Saturday, 23 June 2012

To The Finish

Yearbook pic of the 2 of us during the race
(we did have colour photography back then!)
This is the time of year when everyone is truly exhausted. The end is in sight and yet it seems particularly difficult to make it those last few steps. I currently have two students who are missing work or failing units and putting my course (and thus their graduation) at risk.  I am seriously frustrated with these two at the moment. Marks are due on Monday and it would be a pretty easy argument to say that my work with them is finished. I have done my part. However, whenever I get to the end of my rope (which is usually near the end of June) I think back to a defining moment during my own Grade 12  year. 

The ancient grainy photo to the left captures me during our school's annual "Milk Run".   I clearly remember the beginning of the race when I lined up with the massive crowd of restless students behind the starting line. As I waited nervously my basketball coach Mr. Henly came up beside me and asked if we could run together. The two of us often went jogging so I didn't have an issue, but I was aware that it might be a struggle to keep up with him during a competitive race. The starter's gun went off and the two us set off at what I would describe as an uncomfortably quick pace, and I was instantly aware that it would be difficult for me to maintain our speed, even for a race as short as the 3km route.  I was a decent athlete in high school, but team sports were my thing and I had never really excelled at track. We were passing all sorts of "runners' though and I knew we were really flying when we passed one of the top female track athletes in the school. About halfway through the run I knew I was in serious trouble. All the usual cliches apply here: my lungs were screaming and my legs were burning. The remainder of the route was basically flat but any runner knows that a kilometer and a half can seem like a thousand when you have pushed your body beyond its limit. Through it all Mr. Henly kept up a steady chatter of encouragement. I was breathing too hard to offer any comments in return. 

Bird's Eye view of the end of the race course
We kept running, and I kept suffering. Finally we came in sight of the school and were within about 200 m of the finish line when disaster struck. My body simply gave out. My legs stopped moving and I came to an absolute standstill. Never before or since that day have I actually stopped moving forward during a run. My collapse was especially unlikely because I could see the finish line across the parking lot.  There is no way I wouldn't have mentally powered myself forward if it was physically possible.  Mr. Henly ran a few steps and then turned around when he realized I had stopped. He said, "Come on kid, let's go! We're almost there."
 "I can't," I panted, "I'm done. You keep going."
 He wouldn't listen: "Nope, come on, you can make it."  

 I was now becoming extremely angry. I was furious with myself for not being able to continue. I was  embarrassed that I was quitting, and I was especially upset that I was letting him down. I also felt he was making it worse because now I was costing him important seconds on his own finishing time.   I begged him to just keep going and to leave me alone, but he continued to stand there. My frustration was overwhelming. What was he doing? Why was he just standing there making an already humiliating situation even more painful?  "Come on," he urged again, "you can do this". 

No. I couldn't. I was done. And then I did something that embarrasses me to this day. I glared at one of the adults I respected as much as anyone else in my life and spat out, "What the hell does it matter to you anyway?"

At this point I'd given him every possible reason to walk away. I was angry, I was disrespectful, and with my last comment I'd certainly made it personal. He could have left me at that point and no one (including me) would ever have thought he had made the wrong decision, but he didn't. He just looked at the ground and said quietly, "Look Naryn, walk if you have to and I'll walk with you". 

Whether I just gave up on the idea of getting him to leave, or whether I had gotten my wind back by this time,  I slowly began to walk, and then jog again, and the two of us rounded the parking lot and finished the race.  I actually tried to out sprint him over the last 50 metres which he found amusing while finishing the race just slightly in front.  

I was confused for a long time about why he didn't just keep running once I had stopped. I had appreciated him running with me during the race but it made no sense for him to stay behind once I had quit. I can honestly say that it wasn't until over a decade later after I became a teacher, and after I became a mother that something dawned on me. I realized that he couldn't have cared less about how well he did in the race. It was never about him. It was always about me. His number one priority was that I finished the race. As a teenager, you really think that everyone views the world the way you do, but now I understand. Now it all makes sense. 

So here at the end of another school year I find myself in the shoes of Mr. Henly.  I have students that are driving me crazy because they are so close to finishing and yet they have stalled. It's also extremely frustrating that the more I try to encourage them to finish the more angry and confused they are about why it is bothering me so much that they are going to fail. In my mind all I am doing is bending over backwards to help them and all I am getting in return is attitude. In their minds, it would be a heck of a lot easier if their teacher would at least give them the dignity of failing alone, and not add a guilt trip on top of it. 

But because of that day so many years ago, I am certain that they aren't quitting right now because they desire failure. I  know they are honestly frustrated because they aren't having success and now they feel they are letting me down too. Their anger is created from their own inability to just finish, and it's very possible they won't understand my motivation as their teacher for many years (if ever). Do students have the right to fail? Absolutely. However when I have kids who have hung in all semester (with so many other obstacles in their lives) and who now for whatever reason just can't seem to take those last few steps, I will remember the teacher who stood stubbornly beside me that day and said, "I will not give up on you." I will stay with my own students until they are able to finish the race. I too will stand beside them and say, "Walk if you have to, I'll walk with you". 

Saturday, 16 June 2012

Teaching the Teacher

Playing the guitar in class on Friday
As a high school teacher I understand that I need to be an "expert" in regards to the specific curriculum that I am teaching. It is a given that I should have a stronger background in the subject area than the 14-17 year-olds in front of me. That said, I believe that the teacher should model the attitude of a learner and find ways to allow students to contribute to the learning of the classroom as well.  Without exception, the successful teachers I know find ways to connect with students and discover their passions and interests in order to build relationships. However, what if the purpose wasn't just to connect for the purpose of improving the learning within the classroom?  What if we (as teachers) honestly honoured the idea that the course of our own lives could be altered in a positive way through our interactions with our students? I always attempt to look at my classroom as a microcosm of life where 25-30 people are crossing paths on a regular basis everyday. Our lives are all intersecting and we should all become changed in some way because of our connections with each other.  The belief that the group is stronger because of the diversity of those within it, and that our lives are richer if we learn from others is a lesson that should extend well beyond the classroom. The classroom then becomes less of an artificial construct to control student behaviour, and more of an authentic, organic exchange of ideas and information.

My son playing his new guitar
There are a number of students that have had a powerful influence on my life this year, but for the purpose of this blog I will focus on two that are in my current Literature class.  The first student is playing the guitar in the picture above, and I discovered his passion for music one day when he was fooling around on his guitar during his spare block.  We struck up a conversation and he mentioned that he had been playing since he was 11 years old. I have always wanted to play the guitar, and my son just turned 10. I have such admiration for musicians and I truly want my son to grow up playing a musical instrument. Thus, this student prompted the purchase of guitars for myself and my son and the commencement of lessons. In a nutshell, our family life has been dramatically changed because of this decision. It is difficult to describe what a  powerful experience it has been to truly learn something new side by side with my son. Singing and playing our simple songs together has been one of the highlights of my relationship with him,  but it has also been a strikingly clear  reminder of the struggles of learning something for the first time. It has become an excellent opportunity for me to reflect on my own approaches to learning and motivation by thinking about my experiences as a beginner. Bringing my guitar to school and showing my student what I have learned is also extremely humbling because he is so skilled, but it puts me in a position where I can show true respect for his abilities. 

Another student in my class has a certified obsession with zombies. I kid you not,  if a zombie apocalypse was to happen (and it could happen) this young man would be organizing the survival plan for the human race.  Through our discussions early in the semester he managed to convince me that a comprehensive knowledge of zombie lore was a key component to a well-lived life and he offered to supply the resources I needed to improve my understanding. His reading suggestions included "World War Z" and "The Zombie Survival Guide" by Max Brooks and he recommended viewing the first 2 seasons of "The Walking Dead" television series as well as numerous zombie movies. I started by reading the Max Brooks books and simultaneously watching "The Walking Dead".  (For those interested, Season One is available on Netflix).

Mandatory reading  
My brave venture into zombie literature was as gruesome as I had anticipated, and yet much more intellectual. I had assumed that most of the books and films would involve excessive violence and gore simply for the sake of shock value. What I discovered were thought provoking perspectives on the human condition including discussions of war and faith and sacrifice and the ultimate question of "What does it mean to be human"? Both the books I read and the television series turned out to be much more challenging and contemplative than I had expected. As with a lot of high end science fiction there were key themes of ethics and morality woven intelligently throughout the story (which in this case involved numerous gratuitously gory scenes of brain bashing and corpse chewing). I hate horror movies. I never watch them, so "The Walking Dead" was well out of my comfort zone, but I have loyally followed the well developed characters through two blood soaked seasons. I also never thought I'd say this but I have recommended the series to others! (From a teacher's perspective I have also benefited because about 90% of the student population is familiar with "The Walking Dead" so it is great for references). 

The truth is that my life has been enriched by the fact that I have known these two boys. The message when it comes to building the community in the classroom is that we are truly better if we see value in others and allow our lives to be impacted by them in a positive way. My son and I are now playing the guitar together because of the first student, and the second student has proven to me (against expectations) that very intelligent social commentary can come from the horror genre.   My next plan is to donate blood because of the discussion that came up in class about the experiences of another student. Again, something completely out of my comfort zone, but I know that I will have the experience because of the influence of the student, and I will now never forget how he changed the course of my life in a small way. 

The five months that I have spent with my students hasn't just been about me teaching them Literature 12; it has been about the collective exchange of the strengths and passions and energies of everyone in the group.  The hope is that students will understand that everyone has something to teach them and important lessons and experiences can come from almost any source if you are open minded enough to let yourself realize it. I also want my students to recognize that our "teachers" are not just those in positions of power or influence over us, but that every member of the class (and our society) has something valuable to contribute. What better way to honour and respect our students than to send the message "I can learn from you as well"?  We need to be open and curious towards new experiences and try things out of our comfort zone. Of course there is nothing directly related to zombies or the guitar on the curriculum for Literature 12 but when members of the class are open to accepting and appreciating and learning from each other then a more productive learning environment will naturally occur. (For the record, both of these students have been incorporating their passions into the class throughout the semester, and both will use them in their final projects for the course). I don't just want my course to be about learning classic literature; I want it to be an organic experience with everyone learning from each other and connecting to the themes of great literature throughout.  If I want them to truly value the passions and experience of others, then as the teacher I must also model my willingness to learn. Giving someone else the power to influence our lives makes us vulnerable, but it is essential that we share how our own lives are enriched when we give others the power to teach us. 

Saturday, 9 June 2012

System Error

I have had many sources of inspiration throughout my journey as an educator, and there are many different reasons why I teach. The story I'm going to share today is unequivocally the strongest justification for the way I teach, and my ongoing effort to offer more choices in my classroom.

The man in the picture, Jordan, will tell you that his difficulties in school began in grade 1. Sitting still was an issue, and he was constantly disrupting the class by trying to talk to his neighbours. He was regularly reprimanded for speaking out was often sent to the office for his inability to focus. He swears he had no intention of deliberate defiance, but he was uninterested in school in general and he kept getting distracted.

Jordan was extremely social and very athletic but these skills were only a detriment in his elementary years. It took seven years before his first highlight when his teacher assigned an oral presentation on a character from a Greek myth. He created a full costume and wrote a script and shocked his class with an amazing and dramatic presentation. It was the only "A" he received in his entire elementary or secondary school experience.  

Grade 8 brought high school and still more struggles. Class was no less boring than in elementary school but at least he changed teachers and classrooms every hour. Then in grade 9 his home life officially fell apart and because of family issues he ended up living in 3 different communities and attending 5 different high schools.  Regardless of the city or the school, the classes remained the same. He walked in, sat down and listened to the teacher talk. He filled in worksheets and struggled to stay awake.  It took him an extra year to graduate from high school (he failed Biology 12), and throughout those years his only passion was hockey. Once he finally graduated he decided he'd had enough of school and he travelled around playing Jr. Hockey for 3 years at both the Jr. A and WHL level.

Jordan's experience in Jr. hockey earned him the attention of some university hockey programs and despite his very low high school grades he was offered a scholarship by the University of Ottawa. When he returned to his high school to pick up his transcripts a counsellor warned him that it was unlikely his grades would gain him admission even as a mature student, but the university made an exception on the condition that he maintain a reasonable academic standing from that point on.  Once Jordan completed his first semester at the university he discovered something that completely changed his perspective on education. He learned that there was a difference in the way professors evaluated their courses. Some courses weighted heavily on written exams, others put most of the emphasis on papers, and still others put heavy emphasis on discussion, seminars, projects, and presentations. Jordan knew that he truly struggled with traditional written exams.  He also had difficulties with writing, but essays and term papers were slightly better because he could work on them ahead of time and take them to a professor or TA for feedback. He also discovered that he absolutely excelled at oral presentations because verbal exchange was a definite strength. In Jordan's words: "I am a thousand times more effective with oral communication than with written. I simply cannot write the way I can speak." He started getting positive feedback on his presentations from his classmates and professors. His style and passion resonated with people.

By his third year in Ottawa Jordan was choosing his courses based exclusively on the method of evaluation. He went to professors ahead of time and asked to see course outlines. If a course evaluation was weighted heavily towards a timed exam then he avoided it. Papers were better and courses with any component involving verbal expression were his first choice. He completed his Bachelor's Degree in Criminology and graduated with honours. 

Then came law school. Unfortunately the number one criteria for entry into law school was the LSAT which was exactly the type of test Jordan struggled with. He studied and took courses to prepare and ultimately survived the exam, however he was frustrated because he knew he possessed skills that would benefit him as a lawyer yet were not measured by the LSAT itself.  After rejections from 9 law schools he finally received an acceptance letter from the University of Ottawa and after completing law school (while playing for the University of Ottawa's varsity hockey team and also being an assistant coach) he wrote the bar exam and received an articling position with a firm in Victoria. 

Once he became a practicing lawyer, Jordan's success was quick and notable. Within a year of being called to the bar he was running his first jury trial. Just 3 years into his career he was made partner by the largest criminal law firm in B.C. He is now in his fourth year and has run trials involving the most serious charges in our justice system. He faces incredible stress on a regular basis and works with some of the most difficult citizens and situations that exist in our society and yet he is successful. The reason I find Jordan's journey so fascinating is that none of the traditional indicators for professional success (such as high school grades, provincial exams, and admissions tests such as the LSAT) accurately predicted his future capabilities as a lawyer. People who were far more engaged and successful in elementary and high school, and who scored much higher on standard assessments would never be able to handle the requirements of his career. 

What's even more interesting about Jordan's story is that the skills that have benefited him so much as a lawyer (mainly his public speaking and presentation skills, and his ability to relate and connect and work with people) so rarely did him any good throughout the majority of his years in the education system.  What good is the ability to communicate verbally if you only sit in a desk and listen to a lecture? Who cares how well you argue when teachers reward students who sit quietly and listen passively? How important is your ability to relate to others if everything in the classroom is completed individually?   When Jordan was finally successful in university it was because his number one focus was on how he would be evaluated which he prioritized even above the subject of the course itself.  Imagine his educational experience if he could have taken the subjects he was the most naturally interested in, and then been given a choice of how to demonstrate his learning.

Jordan is an intelligent human being with obvious strengths and abilities, however he is someone who was not a traditional "academic".  He would not have been a person expected to continue on to post secondary and later law school, and yet the reality is that his strengths make him almost perfectly suited for a career in a courtroom.  Jordan points out that, "our school system only values one style of learning. It is heavily weighted towards students who excel at essay writing and written tests, when there are other ways to learn that are equally valid".  As educators we must make it a priority to provide more ways for students to connect with their strengths and be assessed in ways beyond written response. We must provide more varied opportunities in our classrooms for students to both engage with the material and to express their understanding. Jordan was successful because he was finally given some choice in university and he learned to navigate the system to his advantage,  but if it wasn't for hockey he would never have considered university in the first place.  Most students would not return to formal education after 12 years of frustration. How many potential success stories have we lost because students were unable to use their natural abilities and passions to their advantage for most of their educational experience?  A path that suits each student's strengths should be available in our schools and we must strive to make it clear and well "marked".

Friday, 1 June 2012

Do Not Go Gentle

Students film a re-enactment of a poem using supplies from the candy station
Today was a great day. There are so many people who inspired today's events including my staff members Russ Reid and Rick Van Camp, as well as Scott Harkness and Pernille Ripp.  Scott and Pernille have both recently blogged about their efforts to kick it up a notch as student (and staff) energy  fades down the stretch. Russ and Rick have been pushing themselves  (and me) to stay motivated in our own school. 

This week students have appeared to be completely uninspired. We still have another 12 days of classes (and then exams) but we all have "summer on the brain". Let's face it, we live in Penticton. The weather is spectacular and it's hard to justify being inside at all.  To top it all off, the grads were having their big grad camp out this weekend and there were rumours that most of them weren't even going to be in school for a good part of the day. What's a grade 12 teacher to do? If the students don't care why should I bother? Luckily I've been physically (and virtually) surrounded by a number of educators who refuse to see apathy as a "student" problem. Inspired by so many others who were refusing to give in to the "dying of the light" I decided to go for it. If only 2 students showed up for class on Friday, so be it. In order to review our unit on the Romantic Poets I took the QR code idea and linked it to various video clues.  The QR code clues and puzzles were then combined with a creative component where teams had to complete 10 of 14 tasks using creative methods.  I then added a final challenge directly inspired by the brilliant "Mullet Ratio"lesson which I had learned about via twitter.

Stage One of the challenge was based on the QR codes. The QR clues were mostly linked to basic recall questions but I asked different staff members to let me take short videos of them reading out the clues. The students really appreciated the variety and participation of those teachers.  Stage Two was the creative component. The creative challenges involved various tasks including dance, art, music and technology. Students had to re-create key elements of the poems and make connections between them in creative ways. Every team had a flip camera so they recorded their activities and explanations on video (because there is no way I could track all the teams at once when they were all over the building). At the end of the challenge every team handed in one video camera and one puzzle sheet where they had recorded the video clues and decoded a puzzle. (Thanks again to Pernille for the webinar on using video cameras in the classroom). 

"Rapping" key lines of a poem with a beat from the keyboard
Once students had completed the QR code puzzle and the creative challenges, they had one Final Challenge to finish.  The challenge simply asked students to connect any poem in the unit in any way possible to the topic of "mullets". We made a "Wall of Epic Mullets" on the board and all the groups had to add their ideas to the wall. Points were awarded for connecting knowledge of the poems to the concept of "mulletness". I admit that the mullet idea was really just about the novelty. Kids thought it was funny and they certainly had to think outside the box to connect 200 year old poetry to the concept of a hairstyle. Luckily mullets DO give  you lots to work with if you are used to thinking in a creative and abstract way. We put up some pictures of epic mullets on people like Chuck Norris, Jaromir Jagr and George Clooney to add inspiration.

The lesson was a definite success. Students who had been starting to tune out were running from QR code to QR code and from challenge to challenge. My absolute favourite moment was a student in full sprint down the hallway yelling "Searcy! We found the last code!!" While I wish he hadn't yelled quite so loudly, I have to say that having that particular student show that much enthusiasm could only be described as a triumph.

Drawing key themes using window writers

There are two things I will always remember about today. First, I will remember the efforts of my students. They showed up and they bought in. Despite the fact that it was 2nd to last block on the Friday of grad camp out, they were running around, drawing, rapping, sculpting and arguing about how to connect old poetry to mullets. Attendance was excellent, and every group was still working when the bell rang to end the class. I spent most of my time laughing at their quirky creativity and frantic efforts to find little coloured bar codes hidden around the school. I was reminded once again about why I love working with teenagers. As students ran past me down the hallway or came up with a creative connections I kept thinking that the whole thing was so worth it. 

Making connections on the "Epic Wall of Mullets"
The most memorable lesson I will take from today however, is the power of the inspiration of others. Eight different staff members at my school helped me create video clues for the scavenger hunt. I was also able to draw from the examples of other teachers like Pernille and Scott and Russ who were using creative ways to keep their own students motivated. When I was personally losing momentum and thinking "What's the point? we're so close to the end anyway, there were other educators around me who themselves refused to stop pushing forward. Their efforts gave me the inspiration to keep trying new things. In times like this I believe our students need us to step up and prove that we do value their education and their time and that they are worth putting in that extra effort. As adults, we also need to model that we are able to push through fatigue and promote excellence even when we are the least motivated to do so.