Browsing articles in "Thoughts"
Mar 2, 2012

Am I Sure?

A student asked me, “Are you sure?”

I said, “Of course not, where is the fun in that?”

As we undergo this shift from information providers to supporters of learning, teachers have to first make the decision to be okay with not being sure.

“Where is this going?” “I hope it is going towards this final product, but I’m not sure.” This underlines the need to move our teaching (whatever that means) and our assessment towards process and away from product.


This is partly what scares me about standardized testing and those who use the “data” that it provides.

Firstly, it is a product. At the end of the day, it is the end of learning, because no feedback that comes from a standardized test will perpetuate more learning. When a student finds out on a sheet of paper mailed to them, they passed. The learning opportunity has passed them by. So, we have to acknowledge, it has nothing to do with learning.

Secondly, it is a synthetic product. It doesn’t come out of authentic practice. It is, by its nature, phony.

Thirdly, the only process that will ensure “success” is to modify learning to underline the needs of the product. Teach to the test. Too many schools are making strides on the OSSLT because of focused work with students on how to “jump through hoops”.

Finally, and most critically, the data imbues a sense of absolute. We, the public, the politicians, the administrators and teachers have allowed us to believe that there is a way to be sure. We’ve allowed the business interests of testing to convince us enough (I realize many people recognize the uselessness of them, though we are still giving into them) that they have “the” answer.


A key component to critical thinking that I emphasize over and over with my students is the ability for a critical thinker to accept ambiguity. Accept the fact that there may not be an answer.

So, am I sure of anything?


But, that doesn’t stop me from trying to move forward.

Feb 16, 2012

Reputation is the Currency of Social Media – How to Accumulate It and Spend It Wisely in School

While delivering a presentation to a group of teachers about online collaboration, someone said, “For students, reputation is the currency of social media, not marks.”

This observation redefines a student’s relationship with school work whenever social media is added to the equation. Which then begs the questions:

If we are creating inauthentic reasons for these students to use social media, are we using or abusing the currency of social media?


How do we help students accumulate this type of currency, save it, spend it wisely? Can we make them effective currency-managers in their future?


When asked to get a blog started, a student asked me, “Can I just use my blog or should I start another one?” (She didn’t say another with indignation) which confused me, I had just assumed students would not want to mix their ‘personal’ blog with the one that they’d be using for school. I replied, “You choose, either way works.” (My reply sounds so disinterested and disengaged, but it was more interested and trying to give her control.) She ended up deciding to use her previously started blog. And she posted an entry to her readers (however many that was) stating something like, “Sorry folks, for the next few months some of my posts will be school work. My teacher is having us write blogs. Sorry if they are dorky and nothing related to my real life.” She used different language but this was essentially her thoughts on blogging, in class.

At first I was a little put off thinking, “Me, dorky?” But that passed. Most of the blogging that students are asked to do is self-directed, but that didn’t matter.

Instead, I saw that she wanted to separate the authentic blog she was creating with that of school. She wanted to separate her reputation currency with the school work she’s “have” to post.  And there lies the conflict.

On one hand, blogging (or Twitter or Facebook or other social media) is an opportunity for students to engage with an authentic audience, however, it costs them something when the direction of the blog is directed, in any way.  So, by using social media we are caught in the crux of having them create something school-specific (inauthentic) with having them spend some of their social currency for our purposes (authentic).


A student of mine tweeted a 140-character review of a book she just finished. I asked each student to keep us posted with the books they had read and finished.  I didn’t say there were marks involved, but she tweeted knowing that we were attempting to build personal learning networks/community (with classmates, etc).  The first time she tweeted, she wrote the name of the author in the tweet.  I mentioned that she should tweet with the author’s Twitter handle.  Sure enough, when my student re-tweeted the review (positive) with the author’s Twitter handle, she got a response.

From the author.

This led to an interesting conversation about the book over Twitter with my student and the author. Authentic. Engagement. Appropriate.

Watching this on Twitter, I saw a student accumulating the currency of legitimacy in reputation. She recognized it. It was “for” school, but it carried weight beyond school.


Ultimately, the next step of this discussion in my head is to process through the second question. If the currency of the future (this seems a little ominous, but it isn’t meant to) is reputation, how do we help students build a healthy, strong reputation, know how to use it to its greatest affect and build the future they envision with it?

How do we help students find/harness/use all the ways we can accumulate this currency?


Feb 14, 2012
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Learning and Forgetting

What if we took a step back? We start with no previous idea of what school looks like. What if started over? We start by looking at the most natural form of learning that happens at birth.

A colleague recommended Frank Smith’s book, “The Book of Learning and Forgetting” to me as she knew I am interested in radical ideas, a revolution of learning, and was always willing to have my ideas challenged. Well, this book does that.

The most important element to the book is how we define learning, as I mentioned in my earlier post, Smith suggests,

“All learning pivots on who we think we are, and who we see ourselves as capable of becoming.” (11)

He argues that the system that is formed on the need (or illusion) of control, missing the point that students are always learning something. The problem is, the system as it is, is making students learn that disciplines like science, math, arts, English are boring, separate and not for them.

He addresses the critics of a more holistic learning approach by stating,

“Teachers sometimes rationalize making learning unnecessarily complicated for children by saying they have to be ‘challenged’.” (27)

This is found in our worksheets, grammar rules, and seemingly inauthentic approach to teaching. We assume that the more control and ‘scaffolding’ we provide the more explicit the learning will be, when instead, we are teaching students that each of these separate pieces fit together, but only when we’re ready to show you.

And he lays out a few gems about teachers, in general.

On why they are resistant to change

“The difficulty in getting many teachers – or their administrators – to change their attitudes and their ways is not that they are ignorant, but that they are insecure. They are afraid their world will fall apart if they give up any of their power or claim their independence.” (96)

On what he would establish as the key role of the teacher

“It would be the responsibilty of teachers to ensure that opportunities to engage in interesting and productive activities are always available.” (98)

On the crazy notion that we can improve bad teachers

“External control, detailed procedures, and constant monitoring don’t make poor teachers better ones.” (100)

On what it takes to be a good teacher

“All the good techers I have known have been good organizers, arranging interesting experiences for their students and themselves, and protecting those experiences from officious interference.” (101)


This is a book that I believe every teacher should read as teacher candidate. Not because I think it is flawless and has all the answers, but because it leads us to asking big questions about the purpose of a public education system, the role of the teacher and the classroom, and it requires us all to start with why.

I read through the book twice, once just reading it, now it lays on my desk highlighted, circled, dog-eared, starred, copied. It reminds me that I am learning, right now, but what I’m learning is up to me and the people with whom I surround myself.

Feb 10, 2012
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Who We Think We Can Become

The thing about learning is it is inescapably linked to the people around us.

In school, the room matters, the teacher matters, but the attitude of the people in the room matters the most. The people in the room determine how we see ourselves and therefore, defines our capabilities.

Frank Smith, in his excellent book The Book of Learning and Forgetting, agrees:

“All learning pivots on who we think we are, and who we see ourselves as capable of becoming.”

What this means is we need to foster community. We need to have students associate/connect/ with the achievement possible. That may be out of our hands.

I do know that we need to maintain the highest of expectations for all and we need to ensure the challenge of learning is in each of our students’ wheelhouse: just hard enough.

When students are a part of a community, they identify. They make each other see themselves as capable.


What image of capability is your learning community painting?

Feb 3, 2012
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Re-Evaluate What You Value

I’ve gotten quite a bit of feedback about my last two posts. It has me thinking about what these two posts are really saying.

Sure, they look like a list of things about which I’ve run my mouth. Not an uncommon response: “Boy, you sure know how to screw up.”

But, that’s not the underlying theme.

I think the underlying themes is the idea that we should constantly re-evaluate what we value.

Our professional philosophy should be challenged by others, by the system, by the research, but more importantly, by ourselves.

As a learner, we need to be self-reflexive. That’s where the gold lies.

It is not enough to establish your values. It’s not enough to establish what you value.

Learning comes when we re-evaluate our values and what we value.


My question is, “Is there a professional ethic in re-valuating what we value?”

Feb 2, 2012

Mark My Words…Things I’ve Gotten Wrong (Part 2)

As easy as it is to claim that I’ve figured it out, it can be just as easy to acknowledge where I’ve been wrong. But then again, sometimes it is very difficult to notice the change we’ve made in our philosophy. Often it feels like, we’ve been there all along. Well, I can say, there may have been a few more things I was wrong about. Here lies the continuation of my list:

For Part 1, click here.

4. Attitude, Behaviour, Attendance and Punctuality Should Affect Marks.

I once said to a student, “Your behaviour tells me you are not all that interested in getting this credit.” Yes, it was my first year teaching. I was following the ideas I had been led to believe. But I had adopted the belief that all these things can be / should be associated with a students grades. In fact, I had a long discussion in my first year with my department head whether a student with 20 absences should even be eligible for the credit, regardless of their abilities. Granted, this changed quick.

5. The Purpose of School is to Prepare Students for University.

I went to university. It was always ‘expected’ of me. So I did. Why wouldn’t I expect the same from my students. On top of that, the work that I once assigned was always in service of their pursuit. Now, of course, I knew that there were different ‘streams’ of students, but ultimately, I held the belief that deep within each student was the dream of university. I was wrong here too. Each student has a vision of the future, which may include university, but doesn’t need it.  In fact, I think this is a major struggle for teachers. Not all students long to be university educated. In fact, I now grimace when I hear a teacher say, “We have to do this to prepare them for university.” We’ve confused our mission. We’ve lost our ‘why’. This is why I believe in the educational revolution. We need to reframe our purpose as a public education system. If we give exams, just to prepare them for university, haven’t we lost our purpose.

6.  Avoiding Mistakes in the Classroom

I use to be incredibly worried that my students would find out I’m not a great speller or that I’m not a great writer or that I don’t have all the answers.  I use to fluff off answers I didn’t know in hopes that students would never see that I am learning as I go. I didn’t want them to know that I didn’t know it all. Now, I do the opposite. I learn with no walls. I’m more intrigued of their thoughts then those I had developed. I open my learning to inside the classroom. I tell them what I’m reading, what I’m learning, how I’m doing it. I ope myself up, more readily, to honest feedback, to stinging indictments, to mistakes.  I implore you to dive in, head first, it is worth it.

Again, these six mistakes I’ve made are not nearly as comprehensive as they should be. They are but a sampling of the path I’ve walked on as a teacher. The thing is, I’m still walking that path. I haven’t stopped moving. I haven’t sat down on the bench beside the tree. Even more importantly, I don’t have that ignorantly held belief that the things I’ve gotten wrong won’t keep growing.

For now, let me say.

I was wrong. I’ve changed my mind about a few things that I held pretty firmly.

The thing is the change of position, mentality, ideology, happen over time and sometimes, over night. It happens through a heated conversation with a colleague, a blog post by a stranger or an article written by an academic.

I’m happy to be wrong. But not as happy as I am being right. 🙂

Let me know of things you’ve gotten wrong in the comments. Let us wear our history like a badge.

I was wrong. And I’m still learning.

Jan 31, 2012
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Mark My Words … Things I’ve Gotten Wrong (Part 1)

Sometimes, when caught in the moment, I have a tendency to make big sweeping declarations of thought. Those statements that hang in a gallery for all to see. If you are a consistent reader of this blog, you’ll know I’ve made some big, some have said “ballsy”, statements about education, the revolution, pedagogy and what makes a good teacher.

As often as I’ve been right, I’ve been wrong. Over the course of my career in education, I have been wrong many times. My beliefs and ideas around my role in the classroom have changed. And so, here is my list of things I’ve gotten wrong. This is no way a definitive list, but it is the evidence of my reflection on where I’ve come from.

I think it is important to note that we’ve all been wrong. The list of things I’ve gotten wrong in the past is

1. Games = Learning.

On a regular basis I use to play games in class.  I would bring out the Jeopardy game (with buzzers and everything) and we’d play.  Students would be engaged and laughing and shouting out answers, and I thought I’ve done it.  I’ve created a learning environment that is to be envied. I believed that if students were having fun than they must be learning too.  As I’ve reflected, talked, read and researched about he nature of engagement, I’ve often been reminded that many of the “games” in learning, hide learning. They gloss over learning.  They make learning about trivialities, not deeper critical thinking.  My Jeopardy game is on my shelf collecting dust now, I often think I should pull it down and give ‘er a whirl, but I’m too busy actually learning with my students.

2. Tests = Indicators of Success

When I first started, I was all about the test. Every chapter, content quiz. Every two weeks, test. After every unit, I’ve got to test them. I tested them to make sure they were “keeping up”.  When I look back in my files and see the old tests I used to give, I cringe. Multiple choice questions about who said what, why. Worse yet, I use to give zeros to students who missed my tests or have them re-write it at lunch to teach them that tests were important. Again, the more I reflected, talked, read and researched, I felt foolish. I started adjusting my expectations, buffering the responsibilty of the test with other tasks. Sure, I had a balance now. But, I’ve gone even further. Stepping away from tests all together. Nothing in an authentic learning environment is about what do you know in this minute, write it as fast as you can.  Now, that’s not to say that I don’t give exams, I’m mandated at times to do that, but every chance I get, I try to get out of it. Imagine a time, outside of school where you are put under the circumstances of proving yourself like that. Your driver’s test, that’s maybe it. And even that, you can redo immediately.

My distaste of standardized testing is unchanged. I haven’t, nor will I, waver on it.

3. Technology is the answer.

I’m a gadget guy. My playbook, ipad, ipod touch, macbook, blackberry will attest to that. I’ve never understood people’s resistance to the ever-changing new technology. I was making websites in HTML before Mozilla released a second version. But, the thing I’ve come to learn is that technology itself is not the answer. I used to think that if we put it online, or had them type it, or integrated technology to the task, it inevitably made the task better. I was wrong. The task is more important than the tool.  The learning is more important than the task. It is easy to get caught up in the razzle dazzle, shiny lights always attract the eyes, but technology needs to be seen for what it is, an opportunity to use a variety of tools that might make learning more effective, efficient, authentic.


There are more, this is but part one.


Jan 19, 2012
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Banning the Word ‘Final’

Is it time that we remove the word ‘final’ from schools?

You know, final marks, final assignment? Should we be creating an educational culture that sees learning end?


First semester is drawing to a close and my students start talking about how they are so happy to be “done” with certain subjects, “done” with certain ideas, etc. They can’t wait to see their “final” marks. And the more students talk about school with this finality, it worries me. It worries me that semantically we’ve associated the end of a semester and the distribution of grades with the ending of learning.

I worry that a student who gets his “final” mark in Grade 12 English believes he is done learning English.

It’s hard for me to wrap my head around the idea that students ever finish a subject. Some may think that I’m getting all worked up about a semantic detail, however, I think it is more than that.  This contributes to a student’s disengagement with the material.  This semantic minutiae may be what allows for students to give up on courses and subjects.

When did Apple decide they were done with their first product? Microsoft? I’d argue that any person who creates will readily recognize that they are never finished with the process. The learning never ends.  In fact, those that do believe they are done rarely are able to innovate and are often relegated to obsolescence.

And so, maybe we need to rethink the way school deals with growth, achievement, and minor semantics. Maybe we don’t call it a “final” grade? Maybe we rethink continuity of learning?  Maybe we ban the word “final”?


I use Evernote with my students to provide feedback on their assignments. As the semester progresses, they are able to look back through that notebook and see what I said on their first essay. But also, I am able to look back and see what I said on their first essay.

What if this was expanded?

Every teacher had access to a student’s Evernote notebook and I could look back and see what their Grade 9 English teacher said about their essay writing skills. What if the feedback from Grade 9 isn’t irrelevant and instead helps establish where a student continues.

Then we never get a ‘final’ exam, just an exam that continues to tell us something about where that student is with those specific skills.


Or do teachers/students/parents/administrators need/want finality? Something to hang their hat on. You know, the ability to say, “My daughter got an 80 in English.”

Jan 12, 2012
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When the Energy is Palpable

It was like the perfect storm. Three different initiatives all crashed down on me today. In the pre-holiday blitz, I had put them until the week back. “We’ll do it on Wednesday the first week back.” It must have come out of my mouth easily, because they all collided.

So, I was on edge.

I knew it would be one of those days. But then something happened. That same something that happens anytime challenges are weighed, actions are begun. The something that makes me keep going.

Students bought in. Fully. Without reservation.

Yes, I was running around trying to maintain order all day. But the energy was palpable. It reminded me why I do it.

My social justice club was eager to begin their water challenge, my 2P English class were buzzing while preparing for a social awareness campaign, and we orchestrated representatives from 11 schools to gather and prepare for this year’s edition of Strip the Streets.

It makes this job easy when you can feel the energy. You aren’t swimming up stream. It reminds you why.

And isn’t that the essential piece, why are we organizing, preparing, running, supporting, etc.?

I wasn’t the only one.

One of my students said to me, “Wow, you can feel the energy building. I’ve never felt this from school before.”

That sure feels good.

Now this post isn’t just to toot my horn, although I’m doing that too.  This post isn’t to say I’ve figured it out.

I wanted to write this post because I was worried for this day, felt overwhelmed going into the day and was regretting my commitments in the morning. This post is a reminder to me that chaos, the colliding of activities and actions, is okay. It will work out if we are rooted to the why.

When the energy is palpable, something is being built. Hopefully, it is momentum.

Dec 22, 2011

Should Teachers be Brands?

As a member of the Twitterverse and the edublog-o-sphere, I’m out there. My thoughts, ideas, questions and plans are made quite public.  People, most of whom I’ve never met, know how I approach my classes and may even understand the nature of an assignment better than some of my colleagues.  I’ve made a conscious decision to make my teaching public.

There are risks to it. I get that.

I’ve been wrestling with the nature of personal branding lately. Should teachers be brands? If so, where’s the line from establishing your personal brand in the building and in the greater community of educators?

And further, is the idea of marketing yourself as a teacher, as you would in other professions, essential as we move toward a more democratized system of learning?

On the other spectrum though, I wonder how much of Twitter, blogging and social media is about creating opportunities to self-promote and to fulfill my need to feel important?

By developing and honing our “digital footprint” we are taking an important step into writing our professional narrative, however, where does that end and self-serving ego stroking begin?

The ‘Mr. Kemp’ brand is built. People know that when I’m in a room and pedagogy is talked about I’ll challenge, I’ll question, some people think shit-disturb.  But how far should I push the brand mentality? If I’m aware of it, does it make it worse?


A student walks into my classroom, a student I’ve never taught, and says, “What are you teaching next semester? I really want to be in your class.”

I ask, “Why? You might hate me. I’m very mean.”

“Nah, I know you’d be a great teacher.”

And my brand is real. It’s alive. In a small way, the teacher brand of ‘Mr. Kemp’ is influencing choice.

But I’m not sure how I feel about it.  I’m not sure whether I should be consciously creating, managing and considering my teacher brand. But don’t we naturally?


Ultimately, I’m struggling with watching people on Twitter and the edublogosphere blatantly self-promote, while also believing you need to establish your reputation to have your ideas taken seriously. So where is the middle ground?

When having breakfast with some friends, I raise the question.  They tell me, “Authenticity is the key.”  (There’s that word again.)

“If you tell people you are great, they’ll see right through it. All you have to do is show people your greatness.”

Man, if only it was that simple.

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