Browsing articles in "Questions"
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 7, 2011
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What Are You Learning?

Because if you aren’t something’s wrong.

For a profession filled with learners, we don’t do near enough learning.

Yeah, I know, we aren’t given the time to put into our learning.  We spend so much of it prepping lessons, planning killer assignments, and marking papers and tests.  But how much time are we actively learning?

And for those who are learning, how much of that learning do you share with your students?

Do they see you struggle with the concepts you’re wrestling with? Do they see the hard, messy work that is learning?

I’d suggest that this is critical to being an effective teacher.

Two reasons:

1. A love for learning is contagious. Just talk to someone who is passionately engaged in learning the guitar, studying history or in the process of writing and if you are truly a learner, you can’t help but feel that pull.  I’ve been engaging in conversation with multiple colleagues who are actively learning about leadership, poetry, and writing. Listening to them talk about what they are learning, how they are learning, why they are learning and listening to them speak passionately encourages me to keep pushing.

2. The fallacy that the teacher knows everything must end. The jig is up.  And I’d suggest admitting your limitations is not enough.  Learning must be active. We must revel in the messiness of learning and show students that learning doesn’t end after school.  Learning is constant.  Real learning, not just required PD sessions.

So, I ask again, what are you learning? I want to share in it.

Jun 6, 2011
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My Secret Identity

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my identity. After my Detroit Red Wings lost in the playoffs, so many people came to me to offer solace, or to give me the gears, all in that my identity is tied to them. I’m a fan, but why do some people see only that aspect of me?

Who am I? What teacher am I in the eyes of students and colleagues?

I had a student, who is currently finishing up his ‘victory lap’ extra year say to me, “You know, Mr. Kemp, I wish I got to know you earlier, I think I really would have liked you as a teacher.”

It got me to thinking, why he would say something like that? What type of teacher does he think I am? What gave it away?

You see as teachers we are told to hide parts of ourselves from view.

I’m not good at that.

I’m okay if students call me by my first name, it’s all good.  However, a colleague who heard a student refer to me as Scott, took me aside afterwards and said it was a very bad idea as it promotes a level of disrespect.  But, I’ve never found that. So, should I stop?

Some students find me funny, although my wife finds that unbelievable. Some students say I’m laid back, some think too much so. I’ve been told that I’m a hippie, because of my constant statements of “Peace and Love.” Some say I’m intimidating, because I am loud and confident. Some colleagues say I’m a shit disturber, some say I’m a trouble maker.  Some students know me as a coach, some as a club sponsor, social advocate, ginger.  But what does it all add up to?

At the end of the day, my identity is tied to the perspective of others.  I can not decide who I will be.  I only decide what I do. I can’t hide me, I can’t pretend, I’m in the process of living an authentic life.

How does this affect my teaching? How does our reliance on reputation and identity inform our approach in the classroom and in the hallways? Do we, more than other professions, revel in our idenitity because we work in such a social environment?

All questions that I continue to explore.

May 28, 2011
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The Need for Failure

A friend of mine just wrote a very interesting blog post, Can’t See The Garden For the Dill, that explores the nature of success and failure.

It led me to thinking about my own failures and the joy we should take, although we don’t, in failure.

It’s tough to think too long about your failures.  It’s tough because usually we hide them.  We cover them up somehow, so no one else can see them.

Well, I have failed, many times.  I have failed courses (yeah, I’m looking at you Grade 7 Home Economics).  I have failed tests, too many to mention. I failed to communicate effectively leading to hurt feelings from family, friends and colleagues.

Some of these failures led to some very specific learning, some led to silent reflection, some led to nothing at all. But I kept at it.

I’m trying to embrace the aspects of my life, personally and professionally, where I failed and learn from them, build from them, become something better because of them. I’m trying to model good failure.

And for our students, if we build a culture devoid of failure, teaching students to be ashamed of failure, scared of failure, where only success and achievement is celebrated, have we built a solid disposition for learning?

Is there not an inherent need for failure in education? Failure in learning?

Without some level of failure we never move forward.

So, yeah, I’ve failed.  And I’ll continue to fail.

It provides the litany of things I need to keep working on.

It often points me in the direction of success.

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?


Apr 26, 2011
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Independent vs. Interdependent

A while back my vision of students as independent learners was challenged.  It was suggested that maybe I’m giving them too much credit.  The challenge went on to cite that the cognitive development of teenagers made it inherently difficult for them to be independent.

And therein lies my struggle.

I believe the best learning and the most motivated learner is one where autonomy, mastery and purpose are the cornerstones. So, how do you find the balance between the independent nature of authentic learning and the challenge of the limitations of the teenage brain?

The answer may lie in interdependency.  However, therein lies the next struggle, for something to be truly interdependent, both things must rely on each other.

Ultimate teacher control is the death of interdependency. And the death of true authentic learning.

To reshape the dynamic for authentic learning and to create an environment of interdependence, teachers must relinquish control.  This does, however, come at a price. The price of preparation.  The price of assessment.  The price of the traditional definition of what it means to teach.

It is not the dependency of students or their limited ability to learn independently that needs to be re-evaluated/reworked.  But it is to the adults in the room to choose that authentic, inquiry-based learning is in fact the nature of public education.

Students are learning independently through video games, their social networks, what they choose to read.  The content of their context is without question.  However, when we look at formal education and the baseline skills that we think our functioning society requires of its citizens, we need to figure a way into the sphere of their learning.

I acknowledge and reflect that independent teenage learners is not ideal. They don’t have the physiological capabilities to acknowledge their own cognitive limitations.  Thus a move to interdependence is needed.

The dependent model of education is over.

Students are ready and willing to join us in a relationship of interdependence, so it is up to us to join them.

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?

Feb 25, 2011
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If I Don’t Share, Is It Because I Don’t Own?

Yesterday, a colleague I respect, took me to task on my lack of sharing in my department and my lack of discussion I’ve engaged in about the course I’m teaching, the Futures Forum Project.  He challenged my notion of “who owns the course?”

It was great feedback.  Pretty accurate and deserved.

So I reflected.

He is right.  I probably share more online then I do in the department office.  Why is that?  Great question.  There are probably many factors.  Even online, I talk little about the day to day operation and more about the larger philosophical implications of my choices.

I’d like to say it is because I’m in the experimental phase.  I don’t really know what works yet.  I see reaction, but it takes time for me to see results, connect with students, get their feedback.  And while I thought about this idea more, it hit upon the other question.

Who owns the course?

Do I?

Does the department? A little more complicated as it is a merged credit including three departments.

Is it the school?

Is it the school board? It is a board wide initiative.

And then it hit me.

Part of my reluctance to share, part of my hesitation to talk day to day, is because I don’t own it.

The students do.

I have made a major change in philosophy to try to truly give power and control to the students as a body, but also as individuals.

It’s not something I can share easily.  It is a complete pedagogical shift of philosophy.

So, in all this, I’m still reflecting on what I can share.  I agree with his feedback, but I’m not sure the next step.

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