Saturday, 2 May 2015

I Am a Teacher

What does it mean to be a teacher? 

I read an article The Teachers by Sarah Blaine this week and it is something worth sharing with the non-teaching people in your life. She really makes a convincing argument that people outside of the profession really do not understand it.

However, when I was reading her article, I couldn't help but wonder - do we, the education community really - holistically - understand our profession? 

Over the past few weeks I have been a part of some conversations that have got me thinking. These conversations in combination with all of the great reading I have been doing under #makeschooldifferent (started by @mcleod) have made it obvious that as educators, we are perceptive about the challenges facing education today. My sister, @szwildcat, aptly questioned if It is Ok for Anger to Drive Change and then encouraged  Ideas and Action (after the Anger). Although action is needed - I still have so many questions.

What I have been wondering lately is how teachers and administrators can develop systems thinking whilst they are segregated by grade, division or subject? How does a high school English teacher understand how students learn to read for example?

My own journey in education has not been typical. After completing my I/S English/History degree, I wholeheartedly expected to teach high school English and Social Studies for the remainder of my career. I envisioned I would teach, maybe coach some rowing, and inspire young minds to embrace literature the way I had been by my teachers. Life doesn't always mimic our plans - and my journey has been an adventure so far.

Hired as a 7/8 teacher in 2003, I fell in love with the integrated nature of the elementary curriculum. By the time I moved and switched school boards I saw myself as an elementary teacher. Always having had a strength in math, I found myself drawn to any pd around mathematics teaching from very early on in my career. Eventually this lead to accepting a position as a system numeracy coach and four years later to the K-12 numeracy consultant. Recently, after much internal debate, I returned to the classroom, accepting a position in an a ELKP classroom.  The first thing I needed to do was learn how to teach children how to read.

In my journey, I have noticed that secondary teachers often identify with a teaching subject while elementary teachers identify with a division or grade. How do we develop systems thinking amidst this often self-segregating profession? 

I am a teacher. I am not a grade. I am not a division. I am not a subject. How about you?

Thursday, 23 April 2015

Are We the White Rabbit?

At the time I started this blog five months ago, ELKP was at the other end of the rabbit hole. It was an unfamiliar place, filled with Mad Hatters, unbirthdays, talking chess pieces and playing card roylaty. I wrote about this decision in my first post, Begin Again, and ultimately decided to name my blog Re-Visiting the Rabbit Hole as a result of how I was feeling at the time.

On my first day in the classroom I really was reminded of Alice and how she felt shortly after chasing the White Rabbit into Wonderland: overwhelmed, wondering where in the world she was and what to do next: Video Link 

This TubeChop clip taken from YouTube (Alice in Wonderland Part 1, 1985)

Unlike Alice, I did not have a white rabbit to chase and when I think back to those first few weeks, I was definitely in survival mode - but I had sipped the "drink me" potion and there was no turning back.

As the weeks went by, I started to think that there was not just one white rabbit in ELKP - there were many - fifteen in my classroom - and I chased them ( oh boy did I chase them) - all day long.  Not only did I have the help of my colleagues but also that of my ELKP advisors/coaches - my Cheshire cats - who question, sometimes annoy, but force me to grow (figuratively not literally like Alice) every time we meet. I think this conversation between the Cheshire Cat and Alice sums up the relationship I have with my ELKP coaches perfectly:
"Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?" asked Alice 
"That depends a good deal on where you want to get to," said the Cat. 
"I don't much care where ..." said Alice.
"Then it doesn't matter which way you go," said the Cat.
"... so long as I get somewhere," Alice added.
"Oh, you're sure to do that," said the Cat, "if you only walk long enough."

As long as we are moving forward - pushing ourselves to learn - we are on the right path.

It was only when sitting down here now to write this blog - reflecting - that I realized that I may have had the conceit wrong all along. In the ELKP classroom maybe it is me - the teacher - who is the White Rabbit.  We spark our students curiosity and get them to chase us through the rabbit hole to a wonderful - nonsensical - place of learning. 

This metaphor may seem imperfect - the White Rabbit characteristically is anxiety-ridden, obsessed with time (especially being late), at times outright rude to Alice and clearly too concerned about serving the Queen in a timely manner. But is it?

Saturday, 18 April 2015

Ever Tried an Edcamp? #edcampham

A few great friends and colleagues of mine (@mrsturcotte and @mst) invited me to joint them to come to my first ever edcamp in Hamilton. I have always wanted to attend an event like this and I have been looking forward to it for some time.

If you have never been to an edcamp, sometimes referred to as an unconference, the premiss is that attendees both generate and participate in sessions on the day of the event. There are no presentations, no presenters, just people who are open and willing to learn from and with others.

It is quite amazing to witness rooms of educators sharing ideas, questions, challenges and ideas. The complete schedule of the day and shared notes taken by attendees are available in this Google doc:   Not being shy, I found myself jumping into discussions and being challenged to consider my opinions (both outwardly and internally). It was refreshing to be questioned, disagreed with and thanked for good discussion. 

Although an edcamp may not suit every learning style, I highly recommend that you try one out. Where else can you find a group of people discussing the challenges of inquiry in a school courtyard on a Saturday morning?

Picture courtesy of  @Dunlop_Sue:
The highlight of the day for me was meeting a high school student 
who, having seen reference to the edcamp on Twitter, asked the organizers if she could attend. Her polite assertiveness was inspiring to me (and I do not think that I was alone). She was courteous and complementary about our efforts to be there - to make education different - and to continue to grow towards a system that would work better. Student voice is so important - and she really made the day more meaningful with her honesty. 

Don't be surprised it there is an edcamp in Niagara within the next year - I've definitely caught the edcamp bug!

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

#MakeSchoolDifferent Five Things We Need to Stop Pretending in Education

This afternoon, I came across @fryed's response to this blog challenge. It was not difficult for me to resist adding my own ideas to the mix - 

5 Things We Need To Stop Pretending in Education ...

(1) We need to stop pretending that mental health is really a priority whilst publicly funded support for children experiencing mental health crises is near impossible to access in a timely manner (either within or outside of school board environments - wait lists and red tape are often insurmountable). If mental health is truly a priority (and I believe it should be) funding should indicate that it is. There have been many gains in the past few years, but there is much more work to do.

(2) We need to stop pretending that assessment practices can really change effectively in Ontario until the summative report card is altered to highlight learning. This is especially true in the primary division where letter grades do nothing much more than create fixed mindsets in children for who being categorized and labeled seems a life-sentence. Something more inline with BC's checklist-based reports or a combination of checklists and comments just makes sense.

(3) We need to stop pretending that there is equity in the funding formula. Per student funding works only in theory. Every school board community is different as is each school within each board. Even the MOE has demonstrated they recognize the constraints with initiatives to bridge gaps like SaNB (Small and Northern Boards).

(4) To echo @fyed, we need to stop pretending that it is okay that the internet is not accessible to all. Hardware infrastructure is also essential. BYOD is a double-edged sword: it reduces the cost of hardware on boards and schools while increasing inequity within schools, boards and the province.

(5) We need to stop pretending that all curriculum expectations are made equal. Teachers are phenomenal in their abilities to multi-task, integrate and make time for the hundreds of curricular expectations they find themselves responsible for in a given year. We know that Early Literacy and early numeracy are essential for the future success of our students, yet as teachers we are expected to EVALUATE our youngest students by assigning a letter grade to areas like science, social studies, health and physical education. Exposure to all of these areas is important - but if the evaluation of these content areas is taking time away from helping students learn to read - aren't our priorities misplaced?

What are your thoughts on my list of five? Where do you feel we need to stop pretending in education ...?

Sunday, 29 March 2015

If You Want to Cover the Curriculum - Sit on it

Even after spending the past few years venturing into the Twitterverse, the openness and honesty of passionate educators and their willingness to engage in open debate still strikes me from time to time.Yesterday I happened upon one of these debates in which a few educators I follow were discussing the use of coding in the classroom. This particular debate caught my attention because it seemed to be revolving around an ongoing question that we all grapple with: can we teach what is not curriculum? (especially when there is so much curriculum?)

In my time working at the system level as a numeracy coach and consultant it was a big part of my job to encourage teachers to both know their curriculum and use it as their program.  There is so much rich content to be explored in mathematics and all too often it gets rushed through as teachers feel pressured to cover curriculum even if that means having students fill every page of a workbook. Many teachers are not aware that a textbook or program may only include about 80% of curriculum expectations for a given subject and there will be many aspects of those same books that are not curriculum requirements.

A much-respected mentor of mine, now retired, always reminded us: "If you want to cover the curriculum - sit on it. If you want students to learn - inspire them to want to do so."

Luckily in Ontario, our curriculum documents not only allow for creativity and innovation, they are laden with specific frameworks to encourage just that. For example, the mathematics curriculum document provide us with seven mathematical process expectations (problem solving, communication, reasoning & proving, selecting tools & computational strategies, connecting, representing, and reflecting) that really should become the central force of any mathematics classroom. Likewise, the Social Studies curriculum lists The Concepts of Social Studies Teaching (pp.58-62) and Science & Technology document details the Skill Continua for Scientific Inquiry and Technological Problem Solving (pp. 12-18) to encourage us to develop an understanding of the content in ways that allow for creativity and innovation.

Just because there is a rigid relationship between curriculum and evaluation does not mean that our teaching hands are tied. If we ground ourselves in an inquiry stance that allows us to open up our methods in ways that encourage our students to learn, we can create learning environments that prepare our students to adapt to an ever-changing world. I believe it is our responsibility as educators to be model learners: to take risks, to assess for learning and grow from our mistakes.

To those coding trailblazers out there - it is inspiring to "lurk and learn" from you. Cheers.

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Play-based Connundrums Need Superheroes

My students love to engage in dramatic play - especially when it replicates things they enjoy. It can be challenging to know when it is necessary to set limitations to play. Body contact and red zone emotions (angry, mad) are clear flags that some teacher intervention is needed.  As a teacher who is new to ELKP, I have been struggling to know when to join into play, when to let the plot line develop and when to put the brakes on play.

Plot lines evolve over time in our room, but recurring themes tend to include zoo animals and puppies but most often involve Transformers, X-Men, the Avengers and Ninja Turtles. Recently a great number of my students spent the day with self-made ninja turtle bandannas glue-sticked to their foreheads.  The only theme I have banned from the classroom is that of the Walking Dead. I am a huge fan of the show and have read all of the graphic novels, but feel its content is not appropriate for the classroom setting. Having a young son of my own, I find it easy to follow the script of their play and I usually only intervene when they have created weapons, are escalating in volume or for the above mentioned red flags. 

Recently, I had some huge aha moments when reading The Play's the Thing: Teachers Roles in Children's Play by Elizabeth Jones & Gretchen Reynolds. (I came across the book on Twitter and was drawn to it - especially since one of the authors and I share the same name.) These superhero authors have done a wonderful job outlining the many roles of a teacher in a play-based environment: we are stage managers, mediators, players, scribes, assessors, communicators and planners.  I highly recommend the book if you have not already read it.  Reading it (and re-reading it) has helped me to recognize my strengths and set goals for improvement.

One of my take-aways from this book has been my changing understanding of my role as a mediator:  
"Teacher-as-mediator is not simply managing behavior; she is teaching social skills and suggesting ideas to enrich play." (p.36)

Upon reflection I realized that all too often I am acting as police officer in dramatic play - rather than mediator. It is a challenge to make the time to mediate play, especially when you are engaged in something like guided reading.  But I have come to realize that it is vital that I do so. In an attempt to quell the violent nature some of these play themes garner, I am finding that a simple prompt like, "who are you saving?" can do wonders to redirect the play to more positive themes that super heroes can invoke.

It is an uphill battle, and I am making baby steps - but I do believe in play.

What have you read that helped you define your role in the play-based environment?

Saturday, 7 March 2015

The Game-changer

Any time a new student joins a classroom it changes the dynamics. 
How can we prepare our students to be accepting of all students and welcoming to new friends?

In February we were having a lot of impromptu conversations about love. Valentines Day tends to initiate those curiosities. It was the perfect opportunity to explore the golden rule. Loving others and treating them as we would want to be treated is not an easy task for adults, let alone Kindergartners. 

Let's be honest. If we take a moment in our daily lives to really pay attention to how we are treating each human being we come into contact with we will notice there is room for improvement. That guy that just cut you off with his big truck? You may feel irritated (in the yellow zone - and maybe even approaching the red), but if you knew he was racing to pick up his sick child from school, or even late for work - afraid that this time would be his boss' last straw - would that change how you feel? This strategy - creating a story- is something that I use all the time to help me to engage my empathy.

Often we differentiate how we treat our students based on what we know about them and their lives. There are so many reasons these differences are necessary. I recently blogged about a band-aid activity I used to explain differentiation to my kindergartners. Our young students may not have the capacity to truly understand differentiation, but they do understand how to love.

Just after Christmas break one of my students moved and our small class was down to 14 students. With no ECE, our class has a maximum capacity of fifteen. Since then, my students have been asking when we will have a new friend join us to replace the student who had left. Often, during prayers we would ask God to send us a new friend. Last week those prayers were answered. A new student joined our classroom - the game-changer.

Welcomed with excitement and open arms, the game-changer tore into our classroom and spun us around like a washing machine. There have been moments where I feel we have gone back in time, and that all our hard work to develop our classroom community has vanished. My students with eyes wide are still adjusting - but something wondrous is occurring. With any concern (ex. The game-changer dumped out all the Lego) my response has been, "the Game-changer needs love". They do not know why nor can they, but yet my students show empathy. They are learning to live by the golden rule.