Browsing articles in "Day to Day"
Jun 8, 2011

Is it ever time to give up?

I had a student come up to me the other afternoon, after class, and earnestly ask me, “Should I just give up?”

He was talking about the course we were embroiled in.  He was talking about whether or not he had enough time to get the credit.

This isn’t the first time. In fact, this happens so often with our struggling students.  At some point in time, this year or last, they’ve been told, “Maybe it’s time to give up.” They’ve been made to believe there comes a time in school when their best isn’t good enough.  The pile of zeroes they’ve gotten themselves is too tall to climb. And I think, man, what a shame.

Despite my explicitly motivating words, “You can do it!”, the student walked away unsure whether the time had come to call it a day.

I addressed many of the same issues at the end of last semester in a post I wrote, Slogging It Out.

Yet here we are with students, who need more time to demonstrate the required outcomes, being told, implicitly as well as explicitly, you’ve run out of time. You might as well give up.


Separate, yet connected, I’ve been thinking alot about mastery. My own mastery and my relentless pursuit of learning new things, which I often abandon after a stretch.

I can strum a guitar, play a few riffs, sing a few campfire songs.  But I haven’t mastered it.  I don’t prioritize the time to really master it. So, should I stop seeking mastery?

My math skills are weak.  Not “can’t give you change” weak, but definitely there are no sine laws in my future.  There wasn’t real calculus in my past either. (This is an assumption that the sine law is connected to calculus, which I vaguely remember). I scraped through my senior level Math classes when I was in high school.  My brain can’t figure the figures. Why bother learning them? The amount of time that is needed to build that base knowledge alone.

At what point, do I not have enough time to learn something?

After trying something, struggling in the pocket of learning, at some point, is it alright to quit learning?  I don’t mean learning completely, just that little aspect of life you are trying to master?

Is this what this student is struggling with?

I’m wrestling with the ideas that I live a passion of learning, yet, I find myself hitting the wall of learning in various parts of life because they are too hard, too onerous, or just too much time.  I find myself quitting paths of learning all the time.

The student and I are struggling with the idea of quitting. No doubt about it, they are different pursuits. His for a course, a credit he must earn in an allotted time frame. Mine for a lack of passion, clarity, time, support, whatever. Yet, we both find ourselves asking the same question:

Is it time to give up?


I know I’m a little all over here. Thanks for following and reading. Comments / Responses / Answers are very welcome.

I am quite clearly not a master of anything yet, although I continue to pursue mastery.

Today’s Challenge: Go back to something I’ve quit learning and try again.

Tonight, I will pick up the guitar or maybe, just maybe, do a little trigonometry.

Jun 5, 2011

The Nature of Transformation

It would be a long way from Sunday to Wednesday.  We were 19 students, 4 supervisors, 10 canoes, 35 kilometres, 7 portages, 1 experience.

We set out.

We left it all behind. A complete escape into ourselves. Our own energy transformed into movement.

As the black flies gathered, so too did the expressions of transformations.

For many of these students who travelled the rivers and lakes, it was there first time setting course in this manner.  Sure some of them had camped, but “really pansy camping,” as one of the boys told me. Few of them had left their security behind and had ever left themselves so vulnerable.  And it showed.

A student who is known for being “the tough guy” who many teachers ‘warned me’ about before the trip, often asked for guidance and support.  He was left in situations unfamiliar, where he asked for help to set up his tents, help to pry a few leeches from his feet, and he was left to talk openly about his relationship with his father.

Typical social hierarchies never left when nature is involved. And sure enough, on the last day, after battling the high winds and very precarious paddling, it was the entire group of 23 people who were hooting and hollering as we each found our own success.

The trip was magnificent.

It made me reflect on how I respond and react to fearful situations, like the student who stood on the dock half-way through a tough paddle uttering expletives, refusing to get back in the boat.  His anger was his method of dealing with his fear.  After letting him bluster, he got back into the canoe and championed on. Do I put my back up when I’m confronted by my fears and when I take a risk? Are students’ reactions to school-related fears met with discipline, rather than understanding?

It made me reflect on time and space. Giving ourselves the time to connect with each other, away from social norms, allowed many to explore parts of themselves that are often kept hidden.  You can’t hide yourself in the trivialities and mundane nature of the day to day when you are disconnected.  You must reveal parts of yourself. And, it is okay.

Ultimately, after four days of hard work, paddling against a fierce wind into white-capped seas, each student walked out transformed from the experience.  Some humbled, some strengthened, some softer, some more connected, this was learning at its finest.

The nature of transformation is that you can often find it in nature.

May 17, 2011
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Being Creatively Engaged

Last week, I had the good fortune of having Tanya Neumeyer (Twitter: @tanyapoet) join my classes and those of some of my colleagues.

Tanya is a spoken word poet who offers workshops to classes developing a passion and process for writing and thinking creatively.  With her kind and generous spirit, Tanya worked with my FFP and my 2P class to the point where after 5 days, they stood and performed.  And, I did too.  The video evidence (sorry for the sound quality) and transcript is below.

Kemp – Spoken Word Poem: “What are you afraid of?” from Scott Kemp on Vimeo.


What are you afraid of?

For I know it is fear that holds you back.
You cower to the social gods, the pressure of being cool and staying cool.
Maybe it is the fear of being noticed, the fear that the true you is not quite good enough.
So, you disengage.

Or worse, you engage with the world of drugs and stupidity.
Thinking its better to not try than to appear flawed.
But you aren’t stupid and the drugs don’t costume your potential.
You don’t need to need.
You want to want.
You want to achieve the possibilities that are endless.

But you don’t achieve them, instead you crouch down in the tightest ball you can get into and you dodge the insults, the looks, the perception that what you do in class defines you.
The whole of your character is wound around your hidden imagination.
‘Cause you’ve tossed out that paint set long ago, for fear the colour just isn’t right. That you’ll be called out for painting your true feelings.
You’ve hidden the thoughts and the dreams that are essential to your being, by being gone.

And if you don’t get over it, you’ll live in a world that’s not really yours; ruled by the insecurities you couldn’t shake; from the world that others make.
To work, to sleep and repeat.
You’ll raise kids in an environment of fear but not for their physical safety.
You’ll raise them knowing they are not quite right, that they lack that certain something that makes them brave enough to avoid their fears.  Their fears that hold them back.
Those same fears that you’re afraid of now.

But, I can see it in the way you tilt your head when you think. When you hide your smile when you know the answer. When you ask the question that reveals a canvas of thoughts so large in expanse that the colour you used to have wouldn’t be enough to cover the brilliance that you paint. So it’s a good thing I bring the rainbow with me every day waiting for you to grab the brushes you pretend aren’t in your bag waiting to be used.

I know that at some point, your fear will go away. It’ll fade with the memories of mathematic principle and run away knowing your beauty can’t be hidden any longer. And when it does, you’ll see what I see.  That nothing can hold you back.


My week was full of creative reflection and reminded me of my need for this.

Four distinct thoughts or lines of questioning came to light.

1. We need to take time to listen to our breath. We are so perpetually busy that too often we fail to stop and recognize the pace and fatigue of our brains, our hearts and our bodies.  Though we only did a few free writing exercises, Tanya and I were able to engage in many thoughtful, engaging conversations about the nature of creativity (Does everyone have it?) and our ability to find a passion.

Seth Godin talks about “finding your art” and he is not talking about poetry or painting, he instead talks about the need to think creatively about what we do; To challenge the boundaries and conformities that are inherent in our profession and be willing to take creative risks.  How many of us really do this? Have you found the art of teaching?

2. Tanya’s feedback of my performance was quite insightful and I wrestled with it all weekend, she said, “You have such great enthusiasm and conviction, but sometimes you’ve got to reel it in.” This is so true of everything, not least my spoken word performance.  How often do I lose kids because I am not reeled in enough?  How often am I see as too hyped up that it requires too much energy for students to “keep up”? Some serious things for me to consider.  But too, how do you reel it in, if this is natural? Is teaching more performance than I want to realize or accept?

3. Are our students creatively engaged enough? Are they given time and support to pursue their collective creative minds in problem solving, social interaction, etc.?  Or, are students given too strict of parameters in action and in thought in our schools?  Ken Robinson would have a field day with this.  After de-briefing with my students today, many of them talked about how “freeing” the poetry was or how much it allowed them to “explore a part of them that they don’t often.”  How do we harness that feedback and make meaningful connections?

4. Tanya’s presence, expertise and experience were invaluable.  This experience has reminded me the power and need for experts in my class.  The need to open my door and invite people to participate, support and promote.  Tanya allowed rare access for my students to connect with a raw, real, authentic voice. I am but a teacher, I know school and my limited knowledge. I have to allow my learners authentic opportunities to learn by not being the wall, but by being the door to the world of expertise.

May 15, 2011

The Two Faces of Feedback

It’s easy to hear the good stuff.

“This course makes me feel alive” says one kid on the mid-term feedback form. Wow. It makes my day.

Another kid says, “I’ve never seen so much improvement in my writing then I’m seeing in this course.” or “This is so far the best course I’ve ever taken and I’m pretty sure alot of it is because of you and the way you’ve taught me to think.”

Again and again, I get all this brilliant positive feedback.  Job done.

I take it at face value as proof positive that my methods work.  That in my small way, I’ve figured something out.

Or have I, what does this feedback really say?

Are these students offering me praise and recognition reflecting accurately.  Do they ‘feel alive’ because they get to Facebook and be on the computer, or have they found a love for learning?

Why can’t this positive feedback quell my need to scrutinize and question my practice? Is this a sign that I’ll never be happy?

On the flip side, I see the other face.

“If we had a chance to actually see what we need to improve on. If I knew what Mr. Kemp wanted me to improve on, then I could meet his expectations and exceed in this course.”

That feedback is obviously harder to take.  I take it personally.  But ultimately, it is fair.  Ultimately, in my pursuit of flexibility and student-directedness, I have obviously dropped some formality that my student(s) still require.

And isn’t that the point.  To build an environment where students have the relationship with me to tell me how I need to improve.

Sure, it sucks to get negative or constructive feedback. For it is much easier for me to be the scrutinizer.

And so I wrestle with both faces of feedback. One reminds me that I’m on the right road and the need to maintain requires a constant watch over the mechanics of the machine.  Where the other reminds me that the path ahead is far from completed.  The dusty trails still need work before they are flat road.

But at least I’m moving.

Apr 27, 2011

Stuck Between Engagement and Working Hard

She is pissed at me.  I get the daggers from across the room. She speaks to me through gritted teeth.

It happens.  Not everyone will think I’m a brilliant teacher.  I get it.

I think she’s misaligned her frustrations with what she is learning to my inability.  She doesn’t get that learning sometimes requires hard work.  She wants me to explain it down to the minutiae. She wants me to give her the blanks to fill in.  She wants to hang out on Facebook and text her friends then achieve success.

She has learned that school involves figuring out the hoops and jumping through them.  But not here.  And this pisses her off.  She thinks it’s my fault and maybe it is.

So, she checks out. She acts disengaged. She does not enjoy showing up to this class. She doesn’t work hard.

I’m left thinking. Reflecting.

I know I should meet her in the middle, somewhere, but where is the middle of enjoyment, engagement, and academic rigour?

Do we compromise the academic rigour of a course to ensure ‘engagement’?

Frustration with learning is often a symptom of someone whose being asked to do something outside the zone of proximal development, however, she hasn’t engaged in the task enough (worked at it) to really determine that.  She shows signs in other places that she is ready for the challenge, but isn’t ready to commit to the task.

Without engagement, students will learn something for the short term, however, it is often lost in the long term. So, we know engagement is critical. At what expense?

Clearly, she’s rattled me.  I know what she is asking for, but I see that the solution will undermine her authentic learning.  Where does that leave me?


Mar 31, 2011
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OSSLT and Why I Won’t Feel Guilty for the Role I Play

I don’t like the literacy test. Big surprise.

I don’t hide it from my students.  I don’t put on a gingerly smile and talk about its intrinsic value.  Mainly, because I think it is an exorbitant waste of time and money.  Attempting to determine someone is literate in one day with one method seems a recipe for misused data in my mind.  The high-stakes approach to learning is wrong.  Plain and simple.

The OSSLT, the OCA and other similar data-mining exercises in testing do nothing more than placate those that don’t understand how literacy works and have no interest in talking about real learning.

Literacy is a complex understanding of the language of the world. It is not something that can be captured using multiple choice questions and structured writing responses.  The lack of nuance is frightening.

And yet,

I am sitting in a room with eight at-risk students proctoring their test writing.  These same students have been working with me over the last few months dissecting the literacy test.  We have ravaged through the carcass to ensure we know how each body part functions.

I hate what the literacy test has become for these students; a harbinger around their necks. So, I help, I cajole, I “teach to the test”. I attempt to get these students through the hoop they must jump.

“This test is not really built good if it wants to see what skills I have, is it?” — Grade 10 student

Part of the lesson for these students is understanding that being subversive is one thing, but putting up with bad ideas is part of life too.  The literacy test for these kids is just one more thing that undermines their role in their learning.

I don’t and won’t feel guilty for explicitly helping these kids jump through this hoop and hopefully pass the OSSLT.

I do feel guilty that a system I’m part of continues to perpetrate this on kids.

For further reading on the myth of standardization and the havoc they continue to ensure:

Mar 22, 2011

The Trust of a Community – Is It Broken?

A kid stole an iPad.

From under my nose, for the March Break, it was gone.  I didn’t know it was gone until I got to class Monday.  It was nowhere to be found. I was panicked.  I was stressed. I searched the room high and low, refusing to believe it had happened.

I asked for it back.  In front of the whole class.  Not because I was mad, not because I was shocked.  I asked for it back because I trusted the members of my community.  I refuse to live in fear and over blown distrust.

It was returned.  Not explicitly, to my hands, with an apology.  But it was left behind after class, hidden under a desk, where I had looked.

So now I know it was one of my students.  The community that we have been building has made a misstep.  I don’t know who, I could make my guesses, but alas it would be unfair.  Unjust.  I could succumb to the fear that too often overwhelms our sense of community and paint them all with the same brush.

But I won’t.

I was working on a blog post over the March Break about allowing teenagers to be teenagers and trusting that through all the drama and missteps, they are good.  I was going to post about not expecting them to be people they are not.  They are going to be caught up in trivial social drama.  They are going to make bad decisions about what they write in their blogs.  They are going to be late with their assignments, they are going to do all the things that teenagers do.

It is how we respond that teaches them.  In fact, when we respond to their teenage ways with punishment, lectures, we reinforce their “teenaged-ness”.  I’m not an expert in the psychology of teenagers, but in my experience we change nothing with the stick for the same reason we shouldn’t try to motivate with the carrot.

Even one of my students responded to the teenage actions:

“People my age get mad when adults or people of other ages put a stereotype on them.  They say that not everyone is the same and I agree with that but when something like this happens and no one takes responsibility, everyone has to take some of the blame.  How could you get mad over a stereotype when things like these are happening everyday?”


So, what to do?

I talk about community.  I talk about our community and how these actions shape the community we are building and the community we’ve built thus far.

Can we operate in a learning environment without trust?

Does the stick mentality, despite feeling like teenagers need discipline, undermine the trust needed for community?

After an incident, misstep, bad decision, is the trust broken?

Even more important, is our community broken? How do we fix it, if it is?

An iPad is nothing, community is everything.  The decision of one student, one teenager, has put the entire community at risk, so how do you respond?

Mar 10, 2011

Should school be a game? An early reflection on Civic Mirror.

The game of school is so easy to play.  Just ask a Gr. 12 student. Even better, don’t let a Grade 12 student and watch the reaction.

The game of school is so easy to play.  Just watch a teacher who is showing up, but not buying in.

What if school was a game?  A well-designed, challenging, feedback-oriented, game?

My Futures Forum class (Gr. 10 English/Civic/Careers) is currently working through the beginning stages of a simulation/game called Civic Mirror.  I’ll be honest, when I was told about it, I was hesitant.  I cringe at working through ‘inauthentic’ scenarios that someone away from the classroom put together.

This has me, almost, convinced.

Civic Mirror allows a class to create a country, define its culture, understand it’s constitution, govern it and then participate in its economy by selling, trading and trying to achieve success.  Each student is given money, status, opportunity and a ‘hidden agenda’.  Each student makes choices that affect them as individuals and the country as a whole.  They battle for power, both official (in the form of political or judicial) or unofficial (economic or hidden factions).

Now although we have just started, my students are participating with zeal.  They enjoy it.  They are challenged by it.  The feedback of their actions comes immediately, the complexity of civic life is uncovered.  It is self-directed.

A content heavy concept (the running of the Canadian government) is being learned through experience and gamesmanship.  Very intriguing thus far.

I’m left wondering and asking more and more, how do we bring in the culture of gaming into other subjects?  How do we create the challenges, the feedback, the gamesmanship for subjects like English and Math, while still requiring the rigour?

As Jane McGonigal shows in her TED talk; gaming can change the world.  Now it is up to us as teachers to consider the framework of gaming and work together to create more simulations that engage our students.

Maybe school should be a game?

Mar 2, 2011
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My Grammar Mistake

I posted a Tweet in the middle of class today.


It contained an error.  A grammar error.  A small error, none of my students picked up on it.

My friend did though.  She picked it up almost instantly.  She corrected me for all my students to see.


The real story is that she corrected me instantly, from Ghana.  From around the world, she was able to see what I was doing in my class and be a part of it.

It was that simple.

Anyone who tries to say that the internet and our connectedness hasn’t changed things is completely wrong.

My classroom door is open.  Radically open.

The possibilities for my students are immense.  They have an opportunity to stream the TED conference happening in Palm Beach live, in class.  They can hear and learn from experts in the field.  They can hear new ideas and witness what is happening anywhere in the world.

On the other hand, the world can be part of my class.  They can ‘walk’ right in.  I’m hoping to have @erinantcliffe join my class as she talks about the work she is doing in Ghana with Engineers without Borders.

For many teachers, that might be the scariest of thoughts.  You never know who is watching.  For me, it’s liberating. It allows my students access to the world.  Connection and community.

The only thing I have to worry about is … my grammar.

Mar 1, 2011

The Room is Quiet, The Learning is Turned to 11

Today, the room is quiet.  Silent, really.  I have no clue why.

I haven’t told them to focus on their work.  I haven’t told them to sit and be quiet.  They just are.

The reason I suspect is that they are choosing their work today.  They have been given an opportunity to ask a question and uncover the answer.  The only thing I ask of them is to document the process.  Keep track of their pathway to learning.

One student is asking the question, “Why do we play video games?” He is on his way to discovering the relationship between challenge, exploration and accomplishment.  He will probably start looking differently at school too.  I’m going to send him the way of Jane McGonigal’s TED Talk.

One student is asking the question, “How do we determine who the greatest in a sport is?” He is on his way to discovering the relationship of criteria, statistics, media and the power of heroes.  He will hopefully start looking at celebrities and athletes differently, more analytically, while still being swept up in their brilliance.

One student is asking, “Why is school important?” She is on the way to establishing her own criteria of effective learning and in doing so will demand more of teachers she encounters.  She will take this and rethink every assignment, every lesson and become more of an active participant in her own education.

These questions are just a sampling of what my students are learning.  With this process, they are learning communication skills, reading critically, writing, connecting.  They are learning how to be active in their world and not passive citizens.  They are questioning to establish what interests them for their future.

Each student is exploring their own interests.  It may be the first time that some of them have been given the time, resources and support to self-select their learning.

The room is quiet, but the learning is turned to 11.

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