Browsing articles in "Reflections"
Apr 16, 2013
Comments Off on The Balance Between Being Honest and Staying Positive

The Balance Between Being Honest and Staying Positive

I want to be one of those teachers that inspires his students. Not quite Michelle Pheiffer in Dangerous Minds or Robin Williams in Dead Poet’s Society, but somewhere in that vicinity. Someone who makes a difference. I know I’m not the only one.

It’s cheesy, I recognize.

The point is, I want to have high expectations of my students. I want to set the bar high and I want to help each kid get over it.

I want be a consistent positive force.

Every morning, that’s my goal. Make a student believe and move a student forward.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been very cognizant of the feedback I give my students. I try to tailor the feedback to be positive, to be constructive, to remind them of the successes they’ve achieved.

But upon reflection, upon sitting down and talking with students, I realize I’ve been glossing over the honest feedback. I’m trying so hard to polish my message, that the truth is being washed away. 

This unsettles me.

Where is the line? Where is the tipping point between positive, constructive feedback and honest feedback? Because they aren’t the same thing.

In a discussion with some colleagues, the idea of “tough love” came up. Is there room for tough love in schools anymore? Some teachers felt that there really wasn’t. They felt that the expectations now (with credit recovery, credit rescue and all manner of student success) lead to a sanitized feedback loop where no one admits there is dirt anywhere to be seen. I’m not sure I fully agree, but I can see where they are coming from.

So, I ask you, how do you balance being positive and constructive with providing honest feedback?

Jan 16, 2013
Comments Off on My Data Dilemma

My Data Dilemma

I have no use for statistics and numbers that mean nothing. That goes for grades, literacy test results, credit accumulation, etc. They rarely tell me anything of value about a student.

They don’t tell me her story. They don’t tell me where she’s been, the view of the world she holds or the magnitude of her dreams. Truthfully, they don’t tell her that either.

It’s the time of year when grades and report cards become the bittersweet taste on everyone’s tongue.

I’ve made my position clear on quantitative data for learning. But then something happened today.

A colleague, for whom I have the utmost respect, pointed out how often I use quantitative data to achieve my creative and qualitative goals.

Every time I step outside the door to run, I start my watch. I upload the GPS data onto Strava and relentlessly track my progress. I can tell you which kilometre of the last seven runs was my best, the elevation of my typical training run and I can track myself against my friends. But running isn’t about the number.

As I sat down to write a novel in these past four months, I used a word-count tracker that gave me real-time results based on my intended “delivery” date. I knew how many words I wrote each sitting, how many times I’d used the word “stillness” (7 times) and how many pages per chapter. I watched these numbers regularly to fulfill my need for discipline. I knew when I had short-changed a writing session and that I’d have to make it up tomorrow. These numbers helped me achieve my creative goal.

So you see, I have a data dilemma.

I use data to help me pursue my learning, improving, achieving, but I hate when it is forced upon students and teachers. Especially in saying this is the “important data”.

As I was out running, trying desperately not to look at my watch and become data dependent, I considered that I like the data I self-select. The data that is important to me. The data that fits into my goals and my definition of what I want to achieve. I’m not looking at my time and thinking it’s not as good as Craig Alexander, instead I’m thinking, “Man, I’m really off the pace I want, I’ve got to pick it up.”

Therein lies the rub, self-selection.

We need a system that allows students to determine what data matters to them. Then allows them to access that data, track the data and use it to achieve. We need a system that allows teachers to determine what data matters to them. Then allows them to access that data, track the data and use it to achieve. Each for their own means.

Maybe we don’t track enough data, real data. Data that matters.

Where this sits with my thoughts on standardized test data, I don’t know.

That’s why it’s my data dilemma.

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

Nine Thoughts About High School from A Kindergarten Class

Over the last month, I have had the great fortune of taking my Grade 10 Applied English class to visit and participate with a kindergarten class. It has been fun and rewarding for both sets of ‘kids’. Mr. Childs (@ischilds) has welcomed us with such kindness and generosity. We have had the opportunity to read with/for, play with, colour, write, practice the alphabet, build with blocks and most importantly, connect with these little people.

Having spent an entirety of one day in a kindergarten class during my practice teaching, I haven’t had much exposure to these micro-learning environments.

Here is my list of nine thoughts I had about teaching high school from the kindergarten class:

  1. Carpet time is about communal learning –> I don’t have a nice blue carpet in my classroom, but the essence of carpet time is we all gather and we talk. I’ve started doing that by gathering at a boardroom table. It is about being silly, being focused, engaging with each other. It is also about establishing the direction of the day.
  2. Even big kids are scared by little kids –> I couldn’t believe how unnatural it was for some of my grade 10s, especially the boys, to engage with the kids. They were uneasy to start a conversation. Often it was because they didn’t know where it was going to go, the unexpected left some of my students unwilling to make the first step.
  3. Communication filters are self-created –> These four and five year olds just say what’s on their mind. From a teacher’s perspective, Mr. Childs is a consummate example of having a measured, sound response to even the funniest statements. What’s interesting is the filters that we unconsciously create for ourselves. I’m not thinking about the time and place filters that are conscious, but rather the communication barriers our students make to create their persona. These little guys don’t worry about that, so what am I doing to create that environment for my students to start to strip away the communication filters?
  4. Variety is key –> Watching the little kids jump from one thing to the other is so fascinating. One minute they are figuring out the structure of a building, the next they are painting a picture. The two skills in high school are so often separated by time and space. A specific class for each skill. How does a creative opportunity affect an analytical problem? It fosters creative problem solving and rational artistic exploration. The siloing of skills begins to destroy that interplay.
  5. Learning happens in the midst of chaos –> To think that students sitting in rows helps learning is preposterous. The chaos that is a kindergarten class exemplifies learning and the messiness (yes, sometimes literally as I watched a little boy paint the front of his shirt while laughing the whole time) of being engaged. Despite the chaos there are clear and measurable signs of progress.
  6. Role-playing and authentic learning –> Although I try hard to constantly be putting our learning in the context of authenticity, I might be missing the mark. These kindergartens learned about the mail system by creating a post office and delivering the mail. They learned the concept of money by running a pretend store. It was “authentic” but it was close enough.
  7. Patience is invaluable, yet looks different. –> I think the patience to work with kindergarten students is immense. You need to constantly be patient as they work through problems, get distracted and make a mess. It’s no different in high school class, though how patience is demonstrated is different.
  8. Compassion is personal –> Some of my students are typical teenagers who are caught up in their own world.  No judgement, that’s just the way it is. However, after these experiences they recognize the impact of ‘mentors’. In fact one came up to me and said, “Mr. Kemp, it’s crazy that my buddy was excited to see me again. She told me she really liked when we came.” This student of mine, now has a larger perspective of their community.
  9. High schools students are just big kids –> Once the blocks were out and some of the little boys were building structures, try dragging these 16 year olds away from the blocks. They looked at me with disappointment when we had to put the ‘toys’ away. For every time someone says, “Oh man, you work with teenagers every day.” I remember in these moments that they’re all kids who are trying to manage their role in this wider world.
Nov 7, 2012
Comments Off on Little BIG Thing #7: Show Gratitude

Little BIG Thing #7: Show Gratitude

Too often, in the crush of things to do, I need to be reminded to slow down and recognize all the things that work in harmony and make this thing I do, this job, this passion, a place where I can grow and learn. On top of that, sometimes I need to lift my head out of the water and gaze around at the horizon and see both where I’ve come from and where I’m headed.

The easiest way to gain that perspective is by showing gratitude.

I try to recognize and acknowledge those that I am grateful for and show them that gratitude regularly. However, I’m not nearly as conscious about with my students.

I heard of a colleague who for Thanksgiving wrote a little note of thanks to each of her students, those things matter. After hearing about it, I’ve tried to make a concerted effort to show gratitude more often. Especially to my students as it fosters an open, kind community.

It’s always interesting when I offer my sincere gratitude to students for something specific, it’s a visual change in their body language. It changes their tone.

One of my considerations is to identify the moments when I’m getting frustrated or tired and that’s the moment when I need to offer gratitude. To the student who is challenging me the most, the perspective I gain by looking through the lens of gratitude, changes my reaction.

The next consideration is that my students come from different contexts before they walk into the room. I need to recognize and have gratitude for those other influencers, my colleagues and their parents. I try to offer gratitude to my colleagues who help establish the culture in the school. I have tried to maintain a habit of writing a thank you note to colleagues who go beyond. My next step, might be, to take that idea and send e-mails of thanks to parents, for their children’s behaviour. All it does is foster a positive relationship.

 Today, right now, in this moment, who are you thankful for? Have you told them?


Please feel free to share with me, your thoughts on what the Little BIG Things of Education.

Related Posts:

The Little BIG Things of Education

Little BIG Thing #6: Play Devil’s Advocate

Little BIG Thing #5: Listen to Their Music

Little BIG Thing #4: What I Learn is As Important

Little BIG Thing #3: Surprise Changes Culture

Little BIG Thing #2: Celebrate Being Wrong

Little BIG Thing #1: The Brightness of Your Eyes

Nov 6, 2012
Comments Off on Teaching and Learning: Inherently Required?

Teaching and Learning: Inherently Required?

With the changing tide of public education, I think we are charting territories where this essential question is being explored?

Do you need a teacher to learn?

The idea that we are learning partners, or that we are no longer the fountain of knowledge, I think lends itself to this question. If we recognize that we are facilitators, activators, or evaluators, does the role of teacher go by the wayside?

I try to think of my learning, I don’t have a teacher in the formal sense, but I do need someone. Be it the writer of a book or the maker of the YouTube video, there is someone responsible for the dissemination of the information. But what happens when we start removing the human, is Google my new teacher?

In a tinkering framework, in a place where I start a problem, then wrestle with it, rearrange the pieces until the problem is solved, experience is my teacher.

If I write a novel, edit it, and print it, in our incredibly on-demand world, and it doesn’t sell, the marketplace is my teacher?

In our budget conscious, austerity measured world, is this what the corporate interest is investigating? Isn’t the biggest single cost-savings in education always teachers?

I’ve said many times here on this blog, that I believe it is absolutely paramount that teachers are learners, but by that very nature are all learners eventually teachers, or are all learners teachers to themselves?

In fact, my ramblings and reflections on feedback have brought me to this quote from Dave Nicol, We tend to think of feedback as something a teacher provides, but if students are to become independent lifelong learners, they have to become better at judging their own work. and so again I beg the question, are teachers an absolute requirement in the learning process?

Douglas Thomas suggests that the role for teachers now is to provide, “the context not the content.” Is this where we find the need for the external instructor?

I’m not suggesting we remove teachers from the room or even that the job of a teacher is not critical, however, for how long? If learning is our purpose, do we not need to look at whether teaching is inherently required?



This blog post has been rattling around in my head for a while, I know it is greatly incomplete and states a serious of ridiculous questions, however, I needed to get it out.

Oct 29, 2012

The ECOO Experience #ecoo12

Last Thursday, I had the privilege of presenting my thoughts and ideas at the ECOO Conference 2012. My presentation was geared around my assessment and evaluation methods and madness.

I was proud to speak in front of such an intelligent, engaged audience who asked so many great questions and provided some varied perspectives. I have embedded below the slides from my presentation.


The conference moved this year from one where the tool was the principal focus to the pedagogical shift taking shape in education. Obviously, I like this move. I think too often we spend time worrying about the what and how of teaching, and too little time is spent wrestling with the why. This conference enabled that wrestling.

However, it also enabled something else for me, it forced me to focus my thinking around assessment, which ironically I spoke about. I realized, with more clarity than I had before, that assessment is right now the linchpin to the shift in education.

John Seely Brown, Michael Fullan, and even Nora Young, all addressed the shift in instruction, but none of them offered the insight into the shift in assessment and I fear that is underlooked.

Frankly, assessment and evaluation may be the structure of the system that slows down change the most.

I see it as there are two main cogs in education, instruction and assessment, and while instruction is slowly coming to life, assessment is still in a state of disrepair. It’s rusted over and will take some serious elbow grease to get it moving again.

And we can’t disregard it.

We’ve made cosmetic changes to evaluation, however, at the end of the day will universities and colleges accept our students if they haven’t jumped through the hoops of GPAs and averages. What then becomes of the innovation, creative problem solving, and imagination?

The ECOO experience has focused in my interest in assessment and evaluation, it has left me with more questions than answers and has enabled me to connect with other educators asking those same questions. I can’t wait to see where this takes me.


It’s Not About the Number

Sep 27, 2012

Is Teaching Political?

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

That’s what learning is all about.

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

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

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

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


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

But it is.

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

Does that make students the pawns of both sides?


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

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

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


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

Sep 19, 2012
Comments Off on It’s A Simple Algorithm

It’s A Simple Algorithm

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


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

“How did you do that?”

“It’s a simple algorithm.”

“Where did you learn it?”

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


“But, I’m trying to get better.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trust Ends Where Trust Starts.

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

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

It destabilizes everything.


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

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

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

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

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

If they trust me: not sure.

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

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


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

Our culture does not trust.

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

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

May 31, 2012


As a teacher, what am I entitled to?

Am I entitled to inherent respect from my students? Silence when I demand it? Uncompromising focus of the tasks I deem appropriate?

Am I entitled to students who are never late? Absent?

Am I entitled to students who want to learn? Love to learn?

Am I entitled to students who leave their dramas at home? Have no dramas at home? Recognize when dramas are real or perceived?

Am I entitled to a cell phone free classroom? Facebook-free computer lab? Social media free interaction?

Am I entitled to laugh every day? A work environment free of politics? A work where your value is fairly acknowledged?

Am I entitled to a quiet space to do my work when not directly working with students? Access to the technology I need?

Am I entitled to a succinct, clear understanding of what my responsibilities as a teacher are? A set of protocols of which I must adhere?

Am I entitled to my own classroom? A teacher’s desk?

Am I entitled to time? Space?

Am I entitled to freedom to make mistakes? Freedom to try something new? 

Am I entitled to say no to change? Maintain the status quo? Be jaded, cynical?

Am I entitled to teach how I have been teaching for the past 5 years? 10 years? 20 years? 30 years?

Am I entitled to sick days? Personal days? Family care days?

Am I entitled to stability? Job security?

Am I entitled to fair compensation for my effort? My success? A pension? Recognition of my aptitude?

Am I entitled to feedback? To offer professional feedback? To speak for myself?

It seems to me there are many questions about entitlement that are being asked explicitly and implicitly in education right now. There is an expectation of entitlement that is creeping into the daily rhetoric of educators.

The problem with entitlement is we’ll never receive what we are “entitled”. The problem with entitlement is that we’ll never be happy.

These questions can be asked from different perspectives as well. Parents, administrators, governments, students all have a feeling of entitlement.

So, who is entitled?

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