Saturday, 23 February 2013

The Power of Penguins - Part 3!

This week I'm updating and repeating a post I've run before about the power of penguins!

As a district administrator, I don't get to visit classrooms as often as I'd like.  However, about this time every year I start getting requests to come visit classes. The secret behind my seasonal popularity - penguins! For the past three years my wife and I have journeyed deep into the southern hemisphere to find penguins in their native habitat; first to the Antarctic south of Argentina then to the sub-antarctic islands of New Zealand and this year to the windswept Falkland Islands.  Each tour made certain participants took only pictures and left very few footprints. As a result, I now have well over 2000 pictures of nine different species of penguins.

The popularity of penguins is almost universal. The penguin unit is already a favourite with Kindergarten and primary classes. There's just something about the stubby little flightless birds that makes everyone smile. Whether its their sharp black and white attire, their awkward walk, their apparently fearless and curious natures, or their fluid grace in the water, nearly everyone holds penguins in some regard. Penguin resources abound. Teachers Corner and Penguin Science are just two of many amazing and rich web resources available.

Popular culture embraces penguins too. Movies like "Happy Feet", its sequel "Happy Feet 2", documentaries like "March of the Penguins" or the BBC's Lonely Planet, are great box office hits. As far back as Disney's "Mary Poppins" or as recently as the "Penguins of Madagascar" animated penguins continue to amuse. The venerable "Mr. Popper's Penguins" (now a live action motion picture), first published in 1938, is still being read by and to students.

When district teachers heard I was a live "penguin person",  requests started coming. My teaching experience is mostly in secondary English, so facing groups of up to 40 primary students was a bit unnerving. What if I bored them? What if my pictures didn't interest them? Its a bit of a risk as Assistant Superintendent to put yourself out there and then flop! 

The good news - I my presentations are going well. I'm still getting requests. And the kids are great. I've refined my lessons based on the feedback the students (and their teachers) give me. Sometimes rather than just show pictures and talk,  we learn to walk like penguins, we've made and enjoyed penguin cookies and we explored "action research" on such probing questions as "do penguins have knees?" and "could polar bears and penguins ever meet?" Students do penguin art and consider penguin adaptations to snow ice and water. My vocalizations of the calls of the Magellenic penguin is apparently quite entertaining! (you can listen to the real thing at Most of all, we have fun while learning. When I go back to schools after speaking on penguins students may not remember my name, but they do remember me as "the penguin man" and they are excited to tell me what else they've learned. Their teachers do a great job both before, and after my visits.

So I say, "more power to the penguins!". Any animal that can get me out of the office and sharing with students must have special powers. I'm already looking forward to going south again so I'll have new information to share in the future. (Students and classes interested in adopting a penguin should check out the site at this Adopt a penguin! link). Normally, I find business attire a bit restrictive but now, I look forward donning my black and white "penguin suit". I just wish I wasn't quite so well suited and shaped to play the part!.

Sunday, 17 February 2013

Teaching Gratitude

As a semester ending activity my Honours English 11 students were asked to consider legacy projects. Students were asked considered how they wanted to to be remembered, how they would remember others in the class and how they could express their thanks and gratitude to those people who had helped them along the way. The projects had to be substantial and carefully considered, but their form could be as individual and varied as the students themselves. Past examples from students were shared as samples and guidelines. These included letters, models, scrapbooks and representative crafts and sculptures. If a student elected to honour or thank another person the criteria required that they actually present their creation to the person selected.

The results of these projects are always phenomenal. As one student put it "Being asked to consider how we want to be remembered, or how we will remember others is not something your average teen does every day!" Following through with projects energized both the students creating the work and those they presented thanks to. Many of the students selected significant adults in their lives as persons they wanted to thank. Parents, teachers and coaches quickly came to mind. As the instigator of the assignment, I was privileged to both see the projects in production and to hear from both recipients and creators after acts of gratitude were completed. Students always feel good about thanking the adults who helped them, and the adults are often amazed and enormously grateful for the powerful messages of thanks that they receive.

Gratitude is a powerful and transformative emotion. Author Robert Emmons in his article "Pay it Forward suggests that it inspires kindness, connection, and life changes. Gratitude serves as a key link between receiving and giving: It moves recipients to share and increase the very good they have received. Because so much of human life is about giving, receiving, and repaying, gratitude is a pivotal concept for our social interactions. The famed sociologist Georg Simmel declared that gratitude is “the moral memory of mankind.” Overtly teaching students to express their gratitude is a force multiplier for good. Both the person expressing thanks and the receiver benefit and studies show that as a result of the exchange both parties are more likely to "pay it forward": to spread the good feeling by doing good things for others.

Social responsibility is our school district's number one goal. We said that we want our students to not only be amongst the best in the world but to act in a manner that is best for the world as well. Learning to express gratitude to those who have helped us and to spread the good feelings and positive emotions that such expressions generate can only serve to help make that desire more of a reality.

Saturday, 9 February 2013

A Teacher's Legacy - Making A Positive Difference

Recently I overheard a conversation where a person was musing on what sort of legacy he might leave behind. He questioned the depth, endurance or even desirability of legacies, suggesting that our contact with others, and the influence we exert is likely fleeting at most. I have to disagree. For teachers, leaving a legacy is inevitable, and as a consequence we have a duty to strive to make our influence as positive as possible.

Henry Adams, an American historian and academic once stated that "A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops."  Because of this fact,  teachers need to consistently bring  enthusiasm and passion for learning to the classroom. Students respond to, and feed off the energy and attitude of the adults they encounter. This response becomes even more important as students reach the upper grades.   

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi  in his book Talented Teenagers: The Roots of Success and Failure notes: "teenagers are often singularly uninspired by the lives of most of the adults they know. Often their parents and teachers are not interested in their jobs. They spend long hours in drudgery for the sake of earning a living, and wait for their weekend free time, which is in turn filled with activities that are passive, uninteresting and fleeting. The majority of teens worry about this situation... and wonder how they can avoid a similar fate"

 Csikszentmihalyi further suggests that it is little wonder that teens are captivated by examples of star athletes and entertainers who seem to enjoy what they are doing and achieve fame and fortune along the way. What is more surprising is the ability of some teachers to find a permanent place in some students' memories.
" What intrigues students about these teachers is their enthusiasm for subjects that seemed boring and purposeless in other classes. Memorable teachers challenge students to expect more than just recognition or a paycheck from the work they choose". Students remember best those teachers who model commitment and enthusiasm, demonstrate an ethic of care, and who genuinely like what they do and who they work with.  These teachers leave a real legacy as role models. While the odds for most teens to grow up to be rockstar celebrities are slim, the existence and influence of great teachers can be proof that everyone can grow up to be an interesting and vital adult!

Child pyschologist and educator Haim Ginott  wrote “I have come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in my classroom. It is my personal approach that creates the climate. It is my daily mood that makes the weather. I possess tremendous power to make life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration, I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis is escalated or de-escalated, and a person is humanized or de-humanized. If we treat people as they are, we make them worse. If we treat people as they ought to be, we help them become what they are capable of becoming.”  How we treat students inevitably shapes the people they become. That is our real legacy. It's an awesome responsibility and tremendous opportunity, and our best chance to prove that education matters!