Monthly Archives: April 2016

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!