Dec 14, 2011

Cast a Vote: Moving Students from Apathy to Advocacy.

In Ontario, only 48% of eligible voters voted in the most recent provincial election. Pathetic.

That said, StudentVote (an organization that enables mock-student election to run concurrently with real elections) ran elections in more than 50% of all schools. Their participation is climbing.

And that’s why we came together. Well, kind of.

Last Saturday, I participated in the StudentVote Post-Election Consultation where a group of 60 or so teachers from across the country and across the educational landscape got together and talked about the future of civic engagement.

How do we move students from apathetic to engaged? The question sounds familiar because, of course, we struggle with this in every facet of education. But this was different.

Organized and run by the StudentVote staff, the consultation was structured, yet free-flowing. Basically a moderated discussion about what has worked, specifically our successes with StudentVote, and how we can engage students in further civic duty.

It was refreshing to hear so many ideas connecting our joy of democracy and ways to make learning about it, and engaging in it, more authentic.

And that’s where my head was, “Give me something real.” Not “school-ized”.

There were a few solid ideas:

– A day where students can “grill” MPs or MPPs. Get them in the classroom and don’t describe what you do, defend your [party’s] positions. Students would have to be informed on the issues and be able to intelligently ask questions. Will do this for sure next semester with my FFP.

– Democracy boot camp – This was run by the StudentVote people, but I didn’t participate. From the brief snippets of info that I got I see it as a one day all inclusive bombardment of our political system including panel discussions with representatives from the parties. I like this idea. I think students can get involved and maybe run one for a feeder school, or maybe multiple feeder schools, if not our school. Heck, we could invite parents and the community. Lots of potential with this one, though right now, many random thoughts.

On top of all the discussion we had a fantastic guest speaker of Alison Loat (@alisonloat) from Samara. This organization looks at civic engagement and is a “research, think-tank” (take a gander at some of the reports they’ve published). She spoke that the civically disengaged aren’t necessarily apathetic, but often they have negative experience with bureaucracy.

How can we move politics closer to democracy?


A few questions I had going in and coming out of the day:

1. How do we keep students (heck, everyone) engaged in matters of the state between elections?

2. What “simulations” / “games” / “events” are there for students to participate in meaningful authentic ways with parliament?

3. How can we make citizenship, both digital and otherwise, part of all curriculums, not just that in Grade 10 civics?

4. Does StudentVote really work? Does it really make them voters in the future?


The truth is, I’m not a civics teacher. I teach it as an element of the Futures Forum Project, but it’s not my baby. Being civically engaged and an advocate for our civic rights and responsibilities is my thing.

How do we create meaningful, authentic learning opportunities for our students and allow them to experience success/ownership of the direction of our country/province/city? How do we include them in our community?


My other line of thinking is for a possible follow-up post, but here a few quick random thoughts:

  • (1)The professional development was geared towards helping this non-profit organization. How does this effect teacher engagement on a Saturday? When professional development (or any learning) has a clear and direct goal are people more inclined to over-engage? Is that possible?
  • (2)The consultation was also “paid”. We each got money for showing up. How does that affect the commitment to professional development? How would have the turnout/engagement been different?
  • It was difficult to determine the hierarchy of the group. Sure, there was the organization who was “leading” the discussions, but it was a flat organization. How did this affect people’s willingness to share?
  • StudentVote was open to back channelling, yet it didn’t really happen. How could this have enabled more sharing? What is our hesitation? Are these the people to start that push with?
  • If a teacher is engaged in one element of school life (civics, elections, politics, sports, drama, etc.) are they less effective in other venues? Should we promote teacher specialization or breadth learning?
(Author’s Note 1: I refer to the day as PD, mainly because that what it was for me. A chance for me to develop professionally. As Taylor mentions in the comments, from StudentVote’s perspective it was a consultation. Fair enough, but ultimately, it was a chance for me to learn.)
(Author’s Note 2: Paid, may not be the right word, but the idea that participants were walking away with something concrete, is important. How that changes buy-in, and in turn, what that might look like in different circumstances is interesting.)



This blog is all over the place, I know. There are so many good, creative thoughts that came out of the day for me and I feel like this is the way I need to express them. Hope it is readable.

Dec 6, 2011
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Now That I’ve Got Your Attention

I’ve never been able to pinpoint exactly the day when we lose students. You know that moment when students decide school is not for them. Despite my inability to identify the moment exactly, we know it happens. It happens as a result of a series of mis-used, ill-prepared, and dreadful learning interactions.

I believe that every time we put busy work in front of our students, worksheets and fill-in-the-blanks, we lose an opportunity to reach them in meaningful ways. We mis-use their attention. Continuously, more students check out of school as a reflection that we’ve wasted their attention, their eagerness and their curiosity and they don’t trust that we’ll serve them.

Seth Godin, when looking at business and marketing, states:

Every interaction comes with a cost. Not in cash money, but in something worth even more: the attention of the person you’re interacting with. Waste it–with spam, with a worthless offer, with a lack of preparation, and yes, with nervous dissembling, then you are unlikely to get another chance.

The same goes for teaching.

We work in an attention economy. Granted, we work in multiple economies (intelligence, service, etc.) but ultimately; as the ability to connect with the learned, the spread and wealth of knowledge, and our willingness to be taught by strangers grows; our ability to harness and work with the attention we are given and make it exceedingly meaningful and authentic becomes more and more critical to the system’s success.

How do we go forward and use the attention we get?


This is in response to Seth Godin’s blog: Getting serious about the attention economy.

Dec 1, 2011
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Disconnected Within the Community

I have been engaged in the process of making my classes student-directed, inquiry-based communities of learning.  I have worked hard to build the sense of camaraderie and  ownership in the room for every student. I think it’s a process worth following.

But then, as I walked through the downtown core of my community, I see many people who are disconnected. I see people struggling to make their way through this life while social services are available, opportunities can be had, but whatever it is, they resist the feeling of community. They never feel like they belong.

Is this true of the one or two of the thirty kids in my room? Does the learning community mimic the broader community? Will there always be the marginal ones?

When classes are quantitative, students assigned to a seat and sitting in rows, they are easier to manage. Keeping track of them is normalized. When involved in a dynamic, inquiry based classroom, it’s not easy to keep track. That may be part of the struggle for teachers and why they are reluctant to “buy-in”. The management is not inherent.

Does giving up control, offering autonomy and parsing ownership provide more opportunity for the disconnected to stay disconnected? Or does it give a student a better chance to hide?

As school work moves more in the direction of connected collaboration, does this offer students more opportunity to get credit without making the demonstration?

Some top songwriters get credit for writing a song in which they’ve only polished one line. Is this happening in my open, distributed classroom?


I had this great conversation with a student the other day who has been struggling in my class. This student felt disconnected, was uninterested and proceeded to ask for “more regular English”.  As this conversation continued, I asked this if they felt they were a member of the community and they said, “No. I don’t know anyone in this class.”

“How can that be? We have done so much team-building, group work and in fact, you’ve done real well on some of those projects.”

“Yeah but … these aren’t my people.”

To a certain extent, I understand. Then, on the other hand, I don’t get it. I watch this students interact with classmates and this student is fine. Not the most talkative, but not the quietest. This student, on the outside, seems connected. But, obviously, doesn’t feel it.

How am I going to connect this student with our learning community? How could I have missed this?

That said, I do take solace that this student felt comfortable coming to talk with me, though it is more than half way through the semester.


Does the nature of a student-directed, inquiry-based learning community lead to some members feeling disconnected?



Nov 29, 2011
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Winning (and Losing) as a Team

Learning, no matter the context, the subject or the purpose, is a team game. You’ve got learners, teachers, helpers, clarifiers, questioners, etc. By working together we learn. We learn lots by working together.

Like any team, no one person is more valuable than the team. Each player plays a role.

Sometimes that role is spelled out for us, decided, before the game is played. Sometimes the role changes mid-game, mid-play, mid-season. But everyone plays a role.

I am coaching the high school hockey team and I watch these guys determine what role they’ll play. I see the grinders dig, the shooters shoot and the defensemen stay back.  I see players who understand their role, do it and play within the team context.

But I also see when players try to do too much. They forget their job and try to do someone else’s. The winger who is on the wrong side of the ice, the defensemen who rushes the puck too often, even the goalie who tries to pass the puck. Each player has put their own agenda ahead of the team’s goal. Now, don’t get me wrong, sometimes it works. You catch a good bounce and you’re off to the races. But more often, it hurts your team’s chances.

This too happens in learning. We can know our position, our role in the process and we can sit it in it or we can try to do too much. Step outside of our own role and cost the team. Force our agenda upon the learning process.

The team is the most important part of learning process.

How often do we, as teachers, lose sight of the team? As department heads? As administrators? How often is the agenda individual, rather than team oriented? How often are we setting learning goals in the classroom, department, school and board with all members of the team present and listened too? How often are we doing it in name only?

We have a choice to win or lose for each kid when it comes to learning. It is going to take teamwork.


Nov 25, 2011

Let’s Grow Success



I like the Growing Success document.


In fact, this document demonstrates a trust in teachers that is often not present in the political rhetoric of education.  The document outlines an ideal that teachers are able to assess and evaluate according to their best understanding of the needs and skills of their students.

Two words stand out:



These two words are used repeatedly throughout the document. They rely on a teacher’s ability to take consideration of student demonstrations, be it in product, process, conversations or observations.  They also rely on a teacher’s ability to interpret the evidence as gathered by the teacher.

The word most glaringly absent from the document is calculate. The MoE has done away with the notion that a grade, as found on a report card, is a straight calculation of marks.  I believe that this is a telling sign that education is slowly, albeit too slowly, systematically moving to a more individualized, student-centred learning environment.

It is now our job to start effectively using this responsibility and communicating the way in which we are looking for success.

This is scary for teachers. Calculating leaves no room for error. Interpretation and consideration can be misused and we’re going to need to defend it and that’s worrisome.  I get that.  When a parent calls asking about a mark, it is sometimes a tough conversation to begin.  That said, when we engage in the conversations of interpretation and consideration we are more likely to engage in conversations of learning, which ultimately, are what we’re looking for.

Nov 24, 2011

Building an iPad App

Last night I started developing my first iPad app. I have an idea for an app that isn’t in the app store that will help me, so I figure, it’s up to me to build it.  The problem, of course, is the last time I programmed was first year University, a long time ago.

Believe it or not, that was a long time ago.

I now find myself in the position of a learner with a steep learning curve in front of me. To build the app, I need to process the syntax, the logic and the processing of app development. It will take me hours upon hours to program, debug, and design the app myself.

The problem is I’m a guy who likes instance results. I want the app now, I want to start using it tomorrow and that’s not going to happen. I could just partner with a programmer, pay them for their time and be on my way.

And so, I’m at an impasse.

Probably that tough crossroads many students find themselves.  The place between wanting results, taking the easy way out, focusing solely on the final product and the tough journey of real learning, the grit and patience it needs to build the skills, the hours it takes to get there.

I feel humbled by the crossroads because I know the answer isn’t easy. Both roads lead me somewhere I want to go, but which road do I take?

I’m walking down both paths right now, sending out my feelers to programmers I know and picking up a few books, YouTube videos that teach me some of the basics.  Eventually, I’ll need to choose.

I think about the factors that influence our students to make these choices. How many times do I facilitate the factors for them to choose to hunker down?  How many times do I make them feel that the easy way is worth it?

By building an iPad app, I’m rekindling my memories of those choices. Those crucial choices we make as students.

Nov 21, 2011
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Do You Trust Me?

More and more articles, blog posts and editorials, about everything, I see us struggling to trust. We struggle with trusting schools, governments, corporations and individuals. We’ve been burned so often that we are no longer able to envision an environment where people (the individual or the system) are working for the good of the people. Where does that leave us?

Locking our doors, eliminating variables and an insistence that the structure will protect us. Protect us from whom? Everyone?!?

I fear for my students that they’re learning in an environment that shows no trust; an environment that enables fear. Whether it is a learning environment that doesn’t trust the judgement of the teacher or where the teacher doesn’t trust the student, we are reinforcing this vision that people cannot or should not trust, and it worries me. Students are absorbing media that tells them to expect uniformity and to think that aberrations, missteps, mistakes and alterations are insistences of incompetence or implied deception.

This mistrust is leading us into a standardized, sanitized view of the inner workings of the classroom.

This mistrust is leading us to a hyper-connected world with no real connection.

This mistrust is leading us to belie our common sense and our human nature.

I worry that not only does the public, system, and government not trust teachers, but teachers, themselves, don’t trust themselves to be great. Unwilling to try to be better for fear they might be called to task.

There is an epidemic of mistrust that is spreading and I think, for the sake of students and teachers, we must be the ones to begin having and showing trust.

Nov 15, 2011
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“I Had An Epiphany.”

He is 17. A total of 8 credits. His attendance, spotty at best. His troubles, plenty.

Yet, he’s here.  He is here and ready to learn.  Today.

He tells me that a night ago, as he was getting ready to go to sleep, “I had an epiphany. I just realized out of the blue that it’s up to me. I mean, no one else will get me to where I want to be, but me.”

I ask, “Hmm, so where is it you want to be?”

“I don’t know, probably the military. But more importantly, I just had an epiphany that all the things you’ve been telling me about owning my learning and it being my education, with the emphasis on my decisions, are right.”

“So, what now?”

“Well, I got get as many credits as I can.”

“What’s the first step to getting the credits?”

“Probably, showing up. That’s my biggest challenge, after that, the work, but first showing up.”

I smile. He smiles. And then he grabs the netbook from my desk and proceeds to work steady, even while the rest of the class is quite distractible. He works uninterrupted until I ask to see what he’s got so far. He shows me … progress.

Now, if this is where the story were to end, it would be great. Simple motivation and a reminder to keep doing what I’m doing. Connect with kids, continue to remind them that they have power to direct their learning and rely on the fact that eventually the message will sink in and when it does, I’ll be there to help them.

But it doesn’t stop there.

He’s human. Not a case study, just like his learning it doesn’t come to a neat package. It’s going to require a constant re-evaluation and reflection on where he is and what he needs.

But starting from an epiphany is fine with me.

****Author’s Note: Although the gist of this reflection and the conversation is true and accurate, I have changed some of the details and timing to protect the identity of the student.

Nov 14, 2011
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Richard F. Elmore

Elected officials—legislators, governors, mayors, school board members—generate electoral credit by initiating new ideas, not by making the kind of steady investments in people that are required to make the educator sector more effective.”
“The largest determinant of how people practice is how they have practiced in the past, and people demonstrate an amazingly resilient capacity to relabel their existing practices with whatever ideas are currently in vogue.”
“In many instances, our greatest successes in school improvement stem from scaffolding the adults’ content knowledge and pedagogy up to the level of what we know students can handle. In these cases, adult beliefs about what children can learn are changed by watching students do things that the adults didn’t believe that they—the students—could do.

Nov 14, 2011
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Little BIG Thing #6: Play Devil’s Advocate

“Mr. Kemp, what’s your opinion, your real opinion?”

I hear it often enough. I wait to hear their thinking and then purposely argue the other side. I don’t like the term the “devil’s advocate” because it appears inherently negative, when in fact, it engages.  Sometimes there is nothing more engaging then waging battle. Intellectual battle.

Now, my wife and friends will probably tell you that this is nothing new for me, I constantly and consistently argue “for the sake of argument”. But it is even more pronounced.

Students catch on quick enough that I’ll argue both sides. They get frustrated with that, but naturally, it goads them.  I like to think I don’t care what you think, just that you think. I’ve found myself arguing both sides in the same argument. Students love that.

So what’s the catch? I think students like to argue, especially with a willing adult adversary because it doesn’t happen often. They are often shut down before they get going.

But here’s the real catch when playing devil’s advocate. I say little. (Okay, I try to say little). I let the students do most of the persuading, the debating. It’s a well-timed, well-placed question or comment that can fire them up again.

The question is, what side are you arguing on today?

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