Friday, 30 March 2012

Where There's Some Will.....

Recently I was invited to teach an English class on the last day before spring break. The topic was Hamlet and the theme revenge, and no I didn't see any irony in the invite - the teacher and I go back quite a ways!  As I set up for my class I heard the soundtrack of Kevin Branagh's Henry V from an adjoining classroom. Forgive my mixing of poets but "My heart leaps up, when I behold" such a situation. It would seem that when it comes to teaching Shakespeare, the play is still the thing.

There really seems to be two types of English teachers - those who love teaching Shakespeare and those who don't. Firmly in the first camp, I discovered early on that having a personal love of Shakespeare only goes so far when trying to teach it to teenagers. The literature is not without its challenges and, unless a teacher makes the plays easily and quickly accessible to all, its easy for students to claim Shakespeare is too hard, and too boring, to be worth the effort.

Fortunately there's a wealth of resources available. The British Council and BBC offer an excellent page answering the questions "Why teach Shakespeare?" "What Shakespeare to teach" and "How to Teach Shakespeare". The site also links to other resource pages. Worried your students might not be "up to the challenge"? Non academic learners get into Shakespeare without problems, so long as its presented well. Check out the site How to Teach Shakespeare to Reluctant Learners for a Canadian perspective on engaging all students.

Shakespeare's plots have impacted popular culture to an incredible extent. It is often surprising, and enlightening, for students to discover the degree to which ideas from plays like Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, King Lear, Julius Caesar, Othello and Henry V have infiltrated modern entertainment franchises.  Comparing "The Simpsons" six minute Hamlet to the original can be amusing, and illustrative, of just how much students have drawn from the real play. Finding common themes and discussing the comparative entertainment value of Disney's "The Lion King" and Shakepeare's Hamlet or Henry V always generates energetic student debate (especially if one suggests that Shakespeare is superior!)

I tell classes that Shakespeare was must see entertainment for its day, chock full of  the same things students hope to see in movies today!  Life and death drama, forbidden romance, paranormal activity, violent conflict, evil villains and tragic heroes and heroines abound. Shakespeare might be more "Hunger Games" than "Twilight",  but its themes are universal and still resonate with audiences 500 years after they were first performed.  Far from being  "Much Ado About Nothing", Shakespeare should be a high point in everyone's academic year.

Friday, 23 March 2012

Breaking Free - Spring Vacation and Schools

Spring Break has finally arrived in the North Peace! This year more than most, the break is certainly welcome. Aside from the current labor situation, the holiday comes late this year, falling in the fourth week of March and first week of April in order to better connect with the Easter holiday. It's been a long slog since Christmas and I'm certain everyone is looking forward to some time off.

The origins of spring break lie in agrarian and religious seasonal observances. It might interest some to know that the original spring break from instruction was not really a break from work at all. Students were released for a period to assist with spring work on the family farm and to attend Easter services, while teachers took advantage of their absence to scrub out a winter's worth of grime from the community school house.

The present spring break seems to have more to do with finances and the economy. Spring Break in college circles is synonymous with a wild week at some vacation setting to burn off youthful energy. At the public school level vacation travel also seems to be important. Airlines denote spring break as a "Peak Travel" time and literally millions of dollars are pumped into the economy as both educators and families take some time to recharge before the final spring push towards the end of term.

Extending spring break is now seen in some quarters as a way to save money. Recently the Langley School District examined extending spring break as part of its financial restructuring plan to address its hefty district deficit. Janet Steffenhagen of the Vancouver Sun reported in February that several school districts are now looking at extending holidays as a way to save money.

Alternate schedules have become a hot button topic for those considering educational reform.  Education World recently described several alternative options including year round schooling, later start times for teens, four day weeks and tri-mester plans. The article looks at whether time spent in class is the issue or whether what is done with the time is more important. Admittedly American in its focus, the article none the less provides food for thought for our system as well.

Whether grounded in tradition, based in research or just driven by economic imperative, I know I'm looking forward to the holiday. I'll be taking some time off in order to return to education matters energized and ready to face whatever challenges the rest of the year presents! Here's hoping everyone else gets a good break as well!

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Growing Up Without Getting Old!

"Oh grow up - won't you?" Anyone who has ever worked with children has  said something like this, to try and put some order into a situation. The assumption seems to be that older is better, that by simply getting older, children will somehow gain a greater sense of maturity. Growing up is thought to be a good thing. Ironically, people are also warned not to get old. Old has somehow become a pejorative term meaning passe, run down or washed up. The challenge becomes how to pair the energy and creativity of youth with the wisdom and maturity of greater years. Its a paradox really. How can a person grow up without getting old?

Great minds have considered the question. George Bernard Shaw said "People don't stop playing because they grow old, they grow old because they stop playing!" One need only look round the dressing room of an old-timers hockey team to see how play helps keep a person feeling younger. Picasso said "All children are artists". For educators, the challenge becomes how to guide and channel youthful artistry into later years without stifling its creativity.

British comedian Bob Monkhouse used to say that "Growing old is compulsory, growing up, optional". Getting old might be undesirable but growing up can be embraced by all. In 1956 Dorothy Carnegie wrote the book "Don't Grow Old, Grow Up". Its chapters include such topics as  Responsibility - the first step towards maturity, and three great rules for mental health; know yourself, like yourself and be yourself. Written over half a century ago, Carnegie's message still has much to offer in the present day.

21st century learners recognize that growing up IS better than just getting old. Watch the adults at a school and you'll quickly see the ones who are young at heart. They're the ones who engage with students so that both come away enriched. The youthful energy of the students vitalizes and renews the adults, while the attention and acknowledgement of the grown ups validates, guides and encourages the students! Finding that balance between youthful creativity and the serious business of growing up has never been so important. Instead of a frustrated cry for better behavior, the call to "Grow up" should be an encouragement for students to bring their energy and creativity to all their education matters.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

The Value of a Good Read: Ebooks vs Print

The debate over whether it is better to read one's books on screen or in print is heating up. I'm unapologetically a book person. Our Superintendent and Director of Instruction are avid e readers. The debate over which format is better is spirited and ongoing.

I've always been a bookworm. As soon as I could read through to the present day, I've been a voracious reader. Trips to the library or book store were, and remain, a great adventure. I just like the look and feel of a good book.  I have nothing against the e readers. In fact they have a lot going for them. In terms of space, weight, cost and content an e reader's benefits are easy to see. In education the e-reader and digitalized text are heralded as the emerging solution to engaging the future. Not convinced? Just check out Apple's Apple in Education page where the benefits of e-books via the I-pad is on full display.   

Printed books have their supporters too. People are downright passionate about the printed word! Supporters like The billablog or teaspoonoflife.com provide comprehensive lists detailing the advantages of real books over their electronic rivals. Those who care about defending the real over the virtual elicit equally emotional counter responses from folks who see the e book as the inevitable wave of the future.

Perhaps the best representation of the debate I have seen so far is on a poster drawn from Newsweek put out by The Daily Beast. Under the title "Books vs E-books - Does One Have to Win?" the poster illustrates a side by side view of many of the debate's salient points.  As for me, I'm sticking with my books until someone comes up with an e-reader that passes my definitive readability test. Take the average book and your typical e- reader and drop them on a concrete floor from a height of about a meter - then decide which one reads better!

Saturday, 10 March 2012

Relentless Optimism

Recently I was asked  if, what with all that's happening in BC's public education system,  I can be happy in my work.  To be honest I hadn't really thought about it. I like to think I'm generally pretty positive, and the current labor situation, while somewhat wearing and tiresome, hasn't really changed my outlook that much.

Happiness is defined as a mental state of well being, characterized by positive or pleasant emotions. Happiness is generally considered a desirable state by most people. It can be both a goal and a choice.  Research indicates that people who live their lives celebrating positive emotions increase their resilience against challenges. Psych Central recently reported upon a study illustrating that if happiness is something a person wants out of life, then focusing daily on small moments and cultivating positive emotions is the way to go.

Building up a daily dose of positive emotions does not mean ignoring negative ones. To be happy, people need not adopt a “Pollyanna-ish” approach or deny upsetting aspects of life. Persons with average and stable levels of positive emotions still show growth in resilience even when their days included negative emotions. Its focusing on the “micro-moments” that can help unlock positive emotions found in day to day living.

Study author Barbara Fredrickson, Ph.D., of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s College of Arts and Sciences. states “A lot of times people get so wrapped up in thinking about the pressures of future and the past that they are blind to the goodness they already have, whether it’s the beauty outside the window or the kind things that others do for them. A better approach is to be open and flexible, to be appreciative of whatever good you can find in daily circumstances, rather than focus on bigger or negative issues.

The Happiness Institute develops this idea further, suggesting people use positive psychology to get through tough times. Observing that people can't always control what happens to them, but can control how they respond, the Institute advocates for healthy living and a cognitive model that consciously selects positive feelings and constructive behaviors, as ways of better dealing with life's challenges. The metaphor of stomping out ANTS (negative thoughts and behaviors) and building upon one's strengths is emphasized. Importantly, this strategy recognizes a need to reach out and stay connected. People are reminded to ask for and to give help, to remain consciously and relentlessly optimistic, and to communicate with others honestly and effectively.

Happiness can be a choice. Even though daily lives may be filled with challenge and adversity, individuals do have a say in how they react. Hamlet said " There is nothing either good or bad except thinking makes it so".  Haim Ginott's poem My Impact as a Teacher translates this idea to the education context:
I have come to a frightening conclusion.
I am the decisive element in the classroom.
It is my personal approach that creates the climate.
It is my daily mood that makes the weather.

While it may be true that in every life some rain must fall, a sunnier disposition is still the better option!

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Coping With Anxiety

To say we live in stressful times is an understatement. Students, parents and educators, all face an ever mounting number of stressors, leading to rising levels of anxiety. While we might all hope for quieter times, its unlikely the things that stress us are going to go away. If anything they just become tougher and more numerous.

Anxiety can be be devastating. It erodes personal effectiveness, can lead to absenteeism or generate depression and other anti social behaviors. Finding effective ways to deal with anxiety can be critical to keeping us effective. While there is no magic solution to dealing with anxiety, a three pronged approach works for many. A combination of active living, proper nutrition and cognitive behavioral therapy goes a long way towards helping many people deal with anxiety. Take a break, get some food and rest, think and act!

The benefits of active living are well documented. When anxiety is overwhelming many people feel paralyzed or just too busy to exercise. As little as 20 minutes of activity three times can have a tremendous positive impact. As reported in Medscape News exercise activities can be traditional or alternate in nature, but all have an inverse effect on the presentation of mental health symptoms. Basically the more one moves the better one can feel.

Nutrition and rest are also keys to reducing stress. When the world gets "too much with us" the tendency is to skip meals or cut back on sleep. As outlined in Help Guide, such actions can be a big mistake. To cope with stress people should be well nourished and well rested. Few indeed are the people who can deny the therapeutic value of a good meal or a timely nap.

As important as staying active, strong and rested, is the mental ability to keep stressors in perspective and maintain a healthy cognitive attitude. Often fears or challenges can seem overwhelming when considered in their entirety. Cognitive behavioral therapy can be useful in helping people to identify how their thinking about fears and anxieties impacts their lives. By taking the time to think straight and/or by seeking help from friends or health professionals people recognize how anxious thinking is influencing their behaviors. Anxiety Network provides a good description and resource about how cognition, behavior and actions can be interwoven to help people deal with their anxieties.

Keeping anxiety at bay and in perspective is a challenge. Staying aware, active, well nourished and well rested can help make the world a less scary place. Looking to our physical and mental health makes us better equipped to deal with things that really matter.