Reflections from the Deck

This is the first morning I can sit on my deck and feel as though I have no particular education-related tasks that have to get done . . . 19 days after the last day of school.  I took an intensive summer class at the University of Regina for the first two weeks of summer, and just completed it yesterday.

We haven’t had rain for so long – it’s so dry!

This post could go a couple of ways.  I could say, “Look at how dedicated I am as a teacher, pursuing professional development opportunities during my vacation time!”  Or, I could talk about how meaningful I find the classes I’ve taken in the past year, and how they’ve made me a better teacher and a role model for my students.  I’m going to go with the latter.

I only have one more class to take to obtain the Special Education Educator Qualification I’m seeking.  That makes me happy for the accomplishment, but sad that it’ll be over.  I’ve found the classes both exhilarating and nourishing.  They’ve challenged me to look at what I do through the lens of research and best practices, and I’ve had the opportunity to meet and collaborate with interesting people from other schools and school divisions, as well as pre-service teachers.  Each time I leave a class, I walk away with greater confidence in my ideas and abilities.  Each one of them has made me feel more powerful as a person and an educator.

How do I transfer those intense feelings about learning to my students?  One of the easiest ways I found this past year was simply talking about it.  The grade 7/8s in particular were always somewhat surprised, but also fascinated, that I was still learning (I know, shocking at my age!!).  They’d ask me how things were going, what kinds of questions I was asking and finding answers to, and we had many discussions about what success looks like.  I hope that I provided good modeling for them – that we learn all our lives, that we are always striving to be better than we were before.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Albert Bandura developed his Social Learning Theory.  At its heart, it states that human behaviour is primarily learned by observing and modelling others.  My students need to see me as a model of what learning looks like, whether it’s talking about the books I read, the classes I take, or looking for answers to questions that come up in class.  As always, it’s what I do and the way I react to situations that have a great influence on the young people I work with.

It reminds me of the poem by Mary Rita Schilke Korzan, called “When You Thought I Wasn’t Looking”:

Thinking We Know More Than We Do

The April 10 episode of The Current on CBC radio included an interview with cognitive scientist Steve Sloman, the co-author of The Knowledge Illusion.  I had to stop what I was doing (washing dishes in my kitchen) and furiously scribble down snippets of what he said that really struck me.

Some of the fragments on my scrap of paper include:  “we use other people to think”, “in order to accomplish things, we work together”, “to do our best work, we have to rely on our communities”.  These thoughts stuck out to me – some of my best learning and teaching experiences have come about through collaboration, and I am so grateful when I find a colleague with whom I can “bounce ideas off”, until we come up with a big, beautiful plan.

I also see this kind of collaboration happening everyday in my kindergarten classroom.  During centres, the students constantly build from each other’s ideas, and they really do rely on their classroom community to do their best work.  It leads me to wonder why we don’t see – or encourage –  as much of this collaboration, this using “other people to think”, as students get older.

Another thing Sloman emphasized was that we need to admit our lack of knowledge and make use of the people around us.  Great leadership and followership should be looking to many people, not one person.  This also struck a chord – how often do I want to be the person who “knows”, and feel a pang of anxiety if I don’t and have to ask someone else for help?

Interestingly, this may be a widespread issue among teachers, this lack of ability to admit that we don’t know everything.  Years ago, when my brother was in the banking industry, he was receiving training in customer service.  The instructor commented that the most difficult customers were generally teachers.  The rationale was that teachers are used to being the smartest person in the room, as well as authority figures.  Teachers, the instructor continued, carry this attitude into other areas of life, and are  difficult to advise because they are less likely to accept the knowledge of people around them.

Sloman’s interview was a great reminder to me that it’s okay not to know everything, that I need to use the people around me for their knowledge, and that together we can do far better work than we can do individually.

Great leadership and followership should be looking to many people, not one person. by Terelyne Vadeboncoeur

Vimy 100

5:30 came and a great light lit the place, a light made up of innumerable flickering tongues, which appeared from the void and extended as far to the south as the eye could see, a light which rippled and lit the clouds in that moment of silence before the crash and thunder of the battle smote the senses. Then the Ridge in front was wreathed in flame as the shells burst, confining the Germans to their dugouts while our men advanced to the assault.

– Private Lewis Duncan to his aunt Sarah, April 17, 1917 (as found in Vimy by Pierre Burton)

Beginning yesterday, Canadians are commemorating the historic Canadian victory at Vimy Ridge.  Being able to take this patch of land – the best defended German position on the Western Front, where British and French armies had failed – was a huge accomplishment for the four divisions of the Canadian Corps.  In April 1917, it had been not quite 50 years since Confederation,  and Canadians have always seen this victory as a “coming of age” for our country.

And an expensive coming of age it was – 3 598 perished in four days of fighting, while another 7 000 were wounded.  With the Canadian population sitting at about eight million at the time, the losses in the battle were overwhelming.

Land still scarred from battle.

In a gesture of gratitude after the First World War, the French government gifted land that included Hill 145 to Canada.  The Canadian government, with architect Walter Allward, set about building a national memorial for the 11 285 Canadian soldiers lost in France who have no known grave.  This magnificent memorial has captured the imaginations of Canadians for almost a century, and many citizens consider seeing the Vimy memorial a “bucket list” item, or a pilgrimage experience.

How does Vimy fit into the classroom?  History and geography are obvious.  In the lead up to Remembrance Day in the fall, my students chose soldiers from Saskatchewan who were lost in the war, used primary sources to get to know them, and then wrote tributes about the men to share with our school community.  Our “Bring the Boys Home” project made men who’d been dead for 100 years very real for my group of 12 and 13 year old students.

We were also fortunate to be able borrow a “Giant Floor Map” from Canadian Geographic.  Being able to “walk” the Western Front, get an idea of the location of the well-known battle sites, and visualize the topography, contributed to a better understanding of the First World War.

Other than the obvious history and geography content, talk of Vimy is also a good jumping off point for conversations on topics that range from the meaning of sacrifice to the importance of relationships between people and countries.  My students and I have spent a lot of time thinking about how we behave in everyday life, and about the leaders we choose, and how those actions can make a difference so that a tragedy of the magnitude of a world war never happens again.

We will remember them.

We will remember them by keeping the peace they gave their lives for.

We will remember them when we work together for the greater good.

We will remember them when we treat others with respect and caring.

We will remember them.

The Power of Talk

I teach kindergarten half-time.  Working with the youngest students in the school is busy, especially during centres time.  Although they develop so much independence over the school year, there are often things they still need help with, whether it’s holding a craft while they tape or staple, solving a conflict with a peer, or helping to clean up a spill.  Then there’s the time that’s needed for various assessments, whether it’s writing observations, direct questioning and testing, or helping students add to their digital portfolios.  This is where my ideal centres world and my lived centres world don’t always match.

But one day last week, my ideal centres world got to come out for a few minutes.  I had time to sit on the floor with four students and build with Kinex.  The time to talk with them about their learning was valuable – I got to hear their thinking about the building process and do a mini-lesson with counting, as well as have them clarify some of their statements.  But equally valuable was the social talking we did – about grandparents, an upcoming trip to Hawaii, and Easter.

Task-driven talk drives much of my time in the classroom.  It’s important to make as much time as possible for social talk that builds and extends relationships with my students.

Would He Want to Be Here?

I’m going back to a prompt from a couple of weeks ago . . .

Would I want to be a student in my own classroom?

I’m doubtful this is the right question to ask.  Of course I’d want to be a student in my own classroom . . . I plan learning activities and have discussions around topics that I’m interested in and passionate about.  I’m totally engaged and learning, and so are all the students who are similar in learning styles and interests to me.

My yardstick for my classroom is usually my son, and whether he’d want to be in my classroom.  He’s 15, and school has never been his favourite place.  He’s also not one of those kids who will sit quietly and endure something he’s not enjoying, which means that there’s also been quite a bit of conflict in his school life. And when we talk about it and he tells me why he feels frustrated and unfulfilled at school, I know he has a point.  The one-size-fits-all, sit-down-and-shut-up,  do-what-I-tell-you model that so many classrooms follow doesn’t work for kids like him, if it works for anyone at all.

My son would thrive in a classroom where he had some choice – a choice of where he sits, what he learns, the way in which he completes assignments, the order in which he completes activities.  He’d also be successful with a teacher who he feels cares about him. Because he’s so often “that kid”, there haven’t been many teachers in his life who have made the effort to get to know him – his interests or his fears.  Those who have developed a relationship with him have seen him blossom.

And that’s my question, always –  “Would he want to be here?”  If I can reply that I’m working on relationships with my students, that I’m giving them choice,  that I’m helping them follow their passions, I think I’m doing okay.  And from okay, I can work towards great.

There are few things as enlightening, and humbling,  for a teacher than having your own child struggle in the school system.  My son has been a great catalyst for me to become more innovative so I can better meet the needs of students like him.  I am so thankful to him for making me a better teacher.

What Surprised You?

I’ve been enjoying reading Reading Nonfiction by Kylene Beers and Robert Probst.  I participated in a book study of their earlier Notice and Note a couple of years ago and was excited to see them add this book to their canon.

One of the high-yield strategies that has entered my classroom because of the book is the question “What surprised you?”  These three simple words have proven to be intensely powerful in getting my grade 7/8 students to talk about reading we’ve done in social studies, or current events we’re discussing.  The question is a strong invitation for students to think about the topic, and leads to deeper thinking.  As Beers and Probst state, students should “expect the text to offer something surprising.”

As I’ve been using the question after reading nonfiction texts, my students are beginning to naturally ask themselves the question before I do.  I hope that this one question will help lead them to think more deeply about their reading, and to become questioners rather than consumers of the nonfiction in their lives.



School vs. Learning

Can I just take a moment to say how much I love my grade 7/8 students?  I only have them for ELA and social studies, but I’ve taught them in some capacity for three years now, and they really do feel close to being my own.

Something I admire about this group is that, for the most part, they do learning, not school.  Our discussions and activities tend to be all about making connections, and are definitely random and non-linear much of the time.  We can start out talking about immigration, and suddenly be checking the Statistics Canada website for a definition for a rural community, referencing a map to figure out the potential routes for new pipelines in Canada (how’d we get there from immigration??), and then be checking the etymology of a word that’s come up in discussion.  Their favourite learning style always involves something social, and they aren’t afraid to challenge each other or me.

Sometimes I panic and think, “Oh no!  What about the curriculum?!”  The beauty is, when I go back and check the outcomes and indicators, we’re hitting them all, and more.  Not all days are like this, but when they are, I have happy and engaged students, and a happy and engaged teacher.

Learning for the win!

Living in Beta


With it being the middle of report card and parent/student/teacher interview time at school, I find myself behind in my #IMMOOC reflections.  A couple of nights ago when I listened to the second YouTube episode, Sarah, George, and Katie all commented on “living in beta”, and I think it was Katie who said something to the effect that if we didn’t work in beta, nothing would ever get done.  So here I am, trying to keep up to the #IMMOOC because I’m living in beta!


The line about living in beta resonated with me because I have to keep myself in check from leaning too far into the perfectionist camp, the camp that says, “I’ll try this once I’ve finished reading the book”, or “I can’t start that until I have a full plan in place.”  My natural inclination is to have my ducks in a row before moving forward, and to be “ready”.  I should know after all these years, that no matter how much work you do in education, there’s still more to be done, and the only time you can have the illusion of being “done” is June 30.

And so this week was a good reminder to jump right in and start working on something new, whether those ducks are wandering all over the yard or not.  We’re all working in beta, and I need to give myself permission that it’s okay to do that.


My Ideal School

I find it interesting that the whole “relationships are the most important thing in education” line of thinking plays itself out when I think about my ideal school.  The first thing that jumps into my mind isn’t the actual structure, the resources, or the curriculum.  Rather, it’s the people I would fill it with.

I’ve been fortunate to teach in many different schools in my career (across three provinces).  I am confident in saying that kids and parents are basically the same everywhere.  There is never enough money for resources to do the things you’d really like to do in education, no matter the government involved.  There is always assessment and curriculum to be questioned for the value it provides to students.  But everywhere, there are great people who are making everything work, no matter what the odds, and inspiring the rest of us as they do it.

My ideal school could be a broken down barn with few resources, but the people I’d populate it with would make it exceptional.  They would make it exceptional because of their passion, their knowledge, their ability to collaborate, their talent at making learning opportunities, sometimes seemingly out of nothing, and their intense desire to make school interesting, safe, and relevant for students.  These people have inspired me in my career because of their curiosity and commitment to their own continued growth and learning, their beliefs in hands-on and experiential learning, and their acknowledgement that most times, we have to go where students lead us.

My ideal school would have many other aspects to it.  There would be lots of messy learning.  Process would be more important than products, and our assessments would reflect that.  Coming from the angle of someone who teaches in both kindergarten and middle years, exploration and inquiry would be key at all ages.  Technology would be employed to connect to others, and share our work.  But the key would always be the passionate people filling the building.

My ideal school would be all about the people in it.  Everything else would be gravy.

I originally started this post during my the writing warm-up time in my grade 7/8 class, on March 2.  I gave them the same prompt as I started with, to choose to do if they wanted (“What would your ideal school look like?”).  The ideas were fabulous!  They were so thoughtful, and it was surprising how many of their ideas aligned with mine.   I might have to share some of them here sometime.


Staying on My Toes

I tried to exercise my brain and body last night as I listened in on the first session of The Innovator’s Mindset MOOC (#IMMOOC) while working out on the treadmill.   My main takeaway was that I have to stay on my toes.  As soon as I start to feel as though I might finally “get” this teaching gig (after 14 years), someone like John Spencer comes and blows me out of the water.  The one thing I should try is design thinking?  Ugh, I don’t think I know anything about it!  Where do I start?  But that’s the nature of curiosity and innovation – someone or something planting the seed, and me taking off with it.  Maybe not in the direction they anticipated, but in the direction I need to go to meet the needs of my students and myself.

Another thing I’ve been thinking about is transformational change.  That’s the buzzword in my province for what our government wants to do in the health, education, and social service sectors.  Most people cynically think it just means taking money and resources out of the system to help eliminate our ballooning deficit.  I want to keep George Couros’ quote in mind as we go through this difficult process – “Change is the opportunity to do something amazing!”  As we head into uncertain times, when we feel that we are having the rug pulled out from under us and are potentially losing co-workers to the process, that it’s going to be increasingly important to look for opportunities in the change.  We owe the positive attitude to ourselves and our students.

* Originally written on February 28, but not published until March 12.