On The Right Track

screenshot 4

 

Beautiful picture don’t you think? It is the brilliant art work of Emma, a student at our school in grade 8. Emma didn’t do this work in her art class, or as part of a school project, or even during one of our Innovation Weeks. Emma did this at home, on her own time, in fact during her very own Genius Hour. A completely self directed project, exploring an area of interest and producing something wonderful. 

Her mother Carrie, a Kindergarten teacher, was proud of the work her daughter had done and wanted to let us know at school, so she sent us this tweet

screenshot 6

 

Carrie let me know that Emma has also turned to You Tube to research and learn to play the piano and guitar during these “Genius Hours”.

Projects and initiatives come and go in education, and it can be hard sometimes to know if we are doing what is best for our students. I am fairly certain that we have the right initiative when we see students doing them at home. I think we can be sure we are on the right track when students choose to learn on their own time. If lifelong learning is a goal, its examples like this that show us the way to the desired result.

Shouldn’t this be what we are aspiring to? We live in an age now that kids have everything they need to learn from anywhere. They can explore their passions and satisfy their curiosities without us being there. I believe Genius Hour, Innovation Days/Weeks, and Passion Projects help students realize just how capable they are to learn independently.

On the eve of our second Innovation Week, I can’t help but be excited to see what our students will learn about, create and share. I have seen and heard their excitement as we have prepared for the coming week, and having students excited about learning at school is so rewarding. I hope it will lead to even more examples like Emma’s, of students who can’t wait for us to help them so they take the initiative themselves to learn outside of their time at school.

You Don’t Want To Hear From Me Today


cc licensed ( BY NC ) flickr photo shared by Ceridwen

Today, it is very true. You don’t want to hear from me. I am not good today. I am tired, I am feeling a little stressed, I am worried. I am clearly not at my best. But today is a chance to look in on someone who has not done what is necessary to be at their best. Today I can tell you what it is like to have neglected balance.

My principal, Carolyn Cameron, has been on me for some time to be cognizant of what I need to maintain the balance that will keep me effective at my job, and in my life. I coach basketball at a small local University, often get home after midnight from practice, and struggle to get to bed before 1 or even 2 in the morning. During basketball season we practice and/or play 6 days a week. I have a one year old daughter who has, at times, found 3:30am a great time to get up and play. I find it hard to find time for her and for my wife when I get busy, and the guilt can be tough. I rarely exercise as I am often tired or unwilling to make the effort. Sometimes the lack of sleep, the strain of living in two worlds, and the difficulty with feeling like a good father/husband wear me out.

Busy has always been my style. I rarely say no to an opportunity, I am always looking for more challenges and I look at sleep, and even eating regularly, as “hopes” not “musts”. I have paid for it. I get sick more than most people, I get run down and ineffective for short stretches and I can neglect important parts of my life more than I should. I have never had the impetus to make lasting changes because it has never caused me too much grief. I still believe I am good at my job, I believe I am able to make time for the ones I love, and the only one that suffers is me. I always thought Carolyn was right, but I also thought it would never really catch up with me.

This week, it has caught up with me, and because of that I have learned the most important lesson about balance I believe I ever will learn:

If you aren’t in balance, you never know when it will affect you, but eventually it will affect you when you can least afford it.

We are only two days from the beginning of Innovation Week 2, tomorrow I am presenting to our school’s parent community about our plans for technology, my daughter currently has chicken pox (and is miserable), and our school is winding down the year and enjoying all the usual fun that goes with that (PC enough for you?). This is the time I NEED to be at my best. This is the time balance is crucial. I guess I am lucky to have gotten by for this long without it really biting me in the behind, but I sure hope this lesson will stick with me. It’s time for me to make changes, well actually its long overdue.

How do you ensure balance in your life as an educator? As your job, or family situation changed, how did you make the appropriate adjustments? Have you had similar experiences with balance? I would love to hear some feedback, if not for my learning, to know there are others out there who have dealt with this as well. Now… off to bed!

The New Lemonade Stand


cc licensed ( BY ) flickr photo shared by Steve Gasser

Recently, our government in Alberta came out with the Framework For Student Learning and the subtitle of this document was:

Competencies for Engaged Thinkers and Ethical Citizens with an Entrepreneurial Spirit

The Three E’s, Engaged thinkers, Ethical citizens with an Entrepreneurial spirit, are all great key words for many of us who want to push our students towards a meaningful and thought-provoking education.

The one that really sticks out for me is that “Entrepreneurial Spirit”, clearly a set of skills we want our students to develop, but also a clear direction towards educating employable members of our communities. The reason this component of the framework excites me is the immense amount of potential in where we could go with the learning, trusting that we will have a lot more freedom in how and what we teach. There are so many ways we can engage our students with “real world” contexts and meaningful experiences when it comes to the world of business.

The one that immediately came to my mind was this relatively new world of crowd-funding or crowd financing. It is defined on the Wikipedia page as:

 “…the collective effort of individuals who network and pool their money, usually via the Internet, to support efforts initiated by other people or organizations”

My first experience with crowd-funding was just recently when I joined a site called Kickstarter. This site provides entrepreneurs and innovators an opportunity to seek outside funding for a project they are looking to complete. The people posting their projects usually provide their backers with incentives that get better as the amount donated increases. I became a backer of a movie project by Zach Braff, donating $50 in exchange for an ongoing production diary and a fancy T-shirt.  Had I been able to afford $10,000 I could have had a walk on scene in the movie, maybe next time. The project set a goal of 2 million dollars and in 30 days raised over 3 million.

My thoughts, as I surfed the site checking out other projects, immediately turned to students. Why couldn’t our students utilize a site like this? Why couldn’t we embrace this interesting phenomenon and use it to get kids excited and engaged in active learning and exploration of the “Entrepreneurial Spirit” in a completely authentic manner? Why couldn’t this be the new roadside lemonade stand?

One of the new ways I decide if an idea is within reason is by a simple test – Could students already be doing this independently without us? Of course the answer is yes, so why not find ways to get this in our high school classes, or maybe even in our middle school classrooms?

Kickstarter offers members a page called “Kickstarter School” where it defines 8 steps to making the site work for their projects.

Kickstarter School
01. Defining Your Project
02. Creating Rewards
03. Setting Your Goal
04. Making Your Video
05. Building Your Project
06. Promoting Your Project
07. Project Updates
08. Reward Fulfillment

Just think of all the places students could take their learning in these 8 steps. Now if a project doesn’t get the funding necessary, NO money goes to the project. So if a student wanted to build a rocket powered skateboard (probably not the safest project) and had a goal of $10,000 to develop it, but only had supporters pledge $200 by the time limit, then the project gets declined and the backers don’t contribute at all.

Now maybe you don’t want to get into the money side of things, we all know things can get messy when money is involved, so maybe you take the idea and put your own spin on it. Maybe you run the same system where students have to make proposals for their projects but they present to you, or maybe a panel of local business owners. Maybe they are vying for seed money, and maybe you find people willing to donate that seed money. Maybe they have to present to their classmates and win their approval rather than financial support. There are a lot of ways this could go, but I would show students the actual site, because there is always that chance that you have a budding entrepreneur sitting in your classroom just looking for a way to get started.

With limited research I found this information and felt like sharing, but by no means am I an expert on crowd-funding. I am sure there are many sites out there that could be utilized in a similar way, and I hope if you know of any you will share them here with your comments. What interesting, innovative or unique projects have you come across that speak to this entrepreneurial spirit? What ways do you plan to grow these skills and understandings in your students?

This is my Genius Hour, This is my Passion Project

IMG_2734After a week immersed in Innovation Week, setting up our new site, getting prepared to moderate the first #iweekchat, and sharing many resources with some excited educators getting their own projects started, I was kind of getting burnt out by it all. I was also getting over being sick, and was pretty bored of sitting on my couch. That’s when my friend Jim called.

Jim is a carpenter, and he is currently building his own house. Numerous Spring Breaks and Summers I worked for Jim as a framer, and it was a wonderful way to spend my time off and make a little money on the side. I love framing. I am not great at it, and often need a lot of guidance from Jim (thank goodness he is patient), but it really is something I love doing and love learning.

So when he called me, I was able to head out to his site and help him build the landing for the entrance into his new house. It wasn’t a long time, just a few hours to frame and sheet the floor, but it was exactly what I needed. I had the same feeling when I used to work with Jim. (These are pics from the work we did)

When I would return to teaching, after a break spent building houses, I would always be rejuvenated and excited to be back at it. I would share with my students stories about my time framing, especially the stories where I did something wrong and learned the hard way – like shooting Jim with a nail gun! It was a great way to connect with my students, to model for them that I was a learner, and show them that I wasn’t afraid to do something I wasn’t “the best” at.

All this talk about Innovation Week has naturally led to conversations about how we can get Educators to participate in the same experiences. We are having Educators Innovation Day this August, and it will be great to have teachers come up with great projects to improve education in that short period of time together, but the more I think about it, the more I realize that we all have our own Genius Hours and Passion Projects. We have our own interests and passions that we dive into for periods of time away from work, and we are all better for having those experiences, not only because of what we get from them, but from what we can share with our students.

Framing is my Genius Hour, something I am engaged in when I am doing it, an experience that challenges me, and time spent learning about a topic I am genuinely interested in. When I go back to my job I am better for having spent the time, and I am a better teacher for having modelled and experienced learning.

I think as teachers and as leaders, we need to do a better job of not only embracing these interests and passions of our colleagues, but finding ways to empower these educators to incorporate them into their teaching. The more ways we can connect with students the better, and the more we let students into who we are, more chances for connecting will occur naturally. We will be able to show them another side of who we are, and other great characteristics of ourselves that they can be inspired by.

Framing is my Genius Hour, but this is my Passion Project:

IMG_2578

And it’s a whole other part of who I am that will make me a better teacher, better leader and better person. Don’t underestimate all the other parts of your life that make you who you are in the eyes of your students. I am a teacher and a coach but I am also an amateur framer, a lover of music, an aspiring writer, a sports fan, a movie goer, a husband AND a new Dad. Every one of those characteristics offers me a way to connect with my students, and every one of those aspects of me will shape the impact I can have as an educator.

What unique characteristics do you bring to your teaching? What are you doing to bring them out in your lessons, your conversations with your students and parents, and the time you spend at school?  What are you doing to bring out the passions and interests of your staff in your school?

 

Educators Innovation Day


cc licensed ( BY NC SA ) flickr photo shared by Sean Kelly

Ok. It’s OUR turn.

After having our first Innovation Week and with Innovation Week 2 only days away, we have put together the plan for our Teachers to have a chance to be innovators.

On Tuesday, August 27th, 2013 the doors of Greystone Centennial Middle School will open to Educators who want to get the same experience our students have had. With the theme of “Improving Education” the teachers will have a chance to spend the day working on their own or in small groups to come up with a project. At the end of the day, the only requirement of participation is that we will all get together and share what we have come up with.

Now, with only a day to do the project, we expect most people will do a little bit of work beforehand to prepare, and of course that is ok, but we don’t want people to bring canned projects. A big part of the learning is in the experience, and the constraint of getting the project done by the end of the day is part of the experience.

While I said we developed this to help our teachers gain experience that will help them work with our students on future innovation projects, this is not limited to just our Greystone teachers. We are opening this to any educator that is interested in taking part, so if you would like to join us fill out the form and plan to be there!

Educator Innovation Day Application Form

We also want to thank Parkland Teachers ATA Local #10 and the Parkland School Division for their support of this event, and to everyone who is helping to make it happen!

These Are Not Optional


cc licensed ( BY ) flickr photo shared by Enokson

Maybe its the fact I have had the misfortune of contracting shingles during the busiest month of school, or maybe its the fact it has forced me to cancel a trip home to see my family or maybe its just because I am grumpy, but this post is almost writing itself.

I worry that because you are reading this, a blog, and you probably found the link from Twitter, that I am preaching to the converted so do me a favor and share this with someone NOT connected.

I feel inspired to do a little venting about areas of our profession that I feel are simply no longer optional. Whether at the school, district or provincial/state level, I feel we are not doing enough to push that these are now a mandatory part of our jobs, not because an act, law or contract deems them to be, but because we are professionals that are supposed to do what’s right for our students.

1. Change

We live in a world that is changing at such a rapid pace, predicting what next year will look like  is starting to get very difficult, let alone 12 years into the future of our eager little Gr. 1 students. The world is changing, and we are supposed to be preparing students for their world. So, if the world is changing, so should our practices of preparation for this world and thus our teaching. Constantly. For the rest of our careers, or until the world stops changing – don’t hold your breath.

2. Learn

Maybe there was a time that the school of thought was that you go to school to learn all you need to teach in four years, then you spend 35 years spewing that knowledge until you jump on the pension pony and ride off into the sunset. Being the expert on a topic is becoming less and less prevalent, and our system is now in need of professional learners. Educators who model learning, inspire learning, embrace learning and challenge students to learn. And it doesn’t have to be learning about science if you are a science teacher, our students just need to see a successful adult show them that learning is exciting, engaging and empowering. Are you learning the guitar? SHARE that with your science students. Learning how to mountain bike? TALK to your students about the experience, especially the parts you found tough and the failures you had to deal with and overcome. “What are you learning about now?” – that is a question every teacher should have an answer to.

3. Connect

This one really gets to me. There are leaders of education who dismiss this idea very quickly. Then there are those that make excuses for those who are not connecting – “not everyone is tech savvy…” and “lots of people don’t have the time…”. Take Twitter or even the words “Social Media” out of the sentence and replace it with “resource”.

There is a RESOURCE that will allow our educators to connect with other educators all over the globe, share best practices, learning experiences, connect their classrooms and move the profession forward. It will allow great ideas to spread and allow us to take control of our own professional development without having to travel anywhere, it can all occur from our couches.

What excuse is there for not using this “resource”. Aren’t we supposed to be engaging in professional learning throughout the year? Dedicating time to ensuring our practice stays effective and current? I am having trouble seeing much in the way of a counter-argument on this one. You should get connected, be connected and stay connected. You should learn from and share with educators in your own schools, of course, but you should also learn from other educators outside your building, district, state/province and country. We want our students to have a better understanding of their world by learning about the world beyond their cities and towns, shouldn’t we as educators learn from and share with educators from outside as well?

4. Relax 

No one is paying you to herd cattle, or to scare or intimidate your students, even if they think they are. Those days are long gone, and now we know that we need a student who feels safe, secure, comfortable, engaged and challenged if we are going to do our best work and see those students do theirs’. If your classroom management plan requires you to tower over and yell at your students to induce fear-based compliance, then you probably aren’t going to see the best in your kids. You don’t need to overpower and really you don’t even have to control, you just have to protect – you have to protect the environment to create a place all students can learn. I have the pleasure of walking around our school most days and see this in action, and what I don’t hear anymore (I haven’t heard it in years) is yelling, belittling, or the recognizable language of the classic “power trip”. The great teachers, at least the ones I get to see on a regular basis, are able to get everything they want out of their classroom with simple tricks like 1-on-1 conversations, humour and care.

 

While my previous post was about what I wanted to tell graduating education students about to enter our profession, I would say this post is written as a tool for professional check-up. For me, these are non-negotiable’s, badges we should already have earned that we showcase on a daily basis. If you don’t feel these describe you, ask yourself if they are important to you the way they are to me. If they are, make them goals to strive towards, if they aren’t, develop your own list of non-optional traits you believe should embody your teaching and use those as a check-up.

If we are to move forward then we need to be checking in on how we are doing with that progress,  individually and as a group. Find whatever measurement you want for your own teaching and then periodically take stock on how you are doing. I have no doubt that the simple act of reflection will go a long ways to ensure you keep moving your practice in the right direction.

My Commencement Speech


cc licensed ( BY SA ) flickr photo shared by pidoubleg

I read a fantastic post today. If you take anything from reading this, go read this post entitled “The Pedagogy – Public Opinion Gap” by Johnny Bevacqua. I could go on for days about how much I liked this post and how many different blog post topics it inspired in me, but I won’t. Instead I’ll try to break it down to it’s essence, in case you don’t go read it (shame on you). Johnny defines the gap as:

“The gap in understanding between what professional educators and researchers, who work with students on a daily basis, see as “best practice” in education (teaching, learning and schooling) and those “outside” the world of professional education – whose ideas, understanding and opinions about teaching (pedagogy), learning and school are formed, primarily, from their own personal experiences and memories.”

Johnny is spot on, the more research is done and the more our practice improves from the previous long-enduring factory model, the more we run the risk of widening this gap between our communities and our educators. Johnny finishes the post with a final recommendation of embracing and working to improve our communication with the public:

“What I have found, however, is that any communications plan is as effective as the quality of the one on one conversations we have within our communities.   It’s about responding to questions, providing exemplars, painting a vivid picture of the preferred future, explaining our “why“, deep listening, admitting our mistakes, documenting our struggles, successes and doubts”

Reading it, I felt it was a great post for any new teacher to read entering the profession. I thought, Johnny is someone who should be speaking at graduations of future educators. I also thought there were many other messages those students should hear, especially from people that currently work in the system. I started to daydream about what I would say if I was put in front of a Graduating Class from the Faculty of Education of a University. With that, I had my favorite inspiration for a post, here is what I would say to those about to become educators in our system…

Good afternoon and thank you for allowing me to address this special group of young men and women about to enter the most important profession on the planet – Teaching.

I felt as though I should provide a meaningful message to you, as I currently work in the education system, and ensure that you are clear about what you are about to get into. I’ve narrowed it down to five key points that I hope will help you with some direction as you begin what we all hope will be a rewarding journey full of positive influence and impact. 

1. Get Connected, Stay Connected and Never Stop Learning

You are leaving a place of learning, a place where you more than likely have a number of friends you share ideas with, you debate with, you dream with and you reflect with. You are about to disconnect from a network of passionate idealists and head out to your positions all over the map.  Ironically, the most important thing you can do now is connect yourself to a new network. Through Social Media, you need to go, connect and stay connected. You need to find a network of educators from all over the planet that can offer their experiences, their ideas, their feedback to you, because let’s face it, you still have a lot to learn, and guess what, you always will. Your job is not to be an educator, your job literally is to be an amazing LEARNER. Your job is to pass on to your students a love of learning, your job is to show students how to learn and your biggest responsibility is to model learning.The best way to ensure you will be a learner in your last year of being an educator is to get started right away in your first year, and the best chance you have to make that happen is to develop a network that you can always learn from in a meaningful way.

 

2. Educate Your Students and Your Parents

The parents of many of your students are more than likely not going to understand much or any of what you do, but that doesn’t make them stupid, and you can’t treat them as if they are. Almost everyone who isn’t an educator forms their understanding and opinions about education from their own personal experiences with it. Parents who did well on multiple choice tests and achieved high percentage grades probably created children that would have done the same, so understand that if you are a part of changing that system, those parents may see you as a threat to their child’s success. Honor their concern for their child and don’t dismiss them as naive or stupid, they probably aren’t either. Similarly, the parent who constantly felt stupid and lost in their education experience will come to the table with apprehensions that their children may have to go through the same horrible feelings they did. When you talk with them, your job isn’t to talk down to them, your job is to help them understand what their children are doing in school and show them that you won’t be putting their children through the same torment they fear and look to protect their children from. There is NOTHING that we do with students that we should hide from parents, and from day one, try to embrace that thought and help parents understand what it is your doing. To be able to explain what you are doing, you are going to have to really know what your are doing, remember that.

 

3. It’s Ok to be Over An Educational Trend and MOVE ON

In your next job interview try to avoid the following statements “Learning should be messy”, “Teachers should be guides on the side”, “Technology is just a tool” and “That you want to foster lifelong learning”. These statements are used so often they are almost gaining a cliche-like status. Most of us have all heard these ideas before, and those educators I admire are already looking past them to what is next. Our profession and our system should be designed to help students learn about their world and how to interact with it. If our world is constantly changing and now more rapidly than ever, our system and profession should be constantly changing as well. That means we can’t hang on to every idea for years, let alone a hundred years. Explore good ideas, work with them and work well, then look to improve, not every ten years, or every five years or even every year – CONSTANTLY. Flipped Classroom, 20% Time, Portfolio Assessment, whatever it is, don’t assume it is the long term saviour of education, most ideas have an expiration date. If something works for you and your students, do it, but don’t stop looking for what other idea might also help your teaching, and may even improve or replace one of those old “good ideas”. Its ok to move past Finland, and Sir Ken Robinson and the iPad, and don’t feel ashamed to admit you are. 

4. Don’t Wait For Change, Create Change

No one knows how your students learn better than you do, so why would you expect some Earth-shattering learning experience to come from your Department of Education? By the time a government gets around to implementing an educational practice, some visionaries have been out there making those practices a successful reality in their classrooms as they refuse to wait for anyone to create the change they want to see. Try things, explore ideas, take risks and while you are doing it, share what you are doing with everyone – students, parents, colleagues, admin and your PLN. Most of the great ideas I have come across and tried in my career came from practicing teachers not from curriculum documents, education books or from so-called “experts”. Sure, we all have to play the contract game and being new, you have it the hardest when it comes to gaining and securing employment, so start relatively small. Experiment with the things you have control over – your classroom layout, your lessons, and the way you celebrate your classroom successes to name a few examples. Show people you aren’t going to go through this career as part of the status quo. If you are practicing the same way in your last year as you did in your first, you have done something wrong, and so has the system that let you.

  

5. There Has Never Been A More Exciting Time To Be A Teacher

The education system has remained the same for over a hundred years and NOW it is starting to change. So three or four GENERATIONS of teachers have come and gone and didn’t get to be a part of what you are about to be a part of. We will look back on this time and talk about the monumental education reform that occurred and you will have had a front row seat for all of it. Report cards seem to be living on borrowed time. The amount of student choice and control over their education is increasing every day. Instead of buddying up your class with the one down the hall, you’ll be buddying up your class with one on another continent. You are living through the renaissance of our profession, and like the renaissance there is going to be a lot of people doing a lot of amazing things. You can be one of them, the climate is right, but change will occur with or without you.

Embrace the time you live in and the time you will get to educate in, and then choose to be part of the change.   

These are just my thoughts, but I wonder what would you say to the education graduates of 2013 who will be entering the profession this fall? If you could tell them anything, what would it be? I’d love your thoughts on this topic, and getting the chance to discuss those thoughts as well.