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?
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?
“Often children –and adults– need external incentives to take the first steps in an activity that requires a difficult restructuring of attention. … But once the interaction starts to provide feedback to the person’s skills, it usually begins to be intrinsically rewarding.” - Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book Flow.
And so it exists, that place in between. The fulcrum point of getting learning going and maintaining momentum.
We need to be in pursuit of the perfect balance between externally incentivizing learning at the beginning, without making the external reward the only reason to persist, while creating a system to remove the external incentive when a student’s skills have made learning intrinsically rewarding.
Presumably, every student is different. Every student reaches that place of equilibrium at a different time. The seesaw of their motivation finds that perfect place at a different time depending on parental influence, ideas of achievement, use of punishment, etc.
I’ve been a strong proponent for getting rid of grades in school. I still think this is important. Marks are inauthentic. However, Csikszentmihalyi has got me thinking what external incentives should/could replace grades to get the learning started.
Are there authentic incentives that we can harness in schools? Views on YouTube, likes of Facebook? I don’t know, but maybe we need to spend more time thinking about these things.
A whole host of studies show that kids with engaged parents are more successful in school. They achieve more, are generally more safe, and most importantly, are more confident as they go through the schooling continuum.
I worry sometimes that this is because parents are marks-driven. I worry that the engaged parents are the ones saying, “You need to get 90s.” I worry that these studies reinforce the idea of parents and teachers as enforcers of compliance. But that’s a separate blog post.
Getting parents involved is important. Their involvement must go beyond parent’s night and report cards. And so I try something new.
Every Friday, in one of my classes, I’m having students write an e-mail to a parent. In the scope of a good conference, I’m having them write the e-mail, cc-ing me, that includes three components. 1. Their successes of the week. 2. Things they struggled with this week. 3. Their goals for next week. Every Friday, each student is going to answer the question, “What did you do at school, today?” with something more than, “Nothing.”
The idea of the e-mail is to encourage and enable students to tell the story of their learning. In their words, reflect on what’s working, what’s not and how they plan on going forward. But that’s not all. Every two weeks (I’ve divided the class in half, so 15 one week, 15 the other), I plan on replying to the e-mail, to each student and their parent. My reply will acknowledge, encourage, support and strategize with that student and their parent. It’s my attempt to let learning take precedence. It’s not about communicating a number, but rather it’s about documenting the process.
There are some reservations I can foresee: What if there are no parents? I think send an e-mail to someone you hope to make proud. What if the parent doesn’t have e-mail? We go old school and we write a letter. What if a student doesn’t write it? I still write my e-mail to them and the parent. However, it is based on my observations and conversations. The idea is that someone else is then telling their story.
Like anything, it’s an experiment. It’s an attempt at bringing together three pillars of a child’s education (themselves, school, parents). It’s something active that brings parents into the community of learning. But it might not work. I’m willing to take that gamble.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this plan, possible problems, etc.
Thanks to Mike Pinkney for helping me refine my ideas while shouting over the playing of the house band and thanks to Anne Doelman for lending me the book, Conferencing and Reporting by Kathleen Gregory et al.
I have no use for statistics and numbers that mean nothing. That goes for grades, literacy test results, credit accumulation, etc. They rarely tell me anything of value about a student.
They don’t tell me her story. They don’t tell me where she’s been, the view of the world she holds or the magnitude of her dreams. Truthfully, they don’t tell her that either.
It’s the time of year when grades and report cards become the bittersweet taste on everyone’s tongue.
I’ve made my position clear on quantitative data for learning. But then something happened today.
A colleague, for whom I have the utmost respect, pointed out how often I use quantitative data to achieve my creative and qualitative goals.
Every time I step outside the door to run, I start my watch. I upload the GPS data onto Strava and relentlessly track my progress. I can tell you which kilometre of the last seven runs was my best, the elevation of my typical training run and I can track myself against my friends. But running isn’t about the number.
As I sat down to write a novel in these past four months, I used a word-count tracker that gave me real-time results based on my intended “delivery” date. I knew how many words I wrote each sitting, how many times I’d used the word “stillness” (7 times) and how many pages per chapter. I watched these numbers regularly to fulfill my need for discipline. I knew when I had short-changed a writing session and that I’d have to make it up tomorrow. These numbers helped me achieve my creative goal.
So you see, I have a data dilemma.
I use data to help me pursue my learning, improving, achieving, but I hate when it is forced upon students and teachers. Especially in saying this is the “important data”.
As I was out running, trying desperately not to look at my watch and become data dependent, I considered that I like the data I self-select. The data that is important to me. The data that fits into my goals and my definition of what I want to achieve. I’m not looking at my time and thinking it’s not as good as Craig Alexander, instead I’m thinking, “Man, I’m really off the pace I want, I’ve got to pick it up.”
Therein lies the rub, self-selection.
We need a system that allows students to determine what data matters to them. Then allows them to access that data, track the data and use it to achieve. We need a system that allows teachers to determine what data matters to them. Then allows them to access that data, track the data and use it to achieve. Each for their own means.
Maybe we don’t track enough data, real data. Data that matters.
Where this sits with my thoughts on standardized test data, I don’t know.
That’s why it’s my data dilemma.
A colleague of mine, who is currently looking for permanent work, e-mailed me the other day with a simple question:
What would you do if a student told you to fuck off?
A friend of hers was asked this as an interview question. As I was writing my response, I felt inadequate to answer the question. There are so many variables at play in a classroom, that to know what I’d do, is inauspicious. That said, in an interview, I’ve never met a question for which I didn’t have an answer.
So, I wrote back:
To be honest, that’s a tough question. I’d probably answer it like this:
Any reaction like that from a student requires consequences. No doubt about it. That said, learning is all about relationships. Sending a student down to the VP changes the relationship I have with that student. It might even undermine that relationship. So, how would I move forward? I can only assume that the reaction is from a build-up of frustration from the student and not an “out of the blue” eruption. I’d take a breathe. I’d tell the student to take a break, wait outside, or something like that. After ten minutes or so, I’d try to have a conversation with the student that begins, “I’m sorry that you are frustrated. We are going to deal with your frustration, but for us to be able to move forward, we need to make sure we both have respect for each other. In saying that, I’ve never sworn at you. I’d appreciate it, if you apologized for swearing.” In having the conversation, I’d try to address the frustration the student is having, and then offer them the chance to define a consequence for swearing. To apologize is not a consequence. At this point, repairing the relationship is my first priority.
I don’t know, that would be my approach. I’m not sure if I’d get the job, but that’s what I’d do, or at least, hope to do.
I’d love to know if I’m alone on this one or if anyone has an alternative approach.
What would you do?
What a trying time it has been and will continue to be for us.
It sucks having your profession seemingly attacked. It sucks having the work you do seemingly disrespected. I don’t like it. I don’t like being put into the situation where I need to defend what I do on a daily basis to people who seemingly don’t understand.
I’ve heard from some of you that you “avoid the conversation” if it comes up with family and friends. I get it. It’s easier that way. I don’t blame you for wanting to just take a break from the politics and snippiness.
I don’t like Bill 115. I think it was a cowards way of dealing with fiscal realities and frankly, it was an effort to create a negative atmosphere in education. And it worked. Negativity is everywhere.
And so now, here we are. Our contracts have been imposed and Bill 115 will be repealed. A shrewd political move if ever I did see one. A move in need of some political, vocal response. No doubt about it.
Where do we go from here?
Many of you have suggested we need to continue a “Permanent Pause” and continue our withdrawal of extra-curriculars. I couldn’t agree less. Now, I respect your decision, as I always have, to not participate in extra-curriculars. They are voluntary activities and I believe we should leave them this way. If you don’t want to do them, if you have a family to spend time with, even if you don’t and you just want to go home, get your marking and prep done, and then read a good book, do it. I respect that entirely. But I hope, you can respect my desire to continue with extra-curriculars.
I believe extra-curriculars are more than just a sports team to cheer on or a club to fill a lunch-hour. I believe that part of a rich high school experience is the opportunity for students to connect authentically outside of the classroom with peers and teachers. For many students, these opportunities are the connective tissue to the school community. To some, it is the only tissue. I suggest that we need this connection now more then ever.
We are growing an increasingly cynical and disaffected young population and our removal of extra-curriculars will contribute to a furthering of that sensibility. Not because students “deserve” it or because they are “entitled” to it, but rather because learning is about relationships. Rather than driving our students, and parents, away from our school communities, we should be working to connect them further. Rather than pushing them to community organizations disconnected from the school, we should be connecting the organizations to the school. We need to build an authentic community that believes in the eternal value of public schools, both inside and outside of the classroom. This is our best long-term strategy.
Studies have shown that students who are active in the school, do better, live better, and feel safer, in general (A bit dated, yet still relevant: http://nces.ed.gov/pubs95/web/95741.asp). Our students success is tied to our ability to make them feel connected to their school community.
But that’s not it. I believe it allows me to be a more authentic teacher. It allows me to participate with them in my interests. They can witness and be part of my passions.
And so, what is the removal worth? Where does it get us?
I’ve been told, via Twitter, that we will ‘piss off parents’ so they’ll force the government to settle this mess. Sure, I agree. Then what? In two years, we do it all over again? I am a believer that a negative act never builds community. It only destroys one. Instead, acting positively towards our students and parents, giving them a world-class education (inside and outside the classroom) builds a long-term population that understands the value of teachers, which can only help us.
I’m always criticized for these ideas, because it doesn’t seem to have enough “action”. What do we do now? We start to aggressively build community. We reach out. We stop cowering from the conversations. We tell our tribes to think about the teacher that made a difference for them. We call our MPPs, every day. Not just the few of us, the many. I think of Andy Dufrense mailing a letter a week and then a letter a day in Shawshank Redemption.
Rather than removing what I do in my free time, rather than telling me what I can’t do, rather than mandating the absence of an action, why not mandate an action? An action that puts direct pressure on the government. People are always willing to give up their free time for something they believe in. Always. If we aren’t willing to give up our free time for this, do we really believe in it or are we just following along?
It’s easy to get angry and frustrated and say, “I’m done with this.” But that isn’t a solution. A solution comes when we march forward into the wind. This may be a long fight. We need to uncover tactics that are sustainable. Calling our MPPs every day, may not be sustainable. I get that. However, neither is a “Permanent Pause”.
Together, we face an uphill climb. Old ideas will keep us at the bottom. Easy prey for the next premier, the next government, or the citizen who just sees our pension and holidays. We need to redefine the relationship of the public to teachers, hell, to public education. It starts by building community in our schools. It starts by putting direct pressure on our government. It starts by talking about our eternal value to everyone. That’s being active to me.
I suffer from “The Bus Syndrome”.
The Bus Syndrome is a terrible affliction, which hampers my role as effective collaborator, effective teacher and effective colleague. The Bus Syndrome is such that I live in my own head. I am terrible at writing down my lesson plans. I am terrible at recording what I do on a daily basis. Sure, I document some things, but in general, I never take the time to keep good records.
If I was hit by a bus, my replacement would be lost. Thus, I suffer from The Bus Syndrome.
After thinking about the possibility of this demise, I thought I should record a few thoughts about my lesson plans. After reading James Robbins’ blog for awhile now (and directly in response to the format of his book), he has given me the vocabulary to process how I plan for the week ahead.
Following these nine questions allows me to be ready for the week:
1. How will I demonstrate my genuine interest in the lives of my students? Will it be an “impromptu” conversation, greeting them at the door, an acknowledgment of the major events in their lives, etc?
2. How will I provide timely, effective, productive feedback to each student over the course of the next week?
3. How will I reward and recognize specific students for their performance this week? Will I highlight their work to the group, tweet it out to the world, hang it on the wall?
4. How will I connect the purpose of what we’re doing to each student this week? This requires me to consciously know what makes each of my students tick, so I can be deliberate and intentional when connecting purpose for each of them.
5. What choices will I give my students this week that will give them a sense of control and autonomy? How will I encourage them to make choices that strengthen them, rather than taking the road of least resistance?
6. How can I help them grow this week?
7. How will what we do foster a greater sense of community within the room? How will I strengthen social bonds amongst students and between students and myself?
8. How can I inject some fun into what we do this week?
9. What skills, strategies, ideas do my students need me to model for them this week? Will it be a specific academic skill, a social skill, forgiveness, kindness, or maybe it is a time management strategy, an idea about living with passion, etc?
I believe these nine questions allow me to maintain a specific focus on my lessons and understand the virtue of public education.
If I’m ever hit by a bus, use these questions to figure where to continue on from.
Over the last month, I have had the great fortune of taking my Grade 10 Applied English class to visit and participate with a kindergarten class. It has been fun and rewarding for both sets of ‘kids’. Mr. Childs (@ischilds) has welcomed us with such kindness and generosity. We have had the opportunity to read with/for, play with, colour, write, practice the alphabet, build with blocks and most importantly, connect with these little people.
Having spent an entirety of one day in a kindergarten class during my practice teaching, I haven’t had much exposure to these micro-learning environments.
Here is my list of nine thoughts I had about teaching high school from the kindergarten class:
- Carpet time is about communal learning –> I don’t have a nice blue carpet in my classroom, but the essence of carpet time is we all gather and we talk. I’ve started doing that by gathering at a boardroom table. It is about being silly, being focused, engaging with each other. It is also about establishing the direction of the day.
- Even big kids are scared by little kids –> I couldn’t believe how unnatural it was for some of my grade 10s, especially the boys, to engage with the kids. They were uneasy to start a conversation. Often it was because they didn’t know where it was going to go, the unexpected left some of my students unwilling to make the first step.
- Communication filters are self-created –> These four and five year olds just say what’s on their mind. From a teacher’s perspective, Mr. Childs is a consummate example of having a measured, sound response to even the funniest statements. What’s interesting is the filters that we unconsciously create for ourselves. I’m not thinking about the time and place filters that are conscious, but rather the communication barriers our students make to create their persona. These little guys don’t worry about that, so what am I doing to create that environment for my students to start to strip away the communication filters?
- Variety is key –> Watching the little kids jump from one thing to the other is so fascinating. One minute they are figuring out the structure of a building, the next they are painting a picture. The two skills in high school are so often separated by time and space. A specific class for each skill. How does a creative opportunity affect an analytical problem? It fosters creative problem solving and rational artistic exploration. The siloing of skills begins to destroy that interplay.
- Learning happens in the midst of chaos –> To think that students sitting in rows helps learning is preposterous. The chaos that is a kindergarten class exemplifies learning and the messiness (yes, sometimes literally as I watched a little boy paint the front of his shirt while laughing the whole time) of being engaged. Despite the chaos there are clear and measurable signs of progress.
- Role-playing and authentic learning –> Although I try hard to constantly be putting our learning in the context of authenticity, I might be missing the mark. These kindergartens learned about the mail system by creating a post office and delivering the mail. They learned the concept of money by running a pretend store. It was “authentic” but it was close enough.
- Patience is invaluable, yet looks different. –> I think the patience to work with kindergarten students is immense. You need to constantly be patient as they work through problems, get distracted and make a mess. It’s no different in high school class, though how patience is demonstrated is different.
- Compassion is personal –> Some of my students are typical teenagers who are caught up in their own world. No judgement, that’s just the way it is. However, after these experiences they recognize the impact of ‘mentors’. In fact one came up to me and said, “Mr. Kemp, it’s crazy that my buddy was excited to see me again. She told me she really liked when we came.” This student of mine, now has a larger perspective of their community.
- High schools students are just big kids –> Once the blocks were out and some of the little boys were building structures, try dragging these 16 year olds away from the blocks. They looked at me with disappointment when we had to put the ‘toys’ away. For every time someone says, “Oh man, you work with teenagers every day.” I remember in these moments that they’re all kids who are trying to manage their role in this wider world.
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