Sunday, 16 March 2014

Why Breaking's Not Bad!

Its Spring Break, and for the next two weeks, our schools are closed. Living in a northern district we can't really count on the weather being particularly "spring like" in mid to late March, but the benefits of down time and slowing the pace far outweigh any negativity or grumbling generated by not knowing whether gumboots, snow pants or sunscreen will be required on any given day.  I've never been a calendar watcher, or one who anxiously counts down the days to the next holiday break, but I do believe in a healthy work life balance, and the benefits of slowing down and having a good break from work are undeniable.

The Australian website Health.ninemsn provides a good  summary of the benefits of a good holiday. Regaining fitness, perspective and health rank high on their list. Getting more rest, reconnecting with friends and family, and just generally slowing down make us all just a little nicer to be around. Many of my colleagues are taking advantage of the extended holiday to travel to destination holidays or to see family who live far away. While holiday travel comes with its own set of stresses, having enough time to make, and enjoy, the trip is a definite plus.

The benefits of slowing down need not be restricted to just certain times of the year.  The Positivity Blog outlines benefits of working some slow into daily routines. Weight loss and stress reduction are two such benefits, as reducing the hectic pace at which we work, and taking the time to eat slowly are steps in the right direction. For those who would argue they don't have the time, experts point out that slowing down and taking time to do a job well actually improves productivity, creativity and job satisfaction.

Being efficient and effective and doing more with less have become such ever present demands in daily life that some people actually feel guilty about taking time off.  Its ironic to note that the answer to improving productivity, creativity and worker satisfaction may not actually lie in working longer and harder, but in slowing down and enjoying our breaks. Here's hoping this Spring Break, regardless of where and how you spend it, is a good one!

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

In Search of Enlightenment

This week I'm pleased to run an item by guest blogger teacher, Elaine McEachern. Elaine works at Ecole Central Elementary as a Learning Assistance teacher. Recently she has helped spearhead an exciting hands on learning opportunity for the district's Gifted program. Here's her story:
The stakeholders in 21st Century Learning are Community, Family and Schools.  Perhaps you were part of the Today & Tomorrow conversations in 2008, where participants from those 3 groups discussed education for Today and Tomorrow.  

One of the key themes from those conversations was that education should be meaningful, engaging and not necessarily constrained by the "traditional classroom."  A variation on that theme is "Problem Based Learning;" a student-centered pedagogy in which students learn about a subject through the experience of problem solving.

Fast forward to 2012. Dr. Joyce McBeth, a Fort St. John girl, now working for Canadian Light Source (CLS).  (What is CLS? Mentally picture Sheldon & "The  Big Bang Theory.  CLS is a research facility with an artificial light source called a particle accelerator.)  Joyce was raised on a farm next to the Newalta Storage Tank Facility; her mother was a teacher.  Like the rest of us in the Energetic City, the dynamic interconnectedness between education, the oil/gas community and family was at play.  

Joyce and I played in the dirt together as kids.  When she joined CLS, she discovered that they have an educational outreach program called, "Students on the Beamline (SotB)." Upon discovering this, she immediately called me and asked me to connect her with FSJ students.  Now I'm a non-enrolling teacher these days, but I figure, where there's a will, there's a way.

Enter Joe Umanetz and his cohort of gifted students.  I approached him and asked if he'd be interested in taking a small herd of students to CLS to research with Canada's finest.  Naturally, he was interested, as were his students.

Fast forward again to this winter.  Joe and I went to CLS & got our Beamline Users training.  (For the record, hanging around a bunch of nuclear physicists and PhD researchers is humbling.)  CLS told us, "If you want to do a SotB project, then the research question and all aspects of the research must be 100% owned by the students.  Teachers may be guides on the side, connecting students to resources, but they may not influence, collect samples or otherwise partake in the actual research."

We came back to Fort St John and told the kids the news.  They came up with this very real life research problem regarding frac water:

"We will be working with Encana energy and Canadian Light Source to investigate frac water.  The proposed frac project is an experiment to study changes in the composition of produced frac water after it has been “recycled.” Using samples and expertise from Encana sites around Fort St. John, we will [examine] pre-frac water and samples of frac water that has been used in successive frac operations.  
"Fracking is a very important topic in our society and the positives and negatives are highly debated.  We feel that [researching] this area of the oil and gas industry is important."

And so we began the dance between our fabulous sponsors: Encana, Progress Energy, Canbriam, Probe Corrosion Services, Canadian Light Source and School District 60.  We went to Encana and toured a frac site.  We booked Progress to come and speak with us.  We talked about the nature of our Beautiful BC and our Resource Based Energetic City.  We tried to find objective information on fracking. We tapped our social networks: Husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, friends; to learn more about fracking.

I quietly ponder our SD60 emblem - a drop of water containing an oil derrick atop a wheat field in front of beautiful forests. 

I contemplate these students, raised by families, taught by teachers, embraced by community and encouraged by all to be the best in and for the world.  

These students are trusted not to form opinions, but to search for truth and to re-imagine what is.

And I smile. If ever there was a community perfectly suited to this endeavour, it's these students and this community.  

Stay tuned as they look at the practices of today and contemplate the practices of tomorrow.  

Saturday, 8 March 2014

21st Century Learners - What Do They Want? What Do They Need?

This week I received a couple of student requests to speak on what I saw as important learning outcomes for 21st century students. The first request came via email from a very agitated grade 10 student who was not happy about how her year was progressing. The other came via our district's Student Voice group, who politely asked if I might attend one of their forums as a guest speaker. While the motivation for each contact was different, both requests dealt with the same topic - what did I see as the most important things students should be learning and getting from their education?

 The question intrigued me. Educators are quick to concentrate on achievement measures like exam scores and pass rates, but what these students are really talking about are personal competencies. "We're just not buying what your selling" the first student told me.  I turned the question back on her, asking "what is it that you're after then?"  I've since asked a number of other students the same question. The responses are informative and telling. Nobody comes back requesting more of a specific curricular subject. Instead, students want to learn about things that they feel they truly need, or that will help them succeed in life.

Such skills include basic and personal management, such as the ability to schedule and budget time and resources, and the ability to organize, manage and complete household tasks such as cooking, cleaning and laundry. Money management skills, including recognizing the need to earn, save, budget and appropriately redistribute wealth far outweigh requests for more math courses. Students want to learn how to set and attain goals,  and how to work towards them. Though not mentioned as often, perhaps because of the optimism of youth, how to constructively and resiliently deal with set backs would seem to to be equally important, but that might just be the old school teacher in me pitching in.

Dr Tony Wagner, of Harvard University's Change Leadership Group suggests seven skills that students need for their future.  Wagner's list includes critical thinking, collaboration, adaptability, creativity, initiative, the ability to access and use information and good communication skills. Its not too much of a stretch to see what students say they want fits inside what experts say they need. The challenge for educators is to find ways to engage students AND get them to work as active partners in their learning. We need to determine if "what we are selling" is still the right stuff, and when it is, how to package it in a manner so compelling that students will see it as something they want, need and are willing to work hard to attain. Students want to learn and teachers love to teach - matching these desires around meaningful learning outcomes will always demonstrate that education matters.