Nov 10, 2015

Is Student Voice For Real?

Noun 4186

Educational change agents are constantly humming the merits of student voice and choice. Although a pithy rhyme, I wonder the implications of incorporating it in educational policy decision making.

A proviso: I believe education needs to be personalized. I’m all for students choosing their own books, methods of learning and connecting the curriculum to their own sense of self, justice, and helping in craft the direction of their learning on the micro scale. My classroom is excessively student directed. I’m all for student choice. I’m all for student voice when it comes to the individual.

Student voice on a larger scale is another issue. That’s not to say there shouldn’t be development of voice, that’s imperative, however, in implementing change in the system as a whole, I think we need to temper our excitement of incorporating student voice.

Student voice has been constructed by the school voice. The social, economic, and cultural factors that influence how students talk about school are often directly connected to how their teachers and parents talk about school and learning.

In battling the marks economy, I have found most students have no problem with the system, as is. Despite the growing research that opines that the marks economy inhibits students’ intrinsic motivation, there is no student groundswell to eliminate it, often because we have given them the language of the status quo.

In the same breath, over the six years I’ve been openly talking with my students about a radical change in education, many students have come around to seeing it my way. My influence on their perspective is obvious. Their voice begins to puppet my own. I may be inherently persuasive, but their voice in arguing for this change seems rather constructed by me.

The pop culture influence a student’s awareness of their schooling. Like in David Foster Wallace’s famous valedictorian speech, the idea that students are unaware of their surroundings is problematic when looking for their influence on the environment.

High school is a constant fixture on tv shows and movies. The media reinforces a student’s understanding of high school. We are not aware of options until it is reflected in pop culture.

All this is to say that I think we need to couch student voice with an awareness that it is not fully developed and often is more a reflection of their teacher than their larger understanding of the world.

Nov 1, 2015

Learning is Water

This is my first foray into video. This is the first instalment of a series of educational metaphors I hope to use to connect my students with the power of image in communication.

I hope to use my own video footage in future pieces, however, I am so thankful for the plethora of options using the Creative Commons protocol.

As always, feedback is welcome and encouraged.

Sep 30, 2015
Comments Off on Never Too Old for a Coach

Never Too Old for a Coach

Noun 115961 cc

Peyton Manning is a Super Bowl winning quarterback and a 5 time NFL MVP. Love him or hate him, he is a success.

While speaking at LeaderCast 2015, he explained how he understood there to be 4 pillars to success.

  1. Learn to thrive being uncomfortable.
  2. Teammates need to be on the same level.
  3. Devote yourself to intense preparation.
  4. Invest in a coach.

It was interesting. Here was a guy who knew the fundamentals, had had the fundamentals drilled into him his entire life, explaining how he had his old university coach run him through fundamental drills in the off-season. If ever there was a guy who could back it off a little in the off season it would be Peyton Manning.

He said, “As soon as someone doesn’t need to be coached, taught or mentored, they are in trouble. As you either get better or you get worse. You never stay the same.”

He said, “A true coach is someone who shoots straight to give you relevant information.”

Although I am no Peyton Manning, I decided to hire a coach this past year as I trained to compete in a couple of Ironman triathlons.

My coach was able to introduce a new dynamic to my regular training. He insisted on new methods, new styles of workouts and kept me focused on the bigger picture, even when I doubted the methods.

At the first meeting with Dave he told me, “You’re going to have to trust me.” And I did. I had no reason not to.

What worked for me was that my coach was flexible. He understood that my life was more than the practice, more than the competition. This was critical.

My coach provided me feedback when I needed it, not always, not constantly. Most importantly, he never evaluated me. He fine-tuned my workouts, for sure, but never was he the one that ultimately judged me. This too was critical.

At 34 years old, I opened myself up to a coach for the first time since I was a teenager playing hockey. He was someone who shot straight and gave me relevant information. Proving as always, you’re never too old for a coach.

How can we rectify the paradox of being effective coaches and ultimately judges of our students?

Sep 24, 2015
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A FitBit for Learning

Noun 81484 cc

My mother has taken to wearing a FitBit to track her steps, her water intake, her sleep cycles all in an effort to stay healthy. She finds satisfaction when the little piece of plastic vibrates to celebrate her hitting 10,000 steps in a day. The presence of it reminds her to drink another glass of water. She can look at the data it provides over a day, a week, month or year.

I trained harder than ever for two Ironman races earlier this year. Every time I went for a run or ride, I linked into the GPS satellites and tracked my movement. I strapped on a heart rate monitor and stayed within set ranges. I used the data to focus my training on my aerobic threshold, rather than training like I have in the past by going full on every workout.

My students get into class and they have no FitBit. They have no heart rate monitor to focus their efforts.

They have me.

The data I give them is not enough. It is scattershot, often after the task is complete, and is not well-documented enough to really allow them to do solid data analysis.

How can we change that?

What data can they harness while working to increase productivity, flow, learning and progress?

What variables affect these things and how can I help them create the specific range that will focus their efforts?


At this point, I have asked them to try and track certain variables: time on task, breaks (even if they are minor daydreams), words written or pages read, happiness, the challenge of the task, who they are sitting beside, the music they are listening to, stress level, what they’ve eaten today, and how much sleep they had.

By gathering this data, I’m hoping to be able to start helping students make sense of their data in hopes that they can isolate the variables that affect (positively and negatively) their focus and productivity.

I’d like to work up to including outside data about quality of work, etc. I haven’t figured out exactly how to do this.

I want a FitBit for learning for my students. I haven’t totally figured out how to do this.

Any ideas?

Sep 18, 2015
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Technology is Muddying the Water


I love how technology has changed things. I love how it democratizes knowledge. It gives access to information, but also to an audience which we could never have found.

Technology allows me to spout off into the abyss and potentially land on the ears of someone who needed reassurance, who wants to challenge me, who remixes my ideas into something better or simply who gets a chance to think. It gives us a chance to find and build community.

However, as the conversation continues to bristle around how to integrate technology into the classroom, I worry that the bigger narrative about change is being glossed over.

The change that matters is the immense shift in power around information, experts, ideas, ownership and feedback.

A new app can’t help with that.

Apr 17, 2014
Comments Off on In Action (@adoelman & @ballantynedj)

In Action (@adoelman & @ballantynedj)

Walking into their classrooms, I had my assumptions. They were predicated on the ideals we’ve talked through, the passion I knew they have and the stories we’ve shared.

Walking into their classrooms, I had my expectations. They were predicated on their conviction for improvement, their commitment to their students and their openness for my visit.

This week, I had the good fortune to spend time in both Anne Doelman (@adoelman) and Dan Ballantyne’s (@ballantynedj) respective classrooms. I was given the rich opportunity to see them in action.

It’s a rare opportunity in teaching, to be a fly on the wall. Too often, the doors are closed, access limited. When I was given the chance, I headed to the classrooms of two teachers I have already learned much from and who I knew would give me more opportunity to be better.

In Anne’s classroom, the easiness of relationship was obvious. Students were comfortable in the environment. It was clearly an environment of trust and mutual respect. Anne has the benefit of a very large, open space, with “quiet” rooms attached. I witnessed an ability to outline intention without being dogmatic. That’s what Anne does best.

It highlighted for me, and gave me a kick in the pants to mimic, a commitment to a student’s understanding of purpose for each element of action. I thought I did it well enough, however, Anne demonstrated an even more explicit means of intentional communication.

She had a video camera rolling for even the smallest interaction, so that students could capture evidence of their speaking and listening skills. The idea of capturing heaps of evidence of their learning was paramount, but the piece I miss, is giving them the footage; allowing them to decide what makes the cut and what doesn’t.

While watching Dan, I saw the epitome of patience. I could see the intersection of his desire to embrace the ideals of the Futures Forum Project and the realities of working with a group of disaffected, disengaged students. And it was working. By being flexible and dynamic, by embracing a student-led suggestion, Dan showed how easy it was to give power to his students. It was neat to see students feed off of another student’s ownership of their learning.

I liked watching Dan be inclusive, while also not forcing inclusion. He reminded me to offer opportunities to participate, but not to mandate it. He allowed a student to passively participate. I hope I do that, but I’m not always sure. It was definitely a moment of insight for me.

Both classroom visits showed me the richness of my teacher network. It authenticated what they’ve talked about and it allowed me to see them in action. A valuable tool more teachers should be provided.

Mar 2, 2014
Comments Off on Four Things I Wish I Knew Before I Started Teaching

Four Things I Wish I Knew Before I Started Teaching

The other day, I was talking to a friend about becoming a teacher. He wasn’t interested in becoming one, but he started asking about how I made the decision. To be honest, it was one of those things that just happened. When you are studying English literature at university, the career options often start at English teacher. A few years later, I was standing in front of a group of grade ten students teaching Australian history on my first practicum in teacher’s college.

I never processed through the implications of the choice before the choice was made. I’m more of a jump-first, react-second type guy.

Now that the first phase of being a new teacher has faded, I have an opportunity to reflect on the things I’ve learned and the things I wish I knew.

Here are the four major things I wish I knew before I started teaching:

1. The job never stops.

Everything I hear on the radio, every book I read, and every conversation I have, my mind is processing for the contexts of the classroom. I strongly believe that being human in the classroom allows for more connection and stronger community, that’s why everything I do outside of the classroom is analyzed and considered. It’s not straining or stressful, in fact, it’s enjoyable.

The other aspect of the job never stopping is that there is always something to do. Feedback, planning, polishing, whatever it is, it always hangs over. Even through the summer, whenever I’m on vacation, I’m thinking about how to do things better; thinking of ways to tweak and innovate.

It’s like many jobs in this fact, but something I didn’t anticipate at all.

2. Rarely do you know if you are successful.

When I was in sales, I knew when I had a good day. I knew when I had a good week or a good month. In teaching (even more so in high school), seeing the payoff of the work is almost non-existent. Sure, you may see a kid develop their writing skills or speaking skills, but the real goal is to help develop a whole person. That impact is often minimal by any one teacher.

There is no real mechanism that evaluates your effectiveness. There is no metric that proves efficacy, which then leaves teachers swinging at fences. We talk about having success criteria for student learning, but there is none developed for teachers. That in itself is fine, but it also leaves teachers waffling somewhere between success and obsolescence. With no method of receiving feedback or meaningful assessment, our idea of our own success is measured with wet noodles.

3. Dealing with colleagues is harder than dealing with students.

I thought dealing with the hormone-injected, clique-crashing, teenage angst was the challenge of being a high school teacher. The reality, for me, is dealing with colleagues is often much more challenging. I’m a firm believer that most teachers are there for the same reason I am, to make the lives of students better today than they were yesterday. However, dealing with the school, union and personal politics has pushed me to learn how best to work with others.

In the last few years, I’ve made a concerted effort at trying to understand the perspective of all involved before moving forward, however, I still often find myself being told my actions have caused a series of unfortunate events.

Generally, my reaction is to keep moving forward and keep creating space for my ideas/opinions. However, challenging ideas is sometimes taken as challenging the person. The challenge of being aware of my own ego and avoiding the conflicts with colleagues’ ego is on-going. My learning continues.

4. The system is broken and everyone in the system knows it.

The biggest thing I wish I knew before I started was that the system is broken, everybody knows it, but because we can’t agree how to fix it, we keep perpetuating the broken system. The “tried and tested” is considered “non-negotiable”, regardless of the lack of true evaluation of the methods. There are too many people with too much invested in the system (despite its broken-ness) to see real reform.

And it’s not that it is broken. It’s that everyone knows there are flaws and yet, nothing. It’s frustrating when you come across an obstacle and it is only an obstacle because of an arbitrary decision that was made years ago.


Despite all these things, I stand by the fact that education and teaching is dynamite. Going into the profession, I wish I was fully briefed.

What do you wish you knew before you started teaching?

Jan 16, 2014
Comments Off on Can She Choose Nothing?

Can She Choose Nothing?

I’m an advocate for choice in education. I think the more we can personalize the experience, the more relevant we become, especially in a knowledge-rich, democratized culture.

And so I proposed the idea that next semester in English class, I would have no “required” reading; meaning no “core” text, no “class novel”, nothing that isn’t chosen specifically by the individual student. Sure, I’d make recommendations, nudge students to challenge themselves with great books, etc., but nothing would be something everyone in the class had to read.

That’s not to say they didn’t have to read. I just wouldn’t compel them to read any one specific thing.

The logistics of the idea aren’t fully worked out in my head and I’m not sure if I’m actually ready to jump into it, but the idea is percolating.

no-thank-youThe biggest pushback to the idea is what if a student chooses to read nothing. What if she doesn’t like reading and so unless she is compelled, she won’t do it? My first instinct is to assume that she is probably not reading a compulsory text, anyway.

Sarah Le (@sarle83) wrote a great post about the reality of students pretending to read. (

My more thoughtful response is to use my relationship with the student, along with her understanding of the requirements of the course (curriculum expectations) to help her find/choose texts that she’ll enjoy. It could serve multiple purposes, obviously get a student who wouldn’t read to read something, but more importantly, building the personal relationship. It is a way for me to demonstrate to that student that I value them as an individual.

The other big pushback I got for this idea was around class discussions. How do you hold a class discussion when everyone hasn’t read the same source material? My response, you don’t. Instead you hold mini-discussion amongst people who have read texts that have similar themes. The class discussion model, although I love it, does often trend towards teacher-directed, with only select students participating.

Alas, it is an idea. It needs more development around how do you track reading? How do you keep students accountable? And, what if they still choose nothing?

But, there is a lesson in there too, isn’t there?


Nov 22, 2013
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Just Ask.

Every now and again, you need a kick in the ass. You get complacent. You get lazy. You feel like, “Yeah, I’m doing pretty good.” I was feeling this way in the early parts of the semester. I was “on top” of things. My students were relatively all engaged and learning, I was tweaking what’s worked in the past. I was doing alright.

But the truth was plopped in front of me by Heather Durnin (@hdurnin), a grade eight teacher. While presenting at the ECOO conference about all the cool things she does in her classroom, it dawned on me where I was really lacking. I wasn’t asking.

I was having all these “brilliant” (it’s relative, I know) ideas about how to make the learning more authentic for my students and then determining the idea wouldn’t work for one of the following reasons:

  1. I don’t have the time to set it up.
  2. I don’t have the energy to set it up.
  3. I’ll probably get turned down.
  4. I won’t get permission.
  5. The timing won’t work out.
  6. I don’t have the tech requirements.
  7. And so on, and so on.

I was killing the idea before it left my head.

And here’s the beauty of what Heather presented, she just asked. She took the idea and ask for help. She threw the possibilities into the wind and waited. She reminded us that she got rejected plenty, but for the few times it works out, it is worth it.

I’m able to explode the walls off the classroom by simply asking for others to join us, collaborate, teach us, be apart of the community by asking.

Simple and elegant, just ask. The perfect kick in the ass I needed.

Nov 21, 2013
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“Experimenting With My Son?

I don’t have kids of my own. It influences my teaching. The same way having kids would. I could argue I’m a better teacher because I don’t have kids. You could argue, I’d be better if I had kids. Both sides are equally valid and herein lies the conundrum.

I spoke with a parent today. He wanted to know about this “experimental classroom” that I was running.

“Let me get this straight,” he said, “you are experimenting with my son?”

And the reality of experimentation hits, these are all someone’s kid.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t treat them with some inhuman detachment. I care for each of them as someone’s kid. I want them each to succeed and grow. Yet, I believe in trying new things in the classroom which in turn may not work. I believe there’s value in trying something new. There’s value in failing. Churchill said, “Success is stumbling from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.” Students learn something even in failure.

However, this is the one shot these students have in this class. This is there one time through grade 10 English. What is the lasting effect of a miserable failed experiment?

Now the reverse is true, not trying something new could be a miserable failed opportunity for enriched learning. I understand that. The experiments are not willy-nilly. They are founded in some “educational research”, which I recognize is often contradictory/cyclical.

How do I reconcile these two aspects of an “experimental classroom”?

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