Wednesday, September 7, 2011

A fresh start

I had a very profound moment yesterday. I had the privilege of standing before 25 brand new education students on their first day of class. They looked nervous and withheld, but they all had a story that brought them there to join me in this outstanding profession. I instantly envisioned them all in their own classrooms, years from now, impacting my future through the kids they were teaching.

I could have bottled up the compassion, the hope, and the quiet enthusisam in that room. Not to mention the diverse narratives and years of varied experience just waiting to be unleashed on children. It's like being a candy store of ideas.

And all I could think was.....what an blessing it was for me to share that first day. I am going to teach teachers and I couldn't be happier, more scared, or more honored. So I guess those 25 teachers-to-be and I were all in the same boat. This is going to be my journey as well.

Monday, May 30, 2011

How do you show up to the online classroom?

Can a teacher be present with their students without being physically present in the classroom?

Even with the education world focused on the learner, there is no doubt about the power of the teacher to add engagement, expertise, encouragement, management, feedback and inspiration. But does the teacher need to exist in the flesh, alongside the learners? How would a teacher achieve this sense of "presence" in an online class?

I just finished an online post-graduate course in which I felt very connected to both my teacher and my class-mates, even though I live in a completely different hemisphere to them. How did this happen?

1. Basic introductions. Introducing yourself and inviting your students to do the same builds community. A creative idea I grabbed from an article was to have the students write a short paragraph on what they could see from outside the window of their workspace. It adds a sense of place.
2. Immediacy of communication. My professor would respond to emails within 48 hours. This made me feel like he was right there rather than a million miles away.
3. Creative collaboration. Instead of just posting reflection to the discussion board, my professor had us post our own critical questions to one another, to which we all responded, including him.

And some other great ideas from my work:
  • video posts
  • clear direction around the course activities and materials
  • news posts of current issues on the course subject
  • good balance of individualized communication and whole group communication
  • class polls
  • utilization of collaborative software such as google docs and PBWorks.
  • Include humor
Whether we like it or not, online learning is here to stay, and relationship formation and communication through the internet is commonplace. We need to learn how best to capitalize on this and make our presence stronger than ever in our classes.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Mr Anderson

My favourite teacher will always be Mr Anderson. I had him for both grade six and seven. He was crazy yet instrumental in many areas of my life. As a teacher who wants to make an impact in kids lives, I often refer to the things that made an impact on mine.....and re-use them. If I remember something I learned 23 years ago then it must have been taught well. So what was it that he did right?

1. My love for running, playing sports and being outdoors was affirmed by his passion for it as well. He gave me permission to start becoming me.
2. He never did anything in halves. Once we had a pirate theme and he filled one half of the classroom with sand so we could have a beach.
3. He loved to teach. He always seemed to be having fun.
4. He took learning outside of the classroom and the books and made it real. We did an archeology dig on the field (apparently he got in trouble for that), constructed stuff in science, and went on excursions.
5. He made everything into a game, or real-life simulation. We had a class currency, banking system and jury that would trial people at the end of the week for various misdemeanors.
6. He introduced us to a lot of random things - I picked up my love for graphic design and orienteering right there in grade 6/7

So, when I want to be a good teacher, I try to be Mr Anderson. Love what you do, go beyond the job description, be creative, make it real, and go a little crazy.

Thanks sir.

How do we learn?

I'm in the business of techno-fying learning. Aren't we all? E-learning, M-learning, online learning, digital learning..... it's all about making learning cool and accessible. Students learn better when we add technology, or so the theory goes. And there are a lot of bells and whistles to sprinkle through our courses and teaching these days, most of which assist in the dissemination of information. The list includes social media, podcasts, video-conferencing, flash interactions, games, audio supplements, Youtube, iPad technology, quizzes for your mobile phone, e-books, learning management systems, chat rooms, presentation authoring tools....just to name a few.

A walk through my campus study hall during the semester would suggest that we are on the right track with all this technology. Every student is sitting in front of a laptop, iPad, or cell phone. It seems that if you want students to learn, you need to speak their language, and that language is digital.

But this is only the surface impression. The week before exams painted a very different picture. When crunch time arrived and everyone was madly trying to 'learn', the laptops disappeared. Technology took on a very retro form - the highlighter. I saw only paper modules, study guides, scribbles down the margin and fluorescent highlights. Apparently, when it comes to learning, things haven't changed at all.

The question that often gets lost in all the glamor of technology is, "How do we best learn?" And I'll leave that for another post.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Motivation and Inspiration

I recently had the privilege to speak to the staff at my old school. It was such a breath of fresh air to walk into the hallway of a new school day. Even though I am really content with my career choice at this moment, I was a little jealous of my ex-colleagues and the day that was ahead of them, filled with kids and creativity and a bit of holy chaos. Maybe a lot of chaos. I really do miss teaching.

I spoke about motivation and inspiration:

Motivation: a chest-pounding, fist-in-the-air, Eye of the Tiger drive to achieve (cue music).

Inspiration: to breathe life into.

Definitions mine.

I subscribe to both. I believe they are both important but fundamentally different. So, I asked which is more important as a teacher. The consensus lay with inspiration, reasons being that it was longer lasting, more authentic, true to our humanity, and more powerful to create change. Agreed.

And then I asked what we focus on in schools. As teachers, we spend our days motivating. We find creative and sometimes sneaky ways to motivate kids to read a book, do a math problem, complete their homework, stay quiet....etc. We are trained to give the "tools and strategies" they need to achieve, and that is a good thing. It's easy to motivate. You get psyched yourself, put Chariots of Fire on the Ipod (I've actually done that), and then dangle a reward or punishment in front of them. I'm a master at motivation. I can bend the will of almost any kid I've ever encountered.

But how do you inspire?

I can only model inspiration. I need to be inspired myself, and then live out that inspiration in front of my students, unashamedly. Sure, I'm not always inspired, but I know how to get inspired. I know whose blog to read, and which TED video to watch, I know to hit the mountains, find some solitude, drink a bottle of wine with certain friends. I know to run and reflect and listen to opera. I know to pray.

Find inspiration.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011


I am currently working as an instructional designer. But really, I am in the business of teacher-proofing education. As we move more toward online learning, or whatever you want to call it, there is more emphasis on student-driven learning, or self-directed learning. In other words, learning without a teacher. Everything you want to know, or know how to do, you can get off the Internet. I want to learn how to use the Adobe CS suite and I could either pay to take a structured face-to-face course, which seems very cumbersome, or dig up a tutorial online and learn at my own convenience. Between Open Source Courseware and You Tube, the entire world of knowledge is there for the taking. And that's great.

So, what is the point of the teacher? The thing that I am most passionate about seems to be becoming less important, and sometimes I feel like I'm the one driving it into the grave.

The thing is, I still believe in teaching, despite my current career choice, or perhaps because of what I am learning from it. I have no doubt the students can learn by themselves (some of them), but what a magical piece we are missing when we remove the teacher from education! Yes, we are technicians in a way: we write courses, we manage classrooms and behaviour, we give instruction, we assess and write reports, we prepare lesson plans and communicate with parents, we design activities, we keep up with the latest technology and try to meet the learning needs of everyone in the class. However, the teacher brings something to the class that no online program will offer: human connection. And through that human connection we get inspiration, empathy and deeper understanding. The role of the teacher is to get the students psyched on the content, on the world around them, and on their own capabilities.

"We need to be less concerned with developing and purchasing practitioner-proof products and more concerned with supporting product-proof practitioners- Jody Fitzpatrick

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Planned Failure

"Failure is always an option"
- Adam Savage

What if we fostered more failure in the classroom? For most kids, school is a place of performance, a place where they are constantly being judged, measured and evaluated. If you "Google" quotes about failure you will find hundreds of references from very successful people about the value of failure, from Albert Einstein to CS Lewis. So, how do we encourage failure, support it, and teach children to learn from it without destroying their self esteem in a system that values A's and success on the first go?

Once again, I return to the most reliable tool we have: modeling. As adults, we are even worse at putting ourselves in vulnerable situations. Why? Because we have the ability to choose our path and we tend to choose the direction of our abilities. I mean, who chooses to do something they are not very good at? We don't like to feel like a fumbling novice, overwhelmed by a new situation, made to look incompetent in front of others. So how, as teachers, can we empathize with children in the classroom? My dear friend and colleague, Joline, introduced me to the idea of "Planned Failure" many years ago. She enrolls herself in a new activity or project each year in order to keep fresh the experience of learning (and everything that goes with it). Simple, yet brilliant. My first planned failure project was art class. The worst painting on history was plastered to my fridge door all year to remind me daily of what it is like to feel awkward and incompetent again. But I was also reminded of nights spent hunkered over a canvas with paint up my arms and the freedom to just explore a new part of myself. Last year, I tried rock-climbing. It is frustrating, but also exhilarating to find yourself at that end of the learning curve.

So for 2011, I'm still coming up with my planned failure project. I'm thinking of trying to squeeze design classes into my busy work and PhD schedule. And I've enrolled in a mountain bike skills clinic. That will guarantee failure. The good thing is that practicing vulnerability transfers to other areas of my life in which I'd prefer not to taking some risks with my career.

Finally, this is one of my favorite commercials on failure:Michael Jordan

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Why do we reward certainty?

It is interesting that school rewards certainty even though most amazing discoveries were a product of curiosity. As I science teacher, I speak of curiosity, read about it as a desired attitude in curiculum documents, and wish my students had more of it. But it is hard to measure, and things that are hard to measure in education tend to get ignored. Sure, it's a nice trimming to hope for in your students, but should it not be the linchpin of my teaching?

I do not think you can teach curiosity, but I believe you can inspire it in others. Afterall, we are born curious and so we all have it in us somewhere. So I try to live curiously, aloud, in front of my students and hope they catch on.'s the best tool in the teacher tool kit.

Monday, February 21, 2011

I am a teacher. It is not my job, per se, it is who I am. I am passionate about education, inspiring and enabling kids and the noble craft of teaching. Teaching requires a piece of my soul...and for what? Sometimes it just leaves a trail of heartbreak, discouragement, and plain exhaustion. But scattered among the difficulties are passion, reward, deep satisfaction, and the shaping of a future I want to live. I will always be a teacher and I will never be far from the profession. These are my thoughts, ideas and creative outpouring.