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!