Browsing articles in "Thoughts"
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”?

Nov 20, 2013

Please, Don’t Ruin Blogging

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.

Oct 7, 2013
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I Can’t Learn For You

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?”

“Yes.”

“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?”

“Yeah.”

May 3, 2013

Waiting On The System To Change?

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?

Mar 27, 2013
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It’s Easy To Start Something

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.

Mar 19, 2013
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Where Is Your Authentic Audience?

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?

Feb 10, 2013

The Fulcrum

“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.

Feb 5, 2013

Communicating with Parents

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.

Jan 16, 2013
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My Data Dilemma

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.

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