Have you ever thought about how we use the word wonderful?
There’s the nicey-nice way: “You have all been such a wonderful audience.”
There’s the sarcastic way: “Fridays are wonderful when you are short 3 teachers and 2 EAs, aren’t they?”
Then there is the one-word-when-nothing-else-can-be-said way: “Ms. Smith, here is the new student you weren’t expecting and don’t have a desk for. …. Wonderful!”
I’m no linguistics specialist, but shouldn’t it mean “full of wonder”? We need a word in education to help us describe the state of wonder we should be aspiring to. By that I mean an environment that encourages us to think outside of the box; to consider new ideas in new ways. It means an environment that welcomes learners to say “I wonder…” no matter how wild the idea and supports them to follow their ideas where ever they lead. Let’s call that wonderful, shall we?
I’m going to go out on a limb and say we need more wonderful in our schools. We need more wonderful educators, more wonderful students, and more wonderful learning opportunities. (Please don’t take that sentence out of context – I think we have lots of nicey-nice wonderful in our schools already).
Wonderful means learners, young and old, working in an environment that encourages questioning, dreaming, problem solving, debating, collaborating, thinking critically and creatively.
Without wonderful, we have cookie cutter art projects, fill in the blank assignments that always only have one right answer, closed questions, and regurgitation of information. Without wonderful, we have cookie cutter PD for educators.
With wonderful, we have exciting new ideas, engaged empowered learners and an environment to dream, create and learn in.
I aspire to be more wonderful every day. I aspire to help create an environment for all learners that encourages wonder.
If we want to create life-long learners, we need to give them something worthy of spending their life doing.
Are you wonderful? Are you creating the conditions to allow learners around you to be wonderful?
Have you ever thought about how we use the word wonderful?
I was talking to a colleague today about some of the students we tend to categorize as demonstrating non-compliant and defiant behaviour. It got me thinking about when someone might call me one of those labels.
When I think about the different roles I assume: educator, parent, learner, administrator, child, wife, writer…
There are lots of times that I have thought – “I don’t wanna.”
It’s not the roles themselves that make me cross my arms and stomp my feet (figuratively, usually). It is that the work I need to do is:
- too hard
- too time consuming
- too boring
- too embarrassing
- too far out of my comfort zone
- too tedious
When students tell us they don’t wanna, how do we react? If our knee jerk response is just “Well, you have to”, we build a power struggle and we heighten discomfort. If we say “Why not?”, we ask students to defend themselves (which is also hard, embarrassing, time consuming…).
So, what should the response be to “I don’t wanna”?
I think I try to say something along the lines of “Sometimes I don’t wanna either. Want to talk about it?” but I’m not sure that’s the best strategy either.
What do you say when a student says or implies “I don’t wanna”?
Last week I wrote about my experience using a tangible anchor to capture an experience. I was looking for something beyond the checklists and administrivia of a school start up to anchor the school year. How do I remember the first day of a new school year aside from bus duty, class lists and recess procedures?
Well, today was the first day. It was a long, exhausting day but a very good one. There was still plenty of administrative checklists and duties to attend to, of course, but I wanted more. I wanted to focus on making the day memorable, for me, and for students, staff and families who shared the exciting day with me. I set out to find my box of hugs amongst the checklists.
I thought about messages I had heard recently from a former HWDSB student (@labikaghani) and our new Director (@mannyhwdsb), as well as a repeated message from a speaker I have heard several times (@shareski). All have stressed the importance of sharing stories if you want to develop trusting relationships with staff, students and families and how important that is to good learning. That’s what I wanted: not just first day survival, but a foundation for great learning.
So I set out to find those stories in the midst of the busy day. I learned about student summer trips to Korea and the difference between beaches there and beaches in Central and South America. I learned how many students looked forward to coming back to school and what they were most looking forward to getting back to now that they were here (but it did add to my checklist that I needed to ensure the basketball nets needed to be rehung right away). I learned about parents who were anxious and others who headed away from the school for a little first day back celebration (and who experienced a little of both). I learned some new things staff members tried out over the summer and what they were pumped about trying soon with their class. Seeing the people and the stories behind the checklists is what made the day a great one.
I will remember those stories long after I have forgotten the stress of helping to organize buses. (At least, I hope that is the case. Buses haunt me.) Checklists and procedures might keep a school running smoothly, but it is people that give a school life.
I think it is going to be a year full of stories and learning. That’s something to look forward to.
There once was a child who was extremely energetic, considerably defiant, and who wore out my patience, energy and grasp on sanity. Day after day this kid tired me out physically, mentally, and emotionally. Everything I thought I knew about child behaviour and how I could (hopefully positively) influence and manage it was thrown out the window with this child. Working with this child was a humbling experience.
What was most humbling was that this was not one of my 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. children. This was one of my homegrown ones. This one had my last name, my DNA, lived in my house and was my responsibility.
I tell you this not to rat out one of my kids. Thankfully, this child has since outgrown this phase of development and is now a sweet, responsible, talented young person. We both survived that childhood and have the scars to prove it, but we have a great relationship.
Instead, I tell you this to preface an experience during this exhausting, humbling time to help explain the impact it has had on me.
One day, this 6 year old terror (oh yes, our terrible twos lasted several years), brought me a present. I have to admit, I have always loved the innocent presents you get from children: the hand drawn pictures, the fistful of raggedy dandelions, or the treasured rock they found. I love them all. But the present my little terror brought me is one that I will never forget. The two of us had had a particularly difficult day together. Why, oh why must you stand on top of the refrigerator? No, the laundry basket is NOT for riding down the stairs and smashing into the kitchen cabinets. Why is the cat covered in mud? The terror was sent to a bedroom to give us both a little space. Thankfully, it was quiet in there and while that often meant discovering some new disaster later on, I didn’t care; I needed that quiet.
But it wasn’t too long before my terror came out looking for me, a box in hand. The box was offered to me silently.
“What’s this?” I asked, skeptically.
“I made you a present,” came the answer.
I opened it up to find a ream of jaggedly cut papers, each with a circle drawn on it. “I love it,” I said carefully. (If you ever receive one of those mysterious gifts that you don’t quite know what to do with, keep the response vague and hope that the giver responds with some clues.) “You made so many circles! Thank you.”
“Those aren’t circles,” huffed my terror. “They’re hugs. I made lots of hugs for you. So when I’m naughty you can have a hug from me. I want you to have all of my hugs.” Then the terror turned and walked away.
Oh my goodness. A box full of hugs was the perfect, tangible gift from this child. I needed those little simple things to hold onto to remember why we were going to keep doing this, day in and day out, and to want to keep doing it. I still have that box, and this child is still the one who will leave me little love notes (without the trips down the stairs in the laundry basket).
I always think about my little box of hugs during this busy time of school year start up. Back to school is an exciting time with new clothes and backpacks and the promise of a fresh start in a shiny new classroom. But, as routines change, kids have bedtimes again, parents/students/teachers are anxious about school schedules/friends/hard classes/frenemies. Tempers flair, tears can happen, patience wears thin, and we have the dreaded back-to-school nightmares.
Right about now, I think we all need a tangible reminder to hold onto during the stress of school start up to remind us about how it can be – and should be – a celebration, despite the worries that occur. As a classroom teacher, my reminder was a carefully chosen favourite read alouds that I couldn’t wait to share with my class that first Friday. I would keep it on my desk that first week, reminding myself that through all of the trials and tribulations of the exhausting first week, by Friday we could sit down together and celebrate the start of our new adventure together with a memorable shared experience. As a parent, it was my little box of hugs that sometimes got me through.
I will admit, my first few “first days” as an administrator were a bit of a blur of checklists and problems and fixes and so many people having so many questions. But my goal this year is to find something tangible to hold onto to remind me about what makes it all worth it; to find that little corner of celebration to remind me about why we do this. I’m still trying to figure out what my new box of hugs will be, but I’ll let you know when I figure it out.
It’s time to start the adventure again. Let’s make it a good one.
I went into my son’s room today to retrieve some long-lost item, and found myself hit by a wave of nostalgia. Esai is in the process of moving out and into a house with 9 (9?!? Don’t say it, I know) other second year students. I’m entitled to a bit of momma sadness, aren’t I?
Anyway. I was looking at the bookshelf that takes up an entire wall of his room. It is in a state of disrepair at the moment, as he sorts what needs to go with him and what he can leave behind. But, even in its messiness, it struck me that there was a lot of diversity of artifacts to be found on its shelves.
There are books, of course. Everything from Tolkien and Kogawa to Chris Hadfield, guides on the Anatomy of the Brain and Guinness Books of World Records. There is no shortage of books in our home, and I am proud of Esai’s range in interests, genres and knowledge.
But beside the books are other bits and pieces of his 18 years of life. His baseball trophies sit alongside of his work ties. He was a mediocre baseball player at best, which was heartbreaking for his baseball-loving coaches of a dad and a grandfather, but something I was secretly glad of. Esai is one of those kids who found ways to be successful at almost everything. Baseball and visual art are the two things he struggled with growing up, and I am glad he had those challenges. The work ties make me smile; I love the irony in the fact that this teenager has to wear a tie to work every day (as a manager at a fast food restaurant) while my husband avoids them like the plague. Irony aside, I am pleased that he has had the opportunity to go out and work, and learn how unpleasant it can be sometimes, requiring perseverance, and how proud you can be of a job well done, requiring celebration.
Then there are the other reminders of his life. His Robotics trophies sit beside his Royal Conservatory of Music exam results and on top of a picture from his 3rd birthday. The picture is a reminder of when he got his beloved kitchen set, so he could be a famous chef, just like Emeril Legasse. I remember his daily (hourly, sometimes) cooking shows he would put on for us in our living room. At the time, he wanted to be two things when he grew up: a tv chef and a midwife (he was strangely addicted to a reality tv show A Baby Story).
I read an article recently about the perils of early specialization in sport by John O’Sullivan. You can read it here
In brief, he uses a variety of sources to explain why our recent trend in North America to train up children in a single sport from a very young age can be detrimental to the intended outcome: making him or her the best in the sport. I smiled when I got to the part that mentioned the only exceptions he could find were training in figure skating and gymnastics, two sports I am quite intimately aware of, and know all too well the dangers and pressures of early specialization in them, but also the sad necessity for that.
It got me thinking beyond sports, though. I wondered if we – parents and educators – were doing too much to create specializations for our children in school. I wondered what factors contributed to this. Does giving numerical grades for subjects before middle school force children (and parents and teachers) into thinking they are “good” at one kind of learning while not so great at something else? Does cutting secondary school down to four years (from the previous possible five in Ontario) force students to abandon learning opportunities that would broaden their scope of experience rather than focus it down into only exactly what they will need for post-graduation? Do we treat some students differently because we don’t believe they will ever cut it as a …. fill in the blank here with your choice of labels – mathematician, athlete, writer, musician, reader, explorer.
My son is not likely to be a famous chef. Or a midwife. Or a baseball player. Or a professional musician. Or a lifetime burger flipper. Or a Guinness World Record Holder. But if he hadn’t tried out all of those skills along the way, I don’t know if he would be the kid I’m proud of today.
Some of the structures perpetuating this specialist thinking are bigger than any one of us. Although I am skeptical about giving of grades to 6 year olds, I can’t change that. But I think there are things that we can reflect on and change individually to better the lives of the children we support. How do we, educators, ensure that our students have a wide range of experiences on their bookshelves? How do we build that diversity into our learning opportunities and the willingness to try them into our young charges? How do we, as parents, convince ourselves and other parents to let go of the parent guilt-traps that drive us to want to have an NHL draft pick candidate by age 10? How do we, parents, encourage our kids to experience things they aren’t great at, and then sit back and let them struggle through it?
Growing up isn’t easy, and it doesn’t fit into nice little boxes. It should be messy and unpredictable. Sometimes it will be frustrating and sometimes cause pride and elation. All, of course, with the goal of preparing us for adulthood, which is just as messy and unpredictable. Sometimes a bookshelf isn’t just a bookshelf; it is a jumbled collection of life. And what is better than that?
A million years ago, I was a teenager who was very driven. I thought I had my whole life planned out. I was committed to achieving my dreams and I worked very hard to creep towards them. I knew how to get through high school quickly and successfully. I knew how to balance those academic needs with my athletic goals and plans. I knew where I wanted to go after high school, what my first career would be, then what schooling I would do to achieve my second career goals.
Then, as life is likely to do, I was thrown a curve ball that I didn’t see coming. With only a few years to make everything I wanted happen, I watched everything fall out of my grasp. As a cocky, driven teenager who thought I had everything under control, I was devastated.
But I was also lucky. Once I came out of my self-pitying funk, I looked around. I had people around me who motivated me and let me try new things, introduced me to new ideas, and supported me when I took my first timid steps in new directions.
I had a teacher who insisted that I, a straight A student, go see the guidance counsellor, and persisted when I refused multiple times. I had that guidance counsellor who saw through my bravado and introduced me to goals that would help me get back on track. One of the things he had me do was explore applying for a national scholarship called the Terry Fox Humanitarian Award. I probably would have resisted, but he broached it as a challenge, knowing that I was not one to back away from a challenge. So, I researched Terry Fox and learned a lot more about what he stood for, what he dreamed, what he accomplished, how he persevered despite adversity. How, even though he lost the battle, he is still winning the war today. There were a lot of correlations between his story and mine and I was sad to say I had not done nearly as much to persevere…yet.
Terry Fox’s story inspired me and gave me the kick to get my life back in order. I was headed in a totally different direction. I had to humbly start over in many ways and try on things I had never considered, (including eventually, a never-before-thought-of career in education).
I never met Terry Fox, but he changed my life and pulled me out of my own hardship. He helped me see how to take my driven spirit and drive it in a different direction, and that it was ok to do so. It wasn’t failing, it was adapting.
I’ve been following the semi colon project with great interest. In any school I have worked in, mental health issues are a concern. They affect students, staff, and families, both directly and indirectly. And, although public perceptions are slowly changing, there still is shame and blame associated with these illnesses. This, of course, only contributes to making the problems bigger and more difficult to manage.
I wonder now, if I hadn’t had help, especially in the way of mentors like Terry Fox that I could learn from and be inspired by, what I would have done. I don’t know for sure, but I don’t think I would have been able to pull myself out of my funk as well as I did. While I am grateful I received that national scholarship, I think my life would have been forever changed even if they had not granted it to me.
We all need mentors to help us get over ourselves and provide us with hope. I faced physical adversity and found a role model in Terry Fox. For others with mental health illnesses and struggles, I have wondered who would be willing and able to mentor them well.
I think the semi colon project can help. People face all kinds of adversity and need all kinds of mentors. People who have faced the strain of mental illness and now see light on the other side need to be visible for those who are still in the dark.
I am glad for the semi colon project. I am proud of those who stand up and are willing to be those mentors. Terry Fox may be forever known as someone who changed many lives, but I have full confidence that your strength will be an inspiration to many who desperately need it.
Thank you, semi colon people. You will change lives.
Like many other twitter-attached educators, I was following along with the tweets and blog posts coming out of the ISTE 2015 conference over the last week or so. Jealously. (I don’t think I was alone in that. There seemed to be almost as many #notatISTE tweets as there were posts from the actual conference). I gleaned whatever learning I could from afar.
One thing that caught my attention was the buzz about Pernille Ripp and her five minute IGNITE session. I was happy that Aviva Dunsiger tweeted me with a link to Pernille’s blogpost about her session. You can see that post and a recording of the session here.
Aviva sent me the link because we have, at our school, been working very hard at giving students a significant amount of voice and choice over the last few years. We’ve done it sometimes in conventional ways and sometimes in ways that are considered out there. Funny enough, earlier this week ideas of this sort came up even in interviews Paul Clemens and I were doing for new office administrators – because student voice and choice significantly changes what school looks like, what rules look like and most importantly, what learning looks like.
I nodded along with Pernille throughout her recorded session. She’s absolutely right when she said these things: “Even the smallest changes can make monumental differences… We have to take the first step… We have to change the way we are teaching.”
But the session had me wondering. The overgrown toddler in me who always wants to know why was adamant and looking for answers. Not why Pernille said the things she said – that I get. I wondered why there was such an outpouring of reaction to her session. Don’t get me wrong – I think everyone in that room and everyone who sees the recorded session should react so positively to the challenge, but I found it interesting that this session stood out among so many good ones as noteworthy.
Now, I don’t know for sure, but here’s what I’m thinking. Pernille is a noted author, gifted educator and a transparent learner – all this you can glean from her blog and her books. There can be no question that her passion for student voice and choice is evident throughout all of those. But so many educators and speakers have passion for the topics they speak about and teach.
It was Pernille’s opening story that got me. She didn’t talk at first as an educator. Or as an author. Or as an educational speaker. She spoke as a parent. She told us the story of a child – her child. That story provided for her an imperative to help us understand the changes she needed to make in her practice and the imperative as to why we all would need to consider changes in our own practices.
It isn’t about what we know or what we do because research says we should. It isn’t about what we learned in teacher’s college. It is about figuring out that kid in front of us and being willing to do whatever we have to do to get him or her to learn – willingly, joyfully, persistently. Being willing to do what needs to be done for that student is often antithetical to our core understanding of what it means to teach – aren’t we the experts?
What Pernille did in her session is hook us with perspective. We all have passion but if we don’t maintain the perspective of the student – that student who needs to learn and be heard in ways we may not have considered – I’m not sure we’ll make the progress we so desperately need in education.
Use your passion and your expertise, but not at the cost of the perspective of the student.
I recently learned about the refinement process of sugar. I bake a lot and have worked with more than my fair share of sugars. So, when my aunt (a retired teacher and someone with an endless supply of interesting tidbits) asked me “What kind of sugar do you think is more refined, granulated sugar or brown sugar?” I was pretty confident I knew what I was talking about. White sugar (granulated), of course.
Yeah. Totally wrong. Turns out that when they are making sugar, they strip it all the way down to the snow white little crystals so many of us use to flavour our morning coffee or bake our sugar cookies. Then, they take those pristine granules and add back in molasses and whatever else to then make brown sugar. Huh. Who knew? Clearly not me.
It had me thinking about what we do in education to refine our practice. I think about the teachers I have heard talking in the last little while about something new they are going to try or learn this summer so that they can put into practice when school resumes.
Learning something new requires lots of work and thought to get it all perfect to put into practice. That is sometimes a daunting task for educators, but most are so committed to improving practice that they do it anyway.
But I like to look at what that shiny new practice looks like months later after teachers have been experiencing it for a while. It’s usually different. Not as pristine. Not as perfect. It has been taken from that stripped, pure practice and has had flavour added to it. Teachers take their perfect plans and make them their own. They make them better.
For those who are committed to planning and learning this summer, carry on. Do your best work. But know that your granulated sugar plans will probably benefit from the colour and flavour that can only come when you put them into practice next year.
I love graduation. I love everything about it: the pomp and circumstance, the ritual of it all, the excitement of the parents and younger siblings. I think my favourite part is watching the graduates filing in. Beneath the styled hair, sky high shoes and crisp new ties are those faces that can’t hide their emotions. Some of them are so proud and excited it practically bubbles out of them. Others are shy about the attention but still pleased to be there. Others are so nervous but comforted by being part of the group and move with the wave of their peers.
In this graduation season, I can’t resist sharing my thoughts. Below are the thoughts I shared with the graduates of Ancaster Meadow yesterday. What words of wisdom would you give the graduates in your life?
Congratulations graduates on making it to this milestone day. Unlike some of the other milestones you’ve experienced in your life before now – learning to walk, your first words – this is a milestone that you will remember for the rest of your life.
Some of you may remember your first day of school – another milestone. You may remember standing at the door waiting for all of those tall teachers to come out; standing beside that crying kid with the Spiderman backpack wondering what you had gotten yourself into. Now you look down at all of those tall kindergarten teachers and that crying kid has been your best friend for ten years.
You represent quite a milestone for Ancaster Meadow. That year that some of you started Junior Kindergarten here was the year this new school opened. You are the first set of Ancaster Meadow graduates to have students who have been at this school for all ten years of their elementary education. You, and this school, have grown a lot in ten years.
You will hear many people tonight talk about this being the start of your future. How you are becoming young adults and how to use the skills you’ve been given up until now to make amazing things of your life. Many of those people saying those things know what they are talking about. They remember their grade 8 graduations and how they thought they were ready to do anything and succeed wildly. The truth is, you will leave here and you will succeed. But the other truth is that you will probably screw up a bit on the way, and that’s ok. That’s part of learning and growing up too.
But don’t be nervous about those successes and failures. You come prepared with plenty of things to rely on, and some of those you learned in these walls. You have learned how to be compassionate and caring, how persisting through those hard subjects is worth it in the end, how to work as a team, how to laugh at yourselves, how revealing who you really are and what you really think to others is important. You are all strong, smart, independent thinkers and I, and this whole room full of people, are very proud of your abilities.
You have spent the last few years listening to Mr Clemens’ words of wisdom every morning. We all know what an awesome Principal Mr Clemens is and his words are very wise. But there is another school principal who has some pretty wise words that I want to leave you with today. In the words of Professor Dumbledore (with a little help from J.K. Rowling): “It is our choices (Harry), that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”
Every one of you will leave this building tonight with many amazing abilities. You job, from this day on, is to use those to make choices that will leave the world a kinder, better place.
Celebrate all of your abilities today. Make good choices tomorrow. Learn from your mistakes and rely on one another always. I’m sad to see you all leave us here, but I am so confident that you are ready to create new milestones. Go build us a better world.
I’ve been thinking recently about all those things that aren’t significant elements of our curriculum but are important to developing students who will be good global and local citizens. You know the kind of thing I mean.
- Character Ed – how do we teach students to value and model integrity, honesty, respect, kindness?
- Contributors – how do we teach students that it is important to not always be consumers, but to remember how important it is to give back to others; donating time, money, acts of kindness?
- Environmentally connected – how do we continuously encourage students to be actively responsible for our environment, particularly when previous/current generations aren’t always the best role models?
- Problem Solvers – how do we teach students to look at complex problems from various perspectives, consider a wide variety of options to solve or support, and to reflect throughout the process to check for appropriate progress? This one, I will admit, is woven into the curriculum a little more, particularly in math and science, but I think students who are exposed to only traditional math/science problems still have trouble applying the process to their own real world problems.
- Communicators – how do we teach students to value and respect their voices (in writing, on social media, orally) and, perhaps even more importantly, the voices of others, regardless of whether they agree with the thoughts and ideas that were expressed?
- Self Advocators – how do we teach students to own their learning? To be responsible for advocating for what they need, what they want to learn about, and developing ways to share that knowledge with others?
Growing up well is a complex process. Educators have a stack of curriculae that they are responsible for teaching to our students and a finite amount of time to do it. So how do we address these really important ideas as well?
It got me thinking about the character education lessons I was responsible for teaching to primary students about ten years ago. We had these big cards that we read from the back of, accompanied by a picture on the front of the card that would teach our students – in about 5 minutes a day – the finer points of character education. This week – integrity. Next week – honesty. I dutifully “taught” my students using these cards, but I wonder now if I actually taught them anything useful. This kind of teaching – whether it is character ed or any of those extras listed above – doesn’t fit nicely into 5 minutes a day or onto a glossy teacher lesson card.
Many teachers I know today do a far better job than I did with these extras. The biggest factor I have seen that has contributed to real, thoughtful understanding and application of the ideas behind the extras? Inquiry.
When students are engaged in inquiry – real, authentic opportunities for learning in rich and diverse ways -they find their voices. They find their passions. They see and interact with the world around them. They learn about their impact on their world and the impact of the people and events around the world on them. They become outraged about different issues and plan solutions and act on their ideas. They persevere through problems and collaborate to find solutions and act on them too. They talk to each other. They listen to each other. They seek out answers from experts and become experts for others and share what they know in innovative ways. They see learning, not as 8 separate boxes of their day, but a continuous process that involves lots of different topics and experiences.
Here’s the funny thing about extras. Whether it is extra sauce on your burger or the seat warmer in your car, the extras are usually what make the experience that much better. (Full disclosure, I am now daydreaming about Triple O Whitespot sauce and my van’s seat warmer on a cold winter’s day. They really are wonderful things.) I don’t mean to minimize these skills by calling them extras. I think they are actually the elements that make our students’ education far better. In education (and burgers and cars, I guess), the extras are important.
How do you fit in the extras? How important are they to you? If inquiry isn’t the mode you use to get to them, what do you do? If you do use inquiry, do you see an increased ability in your students to get at the extras?