Browsing articles in "Thoughts"
Jan 11, 2013

What Would You Do?

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?

Jan 5, 2013

An Open Letter to my #OSSTF Colleagues


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: 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.



Dec 17, 2012
Comments Off on How I Lesson Plan

How I Lesson Plan

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.

Nov 28, 2012
Comments Off on Nine Thoughts About High School from A Kindergarten Class

Nine Thoughts About High School from A Kindergarten Class

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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?
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
Nov 12, 2012
Comments Off on Should Extra-Curriculars Count?

Should Extra-Curriculars Count?

Three students, three different outside interests. Three students that are taking time to create, develop skills, or produce professional work.

She’s writing a novel and is 30,000 words in.

He plays hockey four to five times a week.

He’s illustrating a children’s book for me.

Each of these projects are self-directed, have full student engagement, require these students to work tirelessly at developing the requisite skills and demonstrate them. Yet, things that happen outside of school count for nothing in it.

It seems that timing is everything because she’s demonstrating her English skills but unless it was assigned between 8-2:30 it seems that that demonstration doesn’t count.

Why don’t extra-curriculars count? Why don’t we assign credits to those students that demonstrate the elements of courses on their own time? Why do we require students to perform the tasks we assign as proof of skills and abilities?

I’ve floated this idea to some students, just as a supposition, their response, “Yeah, good question. But it’ll never happen,” or “Who’s doing the evaluation of these products?” or “How do you know it was that kid who did the painting?” or “Aren’t some sports teams harder and require more dedication?” or “What about access to resources, they aren’t equal?” All good questions, no simple answers.

But I’m left unsatisfied. I’m left thinking about the work that they’ve done and thinking why aren’t we encouraging this. Why aren’t we legitimizing their efforts?

I know, I know, people are going to ride me for suggesting we should provide extrinsic rewards for their work and undermine their intrinsic interest. I agree with that argument too.

However, while we’re counting, should extracurriculars count?

Nov 6, 2012

To Be Engaged Through Authenticity

It’s a mystery what engages students. Whoever says otherwise is lying.

Sure, there are some tried and true strategies that result in engagement; those things that have students knee deep in rich learning. But can we really answer what it is about those experiences that hooks them?

In class today, I saw a group of students totally focused on the role of the government in relation to private enterprise while participating in Civic Mirror. I would classify these students as being immersed in the learning, however, as I take a step back I can’t seem to pinpoint what it was that was the factor for engagement.

Was it the gamification? Was it the competition? Was is it the structure of the activity?

I’ve seen students totally immersed in learning before when none of those things were present and instead, it was because it was fun, or included technology, or aesthetically pleasing.

So then, what is it that results in true engagement?

My first thoughts are connected to Dan Pink’s theories of intrinsic motivation being autonomy, mastery and purpose. (If you haven’t read Drive yet, pick it up. I think it is essential teacher reading.) But I also think, engagement is about authenticity.

That’s why it is so damn hard to pinpoint what causes engagement. It is equally hard to pinpoint authenticity.

I think of authenticity as a means of making learning real life.

It is connected to authentic audiences (not just the teacher or other classes but the marketplace). It is connected to authentic problems/projects (not just school work, imagine if projects). It is connected to authentic learning (I suppose this is about purpose primarily).

What does all this mean?

I don’t think I’ve got answer. I think that engagement is still a mystery, but it is in the process of moving “school work” to “life work.”

Oct 30, 2012
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A Culture of Kindness

It’s around. With the internet, it never turns off. You can’t find any quiet places to get away from it. You can’t ever take back your actions online. All of this, yet in conversation with my class a week ago it seemed that they were content with blaming the victim. “Yeah well, she …” always leads to justification.

It’s mob mentality run amuck.

I wonder if this is the straw. The one that broke the camel’s back. The last piece before those ignorant of technology recognize that we have a lawless wild west right now. And Jesse James has rounded up the old n’er-do-wells and is using them to inflict damage.

Part of the problem is that we don’t really know how to define bullying.

My take is that our problem is not bullying. The problem is our culture of meanness.

We have politicians who would rather find faults, than fix breaks. We have a media culture that looks for another group of people that we can all safely sit and laugh at. We have students who think saying, “I was just joking,” is enough justification for being mean.

What I propose is a new culture of kindness. A conscious attempt at holding each other accountable.

It starts with parents and teachers. It starts with turning off Jersey Shore and Honey Boo Boo. It starts with making a concerted effort to praise, compliment and acknowledge. It is too easy to be mean, especially when the victim isn’t present, or no one holds you accountable.

Too many people blame technology for the bullying and not enough spend time thinking about the tone of our conversations.

We must be better than this. Kindness works too.

Sep 27, 2012

Is Teaching Political?

Every day, in one way or another, I stand and deliver. I influence the natural patterns of thought of my students.

That’s what learning is all about.

On one hand, I try to avoid being political. I try to keep my own beliefs in the background. I try to bury my bias. My goal is not to sell an ideal but to encourage critical thinking.

On the other hand, I strongly and vocally encourage social justice and the pursuit of cultural awareness. I strive for my students to be active citizens and critical of authority.

This may come as a surprise to many, but I’ve got opinions. I’ve got many opinions on many subjects. Not only do I have opinions, I like to share my opinions.

What job do I ultimately have? To be my authentic, opinionated self, while maintaining a healthy grip of objective reporting, much like Murrow and Cronkite or to be devoid of personality, a list of facts and figures with no bias?


I’d like to say this post is not about what’s happening in Ontario where there is a showdown between the Ontario Liberal Party and teacher unions. I’d like to say that this is a reflective post about the nature/value/danger of my opinion in my classroom.

But it is.

It’s important to know what their teachers are facing. It’s important for students to understand the climate of the school. It’s important for students to understand that regardless of what is happening, their teachers are there for them, despite potential withdrawal of extras.

Does that make students the pawns of both sides?


I also think this post is questioning the rhetoric that what the unions are “fighting” for are the “democratic” collective bargaining rights. I’ve seen it said, “We’re fighting for everyone, not just teachers.”

Yet, I’ve asked colleagues who were teaching during the Harris years and after, did the labour dispute make them overall more political active and the answer was no. Unless the issue was affecting them directly, they were unaware.

If we are railing against the loss of “democratic rights”, why aren’t we up in arms about the federal government’s use of omnibus bills to pass ill-supported legislation?


I suppose at the end of the day, I’m curious, is the nature of teaching political?

Sep 19, 2012
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It’s A Simple Algorithm

He walks into the classroom mid-way through solving the Rubik’s cube. Before he’s through the door, it’s solved. Within seconds he’s messed it up again and then spins the cube to start solving. Within a couple minutes, it’s solved again.


This guy is your typical applied level student. Interesting, nuanced, at points disengaged and most of all, not meant to sit in a classroom doing worksheets all day. He’s easily distracted in class, struggles with writing, and yet, as this huge untapped potential for learning. He doesn’t seem himself as someone school is designed for and that makes perfect sense.

“How did you do that?”

“It’s a simple algorithm.”

“Where did you learn it?”

“On Youtube,” he says non-chalantly as he shows me his Rubik’s cube belt buckle. “My fastest is 1minute and 6 seconds.”


“But, I’m trying to get better.”

He sits down, hardly listening to the school announcements, and whips through it a couple more times. Complete it, mess it up, complete it again.

I ask him to teach me. He says, “You can just go watch some Youtube videos and it will be much easier.” But I sense a learning opportunity. For me and for him.

I sit down, he stands over my shoulder and starts the process. In the position of student, I quickly become discouraged. I say, “I’ll never be able to do this…” and “This is too hard…” and “I’ll never remember this,” but he just calmly tells me to keep trying. He stands over my shoulder for something like seven minutes until I shrugged it off. “Never mind, we’ve got other things to do.”

It’s easy to say that the student who shrug off school, don’t know what’s good for them. Or paint the need for today in the light of their future. But the reality is, it is hard to learn. It is hard to be put into a situation that is difficult, all day, every day, and still maintain your enthusiasm for showing up.

I’ll be back, I’ll eventually (my goal is by the end of the semester) be able to solve the Rubik’s cube, but I see myself as learner. But I don’t have to do it everyday. Just chipping away.

How often do we take the same skill and make students do it over and over, day after day? Maybe it’s time we diversify. Maybe it’s time we allow students to determine when they need a break.

I mean, after all, it’s a simple algorithm.

Sep 9, 2012
Comments Off on Trust Ends Where Trust Starts.

Trust Ends Where Trust Starts.

How do we make others trust us? Often it is through personal, deliberate acts of kindness, generosity and honour. It takes time. It takes repetition of these acts. It doesn’t always happen.

I think one of the most pressing issues within our culture is our culture of mistrust.

It destabilizes everything.


I was talking to my class, two days into the new school year, about the idea of trust. Who they trust? Why they trust these people? Do they trust me? Earning trust?

The overwhelming sentiment in this Grade 11 class, trust is hard to earn, often broken, and sometimes elusive.

I asked them if they trust the government: overwhelmingly no.

I asked them if they trust their teachers: overwhelmingly no.

I asked them if they trust the police: overwhelmingly no.

If they trust me: not sure.

I recognize that this class is not a random or statistically-relevant sample size, and I do recognize that it may be part of a teenager’s m.o. not to trust anyone, however, I don’t think they are alone. And I think this is indelibly sad and dangerous as we move into a more connected world.

Their thoughts in when they decide to trust someone, when they act first. When they feel trusted, they trust.


It is harder now to gain the trust of a stranger than ever before. But that is what is needed. From teachers, politicians, administrators, parents.

Our culture does not trust.

Being antagonistic is not going help. Being adversarial is not going to help. Instead, interactions of kindness will help. Instead, actions of supreme generosity will help and actions of righteous honour will help.

Trust ends where trust starts through actions of kindness, generosity and honour.

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