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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.


What’s The Future Of Extracurriculars In Ontario Schools?

14 Apr

Ontario educators remain confused about extracurriculars. There are deals to be negotiated and votes to be taken, but those won’t resolve any of this. The role of extracurriculars in Ontario schools has been permanently altered. The toothpaste is out of the tube, and no matter how much we try it will not be going back in again.

In protest over Bill 115 Ontario educators withdrew from voluntary activities including extracurriculars. Shortly after, changes started happening. The old system for delivering extracurriculars began breaking up and all kinds of innovation began.

In some schools students took ownership over extracurriculars, organizing their own clubs and activities. What they discovered is that the activities were much more meaningful when they made all the decisions.

My son’s improv comedy club was one such group. Even now that extracurriculars have been reinstated the club is choosing to remain independent. Last Friday they held an independent, off-school show, that they planned, organized and presented without any direct educator support. What an amazing learning experience! In other schools community groups and private enterprise have stepped in to fill the void.

The most interesting shift in extracurriculars, however, is that educators are discussing what the role of extracurriculars is and what the reactions to the withdrawal of extracurriculars means about our education system.

Here are some of the questions I’m pondering about extracurriculars:

  1. Why do extracurriculars matter so much? When premier Kathleen Wynne became premier she said it was “absolutely imperative that students have extracurriculars”. Really? More important than the economy, poverty or restoring basic rights? Why are extracurriculars so essential? Common responses are that they develop critical skills students need for future success and allow educators to form important connections with students.
  2. Why aren’t these skills & connections part of the curriculum? If the developed skills and connections are so important, why do they benefit only the minority of students that participate in extracurriculars? Essential skills and connections between educators and students shouldn’t be left to voluntary after school activities. They should be an integral part of the curriculum so that all students can benefit. Teachers reported that during the withdrawal of voluntary activities they invested more time and effort into classroom activities, time and effort they’d previously used on extracurriculars. That’s an equitable system that benefits more students.
  3. Why don’t we pay for extracurriculars? Some education systems do. In the United States some high school coaches make more than teachers. I don’t endorse that model, but it show that US citizens highly value extracurriculars. It’s confusing and hypocritical to espouse that extracurriculars are vital while insisting that educators do them for no reward. Is it valuable or not? Why don’t we pay teachers who coach or lead other activities? Why not count extracurriculars as part of the teaching load and reward those who do them with time off?
  4. Are extracurriculars really voluntary? The Ontario Labour Relations Board says extracurriculars are voluntary activities but are they really? Can teachers really make a free choice when there’s so much pressure from the public and within the school to provide a service without compensation? Agreeing to actively participate in extracurriculars is a common part of getting a teaching job. If committing to do extracurriculars is necessary to get hired, how is that voluntary? What about skilled classroom educators who don’t have extracurriculars skills and so get passed over for someone who can coach a team or put on a show? Isn’t that unfair and an incredible waste of valuable educators?
  5. Where do we go from here? In spite of statements from various teacher’s federations to return to extracurriculars many Ontario teachers are refusing to return to the status quo. Some will eventually go back and others won’t, but the issues raised by the pause will be ongoing irritations in schools for many years.

We need to address these issues and decide where we stand. If we value the skills and connections developed in extracurriculars we should integrate them into our curriculum. They should not be voluntary afterthoughts. We need to support extracurriculars with the required resources to ensure they are available to as many students as possible.

If we simply return to making them optional extras we have a more difficult question to answer:

What was all the noise about extracurriculars really about?

Boyz II Men: Hiring Male Teachers Won’t Improve Boys’ Learning

23 Feb

It’s a common mistake. We understand that schools and education can be used to change society and try to solve a social problem through education. We ask educators to change the near future and blame them when they don’t.

What we forget is that schools don’t just remake society, they also reflect it. Schools aren’t islands, they’re microcosms, connected to their communities. We ask schools to solve childhood obesity, forgetting that families control most of a student’s diet and activity. We keep schools safe with bullet proof glass and armed guards but forget about the violent perpetrators sitting in the classrooms.

The Toronto District School Board has fallen into this fractured thinking. Their recently released memo indicated that the board will give preference to certain groups when recruiting new teachers, and among those preferred groups are males. This precipitated cries of outrage from women and led others to ponder whether the education system is too ‘feminized’.

The logic seems to be that since schools are dominated by women, male teachers are needed to ‘connect’ with the many struggling boys and raise achievement. Male teachers are familiar with this thinking. I wish I was paid for every struggling boy assigned to my class because they needed a ‘strong male role model’. I’d be a rich man. Why don’t the struggling boys ever need more mothering? Why don’t any of the kind, well-adjusted boys or girls need male role models? But I digress…

That the education system is dominated by women is beyond dispute. Over 80 % of elementary teachers and over 50% of secondary teachers are female. I don’t know why this disparity exists and it confuses and amazes me that it’s never been addressed. Male dominated professions are targeted and women recruited into them but teaching remains female dominated and has for decades (centuries?). My local federation (and I assume most others) have committees with budgets dedicated to supporting and elevating women in the profession but no similar program for men. Huh? The current situation is clearly inequitable, and if the goal of the TDSB hiring practice was merely to redress this inequity, I’d understand it.

The suggestion, however, that hiring male teachers will improve the achievement of boys or address the feminization of the educations system is clearly misguided.

Teachers provide opportunities for students to learn, and foster and support that process. Their ability to do that has very little to do with gender. Boys can and do learn very successfully from female teachers and girls from male teachers. The gender of a teacher is irrelevant for the vast majority of students. What most students need are good teachers of any gender.

The feminization of the education system is also, I think, beyond dispute, but this shift isn’t isolated to education. Traditionally “male” behavior is no longer socially acceptable, an increasing number of boys are raised without fathers (a third of all children now) and more women are taking leadership roles. This represents a significant shift in values and attitudes over the last few decades.

In many ways young boys are getting squeezed by the shift. They get in trouble for ‘rough play’ despite the fact that active play is normal for boys. Many boys have few or no male role models to guide them as many traditional avenues for boys to connect with non-parental male role models are declining or disappearing altogether (extended family, community, organized activities, etc.). There are fewer and fewer ways for boys to learn how to be male.

The feminization of the education system is simply a reflection of a wider societal shift. If we’re interested in improving the achievement of boys it will take a broader effort than just hiring more male teachers. We need greater understanding and acceptance of what it means to be male and a greater appreciation of the value of male role models in all areas of boys’ lives. Unless we restore some balance to our current attitudes towards gender the problems of boys will only get worse.

Where Are The Beautiful Learning Spaces?

8 Jan


In the summer of 2011 I had a glorious trip to Rome. It was hot (I love it) and I was alone, so I got to travel in my preferred mode. I set out each morning with a vague plan and mostly wandered around searching for cool stuff.

I saw breath-taking historical sites like The Coliseum. I ambled through museums and art galleries. I saw incredible archaeological sites and ate great food. I discovered that I really like fountains 🙂

Once home, I reflected on the trip, and was surprised by how much time I spent in churches. Rome is full of amazing churches packed with renaissance art, and it seemed that around every narrow cobbled street corner was yet another undiscovered gem housing something by Bernini or Raphael.

I’m not a religious person so there was no spiritual dimension to this for me, but each day I found myself wandering church to church, slack-jawed again at the beauty, gazing at statues and madly reading the history of “St Somebody of the Something”.

I could easily understand the inspiration a believer drew from these incredible buildings. And I’m a jaded citizen of 2013 who isn’t impressed by much anymore. Casting back hundreds of years its easy to see why the church was the dominant institution of the time.

I pondered the power of buildings to inspire us and wondered what the implications of this are for education. People visit churches on vacation because they tell us about the places we visit, their history, culture and what they value.  I wondered what our schools say about us and whether they too could be places of inspiration.

Typically schools are utilitarian buildings, “factory like”. Their function is to support the learning happening within those walls in the most cost-effective manner and facilitate the production of graduates who are ready to take part in society.

As society is rapidly changing so is the function of schools. The need for the standardized production of workers is fading. Increasingly schools are being asked to produce citizens who think creatively, know and follow their passion and change the world with innovative ideas. If the function of schools is changing, shouldn’t the form be changing too?

I’ve never heard of anyone travelling to Rome, or the other great cities of the world, and touring its schools. I’m a bit of a “school geek” and I’ve never done it. Why? Are there no great ‘Cathedrals of Learning’?

I don’t believe that. I think that there are beautiful, inspiring learning spaces in the world. Spaces that educators would see and know that this was the pinnacle, something to aspire to.

But where are they? Where is the Sistine Chapel of Education? The Blue Mosque of Learning? The St Paul’s Cathedral of Understanding?

I want to find them and hold them up as inspiring models. To show what’s possible in a learning space and encourage educators to think more creatively about the spaces we create for learning. I want to use them as we go forward and remake our learning spaces to better meet the changing needs of our students.