Category Archives: teaching

Best practice may entail “best fit”

NEWS FLASH!  This just in:  “one size doesn’t fit all in education!”  and science is here to prove this!  Imagine that!

Yes I am being a little off the cuff and facetious when in fact am grateful that neuroscience has made advances to remind all of us that the brain can be plastic; however, the idea that many would benefit from direct individualized instruction is hardly a novel concept.

So, to extend the metaphor for a moment:

Shoes- those wonderful objects that today come in all shapes and types and sizes to protect our feet, offer comfort, and in general aid us in walking, climbing, marching or dancing through our day- well we have a metaphor for these very objects- a parable in fact- suggesting that one should “walk a mile in another’s shoes” before issuing any type of judgement.  But- how many people attempt this?  In short we rarely expect to be able to interchange shoes as readily as we might other outer garments- t-shirts and sweaters for example.  We know our feet make a particular impression, molding the footwear to our shape/walking in another’s shoes remains an ideal as does finding the “perfect” general curriculum; and, students of all ages from Kindergarten through Post Secondary continue to try on various courses, various possible roles, as they navigate a school system that while declaring a goal of personalized growth and development must, by its very nature as an institution- the system of schooling itself must restrict that very necessary trying on because the system has to offer a general set of practical courses.  If students are to make headway, they are sometimes squeezed into a pair that is a little too tight, or given last year’s style and expected to “make do” or suddenly told that what ever they had been wearing -oops- learning now needed to be unlearned to accommodate new directives; and, thankfully, most students do have the brain power to accept these restrictions and to, even while they continue to expand their personal collection of what might fit, continue to challenge themselves through trying on various shapes and styles.

And then there are those who might require a special shoe maker.  Shoes tailored for a particular need, a specific learning requirement.  Just as a custom order takes both time and proper skills to design, develop and produce; individualized instruction requires more than simply stating it will be one-one.  Smaller class sizes do not automatically entail better instruction- the instructor entails better instruction.

This blog entry was sparked by reading a “new” article on better ways to develop “successful, confident readers” and I was startled to discover that once again “Science” was being called upon to support the obvious and that these – as stated above- genuinely remarkable insights into how the brain works were now being touted as buzz words.

Communication is multi- faceted: personal, impersonal, direct, oblique, concrete, abstract, oral, written, spoken and read.  When teaching reading and writing skills it is necessary not merely expected that all these variants on how we share feelings and ideas, recognizing as well that tone and attitude, rhythm and rhyme, picture and graph, movement and stasis be highlighted.  Then the skills, slowly or quickly as the learner requires, need to be established through practice.  All of the above require time.  Education: personalized.

this blog post appears first here on Together Academics where private specialized instruction is created and tailored to the needs of the learner -it may be referenced by special request

A REQUEST with Thanks

Dear Readers, please remember this blog is both Teacher and Parent and Student friendly and if your blog does not fit all of the above categories – thank you for liking – send a note – follow me on twitter, but please do not post your Gravatar if, were a student to click on it, the material you publish is unsuitable-
again to all- thank you for reading, the thoughtful messages you have sent BUT, this is an “all ages” blog – my students and their families are reading it too!
Best regards and to a productive school year- 2014-2015

Academics for all subjects

A reading is thinking poster

With science / math write-ups we also READ

Begin with prediction: = hypothesis

Visualize: what object are needed for (this)experiment? What amounts?

Connect: get all objects ready in one place / choose one set for the controlled object, the other objects will act upon – with experiments, the idea is to challenge yourself- (safely) and see what happens if…you are asking questions while trying the experiment

the write up tells others what happened
Instead of “clues from the text” the “evidence” is the section in a science write-up known as results- here you have a chance to decide what may not have worked. For example; if you were trying to change a liquid to a solid and doing a simple experiment with water- changing liquid water to solid ice, and the ice didn’t freeze- why not? Was the cold space not cold enough? Perhaps in class you created a mini refrigerator (tin foil and packaging and cardboard box…) and this did not stay cold- what could be done differently next time- where could something be changed?

Science constantly builds upon earlier experiments. When we try something at home or in class, we are practicing to see if a method “works”.

Take cooking for example: you are given a brand new toaster- you like toast nicely browned- first time you plug it in at set the number to 8 out of 10- Oh oh- too crisp- try again, 6? Just right. But wait, now put a bagel instead of another piece from that original loaf of bread. The texture is different and so might be the toasting time.

When scientists speak of the control object, they are saying one object stays the same, while another object changes. In the above case, the toaster stayed the same, while the bread products were changed.

New slice of bread- a piece of Challah- Oh oh- turning temperature down to 4- why? Why might it burn faster? What ingredients were in the Challah slice that are different from the regular piece of white bread, and different from the bagel? We do science experiments all the time, without realizing and labeling them as experiments or science!

In academics, we are asked to share what we are thinking in a write-up. This write-up may be answering questions on a teacher prepared worksheet- it may be drawing a picture of what we just did, it may be going online, and sharing over the internet by using a blog, a wiki, or a tweet  The write-up means one thing, regardless of how and where it is placed- communicating so another may understand; much of the time in school, students often ask- “will this be on the test?” – their point- shall I memorize the “fact” to be able to retell it? In less formal, ongoing assessments, the test begins with the student, and is a part of the student’s inquiry to understand more. A student encouraged from the start to share his/her understanding of what took place, is a student being encouraged to “do” academics- it need not be an either or situation wherein a student is labeled non-academic if we remember that academics simply refers to recognizing bits of theory behind a form of practice. And it is “easy” to share nowadays how recognizing both theory and practice may improve performance. Take Usain Bolt- who isn’t impressed by the lightening speed of this man? And if students are shown how there became a science to his athletic training, science is removed from an esoteric activity and placed smack in the centre of life skills; like being able to tie one’s shoes even if wearing slip-ons with Velcro, it is good to know how to do something, good to be able to feel a purpose behind a set of skills, good to take part in learning. We teachers, parents, adults, want and NEED the next generation curious, active, communicative, and participatory. For not only “science” but humanity will then continue to move forward.

Stepping off my soap-box to wish all a productive and learning filled year!

Joint ventures and classroom projects

Cutesy or clear? rows or seats in teacher prescribed groups? lecture format, flipped classrooms…either or/- or a little bit of “everything” to not merely allow for each “type” (are we still discussing “types”) but to put personality back into a teaching “formula” and to allow each instructor, parent, educator, to share key concepts, and to remember that be it in a one room school house ( these still do exist ) or a couple thousand strong – formal learning environment, we ARE after a similar set of goals- how to share a concept so that learners of all ages want to make it their “own”.

Working with a variety of learners has “proven” one thing to me; thinking in action, changing direction, and being able to make time for student led questions, student led “experiments” does not mean “hands-off” in terms of teaching but the opposite- clear directions for open-ended results, open ended directions for further inquiry, and the expectation of change occurring when a student begins to believe that there is a purpose to an action.  Having said that, my next comment might surprise people- for indeed sometimes the purpose is to prepare for a quiz; sometimes we practice something to make it a “habit”.

If independence of action remains a goal suggested by the “some day” to be earned diploma, then testing continues to hold value as a means of demonstrating some form of learning- we are encouraged to “test drive” a car before selecting, shouldn’t students be allowed to test themselves at higher levels of challenges?  The problem I have seen from some test results is the subsequent labellings of a student, labels that often do not take into consideration the growth that is taking place within our young, daily.  While I favour ongoing assessments, formal and informal, I have seen students respond with excitement to the idea of an examination- formal term applied.  And to the cheering that is also part of an educator’s role, when we recognize even “basic” accomplishments; learners of all ages do want to know what a test is examining, how to tackle it, and in what areas could one improve.

Classes for many resume next week 🙂 – teachers are rarely blase about the prospect knowing that introductions can set a tone; I think of how many good stories I may have not completed reading if I hadn’t encouraged myself to move past the first two chapters, and get into the true focus of the story. Realistically, characters grow on readers as we join them in their adventures- It is ok to be a bit of a character to the students as long as we remember to stay curious ourselves; then learning is not merely an adventure, but a joint venture.

Changing of the Guard: new classes, new teachers

Changing of the guard-

Imagine how proud they each must have felt when earning the position of being a Buckingham palace guard! And how tiresome the job must become when someone’s unruly child, in an effort to get attention, stands in front of a guard and deliberately sticks out a tongue, or makes other “funny faces’ to try and dispel the outward “calm- and- in- control” image that the guards know they must maintain, and that, to their credit, the guards do.

Now imagine an employee in a work situation, and a set of senior “bosses” behaving just like those unruly children, and attempting, day after day, to break through the calm of the more junior worker. As parents we would or should reach out to our children and teach them that teasing is wrong, hurtful, and a form of bullying. And if in the position of the junior worker? Then life gets extremely complicated. To maintain that air of calm requires the internal discipline of the Buckingham guard, but to move forward in a healthful manner may require developing a distance that is impossible in what may turn into an intolerable post. First year teachers beginning at schools and eager to share their excitement need also to recognize that each school maintains a particular type of culture – all those wonderful ideas may not get displayed in one single term- breathe, adopt a bit of the stance of the palace guards to deflect the children’s and perhaps their parents’ and even long term staff members’ quizzical at best, nasty at worst, behaviours, and remember – like the Palace guards, YOU earned this posting; the children desire to learn, and your desire to share the learning will get all of you through the year.
Best wishes.


Why Not?

Simple expression-usually suggesting no reason not to do something

Why Not?

Simple question- actually requiring a response; particularly valuable in a classroom

on a limb…

It is everywhere! The statement that ” the only way to do a good job is to love what you do”.  UM- not necessarily, and not really what we need to be proclaiming on classroom walls- as students rarely love drills- rarely love rewrites, rarely love the extra practice that must be undertaken to improve in any form of craft- or academic work.

How could we change it up then? This has been a constant desire of mine- to create a learning environment where all students receive the respect and opportunity to grow regardless of how much “hard work” both the educator and the student must apply before changes appear evident- and hard work isn’t always fun, nor is it always something one loves to do.

When we constantly toss about ideals that suggest “Passion” is all that is needed the craft behind the making may get lost in the dream that suggested “love is all you need”.  I love the Beatles and all that they stood for, but would hazard a guess that not one of them really meant the statement literally.  We need to get back to the core sense of practice, refining a skill and /or set of skills that will become, if not actually automatic, as close to automatic that an individual may muster and be able to call upon these skills as needed.

I cook, and when asked the secret ingredient have been known to answer “love” so indeed we all employ the suggestion that adding CARE will make a difference.  And I am for caring classrooms everywhere- but not to the detriment of students being giving only the promise of learning without the practical tools.  To truly empower students we need to offer guidelines; students whether in a regular or a flipped classroom, whether home-schooled or one of 50 in a classroom, benefit when the rules are clearly laid out, when the rubric is explained, and when the student is shown how to do something.

Practice may not make “perfect” but it will promote understanding; if the reasoning behind the practice is questioned, then dear teachers, do please have an explanation ready.  Or depending on the age group of your students, think about sharing something that will spark discussion regarding why some types of practical actions do not always appear to be on target but indeed get the results- a classic film comes to mind- the original Karate Kid– hard to forget “wash on, wash off” as a muscle builder…

Sports and the Arts both offer a form of apprenticeship during which time participants improve their practice under the guidance of “master coaches”.  The two words were juxtaposed on purpose, for mastery is what in the end produces that amazing result- the one that moves beyond rote and adapts or is applied to a specific situation, creating grace in action, be it a line on a page, a puck spinning towards a goal, or a new computer application.  We all improve through practice if and when the areas where improvement is suggested are clearly defined, and clearly demonstrated with /through examples where these practical changes made a difference to the finished product.

It is about product in addition to process, and if/when we forget this we short change a student.  Students are very self aware, and to be up lifted do not need simple pats on the back; they too want to recognize results and be proud of their own accomplishments.  When a student is able to say “I worked hard on this and believe it says what I wanted it to say” the student is taking ownership of his/her learning- isn’t that really what as teachers we wish to produce?


For future princes and princesses, everywhere…

As we prepare:

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless seas.”
-Antoine de Saint-Exupery The Little Prince

For WHEN: ID-100237304- books and grad hat

To our future makers, doers, thinkers, and believers.

For the upcoming 2014-2015 School year

Dreams DO come true

Lessons recalled-

She stood framed in the double doors, almost inside the school, and without a fog horn her voice carried across the prairie cold exhorting all of us to think – only those weren’t the words spoken. No, it was a routine fire drill, and we were being reminded about how important filing quietly out the prescribed doors and lining up with our classmates was to our personal health and safety. A lesson we were to practice several times throughout elementary school, and it seemed more often during the cold winter months. This was old school; no preparation, no jackets, no boots and scarves in advance of a drill, just the sudden ringing, and the ensuing hush as we silently filed into the cold. And it was cold.

We were a very receptive audience even if we were prone to muttering under our breath that she, the principal, may be warm, while we were expected to shiver silently and endure the upcoming speech. Some principals may have considered the school auditorium the best place for lectures. Not this one. The school auditorium was where we as children performed, reciting poems, acting in skits, participating in Spelling Bees; the school auditorium doubled as a gym, our place to dodge balls, our place to challenge each other in a friendly game, our place to learn to become a little bit better coordinated physically when attempting to dance to a rhythm, or move across a balance beam. But the Fire Drills belonged to our principal. Here straddling the doors her words carried weight- no one would act up and risk spending an extra few minutes of time in the chill. One practice was discovered quickly- if we interrupted the lecture, she began at the beginning- our choice then to listen, truly listen to why the message was so important.

And what we discovered over time, was a little bit of the personal history of the speaker. Convinced that children could learn to question the world around them, she posed questions to us. She had personal family who had gone off to fight in WW11, and she believed passionately that not only were we the future, but that we would have to tackle an enemy at one point or another, and be prepared. So she taught us to practice patience, to think about actions that might be hurtful, to above all attempt to make sense of things that at times might not make sense. And to care.

While we continued to mutter under our breath we did absorb the lectures, and began to recognize a pattern to the readings and plays and work we were expected to memorize- that’s right – memorize- not to be shared once and then forgotten, but to form a space somewhere inside our heads, to be recalled as needed into our future lives, to supply some type of meaning as we changed and grew and were better able to understand the depth of the words; to have experiences and to be startled to discover that we had already been advised that such experiences might happen. Nowadays, and as an adult I am able to label the school “progressive”, to recognize within the practice a unique combination of humanistic principles; a public school with a principal who took to heart the planning of curriculum around a simple theme- whole school, whole child- literacy having at its heart the means to create change.

We learned that a war, any war, is devastating.
We learned that people came in all shapes and sizes, all backgrounds and colours.
We learned that people had a variety of abilities, and if we were blessed with strength in one area, it was our duty to share this strength, and help another, while learning what another could bring to balance us. And we learned this while standing in the very cold.

No one was ever harshly disciplined; no cruel and unusual punishments were meted out.

There was no strap, no corner to be placed in, no writing lines or detentions. But always, there was a question- simple, straight forward and not done up in fancy script or cutesy style adorning a classroom or the halls. “Does it make sense?” “Does it make sense?”
A wonderfully broad question, capable of encompassing almost any action-
“Does it make sense to run in the hall and possibly trip, fall and get hurt?”
“Does it make sense to not ask for help if the teacher is in the room to provide just this service?”
“Does it make sense to be mean to a classmate when you don’t know what tomorrow may bring and whose help you may require?”
“Does it make sense to cheat on a test rather than finding out what you are capable of doing?”
“Does it make sense to laugh if a classmate doesn’t know the answer- to pretend to be perfect when no one could be?”
“Does it make sense?”

And yet…so much of life doesn’t make sense. What then was she so earnest about teaching all of us? We would suggest to one another that standing in the chilly weather wasn’t making sense, and having to endure another lecture was making no sense at all. But we listened. And with each story we learned to question a little more deeply what our roles could be and how we might improve the general atmosphere of the school; we were the school- this much was drilled home. It wasn’t the playground or the gym, the classrooms or even the teachers; it was us. “You get out of it what you put into it”- she never said that- she said “ask why?”; “ask if anyone will or could be hurt”: state “why not” then review your thinking. And if necessary, “do nothing at all”. Imagine – an instruction to “do nothing”- but the real key to that last injunction was ‘if necessary”.

As an educator I think how difficult it can be to truly learn the value of the last instruction- and recognize that not only were we as children receiving advice, so were the teachers who stood in the cold with us. Sometimes the best way we can help a student is to let the student attempt an action without interference- the student must come to own the experience, to evaluate it, to make “sense” of it, to change and grow. We educators are like the training wheels on a bike; there to help our students acquire their own ability to balance, but once steady and moving forward, to be removed, and stand aside, and cheer.

A tribute and a response: here is to The Crazy Ones

In the wake of the shocking and sad news about actor Robin Williams, the discussion has turned to the hope that bringing awareness to the issues surrounding depression could prevent such happenings.  As someone who very much was disappointed to learn that the recent show-in which Mr Williams starred- The Crazy Ones* -had not been picked up for a second season, it seems fitting to note that the character Robin Williams  played in this TV comedy was a recovering addict- from the potentially lethal combination of drugs and alcohol.  Somehow the connection between addiction and alcohol and drug abuse (prescription or otherwise) and depression must be made.  And we must move beyond chicken and egg theories ( which came first ) to what may exacerbate rather than relieve an individual.

I currently live in Toronto, a city from where the exploits of the current mayor ( drugs, alcohol) have gone global, be they featured on a Jimmey Kimmel show or simply bandied about on various forms of social media.  Of great concern as an educator is whether enough young people see the diseases for what they are; addiction should not be glorified in any shape or form.  Why anyone turns to alcohol or drugs is a moot point- the options to obtain both merely a matter of cash.  And many young people have access to cash, and see images of exciting lifestyles as obtainable with a little extra help from the right pill, or boozy concoction.  This is one of the reasons I wished that more people would have noticed Robin Williams’ recent show- the show never made light of the addictions, instead it continuously brought home the message that while being an addict the character had manged to accomplish a number of things- growing the ad agency for example, the focus per episode was on the recovered/recovering aspects of the person, attempting stronger relationships with his staff, his family, and his new clients.  It is therefore even more sad that the show lacked the strong following it deserved; do we not appreciate the example of strength the Robin Williams character displayed? 

I for one intend to dispel some myths when teaching this year-and highlight instead that: not all writers are drunks (legend of the Hemingway character as example) , not all comics are depressive (Robin Williams will now be seen as suggestive), not all musicians burn out young (Michael Jackson) not all successful famous people die untimely deaths (Marilyn Monroe)…

And I will ask students to find their own examples of individuals who surpass the odds- not merely the typical SAT type board exam question dealing with adversity, but moving beyond this to the question of where myths and or urban legends come from and what positive and negative effects such urban myths/legends may hold.  I doubt we will solve the problems in these classes, but at the very least we will be questioning culture and attitude towards both public displays of excess and private suffering.  It is not about rearing a tea totaling generation, it is about wanting the future generation to recognize that no one starts out as an addict- and to encourage students to realize that more and more society is trying to focus on issues that deal with mental as well as physical health- not from the quick fix of a pill or a drink- but from the long term stabilizing aspects of community, participation and education.  Together; people getting stronger. 


*For more about the show and its characters see the tribute offered by Sarah Michelle Geller who played his daughter in The Crazy Ones