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.