Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Honouring my teaching journey

I first saw Robert John Meehan’s inspirational statement “If you ask me what I came into this world to do, I will tell you without hesitation: I was born to be a teacher” in my early days on Twitter less than a year after officially retiring from Edmonton Public School Board. I could not actually retire from teaching.

My earliest memory of stating that I wanted to be a teacher dates to a time when I am about 9 years old. I was likely more interested in bossing around my sister, brother and cousins during the playing of “school” but the formal idea stuck. I was fortunate during my grade 1 to 12 experience to have what proved to be an amazing number of excellent educators from Rose Wollman (Gr. 1), Nancy Eng (Gr. 5), Ruth McQuarrie (Gr. 7), Daiyo Sawada (Elementary Math), Bill Tanasichuk (Science 10) and Lorne Sparks (Social Studies 10 and 30) whose collective impact formed my attitude that this was a profession to aspire to. While my Faculty of Education experiences in university were not all as satisfying, I did spend time in the presence of 2 master lecturers: Dr. Robert Buck (Classics) and Iain Gunn-Graham (Art History) who illuminated the power of story as a teaching tool and learned to love dance from Rachel Kindersley.

My first teaching assignment as an EPSB teacher in 1974 landed me on another planet, the inner city of Edmonton. The product of a basically middle class childhood and with nothing from my university training to prepare me for what I discovered was the childhood reality of most of my students at Cromdale, I threw myself into changing those kids lives. I had the great good fortune to be supported in my educational growth by a superior administrator, Len Fossum, who encouraged me to use my passion for physical education to engage my students. From there I found myself in the beginning days of early childhood education inside EPBS and learned the lessons related to use of theme as an organizing idea for educational activities and experiences.

In 1977, I was invited by the innovative EPSB administrator, Keith Muirhead, to be part of the staff he was pulling together to create the first fine arts focussed alternative elementary program in EPSB at Virginia Park. I came in as an early childhood dancing “expert” and added skills every day to my teaching tool kit. School wide collegial planning and opportunities to learn by observing other fine arts “experts” were integral pieces of my professional development. I became a teacher/librarian and joined the ranks of Best of the Best and worked on the development of a Focus on Research which lead to a Focus on Inquiry.

When my own children began to attend Virginia Park, I moved to Beacon Heights to update that learning resources collection and a initiative to manage it with computer technology. There I enjoyed the company of north-east teachers banded together to promote writing, a collaboration of schools called WOW (World of Writing) and planned and hosted several student writing conferences. I was given the opportunity to train in Balanced Lit and added another collection of tools to my kit.

And then in 2002 along came Edmonton Oilers ICE School, my dream job that I never knew would exist until I was given the opportunity to build it. Based on the ground-breaking work of Gillian Kydd and Open Minds/Campus Calgary, I was seconded to the Edmonton Oilers Community Foundation and asked to create a program inside the world of an NHL hockey rink, the Edmonton Oilers and Northlands. During that time, other site coordinators and I joined forces to create Inquiring Minds Edmonton to support each other in our truly out of the box facilitation roles. I retired from full-time work with EPSB (and Edmonton Oilers ICE School) in 2011.

My mother’s battle with cancer and the birth of my first grand-child made the lack of support to me (through any kind of supply teaching) very apparent. But my passion for and commitment to this type of work lead me to an opportunity to build EJ School (Edmonton Journal) and support the development of JUBE School (Northern Jubilee Auditorium), two smaller sites.

These days I use Twitter to promote week-long, site based, inquiry learning and what it means to 21st century learners. I enjoy the planning with teachers, scheduling and connecting of experts to students as much for my personal growth as for the benefit of a program. I believe passionately that learners need the tools of observation, interview and critical thinking to facilitate the essential brain activity of learning and require many diverse hands-on experiences for neuron development, no matter what age or stage of life.

“If you ask me what I came into this world to do, I will tell you without hesitation: I was born to be a teacher”

Sunday, 16 October 2016

Backpack for a classroom - #yegdtkids

George Couros has been encouraging me to get back to my blog today (via Twitter - he and I have never met) and I am shocked to discover, not for the first time, that much time has past since I wrote something for this purpose.

Back in late April, just after the deadline for Inquiring Minds Edmonton applications had past, my friend and colleague, Linda Hut of City Hall School fame reached out to ask about a collaboration for 2016-17. She knew how to hook me because she was talking about rookies/veterans in her collection of applying teachers and she wanted to be sure that if she took rookies some of those vets would have a week somewhere. She knows I love master teachers and am always wanting to challenge them.
So we offered 6 of them (2 sets of pairs sharing a class and 2 singles) a week in downtown Edmonton (#yegdt) under my guidance with no fixed address or even much of a plan. They all accepted, without hesitation I might add, which filled me with nervous anticipation.

Could we make it work?
Jon Hall

Linda started sending me contacts from her deep metaphoric mental (cellphone connected) Rolodex for city-shapers and change-makers in #yegdt and I started beating the pavement – walking downtown as many different ways as I could and having lots of coffee with great folks from her list.  I did a Jane’s Walk with the mayor of 104 St., Jon Hall, in early May then visited inside his wonderful old warehouse turned lofts building during Open Doors Edmonton in July. One of my early connections was Chris Gusen of Make Something Edmonton who asked me to consider connecting with my teachers on 100 in 1 day (June 4) as an exploration project. I created an invitation and asked Diane Gurnham of ICE School fame to include her piloting teachers prepping for ICE School 2.0 which she was developing for her new classroom in Rogers Place. I also invited my EJ School teachers. This crew of 20 educators had an amazing morning, walking, talking, sharing ideas, looking at Edmonton past, present and future, loads of public art and imagining all kinds of curriculum connections.

I knew I could count on CKUA and the Edmonton Journal to share their spaces. I found out the Downtown Edmonton Community League (DECL) did not have room in their small offices but a door was opened across 103 Street at All Saints Cathedral Hall by Chris Pilon, their community engagement guy and DECL member. The roof stressed folks of EPSB Archives and Museum at McKay Ave were excited to cooperate. On a walk north from the Neon Sign Museum and Rogers Place, I discovered I could be at the Prince of Wales Heritage Centre in 10 minutes and the resources of the Loyal Edmonton Regiment Museum and the City of Edmonton Archives became a key part of each week.

Medicine Wheel
I learned we could daily acknowledge that the land we were exploring was Treaty 6 territory and traditional meeting ground for many Indigenous people: from Beaver Hills House Park thru the Medicine Wheel Garden to Iron Foot Place, from Alex Decoteau to Sharon Pasula, downtown resident and Indigenous Cultural and Educational Helper. We experienced Alberta’s birth as a province through history made real during Mr. Puffer Goes to Parliament. We talked hockey (I love to talk hockey history) and connected the first sitting of the Alberta Legislature to the old Thistle Rink among other hockey highlights. Maybe you heard they officially opened a new state-of-the-art NHL arena in downtown Edmonton.

Linda shared City Hall, Edmonton City Council and let us join her for a great view from the 16th floor of the EPCOR building. I discovered the folks at Edmonton Emergency Relief Services Society were happy to speak about their story helping those touched by poverty, homelessness and disaster. We interviewed parents of kids at the DECL Urban Playgroup and we met with Michael Phair at the park named after him.

Chris Gusen at
Make Something Edmonton
We saw things that allowed us to touch on hard topics like war and homelessness. Then Edmonton Economic Development Corporation (EEDC) and Make Something Edmonton gave us hope when they asked students to create a model of something missing in downtown Edmonton.

This great group of teachers and their adventuring students walked and walked and walked. We lived out of our backpacks with journals and pencils at the ready, interviewing, observing, sketching and wondering. We ate lunch in a different location every day of the week. And no one complained. We gained a real appreciation of what such an unrooted lifestyle might be like. We were greeted one afternoon on our return to City Hall to catch the bus by a scruffy man who broke into a smile as we past and sang “Jesus loves the little children”. More than one student included that in their end of the day reflection.

There is one week left. And then this grand experiment will be over. I have learned so much and I am very grateful for the help and encouragement of everyone who believed and helped make it possible. Chiefly but not exclusively I feel Tolkien got it right – “All who wander are not lost.”

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Kids Need to Talk

Talking has always been an important piece of processing for me. I have an extremely vivid memory from Grade 2 of a teacher who continually asked me to sit down and stop talking. In desperation she used masking tape to attach me to my desk chair and cover my mouth. This was back in the “baby boom” days of 35 to 40 children in a classroom and she was fresh from Junior E (a teacher training initiative that saw 19 and 20 year olds assume classroom duties after one year of post-secondary). It was my delight to meet her years later, teaching in the school where I was completing my teacher practicum. We laughed together when I reminded her of that memory.

Needless to say I have always had a soft spot for those who need to talk. From my early days as a classroom teacher I had a fairly high tolerance for chatter and often introduced a new idea with the phrase “Turn to your neighbor and talk about….” Recently We are Teachers posted “5 Fun Alternatives to Think-Pair-Share” and each alternative is a great strategy for using student conversing to further learning.

During my years facilitating the Inquiring Minds program called Edmonton Oilers ICE School I was introduced to the Jigsaw method by an outstanding teacher. I have often said that one of the greatest gifts of my time in week-long, site-based programming has been the opportunities to work beside and learn essential tools from skillful educators.

This instructional strategy has so much going for it. My recent reading on this topic revealed to me that the master mind behind Jigsaw was Elliot Aronson, a social psychologist and father of four, who in 1971 was distressed by the circumstances in recently desegregated Austin, Texas public schools. He worked with colleagues and students at the University of Texas and the University of California to research a small group cooperative learning technique that could synthesize principles gleaned from his years of work on small-group dynamics and social interaction. The goal was not primarily a learning objective, but rather to bridge the gap hostility created between children from different ethnic groups.

Jennifer Gonzalez of the wonderful blog, Cult of Pedagogy posted an excellent piece on Jigsaw last April. There is a video about the strategy and if you sign up to receive Jennifer’s tips by email you get a free copy of instructions for using it in a variety of ways.

I now look forward to her emails and have found many other pearls in them. She got me thinking about all of this when she sent me this great post last week called the Big List of Class Discussion Strategies. Take a look!

Friday, 11 September 2015

Teaching the Art of Interview

On the journey of my teaching career, it has been my privilege to witness the power of children interacting with other adults. From that moment in my second year when I realized my little (until then mostly silent) new Canadian from Korea kindergarten student had repeated several words in a row with eyes locked on our visiting guest cowboy “speaker” to the engagement of 12 year old boys coming to an understanding of molten lead from a linotype machine operator turned computer graphic designer, I have marveled at the pure magic of this type of interaction.

Over the last few years, I have been gratified to learn that the neuroscience behind this magic is being explored through research. I just LOVE reading that science has “proved” something I have “known” for years. 
Looking for a great read on Brain Science and teaching? I have just finished John Medina’s Brain Rules. Check it out.

Experts and learning-stuff-from-them is an integral piece of the inquiry cycle and learning in general. Interview as a structured time to get answers to questions is an important skill for all learners. It is one of the bed-rock activities of a site-based program. The opportunities of being out where adults work is part of a real world learning rich environment and some of those adults taking time to listen and answer student questions, provide ingredients that make for engagement and deep connection.

The beginning of the new school year affords a teacher one of those perfect times to introduce and polish interview skills. New faces in the class or school, summer adventures, expanding horizons or “How do you think the Oilers will do this season?” provide some interview teachable moments.

Jennifer Gonzalez, creator of one of my favorite education blogs, Cult of Pedagogy, posted an inspiring set of Ice Breaker activities for the start of a class year. 

Doug Lipman, a storyteller and teacher, has a great collection of steps to building interview skills, using story games.

And what can I say about Story Corps? Genius idea and I admire everything about it. Their work on developing the idea of asking very open ended questions of those closest to us to gather personal narratives is creating an amazing collection of …. great stories.

How about sending the art of interview home to collect some family anecdotes?

Use the students' beginning experiences of interview to teach designing better questions.  There is wonderful support for the questioning classroom at Teach Thought , another of my favorite education blogs.

You can Google “fat skinny questions”. This is a set of lesson ideas by Jacqui Sharp.

Now get busy.

What’s stopping you?

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Hook, Line and Sinker for building journaling practice

I’m excited!
I can’t help it.
It is back to school time. Today I spent 75 minutes with 12 wonderful teachers who are preparing to bring classes to the brilliant Edmonton Inquiring Minds site called U School.  I wanted them to feel inspired, empowered and eager to begin the skill of journaling. I could have talked the whole time but that is always my problem; I know that telling is not really the path to true enlightenment. So I tried to spend at least some of our time writing and walking.
These are the links to some of the ideas, websites and books I mentioned.
Boost your metacognition and brain vocabulary and read Brain Rules by John Medina. The brain science is so clear about how effective this is for learning.

Hook – Get a big idea that grabs you then find a collection of things your students can touch and/or experience to make a start. Today, I took in my personal horse collection but suggested Dollarstore seashells or free-for-the-picking-up-outside right-now spruce cones. One of the teachers mentioned collecting smooth rocks and then using them to create story stones. (Google “story stones” to see some lovely ideas).
A good collection needs to have at least 6 items more than kids in the class so everyone has a choice. If you are smart, things are not too breakable or expensive. Back in my ICE School days I filled a bin with old skates Sports Central was going to throw away. I have used old and new small things from the farm to prompt inquiry and writing about agriculture.
Check out the videos at Edmonton Inquiring Minds by Gillian Kydd about writing and drawing about objects. 
A great book with lesson plans around a variety of objects is Inquiry Based Learning Using Everyday Objects by Amy Alvarado and Patricia Herr.
Write about them. Connect them, reflect on them, observe them, wonder and sketch them.

Line – Take journals, pencils and get out and walk with your class. One of the teachers today suggested a one-time, year-long blanket permission to cover walks with-in a six block radius of the school. Great idea. She also mentioned making the job of caboose or back gate keeper one of the regular rotating class jobs. She has a bright safety vest for that student to wear and they love it.
This fall is an excellent time to walk and connect with the federal election. Watch for lawn signs, count them, see if the number changes. Take a look at this lovely humorous video called Election Signs by Edmonton Journal photojournalist, Ryan Jackson. Then look at his behind-the-scenes of its creation.
The City of Edmonton has created a wonderful resource called Make a Better City. It includes a set of activities centred on walking the neighborhood in the section City Scene.
Looking for prompt ideas for the walk? My favorite collection is How to be an Explorer of the World (this link is to one of my favorite blogs about books and how I found this book in the first place) by Keri Smith. Or check out the Write About website. It is free for an individual teacher to register and has some organized opportunities for joining groups based on interests.
Or maybe just inspiration? Consider Alexandra Horowitz’s On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes. Think about inviting some experts on your walks. Ask them lots of questions.
So, take some walks. Write about them. Stop and sketch on them. Map them when you return.

Sinker – All the brain research is supporting engaging learners and taking them deeper. Let your big idea include doing something that makes the world a better place.  Plan some action because of it. Write some letters, make some videos. Here again Make a Better City has some suggestions in the section Make it Real.
Michael Norton has done research that discovered spending even a small amount of money on something for someone else makes us happy.
Create something to share.
Consider a pop-up museum event. Invite parents to bring in an object related to the big idea for a celebration of learning. Get your students to view the museum and you guessed…write about an object, connect it, wonder about it, sketch it.

Saturday, 13 June 2015

How we ask the questions affects the answers we arrive at

My mother died on Oct 4, 2014. It was not unexpected but, as I have learned from this experience, a heart-pounding surprise. She had battled ovarian cancer for 4 years but finally slipped away in a hospital bed with her glasses on her nose and a book on her chest, thankfully comfortable after a day facing pleading-with-God pain.

This morning I read (following the wonderful suggestion of Maria Popova’s  Brian Picker and the book’s arrival for pick-up by me at my Idylwylde Branch of the Edmonton Public Library) Krista Tippett’s Einstein’s God: Conversations about Science and the Human Spirit. It touched me in so many places, I could not put it down.

And it has driven me to write (in more than 140 characters) which is something I have not managed for more than a year.

I realize, this morning that I am finally emerging from the darkness of the last year. Activities like reading something meaningful from cover to cover and forming thoughts that could make it to print have just not mattered. I have been numbly going through all the motions of my life and am finally rediscovering the joy that has been there.

I met with my writer friends this week in a small café in my neighborhood. I never got to creating anything with my own words. By the time I had caught up on various aspects of their lives like travel, health and the Alberta election, I recorded a few prompts and then had to leave to collect my grand-daughter. This morning I turned to those prompts I had chosen to copy down. My subconscious was definitely trying (it appears it was shouting) to tell me something.
                “But how can you have a sense of wonder if you’re prepared for everything? Prepared for a sunset, prepared for the moonrise, prepared for the ice storm. What a flat existence that would be.” Margaret Atwood; Stone Mattress: Nine Tales 

                “Death is outside life….. It leaves a hole in the fabric of things…” Salley Vickers; Miss Garnet’s Angel

                “You never come closer to owning the whole world than when you wake up before everyone else.”  Åsa Larsson; Until Thy Wrath be Past: A Rebecka Martinsson Investigation

                “All my journeys start with an anxious pang of doubt.  … You point your mind to an invisible land-fall.” Lawrence Durrell; Sicilian Carousel: Adventures on an Italian Island

                “…..in the hours of that first darkness, were astonished by love.” Alice McDermott; Someone

Krista Tippett interviewed a wonderful collection of brilliant thinkers and pulled together their thoughts exploring the nexus (what a pleasing word) of science and spirituality. One of her distillations is “…modern science increasingly suggests that contradictory explanations of reality can be simultaneously true.”  She then examines the puzzle of light as particle or wave and the discovery that it is both.  “And here is the key that made the discovery possible:  how we ask the questions affects the answers we arrive at. Light appears as a wave if you ask it ‘a wave-like question’ and it appears as a particle if you ask it ‘a particle-like question’. “

And what should I find Maria Popova has tweeted to me this morning but a lovely jazz treatment, Heisenberg’s Aha by Lori Henriques from Lori's album titled How Great Can This Day Be.  Those lyrics contain this take on the nexus of art and science:
And remember your imagination
is a voice inside that can help you
to understand quantum mechanics
and so many more things about you.

Then Google reveals to me that scientists have actually just now (research posted March 2015) photographed light as both particle and wave.

“But how can you have a sense of wonder if you’re prepared for everything?”
How great can this day be?

Sunday, 20 April 2014

I want to be wise

I am at that stage in my life where my goals each day line up fairly well with how I decide to spend my time. Not perfectly of course – there is ALWAYS laundry and dishes. I am a married 60+ woman and did not do the proper significant-other vetting on these topics 40 years ago. 

And, as far as I can tell, there is never enough time to read all the books I want to read.

I chose a kind of semi-retirement to spend time with my grand-daughter and my years have shown me how to do that well, better than I did with my daughter and son. The “new” word describing this is intentional. These are the lessons of parenting we get to improve on when we grand-parent.

Recently, Brain Pickings sent me a piece on Barry Schwartz’s Practical Wisdom. This is an excerpt of the six core qualities of the person endowed with telos that Schwartz and Sharpe outline:
  1. A wise person knows the proper aims of the activity she is engaged in. She wants to do the right thing to achieve these aims—wants to meet the needs of the people she is serving.
  2. A wise person knows how to improvise, balancing conflicting aims and interpreting rules and principles in light of the particularities of each context.
  3. A wise person is perceptive, knows how to read a social context, and knows how to move beyond the black-and-white of rules and see the gray in a situation.
  4. A wise person knows how to take on the perspective of another—to see the situation as the other person does and thus to understand how the other person feels. This perspective-taking is what enables a wise person to feel empathy for others and to make decisions that serve the client’s (student’s, patient’s, friend’s) needs.
  5. A wise person knows how to make emotion an ally of reason, to rely on emotion to signal what a situation calls for, and to inform judgment without distorting it. He can feel, intuit, or “just know” what the right thing to do is, enabling him to act quickly when timing matters. His emotions and intuitions are well educated.
  6. A wise person is an experienced person. Practical wisdom is a craft and craftsmen are trained by having the right experiences. People learn how to be brave, said Aristotle, by doing brave things. So, too, with honesty, justice, loyalty, caring, listening, and counseling. 
Awhile back, I was approach to provide feedback on survey items for the type of program that is so near and dear to my heart. I was flattered because it made me feel “known”. The package arrived and I eagerly opened it. I was a little taken aback by the heftiness, but I thumbed through the forms. Each survey item was stapled to a long feedback form; 49 items in all. As I thumbed, I could feel my jaw tighten and my forehead furrow. I drew in my breath and set them down on my desk. Better get myself into the proper space; I had to pick Anisha up in ½ hour and this would take some time.

Something that has increased with my semi-retirement is my ability to procrastinate. I plunge into stuff I enjoy and leave things I am less enthused about (laundry and dishes and recently taxes). These papers sat a few days and then I touched them again. I had two hours and it seemed a perfect time to begin. Once again I decided to do a read through before writing. I had probably misjudged the nature of the activity and just needed to get my brain to the right spot. As I read, I realized I did not know enough about the program. So I did a little online research – deadly because I went from there to my favorite website to catch up on those ideas I know I will find there and love. Then a quick look at Twitter (there is rarely a quick look at Twitter for me). The time was gone and my work was not done. I fired off some emails to get some more information before I tackled it again.

Now the calendar is beginning to become a factor. The researchers want these back, the Easter long weekend is a week away, my Mom 300 km away is sick and needs help and if truth be told, I don’t really like surveys. 

I examine this feeling about surveys. I remember my days as a classroom teacher administering student surveys for Edmonton Public Schools to my class and filling in the teacher version myself. The teacher edition had, for years, the words "fairly much" as a choice on the scale - it drove me NUTS. I pick at the scab of resentment and displeasure with the results which I knew did not accurately reflect my or my students' “attitudes and feelings”.

So I go online and read about Likert scales and chat with some colleagues. None of this helps. Instead my resent grows (what a useless emotion).

When I know the calendar will allow me no more room, I select a morning time block and plow in – I will just get through them. I hate each item, can’t form any constructive criticism, the time drags and I seem to get nowhere. Why can’t they just use the kids’ journals or talk to them? Why is it not enough for a teacher to say what they think because of what they see? The survey is looking for program support of the boxes of subject areas. 
This is the antithesis of type of learning week-long, site-based programs so effectively do - sending student brains to a deep place of learning where neurons do not follow pathways to brain sections marked math or science or art. Neurons just build connection after connection between the stimuli from the real world and those connections form understanding.

This survey does not get IT!! Man, if I get this distraught it is a good thing they are not asking me to administer it.

I finish while Anisha is napping that afternoon. I know I have let down the folks asking for my “wisdom” but I push the forms in their pre-paid postage envelope and toss it in the mailbox on our way to a cleansing visit of the Muttart Conservatory. The new feature pyramid display has roses and Anisha’s middle name is Rose and we can hardly wait to get there.

Based on the six core qualities of a person endowed with telos, on a Likert scale of 1 indicates no wisdom to 5 indicates wise, I have to score myself 1L