Browsing articles in "Thoughts"
Dec 15, 2011
Comments Off on Because They Do It, Does It Make It Good?

Because They Do It, Does It Make It Good?

It’s easy when students do the work, no questions asked. It’s nice to see them engaged in the task we have given them. It’s a pleasure helping students work through an assignment they’re working on. In fact, for many, this is a great day of teaching. To many; students, parents and teachers alike, this is the personification of what school’s all about.

Then there are those times where students resist. They put up roadblocks. They fight back. They challenge the task. I hear it often, students feel comfortable voicing their reservations, asking questions, pushing the activity.

But sometimes, that feels so, ineffective. It leaves me feeling … uneasy, unsure of whether I’ve done my job. Especially, when I look into another room and find students diligently engaged in the task.

Then I think about it, maybe even rationalize it some, and consider the engagement of a kid who scoffs and challenges versus the engagement of a kid who willingly fills in the blank.

The thing about our pursuit of “student engagement”, sometimes students engage in bad pedagogy.  In our pursuit, for the attention and affection of our students, we have to ensure that the work we do is valuable.  Just because a student does the work, doesn’t mean we’ve engaged them in learning (marks economy) or critical thinking or valuable lessons.

Isn’t that the next step of authentic learning? Recognizing that doing the work, without questioning it, is problematic. Our job as teachers, and that which we should instil in our students, is that we should always question the work we are asked to do. Especially as we move closer towards the creative-class economy.

This is not to say that when students participate willingly the learning isn’t happening, but rather to say, that we need to be aware, even if students are diligently working away on their assignment.


As I re-read this post, drafted a few weeks ago, I’m well aware that the post insinuates the motive of the student is paramount to creating authentic learning experiences for our students. Yet, I don’t suggest how to do it.

I think my main idea is to have a conversation with each student, often. It doesn’t need to be formalized and rubric-ized. Talk to them to understand their reason for doing the work (or not doing the work, both are relevant).

The other thing is to be continuously reflective of the work we ask our students to complete. Just because students did a “good job” or “enjoyed” the work, doesn’t mean you should do it.


Dec 1, 2011
Comments Off on Disconnected Within the Community

Disconnected Within the Community

I have been engaged in the process of making my classes student-directed, inquiry-based communities of learning.  I have worked hard to build the sense of camaraderie and  ownership in the room for every student. I think it’s a process worth following.

But then, as I walked through the downtown core of my community, I see many people who are disconnected. I see people struggling to make their way through this life while social services are available, opportunities can be had, but whatever it is, they resist the feeling of community. They never feel like they belong.

Is this true of the one or two of the thirty kids in my room? Does the learning community mimic the broader community? Will there always be the marginal ones?

When classes are quantitative, students assigned to a seat and sitting in rows, they are easier to manage. Keeping track of them is normalized. When involved in a dynamic, inquiry based classroom, it’s not easy to keep track. That may be part of the struggle for teachers and why they are reluctant to “buy-in”. The management is not inherent.

Does giving up control, offering autonomy and parsing ownership provide more opportunity for the disconnected to stay disconnected? Or does it give a student a better chance to hide?

As school work moves more in the direction of connected collaboration, does this offer students more opportunity to get credit without making the demonstration?

Some top songwriters get credit for writing a song in which they’ve only polished one line. Is this happening in my open, distributed classroom?


I had this great conversation with a student the other day who has been struggling in my class. This student felt disconnected, was uninterested and proceeded to ask for “more regular English”.  As this conversation continued, I asked this if they felt they were a member of the community and they said, “No. I don’t know anyone in this class.”

“How can that be? We have done so much team-building, group work and in fact, you’ve done real well on some of those projects.”

“Yeah but … these aren’t my people.”

To a certain extent, I understand. Then, on the other hand, I don’t get it. I watch this students interact with classmates and this student is fine. Not the most talkative, but not the quietest. This student, on the outside, seems connected. But, obviously, doesn’t feel it.

How am I going to connect this student with our learning community? How could I have missed this?

That said, I do take solace that this student felt comfortable coming to talk with me, though it is more than half way through the semester.


Does the nature of a student-directed, inquiry-based learning community lead to some members feeling disconnected?



Nov 25, 2011

Let’s Grow Success



I like the Growing Success document.


In fact, this document demonstrates a trust in teachers that is often not present in the political rhetoric of education.  The document outlines an ideal that teachers are able to assess and evaluate according to their best understanding of the needs and skills of their students.

Two words stand out:



These two words are used repeatedly throughout the document. They rely on a teacher’s ability to take consideration of student demonstrations, be it in product, process, conversations or observations.  They also rely on a teacher’s ability to interpret the evidence as gathered by the teacher.

The word most glaringly absent from the document is calculate. The MoE has done away with the notion that a grade, as found on a report card, is a straight calculation of marks.  I believe that this is a telling sign that education is slowly, albeit too slowly, systematically moving to a more individualized, student-centred learning environment.

It is now our job to start effectively using this responsibility and communicating the way in which we are looking for success.

This is scary for teachers. Calculating leaves no room for error. Interpretation and consideration can be misused and we’re going to need to defend it and that’s worrisome.  I get that.  When a parent calls asking about a mark, it is sometimes a tough conversation to begin.  That said, when we engage in the conversations of interpretation and consideration we are more likely to engage in conversations of learning, which ultimately, are what we’re looking for.

Nov 24, 2011

Building an iPad App

Last night I started developing my first iPad app. I have an idea for an app that isn’t in the app store that will help me, so I figure, it’s up to me to build it.  The problem, of course, is the last time I programmed was first year University, a long time ago.

Believe it or not, that was a long time ago.

I now find myself in the position of a learner with a steep learning curve in front of me. To build the app, I need to process the syntax, the logic and the processing of app development. It will take me hours upon hours to program, debug, and design the app myself.

The problem is I’m a guy who likes instance results. I want the app now, I want to start using it tomorrow and that’s not going to happen. I could just partner with a programmer, pay them for their time and be on my way.

And so, I’m at an impasse.

Probably that tough crossroads many students find themselves.  The place between wanting results, taking the easy way out, focusing solely on the final product and the tough journey of real learning, the grit and patience it needs to build the skills, the hours it takes to get there.

I feel humbled by the crossroads because I know the answer isn’t easy. Both roads lead me somewhere I want to go, but which road do I take?

I’m walking down both paths right now, sending out my feelers to programmers I know and picking up a few books, YouTube videos that teach me some of the basics.  Eventually, I’ll need to choose.

I think about the factors that influence our students to make these choices. How many times do I facilitate the factors for them to choose to hunker down?  How many times do I make them feel that the easy way is worth it?

By building an iPad app, I’m rekindling my memories of those choices. Those crucial choices we make as students.

Nov 21, 2011
Comments Off on Do You Trust Me?

Do You Trust Me?

More and more articles, blog posts and editorials, about everything, I see us struggling to trust. We struggle with trusting schools, governments, corporations and individuals. We’ve been burned so often that we are no longer able to envision an environment where people (the individual or the system) are working for the good of the people. Where does that leave us?

Locking our doors, eliminating variables and an insistence that the structure will protect us. Protect us from whom? Everyone?!?

I fear for my students that they’re learning in an environment that shows no trust; an environment that enables fear. Whether it is a learning environment that doesn’t trust the judgement of the teacher or where the teacher doesn’t trust the student, we are reinforcing this vision that people cannot or should not trust, and it worries me. Students are absorbing media that tells them to expect uniformity and to think that aberrations, missteps, mistakes and alterations are insistences of incompetence or implied deception.

This mistrust is leading us into a standardized, sanitized view of the inner workings of the classroom.

This mistrust is leading us to a hyper-connected world with no real connection.

This mistrust is leading us to belie our common sense and our human nature.

I worry that not only does the public, system, and government not trust teachers, but teachers, themselves, don’t trust themselves to be great. Unwilling to try to be better for fear they might be called to task.

There is an epidemic of mistrust that is spreading and I think, for the sake of students and teachers, we must be the ones to begin having and showing trust.

Nov 14, 2011
Comments Off on Little BIG Thing #6: Play Devil’s Advocate

Little BIG Thing #6: Play Devil’s Advocate

“Mr. Kemp, what’s your opinion, your real opinion?”

I hear it often enough. I wait to hear their thinking and then purposely argue the other side. I don’t like the term the “devil’s advocate” because it appears inherently negative, when in fact, it engages.  Sometimes there is nothing more engaging then waging battle. Intellectual battle.

Now, my wife and friends will probably tell you that this is nothing new for me, I constantly and consistently argue “for the sake of argument”. But it is even more pronounced.

Students catch on quick enough that I’ll argue both sides. They get frustrated with that, but naturally, it goads them.  I like to think I don’t care what you think, just that you think. I’ve found myself arguing both sides in the same argument. Students love that.

So what’s the catch? I think students like to argue, especially with a willing adult adversary because it doesn’t happen often. They are often shut down before they get going.

But here’s the real catch when playing devil’s advocate. I say little. (Okay, I try to say little). I let the students do most of the persuading, the debating. It’s a well-timed, well-placed question or comment that can fire them up again.

The question is, what side are you arguing on today?

Nov 7, 2011
Comments Off on Reading that is Working…

Reading that is Working…

I have committed to giving my students time to read.  I haven’t assigned anything specific with their reading, just read. It is silent, personal, yet public.  I’ve done it in a few ways:

  1. Choice: Students choose their books. There is no innovation here. I let students choose anything that might interest them. Some have chosen novels (The Notebook, Go Ask Alice, Thirteen Reasons Why and Acceleration), memoirs (Night, When the Game was Ours), I’ve had a few choose collections of essays (Arguably, End Malaria), some have chosen non-fiction texts (How to Win Friends and Influence People, The Book of Awesome, etc.). They have been all over the literary map.  I’m happy about that. We don’t judge the reading here.
  2. Be Personal: The reading happens in silence. Students get comfortable. Reading is an inherently personal endeavour. You get to create (some post-modern theory for you) the book as you read and imagine. All my classes have come to expect the silence and offer it.  It is interesting to watch as students get absorbed into the text.
  3. Be Public: After the reading time is up, often 20 – 30 minutes, a few students book talk their book. Informally, they’ll stand up, show the cover, talk about the plot (so far) and give us a run down of their thoughts.  I often open it up to questions where students can explore the book, ask for predictions, etc.
  4. Talk About it: I’m working my way through everyone in each class and sitting down and talking about their reading experience. The conversation is relaxed, though we record it, and it has headed into many different directions depending on the nature of the student.  Some students want to talk about the issues, others like to talk about the characters, while others talk about what they’ve learned.  I will always direct the conversation about the nature of the act of reading, what they do well, what they feel interrupts their reading, etc. This conversation usually lasts 10 – 15 minutes.  I usually do this while the rest of the class is reading, just outside in the hall.
  5. Recommend: We are creating a user-generated reading log in the classroom, if they liked their book they are to write up some details about it on the wall. This becomes the first place for people to get ideas for their next book.
  6. Connect: Students are encouraged to reach out find other readers, in the class, school, world and connect with them. Some of my students have tweeted the authors in an attempt to connect. I’m letting students decide how they want to connect. They have found great success on Twitter.

I’m not writing this because I think this is innovative or incredibly brilliant. Actually, I think it is simple. In such, I’ve made a few observations.

  • It has become a class quest to find some good books for reluctant readers.  The readers who are active love to talk about their book and I encourage them to personally recommend it to people they think might like it.
  • Students, self-described as haters, have read 1 or 2 books in a few weeks.  They read. If I’m not talking with a member of the class, I read. It is now one element of being in our community of reading.  It is now cool to read a good book and recommend it.  One student comes into class, late, breaks the silence by saying, “You have to read this book. I hate reading, but I read this in 2 days.” All this while thrusting Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher into the air.  I’ve had a student, in workplace English, read Sun Tzu’s The Art of War and ask if he could just read it all period because he was so close to finishing.
  • At the beginning, students wanted to know, “What are we going to do with this book?” before they opened it. I’d just say, “Read it. Enjoy it.” They were reluctant, but now they get it. Reading doesn’t have to be work. It doesn’t have to have an essay or assignment at the end to justify their reading it.  That conversation demonstrates that the student can read for meaning, that they can understand form and style and it gives them an opportunity to reflect on their skills and strategies, all right out of the curriculum document.
  • I have heard multiple times, “This is the first book I’ve read cover to cover.”

I think my success is fourfold: flexibility, unstructured/informal, personalized interest (a dedicated conversation) and ultimately, it is time.

Nov 6, 2011

Is School a To-Do List?

“What do I need to do to pass this course?”

“Can you give me a list of assignments for the course, so I know what I need to do?”

These questions, recently, have got me thinking, is school just a giant 12-year to-do list that needs checking off? And if so, what’s on this list?

The more assignments we standardized, tests we mandate, our education system starts looking more and more like that to-do list.  The thing is learning never makes the list. Discovering your passion never makes the list. Creative problem solving never makes the list.

I know teachers are going to read this and say, “Yeah, but assignments are the means of assessing the curriculum, so really, the curriculum is on the list. That’s what the to-do list looks like.”

Really? Because I’m not sure if you ask a student they can tell you what’s on that list. They can, however, give you a list of tasks the teacher has deemed important and put them on their list.  You know that list, you were a student.  You remember putting together a list for the weekend: 1. Write English essay. 2. Study for math test. 3. Finish map assignment for geography.

Is this what we want school to be? A giant list of work. Right now, school is not a place where you engage in curiousity and inquiry, for students, school is a place you do work. You hunker down, do the tasks that are required and then bugger off.

The thing is, we are framing it as a to-do list and telling students to complete it on our timelines. If you can check off the Grade 9 math tasks already, too bad, wait for everyone else. If we want school to be a to-do list, then we need to re-think how we offer that list, how we affirm that list, what’s on that list.

We need to change that paradigm.  We do that by shifting the focus, changing the nature of the work and by re-writing our to-do lists.

Oct 30, 2011

Press Publish.

I stepped outside of my comfort zone today. I wrote a piece of fiction and shared with a friend. We had made a challenge together to enter the CBC Writes Short Story competiton. I haven’t written fiction in a while, for that matter, my life has been absorbed in mostly non-fiction. But I did it.

I sat down and I wrote.

But that’s not the hardest part. The hardest part was her waiting, online, to read it. Having to send it through the wires was the hardest part. Why is that?

I write on this blog and my three others often. I expose my thinking, my writing skills to many readers, anonymous and known readers, without trepidation. Nothing near like I had when sending my fiction.

But, I think back to my first blog entry. The first time I pressed publish and thought, What am I doing? Why am I doing it? Is it good enough?

And I think of all the learning along the way. Not just the educational conversations I’ve had about the content of the writing, but the writing itself.

I stepped outside of my comfort zone when I first pressed published. And there’s the rub. You have to press publish. I had to press send on the e-mail with my short story attached. That’s the lesson to my students.

Outside the comfort zone is a scary place to be, but that’s where learning lies. Sometimes, you’ve got to close your eyes and press the button. Ship it.

I think that’s why we’ve got to make sure we are creating authentic audiences for our students. So, they learn to press publish. They learn to make mistakes in the open. They learn they’ve got to step outside of the comfort zone to achieve greatness.  If we sanitize their learning spaces to much, all we’ll be left with is replicated pablum.

So, what are you waiting for? Press publish.



Oct 27, 2011

Technology Conferences for Teachers – Is It Time We Stopped?

Having attended ECOO last week, I often heard about the need to change the model for this technology conference.

There seemed to be a desire from attendees to do two things:

  1. Differentiate between the beginners in the ed-tech sphere and the veterans.
  2. Stop talking/presenting about the how we use technology and start talking more about the why we should use it.

Dan Ballantyne (@ballantynedj) and I, while driving home, decided to take on the debate of number two. Dan took the side that specific technology conferences are still important to facilitate a larger percentage of teachers to connect via social media and other technologies, where I took the side that we need to focus on the why of pedagogy and that the tools are just support, therefore shouldn’t warrant their own conference.

We recorded our debate to use as a podcast.  Enjoy listening.

Comments or debate is always welcome.

This podcast has been cross-posted on Dan’s blog Avoiding Cookie Cutter Syndrome.

Although, we ran out of steam, I believe the debate is far from over. I have been contemplating the implication of the debate over the last few days and I’ve witnessed and heard various colleagues’ frustration and interaction with technology.  I understand that my comfort with technology has allowed me to push the pedagogical ideas, where someone who is leery of social media’s influence is not able to get there, yet.

My thoughts have also been largely influenced over the last few days by the various conversations around BYOD. It is easy to look at the pedagogy that utilizes technology when that is your norm.  I certainly appreciated the Teach Paperless blog, Bring Your Own Contexts.

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