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Broken, but not bad!

Like looking back and seeing your footprints in the sand is sometimes the only way to see where you’ve been, looking back is sometimes the only way you realise you were broken.

There is a danger of course, to look back, see the brokenness and judge it as being bad. But that would be wrong. In this case, I look back and see good times. Times where I was challenged. Times where I was strengthened through the difficulties I was facing. Strengthened through the constraints of a situation that forced me to assess the what-nexts and the then-whats and the but-thens.

With a new perspective, and the ability to turn around and metaphorically “look back”, I can now see that it was a time of brokenness, where I questioned if my judgements, the judgements that I had confidently made in the past, would indeed pass close scrutiny. But again, not a bad time.

I wonder, without this time of brokenness, would I feel so “whole” at this moment? Is this present feeling of completeness only possible because when I look back I can see so clearly the times where parts were missing? Is it the contrast of the then, to the now, that amplifies this feeling. Or maybe even produces it!

It brings me back yet again to the principle of balance that is so important for me. Yet another case of knowing the light is bright because we have fumbled in the darkness.

So I will enjoy the light. Now, being in the light, I can recognise the darkness of my recent past. It is neither good, nor bad. Without one I cannot have the other.

Broken, but not bad.

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A fence, a 9th grader, and pride!

Email: (from a HS Math teacher to the 2nd grade teacher and myself) 

Thought I would brighten your mornings with part of a reflection from a kid who has said all year how he hates school and finds every subject boring… “That I got to make my own fences…It felt really good and I felt proud of my self”

Apart from making my day/week, this little snippet has been playing on my mind. 

The 9th grade student who shared this reflection has been working with his class and the 2nd graders to design and build a picket fence. It is going to run along the perimeter of the Grade 2 kitchen garden. The 9th graders are working on Geometry, design, cost analysis and construction. The 2nd graders are working on perimeter and area, volume (of water when watering the plants), measurement (as the plants grow) and graphing (all the data they gather during the growing). The Art teacher will use the fence as a canvas for the Grade 2 students to decorate, illuminate, illustrate. I’m taking part as the Woodworking teacher, utilising the skills I learned in high school (and have refined ever since) to help build the fence.

That this 9th grader should highlight the building of a fence as a source of pride is funny on one level, and deeply significant on another.

“Why?” Is the question I am asking myself! What is it about this activity that has resonated for this student in a way that (seemingly) nothing else has?

Is it the fact that he/she is building something? Is it the sense of accomplishment having designed the fence, cut up the timber to create the pieces, drilled the holes and assembled it all? Is it that he/she is working with the 2nd graders and contributing to their learning? Is it that he/she is not sitting at a desk staring at a whiteboard of death by Google Slides? Is it that he/she is getting dirty, getting splinters, risking the amputation of fingers in the power tools, wearing safety goggles and generally making a lot of noise and banging things with big hammers? Is it none of this? Or is it all of this?

Or is it because this is different to what he/she has sat through every day, in every class since August 15 last year?

I intend to find out.

Because once I know, I will let his/her teachers know. And then, they can try to use that piece of information to change the way they teach him/her so that every day, he/she can reflect that his/her learning felt great and that he/she felt proud.

If our students cannot honestly share a reflection like this every day then we need to be doing a better job! Our students should not be coming to school to be bored!

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Do You Need To Change Anything?

Being a BIG proponent of reflecting, I asked everyone to complete a short survey reflecting on our recent Symposium II day of PD. Overall, the responses were positive, but like anything, you can’t please everyone.

Being completely anonymous, the responses were quite candid. One respondent answered, “It was nice to have a wide range of choices. I enjoyed learning with other teachers who I normally don’t have chance to hang around with.” to the What-went-well question. This was balanced by a What-could-improve answer – “Encourage inclusiveness vs. cliques by having beople [sic] work with those who are not in their regular social circles.”

There were some very positive comments – “The workshops offered were interesting, fun, and engaging. They helped us to get out of our comfort zone and learn things that we wanted to learn. It was also nice to be able to put on a workshop about something that we enjoy. Seeing other peoples’ talents also helped me to appreciate and admire the staff more as well.”

Some a little critical (from the What-could-be-improved question) – “Making sure that all teachers went to the sessions. I know of one teacher who skipped out and did grading instead of attending one of the sessions :(. It would be good to make sure all teachers are involved all day.”

And some very critical – “The creativity and fun aspect of the day is certainly a plus. But I question whether “remember what it’s like to be a learner” is a significant enough of a goal to spend an entire day this way. I wonder if the goal were something like “learning about other subjects with the goal of integrating,” it could lead to more valuable learning while maintaining the creative aspects. Then if we have sessions on art and dance and movie making and photography, teachers can learn those skills to better help students develop them and use them in their science and English and Korean and math classes. It might provide a better focus for choosing and developing sessions. And it might result in a bigger impact on teaching and learning. Also, it would have been really helpful if you had asked teachers their opinion about how to spend all three PD days AHEAD of time. Teachers really should be playing an integral role in the planning process of every single PD day at this school.”

My experience in developing these sorts of programs for faculty and staff across a number of different international schools over the past 15 years has led me to know that this range of opinions is expected, and even more importantly, is essential.

As an administrator it is important to know how things can be improved, what worked really well and that some colleagues felt the day was a waste of time. It is important to hear that the value I see in devoting a whole day to professional learning is shared by most, but not by all.

My (possibly controversial) reflection is this…

At it’s core, “Teaching” is about “Learning”. You cannot be a great teacher if you are not a great learner. We spend a lot of time (comparatively) learning about teaching (as expert learners), and in the process learn very little! (Generally, not a lot of our fundamental teaching practices change after a conference or a workshop!) We spend very little time (comparatively) learning about learning. This day of learning was designed in the hope that we would experience what being a NOVICE learner was like again. Because that’s what it is like for your students – EVERY day! Maybe EVERY lesson in a given day! Adults are rarely NOVICE learners. And even more rarely do they spend an entire school day being a NOVICE learner.

Before you begin to teach today, consider what it will feel like as a student to sit in your classroom to LEARN today. Do you need to change anything?

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Becoming a NOVICE LEARNER for a day!

Yesterday, after some careful planning and logistical tap-dancing, our full faculty enjoyed a home-grown professional learning day focused on passions. Teachers were invited to offer presentations on something they were passionate about to their colleagues.

Here’s the list of what we had to choose from:

  • iMovie Basics
  • Planning and Integrated Inquiry Unit
  • Sharing gratitude
  • Maximizing SmartBoard use with Notebook Software
  • Introduction to Lego Robotics
  • Cooking: Chinese Dumplings
  • Supportive and Investigative Teaching
  • Woodshop – Build yourself a stand!
  • Learn to Tie Asian Knots
  • Basic Drawing & Shading
  • Coaching the Mental Game
  • Tech-Infused Formative Assessment
  • EAL Resource Website
  • Strength training and conditioning
  • Photography 101
  • Cooking: Unrefined Sweets
  • Fitness Room 101 – Strength and Resistance Training for Beginners
  • Photoshop Basics
  • Let’s Bboy (and Bgirl)
  • Juggling 101  
  • Pumping Up Our Reading Culture
  • Jazz Dance Routine

It was one of the best days of Professional Learning I have participated in in nearly 25 years of working in schools!

For the first time this year, every teacher in the building was truly transported into the role of the student. The NOVICE learner. The student who truly knows very, very little about the topic and is expected to listen, learn and demonstrate their understanding at the end of the day.

There was struggle! For the life of me I just could not fold those Chinese dumplings right. Too much filling. Not enough filling. Clumsy fingers. Ugly Jiaozi!

There were teachers who for the first time were donning protective eyewear as they ran lengths of timber through a table saw. Noise. Fear. Danger. Sawdust. Triumph! The look of satisfaction on the faces of those same teachers who left with a wooden creation of their own making was so inspiring!

There were teachers who had always wished they could juggle but had never taken the time to try, standing up at the end of the day performing feats of juggling for their peers! The balls were dropping left right and centre but the smiles were so big that everyone in the audience cheered!

And there were teachers breakdancing. Yep, BREAKDANCING!

The juggling was led by an English teacher. The Woodworking was led by the Elementary Principal. The Fitness Conditioning was led by the Kindergarten teacher. The Jazz Dance was led by a Korean teacher. The Lego Robotics was led by the Biology teacher. The Breakdancing was led by the Chaplain!

It was truly inspiring to see so many of my colleagues stand in front of their peers and teach something they truly love doing, that previously we had no idea they knew anything about. I mean, a breakdancing Chaplain!!!

So what are the takeaways from the day???

  • Any school can run a day like this – your colleagues have secret talents!
  • For a teacher, becoming a NOVICE LEARNER for a day is a very, very valuable perspective shift
  • Our culture of learning just received an enormous boost
  • Professional learning is as much about “the act of learning” as it is about what is learned
  • Smiles. Everyone left smiling!

 

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Are we teaching the “love of” the the, or just the “the”?

In my office, on a small desk covered with Star Wars minifigures, a rubics cube and some Hot Wheels cars you will also find my 4th grade class photo. I’m the smallish blonde boy in the middle row, fourth from the left. At the other end of the row is Mrs Paterson. She is the reason the photo sits on my desk thirty-six years later.

I don’t really remember much about what I learned in fourth grade. As an elementary teacher of many years myself I can guess what was covered, and while it might be interesting, it’s not important. What I can remember is the way Mrs Paterson made me feel about being in her class.

She had high standards. She challenged me. She believed that I could do it.

At a recent conference I sat and listened to Sir John Jones talk about the way schools should be. Amongst his humour were some truisms that all educators need to be thinking deeply about. One was, “Google can teach you history. Only teachers can teach you the LOVE of history!”

Like most other schools around the world, I urge my teachers to “address the standards” when they teach. “Follow UbD when you plan,” I say. “Start with the standards. Design the assessment. Build the plan.”

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But in my fifteen years of co-planning with teachers, I have never come across a standard addressing teaching the “love” of something. I’ve never asked a teacher to add a row in a rubric to read,”demonstrates a love of calculus”, or writing, or painting or long division. And as I ponder this, I am wondering how to address this absence.

If the role of a teacher is to teach a “love of” something, be it physics or reading or history or simply (but not so simply) learning, where do we start? Where do we put all the effort in and how to we know if we’ve accomplished it? Can we use the final grade as a measure? Or is it less quantitative and more qualitative? Is it the number of students who choose to follow that subject as a career path? Is it the number of smiles on faces I see in classrooms as I walk through the building? Or is it the waiting list of students eager to get into a particular class with a particular teacher?

Mrs Paterson was my fourth-grade teacher and she is the one who taught me a “love of” something. She did it by challenging me, expecting I was able and caring for me as I made my attempts and failed.

Maybe it is that simple. Maybe it is that and a bit more. Maybe what was right for Mrs Paterson is different for you and I. Who knows?

As a school administrator, I don’t have the answer. I know when a teacher has it and I can see when a teacher doesn’t. I can give examples of it. I can attest to the importance of it. I can urge those without it to develop it.

If you are a teacher, how are you developing in students the “Love Of” your subject?

 

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Change the practice by changing the words!

George Couros is a thought provoking educator whose blog is a daily read for me. His post of today titled, “5 Terms We Need To Rethink In Education” has inspired me to write (which is one of the main reasons I read blogs!).

In his post, George asks us to rethink the terms we use in education, to unpack the perception of their meaning and the possibility of what they SHOULD mean. I agree completely, and write to extend the thinking.

My proposition is that our educational reality is strongly shaped by the words we choose to use. Let me illustrate.

A few years ago I was tasked with leading a K-12 school, which had not previously considered itself a “K-12” school. It had always had a Kindergarten program, elementary grade levels, middle school classes and a high school. It was lead by a Director, an Elementary Principal and a Secondary Principal. But they had been “Divisional” principals. The culture had never been K-12.

So upon my arrival, with the leadership structure changing to include a K-12 Principal, I changed the words.

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We began to use the word “sub-school” instead of “division”. There was no longer an elementary division, or a middle school division or a high school division. We deliberately chose words to reinforce the thinking required to build a K-12 culture. We referred to the elementary sub-school, the middle school subschool, and the high school sub-school. A little bit wordy, but important. Now in year three of making that seemingly simple change, we are almost at the point where the word “division” is no longer used. Almost!

We also discussed the idea of banning the word “homework”! Not banning the activity of homework, but banning the word “homework” to describe the activity of doing school work at home. Instead, I was suggesting the terms “preview” and “review” be used. The ensuing discussion was one of the most animated, charged, emotional, informative, full-participation discussions I have ever experienced in a faculty meeting! Just to change a word!!!

A school-wide blanket ban of the word “homework” was a bridge too far for the present faculty, but a number of faculty members DID rename their school-work-at-home and reflected that it did result in some changes in their practice.

As George prompts us to reimagine or rethink what the words we use in education mean, I am prompting you to be very critical when choosing which ones you will use. Words are very powerful influencers of practice.

What practices in your school or classroom can you change by changing the words you use to describe them?

 

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How would you change?

I am reading an interesting book right now – Ron Ritchhart’s “Creating a Culture of Thinking: The 8 Forces we must Master to Truly Transform Our Schools” and a paragraph or two have really stimulated my thinking.

Image Credit: http://static.messynessychic.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/outdoor-school-2013-11-05-Buitenschool-1930-04.jpg

This one has got the wheels turning with some gusto: “does the space facilitate learners’ needs to communicate, discuss, share, debate, and engage with other learners—or is it meeting only the students’ need to see the board?” It is referring to the physical layout of a classroom, and as I did a mental walk through of the school I work in I am concluding that the vast majority of the rooms are set up for the students to see the board, not talk to one another.

Which led me to wonder what would happen if teachers came to school one day to find the board had been removed, the projector taken down and student desks facing each other.

What would happen?

How many would rearrange the desks, tape some chart paper up onto the wall and continue on as normal? How many would turn up in my office, unable to teach? How many would think for a minute and change what they had planned and begin a different approach?

Image Credit: http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-4bR9llHHJ0k/T3S4w3oVyqI/AAAAAAAACSE/Duk6yhDAZ_c/w1200-h630-p-nu/classroom+without+walls.jpg-large

It was a stark reminder of the very strong connection between our physical space and the way we teach. It was a stark reminder that often times, if we are to change the way we teach, sometimes changing the space we teach in is the first step.

So if you came to school tomorrow and discovered that your whiteboard/blackboard/projector had been removed, how would you change?

 

 

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Perception

A couple of months ago I had a rough couple of weeks. A flight home to deal with some heavy emotional family matters that left me questioning a lot of things I thought were previously unquestionable, feedback letting me know of areas where I have not been performing as well as expected, meetings where the shortcomings of this that and the other have been highlighted, being questioned on decisions I have made and processes I have chosen to implement and follow. And I also realised (after watching one of their pre-season games) my favourite Aussie Rules football team is again hopeless this year! It has been one after the other after the other after the other.

Right now, as I read through this litany of self-pity, it strikes me that you too could read this as a litany of self-pity. One important conversation ago, it was. One important conversation ago, I was struggling to find the positive spin on all the negative. I was humming my favourite Monty Python song but couldn’t for the life of me find the bright side. And then I had the conversation.

Image Credit: http://theologygaming.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/454897499.jpg

It was one I was not looking forward to. It had a good chance of being a difficult one. It was about how I had communicated with someone and how they had perceived the message – what they had read “between the lines” through my choice of vocabulary, FULL CAPS, turn of phrase and overall content.

They were quite blunt. They were honest. I listened. I disagreed. I agreed. I questioned. They answered. I listened. I learned.
The learning, through the conversation, was that the perception of what I had written had become the message, and not the message itself. My message and the reader’s perception of the message were quite different – almost opposite, and the perception won!
This was the conversation that changed my litany of self-pity into something else. It’s not the first time I have learned this truth, but this time I think it will stick.

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Lego, IKEA and problem finding!

Photo Credit: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/6f/Einstein-formal_portrait-35.jpg

“The formulation of the problem is often more essential than its solution, which may be merely a matter of mathematical or experimental skill.”
― Albert Einstein

It would be fair to suggest that we have all heard of problem solving! It is lauded as an essential 21st century skill. We ask each other if we are asking our students to “problem solve”. While this is not unimportant, Einstein’s 20th century quote above might be putting a new spin on this 21st century skill that we have not considered – that finding the problem might be more important that solving it!

Somewhere in my past I remember listening to a speaker (maybe it was a TED Talk) whose main idea was that we should be spending a LOT more time working with students on FINDING the problems, and then solving them. If I remember rightly, he was suggesting that handing a student a page full of “problems” and asking them to “solve” them was missing the point somewhat.

Maybe it is like an IKEA dining table you bring home.

Here are all the parts you need, and the tools you will need to use with the parts, and a book that gives you the step by step instructions for putting the table together, and a picture of what each step should look like, and a picture of the finished product, and a helpline number to call if you mess things up. Or, if that’s too hard, here is the number for a couple of guys who can come to your house and solve your building problem for you (for a small fee of course!).

Imagine what would happen if the IKEA table came with five extra pieces, no tools, no picture and no helpline! (Oops, someone just fainted!)

If you have ever watched a child receive a Lego set as a present, there is that short period of “building the IKEA table” where the booklet is opened, the steps are followed and the “thing” is built. It is played with for a short period. The car zooms. But then… the car crashes and the pieces come apart and the car merges with the house and the boat to become become a hovercraft with a time travelling switch and a laser cannon and next thing the room, and everyone in it, is being blasted by lasers and transported into the future.

I wonder what would happen if you started playing lego with all your different pieces of IKEA furniture???

I digress!

As you continually challenge your students to solve problems, how can you challenge them to FIND the problems and then solve them? How can you make those problems you are posing embedded in the REAL world, rather than the SCHOOL world?

How can the problems you challenge your students to find and solve REALLY help them with the problems they are going to encounter and attempt to solve this afternoon as they walk/cycle/bus/train home from school?

And apologies if you are still having shivers from the “five extra pieces” IKEA thought!

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Your lightbulb in your classroom?

Learning and innovation go hand in hand. The arrogance of success is to think that what you did yesterday will be sufficient for tomorrow. – C. William Pollard

(Source: http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/keywords/innovation.html)

There is a danger that when we think of innovation we imagine devices that can turn salt water into drinking water, or self-driving cars, or mouldy bread that can charge a phone battery (yes, it does exist!). While these do fit the definition of innovation, to most of us, these types of new ideas are well beyond our scope. Innovation, as portrayed by the media, is usually big and life changing and sensational.
But innovation can be something you do every day!
When you consider that innovation is defined as “a new method, idea, product, etc”, then your own scope for innovation suddenly widens. And innovation can be a personal thing! What is innovative for you doesn’t need to be innovative for someone else. If what you are doing is new for you – a new method, a new approach, a new idea – then you are being innovative.

So, as you consider your teaching today, what are you doing today that you have not done before? Where are those moments where you are challenging yourself with a new teaching idea, or a new assessment practice or a new approach to planning. If you have always taught a certain book or a certain unit a certain way, or have always taught from a content perspective, or have always set a final exam, how can you innovate? Can you take the big ideas of the book and allow students to choose their own books that address those ideas? Can you reconsider the content from a conceptual standpoint and teach from that new angle? Can you develop a rubric that covers all the elements of the final exam and give students the opportunity to choose how to demonstrate those understandings via a project?

Innovation carries with it a certain amount of risk. Will the conceptual unit be as good as the usual content approach? How will I assess students if they are all reading different books? Will a final project be as rigorous as a final exam?
Risk taking in teaching is critical. Not everything is going to be fantastic first time around. It won’t be the end of the world. You will be able to try again.
So today, how will you innovate in your classroom? How will you innovate in your teaching? How will you allow your students to innovate?
Thanks for stopping by to check out the blog! If you would like to receive an update each time there is a new post, just add your email in below. Thanks, Bruce.

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