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:
- I don’t have the time to set it up.
- I don’t have the energy to set it up.
- I’ll probably get turned down.
- I won’t get permission.
- The timing won’t work out.
- I don’t have the tech requirements.
- 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.
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”?
My students blog. Some with fervor, some reluctantly. It’s an attempt to find a means of authentic writing. Blogging works for me because it ties to the idea of writing for the sake of writing, not the sake of school.
This is my plea, please, don’t ruin blogging.
A teacher who has students write online on given topics for marks is not blogging. I’m not suggesting you don’t have your reasons for having a student do that, though I can’t think of any engaging reasons off the top of my head, please don’t call it a blog. Call it an online response. Or schlog (school log). Or make up a word with only one vowel, which seems to be the trend, like Tretr. But please don’t call it blogging.
Because it’s not that.
Blogging is an authentic means of communicating self to a community of readers that is developed organically.
That’s why I fear the use of blogging in a class. It can be an opportunity for a person to find their voice, their feet, and their tribe. If it is ruined by too much school (i.e. pre-determined topics, fixed criteria, marked, etc.) then we’ll have ruined another form of writing. Students will be so much more reluctant to give it a try on their own. They won’t understand that they have a voice to share with the world. They’ll think the only people who blog are in school. And the only people who read blogs are teachers.
Instead, I think blogging is personal. It is an opportunity to capture thoughts, feelings, analysis, around a specific idea that the writer chooses. I think a successful blogger is able to capture a reader’s interest and deliver interesting and engaging insights. Most blogs have a specific, personal and important niche market.
As for evaluation, the market determines the quality of the blog, not a solitary evaluator. The number of visitors, the comments, the feedback, retweets, are the evaluation of the blog.
If I’m not able to get people to read my posts, then I’m doing something wrong. It’s a balance between successful marketing, but also providing a quality product. I have to give readers a reason to read. If my only reader (the teacher) “has” to read, then what impetus do I have for producing original, interesting content?
According to Kelly Gallagher in his book, Readicide, by succumbing to schoolification we are killing/we have killed reading. Especially reading that requires us to wade through dense, poetic language.
Let’s not do the same to a writing form that allows for personalization. A writing form that democratizes media, opinion, analysis and insight. A writing form that doesn’t fit into a hamburger worksheet.
Please, don’t ruin blogging.
At the beginning of my teaching career, I assumed the typical default teacher position, “No.”
“You want to work in groups when I want you to work individually? No.”
“You want to do a different assignment than this one? No.”
“Can you work in the hall? No.”
And so on, and so on.
Let’s be honest, ‘no’ as a default position makes sense. It makes order easy. Having thirty students in a room, in theory, is easy. Because of course, in theory, they are all at the same level, need the same attention, have the same motivation, etc., etc. The reality is that thirty students in a room are thirty people in room. Each with different needs, different baggage, etc., etc.
To make things easy for me, I relied upon the insistence of compliance. If everyone is doing the exact same thing, in the exact same way, in the exact same time frame, it’s simply easier to manage for me.
I hid my default position under the guise of “fairness”. It’s not fair for any deviation of what I want.
Sure, I said yes at times, but really it was usually because it worked for me too.
Instead it was ‘no’ to change. ‘No’ to student ideas. ‘No’ to difference. ‘No’ to chaos.
Seth Godin points out the truth of what “no” means:
What “no” means
I’m too busy
I don’t trust you
This isn’t on my list
My boss won’t let me
I’m afraid of moving this forward
I’m not the person you think I am
I don’t have the resources you think I do
I’m not the kind of person that does things like this
I don’t want to open the door to a long-term engagement
Thinking about this will cause me to think about other things I just don’t want to deal with
And so over the last couple years, I’ve made a conscious effort to change my default position. What if my default position was yes?
“You want to try something different? Yes.”
“You think this is boring? Yes.”
“You want to run with this? Yes.”
“You want to change the direction of my plans because of a movie/news article/book? Yes.”
The power of a different default position is that my students start owning what they are doing. They start owning the direction/decisions of the class. They start owning their time. They start owning their learning.
My classes are louder, crazier, less controlled. I’ve potentially got thirty students working on thirty different “assignments”. My evaluation doesn’t fit into an easy grid/weighting/mark calculation.
Is it better? I think there have been moments of joy, moments of revelation and more moments of engagement. If that’s better, than yeah, it is better.
Godin is right. Saying “no” is more often about me than it is about them. What’s your default position?
Last Thursday, my night school class started railing against teachers. More accurately, they started slagging on the bad teachers they’ve had in their school career. It started after one of them did a presentation entitled, “The Problem with the School System”.
I let it go as his audience rallied around him. The bad teacher legends were starting up when I cut in.
“Let me get this straight, you think you were unsuccessful in school because of the teachers you had?”
“You blame the teachers?”
“Yeah.” They agreed. The few became the many. They started back in on the teachers that had ‘done them wrong.’
I interjected again.
“I think you are to blame.” They stopped talking. They looked at me. ”I think it is your fault you didn’t learn.” Silence. ”I think, you came into this room tonight, hoping I could give you something, ready to be passive. Only a handful of you have been active in your learning so far, the rest of you are sitting waiting for learning to just happen. But the truth is learning is up to you. I can’t do that for you.”
The sat in silence. They wanted to resist. They tried to form a rebuttal. But they couldn’t.
The truth is, in a culture of passive entertainment and apathetic entitlement, school needs to reframe the process of learning.
Being passive in learning is no longer an option. The problem lies in that too many teachers, students and parents are waiting for school to teach, waiting for the information/skills to wash over them and waiting for someone else to do the work.
But the truth is, time’s up.
The radical, tactical shift that I’ve been promoting and writing about for the past three years is about moving the system towards something more active. We need to be nimble. We need to be constantly moving, changing.
There is a great quote, “Decisions are made by those who show up.” It is not completely true. We’ve got to expect more from ourselves. We’ve got to do more than just show up.
Later on in the evening, one of them approached me, “Mr. Kemp, if you can’t do the learning for us, what is your job?”
“I believe my job is to set the environment for you to learn and to offer feedback and support as you ask questions and explore. You see, I’ve been through the maze of developing these skills before and so, I’m standing in the middle. I can’t just tell you to turn right or turn left. Instead, I need to keep shouting so you can hear me, as you figure it out.”
“You really believe this?”
They hated it when I first introduced it. They tweeted, “This is killing me.” They even begged me after class to never do it again.
Eight weeks later, I suggest it, they do it. They like it.
I call it No-Talk Thursday.
Sure, there are still the skeptics and the resistant, but as a whole the class fades to silence much quicker now than it did then. It is a stretch of time where they are allowed/encouraged to disconnect and instead plug into themselves.
This isn’t to say they never do it on their own time, but when the world is buzzing around you too many of them choose to buzz along.
In about fifty days, I’ll be leaving K/W and flying to B.C. to begin my 42 day Bike Across Canada. Forty-two days of solitude, pedals and scenery. As I’ve explained to my classes what I’m doing, many of them ask, aren’t you going to get lonely? Aren’t you going to get bored all by yourself?
The truth is I don’t know. I don’t think so, but I’ve never gone this long on my own. I’ve never allowed myself this long to be contemplative.
I’ve never been silent for so long.
As we shift gears and move into our “No-Talk Thursday”, I often think “Is seventy-five minutes a week near enough?” Should we be practicing quiet contemplation more in schools? Is school too loud?
As we shift our classroom pedagogy towards a more online presence, a more “connected” existence, do we also allow the natural hustle and bustle of technology into our classrooms and in essence, into the learning procedure?
We know that learning happens when a student “thinks about thinking” or a student “wrestles with the knowledge/concepts/ideas”, however, are we giving students space to do that critical contemplation, or meta-cognition?
Should we be taking more time to resist the hustle and bustle and add more silence?
The system needs to change. It needs to adapt with changing times, changing students and a changing information paradigm. School needs to shift.
In my mind, it needs a radical tactical shift.
As I talk with other teachers, it seems that this is a universally accepted idea. The system needs to change.
John Mayer sings, “We are waiting on the world to change.” The problem is that year after year, as we sit and wait for a system that is adequately responsive, we lose another opportunity to get started.
Can teachers change the system? Are teachers system leaders?
On one hand, we are the front lines. We are the first person to deal with students and parents. We show up everyday and close the door. We have the utmost of control over the experiences of a student. Innovation and change can happen on a daily basis. We have the ability to radically alter how we approach learning, how we instruct, and how we assess.
Yet, the status quo is maintained. The change that happens is often minor. We haven’t seen any radical change since the dawn of the information age.
And the reason, because the system hasn’t changed.
This paradoxical relationship of change has stymied any lasting, important forward movement.
Teachers speak about a mistrust of administration, the Ministry and the support they’d have if they were to try something outside the box. Not to mention, the fear of trying something, failing and the lasting implication to the students under their care. For all the talk about trusting teacher practice and judgement, is there All valid reasons for sure.
Though it isn’t enough. Change is needed.
I’m left questioning the likelihood of true systemic change. I’m left wondering if the acts of a single teacher, or even a radical group of teachers is really change. But, that doesn’t make me still want to try new things, challenge the system and encourage others to do the same.
I guess my question is, are you waiting on the system to change or being the change?
I want to be one of those teachers that inspires his students. Not quite Michelle Pheiffer in Dangerous Minds or Robin Williams in Dead Poet’s Society, but somewhere in that vicinity. Someone who makes a difference. I know I’m not the only one.
It’s cheesy, I recognize.
The point is, I want to have high expectations of my students. I want to set the bar high and I want to help each kid get over it.
I want be a consistent positive force.
Every morning, that’s my goal. Make a student believe and move a student forward.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve been very cognizant of the feedback I give my students. I try to tailor the feedback to be positive, to be constructive, to remind them of the successes they’ve achieved.
But upon reflection, upon sitting down and talking with students, I realize I’ve been glossing over the honest feedback. I’m trying so hard to polish my message, that the truth is being washed away.
This unsettles me.
Where is the line? Where is the tipping point between positive, constructive feedback and honest feedback? Because they aren’t the same thing.
In a discussion with some colleagues, the idea of “tough love” came up. Is there room for tough love in schools anymore? Some teachers felt that there really wasn’t. They felt that the expectations now (with credit recovery, credit rescue and all manner of student success) lead to a sanitized feedback loop where no one admits there is dirt anywhere to be seen. I’m not sure I fully agree, but I can see where they are coming from.
So, I ask you, how do you balance being positive and constructive with providing honest feedback?
The starting is the easy part.
To start a blog, you need five minutes on Blogspot or WordPress and you’ve got a blog. Now, you can say you have a blog. You are doing it. But, of course, you’re not. You have to put in the time, day after day. You have to write, consistently.
In university, I was focused on sitting down and writing a novel. I did. I got started. I wrote the first three thousand words. I could now tell people, “I’m writing a novel.” I felt that was the accomplishment. I thought starting was enough. But years later, I only had 3000 words and a fading belief that “I was writing a novel.”
Last week, I started a podcast. (Just a Teacher Podcast) I was proud. I said, “Hey world, I started something.” It took me about fifteen minutes to record my first episode, another ten minutes of editing, five minutes to download the correct WordPress plugin, and before I knew it, it was done. I had a podcast. This week the reality set in. I’ve got to do again. And again to make it meaningful.
Starting is not enough.
Call it what you will, follow-through, resilience, discipline or whatever. That’s when it gets hard.
Yet, that’s when it matters. That’s what separates an idea with a product. That’s what separates an intention with delivery.
Don’t get me wrong, starting something is great. In fact, I’m always happier starting something and letting it fade away then having the idea festering. But the world will never be changed without the next step. Or the one after that. The world will never be changed by just the start.
I have to sit down and write the next blog post. I have to write the next chapter. I have to create the next episode. That’s when it matters. That’s when it counts.
It’s easy to start something, the next step is when it counts.
I write this blog on a semi-regular basis. I follow a few other teachers, from across the province and Canada, that also write blogs. Not many. In fact, out of all my friends, I might be the only blogger. (Unless, they are blogging anonymously, which is distinctly possible.)
The point is, blogging may not be as “authentic” as I think.
I tweet on a semi-regular basis. I follow teachers from around the world that also tweet about education. Not many, really. In fact, out of all my teacher colleagues, about half actively use Twitter. (Unless, they are tweeting anonymously, which is distinctly possible.)
The point is, tweeting may not be as “authentic” as I think.
I read books and talk about them. I share the books I read and my thoughts on them with a group of people that fluctuates. In fact, many of my friends read sparingly, mostly the news or internet gossip sites. (Unless, they are reading novels and not talking about them, which is distinctly possible.)
The point is, reading and talking about what I read may not be as “authentic” as I think.
And so I’m left questioning, what am I in the pursuit of?
Theoretically, I want students to use their words as means of connecting with people. I want them to learn how to use language to move people, to persuade them, to inform them. I want them to understand that we must approach different audiences in different ways.
But who are these audiences I speak of?
My wife is an engineer. She writes on a regular basis, probably more than I do as an English teacher. Her audience is other engineers and she typically writes technical memos.
My brother is a radio promotions manager. He writes on a regular basis, probably as much as I do. His audience is other co-workers in e-mails, with point form descriptions of ideas and logistics.
I suppose I’m wondering, who are the audiences we are preparing our students for?
Most of us are not bloggers, or tweeters, or book club enthusiasts, yet I’m calling this the act of writing for authentic audiences. I’m wondering if I’ve missed the mark.
So, I ask you, where is your authentic audience?
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