Browsing articles in "Reflections"
May 16, 2011
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Inviting Scrutiny

I suppose when you are in the process of pushing an education revolution, you invite scrutiny. And so I do.

I invite scrutiny.

When someone questions the process I follow, I allow it.  I accept it.  I encourage it.  Because often, it begins a conversation that is needed for my own process, but also to hopefully push the thinking of whomever is bringing the scrutiny.

Some colleagues think I should be afraid of opening my door and allowing students to express themselves without moderation.  Hide what I’m trying from administrators and parents. They believe that it is too risky to get feedback unfiltered.  They think that perlustration is a recipe for inviting trouble.

Seth Godin writes, “If you’re insulating yourself from these conversations, who benefits?”

But alas, it does’t worry me.  I don’t feel threatened.  I believe it is an open desire for scrutiny and authentic feedback that allows me to continue learning. It ensures that I am incredibly thoughtful about every step in the process, but it also allows students, parents, administrators and colleagues to be part of the student learning.

And so I believe ultimately, the kiss of death for an effective teacher is the thought that they have nothing left to learn. So, if you aren’t open to scrutiny, I have one question: What are you afraid of?

May 16, 2011

Building Capacity for Unlikely Leaders…

On May 4 and 5th, I was lucky enough to attend the Helping Canadian Kids Thrive conference in Regina, SK.  It was an excellent, thought-provoking conference experience.

I was lucky enough for three distinct exceptional experiences.

1. The Best Buddies Blues Band

This little outfit, pairing children with intellectually disabilities and intellectually able buddies, rocked the house.  There was not one person in the crowd of nearly 300 that wasn’t smiling as the unparalleled joy was permeated from the stage. It showed that the academics of school are rarely as important as we think in developing a society that works with and respects all of its members.  Easily the highlight of the conference and it had nothing to do with what I learned and had everything to do with what I was reminded.  Life is to be enjoyed, so live in the moments of joy.

2. Ryan Hreljac’s Presentation

Ryan Hreljac was the Friday afternoon keynote speaker. Ryan is known around the world for his Ryan’s Well Foundation where he has actively engaged in fundraising for various waterpoints around the world.  He is also known as an advocate of clean drinking water for all.  His presentation on Friday afternoon was understated and powerful.

Now, as a 19 year old, he stressed a message that he’s “not anything special, in fact, I was not one of those kids. But I found my thing.  My puzzle piece.”  He implored the crowd to find their own puzzle piece.  You can’t be Mother Theresa and that’s okay, instead be the best version of you.

He reminded me to find humility amidst praise, recognize that change is slow at times, fast at times (like when you are on Oprah –twice) and that whatever speed it is at is the speed it’s meant to be.

He spoke of the growing consumption of clean water in North America and the drastic effects that a non-conservation social attitude will have.

The difference between him and Craig Kielburger struck me as impressively profound. Rather than being a guy who has a million dollar marketing campaign, Ryan is a regular guy who goes about his passion.  Craig is to Don Cherry, what Ryan is to Ron Maclean.  At the end of the day, I’d rather sit and talk and listen to Ron Maclean as what is hidden is most impressive.

3. Reframing Leadership: Building Capacity in Unlikely Leaders

On Friday morning, a colleague and I had an opportunity to present on an explicit practice we have tried to implement and encourage within our school.  Our “framework”, as we’ve dubbed it, includes many tried and true leadership theories blended together working towards adding an element where we find, invite, help and support our at-risk students with leadership opportunities.

Our framework is simple.

  1. Unlearn and Rethink Leadership — It is our nature to provide leadership opportunities for our high flyers.  They naturally find these opportunities, however, when we re-frame what leader looks like, and how leadership functions, we also rethink which students can fill these opportunities.
  2. Discover the Point of Entry — Students who don’t see themselves as leaders or who lack the ‘leader attitude’ are most often going to avoid stepping up. We, as the adults in the building, need to find the hidden leader within but then also recognize that an action, specific task or specific issue might be the point of entry for that student.  Being recognized as a leader is sometimes the first step is recognizing yourself as a leader.
  3. Build a Culture of Support — Having a school culture that cultivates unlikely leaders is essential.  It can’t be one person trying to work with them all, we need to establish an ethic of where leaders (likely and unlikely) have strong support to try something and fail.  Allowing for failure and building from failure in a safe and positive way is key to transitioning an unlikely leaders attitude and vision of herself.
  4. Teach the Skills — Most unlikely leaders lack specific leadership skills and it is very important that we teach in the moment the skills that are necessary.  Never take for granted the skill deficits that these leaders may have and the great opportunities that will arise for these students to learn them.
  5. Identify and Overcome Barriers — One of the biggest things we can do to make unlikely leaders, ultimately successful, is to help them identify what the barriers are that they face and help them brainstorm the solutions.  It is imperative that we don’t provide the solutions or steer them away from barriers, rather it is important that these unlikely leaders face the barriers head on and build the capacity to problem-solve and overcome barriers in their future.

There was a bunch more in our presentation including balloons (a metaphor for building a culture of support), house of cards (a challenge in need of leadership) and some great videos (specifically Derek Sivers’ “First Follower” video.)  The slide deck will is below.


Reframing Leadership: Building Capacity in our Unlikely Leaders


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 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.

Apr 9, 2011
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The Ebb and Flow of Shift – Thanks @PinkneyMichael

I saw this great tweet the other night, one of the best I’ve seen in a while:



@PinkneyMichael sums up so clearly and succinctly, the way good tweets do, how many in education feel.  How I feel.  There is no way of knowing where this revolution ends. And yet, we continue.

What pushes me forward in the shift is the clarity of my WHY.

Without fail, the more evidence, studies, and statistics I encounter WHAT I do in the classroom is changed.  It is shifted.  HOW I approach each class is different. As I read, think and reflect more on my practice, I make the philosophical and the realistic approaches needed to respond more clearly to my WHY.

What I also admire and respect about this tweet is that it reminds me that the most authentic responses are often those of vulnerability.  Belonging to a community, especially one online, is to offer thoughts, questions, reflections and ideas which often are at the scrutiny of many.

Apr 6, 2011
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Changing the Order of Questions

In Simon Sinek’s book “Start With Why”, I came to change my perspective on how to think about, act upon and stimulate the education revolution.  The book’s core concept has re-defined my thinking.

The common precept of the book is the “Golden Circle” of leadership which define the three principle ways we think about what it is we do and the order in which we think them.  He connects the nature of the golden circle to the biology of the brain.

Essentially, he argues that we tend to start by defining WHAT it is we do, then HOW we do it and finishing with WHY we do what we do.  He uses various examples to show how success is often garnered by those who think about things in the opposite direction.  The have a clear understanding of WHY they do something, which drives HOW they do it and WHAT exactly they do.  The concept is quite clear when put into an educational context.

From teachers to students, we engage in the activities of school, professional development and community in various degrees, however, whenever we hit a difficult patch we can revert to one of those questions.  The clearer our understanding of WHY we are doing something, the easier it is to proceed.

Just this week a colleague of mine was having a stressful time.  She was feeling over-extended in the various activities she was involved in and was becoming disheartened in the process.  Her thought pattern was to bail on one of the activities that made her most frustrated.  However, while in discussion we came around to why she had signed up, why she was doing it.  With this her answer was clear, “I wanted to help give students an opportunity to be involved and to follow their passions.”  Once the statement was clear, she gladly was re-committed.

Sinek also provides some helpful quotes about the nature of education and how we resolve issues, one quote outlines quite clearly my apprehension with the over-use of data in education and its connection with standardized testing and grades.

“We understand that even with mountains of data and good advice, if things don’t go as expected, it’s probably because we missed one, sometimes small but vital detail.  In these cases, we go back to all our sources, maybe seek out some new ones, and try to figure out what to do, and the whole process begins again.  More data, however, doesn’t always help, especially if a flawed assumption set the whole process in motion in the first place.”

The outline for a teacher is to constantly be reviewing what is taking place in the classroom under the pretext of WHY, HOW and WHAT.  If students are given the WHY as the key ingeredient and it is clear, they will buy in if it aligns with their WHY.  In the same breath, if the WHY does not align with their thinking they will disengage.  I think that this ultimately connects to our requisite search for authenticity in learning.  When something is authentically learned, the WHY can clearly be defined.

The next step is to be disciplined in HOW we approach the lesson and our belief.  The final piece is the consistency of WHAT we do.

As Sinek states, “The only way people will know what you believe (Why) is by the things you say and do, and if you’re not consistent in the things you say and do, no one will know what you believe.”

In the perspective of a student, if a student learns for achievement (which is to say that we manipulate her WHY into things like grades, or scholarships, or the like), then she will stop once she’s reached it.  Her learning will cease to be important.  However, if we can help frame her learning into her belief (WHY) of school, she will never quit learning and it will become less important HOW she is learning and WHAT she is learning as those will be ever-changing, based on her passions.

Essentially, we as teachers need to talk more consistently about WHY we are doing what we are doing.  We have to stop defining ourselves by WHAT we do, and rather frame the work by the WHY.

This frames education in a more meaningful, profound way and scrutinizes more appropriately the teaching profession.

The conversations we have too often talk about WHAT we do in class, HOW the technology is going to improve learning, WHAT students are doing to push the boundaries.  Instead, we should be asking WHY.

This book has had a profound impact on me, I believe it to be an essential mind shift for teachers.

It is up to our leaders in education to clearly define the WHY of the system, when we clarify our belief about education, our actions of HOW and WHAT we do to make that happen should essentially improve.

These are some initial thoughts.  I continue to reflect on the impact of the book.

Mar 31, 2011

Sometimes You Want To Walk The Hill

This past weekend I ran a 30 kilometre road race.  I ran the oldest road race in North America, Around the Bay.

The Hill

If you know me you’ll know that I love putting myself into these endurance, suffering events, even though I am not a runner.  My 220 pound frame does not let me float over the kilometres like a gazelle. Trust me, my poor knees feel every stride, but I do it nonetheless.

I have run Around the Bay three times now.  Two years ago, I set my goal to run it in three hours.  Nothing too fast, but a good steady pace for that distance.  My first year, 2009, I wasn’t close.  I ran it in 3 hours and 28 minutes.  I suffered, I blamed it on my training and my inability to drop to a more efficient race weight.  In 2010, I improved on my time and finished in 3 hours 12 minutes.  Not bad considering my training was probably even more willy-nilly.  But alas, I was short of my goal, again.

Now at this point it would be great if I could write that I saw the error in my ways and trained like a demon to improve my time and finally on the third shot did it.  However, my training fell off through the deep freeze of February and although I continued running here and there, I didn’t put near the miles I needed to under my feet.  But race day still arrived.

I tried to fake confidence.  I tried to convince myself that my overall fitness was better, I was lighter, more mentally prepared.

And then it began…

My pace was great at the 1 km mark, and at the 5km, at the 10km, and at the 15km, even at the 20km mark I was ahead of my 6:00/km pace.  I was feeling fatigued, but I told myself I was going to do it.

Then the hills came.  I hurt.  I struggled.

At 25 kilometres, I was drained, just in time for THE hill.  The hill that breaks the spirits.  I had just caught up to my wife who was running a relay, just in time, to drop into the valley and start the deadly climb up.  I was exhausted. I had been fighting the road for almost 2 and a half hours.  I succumbed to the negative thoughts in my head and I started to walk.

I needed to walk.  I had nothing to give.  “Just until the top of the hill,” I told myself.

Out of nowhere, my wife caught up to me and started pushing me.  She told me, in no uncertain terms, “You are not walking this hill. You will regret it.”  So, I started chugging.  After 100 metres, I started walking again.  And again she came from behind and started pushing me.  “You’ll regret it if you don’t run this part, dig deep.  This is what it is all about. This is the difference.”

I ran up the hill.  And I ran the rest of the way to the finish line, finishing in 2 hours 59 minutes and 56 seconds.  Four seconds ahead of my goal.  I did it.

Now, I’m proud of my result.  But the race became more profound to me.

So often we find ourselves, as educators trying to change things, alone climbing the hill. It feels like the hill we are climbing alone for better teaching, better learning experiences, and a new approach to education.  Sometimes the hill does indeed break our spirits.  It is exhausting.  Sometimes, you want to walk the hill.

But I’m coming up from behind and I’m here trying to push you.  I want to be that person who pushes you and tells you, “It’s worth it at the top.”

I need the push sometimes too.

Together, as a community of educators wholly interested in a revolution that emphasizes learning, not assessment, that requires us all to be great, not mediocre, that pursues education that is student-centred and directed, we can continue to push each other up the hill.

On those days when you want to walk the hill, I’m here.  Drop me a line.  Let’s push each other.


Photo Credit:–achilles-hill

Mar 28, 2011

What We Can Do vs. What We Do Do

We are ready.

I can feel it in the classroom when I give my students choice, when I centre the learning and the students.  They are ready.

And yet…

There seems to be a big challenge between what we can do to help students learn (the research, the information, the tools) and the reality of what we do do.

We can set up classrooms that are connected.  Invite the world into our classrooms, build in authentic audiences and tasks.  Ensure problem solving skills are honed by using real world problems.  We can get computers in each classroom, with cheap netbooks or even desktops.  We can get them talking with each other, building a school that ensures each student is positively building their digital footprint.

And yet…

We can ensure that each teacher has adequate professional development.  We can encourage and give time for teachers to get together and truly collaborate. Have them build of the talents and thoughts of colleagues both locally and globally. We can re-build the profession to one of nobility, one where we do not accept mediocrity amongst our ranks.

And yet…

We can maintain academic rigour, without undermining learning to a series of tests and numbers.  We can rid the system of quantitative inaccuracies.  Stop belittling the integrity of the learning our students do by enforcing numerical end points and instead build the responsibility for evaluation onto both students and teachers working and discussing together.

And yet…

We can provide parents with better feedback, better information and better connections. We can stop allowing report cards and discipline to be the connective tissue we offer to parents.  Instead, we open the classroom door, invite them and their expertise to help teach their children.  We can create a community of learning, changing parents’ focus away from marks and onto the authentic learning and thinking that is required of our citizenry.

And yet…

I don’t do it all, the way we can.  I know that.

But little by little, we need to be pushing harder to ensure we do what we can for our students and not rest on what we do.

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?

Feb 27, 2011
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An Education – Strip the Streets 2011

On Friday night, I slept on the street.  But unlike many of our community’s homeless I was not alone.  I was surrounded and comforted by about 200 students and teachers from 14 different high schools, including public high schools, catholic high schools and private high schools.  This event brought together a community.

Strip the Streets 2011 is the second annual event that raises awareness of the over thousand youth who are accessing the services of local homeless agencies.  The event is a rally, a march, reflection, storytelling, experience, connection and compassion-building.

This event leaves a profound mark of empathy on all who participate.

As one of the founders of this event, I am incredibly moved by the scope of the event this year.  It doubled in size yet lost none of its intimacy.  The energy balanced between electric and sombre.

It is events like these that change education.  Because the education that these students walk away with is not theoretical, it is not teacher-directed.  It is personal.  It is relevant.  It is real.

These students walk away tired and cold aware of their privilege and of their responsibility.  Students walk away recognizing the power of actions.

Here is some video I shot asking a few students and teachers for their immediate reflections:

Each of these speakers share something in common, yet each person’s experience is incredibly different.  Isn’t that what we want from education?

In that video, I talk about the event being multi-levelled.  Education is too.

It is about community.  We all build community in our learning.  Learning is incredibly social. By enabling students to build community, we enable our students to learn authentically.  The event of education is about bringing a diverse group of thoughtful people together and sharing and building the skills we share.

It is about energy. Learning is an electric event.  When we are in the midst of flow, learning moves in our body.  When we create an environment when students are excited, engaged to learn, others build off of it.

It is about suffering. Learning is hard.  Learning is a struggle.  The search for excitement and engagement should not undermine the rigour required of education.  It is also about understanding another person’s struggle to learn and helping them overcome that struggle.  When we create atmosphere of mutual struggle and aid, we create environments of exquisite learning.

It is about action. Learning is doing.  True education comes with not learning about our civic duty, but enacting our civic duty.  Learning is about taking what we read and changing behaviour.  Education and our schools should be harbingers of action.

Strip the Streets is an example of education gone right.  Absolutely right.


The Kitchener Record wrote a little article about our event: Youth rally against homelessness

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