Blog

Learning from The Sixth Extinction

I am taking a course online through my alma mater Colgate University called Living Writers. Each week, we read a book and then the author comes to campus to speak with the students. Alumni, parents, and the community have the unbelievable opportunity to join in online (and come to campus if possible) for these events. For me, this will mean a weekly live stream.

This week’s book is The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert. The idea that we are in the midst of the sixth mass extinction on this planet is new to me, but many of the overarching ideas about climate change are not. What is blowing my mind though is how much I am enjoying this book.

I have struggled to get back into non-fiction for a while, and climate change, while an extremely important issue, has never really been the one that I have really delved into. Ok, it’s boring. I said it. Greenhouse gases, ocean acidification, carbon emission statistics. I’ve never really found that interesting. Until now. I’m only half way through the book and already I have learned new things about the history of our knowledge of extinction and evolution, the great auk, golden frogs, coral reefs, and some really geologically interesting places where you can see our past and where our future might be headed. I had no idea that I could have an interest in some of the topics of this book, but there are some really cool photographs and illustrations and excellent writing, and all of these things are pulling me in!

Why am I writing about a random side project? I got me thinking. If I can get into this, a topic I always thought was boring, simply because of a great teacher, Elizabeth Kolbert, what topics might I be able to get students into that they previously thought would be boring? How can I catch them and spark that interest? I haven’t got all the answers yet, but it is making me see that anything is possible.

Fresh Start/Being Absent

This week was the first week back to school for most of my colleagues, but as an occasional teacher, it was one extra week of summer for me. But since I spent the first half of summer teaching and the second half mostly not home, this was a week of rest and reflection for me, a chance to reset for the new year. I got my house back in order, started working out consistently again, and did a lot of reading for fun. I’m almost back to routine. More importantly, I have given some thought into how I would like my year to go and I feel ready to start. Here are some of my reflections from the last week (and month before that).

  1.  I really love that feeling when I exercise in the morning. Not the exercise itself so much as when Apple Watch tells me that I’ve hit my 30 minutes and says, “Way to seize the morning, Melanie.” This idea of seizing the morning really stuck with me. I read an article about how if you make your bed, it sets you up to be more productive all day. I tried it, and it works for me. If the bed is made, I can’t crawl back in quite so easily. I also noticed that if I lay out my workout clothes before going to bed, I do a much better job at following through. Most importantly, I recognized these patterns! (I should probably give credit to the podcast Happier for helping me to pay attention and recognize that these things are making me, well, happier.)
  2. As much as I LOVE teaching, I need to take breaks and not spend every minute of every day thinking about students and how to improve their experience. In the same way that you need to put on your oxygen mask first on an airplane, so too, I need to take care of me first so that I can be the calm, patient person that I need to be when teaching. With this in mind, I am reading more for fun (something that I love and wasn’t making enough time for before) and getting in more exercise, and most importantly, limiting the number of hours I spend on work when I have the ability to do so.
  3. Stress really is lethal. It makes me less likely to work out and more likely to eat sugary garbage food. Therefore, #1 and #2 above are extremely important. I have taken steps to work on this. I signed up for an online class that has nothing to do with teaching through my alma mater, Colgate University. I am trying out for a hockey team.
  4. I am very privileged in life. I have a job that I love and that has given me a break. There are so many people out there who do not have such luxury. I need to try to hold on to that as I jump back into the day-to-day life.

In the last week, my reading material was The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection by Michael Harris. While the book was far too self-reflective for my taste, something about it struck a chord. I have been “always on” for too long, and this break was what I needed. The book argues the value of being absent. On Cape Breton Island, Wi-Fi was often not an option and service was often not an option, so all that was left was the beautiful view and the awesome person right next to me. I was absent, and it was glorious.

Then I think about all of the students going back to school this week. In what ways do they need some absence in their lives? For how many of them is school their opportunity to be absent from the stress that is their home life? How can we make sure that students have an opportunity to be absent from academics for at least part of their lives? I’m not sure, but I think that a lot of our kids suffer from being “always on.” What can I do to help alleviate that? That is what I wonder today.

Student Expectations

Within the last couple of weeks, I was teaching in a classroom when I found this row of expectations going across the classroom. This was the first string of expectations, but there were more, maybe 10 in all.


There were so many things that bothered me about these signs. The only one that I thought was necessary for students, and people in general, all of the time was the one that said “respectful.” The rest I thought were useful at times, but were more judgement calls. I don’t need students sitting in their seats all the time. In fact, I often prefer them to be out of their seats and incorporate many activities that require them to move. This movement gets their blood flowing and ultimately gets them thinking more.

Ultimately though, I think my problem was that success, according to these signs, stems from being compliant, obedient, sitting down, and doing as you are asked. While this works for some, very few people achieve success in this way. In fact, the people who achieve the most success are the ones who break out of the mold!

I didn’t want to just walk away and point out all that is wrong with the signs though. That’s why I only photographed a few. They got me thinking…..

What do I want from my students?
What do students need to be successful?
How do we define student success?

Here’s where I think we go from here. In my view, students are successful if they are making progress to becoming the best version of themselves that they can be. Mistakes happen. Setbacks happen. But as long as a person has a goal and is improving, even if incrementally, they are being successful. And if for some reason a person isn’t being successful, that’s the time to rally and help them work through whatever it is that is holding them back.

Here are my tips for how students, and people in general, can achieve success:

  • be respectful
  • set goals
  • work hard and work smart
  • come with an open mind
  • think
  • ask questions
  • try things, be prepared to fail, get up, and try again
  • learn from every opportunity, good or bad
  • collaborate
  • show gratitude to those who paved the way before you or helped you along the way

This is my list for now. It seems incomplete, like I’m either missing something or haven’t quite got it all in there. If you think of something I’m missing, please add it in.

Teachers and Sharing

This quote came across my newsfeed today and I was instantly repulsed.

 

 

While I understand that a person can attain a position of relative power by selfishly clinging to what they know that others don’t, this is antithetical to what we do as teachers. We believe in lifting others up and helping them succeed by sharing what we know. When we collectively share our knowledge, we can build on what others do, and as a group, raise ourselves to new heights!

Sharing is also essential for innovation. It’s the iterating off of what others have done, maybe combining the best elements of different ideas, that helps us to grow, create new and better ideas, and ultimately make the world a better place. I’m not sure if I am an innovative teacher. I try to learn from as many people as possible and adapt what they share to what I hope will best serve my kids. What I do know is that other teachers breaking this rule is what has allowed me to grow into being a successful teacher. For this reason, I will share what I know so that others can learn from what I have done, and as many students as possible can achieve success in their lives.

#IMMOOCB3 – Grades

This year I have been thinking a lot about grades. In Ontario, we have the Growing Success document that tells us what we can and cannot do when determining student grades, but I find parts of it to be a little ridiculous, especially when it comes to grades 7-12. For these years, we are expected to evaluate students based on levels of achievement, but then convert that level into a percentage for report cards. For parents who never experienced this as a student, it is very confusing! If we aren’t supposed to evaluate using percentages, why report with them?

For my part, I have been moving away from grades. Occasionally if students have a finished, published work, I will give them a mark, but mostly I have been giving them feedback. In part, this is because my students generally really don’t care what their marks are. In part, I don’t feel like any grade is final until the year is over and there’s no time left. If a student wants to take some of their own time, solidify their learning, and demonstrate their increased understanding, I take it! I make notes along the way, but try to use it more to plan next steps than anything else. My question is this: is what I’m doing good for my students? Is there a way to meet my aforementioned goals in another way? Are there any Ontario people who have done away with marks altogether? How does that work?

#IMMOOCB2 – Disrupting the Routine

George Couros, in his March 15, 2017 blog post, quoted an unknown person as saying “To innovate, disrupt your routine.” It stuck with me. I have all sorts of questions now. I am an occasional teacher (substitute for all you non-Ontario people). I sort of have a routine right now because I’m in a longer term position for a little while, but generally speaking, I NEVER have a routine. How can I disrupt something that I don’t have?

Or if I don’t have a routine, does this mean that I’m innovating all the time? Certainly I’m constantly creating, whether it be all of my lessons right now (I have nothing as a back catalogue of activities) or whether it be adapting a plan left by a teacher to try to engage and empower students and hopefully make that day’s learning stick, all while trying to develop rapport for the many kids I’ve never met before.

I don’t know what the answer is here, but I really wanted to pose the questions and see what the universe throws back at me by way of response.

#IMMOOCB1 – Playing with Websites

This week, we have been challenged in #IMMOOC to write 3 blog posts under 200 words. It seemed like a good challenge, and being March break here, one that I could do. But for some reason, I haven’t. Instead, I have been playing with my website. By playing, I really mean learning and doing.

I set up the Book Reviews section and added my reviews for Writersfest. I gave myself a spot to review new books.

I learned how to set up a subscription to my blog because I know that for the blogs I read regularly, I get emails to let me know when there’s a new post.

I learned how to add an image to my sidebar because I have been meaning to add my #DitchSummit badge since December!

Finally, I set up a class website for my class because it’s something I should have done ages ago.

I haven’t exactly been innovating, but I have been learning. And doing.

#IMMOOC

I am part way through my second time doing #IMMOOC, but I have yet to do an actual blog post about my IMMOOC experience.

The first time around, I got the book late and didn’t have my blog up yet, so my experience was limited to mostly “lurking” (i.e. reading what others had to say). I was also reading the book in as many spare minutes as I could find. The Innovator’s Mindset is a great read. But when it came to everyone’s blog posts, I have to admit that I lost interest. Too many of them seemed too similar or just talked about what was already in the book. I saw the same quotes over and over again. It made sense as people were responding to what they read, but I couldn’t get into the idea of taking somebody else’s words and writing about them. I wanted action!

Despite this, I felt guilty for not being a more active participant. I felt like maybe I was letting myself down. Then I read this amazing blog post about an experience that came out of IMMOOC. This is what I wanted to be a part of. With this in mind, I gave myself permission to let go of the responding to all the blog posts as long as I was taking steps to become more like the educator that I want to be. I went after it. I went to EdCamp, loved it, made a bunch of local humans who also think with Innovative Mindsets, and found the confidence to take some next steps. I set up my blog. I tried cool things when I had the chance. I found other books that would make good supplements to The Innovator’s Mindset. I grew as an educator, and more importantly, as a person.

This time through, I have already read the book. I am one of the veterans of the group. I got my blog going around the end of November or early December and have some experience with writing posts. But for some reason, I still can’t seem to find a way to respond to the prompts or participate in the “normal” expected way. I still don’t get excited about sharing what the book means to me. I do, however, continue to try out new things in my class that I’m hoping will work for my students. When I do, I try to share in a timely fashion, although I can admit that there are a couple of posts still brewing from the last couple months. I very much put relationships first to the best of my abilities (I think that’s this week’s topic?), I put in my very best effort to be innovative in my approach to what I am teaching (is it innovative to take interesting ideas that you have found elsewhere and put your own spin on them?), and I try to embody the innovator’s mindset, while being careful to hang on to the good stuff from what is already out there.

So #IMMOOC friends, I may be terrible at responding to the regular IMMOOC prompts and suggestions, but I am out there doing my best to live the mindset that we read about and discuss. I am growing a Professional Learning Network of incredible and inspiring teachers, both near and far, have learned about some awe-inspiring and innovative ideas of how to bring the world to my students through the power of technology (and the helpful guest speakers of #DitchSummit), and look forward to continuing to learn and grow with you, if in a rather unconventional way.

Experimentation and Creativity with #awesomesquiggles

I came across the Awesome Squiggles project while taking part in the online conference Ditch Summit, hosted by Matt Miller.  I love this project for many reasons.  First, it gives students an authentic audience beyond the four walls of their school.  Second, it provides an opportunity to connect with and learn from other students around the world.  For my students, some of whom have never been outside their small town, this is an amazing opportunity.  Finally, the rules regarding their work of art are simple and awesome.  You can use any materials you want and create any image you want, as long as you can still see the four original squiggles.  Brilliant!

My students spent the afternoon trying out different materials.  We had some chalk pastels, pencil crayon, crayon, marker, paint, and water colours.  I was out of the room, released to work on IEPs (Individual Education Plans), but I had to come back in a few times.  Each time, students couldn’t wait to show me what they had created.  They created all kinds of interesting things!  Most of them created with one medium the first time and then tried something new the second.  It was awesome!

He used chalk pastel on the left and pencil crayon (possibly with some marker) on the right.

My personal favourite moment was when I came in the room and one of my students was asking for white glue.  I had no idea what she had in mind, but I got it out and handed it over.  I came back to discover that she had put glue down and then used chalk pastel shavings almost like glitter to create her art.  How original!

This was the result.  It looks kind of cool and the texture in person is awesome.

There were many original works of art.  I have shared some of them in a gallery format here.

I very much look forward to re-visiting Awesome Squiggles with my students in April.  I’m excited to see what new things they try, and we are all excited to meet another class from around the world.

Winter Carnival Day: a Self-Regulation Nightmare

Today was winter carnival day. I have to admit: I have never liked winter carnival day. Even as a kid, I didn’t enjoy days like today. Back then, I wouldn’t be able to tell you why. Later as an adult, I would tell you that it’s boring watching kids play the same game over and over again while you have to just watch and somehow keep the behaviour somewhat in line. But after Aviva Dunsiger’s series of blogs about self-regulation last spring/summer (https://adunsige.commons.hwdsb.on.ca/category/selfreg/), I now understand better why I despise this day so much.

As an introvert, I find winter carnival day to be overwhelming. It causes me extreme sensory overload. I know it’s not just me. Today I got two twenty minute breaks to go to my classroom and sit in the dark and take in the silence, but by the time the kids left the station, I got a bathroom break, and I dealt with whatever else had popped up, those twenty glorious minutes were whittled down to five or ten at most.

The real difficulty, though, lies in what this day does to the kids. One of my students today chose to wait outside the gym during part of the morning setup because it was just too loud and overwhelming for him. He had the ability to recognize his needs and advocate for them, but how many kids don’t? And if every kid who was overwhelmed did what he did, would there be any kids left in the gym? Actually, the day usually starts out well. Kids are excited and ready to begin the day, but as the day goes on, so too the behaviours start to become more and more extreme. You can literally see the dysregulation that they are experiencing. So many things contribute to this.

  • First, the teams are made arbitrarily with an average of about one student per class per team. Students have zero input as to who they spend their entire day with. They spend more time with these random strangers this day then they do with their regular class, and they at least have friendly faces and familiar adults with their regular class. As teachers, we didn’t know who was on each team from other classes. One of my students got stuck with a kid who he can’t stand because she makes his life miserable. If we had known, maybe we could have avoided having a meltdown to start the day. Fortunately, there seemed to be few of these issues, but there was potential for many.
  • Second, the students have no input as to which activities they get to do. There were more activities today than students had time to do so each group didn’t get to do three or four stations. Some of them were extremely disappointed to miss out on an activity that they wanted while they did have to go to something that they don’t like.
  • Third, the older students were the “leaders” leaving them responsible for the younger students. They gave it everything they had. They worked very hard. But how can we expect a twelve or thirteen year old to handle a five year old who barely listens to his own teachers?!?
  • Fourth, there is no down time. Students are on the go all day long, switching activities every twenty minutes. Even if a student wanted a minute to take a calming time out, there is nowhere in the schedule to do it.

At the end of the day, my class came back together for a few minutes. Several of them were disappointed in their stations. Many of them commented to me that they don’t know how I do it every day as they struggled all day with the younger kids. I have to admit; I don’t know if I could do those little guys every day. I’m very thankful for my junior/intermediate students. I brought my voice down to almost a whisper and had a few very quiet moments in which I thanked them for their outstanding efforts with the kids. The organizers had cookies for them as a thank you, so we shared those and just enjoyed finally having a chance to breathe.

As I reflect on the day though, I wonder how we can make this day less distressing for the students. They had so little choice today. I don’t know if there is ever a day in my class where they have so little choice. Usually they can choose who to work with or what to work on or where in the room to work, at least one of those at least once per half day usually more. Today they had no choice. How can we allow for students to have some choice in how they participate in winter carnival day? How can we build in some self-regulation time, opportunities for students to take a break from all the kids and all the noise and have some peace? How can we make the day less stressful for the older students so that they don’t have so much added responsibility? They’re kids too! They deserve to enjoy fun days also! I know we need to know who is where and when for liability purposes, but there has to be another way, a way in which students get at least some choice in how they spend what should be their winter fun day, a way in which everybody has an opportunity for self-regulation in a positive way.