A class misunderstood…

I knew this year was going to be hard. I knew that I wanted to take risks, innovate, and try new things. I knew that many people would have different perspectives and opinions about what I was doing. I knew that I would have to stand up for my beliefs, my philosophy and what was happening in the classroom. I knew that I would probably have to explain myself… justify myself… defend myself…

I just didn’t know my students would have to as well. 

Today one of my students was chatting with me at recess and sharing his frustration that many people think all we do is play.

“Miss, it is not okay that they think all we do is play all day because we do a lot of learning and they don’t think we do. It’s not fair.”

I tried to sympathize with his frustration and tell him that we can feel confident in the amazing learning that takes place in our class and that I know what it feels like to be misunderstood. The he told me something very interesting.

“Miss, it’s not only students who misunderstand us, it’s also teachers.”

… oh really!? Tell me more about that!

“I was walking to the library with myself and a teacher stopped me and asked where I was going. I told her I was going to the library. She asked my name. I told her. She asked who my teacher was and I told her. When she found out I was in Miss Taryn’s class, she asked if we actually ever do any learning in there. So I told her, yes we do so much learning. Then she asked what we were learning about it. I told her we were learning about relationships and perspectives. Then she asked if all we are learning about is relationships and perspectives how are we doing any math. So I told her were learning about perspectives and relationships in math. Like how everyone has a different perspective when solving  problem and that numbers and shapes are connected in many ways.”

Then a different student who was sitting close by chimed in…

“Yeah, the exact same thing happened to me! I was walking in the hall and a teacher stopped me and asked my name and my teacher. When they found out I was in Miss Taryn’s class they also asked if we ever did any learning. So I told her we do a lot of learning. She asked about what. I told her about relationships and perspectives. She asked if we were learning any knowledge. I told her we were learning so much knowledge like relationships that happen in nature, human relationships, perspectives in art, how technology affects relationships and more!”

I can’t remember a time where I felt more proud of my students. Not only are they able to understand our approach to learning, but they are able to advocate for it, and defend it! When confronted by a teacher, they were able to explain our concept-based approach to acquiring knowledge. They were able to point out the transdisciplinary way that we have been approaching math and literacy. And most importantly they were able to be critical thinkers and confidently share an opinion different from an authority figure in a respectful, but self-assued way.

They might not get us…. but we definitely get us!

The initial frustration at being misunderstood by students and teachers has turned into a class inside-joke. Now my students kid with one another and me by saying  “we don’t learn  anything”, “no learning in Miss Taryn’s class”, “all we do is play all day”.

The cherry on top (as if it could get any better!) was a student who came up to me after this conversation and said…

“Miss I’ve been thinking. What are the point of grades? They are just letters and numbers – but it’s so hard to make a letter or number that measures our learning. I think I’m going to write a blog post about it to share my perspective on this issue.”

My school’s mission focuses on creating critical thinkers and contributing world citizens. Check and check.

… even if that comes at the cost of being misunderstood and misrepresented…

we can take it.

“But they’ll need it for when they are in university”

I’ve noticed that a common road block for us educators when faced with rethinking traditional educational practices and embracing new practices, literacies and technologies is the response…

But they’ll need it for when they are in university.

it” can be anything from a 5 paragraph easy, to sitting and listening to a lecture, to a multiple choice test, and the list goes on.

This notion that post-secondary institutions are stuck in the past, seems to work as an easy-out for us educators to resist change in our own practices and shifts in the educational paradigm. It’s not just high school teachers – who have students mere years away from university – but it is also middle school teachers… and even elementary school teachers.

When working with educators in the past I’ve used a buffet of counterpoints to provoke their thinking about this argument. No one has a crystal ball and can say with certainty what students will or will not need when they get to university; Don’t let the tail wag the dog – why are we allowing the 4 (6? 8?) years where students end their educational journey to dictate the first 15 years of their education? Change is inevitable, it will happen with or with out… so jump on board!

Yet, somehow the argument sticks. We need to do X because they will need it in university.

And then something amazing happened!!!

I myself experienced this statement not to be true…

I am currently in university… in the very institution we use to galvanize our practices against change. And guess what? The skills and knowledge I need are the very skills and knowledge teachers are weary of, because “that’s not how universities are”. Bah! Not true! And I have proof!

Each week my professor shares multiple forms of text with us pertaining to our topic – songs, memes, infographics, hyperlinks, videos, wikipedia pages and more. We need to be literate in multiple ways in order to access and analyze the  information.

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And the best part? Each week we must compose a post in response to the ideas presented in the course material and we are NOT ALLOWED to share our thinking through only written paragraphs. We MUST demonstrate our meaning in multiple ways!

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One week I shared my thinking, questions and challenges through a sequence of tweets:

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Classmates of mine have shared through emojis:

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Through thinglinks:

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Through blogs:

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Through memes:

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This is a real university course, from a real university and the literacy skills that are helping me be successful are many of the literacy skills we as educators are uncomfortable or nervous or flat out refusing to teach.

Of course I still need to be able to read and write. But those traditional skills in and of themselves are not sufficient any longer. Not for me as a university student and not for our elementary, middle and high school students either. I need to be able to deconstruct and reconstruct meaning in multiple ways that span far beyond “traditional literacies”… and so should they.

An argument that clings to traditional literacies and opposes new literacies for the sake of preparing students for a model of university that may not longer exist is cause for concern. It is time to embrace new literacies, multiple literacies, digital literacies, and making multiple meanings in order to prepare students for the world as it is today. Because the world that used to be no longer exists… not even in slow-changing institutions of education like universities.

“But they’ll need it for when they are in university”

I’ve noticed that a common road block for us educators to embrace new practices, new approaches to teaching and learning, new technology, and new literacies is the response…

But they’ll need it for when they are in university.

it” can be anything from a 5 paragraph easy, to sitting and listening to a lecture, to a multiple choice test, and the list goes on.

This notion that post-secondary institutions are stuck in the past, seems to work as an easy-out for us educators to resist change in our own practices and shifts in the educational paradigm. It’s not just high school teachers – who have students mere years away from university – but it is also middle school teachers… and even elementary school teachers.

When working with educators in the past I’ve used a buffet of counterpoints to provoke their thinking about this argument. No one has a crystal ball and can say with certainty what students will or will not need when they get to university; Don’t let the tail wag the dog – why are we allowing the 4 (6? 8?) years where students end their educational journey to dictate the first 15 years of their education? Change is inevitable, it will happen with or with out… so jump on board!

Yet, somehow the argument sticks. We need to do X because they will need it in university.

And then something amazing happened!!!

I myself experienced that this statement not to be true…

I am currently in university… in the very institution we use to galvanize our practices against change. And guess what? The skills and knowledge I need are the very skills and knowledge teachers are weary of, because “that’s not how universities are”. Bah! Not true! And I have proof!

Each week my professor shares multiple forms of text with us pertaining to our topic – songs, memes, infographics, hyperlinks, videos, wikipedia pages and more. We need to be literate in multiple ways in order to access and analyze the  information.

screen-shot-2016-09-28-at-6-52-59-am

screen-shot-2016-09-28-at-6-53-20-am

screen-shot-2016-09-28-at-6-54-40-am

And the best part? Each week we must compose a post in response to the ideas presented in the course material and we are NOT ALLOWED to share our thinking through only written paragraphs. We MUST demonstrate our meaning in multiple ways!

screen-shot-2016-09-28-at-7-01-05-am

screen-shot-2016-09-28-at-7-02-52-am

One week I shared my thinking, questions and challenges through a sequence of tweets:

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Classmates of mine have shared through emojis:

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Through thinglinks:

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Through blogs:

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Through memes:

screen-shot-2016-09-28-at-7-07-38-am

This is a real university course, from a real university and the literacy skills that are helping me be successful are many of the literacy skills we as educators are uncomfortable or nervous or flat out refusing to teach.

Of course I still need to be able to read and write. But those traditional skills in and of themselves are not sufficient any longer. Not for me as a university student and not for our elementary, middle and high school students either. I need to be able to deconstruct and reconstruct meaning in multiple ways that span far beyond “traditional literacies”… and so should they.

An argument that clings to traditional literacies and opposes new literacies for the sake of preparing students for a model of university that may not longer exist is cause for concern. It is time to embrace new literacies, multiple literacies, digital literacies, and making multiple meanings in order to preparing students for the world as it is today. Because the world that used to be no longer exists… not even in slow-changing institutions of education like universities.

Are we providing “space” for virtual making?

Maker Space is the current hotness. No debate there. I cannot scroll through Twitter without seeing a school’s new Maker Lab, a classroom’s new Maker drawer or an article about the benefits of “Making”. Yet I can’t help but wonder…

Are all “making” experiences being treated equally?

Let’s say someone walked into my classroom and saw my Grade 4 students cutting cardboard, rummaging through tools, using a hot glue gun, and twisting wires together . They would probably be pleased. They would probably say “Wow! Great Maker Space!”

Let’s say someone walked into my classroom and saw my Grade 4 students all on their iPads. But, on their iPads they were playing the game MineCraft. Would they be pleased then? Would they say “Wow! Great Maker Space!”?

A few weeks ago I know I wouldn’t have. A few weeks ago, my understanding of Maker Space was something that existed in actual reality. Then one day last week, when my students were taking a ten minute break to “recharge their batteries”, I made the great decision to ask my students a simple question:

What are you doing on Minecraft?

I was actually blown away! One of my students showed me a three story mansion with over 10 rooms – stables, secret panic rooms, appliances, fireplaces, staircases, furniture – that she had built by herself… brick by brick! She told me about the different materials she needed, and the different combinations that made certain structures. She spent three weeks building it – of her own time. 

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My thinking was instantly challenged and my perspective began to shift. Wasn’t the Maker Movement about the essence of designing, creating and building – not hammers, boxes and ductape. Were those goals not still being accomplished, virtually, through Minecraft?

I began to wonder if virtual making is being held in the same regard as physical making in today’s schools. And if it’s not, why? Is it because as adults we are unfamiliar with virtual maker programs like Minecraft? Is it because as adults we have biases against virtual experiences? Is it because as adults if we don’t understand it, it must not be worthwhile? I know for me, most of the answers -sadly – are yes.

So I will strive to learn. I will strive to become familiar with what my students love and are using. I will strive to become literate in new literacies. I will strive to become more aware of my own biases and my prejudices against things that I don’t understand. I will strive to not value learning in the physical realm over learning in the virtual realm.

And when visitors come into the room, see my students on their iPads and ask “What are your students doing?” I will confidently answer “they are doing Maker Space”.

You lost me at levels and incentives…

A few weeks ago I attended a training session for an online reading product. I arrived open-minded and ready to learn about a new tool to help my students develop their love of reading.

Then words and phrases from the presentation started to buzz around me like pesky bees.

“stars earned for books read”… swat!

“limit their levels”… swat!

“comprehension quiz”… swat!

“pre-made”… swat!

“worksheets”… swat!

“generic lessons”… swat!

Then it started to become worse than buzzing. I was shown how to control what students read, how to restrict how they read and how to send them messages to which they could not reply. Cringe.

Where is the student ownership, voice, agency?

So I began to do a little research on their website:

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Ranking. Control. Practice, practice and more practice. 

Nothing about love, joy or passion. 

The whole time I was listening to the presentation and browsing the website I could not get this poem written by John Locke our of my head:

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I don’t want to do anything that gives my students an aversion to reading or learning. I do not want to make reading a business for them. I want to help them grow their passion as readers.

5 years ago I probably would have jumped on board and signed my students up. I’ve become more discerning since then. I become more informed since then. I’ve become more critical since then. I’ve become more emboldened since then.

Amazing provocateurs like Pernille Ripp, Mark Barnes and Alfie Kohn have challenged my thinking about reading practices like reading logs, levelling, and incentives. They have prompted me to reflect on how the choices I make as a teacher can kill my students’ love of reading. They have forced me to think of myself as a reader when thinking about what I should be asking of students. They have provided me with guidance about how to create a passionate reading environment. They have inspired me to become a reading warrior where I critically think about and advocate against literacy practices and products that negatively impact children. They have inspired me to break the rules.

Yet time remained in this presentation, so I tried to see the potential uses. Here was a website offering thousands of online books. Books… hmmm. I began to wonder about these “books”. So I dug a little deeper.

“professional illustrators who have years of experience illustrating educational material

excerpts and adaptations from literature”

Was this a place where students could access real books or materials for reading instruction?Because those aren’t the same things.

I think my students deserve exposure to good quality literature. I think my students deserve to be free from levelling and ranking. I think my students deserve voice and choice in what they read and how they read. I think my students deserve to develop their love for reading away from prizes, rewards and incentives.

Is there not an app or website where students have access to literature with no levels, no incentives, no restrictions or limitations?

Is so, please tell me about that.

Differentiation: Not Just for Students

I know what you’re thinking… I’m going to say differentiation should also be for teachers. And although that is very true, I’ve blogged about that before. This time I’m interested in thinking about how we should be differentiating for parents.

We spend a lot of time and effort making sure our students’ differences and perspectives are considered and honoured, but what about the diversity in the perspectives and preferences of the families we work with? If one size does not fit all for students, then perhaps one size should not fit all for the families either.

In the past week, getting ready for a new school year, I have had many thought-provoking conversations with colleagues about how we can better meet the unique needs of every family each family.

Here is what we have come up with so far:

Weekly Updates

Many of us send home weekly information and often get frustrated if it is not being read. When working with students we often say, “If they aren’t learning the way we’re teaching, then let’s teach the way they learn.” If we apply the same thinking to the families then if parents aren’t consuming the way we’re communicating, then maybe we should start communicating the way they’re consuming. This year I am trying out a system where I send home a weekly written blog post for families and also an YouTube video. That way parents who are comfortable with English and have time to read can gather information from the blog post and families who are unable/uncomfortable reading English or prefer watching videos can gather the same information from YouTube.  

Collecting Information about Students

Many of us like to get to know our students through the parents’ perspective either before the year starts or during the first weeks of school. Some of us send home a graphic organizer for parents to fill out, others request a letter from the parents, others use a Google Form with questions. Just like our students, I’m sure parents have preferred ways to share information with us. This year I shared my goal with the parents of my students – that I want to learn about their children through their eyes – but instead of mandating how, I offered three choices. I invited parents to come in and have a face-to-face meeting if they want to tell me about their child in person, or call me if they preferred to tell me over the phone, or to share electronically by filling out a survey on a Google Form.

Communication Logs

I have a colleague who used to have daily communication logs for all her students at her old school, but when she transferred to our school last year she let go of that practice since it wasn’t the norm at our school. Throughout the year she found that some parents were upset that there was not a daily communication log, so this year she was playing with the idea of reintroducing them into her teaching practice. Then we started to chat about the idea and realized maybe it doesn’t have to be all or none, maybe it could be optional based on the preference of the family. Now she is planning on offering this to all her families and seeing who is interested and who is not. For some families daily communication is essential. For other families daily communication is a nuisance. Why can’t we satisfy both groups? And those in between! Not only is she going to ask if her families are interested in a daily communication log, but she is also going to ask. how they would like to communicate. A notebook that goes back and forth… Google Sheet that is shared…. a phone call? Whatever works for that specific family.

Homework 

I used to assign mandatory homework and then get frustrated when students did not complete it and the families did not support it. This year I was planning on having a zero homework policy. Then I realized that it doesn’t have to be an either or… it can be a both and. If I as the teacher mandate homework for all my students, I am neglecting the perspectives of the families who value their time after school for other activities and wish not to have homework. If I as the teacher outlaw homework I am neglecting the perspectives of the families who value extended practice of the academic skills we explore in class. So this year I plan to conduct a collaborative inquiry into homework with my students, where we can gather and analyze diverse perspectives about homework (student, parent, teacher, administrator, research etc.) and then share our discoveries with the families. From there each family will be able to decide if they want homework for their son or daughter, why they want homework and how they want to approach homework.

So far, this approach has been very rewarding. I have received positive feedback from my families about the choices and options they have had. I hope I can continue to reflect and discover other options for family differentiation to help me work towards my goal of a more inclusive education experience for all involved.

How do you differentiate to meet the needs of your students’ families?

What other ways can you think of honouring families’ unique and diverse perspectives and preferences?

Teacher Spaces vs Student Spaces

Who is most important in the classroom? Who is the classroom designed for?

Obvious answer… the students!

But if you take a second look at a typical classroom, does the physical space and set-up point to the same answer?

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Teachers typically have a large spacious desk with multiple drawers, many of which that lock. 

Do students?

Teachers typically have a large, comfy, adjustable chair with wheels, 

Do students?

Teachers often have a private, locked cabinet for their personal possessions (bags, wallets, phones etc.).

Do students?

Teachers typically have a personalized corner of the classroom where they post pictures of their families, friends, old classes etc. 

Do students?

Arguably you could say that teachers spend more time in the classroom than students – that it is their home away from home and therefore they need more comfortable furniture. Arguably you could say that teachers have more to do than students and therefore need more space. Arguably you could say that teacher’s possessions are more valuable than students and therefore need to be locked up. I’m not sure I agree.

Students spend a large part of their day in their classroom and I’m sure if you asked them they would say it is also their home away from home. Students have SO much to do and organize in a day – multiple subject, assignments, binders, notebooks, projects – and I’m sure if you ask them they would say they would like more space. Students come to school with many valuable things, not only wallets, lunch money and phones, but also precious and sentimental toys, books and artifacts and I’m sure if you asked them they would like to be able to safely lock up their treasure.

So if we return to the original question – who is most important in the classroom – the large desk, comfy chair, extra space, personal photos, locked storage… it would seem like many teachers have a lot more comforts and luxuries than their students. Why is this the way it is? What does this reveal about how teachers and students are viewed in the school system? Does it have to be this way?

As a teacher, I wonder what it would be like to spend a year with a simple desk, a basic chair, an open cubby in the hallway and no personal pictures on the wall.

Maybe I will give it a try and find out…