Browsing articles in "Reflections"
Sep 19, 2011

School Doesn’t Have To Be Fun.

She disagrees with me. It is most definitely not the first time. She disagrees with me about the finer details, but more importantly she disagrees with me about the foundation of my argument.

I don’t think class needs to be fun.

You see, I have been seeing the word “fun” pop up over and over in discussions about student engagement. Do I like when learning is fun? Of course. Do I try to ensure that the learning in the classroom is fun? No.

You see to me the difference is intention.

When we try to frame the learning around the idea of fun, I think we water it down, we create unreal expectations. Learning something new is often the opposite of fun.

Take playing guitar for instance, Guitar Hero is fun, but in the need to make it fun, the chords are now buttons, the strings a single switch. If you have ever tried to learn guitar, you know it takes awhile until you know enough for it to be fun. Even then, once you’ve learned those first three songs, if you want to get better, you have to go back to not sounding good, not having fun.

If you are a struggling reader, that is not fun. Reading doesn’t become fun until you are proficient enough that you can escape into the story and stop thinking about reading. I explained this to a class of mine, many of them struggling and reluctant readers, and they didn’t disagree, but they asked, “So, why would I want to do something, if it isn’t going to fun?” For which I replied, “Think of anything fun. Video games, sports, whatever. Think about the people who created these things. Do you think they had as much fun as you do? Probably not. They had to struggle through the mistakes and missteps. In the end, they have fun playing their games, but they needed to do the work behind the scenes first.”

But you see, that’s where I stop myself. I think learning is fun. I think struggling with a problem is fun. But that isn’t the reason why we do it.

Are my classes fun? Sometimes. No doubt about it, I like to have fun and many classes have moments of extreme fun, but fun is never my intention. It is a side effect, like drowsiness and irritability.

Her and I, we agree on many things. We agree school needs to be engaging. We agree that school needs to be exciting. But we just can’t agree that school doesn’t have to be fun.

Sep 8, 2011
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And We’re Off…

If the first three days are any indication, this will be an excellent, interesting semester where I will learn much, be challenged often, and laugh every day. And isn’t that what it’s all about?

I tried something new in my Applied level class on Tuesday. First day, I gave them an assignment. An assignment that counts. In fact, an assignment that I knew would be difficult for them, an oral presentation. Most often, these are the most difficult of assignments to get the Applied level to do. This goes mostly to the nature of the students, but also to the confidence it takes to stand and deliver in front of a group of your peers. So, I decided, we’re starting with it. No ice breakers, team-builders, nothing. I gave them 15 minutes to prepare their oral presentations and then one by one they took to the front of the room and presented.  Now the structure was simple. They had 32 seconds to tell us something. They had to show enthusiasm. I told them that, yes, it counted and frankly, this was their first impression of them as a student.

And they killed it. It was excellent.

At this point, they hadn’t built the roles they will play in the class yet, in fact, they hadn’t been introduced to each other.

Thirty two seconds is long enough to say something, but short enough that it doesn’t get awkward for those that struggle.

Most importantly, I chose to start with this oral presentation assignment because now they know, no one gets a zero. We strive to “be great” and now there are no excuses. We have established that they have all completed an assignment and that they have all, so far, achieved success.

So, first day, everyone’s passing. Everyone is successful. Now, I’ve also learned something about them, they’ve put themselves out there and they are able to immediately see how I give feedback. Honest and to the point.

With this they are on the road to success and we’re off…

Aug 26, 2011
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Ten Books Every Teacher Should Read (or Re-read)

I am an avid reader, I like books that make me think and explore.

I have gotten a few e-mails lately from other teachers asking me to recommend some books for them to read to begin them on the path I’m on. So, here is the list that I usually send them.

These books have changed, altered, helped, nudged, pushed me into thinking about the role of education and the teacher differently. Yet, these are not about teaching.

Some draw parallels much more directly. Some are about the way we think or interact. Some are about how we market. The main thing is that these books push you.  I have ranked them in order of influence and power.

1. The Element by Sir Ken Robinson – This book is the most likely to be considered a “teachers” book, but really it is about embracing creativity, searching for passion and ensuring we re-focus our lives on the important stuff.

2. Drive by Daniel Pink – This book has influenced my thoughts on marking more than any other source. Pink explores the nature of motivation and outlines the case for exploring student autonomy, mastery and re-discovering the real purpose of a public education system. The arbitrary number isn’t as effective as we thought.

3. Linchpin by Seth Godin – This book changed my way of thinking about my role in the system. Up to the point of reading this book, my thoughts always lingered to “getting out” and working alternative to the system. Godin makes the argument that people from within need to scratch out the place for themselves to “do their art”. It is tough, though it is most important. The revolution needs to happen from within for it to stick.

4. Start With Why by Simon Sinek – This book kicks the thinking into high gear and reminded me that every action, decision, relationship needs to be rooted in the “why” of my life. This means that every decision in the classroom should be rooted in the students. If life is made more difficult for teachers, but centres the learning for students, then that is the way it is. Always reframe the thinking to the why.

5. Mindset by Carol Dweck – Dweck explores the nature of how we think about ourselves and why some people are willing to more rigorously dig into the difficulty of learning, while others just give up. This book reminds me that students need help at the base of how they see the world and that this will influence everything.

6. In Pursuit of Elegance by Matthew E. May – This book is about removing the stuff that distracts from the elegance. There are so many parallels in education of the things that we add that don’t add to our why. May pushed me to thinking about simplifying everything.

7. Switch by Chip and Dan Heath – This was one of the first books that made me think about the struggle and battle of changing a system that is at times, unchangeable.  It encouraged me to engage in the educational revolution.

8. Tribes by Seth Godin – All about finding your people, connecting and encouraging others (students) to find their tribe. This books has encouraged me to disengage in the negative and to join Twitter in an attempt to connect with people who will continuously push my thinking.

9. Shop Class as Soul Craft by Matthew Crawford – Simply a book about what it means to work and to disengage in the “storybook” image of what education looks like.

10. Outliers and Blink by Malcolm Gladwell – These two books explore the nature of re-thinking success and decision making. In classic Gladwell style, these books pushed me into being more aware of everything and taking less for granted when it comes to the factors that will affect student learning.

 

But this is my list, the list of books I’ve read. I’m ALWAYS looking for books that are going to push me. If you have a recommendation, please let me know.

 

For a complete list of the books I read, please visit http://books.mrkemp.ca.

Aug 2, 2011
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Being Called Weird, Odd and Peculiar is Fine By Me

Hearing student feedback can be scary. You have to check your ego. I got a flurry of feedback from my most recent summer school students.

 

They repeatedly called me names:

“Weirdest teacher I have ever had”

“Very odd”

“He was different.”

“Unorthodox, some might say a tad peculiar.”

“At first, the teacher seemed kinda weird, he had a teaching method that I wasn’t used to and at first I didn’t like it. Or him for that matter.”

 

I get it.

I’m a little out of the box for many students. What followed in their feedback is what allows me to continue exploring the ideas of relationships, exploration, creativity in the context of a ‘regular’ high school classroom.

 

“I’ve been inspired through curiosity to keep learning.”

“This whole course has made me curious and that’s what kept me going each day; I knew something crazy and unexpected was due to happen!”

“At first the teacher seemed kinda weird, But after a few days I started to understand why he did the things he did, and now he has one of my favourite teaching styles.”

“I don’t look at learning the same way. I feel empowered to do more.”

 

I’m not saying I nailed it. I’m not saying it was perfect execution and you need to be different to be effective. I’m not saying that these students were not just kissing ass for a few extra percent.

However, I take from this that standing out there, alone in a field is ok. It feels awkward at times. You open yourself up to much critcism and skepticism, but I’m okay with that. I’m willing to be that odd teacher that does things differently, if it gets students to look past the grade and into the heart of what learning is all about.

Being called weird, odd and peculiar is fine by me.

————————-

“Mr. Kemp is the weirdest teacher I have ever had the pleasure to learn from.”

Jul 29, 2011
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The Learning Community – Going Solo

I spend such a considerable amount of time building the community. It is my focus for the extent of the first day, maybe week.  Even in summer school where the timelines are tight. I’ve got 32 students in this community of learners coming from the distinct cultures and learning climates of 13 different schools. To say, we are diverse is an understatment.

So we build. We connect. We compromise. We explore. We figure each other out. And eventually, we form community.

It is a noticable community. Built on ever-changing seating arrangements. Unscripted conversations, collaborative mind-mapping, presentations and more presentations.

By the end of week one, we are solid. We have a culture all our own.

And the pace quickens. Summer school is like that. We lose three members, yet we keep rolling.

By week three, it feels comfortable. But now, the end is near.

We only have three days more.

And then…it is over. The community that we’ve built must dissolve. It becomes, yet another example, of the fleeting feeling of learning.

I put so much emphasis on having a learning community and relying on them. But, I haven’t gone far enough. Because there is an aspect of learning that is solo. Personal. A place where we don’t want someone else to delve into and I haven’t spent near enough time equipped these students with this notion.

I like to ride my bike. I get on, get out to country roads and ride. Multiple hours slip past taking with it my worries and fears and enabling me to sit in the pocket of contemplation and celebration.  This is the time where I can think. I write in my head. I process my fears.  I allow myself to stroke my ego and then feel the burn as it is torn down by its maker.

This is all part of it.  The learning community works, only if we revel in the individual. We need to take/make that time to be alone.  Yet, I don’t emphasize that in class.

We won’t always have that ready-made learning community that a class provides us. We won’t always have the common, committed goal of analysis and exploration. So, are we prepared to learn on our own?

Are we preparing students to ride solo, with only their own thinking to keep them company?

Jul 6, 2011
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What If I’m Wrong?

A respected colleague of mine recently asked me, “You are always trying new things and trying new approaches, aren’t you afraid you’ll be wrong and then students will be affected?”

What if I’m wrong?

I figure, I’ve got three options:

  1. I’m right.
  2. I’m wrong, but I’m closer to the best possible idea.
  3. I’m wrong and I’m farther away from the best possible idea.

In the pursuit of providing my students with the best learning opportunity, I’d rather side with the 2/3 chance that I’m moving forward, rather then letting the one option stop me in my tracks. This goes for everything I do, negative thinking breeds a failure to move, positive thinking means movement is essential.

————————

The other side of the my response is that I do my due diligence. I don’t hatch an idea and then go. Ok, sometimes, but generally, I read, I reflect, I talk and I connect. No idea is considered in a bubble. But, no idea is thrown out just because it hasn’t been done before or because it makes me, or other people, uncomfortable.

_____________

What if I’m wrong? The only time I can be wrong is in thinking I’ve got nowhere to go.

Jul 5, 2011
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Learning Happened. (A few lists…)

A few lists connected to the school year that passed.

Things to Do Again:

  • Invite the outside world into my classroom. Throw open the doors.
  • Be constantly striving for more authentic audience, task, learning.
  • Invite scrutiny.
  • Build rich connections with colleagues and look for opportunities to engage in good, though possibly uncomfortable, professional dialogue.
  • Shift away from the centre. Don’t think top-down is teacher-student. Instead, think there is no top, “We are all in this together.”
  • One rule: “Be Great”
  • Have rich, meaningful, honest conversations with each student about their progress. These conversations were much more nuanced and useful then any mark or report card comment. They take time, but they are worth it.

Things I Didn’t Get Quite Right:

  • Parents: I had no complaints from parents, well, none that I have any knowledge.  I had some real great feedback from parents, though. But I didn’t quite get it right. Even after last semester’s reflection on the role of parents, I didn’t do a good enough job keeping/getting them connected to their child’s learning. I need to take more time to get them connected, get them involved. Especially as I use more and more social media, authentic audience, etc. It blends so easily. I want students, regardless of grade, to be talking to their parents about what they learned in class today. This breeds a greater importance on learning, less on the final numerical result of the learning.
  • Flexibility: Some of the feedback I got from students was that I provided them, at times, too much freedom and flexibility. They felt that they hung themselves with it. Now each student recognized that they need to own the responsibility, however, they’ve never been taught how, so it is unfair for me to expect them to handle it.  I had many of my students comment that their ability to “be in a regular classroom” was compromised because of the flexibility they had in my class. I look at that as something that I didn’t get quite right and I’m going to need to work to find a better balance.
  • Sharing: It is one of those lessons you learn early, and it turns out often, about taking (or even better making) opportunities to share the things you are doing.  I wrote a blog post entitled “If I Don’t Share, Is It Because I Don’t Own It?” that begins to reflect on the nature of sharing in this profession.  I used the excuse that “I didn’t own the class” when I first talked about sharing, but now, with more afterthought and more reflection on all the things I did in class, I recognize that I’ve got to share more.  I believe there are things every class should be doing, those things that worked and are easy, but if I don’t share them with the people in my building they are dead already.  I don’t know what this will look like, but it needs to be done.
  • Feedback: I’m still not there. I’ve written about the feedback loop that I’m trying to create but it is not complete. It needs more tweaking. How do I provide rich, constructive, learning feedback, while making it manageable? How do I provide that as instantly as possible while teaching upwards of 90 students a day? How do I more concretely connect the required number (grade on the report card) with the intangible (observations)?
  • The Game: I’m not one to mind my ‘p’s’ and ‘q’s’. I say what’s on my mind and often live with the consequences. Professionally speaking, I’m not one to play the game.  I just run at my own speed. This tactic (though it really is the lack of tactics) has left me isolated at times. On its own, I’m not too worried. However, if my actions are going to work against a student’s needs in the future (with a colleague, parent or administrator), then I haven’t served them. The game is not for me, it is to serve my students in the best way. I need to find a middle ground, maybe?

 

Things I Learned About Learning:

  • I love to learn. Adding the Twittersphere to my daily professional development was wonderful.
  • Learning happens with community. The idea that learning can happen on your own is baloney. You need other people. We need to constantly be honing our ability to create community in our classrooms. But not just any community, learning community. There is a difference, a big one.
  • Learning is a dog fight. Grip it and rip it. Learning is not for the faint of heart. It is tough and messy and rarely pretty. Recognizing this made me much more willing to take risks and not shy away when the going got tough, which it does inevitably, every time.
  • It can’t happen in a bubble. Allow for distractions. Maintaining direct focus is unsustainable for most learners. Most of us need time and space to breathe.
  • I’m not the best learner in the room. I’m really only good at learning for me. Let people/students learn with whatever methods work for them.
  • Sometimes you need to slow down to speed up. I like to jump in with testing the water. I do this with learning new things too. I learned that for some things, that isn’t the best strategy. Now, this isn’t to say i’m not going to be jumping in, but maybe, just maybe, I won’t be doing a cannonball.

Things I Need To Learn More About:

  • Google Apps
  • Integrating autonomy more effectively into every class. FedEx Days? What would they look like?
  • Building more authentic, project-based learning opportunities.
  • Establishing richer community with people on Twitter. I’m not using this tool to its full potential.
  • How to be a better collaborator.
  • Access to funding opportunities to enrich the learning in the room.
Jun 28, 2011
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If Today is Tomorrow

A semester tied to the interwebs, with connection at our beck and call, my students talked not of Facebook and Twitter.  They talked not of Google Docs and paperless classrooms. They talked not of iPads, iPods or Blackberry smartphones.

They talked of each other. They talked of the experiences of play together. They reflected on the world we had created in our little window-less room.

Many mentioned the corruption our classroom exhibited when trying to run our own nation. Many talked of the informal discussions that brewed into ideas and readings that weren’t connected to anything they thought they liked. They reflected that they could share in the learning of others.

The interaction, the community of the classroom was the most talked about phenomenon. Many said that they had never been in a classroom where they felt so close with their classmates. They praised the time they were given to get to know each other, the time they were given to challenge their ideas.

I’ll take that.

I’m happy with that feedback.

Future Now

It may not have been curricular. I never assessed it. It is hardly reflected on any official documentation.  But it was critical. It was essential.

 

For all the talk (mine too) of the changing nature of education, of learning, of our networked life, it is the community that brings us all back.

 

I taught in the “classroom of the future” this semester, it was student-centered. It had every gizmo and gadget a student could want and use to further their learning, and it did, but what resonated, time and again, was the people.

If today is tomorrow, community is learning.

 

 

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 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.

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