Monday, December 12, 2011

A what?

I am a phenomenological post-modernist.

A what? Who am I to be using such big words? Well, I am a phenomenological post-modernist... let me explain.

I am a person; myself. My perspective is the sum total of my experiences. Others are people; themselves. Together we all have experiences as we interact with each other and the world around us... the phenomena we are exposed to and that affect us. We are all in the world... the lenses I look through are shaped by this very complex and dynamic reality... this is my phenomenological perspective.

My postmodern perspective always sees a better way. I view the world subjectively, (perhaps we all do,) and see truth as the most logical and righteous construct to me at any given time... but times change, and so do constructs- there is always a better way... this is my postmodern perspective.

I understand that I am unarguably affected by my experiences; phenomena I've encountered altering the lenses I look through. I have dealt with adversity. I am a resilient person. Many times I have had support helping me see the intermediary position... the one that helped to dilute my polarized view. I know that the truth usually tends toward the middle.

The big words I use to describe my perspective are real to me. I think about them a lot. People give me a hard time about using big words, but I have earned the right to use them.

Who and what are you?

Excellence pursued...

"I believe in the pursuit of excellence; we can ask for nothing 
more than the individual’s greatest effort."

flickr CC image via DarrelBirkett

Excellence pursued is excellence. 

I believe that excellence in a finite state is not excellence. Once we believe there is no further direction toward an improved state, we have become less than excellent. 


adjective Mathematics .
of or pertaining to an asymptote.
(of a function) approaching a given value as an expression containing a variable tends to infinity.
(of two functions) so defined that their ratio approachesunity as the independent variable approaches a limit orinfinity.
(of a formula) becoming increasingly exact as a variable approaches a limit, usually infinity.
coming into consideration as a variable approaches a limit,usually infinity: asymptotic property; asymptotic behavior.

 asymptotic. (n.d.). Unabridged. Retrieved December 12, 2011, from website:

Excellence is an asymptotic concept. An athlete may be rewarded a gold medal for excellence, and then in the next race get dethroned as the gold medal score is beaten in the next race... once we think we've achieved excellence, we cease to be excellent.

In the special education environment I used to teach within, the benchmark for "excellence" was 80% of a goal achieved. Goals marked at 80% achieved would be replaced with a new goal. I always wondered what happened to pursuing the other 20%... and then I started to wonder if 100% was even good enough to be considered excellent. What if we simply stated that we will pursue measurable improvements to all goals, (whatever they may be,) understanding that they will never be mastered, but perhaps that the degree of focus on particular goals will change according to individual circumstances? This to me would be the unending pursuit of excellence.

Can we really every ask for anything more than the individual's greatest effort?

Friday, December 9, 2011

Learning for Living at LCU...

flickr CC image via Patrick Hoesly

Question: What will Learning Circle University look like in the real world?

Answer: It's quite simple really. Learning Circle University (LCU) is a conceptual model of learning built on a platform that supports a learning purpose. It's a circle of support enabling the learners inside it to thrive.

We can do much to surround ourselves within learning circles, but there are certainly circumstances that can hinder individual efforts to do this. Sometimes we need a little help to achieve our learning goals, or perhaps even to realize the purpose behind them. We can put ourselves in motion toward a better place, but sometimes we need a little nudge; someone to hold our hand. Either way the platform of the circle remains the same. Never before in history has there been a more optimal time to draw circles of support around those who need to know, want to know or both... anywhere, anytime and anybody learning.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

EduKARE taking shape...

flickr CC image via Enokson

The most exciting announcement I've heard for a while took place today in my city. Through the collaborative efforts of the City of Red Deer, Red Deer Public Schools and Red Deer Public Libraries, a new library was born today. This library will be different though.

This library will serve as a public and a school library, and it will be located at a new school to be opened in September 2014. This is a concept for library services that I have been thinking about, and writing about for some time. From the archives...
School Site Selection"As schools are renovated, redesigned or built new, physical EduKARE elements could be built into them. Community halls, recreational facilities, health clinics, libraries, satellite police stations, social service agency offices... these could be built in to the new building reducing cost of maintaining multiple facilities. Shared costs between agencies and school boards in providing these collaborative service spaces would save money. Thinking way outside the box, why couldn't senior citizen facilities share the same buildings as well? Sugatra Mitra is connecting senior citizens with the time and so much more to offer our youth in a global context; why not bring his "granny cloud" concept to every school? If we can connect significant others to kids in a global context, surely we can make the connection locally within our schools."

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Learning for Living...

flickr CC image via scratanut

Learning for living... Find something you love to do, then find a way to make money doing it"

Life long learning is a phrase being used a lot lately. Educators everywhere are working hard to support life-long learning. They are responding to the perceived need in contemporary society for kids to become life-long learners in preparation for the twenty-first century... but what is a life-long learner, and furthermore, what is twenty-first century learning? 

I am wondering if the impact of both these terms is becoming neutralized by a lack of clarity and context. How we frame learning is key if we intend to create substance around these terms, and then once we have a clear grasp of learning, we can begin to contextualize a platform of support that sustains it over a lifetime that for the vast majority of us, will not extend beyond the 21st Century making life-long learning, and 21st Century learning, somewhat synonymous. 

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Zen and the art of early engagement...

flickr CC image via woodleywonderworks

If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything;

it is open to everything.  In the beginner's mind there are

many possibilities, in the expert's mind there are few.

Shunryu Suzuki-Roshi

I have been thinking about the way we introduce learning to kids at the beginning of the kindergarten to grade twelve spectrum. We are taught as preservice teachers to think of early learning kids as "tabula rasa," or blank slates. This is interesting considering that we are also taught during our preservice training that kids have learned an almost unbelievable amount in the first five years of life. We certainly don't seem to honor the widely accepted notion that kids have likely learned more before entering school than they will collectively for the rest of their lives. From the NYU Child Study Center...
During this time the brain undergoes its most dramatic growth, and children rapidly develop the cognitive capacity that enables them to become intellectually curious and creative thinkers.
It appears clear to me that we are very privileged as professionals to have such adept and capable subjects to work with right off the bat. Even if we accept that kids are born as blank slates... tabula rasa, I believe by the time they enter school, kids are chock full of knowledge, skills and attitudes enabling them to learn any number of things... each child is indeed tabula abundans; an abundant slate. Their "beginner minds" are primed and ready to learn. So how do we run with this and make it work for them?

Synthesizing energy...

flickr CC image via NASA Goddard Photo and Video

Some years ago I had the fortunate opportunity to participate in a three day (over three months,) leadership series with Dr. Leroy Sloan. During one of those days Leroy shared a venn diagram with three circles. In the middle of the circle on the left was the word job. In the circle on the opposite end was the word career. In the middle circle was the word life. Dr. Sloan used the diagram to make the following point...
In the measured contexts of our everyday lives, we know a lot about what people do in their daily jobs (the things they have to do), perhaps a little about their career aspirations (the things they want to do), and not very much at all about their lives away from work- the elements that make them who they are... their families, histories, passions, hobbies, fears, joys etc. There is something inherently defeating about this if we intend to work collaboratively and cooperatively from informed and synergistic perspectives.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Learning Circles.

flickr CC image via IDEAleemade

I'm fond of circles. To me circles represent learning that is non-linear, organic and never ending; not the type I typically experienced as an undergraduate student in the Faculty of Education I attended. A linear path was more or less set out for me in pre-service teacher training, (but there were some bright spots,) and I did what was asked of me. More recently I have become involved in less linear learning paths, but only in the last few weeks have I contextualized them as learning circles. All the way through my K-12 education, and at three post-secondary institutions since then, I always knew when I was immersed in an authentic, organic learning environment, I just didn't know what to call it. It was about the spirit of my involvement in learning, and the spirit of those around me. Collectively we created learning environments that were comfortable and non-threatening, strength-based and multi-faceted. A bright-spot example of what I would have called a learning circle at the time if I had thought about it in that context was my experience in a class taught by Dr. David Wangler.

Dr.Wangler insisted that his students did two things... we had to read, we had to write and we were guided to do both using the best resources available at the time. My undergrad years pre-date widespread use of modern technology in the classroom, so that meant we actually had to read books; lots of them, and then we had to write about what we read. Years ahead of his time in the realm of creating an authentic learning environment, Dr. Wangler set up his class so the students were the drivers of their own learning paths. At the beginning of the term he asked us to sign a contract stating the mark we intended to get at the end of the term. Each requisite grade corresponded to a set of "readings," five picked by him and the rest varied in quantity according to the mark we intended to receive (for a seven out of nine, I had to read 18 "books," each the equivalent of 200 pages.)

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Chapter 17- Multicultural to Intercultural

A new book is on the horizon. Innovative Voices in Education- Engaging Diverse Communities, is described by  leading urban sociologist and Peter L. Agnew Professor of Education at New York University, Pedro Norguera as "clear and compelling… an invaluable resource."  Given that Norguera's scholarship and research focuses on the ways in which schools are influenced by social and economic conditions in the urban environment, his endoresment of this book is humbling and important.

I wrote the closing chapter for Innovative Voices... Multicultural to Intercultural: Developing Interdependent Learners. By design, the other sixteen chapters were written by a wonderfully diverse array of people from all over the place. All of this came together through the tireless efforts of Eileen Kugler, executive editor of the book. I am grateful to have contributed to such an interesting and thought-provoking process. Here is the summary of my chapter...
Kids from every corner of the globe attend Canadian schools; simply acknowledging this multiculturalism isn't good enough anymore. This educator asserts the need to move beyond a reciprocal appreciation of our differences toward an intercultural perspective that maximizes the social, emotional and academic potential of every student. We do this by fostering and teaching intercultural competence... the ability to effectively communicate with and learn from people of other cultures. This author introduces the Hope Wheel; an action oriented learning tool designed to support the development of respect, understanding, relationships and responsibility as students become interdependent travelers on the journey toward sociocultural and academic competence. To help prepare our children for the realities of their future, and to function more productively within the realities of the present, educators must embrace the diversity of our world and do everything they can to help kids connect with and learn from each other.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011


flickr CC image via Magenta Rose

Stories aren't a "communication tool." Stories just are... we use communication tools to tell them.

Stories are powerful, no doubt... perhaps more powerful than any other element of learning. How they are told makes lots of difference. When we tell stories that are personal, true, emotional and purposeful, they take on meaning that moves people. Whether these stories are told through words, pictures, writing, sculpture, photographs, paintings whatever... the tool serves to represent the story, but the story is there regardless whether someone chooses to tell it or not.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Learning Circle University...

So my friend Michael Josefowicz (@ToughLoveforX) proclaimed a week or so ago, "let's start a university!" Sounded a little crazy, but hey, I'm game for anything when it comes to collective intelligence around the improvement of teaching and learning. So here's how the story goes so far...

Michael and I speak often, almost daily, with just about anyone who shares our interest and passion for teaching and learning. We have connected with a growing cohort of similarly impassioned individuals and organizations around the world as our personal learning network by leveraging the varied social media outlets we each utilize. The last while, much of our conversation has revolved around the optimization of learning... specifically, what kinds of environments seem to promote learning. I think the key to learning is engagement. How to engage learners is possibly the largest challenge for any teacher. Each individual student possesses a unique and complex learning story that needs to be discovered; no small task. To create an authentic culture of learning that seeks to clarify and expose students' stories, teachers have to know these stories.

Professional Development?

flickr CC image via mikecogh

I've been grappling with the concept of professional development. Teachers tend to refer to any workshop, seminar or in-service as professional development, but I'm not sure about this.

Undoubtedly there are many valuable and purposeful workshops, seminars and in-services for teachers across many teaching and learning contexts. Teachers can be trained to do a number of specific things quite efficiently and adequately that enhance their skills as a teacher, but I don't call that professional development. I call it professional training. When we train as professionals, we learn how to do something, not why we do it, what philosophical rationale is behind it or what makes it a pedagogically sound practice. We learn new strategies so we can do our job. There is usefulness in all of this. There are loads of valuable predetermined teaching tools and resources that come with an already established set of instructions; sort of a paint-by-numbers situation. When we learn how to use these we aren't really developing anything, however. To develop as professionals means to engage in a quite different process.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Interculturalism- Engaging Diverse Communities

I  am so excited to know that Innovative Voices in Education- Engaging Diverse Communities will be in print very soon. To be sure, contributing to this book as an author has been one of the most thought provoking projects I have ever collaborated on, and I am exceedingly impressed by the depth and value of its messages. Seventeen authors from all over the place wrote each of the book's seventeen chapters; each from their own unique and insightful perspectives.

Eileen Kugler, our executive editor, is from Washington, DC. Eileen is an internationally recognized advocate of the unique benefits that diversity brings schools, communities and workplaces. Eileen’s award-winning first book, Debunking the Middle-Class Myth: Why diverse schools are good for all kids, inspires honest dialogue and sincere reflection among all who read it.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Fear and Opportunity- turning the table on bullies

Fear and opportunity... we generally place a negative or defeating connotation on the word "fear." What if fear were a useful element. Perhaps it can be.

A recent conversation between fellow Nemeticists, Daniel Durrant (@ddrrnt), Michael Josefowicz (@ToughLoveForX) and I, led us to question the presence and value of fear in a complex adaptive system that is a school. Fear is rampant in education: fear of failure; fear of consequence; fear of authority; fear of bullying... fear in every case manifested as anxiety and stress. But what of a potential lack of fear... would this be a better state? Let's glare at the issue of bullying for sake of argument. Daniel made a profound statement worth analyzing...
"bullies prepare us for a world that will hurt us, but we want to prepare bullies for a world that will love them."
I know there is no shortage of people who will say this is an unfair and imbalanced trade-off, but I disagree. Every element of a complex adaptive system is engaged in the system in one way or another- that's what makes the system complex... but it's the manner in which these elements (let's just say people) adapt that ultimately determines the sustainability of the system. Fear is a biological condition with a purpose- when exposed to it we make a choice to fight or flee. Either way, the choice we make will determine the quantum direction our action will send us. Both decisions put us in motion. Robert Sylwester describes the reflexive and reflective properties of this process as related as in they're both triggered by fear... fear of imminent threat to survival, and fear of what is unknown, but not an imminent threat. In both contexts it's up to individuals to react as appropriately as possible to mitigate the fear.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Our dive into self organized learning...

After learning about Sugata Mitra's Hole in the Wall experiment, I started thinking about how the context of Self-Organized Learning Environments would help my students. Last March we created a SOLE in our fifth grade math class. Watch this TED Talk by Mitra...

My colleague Joel and I both teach fifth grade this year, but last year Joel was a substitute teacher and spent some time in my classroom teaching math in our SOLE. This year he contacted me with questions about implementing a SOLE in his new math class at a different school, and now the ball is rolling for both of us in an action research project we're sharing between our classes.

The nemetic process began for us by noticing a few things about kids in our math classes. We saw many similar challenges between them. To start we noticed that roughly 65% of our students would have little trouble achieving an acceptable standard in grade five math. What we mulled together though is could these kids do more than acceptable? We think they can.

Next we noticed that about 15% of each class appeared very competent as math learners capable of high achievement. We asked ourselves how to define high achievement and agreed that perhaps we can't really define that. We asked what if there was no limit to how much any child can learn, and that perhaps in our traditional math classes we were placing a false ceiling above these kids. We resolved to do more for them by letting them go.

We then realized that the remaining 20% of our students appeared to struggle with the math content we were teaching in a traditional way. We noticed that they typically fell behind the pace of instruction, and that they appeared anxious and confused much of the time during class. We also noticed that despite their challenges learning math, they were also in most cases the least likely to ask us for help, or work willingly with their parents at home on any extra study activities to reinforce what they were missing.

Joel and I mulled these observations and decided to apply a SOLE philosophy to our respective math classes, and then collaborate in reflection about how to fine tune our process. Joel shared this with his students last week, and I thought it was a great summary of our process...

Self-Organized Learning
1. Work in groups constructively and cooperatively
2. Talk (30 cm voices)
3. Ask questions if you do not know.
4. Help other students who need it.
5. Finish assignment, check and correct answers.
6. 3 choices when done
     a. Help other students having trouble (most important)
     b. Continue on to next lesson
     c. Ten Marks Math (if we have computers and if you’ve earned it).

I added a step to #5 "...and then show your finished work to Mr. Grainger," but for the most part I am operating under the same SOLE process in my class, so now we get busy.

I already have three students who have done a great job self-assessing previously held knowledge and skills which have enabled them to move ahead of the instructional pace I have established. They have, after not quite two units of instruction, been able to challenge themselves and work ahead. They have also been very responsible about picking choice A under step 6 of our SOLE process, and have been routinely learning through teaching their peers about math they have mastered in relative degrees. They are engaging in math in ways they haven't before.

We're also noticing that the kids who typically struggle are appearing less anxious in class as a result of the increase in access points for help. The classroom is a bit louder as a result of all these math conversations going on, but I'm totally fine with that... I like Joel's "30 cm voices." Joel and I are now more free to roam the class and provide guidance where necessary. We teach to the whole class with direct instruction one lesson at a time as our syllabus requires to get through the curriculum for grade five.

The biggest change we're noticing though is in the level of engagement of students in both classes, especially the 65% group. Each for different reasons (all good) and in slightly different ways for each individual, our students are more engaged in the kind of math I like... math that makes us wonder, lets us be wrong on the road to being right and that becomes more than what most students seem to think math is... just work. We watched this awesome video at the beginning of the year to reinforce a different perspective toward math...

Indeed as Galileo said, "mathematics is the language with which God has written the universe." We're going to keep harping that message for our students so math may become wonderous. After all, we can't get away from it anyway; it's everywhere. It would be great to hear from others who are experimenting with self-organized learning in their classrooms.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Badges to help tell our stories...

flickr photo via PinkMoose

I didn't spend much time involved with scouting as a child, but I do remember those badges. I still have some of my handy work from a long time ago... a birdhouse I built for my construction badge; a sardine can first-aid kit I put together for my survival badge and a velvet-covered piece of plywood with my beautiful string art creation nailed and strung to it for my creative art badge. Why have I kept these items for all these years? I think it's because they remind me of a simpler time when people noticed the effort I put into these things, and took the time to engage and acknowledge me with a badge.

On the surface I feel kind of silly admitting that these badges I received mean something to me, but they do. My Twitter tribe and I have been taking a deeper dive into the badge concept as of late. The conversation has me re-thinking the process of badging. Typically badges are awarded to display some degree of competence or effort in a particular domain, but in an educational context I see a slightly different purpose for badging in schools.

I maintain that students need to be engaged in writing their own learning stories. What if badges were used to highlight interesting and engaging elements of each of our learning stories? Further to this, what if badges could be awarded by any member of the school family who notices something interesting and engaging about another's learning story? Administrators, teachers, para-professionals, parents, community members and the students themselves... all of these people could be badge givers- all they would have to do is notice something about another; a specific talent (realized or not by the person possessing it,) a exemplary act; a feat of kindness... anything that allows us to say "good on ya!" to members of the school family that we notice and want to engage by complementing them with a badge.

Consider the possibilities that may emerge within this culture of badging... talents would be noticed with intent by badge givers and realized by the badge recipient. Every member of the school family would become a "badge scout," constantly on the look-out for others in the school nemisphere worth noticing... we'd all be displaying our relative skills and aptitudes, sharing them with each other and growing our self-esteem in the process, but most of all as we collect our badges we'd be chronicling our learning journeys in a unique and interesting way.

Think of those bumper stickers folks place on their vehicles displaying that they've been to new and exciting places. I am fascinated to notice the places people have gone on their vacation travels as I follow them down the road. The badges we receive in school would be like those bumper stickers... visual snapshots of the places we've been on our learning journey that nobody can take away from us. Our badges would tell the story of our learning purpose and experience. They would become acknowledgments of our learning efforts, not rewards for making them. Students could use them to help tell their learning stories when others see their collections and ask questions about why they received them. I'v decided to introduce a badge project in my class this week.

Here's what I'm thinking. I already have a well-established developmental model within my class that I call the Hope Wheel. Everyone in my class is on the Hope Wheel path. It centers around the concept of hope as an action word, and includes four elemental domains: respect in the east; understanding in the south; relationships in the west and responsibility in the north. I'm going to explain to my students how a badge can be earned for having explored these domains to the point where competency is visible and lessons have been learned. This will be my introduction.

After this introduction I'm going to suggest to my students that they can acknowledge each other too by creating a badge for anything they deem to be worth noticing along the learning paths they travel with their classmates. They will use art class to design their badges, and I'll scan and print them on sticker paper so they can be peeled off and applied to a badge plate, (just a piece of paper they will adorn in a personalized way,) that will be displayed on the wall in class. My guess is that displaying these plates will create many opportunities for my students to talk about where they've been on their learning journeys with anyone who shows interest.

I'm excited to see how this project will evolve, especially as a result of the students taking control of the  process.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Living in the world of possibilities- becoming powerful beyond measure.

I've been looking for inspiration as a new school year begins.  Every year my school district holds its annual kick-off event, and this year along with about a thousand other people, I had the tremendous fortune of listening to the story of Ben McConnell.

Ben spoke about the power every teacher possesses to positively affect the lives of their students, and he knows of what he speaks. Ben has dealt with a litany of health issues that have made his life so much more challenging than most, but he hasn't complained. The journey he has taken, and the attitude he possesses are nothing short of remarkable. Ben provides a humbling example of resilience and strength; primary elements that inclusive teaching and learning environments should be designed to nurture. Ben described teachers who found ways to access his unique motivation to be involved in school beyond measure.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

If it is to be, it's up to we...

flickr photo via fdecomite

As I seek clarity and inspiration for another new school year, a recent conversation with my fellow nemeticists has once again got me thinking. As teacher's work hard to prepare for the new year, and their levels of anticipation reach a fever pitch this September, it's vitally important to stay grounded and focused on our fundamental purpose. But to do this we have to know what our fundamental purpose is. I believe that, more than anything else, teachers are in the story-writing business. The world we all share is one big story written by history. When teachers teach, whether it be good, bad or indifferent, they become part of this story.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Humans Being...

The path this post travels may seem a little random... that's OK. It's a reflection of how my mind has been working over the last few days as snapshots of insight entered my nemisphere, and what may have seemed unrelated at first, all of a sudden became related.

If you were old enough in the 1960's to be aware of the 60's, you probably know who Barry McGuire is, and even if you don't, if you listen to music at all, you probably have heard this song...

I wasn't old enough to get the 60's, but I am old enough now to reflect on what was going on back then, and music like this helps me do that. I was listening to The Roy Green Show yesterday while driving around, and Barry McGuire was one of his guests. I added him to my list of people I would most want to sit down and have coffee with... a very interesting guy. As he was telling some of his stories he mentioned that a spiritual awakening saved his life back in the day. It was interesting to hear him explain that he was glad to have had Eve of Destruction as his only #1 single because another one would have killed him. The zeitgeist of # 1 singles during that tumultuous time was deadly I guess.

Engaging Classrooms II

Rule of Engagement #2: Listen to students... if you want them to listen to you. Engaging groups of learners teach each other.

flickr photo via denise carbonell

Some time ago I wrote a post called Engaging Classrooms Manage Themselves. At the time I committed to more on the topic. In a Twitter dialog at #speakchat last week I was reminded of my commitment hence this second installment. By the way, if you're a teacher and you haven't visited #speakchat, it's a fantastic weekly chat to pick up creative tips from others who predominantly speak to audiences of adults; a challenging adventure. (If you've provided professional development for other teachers you know how difficult it can be speaking engagingly to adults.)

As the #speakchat exchange centered around speaking in engaging ways, I began thinking that the quickest way to lose an audience is to focus the conversation on one speaker... I have yet to participate in a successful dialog, with one or many, where participants remain engaged without the opportunity to contribute. Then Todd Whitaker tweeted this point...


Sean Grainger
 Sean Grainger 
@ToddWhitaker Totally agree... speakers do that by appreciating audience's input/valuing their knowledge and respecting their experience. 

There is nothing worse than an arrogant speaker who approaches dialog as if he was the only one who had anything worthwhile to say. I have attended these lectures before and it is not fun, or engaging. Speakers who suffer from Humility Deficit Disorder have a hard time engaging their audience.

On the other hand, speakers who look to their audience as a group of people with knowledge and expertise that will enhance the conversation more often than not grab the lion's share of their attention. Truly skilled speakers are those who understand they just might come up against an audience member someday who can make them look pretty silly as they project an arrogant tone like "I am the one who knows here, so sit back, listen and learn from me as I blow you mind with my vast knowledge and expertise." That quiet person who knows more and has done more than the speaker will occasionally feel compelled to speak up, and at that point, the sage on the stage is out there, vulnerable and searching for his next move. That's a tight bind to stick-handle out of. Humble pie anyone?

So why not view your audience as an asset as opposed to a liability? Why not view it as a resource providing knowledge and experience instead of just a receiver of your knowledge and experience? 

The best way to speak engagingly is to temper how much you speak... let the audience in on the show.

Friday, August 5, 2011

The Alternatives...

flickr photo via David Blaine

The first thirteen years of my teaching career were spent teaching in what are commonly referred to as alternative school environments. I worked for six years in First Nations schools in northern Alberta, and then within the Red Deer Public School District's Alternative School Programs. I learned more than I could imagine about life and learning during every one of those years. I formed a phenomenological perspective that allowed me to see students in a different light, and apply supports that extended beyond teaching. The reality was these kids needed to come to terms with the other stuff in their lives before any learning was going to occur in the traditional school sense.Helping our students come to terms with the other stuff was the essence of the alternative approach to teaching that my colleagues and I practiced. We affectionately referred to ourselves as  the "Alternatives."

A former colleague, Kevin Hanrahan explained the alternative philosophy rather eloquently one day before giving all of us a wing-nut to string on our key-chains as a lasting reminder of who we were. He said being alternative is like a wing-nut. A regular nut locks into place and doesn't move; it's rigid and permanent. A wing-nut on the other hand, is designed to easily be moved; adjusted according to the tension required for any particular job. I still have that wing-nut on my key-chain. That's the alternative way.

I came across an excellent example of alternative philosophy at Larry Cuban's blog, Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice. In his post, Narrow Thinking About Health and Schools, Larry introduced me to Dr. Jack Geiger. In 1965 Dr. Geiger prescribed food for hungry kids in the Mississippi Delta understanding that hunger trumps the desire to gain knowledge. He also founded one of the first federally funded community health centers in the United States. Clearly a man who understood that social determinants play an overwhelming role in whether kids learn successfully or not. He got it. He was alternative.

In this excellent post by Liz Dwyer at the GOOD EDUCATION blog, she mentions Sir Ken Robinson's belief that,
change begins at the classroom level. Every teacher has the ability to take the time to build relationships with students, make her classroom an engaging environment, and connect students with real world opportunities in local creative industries and higher education.
This is so close to the entire point that education reform does not need to cost billions; it does not require a silver bullet resource or teaching strategy de jour and it certainly does not require copious amounts of expensive, traditional professional development to ensure we're all on the same page. As Liz Dwyer so honestly and simply states, what ed reform really needs is for Alternative Education to go mainstream. Simply brilliant, and brilliantly simple.

Back in the day when I was teaching with the Alternatives, we used to get asked to explain our strategies and processes during various seminars and workshops. Humble group of educators that we were, we really weren't interested in talking about what we did, but we were very interested in providing opportunities for our students to explain how they benefited from how we did it. I wish I would have filmed even one of those sessions. Our students were honest, and they were real. They took the opportunity to tell the audience what they could do if ever they came across a student like themselves. It wasn't complicated. They told their audience of teachers to listen to their students, especially the ones that were giving them a hard time. They told their audience of teachers that really hurting kids with few or no supports anywhere else who have been let down by so many adults in their lives often give their teachers a really hard time because they want to know which ones can take it. It's a test; a test to find out which ones will still be there for them tomorrow, like a loving family member would be no matter what bad thing had happened. They're looking for the Alternatives.

Our students, every single one of them having been removed from their previous mainstream school environments, told brutally real and visceral stories of how they felt in those mainstream environments, and more importantly how things had changed for them since becoming "alternative." Within minutes, and during every single session we did, tears were flowing among the audience of teachers, some who had taught our kids prior to their alternative placements. Our kids told their stories, and we listened to them, and that was all it really took to get from here to there with them... they simply needed someone to truly listen to them without bias; without judgement and without advice. Their learning paths were theirs alone. It wasn't for us to steer them in any particular direction. Our job was to hold their hands as they traveled their chosen paths. When they took a wrong turn we held their hands even tighter. When they took a right turn, we let go just a little. Over time for so many, we let go completely, but we always made sure they knew we were there for them if they needed us, and we made sure to also lend our support to those teachers who would hold our students hands after they left us.

So there it is. The simplest form of education reform is the authentic caring that comes from a teacher who knows how massive her impact can be within the realm of one classroom, in one school, in one community; a teacher who gets it. A sphere of positive influence grows through simple acts of caring, unconditional support and acceptance from teachers who know this. Kids have this remarkable ability to flesh out which teachers know this.

If you want to be ready when a student chooses you for the test, why don't you try being one of the Alternatives? 

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Ten EduKare School Reform Paths...

 flickr image via woodleywonderworks

... and the tools we need to travel them.

Wyle E. Coyote knew that kits could help him catch that roadrunner, but the kit alone wasn't enough. He also needed a path. What's the difference? I will say simply that kits are the tools that help us down the path. Wiley didn't have a well-thought out plan; no philosophical foundation to follow when hunting roadrunners, so the tools in his ACME kits were ineffective. Paths and tools to help navigate them need to synchronize if either is to be effective.

For some time now, a global group of excellent thinkers have been vetting a path for EduKare; a philosophical concept designed to improve schools making them better, faster and less costly within their local teaching and learning environments. We are joined in our thought circles weekly by others who are on very similar paths, but who perhaps are using different kits to effect good change in education. I think it's a good idea to share our toolkits so the path to improving teaching and learning environments can be made even more efficient.

Cathy Davidson (via Twitter @CatinStack) blogged the following points recently at HASTAC (Humanities, Art, Science and Technology Advanced Collaboration).
My Twitter pal Michael Josefowicz, who tweets as @toughLoveforx, is one of the very best tweeters on all things education.   He asked me recently about where I thought education reform needed to begin and last night I tweeted 10 for starters . . . but there are so many more.   Please add more ideas and tweet them.   The other person in this Twitter feed is @graingered (Sean Grainger) who I also know only from his Twitter feed.   Follow all these good folks:  #GoodEd

@catinstack's 10 late-night tweets on ed reform (w some a.m. edits): 
  1. End standardized EOG tests--they demotivate learning and good teaching
  2. Test in challenging way, use tough game mechanics w real-time feedback and new challenges
  3. ABCD grading is 19th c factory standard, meat packers: need nuance, subtle, real, honest assessment
  4. Make learning real, relevant, tied to communities, real experience, accomplishment, worth
  5. Omit industrial age "two cultures" binary (stem v art, human, soc). Really? in the Information age?
  6. Teach kids to think through, with, about, for--and create--new, interactive digital global communication
  7. Nourish ability, stop diagnosing, labelling, stigmatizing, medicating disability
  8. Restore arts, music, shop, PE: soul stirring learning that lets kids move, make, sing, dream
  9. stop making college implicit standard for all education, back to preschool. Many worthy careers don't need higher ed
  10. Involve parents, guardians, friends, grandparents as teacher's aids; subsidize healthy breakfasts and lunches

This is as succinct a list as I have seen relative to 10 very relevant education paths to consider. I think dialog around the specific tools to help us get down these paths is warranted, so I've contextualized an EduKare kit in response to Cathy's list (see list below each point):

Monday, July 25, 2011

EduKare: Choice is the rule of engagement...

Excellence, then, is a state concerned with choice, lying in a mean, relative to us, this being determined by reason and in the way in which the man of practical wisdom would determine it. Aristotle 

flickr photo by Benimoto

Recently the folks over at #ecosys were discussing the issue of student engagement in schools. This issue is prominent in education circles everywhere. Few would debate the necessity to engage students in their learning, so the dialog is centering around how best to actually do it. As I was reviewing the #ecosys Twitter stream from the latest chat, something I've been mulling lately popped back into my head. Engagement is about choice.

Self-determination is key if kids are to find relevance in what they learn; nobody appreciates being dictated to without the opportunity to have input... which makes it difficult to understand why we don't begin offering any learning content choice to students until secondary school.

It has always struck me that much of what is done in elementary school would benefit secondary school kids, and much of what is done in high school would benefit elementary school kids. Interestingly enough, so many of the exemplary teachers I have met and worked with from both elementary and secondary school are the same ones I'd be inclined to complement by telling them they'd be awesome teaching in the opposite school setting. There's something about secondary school teachers that haven't lost their inner child... their ability to be totally in the moment and uninhibited with their students; the ones that haven't forgotten that school is always more engaging when it's fun.

Conversely, there's also something about elementary teachers who understand that choice is a vital element of engaged learning, and who strive to establish a teaching and learning environment that encourages kids to steer their own learning ship as kids in secondary school should be expected to. This element of self-determination is fundamental to Edukare school philosophy.

Good teachers can be engaging just because of who they are. Because of their personality, perspective and ability to connect emotionally with kids, they stand out as those who have that extra bit of with-it-ness. Good teachers also scour the horizon routinely for the latest teaching tools to engage learners, but I'm not yet convinced that all good teachers understand the efficacy of choice as a tool to engage students. Tom Whitby recently tweeted...

Tom Whitby
A good teacher can be effective with a dirt floor & a stick. Add tech knowledge & Tools and things, more often than not, get better. 
As one who values the inclusion of contemporary technology advantages in education, I agree with Tom, but I have to ask whether any tool, including technology in education as a generalized tool, can be considered ubiquitously good if no choice is provided to students who would be potentially benefiting from using it? Under dare I say "normal" classroom circumstances, the only truly engaging tool in education is the provision of choice to students. We understand this in secondary school, but not so well in elementary school. If we're going to help kids write their own learning stories, we need to consider seriously how choice can factor prominently into teaching and learning in the kindergarten to fifth grade set.
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