Monday, 23 September 2013

In Search of Symphony

I’ve read a lot this summer. Most of the reading has been Canadian Aboriginal literature in preparation for some new courses I’ll be teaching in the fall. I’ve also been browsing through some other books including Daniel Pink’s “A Whole New Mind” which I first read about 5 years ago. Chapter Six in Pink’s book is titled “Symphony” and for some reason I was drawn to this particular chapter at this point in time. Pink’s book describes 6 skills he believes are essential for people to thrive in what he calls the "Conceptual Age".  Pink states that for centuries, Western society has been governed by “an approach to life that is narrowly reductive and deeply analytical” but now we are in a new age where a completely new set of skills is required. Pink argues that “Symphony” is one of those skills, and describes it as “the ability to put together the pieces...the capacity to synthesize rather than analyze; to see relationships between seemingly unrelated fields; to detect broad patterns rather than to deliver specific answers; and to invent something new by combining elements nobody else thought to pair.” I believe this concept is extremely relevant to education. 

The Importance of Community

I've written before about the importance of building community in the classroom.  I’ve often felt that the classroom teacher should consider themselves as more of a coach or a conductor than an individual instructor. Coaches and conductors have a responsibility to develop players individually, but their true strength is combining a collection of varied abilities and talents to create something that is greater than the sum of its parts. Individuals play different instruments and players have different positions based on their strengths. The coach/conductor’s responsibility is to unite the individual strengths into a collective experience where all individuals are are contributing to the overall performance of the group. As Pink describes: “symphonic thinking is the signature ability of composers and conductors, whose jobs involve corralling a diverse group of notes, instruments, and performers and producing a unified and pleasing sound.” Coaches and conductors have the benefit of expected events such as games and concerts where the players easily understand the necessity of working together. A classroom teacher must intentionally create these opportunities, or a student could easily go through his or her school career with only a focus on their individual contributions and assessment. A suggested way for a classroom teacher to achieve this is to design tasks or challenges (related to the curriculum of course) where all students must collectively contribute towards a finished product. One lesson in Literature 12 this year involved the students creating a collective recording of one of the core poems on the curriculum. Under the guidance of local musical master (and Princess Margaret graduate) Mike Treadway, all students contributed parts of the poem in the style that they chose. Mike was able to brilliantly combine the contributions of every student into a cohesive finished product that the students took pride in and that brought the class together. The clip below contains 45 seconds of the finished 6 minute recording. Keep in mind that every sound you hear was made with the human voice. I apologize that the poem (and therefore the music) is quite creepy. 


Pink writes that “people who hope to thrive in the Conceptual Age must understand the connections between diverse, and seemingly separate, disciplines. They must know how to link apparently unconnected elements to create something new". Some of my best lessons last year came from working with people who don’t teach in my subject area. One example was when we tried "Geocaching" in Literature 12. For those unfamiliar with the term, geocaching involves using a GPS device to navigate your way to hidden objects and locations. It’s kind of like a giant outdoor scavenger hunt. I learned about geocaching by going to a workshop put on by one of our math teachers Mike Cooke, and I then collaborated with our adventure tourism teacher John Buckley to figure out a way to apply it to my literature class. It was a very successful lesson that was perfect for our unit on Romantic poetry (which focuses on nature and the environment), but I never would have been exposed to the idea if I hadn’t sought out teachers beyond my English department. I believe the future of education will involve far more cross-curricular design and collaboration. Our industrial model of organizing students in “batches” (thanks Ken Robinson) and processing them through the factory of our education system needs to change.

Geocaching: Students designed "stations" based on the various poems in the unit.
I think Coleridge himself would have appreciated the "Ancient Mariner" station!
Holistic Education

As I mentioned earlier, much of my reading this summer has involved Aboriginal literature and texts. The more I study literature and culture from an Aboriginal perspective, the more complexity unfolds, but I have noticed some themes running through a number of texts that relate to the concept of “symphony”. In regards to views on education I've observed that for many Aboriginal communities, learning is not something that happens in isolation. Education begins at birth and continues throughout a person’s lifetime. It doesn’t start at 5 years old and end at 18, and it certainly doesn’t begin at 8:30 am and stop at 3.  Every aspect of life is a learning experience. The whole person is considered in aboriginal educational tradition as well, which means a student's physical, emotional, spiritual, and intellectual realities must be addressed. This is truly a shift from  our current education system (at the high school level at least) which puts almost all of its emphasis on a student’s intellectual development. Pink’s research would suggest that an education system that is much more aligned with this type of holistic perspective would be more beneficial in preparing our students for the challenges they will face in the future. 

According to Pink, the Conceptual Age demands that individuals develop their symphonic capabilities. Our students need to be able to make connections between seemingly unlike ideas, imagine how separate pieces fit together, and combine existing ideas in new ways. Skills such as collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking are truly more valuable than memorization and regurgitation. We are doing our students a disservice if we don’t figure out a way to re-design our education system to reflect what they will need. Short term solutions could involve getting teachers to consider themselves as community builders, creating more opportunities for cross-curricular collaboration, and incorporating more holistic perspectives and concepts into current practice. Long term solutions will require actually dissembling current structures and pedagogy and having the courage to navigate into a new era. 

I'll leave off with a wonderful TED talk that I never would have looked at if I hadn't re-read the chapter on "Symphony". It turned out to be relevant to education and leadership in many ways, but under normal circumstances I would have dismissed it.

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Resources and Resourcefulness

As a high school teacher I often feel I work inside an extremely restricted environment. Problems include: fixed timetables and block rotations, crowded physical classroom space, academic course loads, one hour and fifteen minute classes, heavy curriculum content, and subject area specializations. Our entire system appears to be designed to prevent creativity and thwart attempts to make learning more engaging and relevant for my students. At the same time, I also believe we don’t capitalize on many opportunities we could take advantage of. We are not as “contained” as we think. A useful exercise to use with teachers and staffs can get people thinking along the lines of achievable methods to increase educational opportunities for their students. It begins with the premise of focusing on what is available and not what we can’t have. It fundamentally deals with resourcefulness as opposed to resources. 

Teachers begin by brainstorming everything that they personally bring to their classrooms. Like students, we all have different strengths. I, for example have a background in home economics and I often use these skills to enhance my English classrooms. This background allows me to organize events such as the Medieval Banquet in my Literature 12 class. I also have a class 4 drivers license and have experience transporting teams around as a basketball coach. This allows me to consider field trips where I can drive my students places on our school bus. Obviously different teachers will have a different collection of tools they can use, the point is, are they making use of those unique abilities? 

Teachers are then asked to list strengths their students could potentially bring to a class. A group of 30 high school students for example will include artists and musicians, video experts and specific backgrounds such as experiences in cadets or construction. Surveying students at the beginning of the semester will enlighten you to many potential resources you have to enhance your class. Students can present material in different ways or bring added expertise to enhance a lesson. Of course the trick is to build and establish an environment where students are comfortable  sharing their strengths and talents and backgrounds, and are willing to contribute towards the learning of the group. This past semester for example, when we were studying Robert Burns in Literature 12, I knew that I had a student with actual experience playing in the local pipe band. He was willing to come in and do a short demonstration on “Scottish Day”. I often ask artistic students to graphically represent key content from courses such as historical events. Another example below are the “stocks” that are required for Shakespeare’s play “King Lear”. A student in my class who was also skilled at woodworking came up with those in about 20 minutes and brought them to class one morning. Just a small example, but they really added to the fun and experience of the play when we performed it. I have used those stocks many times since. Using the talents of 30 people as opposed to one (the teacher) greatly enhances the potential of experiences in a class.

Student illustrations of historical events 
Post-pipe-performance haggis!
Wooden stocks we use each semester for productions of "King Lear"
The next step is to look at your entire school. Resources in the school include both people and physical space and equipment. Brad Gibson is our art teacher and he teaches directly across the hall from me. Besides his obvious artistic ability, Brad excels at dramatic and musical performance (two talents that I personally cannot contribute to the learning experiences of my students!) Brad regularly drops in and provides short and entertaining performances that enhance my classroom.  For the past 6 years he has brought down the house at every Medieval banquet and left students speechless with his monologues. What an incredible resource I have right across the hall! 
Brad gets the crowd going at the Medieval Banquet
In addition to resourceful people there are also spaces available that we seldom take advantage of. While my subject area is English, I consider the entire school to be my classroom including the foods lab, gymnasium, common area, library, sports fields and parking lots outside. I know which rooms are available during which blocks and I know which teachers are willing to trade with me if I need their space for a certain purpose. Different rooms provide different opportunities such as increased space or specific equipment and learning opportunities. Of course this requires a respectful dialogue between staff and consideration if your class is using a room that wouldn’t normally be used for a particular subject. It requires a staff with teachers that don’t compete with one another, but work collectively to provide a multitude of experiences for all students in the school.  Imagine if the entire staff considered the entire school to be their classroom? 

Math in the foods room
Physics in the library
Social studies on the tennis courts outside
Finally, teachers can look outside the walls of the school and into the community. Penticton is not a large town but there are still many many resources available, and perhaps (because of our small size) a greater willingness to partner with local schools in order to help students. Right across the road from us is an extended care home, we have a lake within 10 minutes walking distance and it only takes a short bus ride to get all the way to the other side of town. 
Working with seniors at the extended care home across the street
If teachers can be creative enough to have students make learning connections on the way to and from various locations then little instructional time is lost and so many more opportunities become available. The entire community becomes a potential learning environment. Of course, as well as environments there are also people in the community who can provide expertise or experience to students on innumerable topics.

It is true that as teachers we often feel that the walls are literally and metaphorically blocking our freedom.  There are, however, still numerous resources that we could be taking advantage of, but aren’t. I do believe at its core, that our existing educational structure is fundamentally flawed, and I dedicate part of my time to various groups that are working towards a complete re-design of everything that we consider as “education”. But while that process is going on (a process that may not even see major changes by the end of my own career) there are things we can do within the current structure to provide more meaningful opportunities for our students than we have traditionally provided in a classroom setting. 
Students filming a project at a nearby park
In the past, the number one criteria for an engaging teacher was the ability to lecture in an effective and entertaining way, supplemented by accurate and accessible written resources. Now, the successful teacher doesn’t have to depend on the ability to “perform” in the classroom; they don’t have to be a “performer” at all but they do need to be creative and resourceful and able to make use of opportunities that haven’t traditionally been considered. They need to become experts at constructing a learning experience that allows students to engage with the outcomes using a wide variety of resources and alternate locations. We often become mentally trapped in our routines and past experiences and we then limit ourselves with barriers that may not actually exist. 

Friday, 2 August 2013

Reflections on Storytelling

View from one of our daily pre-writing hikes
I recently attended a storytelling workshop with renowned Ojibway author Richard Wagamese and found myself in the unfamiliar role of a student. I believe as teachers we should pursue this “student” experience more often.  We are in danger of forgetting the insecurities and tension that accompanies the role. Richard approaches his writing from a tradition of spontaneous oral storytelling. He speaks of all stories as “energy” and embraces the philosophy that all things and all people have stories to share if you are willing to listen. To ask someone to share stories out loud without much preparation requires a fundamental commitment to creating an environment free of doubt and judgment and fear. Richard masterfully worked to eliminate these concepts from the moment we started the workshop. Early on the first day we were presented with a colourful rubber chicken and asked to give it a name. Any pestering inner voice advising us that our words or ideas weren’t good enough, required a prompt self-whack on the head from our chicken. Chickens have power. Likewise if any other member of the group voiced elements of self criticism we all shared a responsibility to counter their negativity with our chickens. It immediately created a playful method to reinforce a non-judgmental atmosphere where we would be free to share and risk and create. 

At first our stories began from a place of safety and familiarity. We shared ideas aloud with each other but drew from previous experiences of emotion and power. We didn’t have to stretch ourselves too far to find inspiration, we only had to play with methods of sharing those experiences with others. This also intertwined us with the histories of the rest of the group. One of the most memorable experiences of the entire four days came from interviewing a partner about a significant memory and then re-telling the memory as that person. Speaking in first person and using someone else’s voice to describe an emotional experience fused us in a way I would not have thought possible considering the length of time we had known one another. Stories connect. Stories break down differences and stereotypes and transport you into the life and thoughts of another human being as their story becomes a part of yourself. They move us beyond barriers of age and gender and ethnicity and perspective and judgement. It is something I will never forget. It is something I will do again.
The rubber chicken: nemesis of negativity

From the safety of previous memories and familiar experiences Richard guided us into more risky territory with the challenge of spontaneously creating thoughts and ideas that were completely new. Our story prompts became random and scattered. They deliberately forced us out of our comfort zones to create something from the recesses of our imaginations and beyond the realms of previous experience. At once it was both daunting and exhilarating; the chickens came out on more than one occasion. But we were permitted to be silly and nonsensical as we wove our ideas and voiced them out loud from a pure and spontaneous place. 

As we moved from oral tradition into the written word we were suddenly faced with years of the regulations and structures that we all associate with writing. Spelling, grammar, sentence structure and punctuation expectations reared up to crush the pure joy of creating stories and sharing them with one another. Fear and judgement threatened to resurface. Cue the chickens. 

Richard had a simple solution:

There are no rules. There. Are. No. Rules. therearenorulestheirarenoruleztherernorules

We wrote pages of intentional run-on sentences. We wrote. fragments. We joyously rejected every grammatical commandment that had ever been forced upon us by the expectations of formal writing. I simultaneously laughed and cringed at the memory of every red stroke I received on a piece of writing and the many I have personally scribed on the papers of my students. We wrote and we wrote and we wrote and we laughed and cried and exchanged the powerful thoughts that emerged. 

After an entire day of creative expression we gradually added some punctuation and structure but those elements never made us compromise our creativity or expression. Instead of viewing sentence elements as rules and confinements, we recognized them for their true purpose: to create a rhythm and flow that honours the words being used and increases their impact.

At the end of the fourth day I was astounded by what what each of us had created. We had spoken and written not for recognition or approval or to convince or persuade others. We wrote for the pure joy of creative expression-the pure freedom of sharing something from within you and the absolute privilege of hearing stories told from the hearts of others. It was unforgettable.

The entire experience has inspired a reflection on our education system. We truly have it backwards. We begin with the rules and the structures and the judgements. We place students in a box increasingly reinforced with layers of requirements and expectations. Then we are surprised when they can’t create a story, when they can’t solve a problem, when they can’t think for themselves. I asked Richard what he felt were some improvements we could make in education and he responded that our school system lacked “soulfulness”. He’s right. We take education and we disconnect student learning from spontaneity and creativity and play. So often we completely separate the curriculum from Who. They. Are. In September I will go back to my grade 12 students and all of us will walk into the world of provincial exams, university expectations, graduation requirements, percentages and letter grades. We will live in the world of judgements and rankings and rules, but my number one priority will be to begin in a place of freedom. We will go back to the world of childhood play. We will create. We will share. We will get to know each other and ourselves. The rules and restrictions will be there waiting for us, but I promise we will begin with the soul. 

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Exploring Alternate Assessments

Right before spring break I attended a meeting designed to explore the future of final summative assessments for academic courses in our school. In attendance were 5 teachers who have experimented with alternate assessments at the grade 12 level: two Geography 12 teachers (@RussReid1 and @mustangbevy), one Biology 12, one Physics 12, and one Literature 12 teacher @nsearcy17. Also at the meeting were our district Director of Instruction Don MacIntyre, assessment guru Tom Schimmer, District Helping teacher for School Completion Judith King, Vice-Principal and member of the Ministry of Education Committee for Graduation Requirements Myron Dueck and our school admin team (principal and 2 vice-principals). Now that I look back on it, it was a very good collection of people which is likely why the discussion was so engaging. The initial purpose of the meeting was for the 5 teachers to share what final assessments we had tried, and to get feedback on how to make our assessments more effective. A larger overarching goal of the gathering was to view our assessments through the lens of the Ministry of Education's new cross-curricular competencies and grad requirements. The overall framing questions for the meeting are here.

 Alternate Assessments We Have Tried: For the purpose of this post, this will simply be a summary and I will link more detailed blogs about specifics (from specific teachers) if they become available. To provide context for those who are not familiar with high school courses, all 5 teachers come from a background where our courses were once completed with a final written exam worth 40% of a student's grade. These exams first became optional, and were then phased out all together. All 5 teachers decided to offer options that were different from a traditional pen and paper exam (4 of the 5 teachers still offered a written exam if the students preferred that option).  

Student explains his final Literature project during interview
The teachers gave 3 main reasons for creating alternatives to the traditional final written exam format: 1.The exam was not felt to be appropriate or beneficial for a percentage of students taking the course (specifically those not continuing on to university) 2. The written exam was not suitable for students whose skills did not lend themselves to three hour written exams (for example their strengths were verbal or artistic etc.)  3. The exam did not reflect what the teachers felt were the most important elements of the course (for example the emphasis on factual knowledge vs the ability to apply, or synthesize concepts or to connect to ideas beyond the course itself). 

The range of ideas that the different teachers shared was inspiring. One teacher replaced the traditional exam with 5 days of assessments that included active and varied situations for the students to show their understanding. Another teacher had students design and present final projects based on different elements of the course (kind of like a massive course wide jigsaw activity) and then the final exam was based on those projects. Another teacher had every student present their final projects in an interview. One interesting observation from a number of teachers was that while we had specific "non-academic" students in mind when we designed our alternate options, some of our strongest students took the opportunity to come up with demonstrations that were much more creative and memorable than what they could have represented on a standard written test. 

Where We Struggled: All teachers had challenges (which of course was the purpose of the meeting). Our biggest struggle seemed to be that we were attempting to replace a final provincial exam on which students were responsible for demonstrating all knowledge from the entire course with a project- and this was difficult!  While we all had some very positive results to share, one of the biggest questions that kept arising was:

Student connects knowledge to his observations
during a final "Walkabout" for Geography 12
Must a final summative assessment evaluate student understanding on ALL learning objectives covered? The learning outcomes of any grade 12 academic course are extensive. All 5 teachers had created options that did not cover the course in the breadth that the provincial exams did, however all commented they felt their new assessments allowed students to go more in depth into the areas that they were assessed on. All 5 teachers struggled with finding the balance between assessing both factual knowledge and the ability to use and connect that knowledge. 

Teachers also struggled with how to assess higher order thinking tasks. In Biology 12 for example, the teacher wanted his assessment to not just focus on the student's knowledge of specific terms, but more importantly their relationship with each other and how entire different systems were interconnected. In Literature 12 a key goal was not just for students to memorize key themes and literary devices in the poetry, but at the end of the course to recognize trends across time and historical events and to identify relationships between those events and the poetry. These types of questions and connections are more difficult to assess, and harder for teachers to break down and explain to students what exactly needs to be demonstrated.

Overall Reflections:

To be honest, I think we ended the meeting with more questions than answers but everyone was excited about the discussion generated and the ideas presented. We plan to meet again at the end of April.  All of the teachers have tried alternate assessments at least once and are looking to revise things again this June. These are some of the key questions still to be worked through: 

1. Are these assessments doing what we want them to do? At a meeting a few weeks ago with Maureen Dockendorf I wrote down her comment "Whatever we say we VALUE,  that's what we need to be assessing." Are teachers asking themselves: "What are the most important things I want my students to take away from my course? Am I assessing those elements?"

2. Is this assessment preparing our students for their future paths? This question must be asked for students who are both pursuing post secondary education and those who are not. What are the most important things our students will need when they graduate? 

3. How does this relate to the future direction the ministry is heading in and future graduation requirements? Where do the cross-curricular competencies of critical thinking, communication, and personal and social awareness fit in?

4. Is one final assessment adequate for what we want students to take away from their education? Perhaps there is no such thing as a single assessment for an entire course. Perhaps one assessment cannot demonstrate everything we want students to show us. (Our discussion briefly touched on "combination assessments" that used more than one element such as interviews, portfolios, projects and written assessments or presentations). 

I was inspired by the teachers at my school who shared both their successes and challenges, and I know we were all grateful for the support and feedback from everyone who was there. This is an issue that many people are working on throughout the province. See Chris Kennedy's post here for a good summary of thinking in B.C. right now, and please feel free to comment on this post to share your ideas. Looking forward to the next meeting!

Saturday, 26 January 2013

Consciously Creating Community

The culture in a classroom is something that I have come to believe is extremely important for optimal learning.  While it's probably safe to say that any competent teacher realizes the value of developing a positive relationship with his or her students, even greater  accomplishments can be achieved if an environment is created where the students value strengths in each other.  Creating this environment does involve a shift in thinking when approaching curriculum. Instead of a class being approached where the teacher alone is responsible for delivering the curriculum, the teacher instead makes a goal to construct an environment where every student contributes their strengths and talents towards the collective learning of the group.  Every student is then seen as an asset of the group and a potential contributor to the learning environment.  Ideally, instead of the passion and talents and ideas of one person (the teacher) being used to create the learning environment, you instead have the diversified impact of 30 individuals. 

There are many reasons why building community in the classroom is not prioritized in most high school classrooms.  Heavy curriculum objectives, lack of time, and the pressure of exams and university entrance often weigh heavily on high school teachers and students alike.  If the purpose of a course is only to cover curriculum and students never have to speak to each other, what need is there to build community?  There are ways that this can be achieved at the high school level however, and there are three in particular I will focus on using examples from my current Literature 12 class.

1. Explicit Focus on Community

From the first day of class I tell my students that the expectations for the course will be a little different. They are told that this course isn't just about them and how well they achieve (or don't achieve). This course will be about the collective achievement and understanding of all of us. If one student is away, then the rest of us are incomplete and missing out on what that student could be sharing with the rest of the class. This can certainly be a bit of a stretch for grade 12 students. In most classes their understanding and engagement only determines their individual experience, and would not be expected to impact other kids. In this class students are led to understand that we are all working to create the optimum collective learning environment for all students. We are all working for the success of everyone. If 29 students are present and one is missing then we are less than we could be. This is a definite mind shift for many kids (and can be difficult for students who may have a previous negative history with another person in the class). (Disclaimer: A student's marks are never dependent upon the contributions of others, but that is a blog post for another day!)  

2. Showcasing Student Strengths

This can be a bit of a vicious cycle.  A sense of community must be established so that students will feel comfortable sharing their strengths, talents, and passions, yet the sharing of those strengths and talents, and the valuing of them by other students is what builds community. A survey on the first day of class indicated that two students in the class this semester are passionate dancers. At first glance, a literature course might not appear to allow for much room for dance moves, but it simply requires a small reversal of the way the teacher approaches the course. Instead of delivering the content of the course and rewarding only the students who have strengths that lend themselves directly to the subject matter (traditionally reading and writing), the teacher begins with the strengths of the students and then creates ways for students to explore that course using their interests or talents whenever possible. Even better if those strengths can be used to connect the curriculum to the learning of the entire class.  A very simple example is below.  In the Shakespeare play "King Lear" a crucial scene involves a storm that is very symbolic and in this case the two dancers choreographed a very simple dance routine that the class could perform. They knew it was essential that the routine was one that the entire class could imitate so it connected everyone to the activity.  The two students put a 1 minute video on youtube and the class used it to learn the moves for the next day.  It wasn't a large part of the class but it allowed these two students to showcase their talents, it created a memorable moment connected with a Shakespearean play and it added some kinesthetic elements to the lesson. The one minute clip below includes a portion of the youtube tutorial and a short clip of the students teaching the rest of the class. 

3. Connecting Curriculum to Community

Some parts of Literature 12 naturally lend themselves to the theme of building community. During these times students complete activities that link directly to anything that could be classified as "team building". One such example is "Meditation 17" by John Donne. This is a complex essay written in the 17th century that includes the famous quote "No man is an island".  As this is one part of the curriculum that links directly to the goal of building community, in class it is taught through the lens of our actual class and its members and how we are all dependent on each other.  Another topic covered in Literature is Cavalier Poetry which is known for its theme of "Carpe Diem".  To connect to the Cavalier poems in the course, students make lists of things they would like to achieve during their lives and then demonstrate their trust in their classmates by sharing those dreams with them.  The video below was made to capture both the class's sharing of dreams (Carpe Diem) and the theme that "No Student Is an Island".  Images of various highlights from the class (this video was made about 1/2 way through the course) were added to show the connectedness of the group and how the experiences are enhanced by the participation of all members.  The final requirement of the video was that every single member of the class had to be included. 

Now it may appear that a Literature class lends itself to community (as you could argue that any humanities course has a nature of interconnectedness in the subject area itself), but most of the poems on the core curriculum do not connect directly to community and cover numerous other topics including  love, death, war, fear, industrialism, the natural world, etc.  The point is that whenever the curriculum does connect, it is used to build community.  All humanities courses have elements of interconnectedness but so do other subject areas.  See this blog by @okmbio for an example of connecting curriculum (themes such as valuing unity and diversity) to community in a Biology classroom. (Thanks as well for an introduction to the Animoto program which I learned after reading this particular post.) The traditional fear is that if time is spent on developing community, then understanding of the learning outcomes will be sacrificed, however the time spent is actually a high return investment, as the students ultimately show more understanding when the collective energy and focus of the group is applied to the learning outcomes. 

The Big Picture

Our education system is the backbone of a healthy and democratic society that values the lives of every individual, and our classrooms should reflect what we hope our society to be: a collection of diverse and unique individuals who are respected for their individuality and yet value contributions to the common good.  As a grade 12 teacher I am particularly sensitive to the teaching of our future citizens, and  I am very proud of the fact that Literature classes in my school include traditional "academic" students, students from our alternate education program, students with behavioural designations,  and students who are completing school leaving certificates instead of a regular diploma.  It is my belief that all courses and curriculum should be taught through the lens of community, leadership, and inclusion. Everything our students learn should be applied to their own lives and if our high school students cannot see the value and strengths of other individuals who they spend 5 months learning together with,  then why would we expect them to see the strengths and value of others outside our classrooms?  Every step we take in this direction not only improves our classroom communities but echoes positively beyond the walls of our schools.  It may be an ideal, but it is an ideal worth striving for. 

Sunday, 9 December 2012

A Change of Scenery

I wanted to reflect on something that I observed recently both in my own class and in the class of another teacher. Setting makes a difference. As teachers we all know this, but sometimes we assume that our only options exist within the four walls of our classrooms and that is simply not the case. I'm going to relate 3 observations from the past few weeks that highlighted how effective a change of environment can be on student learning. 

Two weeks ago I took my class to a local cafe to do our lesson. We were studying a particularly dry poem from the 18th century and my (admittedly weak) curricular link was that the coffee house was invented in the 18th century so we had to do some "research". In truth, the students just completed a lesson that they would have completed in the classroom but it was a well needed change of scenery. The result was that the kids took their tasks much more seriously than I believe they would have if they had been back in the classroom. The environment in the cafe was mellow and comfortable and as they worked we chatted about how many discussions and breakthroughs happen outside the classroom and in informal environments. To be fair, I had carefully planned the lesson, structured the activities purposefully and made up the groups ahead of time, but I know that the results were far better than the same activities would have been in my regular classroom. 

This past week we went to the graveyard to study another poem (this activity comes directly out of the Literature 12 IRP) but again, the change of environment worked to enhance the experience and overall effectiveness of the lesson. In this case, the setting of the lesson was directly related to the learning objectives. For this class I also added another component  to save time. The bus ride to and from the graveyard takes approximately 15 minutes so we used a "flipped" approach where I made an 8 minute video to cover the introduction to the lesson so the transport time was used effectively and the students were briefed for the lesson while I was driving to the site. During the return trip students were asked to jot down notes for a final reflection or "exit slip" so I could assess their learning.

Finally, on Friday I was working with a math 9 class that was completing a lesson in the foods lab on rational numbers. For a more detailed breakdown of the lesson itself please see the blog of a teacher who did this lesson previously. Afterwards when the math teacher and I were debriefing the lesson I asked him if he had noticed a difference in the engagement of the students compared to more of a "stand-and-deliver" model in the classroom. What he said was that while he certainly felt that the activity of making the food  increased the engagement the students, he had tried active and hands-on options in his class before and he felt the change of setting (different room/different adults involved etc.) had an even bigger impact on the focus of some of his students. He went on to say that in his P.E. classes he could see a difference if he had the same P.E. class play a game of soccer in the gym vs. outside on the field vs. downtown in the city's indoor soccer facility. He was amazed how differently the same students involved in the same activity could react in different environments.

All of these observations have got me thinking about how we really should be looking at ways to break down the walls of the classroom. At the high school level especially we have big obstacles such as curricular and timetabling constraints.  However with possible huge changes coming our way (see Darcy Mullin's blog) I think now is the time to start looking at throwing the original model out the window. Creating freedom for learning outside the classroom and outside the school building should be a priority. I was able to take my Literature 12 classes on these trips because of a number of factors:  I have a class-4 drivers licence, my vice-principal  drove my students who we couldn't fit on the bus, I work at a school that has a bus, and I am comfortable enough with technology that I could make a video (which I was able to show on the bus because it has a TV and DVD player) to make up for the class time we were missing in transportation. This trip would be very difficult (if not impossible) for many high school teachers and that needs to change. However, while we are waiting for things such as curriculum to be reduced and timetables to be altered,  teachers can still do creative things outside the classroom that are less intensive (such as taking classes outside, planning field trips within walking distance, or using the gym or foods lab etc.) but it really is time to start looking at breaking down the structural barriers at the high school level so our students will benefit from opportunities like those mentioned above (and so much much more). There are many people already thinking this way (see this awesome blog by David Truss for a start). 

These personal observations in recent weeks, combined with the thoughts of a number of my fellow educators have led me to the conclusion that our entire education system needs a complete change of scenery. 

Sunday, 11 November 2012

In Memory

Don McGourlick (age 20)
Note: This is a personal post, and not related to educational theory and practice.

For the first time since I can remember I am not attending a Remembrance Day Ceremony this year. My grandfather (who was a WWII veteran ) passed away on Oct. 26th, and this will be the first time that I haven't called him on Nov. 11th to personally thank him for his service. I didn't even go to our school ceremony on Friday, which as most teachers will tell you is always a bittersweet experience as we recount the horrors and sacrifice of war and yet are filled with hope for the future by the sincerity and respect that our students demonstrate. My grandfather never attended Remembrance Day Ceremonies. He never spoke of his experiences in the war to me. It was also his wish that he not have a funeral service, so instead of going to a ceremony this year, I'm going to write this post at 11am. Forgive me for its lack of polish. 

My grandfather and the rest of his crew (pilot not in photo)
Donald Francis McGourlick enlisted in the RCAF in Oct. 1941 (he was 20). He was a tail gunner who flew in bombing raids over Europe until 1943 when on the night of Aug. 7th his plane was shot down over occupied France. Four of the seven man crew (including the pilot) were killed in the crash. Don parachuted out and managed to evade capture and he eventually connected with members of the French underground. Over the course of the next 3 months Don was moved around France and hidden in various locations including a castle and in the attic of a house that had been commandeered by the Nazis. He was given a fake French identity (as a deaf/mute florist!) and finally smuggled back across the English channel under a pile of fish in a commercial fishing boat. During the time that he was gone, back home he was declared missing and then eventually presumed dead. He had a copy of his own death certificate and his name ended up on the cenotaph in Moose Jaw Saskatchewan. 

When my grandfather returned safely to England and then to Canada, he and my grandmother decided to get married, and they set the date for Dec. 18th, 1943. The night before their wedding my grandfather received a telegram that he was getting sent back over seas. At that point they had to decide whether they should still get married. My grandma jokes that her reasoning was, "the whole church is booked and everybody is already here; we have to get married!" So they went ahead with the ceremony and within the week my grandfather was back in Dorval and then England. The day after he landed in England he was back in a plane with a crew whose tailgunner had been killed the previous day.  Shortly after his return to England he was moved into a Pathfinder squadron and he flew bombing raids with them until the end of the war. He was later awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) for his service. After the war, my grandfather returned to France to thank those who had helped him and found that the Nazis had executed people in towns where they discovered that he had been smuggled through.

In front of the cenotaph in Moose Jaw SK (with his name on it)

Of course the man in the above story is not really the man I knew as my grandfather. When he recently passed away, I was working on writing his obituary and I had to ask my grandmother a few questions. She half jokingly said "Well I can read you his first obituary if you like". I know she wasn't serious, but what struck me is how little use the obituary of a 22 year old would be in comparison to the life of someone who has lived to be 91. How much more of his life happened over the next 69 years, and how short his 22 year old obituary was! I'm realizing now (funny how clarity comes when you are writing) that this blog isn't just a tribute to what my grandfather (and so many many others) did during the war, it is really a tribute to the life that he lived after he returned. After the war my grandfather had 2 children (and 4 grandchildren). He returned to university. He became a pharmacist. He lived in many places in Canada and overseas. He flew with Search and Rescue in the lower mainland. He was married to my grandmother for almost 69 years.  

For my part, he was a kick-ass grandpa. My memories of him are of hockey rinks every winter in our backyard, of his "workshop" in the basement where he let us play around with everything from construction supplies to paints and clay to musical instruments to slingshots. I remember numerous fishing trips when I was home "sick" and I remember him picking my brother and I up after school in his VW van with a fridge full of chocolate bars.  He could shoot a gun, build the best tree forts ever and recite classic poetry by heart. He taught me the importance of both creativity and work ethic. His impact on my life has been profound and I think despite everything that he went through, the greatest tribute to his life is that all four of his grandchildren (who are well into their adult lives) were present at 2 in the morning when he passed away. So I will write today to honour my grandfather, and what he contributed to my life, but also use his life to respect those men and women whose obituaries really were written when they were so very young.  Four members of my grandfather's flight crew never had granddaughters who could reflect on their lives, and all the soldiers on that cenotaph in Moose Jaw were denied so many future experiences. Of course this is just a tiny tiny fraction of the lives that we have lost in so many wars. It is actually my grandmother who has reminded our family many times over the past few weeks that we should be looking at my grandfather's death with gratitude for the time we actually had. We are the lucky ones.