Picking a Cause

“I don’t know”

Is there a teacher at any grade who hasn’t heard that comment at one point or another? And not in relation to a specific question/answer such as a Mathematical equation, but in relation to the more general questions which we as Educators ask: What type of books do you enjoy reading? What topic have you selected to research? Did you include a personal reflection at the end of the unit? Will you be ready to present next week?

What do you think…? is behind the questions, and such a question in itself is scary for many to answer.  Lately I have been wondering why we make it so difficult for students to consider their own “meta-cognition” or personal responses and evaluations of their own understood if not spoken “gut reactions” to situations because as educators the entire “take back Education” movement is only partially resonating and if an Educator is unable to model expressing opinions beyond teaching to the test, and then sharing only a series of prescribed responses, the students are neither seeing nor hearing the multiple ways in which we as adults and as engaged members of society do wrestle with many ideas- the simple and the complex, from how to organize the environment (complex unless objects like desks and chairs are fixed, then each teacher may stamp a personality on the room) to what ought to occur when a bell goes (simple as this action has been practiced and is prescribed) and only if we begin to share more openly the doodles, notes in margins, rehearsed speeches and other actions each of us allows ourselves to express privately will that sense of their doing so become more than “come on class it is mind mapping time!”

Years ago I began teaching my youngest students to enjoy their wonderful smelling erasers and to use them for their best copies only- and to draw a line through any inaccurate word or number and to write the corrected response on the page that later in preparing for any test or quiz the students would see the areas where they had felt challenged and be able to see also the changes made. When I switched to higher grades I was stunned to discover how many students simply copied in the correct answers and didn’t take time to question why any changes might be suggested; Learning to Question WHY became a strong theme in middle school and often carried over to High School.  But still, High School students could stare, startled, at the question, ” Did you enjoy the…?” as if enjoying any aspect of school, or learning or even attending an out of school event hadn’t been organized with the hope that students would not only participate but also communicate why such events -curricular or extra-curricular were of value.  Yes, even as adults we really simply wish to be participatory and not always analyzing every detail however it is essential when we prepare programs, and these I have recently done also for fellow teachers, that we encourage those involved to suggest not only improvements but also what to keep.

And then it dawned on me how much more responsive individuals are when not worried about their placement within the “group,” and how much quicker to venture an opinion and to share insight.  Somewhere between grade five and grade nine- those middle school formative years, students move from not worrying about sticking out as individuals to almost cloning themselves within many a school environment! And with all the current discussions about the culture of a school- its atmosphere and its opportunity for students to extend themselves we must then make time for all students to get some quiet time for reflection, and time to communicate directly and the only way we as Educators make this possible is through open and expected mini conferences and whole school collaborative activities.

Tests abound; we continue to prepare students for them whether we label them “common core” or any other title, but none of these formal tests come anywhere near the types of constant decision making all of our young adults are faced with deciding upon, sometimes hourly! And for these real decisions, there is only trial and error- and kids recognize that aspect of participation, and we as adults owe it to all of them to respect each and every choice without condemnation and with the understanding that being an “Educator” is supposed to instill; “supposed to” – for each of us is “human” and as capable of going for the wrong door as any television contestant who publicly demonstrates the mistake making that can happen.  We must therefore recognize that the real value for some students when self challenging using a game like Minecraft is the safe aspect of where the trial and error will take them- only inside the game after all. But we must also recognize that school should not be the place that provokes negative; we need more than posters that speak out against bullying on the walls, we need active demonstrations of how students need to get along for the school itself to thrive and then we will be teaching the reflective stance when we encourage the students – all the students not only those who elected to be student representatives on council – to share in decision making- and to recognize when erasing a mistake is of value, and when placing the better solution on the table will actually provide results.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Giving Voice

In Education we were taught that if we were to be in a helping field, then master teachers like Paolo Freire could be read to exemplify the caring component.  And in practice, over the many years when lucky to engage with so many different school programs, so many different communities and cultures, one begins to combine the theories of Anthropology, and the theories of Education, to uncover how they offer a symbiotic relationship for practice. And in entering any new space, classroom, work space, volunteer organization, keeping that mantra front and centre allows one to absorb the culture, and when lucky to fully participate in it. Then one may also offer opinions, for such opinions will be based on the community and not merely from an outsider’s point of view. And that is how communities of care change, when new voices are shared without fear, and when room is made to accommodate one more.

Personally, my mantra has borrowed from the Hippocratic oath simplified in “First – DO NO HARM!” And combine Head and Heart with every action – bring to the room the thinking /feeling individual one is, and look for these two characteristics in others.

The End Result: a space where all involved have a voice- their own.

 

 

 

Encouraging Student Voice

We often do “would you rather…” with children, and young adults as a quick and generally pleasant way to generate free flowing discussion and an alternative to brainstorming in the formal sense.  A simple way to start the in class process would be to pose a question, open ended, and to have the students respond directly- no need for a “hands up” but to simply begin calling responses and engaging in the questioning with one another as well as with the teacher- warning, the room is bound to become noisy. 

 

For example, would you rather recall a positive or a negative memory? The Why and they Why Not become intertwined in the student’s responses.  If there is a Writing area in the classroom it is a good idea to begin posting the examples free style; that is do not organize the responses- if suggesting what a mind map may look like then let the ideas pop up on the black board or electronic white board as the come; the results will be an area filled with ideas.  And Students thoughts will digress.  As they begin to argue their points of view, they will also be supplying a supporting point, and considering the “story” within their point of view.  Perhaps most importantly they will have a direct understanding of what is meant when a teacher states “there is no right or wrong answer to this question,” for it is an opinion piece and students MUST be encouraged to validate their own opinions.  

 

Surprisingly with all the current talk in Education about teaching diversity and teaching empathy and teaching creativity, there seems to have become a sense of each of the above as being distinct fields of thought. Perhaps because this allows for someone to become a specialist in a field; it makes for jobs? When the natural outpouring of ideas amongst students tends to flow towards ideas of social justice, towards why anything might be wrong or right, towards how their current experiences do give them an understanding of the greater social order, even when it hasn’t always given them a voice or an outlet through which to express their thoughts, or a means of putting together thought and action.  We could all recall the famous quote from artist Picasso on how everyone is born an artist but some – well to paraphrase – some have all those unique and curious thoughts and unique and curious actions – squashed by others who see very restrictive and prescriptive educational concepts as being the only way to teach! When Educators have guidelines in a curriculum along with a modicum of Freedom in how to apply these guidelines, the results tend to amaze.  Kids own their memories, and their passions.  And are not born with prejudice or indifference or even a lack of ability to care- yes each statement must have its qualifying accompanying comment that indeed there are exceptions to every “rule,” however; when we recognize that regardless of what neighbourhood we teach in, the wealthiest or the poorest, the students are learning about the world in more ways than the time in the classroom can provide, and we as Educators do a disservice if we don’t allow the students to honour their own experiences, and to learn how to express these experiences in a manner that later can be empowering.  As long as the spoken and written word continues to offer the student a powerful means of expression, and if the student wishes to add any of the other artistic endeavours to the process so much the better – for what began as an open ended discussion can spill over into a full scale problem solving individual or group project; and the best type of advice from the Educator at this point becomes only the truly formal suggestions of how it either has been done or could be done- letting the students run with ideas is safer than running with other objects!

Participating

Things for Teachers to Remember:

Children and young adults are a “little bit of everything.”  Too often as we approach the final portion of an academic year, we are busy thinking tests, reviews, scores, and how to get it all done in time. We also have to evaluate the pupils, and suggest not merely for those upcoming reports but also for the files, the notes we make on the students and that allow us to intelligently discuss what worked, who worked, and how they worked throughout the academic year.

And I remember how with the youngest who were still at the picture book stage, we often used metaphor to get the point across that they as children were “allowed” to have all the emotions, to be all the fish in the pond, not merely a static “happy fish” or happy smiling face. Then as children complete middle school literally for many “trying on roles” and enter High School as the young adults we encounter, they are beginning to solidify an image- if not quite their true image. As Educators we have to keep encouraging them to continue to not restrict themselves into one specific personality trait or one specific mode of practice- for this I turn to the already famous to share how so many had more than one profession, more than one talent, more than one fixed and celluloid image.  And for those who have gone on to become rock stars, or sports heroes or even Nobel Scientists there is also their other characteristics as well: Einstein famously playing music, rock stars who become spokes people for environmental issues, Environmentalists painting or capturing their beloved outdoors in photographs or on film, and for the students skeptical if they can break their “molds” and the expectations of their peers we happily have a host of relatively recent young adult movies where the actors actually do try on other roles to the chagrin of peers and with at times extreme growing pains- these may be shared to generate free style brain storming and writing exercises.

And we as Educators ought to recall for ourselves those “hobbies” which once brought pleasure and remember to share our efforts with our students so as not to be one dimensional to them, either. When we care about students from a holistic perspective we share a little part of our personalities, too.  We might not be “the biggest fish in the pond” but we can keep swimming and demonstrating that each of us is a valuable part of the whole, for when we do so we validate our students’ efforts and make real the notion that yes it is good to try new challenges, to encourage ourselves as well as one another, and to perhaps even uncover hidden talents and new dreams.

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Don’t split those”

The Pit boss overheard me and smiled, because the table was always busy and after my first day he, the Pit Boss, had learned that it added to customer’s satisfaction to understand the rules of the game instead of their sitting down and playing blind. Not only did my table see returning players, but also they were suggesting the table was “hot” even when they lost a hand! I even ventured to ask some of the “card sharks” why they returned if they lost what to me as a young dealer seemed like a great deal of money!

Yes I heard the standard, “your smile,” comments, but also I learned how many people appreciated the feeling of chance that seemed to enter the picture when they genuinely understood the rules and appreciated how luck entered – that added element of surprise which blesses one and which may accompany effort.

Now as an Educator when preparing workshops for Children and Adults, the rules are what I spend time clarifying- then it is “hands -off” to allow participants to fully engage in whichever action they are drawn to.  And recently I came across a wonderful book that reminded me how much the rules of Life vary and depend on chance; “you pays yer money and you take your chances,” when it comes to the ordinary stuff like falling in love, and growing a family, and changing direction a multitude of times. I am referring to a book which I reluctantly returned to the Library and now must purchase to add to my own Library- and it is not yet a classic having been published only recently: Anne-Marie Slaughter’s Unfinished Business; a story which chronicles her own decision to put children first and take a hiatus from a powerful political position, to focus on her family..  However her story is extra unique for single mothers, in that it suggests how even with a loving husband, and full bank account, making the decision was difficult  (for Ms. Slaughter) knowing that time away from professional endeavors can become no further opportunity for professional endeavors.  For Ms. Slaughter it was a choice; for many it is simply the only option.

Sometimes we stumble across an idea at just the right time.  That is serendipity, and recognizing the ways in which everything appears to be coming together we select a course that promises to provide the options we crave to continue moving forward; very soon, so many students will be donning cap and gown, or opting to not attend their own ceremonies, or simply breathing sighs of relief that a number of years of grind is being fulfilled and in a few weeks making their “commencement” a reality.  Were I to be giving a speech I would insert the hope that even if non-gamblers, they set sight on a few tables where they feel they could earn clear opportunity to proceed, to learn the basics, and then to take the newly acquired skills and understanding and -share them. 

  For we learn when we apply knowledge and when we see the results.  And we extend that learning when we apply reflection, and consider how to continuously improve.

Currently the image of Donald Trump, front runner in American politics and initially presumed unlikely as a politician, is proving again that it is not only money that allows one to take chances, it is also knowing the rules, and when it may be possible to not only gamble for fun, but to also invite others along and suggest they too take a chance and play for a while.

Mr. Trump and Ms. Slaughter are on different “teams,” and reading one and listening to the other gives insight into what a Democracy enables, not merely free speech but also the possibility of change. To an Educator that possibility is essential for it allows us to continue clarifying, continue sharing and continue to enjoy when those at “our table” take home some winnings. 

 

 

 

Classroom reflections

Blended Learning as a Tool, not a Crutch

Best feeling for an educator? hearing actual excitement in the student’s voice about anything they are pleased to be accomplishing!

Blended learning in the classroom may make this possible, even if not every student has a personal learning device. But only recently have educators begun to share how much planning must actually go into a classroom activity that properly uses technology as an asset to the lesson, as an opportunity for self paced review, as a chance to challenge oneself in any of the core curriculum areas or strands, and as a tool for the teacher to instigate personal lesson plans. And like the dreaded accountable lesson plans of yesteryear, blended learning requires a skill, and most definitely time to prepare. 

When students recognize that “watch this video then do the exercises” is not an option but part of the course material, teachers offering material at the correct level and pace for the majority of students in the classroom are teachers who have first watched the video, practiced the accompanying exercises, and been able to evaluate their potential effectiveness in his or her particular learning environment, and then been willing to observe the variety of reactions to the self paced learning established.  This requires being a reflective practitioner, not simply supplying websites akin to the multiple printed pages of extra sheet-work which used to be (and may still be) in stacks for the access of the one’s who finished regular assigned exercises quickly.  The benefits of being a “seasoned educator” and currently working one to one means having time to hear the complaints which students from k-12 feel comfortable voicing in a safe and  non-school environment.  And indeed students may love technology, and for the younger set, the elementary students who are offered the bonus use of an open computer once all regular work is completed, they do enjoy that “freedom to play” though they tend to “play” on prescribed websites.  Older students though actually want to feel that any time spent on an educational pursuit translates into marks- and even with all the vocal squawking from educators that marks do not make the person, students actually enjoy some form of visible recognition for their hard work and some form of noting their own achievements!

Tests, quizzes, levels of accomplishment, challenges, problems to be solved, badges- formal academics, and Minecraft basics? Yes. Gaming and personal goals to get to the next level are the challenges set by anyone determined to practice and improve, and then practice some more, regardless of whether an athlete, an artist, a business owner or an academic! And when any type of advice is requested, the hope is that once applied, such advice will enable the asker to make it to the next level- else why bother asking if trial and error is sufficient? Because as Humans our society improves when we share knowledge; teachers have a value in the classroom and on the street. And students quickly learn that they can learn from their peers, from their parents, and from the formal and informal lesson plans that everyday life offers.  Not everyone is gearing directly toward higher academics, but the skills sets of focused activity, group and individual participation, personal motivation, and ability to inquire, to request information and to then personally evaluate the responses received- these are skills for Life. And Educators’ work load is only appearing to have been made easier with the concept of “blended learning” or the idea of students becoming “self-paced” for learners of all levels, and all ages, require solid challenges and a chance to also become “the instructor” sharing their personal understanding of any activity, being peer to peer guides, and whenever possible, even teaching their elders for in such a fluid learning environment the conversation may actually be “spontaneous” rather than contrived (look at a student teacher’s notes and one may find actual hoped for dialogue appearing in the lesson plans!) with the surprising by-product once removed from the goal, of increased marks and scores on those tests which are still the basic means to evaluate any learning endeavor.  

 

 

Using the “Why Not”Principle

Students have consistently asked me how to form a simple construct for assessing a method of experimentation be the experiment about academic work, or events that take place beyond the classroom.  While no one has any exact or foolproof “method” for assessing if any action is truly “safe,” the “why not” principle offers a legitimate way to self reflect before taking action– note: in emergency actions, this principle also will mean trusting one’s gut, as the more one indulges in self reflection, the stronger the “gut reaction” will be to help one recognize adverse situation when they materialize.

This method was both taught and demonstrated to me way back in my own childhood- it meant simply asking oneself, “why not” then pausing to write down or mentally list the reasons that something might be a “bad idea.”  And if one came up with more than two listings in the negative column- then don’t do it- especially if it might potentially hurt others.  Today this might even qualify as my “life lessons on empathy” since we are reworking so much that many an “old school” educator used to consider “compulsory knowledge,” the type that was expressed beginning in pre-school and reiterated throughout one’s academic career.

The “why not” principle also is often faster than listing all the “whys.” Plus students have shared that it is less ambiguous- less likely to be contorted by selfish pursuits. Give it a try- “why not?”