, school goals, budgets, professional growth and institutional change. Where progress has been made, the conversations can be easy, even celebratory. Where things have not gone so well, or where change is required, the conversations will be hard. 

Hard conversations can be challenging, to say the least. Few people enjoy being the bearer of bad news. Many people are uncomfortable communicating information that is likely to generate conflict, anger, resistance or any other negative response. Administrators sometimes put off difficult exchanges with staff as they fear the talk might make things worse. They hope problems will resolve themselves without intervention; an unlikely option at best. Sooner or later it must be recognized that putting off difficult conversations helps no one. Not having these conversations can even be more damaging than any hurt feelings or negative response, for by putting off the conversation, one is putting off any remediation and bad situations  can fester or get worse.

In 2009/2010 the Ontario Ministry of Education recognized having the hard conversations as one of the five core leadership capacities the ministry wanted to develop in all its educational leaders.  Characterizing such communications as "Courageous Conversations" Ontario sought to temper their perceived unpleasantness by emphasizing their importance and relative value if done well. In an article entitled Ideas Into Action, "The Case For Courageous Conversations" the ministry acknowledged and affirmed that such conversations were not easy but still vitally important. The article includes the statement:

If we are leading for improvement, we are inevitably leading for
change and can expect some degree of discomfort, disagreement
or resistance along the way – whether on the level of the individual,
or the organization. Change often challenges our deeply-held beliefs,
and as John Kenneth Galbraith famously said, “Faced with the choice
between changing one’s mind and proving that there is no need to
do so, almost everyone gets busy on the proof”. Open, authentic,
truthful dialogue, in an atmosphere of trust and respect, is the key
ingredient that makes meaningful change possible.

Further on, the document lists 18 reasons why administrators sometimes avoid courageous conversations. The list includes many familiar excuses ranging from "I want people to like and respect me" to "If I just wait for the right moment" all the way to "I just don't have the energy today". Reading the complete list gives all of us ample opportunities to uncomfortably recognize ourselves from some situation or another.

If the conversations must be held, the next question is how to do them well and effectively. Effective administrators need to be well practiced in the soft skills of clear and honest communication. Discretion, tact and diplomacy help as well. Jill Eisner of Poynter.Org  suggests that PFF - Preparation, focus and followup, are essential. In getting ready for a conversation come fully prepared with facts and context. Don't lose focus or be side tracked by the distractions or protests of others, and follow up in order to document and benchmark the key points.

Whether characterized as courageous, or just plain hard conversations that deal with difficult or contentious matters are part of an educational leader's job. Hoping and waiting usually won't make issues go away. Taking on the challenges in an appropriate, honest and diplomatic manner can help take the sting out of a problematic issue and clear the way for future progress and more pleasant conversations in the future.

Saturday, 26 May 2012

When Less is More

This week our district played host to a regional meeting to discuss proposed changes to the way curriculum is developed and presented. The common lament about there being no time or way for teachers and students to cover everything was acknowledged, and a shift to a new way of doing things was proposed. "Wouldn't it be nice" one presenter asked, "if at the beginning of the year teachers could wonder about what they could add to the curriculum instead of worry about what they might have to leave out?"

The new BC Education Plan, with its emphasis on personalized learning and 21st century skills, is also looking at curriculum. Under the Plan, teachers, students and parents will work together to make sure every student’s needs are met, passions are explored and goals are achieved. This means student-centered learning that’s focused on the needs, strengths and aspirations of each individual young person. Students will play an active role in designing their own education and will be increasingly accountable for their own learning success. It’s all about putting students at the centre of education. That means giving teachers and schools the flexibility to make sure each student is well served by their educational program. Each student is unique and our education system will support each student’s interests and ways of learning. 

Under the plan, Curriculum will be redesigned to reflect the core competencies, skills, and knowledge that students need to succeed in the 21st century.  A curriculum with fewer, but higher level outcomes will enable deeper learning and understanding. Teachers and students should benefit from the increased flexibility that will be key to making sure that students' passions and interests are realized, as well as their different and individual ways of learning without sacrificing the core competencies that ensure every student acquires the base knowledge required to successfully deal with an ever changing world.

The Ministry appears to be serious about implementing change, and it is also serious about hearing from people who matter in education: students, parents, educators and the general public. In addition to meetings such as the one held this week in SD 60, the Plan is online complete with interactive functions, twitter feed and a multitude of methods for folks to find out more and respond. Anyone with a question or a point of view has the means to make their voice heard. Comments are collected, published in newsletters and put out on display for evaluation and further response. Regardless of  our ongoing labor issues work on the BC Ed plan is pressing ahead. Our regional meeting was well attended by teachers, trustees, administrators, parents, students and district staff, and many of them liked what they heard. Hopefully the day when all partners in public education can consider what they can add to the basic curriculum to enhance student learning will be here sooner than we think!

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Growing A New Mindset

In their book Switch, authors Chip and Dan Heath focus attention on how to effect transformational change. One of their most effective chapters deals with the issue of mindsets. Examining the work of Carol Dweck, with its focus on set and growth mindsets,  the Heath brothers explore implications for educators if they buy into the growth mind set theories.

Dweck divides people into one of two main mind sets. Those with a fixed mind set believe talent and intelligence is set. Individuals learn or achieve to the level of their natural abilities. In a growth mind set people believe that abilities are like muscles; that with practice and training they can be improved over time.

For educators the growth mindset should be a no brainer. What are teachers doing if not helping students to exercise their brains and to learn practice and hone new skills? All teachers come to the classroom hoping to help students. In a growth mind set model however,  the process matters just as much as the result. Students are taught to try and to keep practicing as they get better at a presented skill. There is not the expectation that mastery will be always be attained on the first try; instead the understanding is that difficult tasks are mastered through repeated and sustained effort. Failure is an option, but rather than be seen as a stigma or catastrophe to be avoided at all costs, it can become part of the learning process.  Mistakes and failures become part of the journey as students learn from them, rather than being destinations that permanently mark students down as less than capable.

A growth mind set fits nicely with initiatives within AFL (Assessment for Learning) As pointed out at, the growth mindset leads to optimal learning. Sucess breeds further success as students build and expand upon subjects that interest them, and negative experiences become challenges to expand one's abilities and to improve and grow. Assessment becomes an instrument of direction rather than a measuring stick to determine worth.

Other principals such as George Couros have noted that a growth mindset, while valuable for inspiring persistence and efforts in all learners, can also have a tremendous positive impact on student who already excel. In his blog entry "More than an A" Couros explains:
"One of my big questions that I have in the traditional model of grading is the following; when a student receives an ‘A’ for their work, why is there a need to continue?  You have set the criteria, the student has met it, why move forward?  With the idea of this “growth”mindset, we want our students to move way further than an ‘A’."

With a set mindset students need only clear the hurdles. With a growth mindset the heights they can reach are unlimited. In this era of rapid change the growth mind set is an idea worth investigating and supporting. It instills a sense of resilience and perseverance in learners by valuing their efforts and inspires students to pursue learning that interests them as far they can go. Resilient achievers - sounds like a worthy goal to me.

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Charting an Uncertain Future: Dealing With Ambiguity

Friday was our district's planning day. Traditionally schools use the day to review plans, assess data, determine progress made towards goals and to reformulate or adjust objectives in  an effort to make a positive impact on the future. This has been a very different year. In some schools planning day was one of the first  times entire staffs could meet and work together in unambiguous and meaningful ways. Reviewing a year punctuated by job action, meant that some of the traditional benchmarks were hard to measure or assess. The future offers few certainties beyond the inevitable promise that  the current situation will be resolved - eventually. The lack of familiar patterns and routines, likely left many educators dealing with high levels of  anxiety and ambiguity.

Ambiguity is defined as uncertainty or inexactness of meaning, often emerging from a failure to choose between alternative points of view.  Given the the current distance between the bargaining positions of the BCTF and BCPSEA, it  cannot be a surprise that high measures of uncertainty hung over this year's efforts.  Labor issues aside, an examination of the new BC Ed Plan indicates that coping with ambiguity is considered a valued 21st century learning skill. After all, the preface to the plan states "many of the opportunities and jobs we’re preparing our students for don’t even exist today". We are definitely preparing students for an uncertain future.

So if we know what we are facing, a bigger question is how do we do it? Microsoft Corporation, has embraced dealing with ambiguity as one of its key learning competencies for educators. Citing the ability to deal with uncertainty as a strategic skill, Microsoft suggests educators must strive to effectively cope with change; shift gears comfortably; make decisions and act without having the total picture; and comfortably handle risk and uncertainty as a set of complete functional and behavioral qualities that, when fully realized, lead to professional success. Their learning competencies web site offers a wide variety of tools and suggestions to assist educators in identifying and dealing with ambiguity,. The site includes a matrix for self assessing one's ability to deal with ambiguity, professional readings and a variety of suggestions to help turn a quality that frequently induces anxiety and indecision into a force for improving personal and educational efficacy. 

In the past ambiguity was seen as something to be avoided. Certainty was required if one was to enjoy a level of professional success. Today all that seems certain is that the pace of change is increasing rapidly, and no one should count on present circumstances staying the same for long.  An ability to deal with change and a degree of comfort with ambiguity are now skills we all must work at mastering.

Saturday, 5 May 2012

Putting the Extra into Extra Curriculars

Last month, as part of the ongoing dispute with the provincial government, the BC Teachers Federation  withdrew its support for all extra-curricular events. This month concerned administrators in SD 60 found ways to sustain several of these events including the district badminton tournament and elementary track and field day. It would have been very easy for everyone to simply throw up their hands and let extra curriculars slide until the labour issues are settled, but this did not happen. The reason? Extra curricular events are just too valuable to let them go.

Research indicates that participation in extra curricular events is one of the most important factors that helps students to engage with their school, and subsequently their learning. In the United States, the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) has clearly established positive links between student participation in extra curriculars and improved classroom performance and behavior. Laurence Steinberg, author of You and Your Adolescent: The Essential Guide for Ages 10–25, suggests that kids who are involved in clubs and sports spend an extra couple of hours a week with an adult, usually a role model like a drama director or a football coach. Typically students build positive relationships with their adult mentors, and don’t want to disappoint them. Often this relationship can be used to advantage in the classroom. Extracurriculars make school more palatable for many students who may otherwise find it bleak or unsatisfying.  Grades improve not because of what kids are learning in their extra curricular event, but because the extra curricular is making them enjoy school more. They show up more often, find a circle of like-minded friends, and become more engaged at school.

Even without the benefit of knowing the research many veteran SD 60 principals intuitively recognize the value of strong extra curricular programming. Despite absorbing additional duties and responsibilities in this difficult time, these principals are making the time for extra curriculars because they know that the time invested outside the regular day pays dividends inside the classroom. These principals deserve thanks and appreciation for their willingness to go the extra mile when it would be so easy, even reasonable for them to stop. 

It is also very encouraging that when this year's elementary track meet was in danger of being cancelled, many of the district's younger administrators stepped forward to volunteer. It has been suggested that a commitment to extra curricular events is a generational quality that might be lost as more experienced principals retire. The willingness of younger administrators to get involved is a positive sign.

In less contentious times there are also many dedicated teachers who recognize the value of extra curricular involvement. It is little wonder that the decision to withdraw from extra curriculars was agonizingly difficult for the BCTF, and many of its members. Once labour issues are resolved it is to be hoped that these folks will return to their voluntary roles as coaches and mentors. 

Our elementary district track meet is set for early June. On that day I know where I'll be. Barring mishap,misadventure or re-assignment, I'll be near the starting line in my capacity as official starter. Hopefully, district staff will all be out in force supporting those who support students. Working together we make things better for everyone. Having a little fun outside of the classroom  in order to enhance the learning within it, is always time well invested.

Sunday, 29 April 2012

Out of District: Student Travel Revisited

Years ago I was teaching an English 10 class about Shakespeare's London. Its one of my favorite lessons, and I thought I was really bringing 16th century London to life, when one student stopped the discussion short.  "Why don't we just go there", the student asked. "We could see England for ourselves". I explained that aside from the fact that modern London was very different from what I was describing, it would cost a lot of money to just up and take one's class to Europe. By the end of the week twelve students had decided they wanted to go. They found a tour company, raised the funds and approached me to be the teacher sponsor for their trip. Our principal pitched their proposal to the school board and the result was a trip of a lifetime to see London and Stratford first hand.

As I mentioned back in January, student travel is definitely worth the effort! The benefits far outweigh the reasons not to go.  Travel frees the mind and provides students with first hand experiences far beyond anything they can see on tv, find online or read in books. There really is no substitute for being there. Brightspark (Simplifying Student Travel) illustrates this point, listing 10 reasons why teachers should definitely consider traveling with students. 

SD 60 students have journeyed to Japan, Europe, Africa and South America. This past week I had the pleasure of chaperoning our secondary gifted program students on a trip to China. Returning with the class from Beijing it was easy to see the positive impact the trip has had on our students. Such trips provide experiences above and beyond the benefits of traditional instruction. Students return to share their stories with family, friends and classmates, and become live learning resources. Travel provides real life experience that can't help but broaden a student's perspective on on other countries and cultures.  

The BC Ministry of Education agrees. This year Minister of Education George Abbott traveled to China. In addition to working on bringing more Chinese students to British Columbia, the minister is seeking to create more opportunities for B.C. students to study in China, and to expand the network of B.C.-certified schools in China. Our trip last week was an educational tour, but the day is quickly coming when SD 60 students may be headed to China on learning exchanges. Earlier this year SD 60 Superintendent Larry Espe accompanied other BC superintendents to China in an effort to further develop and strengthen ties between the two regions.

St. Augustine wrote "The World is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page." Here's hoping the future brings our students many opportunities to turn as many pages as possible!

Saturday, 21 April 2012

Of Marshmallows and Radishes: Self Control and Self Regulation

In the 1960s, Walter Mischel tested four year old children for self control in "The Marshmallow Test": the children were each given a marshmallow and told that they could eat it anytime they want, but if they waited 15 minutes, they would receive another marshmallow. An amusing video version of the exercise can be found at Very Tempting Marshmallow Test on Youtube. Researchers concluded that children with good self regulation skills were more likely to do well at school. In fact, follow up research shows that positive results on the marshmallow test lined up well with beter success levels in later life.

Recently BC Superintendents and Board chairs had the opportunity to hear Dr. Stuart Shanker discuss self regulation with Minister of Education George Abbott. Dr. Shanker is well known for his work on self regulation in young children at York University. He suggests that "there is a growing awareness among developmental scientists that the better a child can self-regulate, the better she can rise to the challenge of mastering ever more complex skills and concepts. In the simplest terms, self-regulation can be defined as the ability to stay calmly focused and alert, which often involves – but cannot be reduced to – self-control. The better a child can stay calmly focused and alert, the better he integrates the diverse information coming in from his different senses, assimilates it, and sequences his thoughts and actions."

Shanker's work illustrates how much work goes into a student's efforts to self regulate. The term "pay attentiion" was never so relevant. From a very young age the effort to be calm, quiet and focused costs different children different amounts of energy. Their relative success at attaining a self regulated state depends upon a number of variables. Recognizing and adjusting to individual student needs will be increasingly important as teachers roll out the 21st century learning agenda.

Studies on self control aren't just restricted to children. A study by Florida State professor Roy Baumeister, using adult subjects, involved glucose and self control. Self-control was defined as doing what you should be doing as opposed to doing what you want. Baumeister surmised that self-control runs off of energy supplies in the body. Using radishes and chocolate chip cookies, Baumeister tested the effects that food restrictions had on energy for self-control. Both food choices were placed in front of study subjects for the experiment, and each participant was allowed to eat one, but not the other.

When subjects were forbidden to eat cookies, but permitted to eat radishes, they spent less time attempting to solve brain puzzles afterwards. When they were permitted to eat cookies, but not radishes, they persisted with their attempts to solve the puzzles for longer. Baumeister concluded that a resource was depleted throughout the time the subjects had to exert self-control not eating the cookies. In other words, a person's sense of self control was depleted, and as a consequence, people would not persist in work on a challenge. One might wonder how Baumeister's subjects might have done on the marshmallow test!

Whether measuring self control in adults or self regulatory skill in kindergarten students, it is clear that learning is hard work. Recognizing and adapting to the challenging needs of both the children and the adults in our system can only help in the efforts to advance personalized learning and impart 21st century learning.

Saturday, 14 April 2012

Speaking Up for Quiet Learners

Recently, much has been made of the need for education to embrace personalized learning and 21st Century learning competencies. Networking, collaboration and the ability to work in groups are held up as skills to be taught to, and embraced by students. At first blush these competencies may seem like universally good ideas.  "None of us are as clever as all of us" proponents of cooperative learning, like to say. And yet in an ever increasingly loud and busy word there remains a significant number of quiet learners for whom the rush to group work and collaborative learning is difficult to downright painful. Sometimes labelled shy, quiet or retiring, such students must not be overlooked, neglected, or worse, forced to learn in manners that work against their natural talents and tendencies.

If schools are a reflection of the real world then its little wonder that the spotlight now seems to be on students who are out going and charismatic. The cult of celebrity is everywhere, as news and entertainment media bombard us with images of what successful people ought to be like. The reality is that the vast majority of us are more quietly normal than remarkable. According to experts like Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking well over a third to half of the students we teach are introverts. Such students preferred learning styles involve introspection, quiet thought and reflection, and time to process ideas on their own. Techniques such as group work, brainstorming and collaboration do not come easily to them.

Teachers need to take care not to label quiet and introspective students as shy, withdrawn or stupid. Such labels have a negative connotations and are hard to live down. The internet and self help sections at book stores are full of titles offering to help people overcome such shortcomings as shyness and being too quiet. Instead its possible, even likely, that the quiet student just learns differently and needs less interaction and stimulus in order to ponder and process lessons. It has been suggested that creativity is more likely to emerge from quiet solitude than from any brainstorming or group activity (see creativity @ Of course its important for creativity to eventually be shared with others but at least initially, it is important to honor all students learning styles and not force group participation too quickly.

Fortunately, the new BC ed plan with its emphasis on personalized learning and child centered education outlines that teachers, students and parents will work together to make sure every student’s needs are met, passions are explored and goals are achieved. This means student-centered learning that’s focused on the needs, strengths and aspirations of each individual young person. As we move to implement this plan it will be increasingly important to remember that quiet can equate to strength and creativity too.