My #5BestEd decisions

 

This post is Inspired by the many educators who accepted Jonathan So’s (@mrsoclassroom) invitation to share the 5 defining moments in their teaching lives. Jonathan has collated them here, and they’re very much worth the read. If you wanted to see a differentiated approach to a task, look no further!

  1. Influencers: I’m going to break the rules right off the bat, and say that my first defining moments as a teacher came as a learner, and that had to do with the teachers I was lucky enough to learn from. My pedagogy is heavily influenced by my Grade 13 experience in integrated studies at South Secondary in London, Ontario. This was a multi-disciplinary, scaffolded approach to learning first about our neighbourhood, then our city, province, and eventually country through as many lenses as possible. It involved many of those competencies we’re trying to incorporate today, including communication, collaboration and critical thinking. Final projects were completely passion-driven – I still have the suite of poems I created. It remains my gold standard for what an engaged learning experience can look like, and it was 1985, so it was largely engagement without the “bells and whistles”. Shout-out here to Ian Underhill and Pete Telford, who created and taught the course. Also thanks to my mom and my Grade 5 and 7 teacher, Murray Young, who helped me understand that teaching is about building a community and relationships first, and covering curriculum second.

2.Marrying my husband.:A day does not go by without me thinking about how lucky my students are that I married the person I did. I married someone who cheers me on when I’m taking on a new challenge, but is also willing to call me on my need for approval, and who regularly reminds me to set my parameters of what is “enough” in terms of how much I give of myself to my job. He is my foundation, and works to help me find work/life balance, survive through my ADD and (sometimes)self-sabotaging behaviour, and always, always, work on being a better partner, parent and teacher. I am amazed at his ability to work through things patiently with our teenage kids (when I’m ready to throw things), and I often think that he would have made a far more effective teacher than I sometimes am. I would not be able to be a risk-taker in my classroom and professional life, without knowing I had the abiding love of my spouse to come home to when an activity crashes and burns.

 

3. Becoming a parent. Putting the impact of the arrival of Mr 16 and Mr 14 on my teaching career into words is extremely challenging. It meant that I had less time to give to my classroom, but I also had a richer life experience to bring. I learned what kind of things engaged my own children, and that helped me figure out what might engage my students. When my boys began to attend school, and I started to see the ways their teachers impacted them, I really began to understand how much effect even my smallest action could have on my students, and I became much more aware of the kind of feedback I was giving. I also know (as many of you do) that sometimes I was a less patient parent because I’d been a patient teacher all day, and I love my kids for understanding and surviving that. The boys continue to impact my teaching every day. They share positive and negative learning experiences of their own, they let me bounce ideas off of them, they keep me a little bit in the pop culture loop (I teach Grade 7 and 8). They have made me a better learner, through the things they are interested in, and that has made me a better listener, and a better teacher.

4. AIM: Until the past school year, when I finally took the leap into teaching my own classroom full-time, the only constant in my teaching schedule had been Core French. I would not have been able to do that job for 20+ years without the help of Wendy Maxwell’s Accelerated Integrative Method. When my board opened up a pilot project several years ago, it was a lightning bolt for me – a way to help my Core French kids genuinely dive into expressing themselves in their second language, without relying on machine translations or dictionaries. It also opened me up to using drama, music, and movement more in my FSL classroom than I had before. For the first time, really, in my teaching career, I was hearing hugely positive feedback from parents and students. My students were engaged, my parents were noticing, and it rejuvenated my practice. One of my greatest regrets is that the program didn’t catch on in applied level secondary French – I think it would have made a huge difference. The other big “a-ha” for me through AIM was that I was willing to take on a huge learning curve in order to really make something work. I hadn’t really known that about myself as a teacher until then – and it helped me understand my students more. Many years after that extremely well-done pilot program (un gros bel merci to the late Carole Meyette-Hoag and to Jennifer Sampson), a group of women I met in that PD are still among the teachers I rely on the most for realistic feedback and shoulders to cry on. They were, and continue to be, educational “risk-takers” when it makes a positive difference for their students.

(one of my students’ favourite versions of an AIM song)

5. Powerful Learning Practice: In the 2011-12 school year, I was given an opportunity that changed me as a learner, thinker and teacher. I volunteered to be part of a board team participating in a year-long, action-research-based inquiry, run by Sheryl Nussbaum Beach (@snbeach) and Will Richardson (@willrich45). I had never done anything like this, and I remember almost bursting into tears at the first session, because I had no idea what was going on (there was a speaker, and a backchannel, and…). I was, in Sheryl’s words, immensely “whelmed”. What I came to learn, over the course of that year, with the help of an incredible community of co-learners, is that being “whelmed” is necessary for a learner like me. I need to “get comfortable with being uncomfortable” in order to not get stuck. My experience with PLP introduced me to new ways of reflecting on my thinking, to new people to share with and learn from (a lot), to the whole framework of iterative teaching/thinking, and to really thinking about why I felt driven to effectively integrate technology into my classroom. I started to blog, I started to share my learning about these ideas with my students, I fell into a deep and lasting love affair with Twitter, and I began to seriously think about shifting from Core French to my own classroom, in order to go deeper into critical thinking, in particular. That switch came last year, and could easily be my 6th point. The connected learning I do with my students, the joy I get from my PLN, my learning opportunities attending and presenting at conferences, my willingness to dig into new learning and think deeply about how best that learning can serve my students? All of that had its genesis in my PLP experience and I can never thank the random forces that picked my name to attend enough.

This photostory was prepared by me for my PLP learning cohort.

Like Diana Maliszewski (@MzMollyTL) and Aviva Dunsiger (@avivaloca), I want to think about “what’s next?”. I’m currently on a teacher self-funded leave year, and I think if I were to reflect on my defining moments in the years to come, this may be one of them. The joy of time – to think, to plan, to write (as I’m doing now), to participate in activities that I simply can’t do, as a teacher with a full-time job – is so beautiful it’s a little overwhelming. I’m passionately interested in ways to help myself and my students make our learning visible to each other and the world, and I’m also really interested in figuring out how to make feedback work effectively, both for my students, their parents and my colleagues. Lots to keep learning about as the path unfolds before us.

Thanks for the writing prompt, Jonathan.

If you’re reading this, and haven’t written about your 5 moments yet, please join the conversation.

Let the sparks fly.

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Which of these systems is not like the other, Part 1

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about systemic change lately. While it may seem counterintuitive, a few experiences I’ve had recently have started me thinking that the church in which I advocate for change is changing faster than the education system in which I do the same. This will probably be the first post of a few, as I work through what I’m learning and feeling.

We call our worship community The Open Circle. Photo credit: Flickr user Thomas Hawk via cc

I have the privilege of being part of a worship community that has managed to create the kind of accepting space that I strive to build in my classroom. Our group includes people who might be marginalized anywhere else. We have adults from community living environments, those living with dementia, the under-housed and under-employed, along with a smattering of retired academics and university students. The liturgy, such as it is, includes reading of scripture and prayer but also a piece of secular writing (poetry, rap, song, essay) (an example: An indiscriminate act of kindness) on the week’s scripture theme. The reflection, or sermon, might be led by a clergy or lay person and always includes the opportunity for discussion and exchange of ideas. One reflection strategy we use which I find particularly meaningful is called lectio divina.
In lectio divina, the Gospel is read, and then each person in the circle (yes, we sit in a circle) who wishes to participate speaks the word or phrase that most stuck out for them in the reading. After everyone has had a chance to speak, the scripture is read again, and anyone who chooses to can share why that particular word or phrase was what spoke to them – or they can decide that the second time through, something else drew their focus.

Lectio divina offers me a variety of lenses on the week’s reading. Photo credit: Flickr user Yuma Abe via cc

What I love about lectio divina is the chance to hear the different perspectives of the astounding collection of people I worship with. A community activist in her 80s may respond quite differently than my 16 year old son, or they might discover that the same thing called to both of them. There are no wrong answers, there is no judgement, everyone’s voice is valid. It is, for me, an experience of overwhelming mutual respect and I am humbled by it. It also always leaves me struggling with why this environment is so hard to build in my classroom.
Why does this unconventional worship space work? Because it is driven by the community it serves. It was created because people were looking for a more interactive worship experience, a Sunday morning experience with a facilitator rather than an instructor, a community of co-learners. A traditional church took a chance on running two services at the same time to allow people the opportunity of choice, and to meet a variety of needs.
I know that one big difference between my worship environment and my classroom environment is that I get to make that choice. There is no “religion act” in Ontario that says I must have my butt in some form of pew for a set number of hours per week. The community I worship with is there because they want to be, and many of my students this year make it abundantly clear that they don’t want to be at school. That breaks my heart, and spurs me to continue my efforts to create a space as safe and engaging as the one that welcomes me on Sunday morning.
Which brings me to some of my first questions. If an institutionalized system like the Anglican Church of Canada can start to read the writing on the wall and know that it must adapt or die, why does it seem so hard for the education system to read the same graffiti? How do we work to build a learning space where it is safe to be yourself, and not worry about being marked as different – where all are valued for what they bring to the community? What’s worked for you, in trying to create that kind of space? Your thoughts and ideas, as always, are welcome.

Let the sparks fly.

What if…?

bloghop3a

image: Tina Zita

This is the 3rd question in the bloghop series for the #ossemooc on-line book study of George Couros’ book The #innovatorsmindset. Chapter 7, which marks the end of the second section of the book, ends with a series of “What if…?” questions.

image: Lisa Noble (highlights mine)

image: Lisa Noble(highlights mine)

As you can tell from the highlights in the above image, I’ve been thinking more about some of these questions than others. The risk-taking question is one that I’m particularly interested in, and often, frustrated by.

I know risk-taking is a huge piece of the puzzle for any learner. I also know it’s an extremely difficult one for me. I’m a gifted student who always played “school” very well, but who shied away from anything that I couldn’t do right the first time. It took the patient coaching of my spouse (also a gifted learner, but one who has always been much more open to learning experientially than I am) to convince me, in my 20’s, that it was okay to not be really good at something the first time, and to allow myself to “risk” in order to gain a new skill. Now, I sometimes see that stance of fear reflected in both my students and my own kids. I try really hard to model my “risking” behaviours and talk about my learning process, at least partly because I’d like to save them the grief and missed opportunities my fear caused me.

I see the fear of failure coming from two very different places with my students – those who don’t want to risk because they’ve tried before and the existing school system has made them feel like they can’t succeed; and those who don’t want to risk because they’re afraid of what will happen if they don’t succeed, because that’s not a place they’re willing to go, or have experience with. I’m realizing that my colleagues are probably coming from very similar places, and if we are going to move forward at all, we have to both be willing to name that fear, and address it. Creating an environment in which people feel safe to do that takes us back, as Leigh said in last week’s hangout, to “relationships, relationships, relationships”. Without taking that first risk to trust each other in our professional context, the safety net won’t hold. How we build that net with the diversity of learners and experiences in our school communities is still one of my biggest questions.

how do we create a robust "safety net" to support a culture of "risking" in our learning spaces. credit: flickr user Rob via cc

how do we create a robust “safety net” to support a culture of “risking” in our learning spaces? credit: flickr user Rob via cc

My other “what ifs”?Those tend to be aimed more inward than outward, and I offer them for your reflection. What if I just stopped making excuses for why I haven’t tried an activity I think looks interesting, and just did it? What’s the worst case scenario? And of course, what if we were easier on ourselves when things didn’t go as wonderfully as we thought they would, and what if we were better about sharing those experiences with our peers – the plateau and the ravine, as well as the mountaintop? How might that change the discussion?

Let the sparks fly!

Feminists in our own House

I’ve shared with many people that an unexpected gift from Twitter to me is the reclaiming of the term “feminist”. I am blessed to have a community of thoughtful people who are willing to talk through the issues of the day, and think about what feminism might mean in 2015. Words matter, and my husband shared his take on this one in this post from his blog.

 

Feminists in our own House.

via Feminists in our own House.

That guy

This is a post about that guy. You know, that guy.  The one that, if you’re like me, you’ve been thinking about, and probably getting angrier about, over the last couple of weeks. Those are the weeks since the Jian thing hit the fan, and then 2 MP’s got asked to leave the Liberal caucus over allegations of harassment. Yeah, I’m talking about that guy.

 

credit: krembo1 via cc

So who is that guy? Right now, he doesn’t work in my building, but he’s still in my professional life. He’s the one who doesn’t respect your personal space, who brushes or rubs up against you when you’re doing some silly icebreaker thing, and makes a comment that lets you know it’s not by accident, who leans in a little too close to show you something on the page or the computer, who makes no effort to hide the slow up and down he gives you when you’re introduced. The one who will offer the newest, or the youngest, or the loneliest woman in the room a ride home, and you will all try, by non-verbal communication, to wave her off, because you know that’s not a good idea. He’s the one who comes into your classroom for an observation, or professional learning, and gets much chummier with your female students than they (and you) are comfortable with.

You know, that guy.

We all know him. We give other women in our profession the heads-up about him, and when you tell a colleague a story about an uncomfortable situation you’ve found yourself in, she knows who you’re talking about before you name him, because she’s heard about him, or experienced the same kind of thing from him. We try and make sure there’s not an empty seat near us at learning events, so we won’t have to sit next to him. We work really hard to make sure our friends know not to be in a small group with him. We know he’s not safe, and we know he makes us and our friends and our colleagues incredibly uncomfortable. And yet, we don’t tell him.

I am not a shrinking violet, by any stretch of the imagination. People think I’m mouthy and pushy and opinionated. I have told women I work with to lay off the inappropriate comments about male co-workers, but I have not done anything about that guy. When he makes me profoundly uncomfortable with a touch or a comment, I may give him the death stare, and get myself out of that space as soon as possible, but I do not say anything to him. And I am ashamed of that, because it gives him license to continue to do what he does. I am also ashamed, because some of us are doing this in contexts where students see us, and we are modeling a power dynamic for them that I work against all the time.

credit: Peter Rukavina via cc

I was listening to Cross-Country check-up on Sunday evening, making dinner, and yelling nasty comments at the radio, as Rex Murphy (really, CBC?) attempted to have a meaningful call-in about sexual harassment. He was astounded at the number of women calling in to say “yes, this happens, yes, this is real, yes, we are STILL dealing with this crap.” He commented repeatedly on one caller who had impressed him with the strength of her personality, and seemed really surprised that this had happened to her. Because why, Rex? Because she doesn’t seem like an easy target?

This happens to all of us, introvert or extrovert, old or young. Part of why it happens is because we have somehow become desensitized and accepted that this is just the way it is. A colleague I talked to said we’ve put up with it for so long, that it doesn’t seem like it’s ever going to change, so why would we be the one to make noise about it, and open ourselves up to shame and embarrassment, because we’re admitting this happened to us.

So this is my turning point. I have decided that I will no longer walk away. I will look that guy in the eye, let him know exactly what he’s done that made me uncomfortable, and ask him not to do it again, to me or anyone else. If you’re as fed up, and frustrated, and tired of being on edge as I am in this context, I’d love it if you’d join me. It’s time.

 

Let the sparks fly.

More than a meme to me.

IMG_1727.JPG

My dad, Bert, a few months after diagnosis. I can see the disease in how he holds his mouth, and the thinness of his arms.

It’s been a weird couple of weeks for me, since the ice bucket challenge really took off, because I’m an ALS survivor. If you know anything about this disease, you know that there is no cure. I’m using the term survivor because my dad died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis 10 years ago. The only survivors of this disease are the family members and friends who offer care, love and support as best they can, advocate for their loved ones with doctors, nurses, bureaucrats and support workers, and watch and weep and wait for the inevitable, horrible death. Most people with ALS die within 2-5 years of their diagnosis, when they are no longer able to breathe or swallow.

The thing about ALS is that it’s a “hard sell” in the charity fundraising market. There are no inspiring survivors – there is no cure. There’s no multi-million dollar industry around it – not a pink ribbon or national school run day anywhere. Those who suffer with it often can’t speak, walk, feed or dress themselves – difficult conditions if you’re trying to advocate. And those conditions also mean that most people, quite naturally, don’t want to see what ALS looks like, as its victims fade away to a shadow of their former selves. 2-3 people die of ALS in Canada every day, according to ALS Canada, compared to much higher numbers for other diseases.

So, it’s a little strange, all of a sudden, to have a freaking hashtag about ALS, and to have people all over the world dumping ice on their heads and challenging others to do the same, to raise money for this disease a lot of people have never heard of. I’ve been trying to dig into why I’m ambivalent about it. I love the amount of money that’s going to ALS charities, and heaven knows we all needed a feel-good story this month, but I wish I was convinced that it meant people were actually learning, and talking, about ALS. A friend’s 9 year old daughter posted her own video after her dad did his, and challenged a few friends to do their own. It was adorable, but it also frustrated me, because the cynical side of me knows that those kids aren’t making donations, or hearing anything about ALS. It just becomes dumping water on our heads, which makes for entertaining video, but doesn’t help find a cause or cure for a disease we’ve been aware of for more than 100 years.

I read a Slate article that suggested that people being more aware of ALS does “precious little good to anybody”, and I would respectfully submit that that’s crap. If this challenge means that more people have an awareness of this disease, and fewer people living with it are laughed at as they try to manoeuvre food to their mouth in food courts or restaurants (as happened to my dad), and friends and family members might not have to do quite as much painful explanation or advocacy, I would be thrilled. Awareness does make a difference, and there is almost no way that I can explain the relief that would come when I told people what my dad was living with, and someone had a sense of what that meant. Someone understood that we were watching my brilliant,frustrating,athletic, impatient,Drama and English teacher dad lose his ability to bicycle, rant, tend his grapes, dance, share his opinions, eat the good food that he so loved, hold my kids, swim, sing…..it was a gift when someone understood that.

So, please, if you’re taking part in the challenge, take a minute to find out what the first part of that hashtag is all about. If you choose to make a donation, you might want to choose one (like ALS Canada) with a mandate to research, but also to provide care and increase awareness. It’ll help your donation keep making a difference when ALS, inevitably, gets bumped out of the social media spotlight.

Links to check out:
Bo Stern’s blog.: A family member’s perspective on living with ALS.
ALS Canada

Let the sparks fly.

Tumbling in (for 3 voices)

A couple of weeks ago, I ran into @MzMollyTL (Diana Maliszewski) and @MDHS_Librarian (Sarah Wheatley) on Twitter. Diana was admitting some confusion around Tumblr, and suggested that the 3 of us explore Tumblr on our own, and share what we found/learned. As Tumblr was a new frontier for me, I was game. We set a date  (really important for me as a procrastinator), and off we went.

photo credit: flickr user SJL via cc

One of the first things I did was talk to some of my Grade 7 and 8 students about who was using Tumblr, and it quickly became clear to me that the kids who really loved Tumblr were my visual kids – the ones who are always sketching or doing something creative with their photos – but also some of my storytellers. That started to give me a clue about who Tumblr appeals to. It’s not the same crowd that is all over Instagram, because there it’s all about the pictures, and Tumblr is definitely about the pictures, but also about the words. It occurred to me that these students might also like to explore a photojournalling site like blipfoto or a photo and writing combination like thinglink, or even a photo narration variation like fotobabble. Things to think about for the best way to help my students express themselves.

As I explored, I started to get the sense that Tumblr occupies a middle ground between the immediacy of Twitter, and the longer reflectiveness of a “blog” (and I know that term can mean a lot of things).  The first Tumblrs I encountered a couple years ago were very much like what Pinterest has now become – I remember one in particular that was a collection of  images of  70’s couches. It was a way to document your passion, and I think that having your students share the Tumblrs they love (maybe it becomes part of the classroom job list, or there’s a corner for it in a newsletter?) would be a terrific way to direct some passion-based learning.

The Tumblrs that I really enjoyed (and I think one of my absolute favourites is this one, created by the Royal Ontario Museum) managed to find that balance between an image, and the things they wanted to say about it. The ROM Tumblr makes great use of Tumblr’s visual capacity to show off their collection, but also manages to share lots of information (but not too much). And sometimes, it’s just about the image.

from the ROMKids tumblr: The entrance to the museum, looking like the Rebel base on Hoth

from the ROMKids tumblr: The entrance to the museum, looking like the Rebel base on Hoth

I was very interested in seeing how other teachers were using Tumblr, and was lucky enough to have a great example in my friend  Stepan Pruchnicky, who teaches with TCDSB. He uses his Tumblr as his class’ website, and features student work, announcements and other news. It’s a terrifically engaging way to invite parents into the classroom, and his students are obviously very comfortable with the platform. This is something I want to look into further, since I’m always looking for accessible ways to share my students’ work. I’d also like to find my way to some more teacher’s Tumblrs. Do you have a great one to share?

At about the mid-point of our exploration, Diana shared a tweet from a friend including some of Tumblr’s terms of service, which are, to say the least, a little unorthodox, and written in language most people can understand. I actually found this refreshing, and was pleasantly surprised to find this in the terms:

tumblr terms

That link takes you to an international set of crisis phone numbers, and places to get help. Not something you’ll find on every social media site, and while I know not many users would actually drill down that far, I was impressed.

I did set up a Tumblr account as part of this inquiry and I can see using it in certain contexts.  Blogging is often a long, reflective process for me, and I find that it’s tricky to find the time to get that done (I’m very aware of the clock ticking on this one). With Tumblr, it’s like a quick shout-out – again, with more room for a conversation than Twitter, but relatively easy to get it out there. I think it might be perfect for travel blogging with my own kids, because we can choose the pictures we want to talk about.

In terms of ease of use,  I like how easy it is to add a friend’s Tumblr, or something I’ve read on-line to my stream, but wish there was an easier way to do the opposite, and zip a Tumblr out into the Twitterverse. I acknowledge that it probably and I just haven’t found it yet.

Overall, I enjoyed the chance to dig into Tumblr, and am hugely thankful to my co-explorers, who checked in along the way, to keep me motivated (as well as to my students who let me pick their brains). As with any social media platform, there’s some silly stuff out there (witness this lovely bit of “internet whimsy” featuring benedict cumberbatch and otters), and using it in a classroom would need to be focused on the creation part of the equation, rather than consumption.

And maybe that’s my big takeaway. The students I talked to seemed to be willing to be creators in this format – yes, they’re reblogging pieces by others, but some of them are posting their own ideas, too. That’s something I’m looking to encourage, and this seems less of an intimidating format to my students than whatever they perceive a “blog” to be.

Here are my co-conspirators reactions:

Diana’s: Trio tests Tumblr: Diana’s path

Sarah’s: Encouraging Each Other

What do you think?

Let the sparks fly.