Classrooms Should Be More Like Trains

19 Nov


I like traveling. I enjoy the journey as much as the destination, and my favorite way to travel is to walk. Walking connects me to the natural environment and helps me feel grounded. When walking I experience for myself how cold or hot it is, how far I’m traveling, and I understand how steep a hill is in a way I can’t when I’m driving. When waking isn’t always practical I like to use public transit when I can. Trains and buses give me a feeling of freedom and independence, that I’m not reliant on cars.

I was recently riding a train into the city and noticed that the upper floors of passenger cars on commuter trains are designated Quiet Zones. Passengers riding in a Quiet Zone are expected to keep any noise “low and brief” by keeping conversations short and quiet, muting electronics and keeping headphone volume low.

Quiet areas on trains are becoming increasingly popular on trains around the world. Virgin Trains in the UK have quiet zones, as do trains in “New Jersey, in Sweden and in France” where they are called “Zen Zones”. Amtrak trains in the US have “Quiet Cars” to provide “a peaceful, quiet atmosphere for passengers who want to work or rest without distraction”. It seems that as technology and devices are increasingly intruding into every area of our lives, people are looking for a space where they can take a break. Why wouldn’t the same also apply to our schools and students?

Thanks to the writings of Susan Cain we are now more aware than ever of the different needs of the introverts in our schools. A student’s need for quiet isn’t something that’s static, but varies. A student may be introverted in one group, but not in another. Stress in one area of their life may cause them to need some quiet time for reflection, but not after the stress has passed. We have students who find the intense social interaction of school exhausting. What can we do to help those students?

We can start by establishing Quiet Zones in schools and classrooms. Schools should provide a quiet, supervised space, where any student who wishes can sit quietly and eat or read. The expectations would be well established, and students who don’t respect the needs of others for a quiet space would be returned to the regular eating area. I predict that many teachers would volunteer to supervise a quiet lunch room as part of their duty.

We can also extend Quiet Zones to classrooms. At the back of my classroom is a table designated as a “quiet work table”. This table is available for anyone to use if they need a quiet place to work. If they aren’t feeling great, or their group is just too noisy, they can choose to use it. It’s something students self monitor and don’t need to ask permission to use. Students who go to the table but don’t work quietly are asked to return to their regular seat.

A “quiet table” in a noisy classroom is rather like a smoking section in a restaurant. I understand that the noise doesn’t stop when it gets to the table (oh, for the ‘cone of silence’!!) Ideally I’d prefer a room where students could go and work quietly if needed. Putting a table in the hallway or some other quiet corner of the school is also a possibility, but obviously supervision and safety is a concern. At the very least, the “Quiet Work Table” shows students that if they need quiet, that’s acknowledged and addressed in some small way.

Not too long ago, students with learning exceptionalities had their needs ignored in ways that we never would today. We’re more enlightened and recognize that we need to modify our program and learning environment to make sure all students are successful. Don’t students who need a quiet space to recharge deserve the same consideration?

When commuter trains are more effective at meeting the need of their customers, than schools are of taking care of the learning needs of their students it should give us pause for thought. Quiet Zones in schools and classrooms are an easy way to help meet a need that all students have at one time or another. The need to be able to take a break from the noise and pressure of social interaction and recharge.

School Awards That Make Sense

12 Nov

As a winner of The Kneeshaw Prize, I know about awards

I’m somewhat late to the discussion about the value of awards and honour roll kicked off by a Calgary school’s decision to do away with them, and the subsequent public reaction. My hope is to be fashionably late 🙂

Like many educators I too have concerns about the place that awards and an “honour roll” have in a modern school system that seeks to provide equity and value the gifts of every student.

Last June I attended my son’s high school graduation ceremony, and most of the two and half hours was devoted to presenting awards to a small group of high achievers. I squirmed as each graduate received their diploma and then had their ‘future plans’ announced. I imagined how some students felt about having to sit and watch others receive awards, while their own long-awaited moment in the spotlight was punctuated with a disembodied voice announcing “future…unknown”. What an awful send off from an institution that should be inspiring people as they move into the future.

I understand and agree with the arguments against school awards. I won’t rehash them as they’ve been well articulated here:

What I am wondering, however, is how, when we emphasize that each child is unique, and that we value all their gifts, would be disallow a motivational tool that clearly works for some students?

We use awards in schools for a simple reason, they work for some kids. I’m not disputing that they are often used to create inequity, and can be unhealthy. But does that really mean we should discard them altogether? That’s not the approach we apply in other situations. We don’t prevent students from using something helpful in class just because it isn’t helpful for everyone.

My own academic career was somewhat transformed somewhat by an award. I was barely paying attention to the final assembly at St Stephen’s primary school in Burnley, Lancashire. Slouching at the back of the hall in my school uniform, I had no idea that awards were being handed out. My mental fog was pierced by the announcement of my name, and I was shocked to discover I’d been given the Kneeshaw Prize for academic excellence, the school’s most prestigious award.

The award transformed how I saw myself. I understood that others saw me as someone who could do well at school. It was an external confirmation I hadn’t got anywhere else. That’s the transformative power of awards, and in our rush to prevent harm we are throwing it away.

While I don’t endorse the way awards are commonly used in schools, I can see merit in it. My goal is to flesh out some other ways we might use awards that might allow us to keep the baby while throwing out the dirty bath water.

The Varsity Jacket: One of my most treasured awards was my high school varsity jacket (yes I still have it and it still fits). The jacket was awarded to anyone who met the previously agreed upon criteria. Teachers could set a reasonable set of criteria for their course, or class, and any student who meets the criteria gets the award. If everyone gets the award, so be it. This allows more students to be recognized for their excellence.

One For All: Every student must receive one award, but can only receive one. The awards are all announced in the same way, as each student is called to the stage as part of a year-end celebration. We can keep all the same awards and add others as needed. If no award fits the student, give them a subject award in their best subject. The point is to celebrate something about every student.

Collaboration: If we value collaboration, why not give awards to groups of students. The leadership award goes to the group of students who are leaders. The athletic award goes to the group of the best athletes. And so on. This makes much more sense to me than arbitrarily selecting one person on the basis of some abstract criteria. There’s still just one award presented, but the students have to figure out how to share it fairly. Since they’re collaborative award winners let them figure it out. I like to imagine students helping their peers to excel so they can also qualify for an award.

I acknowledge, that these suggestions all have flaws, but the point of this post is try to break out of the narrow thinking we have about awards. If we can think of them in new ways and reinvent them to emphasize what we want, we can have the benefits of awards without some of the negative consequences.

In a broad public education system nothing is ever completely good or bad, and extreme positions which apply to every student or no students rarely make sense. Awards are things that educators, at some point, invented and promoted, but if they no longer fit our schools they can be reinvented to better match the changing nature of schools and our society.


My Favourite #ECOO13 Moment

27 Oct


I had an amazing experience at ECOO13 or Bring IT Together. It was time spent connecting with people I respect and admire. There was incredible, deep, stimulating discussion about education combined with some laughter and silliness.

The moments that touched me, moved me, or changed my thinking in a fundamental way were all the result of deep human connections. I wasn’t wowed by new devices or impressed with new practices but the human connections were what mattered.

This shouldn’t surprise anyone. In student learning, as closing keynote speaker Kevin Honeycutt explained, its relationships that matter much more than curriculum. Why would teacher learning be different? Put teachers with people they care about, let them freely share, and magical things will happen.

My favourite moment of the conference was however, at least superficially, rather mundane. I presented with Jennifer Chan on Friday morning and so hustled to the Convention Centre a little early and a little preoccupied. I approached the back door,  looked up, and noticed a young woman standing outside holding a Tim Horton’s cup and looking a little nervous.

We made eye contact, smiled, and I asked her if she was ok or needed help. She pointed to her Tim Horton’s cup and the sign on the door forbidding anyone from bringing coffee into the building. I reassured her, told her it was ok, there were lots of chairs just inside where she could sit unobserved and finish her coffee, and we entered together.

As we walked, we started to chat. She explained that she really needed the coffee because she’d left really early and driven a long way to arrive at the conference in time for the morning keynote. I asked where she was from and she replied “Beaverton“, which I’d never heard of, but is apparently opposite Barrie but on the east side of Lake Simcoe.  I inquired how long the drive was and she said she’d left before 4 AM to arrive in Niagara Falls on time.

I was taken aback. What on earth would motivate a teacher to get up at 4 AM and drive alone for 4 hours to go to a conference? She explained that this was her first year teaching, and as she talked I could see how committed and seriously she took this (remember your first year?).  And then she said “Besides, I was invited to go and I thought it would be rude not to”. That made me smile and open up.

Her honesty and simple ‘niceness’ struck deep, and I suddenly became aware of the awesome commitment and dedication shown by the thousands of educators at the conference. The long hours spent planning and organizing the event done on a volunteer basis. The preparation and passion poured into the sessions and keynotes by the presenters. And the dedication shown by the attendees spending copious amounts of their own time and money just to attend.

And why did all this happen?  Because of the incredible power of an idea. The belief through education we can make a difference, we can change the world. The shared collective conviction that the future isn’t remade though political parties or in corporate board rooms, but by working with individual students and helping them move forward and realize their dreams. One day at a time.

I didn’t share any of this with “First Year Teacher From Beaverton” of course. I walked with her to a comfy chair, told her I hoped she’d have a great conference and moved on. But I thought about her throughout the day and hoped that she was having an amazing, inspiring experience.

Since then I’ve been reflecting and basking in the knowledge that I am so incredibly fortunate to do something I love and that I think really matters. Teachers are an amazing and inspiring bunch and I’m humbled and honoured to count myself among them. I sometimes question whether I’m worthy, especially when I come face to face with the excellence and selflessness displayed at events like “BringITTogether”.  I always know this at my core, but it’s easy to get distracted by the trivia and minor ups and downs of being an educator.

But thanks to a short and trivial conversation with “First Year Teacher From Beaverton” I became aware of all of that suddenly, in the present moment. What a wonderful gift. So I offer up thanks and a deep gassho to her, and to everyone else who had anything to do with ECOO13, no matter how trivial. Thank you 🙂

ECOO13 “Bring IT Together” Check-In

20 Oct


As we approach the start of this year’s ECOO Conference I’ve noticed that people increasingly want to know who is attending and when.

To help people connect I’ve created a simple form. Enter your attendance info below and it will be entered into a spreadsheet, which anyone  can view  (or scroll through underneath).

Any suggestion for how to improve this, hit me up on twitter (@acampbell99) or in the comments.

The Future of Education in Ontario: G2Echat…So Far

13 Oct

Next Phase

Over the past 3 weeks I’ve been moderating a Saturday morning twitter chat to provide an online forum for Ontarians to participate in “From Great To Excellent“, the Ontario government’s public consultation into education in the province. The consultation challenges Ontarians to consider 7 Questions and give the government feedback on the about the future of education.

The format of the chat is fairly simply. We consider 2 questions each week. After the question is introduced we discuss it for 25 minutes and then participants submit a response to the question, all via the 140-character magic of the tweet box.

After three weeks it felt like it was time to draw some of these discussion together in some sort of format to share with other interested folks. Below are the questions, as posed, and clicking on those questions will take you to a storify of the entire G2Echat on that topic.

My hope is that presenting them this way might cause other to think more deeply about questions, to find their own way to respond to the public consultation or to join us for our final #G2EChat on Saturday October 19th at 9 am. Twitter chats are fun, fast moving and fairly informal, so no need to be shy 🙂

#G2EChat One


In our first chat we discussed Question 1: “What are the skills, knowledge and characteristics students need to succeed after they have completed school, and how do we better support all learners in their development?” and Question 2: “What does student well-being mean to you, and what is the role of the school in supporting it?”. I clearly had some time on my hands because I separately storified the submission statements to Question 1 and Question 2.

#G2EChat Two


In our second chat we discussed Question 3: “From your perspective, what further opportunities exist to close gaps and increase equity to support all children and students in reaching their full potential?” and Question 4: “How does the education system need to evolve as a result of changes to child care and the implementation of full-day kindergarten?”. The answers to the questions were separately storified.

#G2EChat 3


In the first half of our third chat we considered Question 5: “What more can we all do to keep students engaged, foster their curiosity and creativity, and help them develop a love of life-long learning?”.


We then went on to consider Question 6: “How can we use technology more effectively in teaching and learning?”.

What’s Next?

The final #G2EChat is scheduled for October 19th at 9 am and we will discuss Question 7: “In summary, what are the various opportunities for partnership that can enhance the student experience, and how can they benefit parents, educators and our partners too?” and also take some time to reflect on the consultation process and add any new thoughts to the previous questions. After that the discussions and statement will be submitted to the Ministry for consideration.

It’s been a great experience for me, seeing Ontarians willing to freely give up a portion of the Saturday morning to discuss these questions and contribute. The response to the chats has been fantastic and we’ve had over 200 participants in the first 3 chats in spite of some busy weekends.

I think even a cursory glance at the chat transcripts will show that these are very insightful and thoughtful people who care a lot about education in Ontario. I’m proud to be one of them, and no matter what the future holds education in Ontario is in excellent hands.

#G2EChat Question 2: Recap (student well being)

29 Sep

On September 28th I invited anyone interested to join me online and participate in the Ministry of Education’s “From Great to Excellent” public consultation process. Over 4 weeks we’ll consider all seven questions, discuss them and prepare something for submission to The Ministry. This is my effort at capturing some of that discussion:

After 30 minutes of discussing question 1 we moved on to question 2:

Early on we recognized that students well-being is critical and an essential foundation for learning:

For student’s to feel well, schools must be places where all students feel accepted:

We recognized that schools are only part of a student’s life, and student well-being can only be served is we are part of a network of caring:

Many of the students in classrooms arrive without basic needs being met:

We think schools needs stronger partnerships to help support student well-being:

After 30 minutes of discussion these were the responses submitted to Question 2.

Here is the complete discussion in its entirety.

#G2EChat Question 1: Recap

29 Sep

On September 28th I invited anyone interested to join me online and participate in the Ministry of Education’s “From Great to Excellent” public consultation process. Over 4 weeks we’ll consider all seven questions, discuss them and prepare something for submission to The Ministry. This is my effort at capturing some of that discussion:

We started our first G2EChat with a restated version of the first question:

The first response identified that learning skills are what students need to be successful, not content knowledge, a thread that was supported throughout the discussion:

We also recognized that there’s a tension between meeting the needs of students now and preparing them for their future:

And that this ‘future’ is increasingly uncertain:

We acknowledged that curriculum needs to support the view that content is really just a vehicle for learning these important learning skills and in Ontario, this change is starting to happen:

But the curriculum needs to continue to evolve to a point where traditional subject divisions are less important than student passion:

After 30 minutes of discussion these were the responses submitted to Question 1.  Here is the complete discussion in its entirety.

From Great To Excellent: An #OntEd Online Consultation

22 Sep

Next Phase

In early June I wrote about Ontario’s ‘secret’ public consultation into education. Well, the summer flew by and now the ‘consultation season’ is well and truly upon us (have you bought your ‘consultation tree’ yet??).

From now until November 15th Ontarians are being encouraged to “…submit ideas and help take our education system – already one of the best in the world – from Great to Excellent.”.  Here’s the Minster’s message about this effort.

In support of this the Ministry of Education has provided a “Community Consultation Kit” to support District School Boards, School Communities and Community Groups and Organizations and help them provide input into Ontario’s education system.

As most of us well know (ok, maybe not the ministry) in 2013 communities aren’t tied to particular geographic locations. Increasingly, 21st century communities arise around ideas and ways of thinking and include people from a variety of geographic locations and walks of life. Precisely the diverse slice of opinions and voices the ministry is asking to hear from and desperately needs.

To this end I will be hosting a series of online events to allow anyone who wishes to join us the chance to discuss The Seven Questions posed for consultation. At the end of these online consultations I’ll submit the main points of the discussion to the ministry through their online submission form.

Here’s how I think this will work. On the dates listed below I’ll host a twitter chat on two of the questions using the hashtag #G2EChat.

  1. September 28th – Questions 1 & 2 (9 am-10 am)
  2. October 5th – Questions 3 & 4  (9 am-10 am)
  3. October 12th – Questions 5 & 6  (9 am-10 am)
  4. October 19th – Questions 7 & wrap-up (9 am-10 am)

The twitterchat will be divided into two 30 minute discussion periods, with the first period devoted to the first question listed and the second period devoted to answering the second question.  I’ll introduce the question and allow some time for reflection and discussion and then for the last 5-10 minutes I’ll ask people to make their final statements for submission.

Obviously these are general guidelines and if there’s a need I’ll modify them. If anyone has other suggestions or a better way to do this please hit me up in the comments or on twitter (@acampbell99).

I got lots of interested responses when I proposed this on twitter so hopefully we’ll get lots of smart people engaged in debate and have some helpful input for the Minster.

The Last Teacher: A Tragedy

24 Aug

The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun,
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

W.H. Auden. Funeral Blues.

I invite the world into my classroom. Student learning should be as relevant to real life as possible, so I use technology, guest speakers, field trips and any other tactic possible to facilitate connections between what happens in the classroom and ‘the real world’.

Making a separation between the world outside the school and what happens inside is an artificial construct. Students arrive in our classrooms with all kinds of baggage (poverty, family dynamics, nutrition, media influences, etc.) that affect their learning. Pretending that our classrooms aren’t part of ‘the real world’ doesn’t help students in their learning or make schools better.

But there are moments when I wish all of this wasn’t true, when I wish our schools were the goldfish bowls we sometimes pretend they are, and the outside world could be kept at arm’s length. That students could find a safe and protective space inside those walls and behind those doors.

Tragedies big and small affect students and classrooms and schools all the time. As a teacher part of my role is to try to help students understand, process and come to some peace with them. Increasing transparency in our world means that younger and younger students become aware of the unpleasantness and pain that living in the world can sometimes mean. It’s hard to make school seem important if students are afraid for their safety.

Last year the ten and eleven year olds in my classroom had many questions about things like The Boston Bombings. I tried to help them understand these difficult issues and make some sense of them by letting them ask questions. Before that it was Newton and poverty and homelessness and disease and on and on. There’s no shortage of ‘big scary issues’ and I could discuss them in the abstract and with personal detachment. I could put aside my own fear and feelings about them and be a sounding board for my students. This is much harder to do when the tragedies affecting students also affect me personally.

I returned from vacation last week to find out that one of my students had died. A wonderful, funny, bright, charming, creative, silly eleven year old girl fell out of a window and died. For the second time in my teaching career I’m the last teacher a student will ever have.

It’s hard to explain how heavily this weighs on me. I try to remember what my last words to her were. Did I make sure she knew how wonderful I thought she was? Did I do all I could to make her last year in school all it could be? Did I spend our time doing things that really mattered?

I also feel a sense of responsibility. As a teacher it’s part of that relationship with a student that we take that on. When students go on and achieve success we feel a sense of shared pride in their accomplishments, that in a way we had a hand in it. In the same way I wonder if I did enough to prevent this tragedy. I know this is irrational but the questions niggle away at the edge of my consciousness.

Some of her classmates came to the visitation for her a couple of days ago. I was repeatedly being pulled out of my own grief and towards trying to help them make sense of what had happened. The awful part about it was that, of course, I had no answers for them, no reassurances. I wanted to reach out them, to connect with them, but I had nothing to say. They already knew the truth.

When we return to school after labour day those students, and many others, will need support and help in dealing with what’s happened. I know that, as their teacher, I’m best placed to give them that support. But I really don’t know where that’s going to come from. How can I help them to understand something that I don’t understand? How can I tell them it’s going to be ok, when I’m not sure it will?

For now, my hope is that simply being there will be enough. That letting them know it will take time, and that if they need support I’ll be there. I plan to be as honest as I can, and admit when there are things I don’t have answers to. I know that both they and I will have other support. I plan on using it, and I hope they will too.

I’ll also keep those questions in the front of my mind as I’m teaching. Do my students know how wonderful I think they are? Am I doing all I can to make this a great experience for them? Am I spending my time doing the things that really matter?


It Takes A PLN…

22 Aug

It Takes A PLN...

The cool people at Educator Studio (@EducatorStudio) illustrated one of my tweets. I think it looks great!!