Don’t be Afraid of Change

Change is hard. In education, it can be downright terrifying.  As teachers, we pride ourselves on routine and having the answers for everything.  Often, a focus on routine means sticking to very specific types of teaching, assignments and assessments.  This can certainly make teaching more expedient and manageable, but I would argue that by introducing change, we often have the opportunity to make education better.  We give students a chance to experience different ways, new experiences, and some of that ever-vaulted creativity we are looking to instill in burgeoning minds.

I have changed enough in my practice and worked with enough teachers to know that you can’t change everything right away, nor should you.  Many of our practices are good, and are rooted in excellent pedagogy.  So start with something you’ve never been 100% sold on, something that doesn’t feel excellent when you teach it.  When I first did this, I found that I was so excited to get rid of the part of the course I felt was weak, the excitement got me halfway through the work it took to redesign it.

But what to do with it? That’s another challenge that teachers face when dealing with the unknown.  While there are enough theories and ideas out there to make your head spin, I would suggest picking something one of your peers is doing or has already done.  There is strength in experience, and you can always learn more about new techniques, but having someone who has already ‘walked the walk’ will give you a place to turn when inevitable challenges arise.  If you are having trouble with ideas or there is no one around to help, visit my contact page and drop me a line. Supporting teachers is what I do, and I am always willing to support as I can.  If you really have no inkling of how you’d like to change, check out Twitter, or some my previous posts such as: Creating a Buzz in your Classroom, Project-Based Learning: Writing a Classroom Novel. Also, if there is a post on a topic you are interested in that you would like to request, please do so through the contact page!  There will be more ideas and inspiration forthcoming!

Review: The Curiosity Cycle by Jonathan Mugan

I had the pleasure of being asked by Jonathan Mugan if I would give his new book The Curiosity Cycle a read and possibly a review on this blog. I was glad to oblige, any book that deals with children’s curiosity was something I am willing to take a look at.  I’m not sure if I would have come across Jonathan’s book in my regular travels, but I am certainly glad I had the opportunity to read it.  First off, this is not an education exclusive book by a long shot.  In fact, many teachers I know would intuitively teach in many of the ways Mugan describes in the book.  Teachers are innovative individuals, and curiosity is at the heart of what many excellent teachers do. 

One of the greatest traits of The Curiosity Cycle is that it is written in an accessible manner for parents.  In fact, the main audience is parents, and how to inspire a lifelong learner in your own home.  By knowing how curiosity works, a parent can ‘tune in’ to the way a child’s mind works and guide him or her to fill in knowledge gaps and extend their curiosity forward. This is an excellent image to keep in mind when interacting with children; and if you do, it quickly becomes apparent how spot-on Mugan’s perspective is. 

While I’d never really thought of curiosity as a cycle of filling in unknowns, Mugan does an excellent job of finding concrete examples of how this happens in a young mind.  This process of leading the reader through examples and then analysis of the cycle, shows the depth to which Mugan has obviously analyzed and thoughtfully presented the concept of creating and testing mental theories, developing new ones and filling in the gaps of knowledge. This is where his book becomes a great resource for teachers, because as you consider in your learning plans how a child’s mind may be inspired to learn more and seek completion of the theory they are working with, you may find your lessons become more engaging and focused on the inquiry of the students.  At least I found mine did.  

I am so happy that Jonathan reached out to me, and I feel I am that much better of a father and teacher for reading his book.  I realize the summer reading times are behind us now, but The Curiosity Cycle is a quick and easy read, one that I fully recommend.

Remember when you were amazing

I have had a great deal of fun on chats and in working with teachers over the last little while reminiscing over some of the greatest things they have done in the classroom. We don’t often take the time to reflect back on our ‘best work,’ but many of us have exceptional ideas that we have come up with during our careers that have been ‘shelved’ for whatever reason.  Maybe it didn’t fly with the class we had, or maybe it was time consuming and we put something more expedient in its place; whatever the reason, I challenge you to go through that shelf of dreams and resurrect some of the greatness that has been you in the past.  I have done this lately, and have a big one coming up in the next week, and I can tell you that it makes a big difference to the passion you show in the classroom.  These are the ideas that strengthen us as teachers, that give us purpose and let us dream a little. Often the ‘shelved projects’ involve collaboration, outside experts or help, organization, special supplies and preparation, and because they require that little bit more, they are memorable for our students!

I know this is the time of the year when we are tired, struggling, and need that little ‘something’ to get through to the end.  Maybe we can find that little bit extra in a project we put away.  It has worked for me this week, will it work for you?  Take a moment to talk about one of these projects in the comments, I will share some of them out on Twitter and maybe we can support other teachers in need of a boost in the final stretch!

Have a great night!

Collaborative Novel Writing Presentations for MPTC

This is the presentation that I gave today for the MPTC Div II and III.  Collaborative ideas for all three sessions are in this post as well, so find your sessions ideas and get writing, due date is Friday March 14th.  If you have questions or concerns, please email me!

Class Novel for Division II & III

From the High School session this morning:

IMG_6441 IMG_6440
From the Division III session this afternoon:

IMG_6442 IMG_6443

From the Division II session this afternoon:

IMG_6444 IMG_6445

If they think it, learning will come…

If they think it, they will learn

If they think it, they will learn

I love speaking at teachers’ conventions because it gives us as professionals some time to have deep meaningful discussions about our practice and the time to reflect and process those discussions without having to run off and teach a class afterward.  One of the sessions I am presenting this year (writing a collaborative novel) inspires some great discussion around the use of time in our classrooms.  Teachers are often hesitant to start big collaborative projects because there is so much that can go awry with the processes and results.  We feel it is better to dole out learning in small, digestible chunks and ensure that students eat each piece.  What we miss in this perspective is that it does not give students the comprehensive picture of the discipline they are learning.  Inspiration is the driver for learning, and if we can inspire our students, they learn with hardly a lesson from us.

I would rather inspire students to drive their own learning than to be docile and ‘receive’ their learning from me.  I want curiosity, spark, innovation, passion in learning, as I’m sure we all do.  However, that kind of learning is messy and takes time, time that we often assume we cannot take.  When I was on the fence about project-based learning, about our ability to write a novel as a class and the time it would take, I thought how can I reach all of those outcomes I have to reach spending this much time on one section of the curriculum.  Yet when I sat down with a plan to make it happen, and I saw the students engaged in the work, it was easy to check off sections of the outcomes, because they dove further than I could have hoped, they involved themselves as I wouldn’t as an adult.  Our students, when inspired, will make a project a 24-hour a day obsession and give you everything they have.

If we can inspire them. 

That ‘direct teaching’ part? It still exists in a project-based classroom. Here’s the difference; instead of me sitting down to ‘teach a lesson’ and keep passive students engaged, students want the information because it helps them progress in their projects. It’s a wonderful shift for students and inspired by inspiring them to think, instead of forcing them to ‘learn.’  They are asking me to support them in finding information, solving problems; and I get to be a learner too!

Thanks for reading, and have a great day!

Dealing with mobile devices in the classroom

Trapped in PhoneI had a great conversation with a teacher at one of my sessions a couple of weeks back.  It was in the middle of my iPad Oddities session, and I had made a comment on the need to have expectations for effective mobile device use in the classroom.  When I told the group of educators that I had no problem with students using personal devices at certain times during class, this teacher wanted clarification.  For him, turning off a personal device was a matter of respect for the classroom, and what he was teaching.  It’s a scenario that I hear about often when I am doing these talks, and so I took a few minutes to distinguish for him, and the group, an important distinction we are making when we ask students to turn off cell phones; and why it may not be in our best interests.

Cell Phones as Extensions of Self

Today’s students see their devices much differently than any generation previous. No longer are they items of convenience for many of them, they serve as items of personal extension and connection.  So rather than being ‘relieved’ to turn off a device, as many of us might be, they feel cut off from their world.  Though the merits of this can be debated, the truth is that not having a device on and near them may be as much or more of a distraction to some of our students than having them on and actively used.  Our students want to be tapped in, and will worry about that connection when it is not present.

It also heavily concerns me whenever I have to put myself into conflict with a student. I abhor doing it, as my job as a teacher is to inspire and champion students.  As such I don’t want to create forced compliance within the classroom, I want to have processes that are natural and make sense to everyone in the room. Also, simplicity in this process works wonders with students who need reminders from time to time.

Developing Etiquette 

My discussion partner mentioned that students have a responsibility to learn etiquette in social situations about the use of mobile devices, which I agree with.  However, the difference may be that we need to instruct students on when to use devices instead of not using them.  I likened the scenario to the session I was speaking in.  Individuals were focused, attentive, and certainly not being rude as far as I was concerned.  In fact, it was a very engaged group, yet I know many of them were using their devices in many ways around the room.  It was up to them to decide if a given text message was important enough to draw them away from what was happening in the session, and I would hazard a guess that many of the attendees were still arriving at the learning they expected even with all the ‘distraction.’

This is not to say that students should have full reign with their devices, far from it in fact. What we need to understand is that just because their ‘off’ switch and impulse control may not be fully developed, doesn’t mean they are not engaged.  I spent many years at the back of the classroom drawing in a notebook long before mobile devices were an issue in schools, and no one thought to take away my paper and pencil.  I had teachers who would ask why I felt the need to draw and try to engage me in drawing things focused on what we were learning so it was a rehearsal of the message.  Perhaps this is the better way to look at these devices in the classroom. How can we use our students’ constant connection for benefit instead of distraction? We also must remember that we need to strike a balance with this.  There is a difference between a presentation on iPads in the classroom and learning how to deploy your parachute during a skydive.  We have the right to require specific attention at some times, but we may find that gaining attention for those times comes easier if we meet our students halfway during times when the requirement isn’t as heavy.

What works?

I don’t propose to have all the answers on this issue, but I have had success with a rather simple process. Whether using school-owned or personal devices, students are to leave them face-down in front of them on their desk (I usually say top right.) I discuss with students the very issues I have already raised in this post, then tell them that they are allowed to use their phones in a reasonable manner, as long as they are engaged in the classroom.  So, if their phone buzzes (not rings since it is on vibrate), they can pick it up, reply quickly and put it back down.  As long as it isn’t pervasive, there is nothing wrong with that.  Conversations are best left to other times, but just as many of us would in a meeting, PD session or many other circumstances, a quick text shouldn’t be an issue. I also ask out of courtesy that they use the devices above their desks.  In this way, they self-monitor better as well because there is no hiding what they are doing.  It makes a big difference when the use is a little less private to how much they are willing to engage in it.

Overall my goal is a happy classroom climate where we can all get to the exciting job of learning. I know I will never get 100% ‘compliance’ with cell phone use, but if that’s not what you’re shooting for then a functional and positive classroom simply becomes a nice place for everyone to work.

Thanks for reading!
Derek

Writing a Collaborative Classroom Novel: A Presentation

Screen Shot 2014-02-15 at 10.39.22 AMAs with my other recent posts, this is a presentation given for a local teacher’s convention in Alberta, this one for the Calgary Teachers. My presentation on Scribd can be found here:

http://www.scribd.com/doc/207208600/Writing-a-Collaborative-Class-Novel

This presentation is focused on working together in the classroom to meet our goals for young writers by having them consider and write long-length fiction. This process is highly effective in allowing students to understand the craft of the writer and overall structure of extended fiction.  We collaborated in the session on a truncated process like the one that may be used in class. Forthcoming will be a series of stories based on the following details we created.  Check back to find an updated post including the stories and final product.

Ralph 

  • sage like elderly man
  • long beard
  • isolated hermit
Gertrude
  • elderly woman
  • cantankerous
  • separated from Ralph in separate huts same forest
Sally
  • young hero
  • poor bumbling girl
  • simple,plain
  • pure heart
Bruno
  • conniving Uncle to Sally
  • dark
  • eyepatch
  • bald, goatee
  • local mayor
Little
  • Sally’s friend/pet
  • miniature talking ox
  • ridable by Sally
Talisman (object of power or interest)
  • golden orb
  • size of an apple
 Settings
  • Forest with huts
  • Town (medieval) Wexlin
  • tavern
  • main square or plaza
  • town hall
  • market
 Our connecting message (theme)
  • collaboration to accomplish a goal

Why Stepping Back is So Important

I had to “step back” today and go back to the beginning with my class around research.  We have been doing inquiry projects all year, and they have done fairly well with many of them.  However, this time around I made the questions a little more abstract, and the content a little more difficult to find.  They struggled.  Some students were simply typing their open-ended question into Google, and others were looking in the textbook for a section they were sure had to be there.  Oh so young to be trained to look for a specific answer! So today we went back to basics and read two articles that were seemingly unrelated to the topic the students were studying.  We broke it down and I gave them a three step process to figure out the meaning of the article, the connections to their work, and ways to possibly use their findings to guide where they looked next.  Then we were back to that magical learning process, and they understood research again.

Had we talked about all of this before? yes. Had they heard it from me several ways before? yes. Did that matter? no.

Ultimately it doesn’t matter if we have explained a concept 100 times in class; if students aren’t getting it, we need to take a step back. This goes for elementary social studies, high school english, or middle school science. We simply need to step back far enough every time so that the students are with us and can reach the concept we are putting out there.  It’s what Vygotsky talks about as the zone of proximal development, and it is our responsibility to get them to where they have the ability to understand. Even if we just taught it to them yesterday.  

I enjoy stepping back in my class, as it gives me pause to be creative and come at something in a new way.  I relish those ‘aha’ moments as I know many teachers do. Sometimes it’s nice to “Step Back” and write a blog post about it too.

One site to rule them all; Why WordPress is all you need…

Screen Shot 2014-01-27 at 3.30.01 PMSo to match my reboot on this site, I have taken a step back in my online history, and started managing my class using a blog again today.  You can find my newly redesigned class website at www.keenansclass.wordpress.com.  It’s nothing fancy, but it gives me a place to enter in the days events, post the assigned tasks in each subject, and gives my students a common place to look for online materials.  If you read the first post, you’ll understand.

 

So why step backward?

Because as I so often find with technology, the simplest solutions are the best ones.  I have plenty of tools and methods of completing many different tasks in education, and many of them are great! However, what I find is the more ‘stuff’ I add in, the harder it is for me to maintain.  Wordpress (particularly the free .com site) is simple and easy to manage, and I have really great controls on what is being put out.  Most of the alternate tools I may want to use are embeddable as HTML or links into the site, so it makes a great ‘home base’ to work from.

I also realize that website building is a scary thing for teachers, which is another great advantage that wordpress has.  It has been around for so long, that there are literally thousands of support websites, videos, tips and tricks to support a teacher setting this up.  However, it is simple enough that it will likely only take you an hour anyway, and if you get stuck, it walks you through the process.

There is a reason that educational thinkers like Grant Wiggins use WordPress, it gets out of the way to let you share what you need to, simply.  I wanted that for my students, and I bet many other teachers out there do to.

Create a Buzz in Your Classroom {inspirational teaching, project-based learning, fun in the classroom}

Look, I know we many of us want that perfect room where anyone could walk in at any time and see peace, hard work and learning evident on the focused faces of our diligent students.  When I started teaching that’s what I thought I wanted, but the reality is so much more than orderly information dissemination.  In my classroom these days, the only time my students are quiet is when they are reading, and only because they can’t do that any other way.

Learning is messy stuff, and the best kind of learning requires some noise and movement to occur.  Think about the times when you really felt involved; either in learning, planning or at a meeting.  Were you sitting passively learning, or were you passionately debating, yearning for your ideas to be incorporated, arguing fiercely for your perspective? I am inclined to think the latter is where most of us fall.  So how can we argue that students will learn better with a litany of rules and a passive learning structure? I would argue that the best learning is done on one’s own terms, and with as little direct guidance as is required.  Enough background to understand, or know where to look, read, watch or develop the ideas, but also enough freedom that a student can go ask another student for support, can change the assignment to fit their interest, and a path to learning that can light a fire, not cause narcolepsy.

Take the time to ask what you can do with the curriculum, not how to cover it.  I would rather have my students take a step back from 200 lines of ‘must do’ items and tackle one ‘could we’ item that keeps them up at night thinking of the possibilities.

Like lighting a fire though, you must have suitable materials for learning, including a solid relationship with and knowledge of each student, otherwise you will have no idea what will strike a cord with them.  Also, you must know your curriculum, the expectations on you and your students, so you know how big the ‘dream project’ must be to encompass it.  Finally, you must let go of your fear; you won’t do it all right every time, but I can guarantee that quiet kid at the back who never gets in trouble because he is too busy with something creative in his desk didn’t get everything his teachers put out there either!

Thanks for reading!

Derek