#educon Reflection

This past weekend I was privileged to attend EduCon in Philadelphia with a few fellow passionate Ontario educators. The conference is centered on the idea of having conversations rather than presentations and we took this to heart. We spent hours listening, talking, and reflecting with such depth that I’m still in a mental fog today.

Through these conversations, a few prominent themes emerged:

  1. Perspective is everything:
    • I really appreciated the window into the US education system as although I constantly push for change here in Ontario, we are so blessed to have our current system. There were many conversations that discussed the issue of race and although racism is still an issue here, we do not experience the same degree as in the States.
  2. Community is the foundation:
    • We spent much of our time observing and talking to the students of The Science Leadership Academy, but what was truly fascinating was how expressed their thinking about the school. One student described that being a SLA student means that he thinks of the learning of his peers first and his own second. They want everyone to be successful and are there to support each other through the learning journey. It’s something I feel that I’m able to cultivate in my classroom, but it’s so very impressive on a school scale. We observed and commented on how happy and relaxed the atmosphere was in the school rather than the stressed out and tense environment that school seems to so often be for our students. Even the teachers looked calm and relaxed which resonated with us.
  3. Look for, listen to, and tell stories:
    • I loved this message. It came up a variety of time through presentations, conversations with students, but the deepest influence on me came from conversations on the journey home. Stories have immense power and if we don’t continue to tell or listen to the ones we see or hear everyday, we are losing out on what makes us human.
  4. Develop and continue to demonstrate an “ethic of care”
    • Zac Chase (one of the founding teachers at the SLA) discussed this in relation to the idea of data. We are living in a data driven world and at the SLA, data is important, but they are not focused on achievement data. He described that data needs to be knowing our students. Data such as the number of students who don’t have food to eat for breakfast or that a student doesn’t have a warm coat or which students are going through any number of difficult situations in their lives. It’s knowing your students, but more importantly, them knowing that you care about them as human beings.
  5. Language matters
    • Chris Lehmann discussed how we often “operate at a deficit” when we think about school and learning. It is human nature to look for all the negatives in the situation rather than flipping it to see all the awesomeness that is life. To combat this he talked about how we need to talk to each other in meaningful ways which allows us to take time to be human and vulnerable and at the end of the day, hopeful. It was a message that truly resonated with me.

So thank you students and staff at SLA. I feel blessed and honoured to have learned from you.

Thank you also to my travel companions as I have not thought so deeply as I did this weekend.

My brain and heart are full.


Student-Teacher Bond

On Tuesday of this week I read Will Richardson’s blog post, “We Feel Lost” which included a letter from a student about how he feels about today’s education system and it made me wonder about my students and how they feel. Two periods a day they are in my class working in a more personalized environment, but the other two periods they are in a more traditional classroom. (On a random note, the pure fact that I have tables rather than individual desks has apparently earned me the honour? of my classroom being referred to as a “party room” rather than a classroom. I’m still grappling with whether I should be flattered or offended… Sigh.)

The responses were interesting and eye opening for me. As can be expected with a group of 25 students, the responses were quite varied. Some got frustrated with the competitive aspect of the traditional classroom as in my room we focus on individual growth and feedback rather than grades, some also took the positive route and talked about how we are in a transition period in education and that we don’t quite have it figured out yet, but what many students chose to focus on was the bond between a student and the teacher.

I’ve always thought it was important to have a connection with every single student as my favourite teachers were ones that chose to know me as more than just the student in their class. I don’t remember the lessons that those teachers taught in class, but I remember the teachers that listened to me when I was having issues, that listened to me when I was in a good place in my life, the coaches and band conductors, and the mentors who provided leadership opportunities because they knew my dream was to be a teacher. So to pay homage to those amazing influences in my life, I’ve tried to do that with my own students.

The conversations that I had with my students this week after reading this blog post confirmed that it’s the human connection students want from their teachers. They don’t want their heads crammed full of knowledge. They want to be listened to, inspired by, inquisitiveness fostered, but at the heart of it, feel that they matter. It was an unexpected, but beautiful reminder of the power and influence that we have every single day.

Wanting to Learn More About… A post inspired by @willrich45

Screenshot 2016-01-16 at 9.56.06 AM

I read this tweet this morning and it has me thinking. One of the most important aspects of my job is knowing my students as individuals and I spend a lot of time interacting with them to try and figure out what makes each one tick. I think many teachers feel that they don’t have the time to do this step, but I would argue that it is one of the most crucial aspects of my practice as it fosters a relationship with the student. It helps the student to trust that I have their best interests at heart and am going to be there to support them on their individual learning journey.

With this in mind, I spend a lot of time reading about topics that I know my students find interesting that aren’t necessarily things I would choose to learn about personally. I want my students to be curious individuals and by learning about their passions, I feel that helps maintain their inquisitiveness as well as allow them to see me in the role of the learner. I want them to feel that they can teach me and by putting myself in the role of the learner and they as teacher, I am helping to foster their confidence and independence.

The other reason that I feel it’s important for me to be learning about what my students are interested in is that I want to be able to push their thinking further. For example, one of my students was commenting on my handwriting on the whiteboard. She noticed that it was “neater” than usual (there is a reason why I type a lot…) but it lead to a conversation about handwriting analysis and introverts versus extroverts. I don’t really know much about hand writing analysis, but she found it fascinating that how we write can reveal aspects of our personality. From our conversation, she set off on a tangent on the web to learn more. If I hadn’t listened to her or engaged her in the conversation about her observations then she wouldn’t have been motivated to learn more.

From this small reflection, it has me excited about what happens when you put another teacher into the mix. Starting in second semester, Andrew Bieronski and I will be team teaching our grade ten English classes. We will be using our digital tools to create a community, but we will also be spending time in each other’s classes so we can have face to face interactions and get to know the students. I am really looking forward to seeing what happens when our students have access to both of us and hearing their reflections about how learning changes when you have access to two teachers for one class.

I’m so excited for this next advancement in our pedagogy and what our students will leave both the physical and digital spaces wanting to know more about.

Feeling Blessed #3uu

Tomorrow starts our single digit countdown until the end of the semester and I’m feeling blessed yet a bit sad. Blessed because this semester has been the highlight of my career thus far, but sad as these amazing young people will be leaving my classroom.

The 3UU class has had many amazing learning opportunities throughout the semester by connecting with others from all over the world. We used the tools at our disposal to broaden our thinking and invite other viewpoints into our conversation. We’ve also had the ability to share our thinking with others and to have authentic audiences for our voices. Finally, we have engaged in deeply meaningful projects that have furthered our learning, but also developed our communication and soft skills.

Through all those amazing experiences, I feel blessed to know the individuals in this class. They are deeply committed to learning, want to grow, care about the world, care about the well being of others, are creative and innovative, and have such a variety of skills and interests that have made this semester outstanding. We have had dynamic conversations and on so many days I left school feeling like I learned more from them than they did from me.

I firmly believe that these people are going to change the world and I feel privileged to know and have learned with them. Students like these are what makes me love being an educator.


Focusing on grades not learning in elementary school

On the weekend we attended a birthday party for our niece and I always find the conversations about school fascinating at family gatherings. We have nieces who are 10 and 7 and since our oldest is in senior kindergarten and really enjoying the play-based learning environment, I’m curious about the change she will experience when she enters primary and junior classrooms.

My 10 year old niece is in grade four and it is obvious that she experiences a lot of success in her traditional classroom. I say traditional as she seems to talk a lot about tests and projects that she and her classmates complete. I listened in on the conversation she had with her grandma about how school was going and cringed the entire time. She very obviously enjoys what she’s doing as she receives good grades, but it is so disappointing that what she is proud of is the grade and not the learning that occurred during the process. She was also able to explain to her grandma that a level 3 was like a B or a 75. Why does that matter to a 10 year old? Somewhere along the way, it has been reinforced that it’s the grade that counts and my guess is that school mostly to blame for that thinking.

She was especially proud of a cartoon she had to draw about how blood is pumped through the body by the heart. I appreciated that it wasn’t just a note that she had to write, but she was regurgitating content that she learned in class and that was what was evaluated. I’m not a science teacher, but I can imagine so many more things to do with that information rather than have them just produce a cartoon explaining the information. Besides, that is only the Knowledge category on the Achievement Chart. Where was the Application? Perhaps I’m being too hard and there is a plan for future learning, but my intuition tells me I’m on to something…

My niece is a pretty amazing kid (and yes I am biased) but what she didn’t highlight about herself in the conversation were her strong skills of imagination and interpersonal intelligence. Over the Christmas holidays we watched a video in which she wrote, directed, and starred. The video was thoughtful, funny, and engaging. She did it as a gift for the family which demonstrated her creativity and desire to connect with her audience. She has also been selected as a peer helper in her school. She spends various recesses with the primary students helping with conflict resolution as well as inclusivity. Those are the skills that I think are amazing and yet, she didn’t mention them at all. It was her mom that shared how she is working on this special conflict resolution team. I don’t think she even realizes the importance of those skills as they aren’t what earn her good grades…

The really sad part of this story is that she is not unique in this thinking. So many of our students have this thinking ingrained in them from a young age. It’s a culture change that needs to happen so that she and other young children don’t lose their creativity and innovative spirit.

The Purpose of School: Washington Post Article Observations and Reflections

Yesterday I read a thought-provoking article: The Washington Post – A Venture Capitalist Searches for the Purpose of School. Here’s What he Found by Ted Dintersmith and I wanted to highlight some aspects that stood out to me.

The article was scathing in how the current education model is functioning, but what especially stood out to me was the suggestion that school can “Impair Life Prospects.” Ted Dintersmith even goes so far as to suggest,

“Creative expansive thinking turning into narrow, prescriptive “right answers,”. Inquisitiveness shriveling up into “Will this be on the test?”   A joy for learning worn down into time-efficient hoop-jumping. A willingness to take intellectual risks morphing into formulaic responses without risk of embarrassment.”

Wow but true…  I kept reading:

“But what came across loud and clear in my journeys is that schools don’t have the luxury of striving for any meaningful purpose. We’ve somehow imposed a system on our educators that requires them to:

  • cover volumes of bureaucratically-prescribed content
  • boost scores on increasingly-pervasive standardized tests
  • get kids through this year’s vacuous hoops to prepare for next year’s vacuous hoops
  • produce acceptable graduation rates and college placements
  • deal with parents who are either obsessive micro-managers or missing in action.”

Ouch – and then:

“And how much are our kids really learning? If there’s one thing I learned, it’s that they’re not learning. Practically anything.”

Mic drop…

Luckily, he did have some positive experiences through visits to schools like High Tech High (on my bucket list to visit) and even ended on this optimistic note that really resonated with me:

“So back to that purpose question. Maybe, in the end, the purpose of school is to help our kids find their own sense of purpose. To prepare them for a life where they can set, and achieve, their own goals, not grind away to meet the needs of some bureaucrat or college admissions officer. Given decades of damage from our testing and accountability strategy, maybe it’s time to place our bets on a strategy that puts its weight behind engaging and inspiring our kids . . . and teachers. Imagine what our country is capable of if we figure out how to launch millions of purpose-driven kids into society prepared and energized to their world better through their talents, passions, developing skills, and ability to learn. Kids that are, truly, prepared for life.”

We do have this capacity here in Ontario. It’s going to take time, but we can do it. With more creativity, innovation, and imagination on our part, it can happen. There are pockets of innovation happening all over this province and we need to be celebrating classrooms like Colleen Rose’s.

At the very minimum, however, we need to continue to contemplate the purpose of school with the first step being a culture shift to schools as learning spaces not data driven classrooms.

Grades: The Currency of Learning

Yesterday I watched Will Richardson‘s latest Ted Talk called the Surprising Truth About Learning in Schools. In his talk he suggested that our grading system needs to change and I couldn’t agree more. I’ve written a number of times about how I struggle with the idea of the complexity of learning being reduced to a number, but what I think needs to happen is a culture shift not only about grades, but about learning.

Some observations I have about grading:

  • can harm student well-being:
    • promotes unhealthy competition between classmates which diminishes the collaborative spirit
    • students feel poorly about their abilities to learn if they receive a grade below what they feel they deserve
    • can inhibit their motivation and desire to learn
    • causes stress and anxiety for students which in turn activates the fight or flight system in their brains
  • inhibits learning
    • grades take the focus off what it means to learn
    • encourages compliance to meet the expectations set by the teacher rather than encouraging the student to be a self-directed learner
    • takes the joy out of learning

In comparison, some observations I have about iterative cycles or feedback loops without grades:

  • enhances student well-being:
    • promotes collaboration through a common goal of solving a problem, creating a product, or stimulating curiosity
    • students are challenged and encouraged to go off on tangents and look for problems to solve
    • students feel like they are making a difference when they feel that others will appreciate and provide feedback about their work rather than criticize it for what they didn’t do
    • students feel encouraged and supported to make multiple attempts rather than experiencing defeat after one draft-revision cycle
    • students don’t experience the fight or flight flood of emotions – they experience struggle, but this motivates them to deepen their learning
  • fosters learning
    • students take ownership of their learning and determine their own journey
    • students want to share their learning with a broader audience other than just the teacher
    • students feel like they have purpose
    • have fun exploring and discovering
    • school becomes relevant and meaningful (Will shares his observations from watching his own children go through the school system – something that I am starting to get nervous for as Lexie heads to grade one next year)

The currency aspect of grades is very apparent in today’s classroom and especially obvious to me on parents’ night. Will mentions that we are familiar with the grading system and it is meaningful for parents when it comes to understanding how their child is doing in the classroom. However, it is time to change that thinking. The currency needs to become a conversation about growth and goals rather than numbers. One way to start this conversation is by removing the median grades off the report cards so that we can do away with the competitive component of school. It is so important that we start teaching the parents that learning is about so much more and that each child is on their own journey.

In my conversations with my 3UU students this week, we have been using the language of skills and areas for growth as well as appreciating the skills that have developed over the past semester. We don’t talk in the language of numbers as they don’t give the full picture. The students know so much more about my observations and have an opportunity to reflect on where they want to go with their learning, and that is our new currency.

Learning and Growth: More Important than Numbers

We are coming to the end of the semester and one thing I am doing in my 3UU class is conferencing with each student about what they have learned, created, and reflected upon in their Passion Projects. From these conferences, I come away so impressed by how interested these students are in the world, but also how aware they are of their own strengths and areas for growth.

Throughout the time they worked on this project, I spent a lot of time checking in face to face, but also leaving a multitude of comments on their Google Docs. I wanted to experiment with the idea of copious amounts of descriptive feedback while in process rather than closer to and at the end of the project. So many of the students expressed that they really appreciated hearing my feedback along the way. I had many comments about how they felt they were able to adapt what I was saying and use it in the process rather than hearing about it at end in a more traditional feedback loop. It was more of an iterative cycle and that seemed to resonate with the students. Another positive outcome was that their final projects were of much higher quality than other work they had completed earlier in the semester.

The conferences I am having now are more of a debriefing session where we discuss the process that each student underwent and the strategies they employed throughout the task. These conversations are fascinating. The students have such a handle on their strong attributes as well as truly understand their areas for growth. I often think we don’t give students enough credit when it comes to understanding their own abilities as they weren’t checking off a rubric – they were reflecting which is so much more valuable.

After these conferences, my mind is buzzing and it even more so reinforces that we need to personalizing education for each individual student. It’s not acceptable to give each student the same task with the same generic feedback at the end and then reduce it to a two-digit number. There is so much depth in humanity and by allowing students to show us their thinking, inspirations, ability to reflect, interests, skills, and selves, we are opening them up to possibilities rather than closing doors.



Where is the learning? and Is it relevant? – my two questions for the year

New Year’s resolutions aren’t something that appeal to me as I’m always creating goals, reflecting, revising, and thinking again, but I have been thinking about a couple questions that I want to ask myself quite frequently over the next year. “Where is the learning?” and “Is it relevant?”

Yesterday I spent the morning with a person I find fascinating, creative, and inspiring: my dance teacher/hairdresser. I have written before about pushing myself out of my comfort zone by taking a hip hop class, but as that was two years ago, I was reflecting yesterday about how much I have learned from this man. He is a brilliant and beautiful dancer, but also an excellent hair stylist and yet, when I asked him what were his main influences and/or poignant experiences that helped shape him into the man he is today, school wasn’t on his list nor were any of his high school teachers. What was at the top of his list, however, were his family and dance. He feels blessed that his family always supports him in whatever he wants to do with his life, but he also credits his experiences with dance for giving him skills for life.

From dance he learned how to be

  • creative and express himself through music and art
  • confident in front of a group of people (in spite of being an introvert)
  • able to connect with an audience
  • able to emote to take others on a journey
  • able to connect with others on an interpersonal level

The skills he developed from dance have benefited him in his professional life as a hairdresser as he is able to make deep connections with his clients, figure out what each individual client is looking for as he is listening to his or her cues, and is able to get up in front of his peers on a monthly basis to share new and innovative products that are happening in his field.

As I am always curious about the experiences people have had with school, I asked him if he enjoyed his time at school and the answer was no. He told me that he felt deflated at school because he couldn’t memorize and regurgitate on tests and assignments, but yet could memorize all his dance numbers (often upwards of 20 at a time) and perform them perfectly. That story really left an imprint on me as when dancers perform, not only do they the dance, they tell us a story that allows us to create our own interpretations. Tests and assignments don’t often allow for those additional elements, but that’s where the learning happens as the audience is then making connections and learning. To me, those skills are so much more valuable than the content of a test.

In telling this story, I feel that we have come to a time in education where stories like this will happen less and less frequently as although this is just one man, the bones of his story are true for so many people. All we have to do is see the possibilities by looking at the students in front of us and seeing the world through their eyes. Students spend so much time with us so we need to be making learning relevant for each individual in that class. I really feel that we can no longer use a one size fits all mentality to “teach.” We need to be learning with our students, and providing experiences for our students to gain the soft skills that are so very valuable in today’s information society. But more than anything, we need to be treating students like they matter and that they are supported when they are successful and when they need to iterate again.

So over the next couple of months I plan to ask myself, my students, and others those questions as I think the answers will be fascinating and hopefully inspiring.

Visual Thinking

Our learning space is full of whiteboards and one of my colleagues commented that I use them all the time. It’s true that I do often use the boards to share my thinking, but what I’m encouraging my students to do is use it as a means of sharing their thinking. 

Google, Communitech, and Apple all have made it a priority to have wall space available to their employees to brainstorm, collaborate, and just plain think. It’s curious to me that when you think of a classroom, that the writing on the boards should be the teacher’s. I want my students to be sharing their thinking as you never know who is going to read what’s up there and then add something that deepens the learning. 

In thinking about the learning process, the potential for deeper thinking is present in the brainstorming phase. By having students share their thinking in a very visual way, it opens the door to furthwr discussion with me and their peers. Of course technology also provides a space for this, but sometimes the low tech methods can be more appealing as students are working face to face rather than through a screen. 

It also gives me the opportunity to see the beginning of the process and have a conversation about where the thinking is going. I have been reflecting and am quite concerned with the common practice of only giving feedback at the end of a task. Our role as teachers is changing and feedback during the process is vital for deep critical thinking as the process is where the learning happens. If our feedback is only at the end, we are doing a disservice to our students. 

The other benefit is that it works for observational data for assessment. I often take photos of the visual thinking on the boards and take note of the students involved. It helps me to have a more complete picture of my students and their abilities, but in a non-threatening and relaxed environment. 

I’m only at the beginning of my own research into this, but when you can take photos such as the ones below, it’s a practice that deserves more consideration.