Inquiry is NOT just for 5 Year Olds

Posted: 12th July 2014 by kkeerybi in Uncategorized

My son is heading off to university in the fall and I couldn’t be prouder. He is a smart, hard-working kid with big ambition and skills to match. But one of the things I’m most proud of is his choice of program. He does well in school, and, as a result, got into every program he applied to, but the one he chose actually matches my own teaching and learning philosophy – something I hadn’t really thought would be possible.
Earlier this week was an orientation for the program for excited students and anxious parents (it wasn’t actually billed for those specific audiences, but that’s an editorialized, general observation). The Dean got up and proudly announced that this program is unlike most others. Our children should be congratulated for getting into a program that accepts a very small portion of applicants. And we should know what our children are getting into. The secret, he shared, to success boils down to a single indicator. Parents here waited with bated breath. They NEEDED the secret because their child would be the best student this program had ever seen. They knew their child was already probably doing it. They waited.
The secret, said the Dean, was a student’s ability to do group work, collaborate and participate in inquiry. Marks and grades, on the other hand, would hold far less weight in their success.
Did I say parents were anxious? Make that horrified, angry, gobsmacked. This was not the answer they had expected or wanted to hear. Since all the students had achieved a high school average in and about 98% to get into the program, it made sense that in their experience, marks do generally carry a lot of weight and do measure success.
I smiled. This is the best news I’ve heard to come out of a university in a long time. I fully believe in the value of inquiry-based learning. Not just for kindergarten students, as our province more frequently highlights (and, in some way minimizes, by teaching the public to call it play-based learning when their preconceived notions of play can be derogatory). I have spent the last few years extolling the virtues of inquiry in our classrooms for all students (and for their educators, but that’s another story). Often push back comes from parents and educators asking: but how does inquiry prepare our students for…grade one, middle school, high school, post secondary opportunities…you name it, they ask it. Yet, here is an acclaimed university in a very auspicious program, saying inquiry is exactly what is most important for their students’ success.
I feel for those parents that the Dean spoke to. Their world just got turned upside down. But I couldn’t be happier. I now have yet one more way to convince the inquiry doubters. And perhaps, in a few years, that Dean will not see a sea full of horrified expressions when he gives his secret for success speech because parents and students will already know the benefits of learning in an inquiry-rich environment. Keep up the good work, Dean. I’m behind you all the way.image

Being Remarkable

Posted: 8th July 2014 by kkeerybi in Uncategorized

It is a few weeks into summer vacation here. Such a lovely time of year to allow educators a chance to recharge, catch up with family, friends and those honey-do lists. It has struck me this year how few educators just leave it at that for summer plans, though. Most educators I know spend at least part of their vacation reading professional resources, taking AQ courses or summer workshops, continue to think, blog, question, connect using various social mediums or dig into planning for the next school year in their classrooms or on their deck.
I’ve spent the last week working on a fall curriculum package, reading some books and getting a little much needed rest. But beyond the rest (and some fabulous deck parties) it is those things that keep me thinking like an educator that re-invigorate me. I love thinking about what I could do, change and refresh to make learning that much better for the students and educators in my care.
One of my favourite quotes is by John Green. In his book An Abundance of Katherines, he wrote: “What is the point of being alive if you don’t at least try to do something remarkable?”
Most of the educators I know are constantly striving for remarkable…even when the public may think it is just two months off. Thanks educators. Keep being remarkable – our students are so worth it.
What do you do to refresh and re-invigorate your teaching practice?

High Expectations and Report Cards

Posted: 18th June 2014 by kkeerybi in Uncategorized

I am almost finished my first year as a school administrator and I have learned many things so far. One thing that has struck me is how challenging it is to be a leader with high expectations. It involves some stepping-up-to-the-plate modelling, courageous conversations, and a clear and steady ability to reflect on what’s the goal, where is it and how to get there. Did I mention it was challenging?
I am almost through reviewing this term’s report cards. Most teachers find them exhausting and difficult to write reports, but they are an important evidence piece for students, parents and educators. So, I want teachers to take them seriously and do them well. It means I sometimes have to offer feedback that is difficult to give. I have to decide what aspects to support an individual teacher in developing and when. (Note to self and other newbies…suggesting change or new learning in June is not always popular.) But the biggest challenge I took on was to attempt some modelling this term.
It’s June. That means I am up to my eyeballs in schedules, trip forms, parent requests, class lists, in addition to report cards. But I still decided to try. Using Growing Success as a reference, we have asked teachers at our school to personalize their report cards as much as possible. They should represent what the student specifically did, how well they did it and next steps to help them with further learning. So I wondered, is there a way that I can support personalization as well?
I decided to try. I committed to reading the reports I got to try to really see the individual student in them. To help me focus on this, I decided to write a personal comment for each student on the report. It was easy to do with some reports and more challenging with others but if we are asking teachers to know their students well and document their learning specifically, shouldn’t I be willing to try to model that as well? What do you think?

Might I Have A Word?

Posted: 12th June 2014 by kkeerybi in Uncategorized

Do you remember that movie The Sixth Sense? (I’m totally dating myself with this reference, but you young’uns can google it if you like.) Bruce Willis was this child psychologist trying to help a little boy who saw dead people. It took me almost the entire movie to figure out (ok, I know this is a spoiler but the movie is 15 years old, people) that the doctor was dead for most of the movie. I never saw it coming. It took just 2 seconds of a scene with the doctor’s wife for me to realize what was going on and then it completely changed my whole understanding of the movie. What I thought I knew shifted drastically in an instant. Enough that I am apparently still remembering it 15 years later.

I love when those things happen in learning. When a quote, a graphic, a story shared, a picture – hits you and totally shifts your understanding of a concept. This week, for me, it was a single word.

I have been sifting and refining my understanding of inquiry all year. It helps that I work with a great bunch of educators – in person and in the cyber world – who push my thinking all of the time and let me see glimpses of how inquiry is working for them. One thing I have been pondering is the role of direct instruction and the teacher’s responsibility in inquiry.

At this point in time, I think there is absolutely a role for teachers to teach students concepts, ideas, and ways of thinking and processing directly. They need that and I don’t know if I see the possibility of that going away. But there also seems to be a need for teachers to spend much more of their time supporting students from a different perspective. I’ve mostly heard it as “facilitating the learner”, “teacher as facilitator” or “guide on the side”.

These are all good, and I have been using them quite a lot when talking with teachers. But what if it isn’t really facilitating? What if that doesn’t really capture what I want teachers to do?

Facilitate means to make something easier or to help something along. But I don’t want learning to be easier for students. Learning – good, rich learning about meaningful questions – isn’t easy. It’s very difficult. Kids need to grapple with that difficulty.

Then I heard a new word. It was at a lecture given earlier this week by Michael Fullan. It wasn’t really in relation to inquiry, but that is where my mind took it.

What if we described a main role for teachers in inquiry as not the facilitator but the activator?

Activate means to cause something to react, or cause to function. YES! I want students to act, react, function. I want teachers to jump start student learning. I want them to provoke students with rich, impossible questions. I want media and people resources to present different perspectives that make students reconsider their thinking. I want them to build excitement but find links between learning opportunities, current events, student passion and curriculum. That is way more than a guide on the side could offer.

It is somewhat comforting to think of inquiry educators as activators. One of the big challenges I hear about inquiry learning from skeptics is that it sounds like the student is doing all the learning on their own. This isn’t some futuristic movie where all the students wear their strange scuba suit type uniforms and learn in individual pods with just an electronic voice to keep them company. This is active participation by student AND teacher. In teacher as activator inquiry, teachers are not obsolete but crucial to good learning.

Maybe it is just me. Maybe activator doesn’t do anything for you. I’m ok with that. It is helping push my thinking about inquiry. I’d love to hear what has shifted other people’s understanding of inquiry too.

How can you activate my thinking?

Thinking Outside Teachable Moments

Posted: 27th May 2014 by kkeerybi in Uncategorized

This week I’ve had a few experiences that have caused me to think about teachable moments. A few years back, this seemed to be a big edu phrase. At inservices and workshops, we would talk about those teachable moments we jumped on, took control of in the moment and led our students to cure cancer, understand bringing peace to earth, and figure out how to all share one ball at recess. It was like our very own teaching Hallmark card.

I like the idea of teachable moments – those opportunities that teachers recognize and immediately figure out how to respond to create learning for our students…and then carry it out…and then it works. But that’s a lot of pressure. Teachers are skilled, observant workers with a huge toolbox of skills, but those teachable moments are a big order.

What made me think of this is a conversation I had with a group of co-learners. We talked about how we always feel the need to respond in the moment to situations and create meaningful learning out of it. Then we talked about how often it is more effective to have the time to reflect on a situation and strategically plan out your response. What questions will you ask? What information will you offer? How can you intentionally craft the learning environment and conditions to allow for the best chance for that moment of learning? Like all teachers, I am well practiced at asking questions on the fly, but I know that the questions I plan out are even better than those quick ones.

Our new world of inquiry based learning and honouring student voice and choice sometimes makes us live and learn on the fly more than we have been used to. While I love the buzz of an inquiry-filled classroom, it moves very quickly. Teachers often step up and move quickly with it as the facilitator, but are there those opportunities to also slow down and decidedly craft the learning environment, opportunities, questions and discussion as well? How does this work with a classroom of inquiry? Do you think it could be used effectively and still be supportive of a inquiry based program?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. What do you think?

A Lesson Learned from Gilderoy Lockhart

Posted: 24th May 2014 by kkeerybi in Uncategorized

One tradition in my house has always been to read before bedtime. Sadly, my three oldest rarely allow a good read aloud anymore (in part because their bedtime is later than mine) but my youngest daughter still loves our reading sessions. Currently we are reading through the Harry Potter series. Last night, Cana and I were reading and we came to this passage in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets:

When he had handed out the test papers he returned to the front of the class and said, “You have thirty minutes. Start – now!”
Harry looked down at his paper and read:
1. What is Gilderoy Lockhart’s favourite colour?
2. What is Gilderoy Lockhart’s secret ambition?
3. What, in your opinion, is Gilderoy Lockhart’s greatest achievement to date?
On and on it went, over three sides of paper, right down to:
54. When is Gilderoy Lockhart’s birthday, and what would his ideal gift be?
Half an hour later, Lockhart collected in the papers and rifled through them in front of the class.
“Tut, tut – hardly any of you remembered that my favourite colour is lilac. I say so in Year with a Yeti. And a few of you need to read Weekend with a Werewolf more carefully – I clearly state in chapter twelve that my ideal birthday gift would be harmony between all magic and non-magic peoples – though I wouldn’t say no to a large bottle of Ogden’s Old Firewhisky!”

Oh Gilderoy, you have totally missed the mark about teaching and assessment. Your poor students. How engaging do you think that learning was for them? How meaningfully was their learning represented? Who was it that decided what was important to be learned? How much of the learning that you asked them to do was the easy regurgitation of facts?

I don’t know what teacher training looks like for the employees of Hogwarts, but I would suggest that perhaps some lessons in who the learning is really about might be in order. It seems to me that Gilderoy is under the mistaken impression that it is his job to transfer all the information in his head that he deems important into the heads of all of his students, regardless of whether this will actually help them in their learning of the subject (which, incidently, is Defense Against the Dark Arts. Knowing Gilderoy’s favourite colour is unlikely to help Harry and his fellow students in defending themselves against the evils of the magical world, I’m afraid.) Gilderoy has been caught up in unfortunate cycle of thinking “What I think and say is much more important than what my students think and say, unless what they say agrees with me.”

As Cana and I will soon learn as we continue reading this book, Gilderoy Lockhart really doesn’t know what he is talking about. He really has no idea how to defend against any dark forces, so he has disguised this by reaching for things he does know about to prove how smart he is. As teachers back in the real world move more into the realm of teaching through inquiry, we are more and more frequently delving into learning with our students about things that we are not experts on. Instead of trying to mask this by spouting what we do know, as Gilderoy did, we should try some different techniques. Here are some ideas:

Admit that we don’t know, but we would love to learn it with them and from them. Talk about an engaging start.

Ask them questions. Good questions, not simple quick answer ones. Questions that make them think more deeply, with varied perspectives, with an eye towards bias and also towards real world application. Also, questions that help you as the co-learner better understand the subject matter. Nothing makes a student’s eyes light up faster than a teacher saying: “I never thought of that but it helps me understand it better.”

Think about assessment and how to balance it with good learning. We still have a need to assign marks to student learning, but generally the traditional forms of assessment just don’t capture good learning well. Gilderoy’s 54 question test (in 30 minutes!) is easy to mark and grade, but doesn’t really measure student learning about how to defeat Voldemort and company in a dark alley. Documenting the conversations you have throughout the learning process with students, having students demonstrate their learning in a variety of ways, and having students capture their shifts in thinking and application over time will help you paint a picture of how well the learning has happened. To me, this is always the most difficult juggling act, but so worth it.

Give them something interesting to learn about. I may not know about all of the inquiry topics that students will investigate, but I’m a pretty good thinker and researcher myself (pretty good qualities for a teacher to have, I would say). I can find thought-provoking material, concepts, thoughts and ideas and provide students with them to encourage them to learn more deeply. We often call these provocations. It doesn’t mean we are providing all that a student needs to know, but perhaps pointing them in a direction that they wouldn’t have gotten to on their own.

Don’t immediately jump in with the “right” answer. Gilderoy does just that after collecting the tests, again proving how much smarter he is than his students. Unfortunately, all he has taught them is that if they don’t know right away, he will rescue them. No thinking required. If they don’t know the answer, they aren’t ever going to be motivated to learn it on their own.

Gilderoy Lockhart was a total fraud of a teacher. There is very little to recommend him as an educator. But it is easy to fall into some of the same traps he does in teaching. If we are to continue to strive to provide our students with the education they need to live in our fast-paced world, we have to move beyond the 54 question test and into the realm of real learning and assessing. We can’t let our own Harry Potters down. You never know what they will become after we teach them.

Seeking Good Advice

Posted: 20th May 2014 by kkeerybi in Uncategorized

When I was first put into the VP pool for my board, I was given some advice by a seasoned VP.
“Never talk at meetings. Never disagree with those above you. Never share what you are frustrated about or what you don’t know.”
With that, I almost backed out. I figured I would be in trouble if those were the expectations I faced.
I came into this role to learn to become a better educator and work to find ways to support student learning. I can’t do that without asking questions, challenging my ideas and the ideas of others, admitting those things I’m struggling with, and asking for help. I appreciate that the structures in place to support leaders in our board actually complement my learning style. We use problems or challenges of practice to focus our personal growth plans and scaffold our learning in meaningful ways. I can’t tell you what a relief this was after the early advice I received.
But here is where I need some new advice. I have far too many problems of practice to help me focus on learning one thing at a time. My biggest frustration this year is never having enough time to do anything well (I hear all you seasoned administrators, teachers and parents chuckling at that). I have tried to find ways to focus my learning. What are my immediate concerns? (Too big). What are those things that keep me up at night? (Way too big). What does the system say I need to focus on? (Too big and conflicting with the previous two categories).
I suspect others have cracked the code to figure out how to focus down your learning ambitions into manageable parts. If you have, what factors did you use to help refine your learning goals?

Duck Season. Wabbit Season. Staffing Season.

Posted: 12th May 2014 by kkeerybi in Uncategorized

Today I went to the retirement party for one of my most long-standing mentors. I first met Krys Croxall when I was about 12 years old. She was my principal the year I put my foot down and insisted I wanted to attend my home school full time with my friends. My teachers and Krys made sure I had lots of special programming, though, to keep me occupied. I remember coming back from one event and having Krys ask me some very tough questions. I was impressed that she actually seemed interested in what I had to say and pushed me to think about how to take it even further. She is one of the most memorable educators I had as a student. Fast forward several years, and here I am now teaching a class in an inner city school. I worked hard, cared desperately about my students, and tried to just keep my head down and do my job with a minimum of attention. Krys, now a system Superintendent, came to my school to support us in our OFIP efforts. Krys spoke to me and very kindly talked about ways she knew I was supporting my students. I have no idea how she knew any of those things, but that day I felt like I could actually do this teaching thing. It helped me think that I could take on more in my school, which eventually led to me becoming a system itinerant teacher.

I was thrilled last year to be assigned as a VP in a school where Krys was now my superintendent. Thrilled and terrified. She asks really hard questions. She has an incredible knowledge of curriculum, pedagogy and research. I knew I would learn so much from her again. Krys retired before I could really work with her in this capacity, but I’m happy that our paths crossed as often as they did.

It is staffing season right now. It means Stressful times for everyone. I love working with all the staff at my school, and I would be sad to see any of them go. However, I am a big believer in the need for educators to challenge themselves by putting themselves in new situations, with new colleagues, mentors and school climates. I really applaud staff that look for ways to change their practices. I think it makes schools better and individual teachers better, which makes learning better.

The more schools you go to, positions you try, and people you connect with, the better we all become. Staffing season should be seen as an opportunity – a challenge. It’s not right for everyone, every year; but every year educators should ask themselves if this is the year that they take a chance and try something new. A new experience may lead you to your very own Krys Croxall. Totally worth the challenge.

Finding Our Passions

Posted: 5th May 2014 by kkeerybi in Uncategorized

I am one lucky mama. I have 4 kids, each with very different personalities, interests, abilities and challenges. In a big family, making sure everyone gets a chance to shine and be celebrated by the rest of the family is tough, but it is something important to us. As a family we go to many games, competitions, shows, and award ceremonies. It also means I spend a good portion of my “free” time driving around and volunteering and a LARGE portion of my disposable income making sure my kids have these experiences.

But what if my kids had more opportunities to explore their passions during the school day? What if they could choose to bring together their interests, skills and abilities and create meaningful work that could be shared and celebrated?
It seems to me that more and more people in education are leaning this way as a means of developing engaged, 21st century learners. I so appreciate that the Hamilton Wentworth District School Board is asking this very thing in a new visioning document entitled “Transforming Learning Everywhere”, which you can read here:

At a school level, we are definitely asking how to help foster student passion while developing curricular skills. Teachers are exploring how to combine different curricular areas to seamlessly blend learning in meaningful ways. We are asking richer questions that make students think, create, apply and experiment instead of just recall, regurgitate, and redo what someone has already done. We have fewer tests and more real world applications. We have more conversations and fewer lectures. We are listening more to students as they tell us what they want to learn, how they want to learn it and how they can make our suggestions even better. It is pretty exciting.

This is Education Week here. To me, that means a time to celebrate the hard work we have done and think about where we are going next. Personally, I love that we are focusing on finding student voices, offering students choices and using student-led inquiry as a means to build passionate learners. I appreciate that many teachers have rethought their practices and have jumped into the great unknown of inquiry. I get excited when I hear our students make meaningful, quality choices to learn and demonstrate their learning in meaningful ways. I am thankful that many parents support these new educational practices – even if they don’t fully understand them – because they see the passion in their own children.

I’m a proud mama. But I’m also a proud teacher, administrator and employee of the HWDSB. Happy Education Week to you. To celebrate, let’s all help a student find a passion and cheer them on.

The Choice IS Ours

Posted: 14th April 2014 by kkeerybi in Uncategorized

Every morning during the announcements Paul Clemens, the principal at our school, starts us all thinking with his words of wisdom. I’ve never asked him how he chooses what he shares but the thoughts are often quite timely and generate thought and conversation. My favourite part, though, is his conclusion every day: “Make it a great day or not, the choice is yours.” That’s so true, isn’t it?
On March 25, I started by 30 days of gratitude to help me more mindfully look at things through a positive lens as a means to combat stress and fatigue in the school. Deciding what to write each day (and paring my choices down to one favourite) is a high light of my day. I love reading in my twitter feed when others comment on their what they are grateful for as well. We have so much to be thankful for in education (and in general) in North America. It is sometimes difficult to see this through the day-to-day crises we face but it is true.
Since I wrote that post on March 25, more stress has been heightened in the school in a way that is a different experience for me because it is my first year as an administrator. Some of the stress is because of decisions that I’ve been a part of making, and some is because of decisions that have been made on behalf of the school for us. It is interesting that it does come down to choices and how different people react to them. When different viewpoints and factors are considered and difficult choices are made, people sometimes see the decisions as flat and one dimensional when in fact there are so many sides that they haven’t considered. Other people accept decisions based on an understanding of the complexity of thought (if not the specific factors themselves) behind decisions, despite how they may be adversely affected. Other people immediately trash the decisions and attack the decision makers in various ways.
Here’s the truth I am discovering. Sometimes decisions are made that we aren’t going to like, for whatever reason. We still have the choice in how we react, just as Paul says during the announcements. We can work with what we’ve got with a positive attitude or fight it all the way. The choice IS ours.
I have a whole lot of years left in my career. I have heard more negativity blasted in my vicinity this year than in any year of my career thus far. I don’t want to get caught up in it, be a part of it, or encourage it. I will endeavour to find ways to stay positive – like the gratitude project – and hope that helps. I will keep making decisions thoughtfully, using as much perspective as possible. I will keep in mind that decisions are unlikely to please everybody but they need to fulfill a purpose as best as possible. I will attempt to work with decisions that have been made for me by finding creative and positive ways to implement what may not look like an ideal answer.
I’m trying to make it a good day. I want to make that choice. I have these goals through the negativity and the hard decisions and the fallout.
To you who may have more experience than I do with these unpleasant realities, what else can I do? Any suggestions for either making or accepting decisions that seem to breed negativity? I’ve made my choice. Now I just need the strategies to implement it.