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.
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
- ask questions
- try things, be prepared to fail, get up, and try again
- learn from every opportunity, good or bad
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
It has been almost a month, maybe more, since I had time to write a blog. A lot has happened in that time, but tonight, as I have time to finally put thoughts to words again, I can’t help but reflect on my job as a whole. In the last month, I have been humbled in ways I never knew possible. I have to admit that this is my first real experience teaching elementary. It doesn’t really feel like my first experience because I have been occasional teaching so long, but I haven’t had my own elementary class before so in many ways I am still a rookie.
It blows my mind the amount of impact that I can have on a child’s life and future. Each day, something happens to remind me of this:
- the autistic child who comes up to me in the hall, gives me a hug, and tells me that he thinks I am a really great teacher, a child for whom expressing his feelings is difficult
- the students who, upon hearing my story of bullying and how you get through it and it gets better, look visibly relieved and optimistic in a way they often don’t
- the student who didn’t want to do a language project, but then can’t wait for language because the light bulb went on and he just needs to tell the story in his head
- the students who light up and ask dozens of great questions every time you teach them something about life beyond their small town
There are so many of these types of moments, that I can’t help but smile on a daily basis. Teaching, and learning from my students, is an unbelievable privilege that I am so fortunate to have.
On the flip side, I am also humbled by the reminders of all the ways in which I am a fallible human being. I can put all kinds of structural, emotional, and academic supports in place, I can go above and beyond to give students everything that they should need to be successful, but I can’t make them learn. I can’t make them behave appropriately. If they are having a bad day and there is stuff going on at home and they didn’t get their medication, they might explode no matter what I do. I struggle all the time with how to balance keeping the students who need it safe, while trying to keep the students who need to be apart away from each other in our tiny, overcrowded classrom, while trying to meet the needs of 23 IEPs (Individual Education Plans) out of 31 students. It can be exhausting! And exasperating on days where several of them are having difficulty with self-regulation.
I am humbled because no matter how hard I try, I can’t possibly give each student everything they need to succeed. What one student needs conflicts with what another needs, most of them would benefit from one-on-one attention, many of them would benefit from mental health support, and I am only one person (or rather we are two with my EA, but it’s still not enough). Some days it hurts that I can’t do more. I know it could be worse, but I want what’s best for my students, and they deserve more than what I can give them.
So on a day like today, where I have had the privilege to experience both the unbelievably amazing moments of teaching along with the exasperating moments of teaching, I am reminded of my goal of balance. My days do have some weird sort of balance of highs and lows. This is my weekend to rediscover some life balance. I finally have some time to reflect and plan forward. I finally have some time to get active again. I finally have some time to spend with my family again. Maybe, just maybe, if I do this right, I can find some balance moving forward so that I can deal with all of the humbling moments of my day with patience, calmness, and a sense of gratitude for the immense privilege I have to do great work with some amazing people.
I have been blogging offline since before I had this site. I knew that I would make one someday, but hadn’t yet figured out how, so I started writing when I had the inspiration and kept them for moments like this when I don’t have much time to write and need some inspiration. This post was written May 19, 2016.
I don’t like my original opening question so I deleted it, but I remain blown away by the depth of thought displayed by my kindergarten students on that day.
Today, I was fortunate enough to spend the day with 14 SK students. Near the end of the day, students had a circle time to share some of the things that they learned and explored that day. Earlier in the day, a group of boys asked to share a play they had made at the play dough centre. When it came time to present, the boys seemed a little disorganized. It wasn’t easy, and they weren’t always facing their audience, but they proceeded with their play. It was loud, shrieky at times, and I got the impression that there might be violence going on, but I was behind them facing the audience so I wasn’t positive and with four of them talking at once at times, I was having a difficult time keeping up. Eventually it got so noisy that I paused them, thinking that perhaps they were just playing and not actually doing a play. I didn’t let my bias run the day though, so I checked in with the audience to see if they understood what was happening. About 2/3 of the audience was up to speed, but there were about five or six students who were also lost, so I asked the group if they could have one person explain the story and what had happened so far. Boy was I ever glad that I did.
It turned out that there was a bug (all the characters were made of plastic bug frames with play dough bodies) that had turned everything to jelly so they had to kill that bad guy and turn everything back. I was right, there was some violence, but I let them continue. That’s when things got really interesting. The bugs next had to battle the pollution cloud and all the car people. They had to capture the car people and make them ride bicycles, and they had to get rid of the pollution cloud. I’ll admit, their methods were a little extreme, but they were actively challenging climate change in a very specific way. If they are thinking like this now, imagine what they will come up with when they are old enough to do something about it. It seems like such a daunting task to have to figure out how to encourage and develop this interest in these boys, and teach them the tools they will need to solve the problem when I am not even sure myself what that would entail. So for now, I settle for remarking on their story and encouraging them to finish it, hoping that they continue to think big and tackle the world’s problems to the best of their abilities.
What can we do to nurture the curiosity and creativity that are naturally present in small children? What is it about school that tends to make this disappear as students get older? How can we reverse that trend, especially when we ourselves may feel ill-equipped to adequately provide students with the skills they will need as adults in our rapidly changing world?
My afternoon class has really struggled with transitioning from one subject to the next twice in the afternoon for 3 x 40 minute periods. They get really engrossed in what they are doing and don’t want to switch, even when they are excited about what they are doing next. They love to learn, but really struggle to keep it together through changes. With this in mind, I decided to try something new. I changed up the afternoon timetable so that instead of all the switches, we spend the first 80 minutes on either social studies or the second subject (art or drama or health) and then finish with gym as usual. The idea was that with about 15 minutes left, we would tidy up and have a snack, a break that my students seem to desperately need. For art or drama or health, this time would make a nice time to debrief or reflect as needed, but for social studies, this would make a great time for a read aloud.
The grade 6 students are currently studying communities in Canada, multiculturalism, and what makes our country what it is. The focus is on different types of communities and different groups of people. The grade 7 students are studying the history of Canada 1800-1850. I chose the book Stealing Freedom for our read aloud as the topic of the underground railroad fits the curriculum for both grades. Right at the beginning of the book, there is this picture:
I asked the students first what they noticed and most pointed out the reward, but some also mentioned the hat and unique/unusual clothing. Some mentioned that she was black. I then asked them to write down on post-its what they wanted to learn about the person pictured. They had some great questions!
We read the first chapter and talked about things like “Where is Maryland?” and “is she a slave?” and in the end, we had a great discussion about why Ann Maria doesn’t know her birthday and how old she is. I asked them at snack to discuss how they would feel if they didn’t know their birthday or how old they were. While many groups veered off topic, they did all seem to discuss and the consensus was that it would be horrible. I forgot to have them predict how old they think she is, but they are hooked.
Today we had an afternoon that went off without any serious incidents. It was awesome! We still have a few tweaks to make to the routine, but I’m looking forward to seeing how this plays out in the longer term. My hope is that we can be more productive during our time and that students will start to love a subject that they mostly disliked when I started. (So far, it looks good, but I don’t want to be too optimistic too soon.)
Every day, my students come in to a problem waiting for them on the board. They go up and answer that question, signing their name to their thoughts as a way to sign in and get their minds on and ready to go for the day. During the week, this entails some sort of math problem that requires them to register and defend an opinion mathematically. (For example, see my post on the WODB activity here: http://melaniebarclaywood.ca/2016/12/14/our-first-wodb/) But from the start, I had this idea to shake things up with something a little more light-hearted: Fun Fact Friday. (I have this thing for alliteration… we also have Mindful Mondays and WODB Wednesdays…. I blame my father for this, but that’s another story.)
On Fun Fact Friday, instead of a question to start off the day, I posted a fact that I borrowed from http://www.isthatabignumber.com/. I picked that sight because fun facts are supposed to be light-hearted, but I still wanted to slip a little mathematical thinking in there. As I was writing it up, I was nervous. Very nervous. But I put up my fact and invited them to add their own, and to my delight, the first few kids entered the room, looked at the board, and started putting up facts. And not just any facts, but really interesting things that I didn’t know, many of which contained numbers/data/mathematical thinking somewhere! They sparked great discussions about the content (and how do we know). Some of them didn’t know any facts off the tops of their heads, but they used devices around the room to look up and find one. I had been hoping for that but wasn’t sure it would happen. It was a great start to the day!
Today showed me that my students really love to learn. Some days they hide it well, and often they don’t want to put in the work, but they really want to learn new things. They don’t want to do the work though so I have to hide the work well in something that seems like fun. I have been working hard all along to tap into that, and I have several ideas, but I want to hear from others as well. How do I tap into this desire to learn? How do I keep the learning light-hearted and fun so that students still see it as enjoyable?
Note: The photograph has been altered only to remove student names in the interest of their privacy.
Today was a good day. I guess all days have some good in them, but today had more exceptionally awesome moments than most. I had a grade 7/8 class in an alternate program here in Ottawa, which afforded me the privilege of a co-teacher and an EA, both of whom were AMAZING! Because we got a fair amount of snow today, many of our students were late, which gave my co-conspirator and I a little extra time to go over the day and do some planning. Originally, the plan was to go outside after lunch and then come in for history. But then the magic started to happen. Somehow, we got talking about how great it was outside with the snow. The first couple students had arrived and we were talking about making snowmen, but then the conversation shifted to forts and how we could use the idea of forts to move the history lesson outside. After that, things started to snowball.
My co-teacher said that we could put the students into groups of First Nations, British, and French, and then we could go out and build forts and simulate the fur trade which was a topic the grade 7s were studying. Then we had to figure out how to simulate the trade and what we could use to stand in. (Rubber chickens were beaver furs, colourful soft golf balls represented knowledge of the land, and pattern blocks were used by Europeans to represent fire arms, ammunition, blankets, and spices from Asia.) The First Nations got to go and set up their fort first because they were already on the land when Europeans arrived. At the last minute, we added a couple extra rules. First, you could speak English within your group/fort/nation, but not to the others to simulate the language barrier. Second, you needed all of the items to survive, but especially knowledge of the land. Finally, only one person at a time could go and trade because at the time, the leaders would tend to speak on behalf of everyone. We both contributed ideas to these rules, and each time a question was raised, we conferred and went with the consensus.
This is where it got really interesting. Part way through the game, the frustrated British asked if they could use their ammunition and fire arms to attack the First Nations and steal their furs. After a brief consultation, we decided to let it play out because in history, it did sometimes go down like that. But they could still only send one. The First Nations were startled at first, but quickly fought back, “killing” the initial emissary. We had not planned on this approach, so how a person “died” was pretty much made up on the spot. The British then tried to steal all the golf balls (knowledge) to try to get all the points and win. I had to tell them that you couldn’t get knowledge from someone who wasn’t alive, and took them back. In the end, all of the British group perished and were killed, the First Nations population was greatly reduced, and the French, seeing the war, sat back and let them kill each other, taking the loot in the end. While I would never condone killing each other at school, that element of the game led to some great discussion in the follow up session.
The debrief is where this lesson gained all it’s power. We sat around United Nations style in our groups and discussed what happened. First we talked about how the game was similar to actual history. It was interesting that resorting to violence was brought up first, and how that introduction changed dynamics and strategies among the parties. The British acknowledged that greed played a major role in that decision, and that greed was probably also a major factor in history as well. We discussed supply and demand and the fact that not everyone was willing to trade. We talked about the rivalry between the British and the French. We talked about the language barrier, how it was difficult, and the many strategies to overcome it, but that led to a conversation about how they knew that each group wanted to trade in a way that the initial peoples would not have. Historically, they wouldn’t approach a situation knowing each other’s intentions.
This led to differences. First, the British lost. They were wiped out. Our world might look radically different if that were the case. We will never know. Also, the First Nations were all lumped as one group rather than their smaller groups. We thought that next time, the British and French should be slightly smaller and there should be more smaller groups of First Nations. There were other differences that I am currently struggling to remember.
Finally, I asked a number of what if questions…. First, what if the smaller teams and more First Nations? What if, when the First Nations acquired a gun, they suddenly got more beavers to trade with? How could we keep the realistic element of being able to attack someone while acknowledging that killing one wouldn’t eliminate an entire group? Students had some very valuable and thoughtful answers to each of my questions, probing deeper and thinking things through, questioning each other where appropriate.
After school, I thought that using a fire arm on another group should come with an element of risk as fire arms were not as reliable back then. (Add in a dice?) As I sit here, I think about how we might add in the element of European disease. What if I didn’t tell the First Nations groups that they were supposed to trade…. what if I had them build their forts and hunker down with their stuff and let the Europeans be a surprise? What happens when you struggle? How do you form an alliance with someone if you don’t speak the same language? How can we make knowledge of the land a more useful and real element to the game? Do it in the gym where there are a number of different types of markers and they need to know which areas are safe and which are treacherous?
One of the students suggested that they all make alliances and that the land be governed by a council consisting of leaders of all the nations. The group as a whole decided that probably it wouldn’t work because eventually somebody would get greedy, but I can’t help but admire the ideal in this. How can we work together for the prosperity of all rather than the few? How can we protect against a small group getting greedy and not playing by the rules?
Why was this lesson so great? First, there were many contributors: three adults and several students all input ideas into the final outcome of the game. Second, we all had an open mind and allowed things to evolve naturally. This gave a nice sense of flow to the activity and the learning. Students asked great questions and were able to share remarkable insights. There were a lot of small group probing discussions throughout as I checked on the groups. The hot chocolate while debriefing didn’t hurt either! It was an honour and privilege to be a part of it!
My parting thoughts for today are these…
- How can we work together for the prosperity of all rather than the few? What paradigms need to shift in society for this to happen?
- How can we improve upon this simulation, either to make it more real or to increase the learning opportunities?
- I have this hypothesis that part of the success of today was that students were up, outside, and moving! How can we add more opportunities to get up, out, and move on a daily basis?
- Finally, many students had input into the way today’s activity was shaped. How can we include student ideas in this natural way more often? We had a fantastic student:adult ratio today… could this work in a class of 25 or 30 kids in the same way?
I would love to hear your suggestions!