Tag Archives: teaching

#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.

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Teaching Lessons From The Wire

16 Jul

The Wire may be the greatest TV show of all time. It’s included in most “top five”  lists and  was anointed number one by Entertainment Weekly when they published their list of  The Greatest TV Shows of All Time in June of 2013.

The irony of this popular acclaim isn’t lost on long-time fans of The Wire because for years it seemed that this amazing show was destined to be ignored by most TV viewers. When the show aired (2002-2008 on HBO) it had famously low ratings and despite being critically lauded never won an Emmy award. Creator and “show runner” David Simon attributed this to “…the complexity of the plot; a poor time slot; heavy use of esoteric slang, particularly among the gangster characters; and a predominantly black cast”.

The Wire differs from many TV shows by having a complex, multi-layered plot that makes comment on modern society.  TV critics compare it to the best works of Dickens or Dostoyevsky in the way it uses narrative to explore social problems, especially the problems of urban poor in North America. One of the issues explored at length (mostly in season 4) is the role of schools and the education system in perpetuating many of  these problems.

I’ve watched The Wire multiple times and feel it has a lot to say about education and teaching. Here are five lessons I’ve spotted:

  1. Juking The Stats: One of the themes through all 60 episodes is the how politicians and bureaucrats rely on statistics to justify policy decisions. The Baltimore police department is concerned not with solving crimes, but rather with making sure that crime statistics show they’re doing their job. The emphasis on statistics changes how they approach their job. In season 4 Roland Pryzbylewski, a detective who becomes a teacher (as The Wire co-creator Ed Burns did) discovers that things are much the same in public schools. I’m always a little surprised by how accurate a depiction this scene is of what happens in schools.

The Lesson: Test scores aren’t about learning, they’re about politics, and as such they make learning in our schools worse.

  1. The King Stay The King: Despite our efforts the hierarchy of societies doesn’t change much. Drug dealer D’Angelo Barksdale teaches ‘corner boys’ Bodie and Wallace how to play chess. They want to know how a pawn can become a king and win. D’Angelo explains that no matter what, a pawn can never become a king, just like in real life.

The Lesson: We may see education as a path for students to move out of poverty, but the opportunities are few and the chances are slim. Often in society “…the king stay the king” no matter what we do or how hard we try.

  1. It’s All In The Game– The drug trade subculture, as depicted in The Wire, is referred to as “the game”. People do horrible, awful things to each other in pursuit of their goals but justify it as being ‘all in the game’. It makes sense within the rules and codes of the subculture. Similarly schools are subcultures, and there are many things in schools that don’t make sense outside that subculture.

The Lesson: Schools are separate places with separate rules. Sometimes there’s a disconnect for students between the world of their school and the world outside. They might be from different ethnic culture or economic circumstances. We need to recognize and allow for the fact that for many students schools don’t make sense and are disconnected from the ‘real world’ they and their families live in.

  1. Caring When It Isn’t Your Turn (paraphrased): Police detective and anti-hero Jimmy McNulty points out in the first episode of The Wire the dangers in taking on a challenge when you don’t have to. Detectives who try to ‘change the world’ end up feeling frustrated and ineffective. Addressing complex problems is difficult and requires a collective effort.

The Lesson: There’s a long list of outside factors that affect a child’s learning (poverty, family circumstances, previous learning, etc.). If we try to ‘fix’ all of them we end up spread too thin and unable to do focus on where we’re most effective. We need to accept students as they are and do our best to help them move them forward, and not get distracted by the multiplicity of things we can’t control. Care deeply about the things that really matter.

  1. “The game is rigged, but you cannot lose if you do not play”: Police lieutenant Cedric Daniels has been assigned to investigate a crime neither he nor his superiors want investigated. He feels he’s in a ‘no win’ situation when his wife points out to him that this is only true if he accepts success as others have defined it. If he thinks ‘outside the box’ and redefines the situation there’s a way forward.

The Lesson: Many outside the system try to define what success means in education. Politicians define it in terms of test scores and graduations rates. Some educators find themselves in difficult situations with inadequate resources to meet those external definitions of success. When faced with this educators should redefine what success in the classroom means to them. Perhaps it’s progress or maybe it’s making a difference to a student in a non-academic way. Whatever it is, it’s important to make sure that “success” is defined in ways that are personally meaningful.

Guest Post: Living and Teaching With ADHD

12 Jul

In response to yesterday’s post about ADHD medication I was contacted by Ryan Barrett. Ryan is an elementary Core French teacher with the Hamilton Wentworth District School Board and has been since September 2008. Ryan shared his extraordinary and inspiring story of growing up, living and teaching with ADHD. I asked if I could share that story on this blog and he agreed. The following are his words, unedited by me.

I am 32 years old and teach grades 3/4/5 and have been undergoing medical treatment for combined type ADHD (both inattentive and hyperactive-impulsive types) for just over a year now. The ‘just’ is the important modifier here as I have spent my years from pre-school to university, and every year thereafter in classrooms, trying to find my footing in the simplest of routines we teach our students Day One.  I kept re-living that first day of school, struggling with unmanaged ADHD for 28 years, until last winter when I just couldn’t make it out of the house anymore.

My personal struggle in the classroom was never of the sort that distracted others or demanded additional support from the teacher. I was identified gifted, and at IPRC meetings (this was pre-IEP, but post-Bill 82) they said I was bored and that I needed to challenge myself. Eventually, they thought, I would learn to meet deadlines. I would learn that ‘practice makes perfect’, and the restlessness and indecision would eventually fade and I would find my one true calling. I would learn to use a binder, a highlighter, and keep a calendar — and follow it! I would be satisfied and confident enough to complete a piece of work without starting over, and over, and over…

While my proficiencies were lauded, supported medically, and formalized, my weaknesses were dismissed as the tiniest of challenges that maturity would overcome.

Today I still find it difficult to go seek help when I can’t concentrate, when I can’t focus, or can’t stay organized. I don’t tell enough people when I am frustrated, overwhelmed, or worried about deadlines looming or missed. I certainly don’t seek medical attention often enough, and especially not when I am unable — when my brain, and body are unable – to accomplish a task that is, at this stage in my life, vital to my survival. I can’t stress that enough. I can’t live like this without treating the root of the problem and not just the symptoms.  Last winter I didn’t think there was any hope at all.

Without the right medication, the dosage of which is still being adjusted since I am just at the start of this journey, I just haven’t enough strategies to do all of the  things most other grown-ups do in a day. Time and time again, I wake up in the morning and wonder what to do next.

Do I shower first? Where is my towel? I always end up leaving wet footprints on the carpet in the hallway. Keys: I need those to drive. I lost the checklist I made last night. It is probably with the one I made the night before last. If anything goes wrong, I’ll be late. I have just enough time to reinvent the wheel before the bell goes.

Still, I remain bound to the classroom, where I practice what I never learned. But this September, I’ll be a step closer, and all because I know now that my body lacks what it needs to propel me through the next day, and the next. And because it’s not a secret anymore…

The Use of ADHD Drugs in Schools

11 Jul

An article in the Wall Street Journal has re-started public discussion on why so many students are taking medication to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). It’s a thorny issue with implications for the kind of schools we have, the kind of schools we want and how we view students and their learning.

New research, conducted by the National Bureau of Economic Research and published in June, studied how taking Ritalin, a medication commonly prescribed for ADHD, affected students in Quebec. According to the study, taking Ritalin caused “…increases in emotional problems among girls, and reductions in educational attainment among boys…”. This is disturbing news for students, parents and educators.

There has been an explosion in the use of medication to treat ADHD in children in recent years. In March, 2013 the Center for Disease Control reported “…a 16 percent increase since 2007 and a 41 percent rise in the past decade…” in the number of US children diagnosed with ADHD. Currently nearly one in five high school boys and 11% of all school age children are diagnosed with ADHD. In the wake of these revelations some critics are suggesting that prescribing ADHD medication (and the resultant side effects) to children, without gains in learning constitutes “malpractice”.

I can’t find Canadian stats, but my own classroom experience suggests a similar pattern of use. My class last year, which was typical, had 16% of students taking ADHD medication. All of these students were boys. In fact, the majority of students diagnosed with ADHD are boys. Boys are five to nine times more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD, leading some to suggest that this is evidence of a ‘war on boys’ in our schools.

The high rates of ADHD, and the resultant medication use, says a lot about the culture in schools. Students who don’t progress are pathologized, and schools only accept or allow for deviation if it’s supported by a label. There used to be an understanding that schools can’t meet every student’s needs, but no longer. We devote extensive resources to finding out why a student isn’t learning and ensuring they have every chance to be successful. This process, along with the need for labels, leads to higher rates of diagnosis.

Learning is a complex process and it’s difficult to determine whether it occurred.  Standardized tests are unreliable indicators of the many ways learning happens. Further, just because a student can sit still and pay attention doesn’t mean they have the skills to learn. Students struggle with ADHD for years causing a skills deficit and layers of coping strategies that interfere with learning. Prescribing and using medication is merely the first of several steps in helping a student with ADHD to learn.

The presence of a student with ADHD often impacts on the learning of the whole class. Students with ADHD can be disruptive, making learning more difficult for other students. Teachers devote time to managing and supporting students with ADHD, meaning less time and support is available for other students. It’s likely that the learning of the class improves when a student with ADHD is successfully treated with medication, even though their individual learning may not.

The value of ADHD medication is not exclusively in improving academic learning. Students with ADHD  struggle daily to meet basic expectations leading to lower self-esteem. Medication helps students with ADHD to improve their quality of life, with more friendships and a more positive attitude about school and life. That may, in the long run, be more important than a gain in academic learning.

I prefer using methods other than medication to support students with ADHD whenever possible. A classroom environment where students work in collaborative small groups and have the freedom to move around if needed can be helpful. A well constructed and implemented IEP (Individual Education Plan) with useful accommodations and strategies is also recommended.

The decision of whether or not to use medication to treat ADHD is a difficult one for parents. There are multiple factors to consider and every case is different. It is especially complicated for parents without the resources to provide the extensive support a child with ADHD may need. Constantly taking time off work to deal with problems at school isn’t a viable option for most parents. Sometimes it isn’t a matter of choosing the best solution, but rather finding the right option given the many constraints. And sometimes, that’s medication.

How To Make Schools Matter To Students

4 Jul

“Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.” John Dewey

Schools are supposed to be about learning. They are supposed to be about inspiring students and supporting them so they can develop the skills and knowledge they need to live their best life.

But the world has changed, quickly, and schools and teachers are struggling to keep up. Learning, like many aspects of our lives, is becoming democratized and decentralized. Students are increasingly finding schools irrelevant when it comes to learning and are using cheap and easy technology to take matters into their own hands.

Here’s three stories to illustrate:

  1. marthaPayne858_2249344bMartha Payne: On April 30th, 2012, Martha Payne was a nine-year old school girl in Lochgilphead, Scotland. She thought the food provided to students at her school wasn’t very good so she decided to blog about it. Her first entry on May 8th, 2012 included a picture of her pizza lunch with the comment “The good thing about this blog is Dad understands why I am hungry when I get home”.  The blog quickly got local and national headlines, a comment from food advocate Jamie Oliver, and by June 15th Martha had three million hits. The story developed a few twists and turns along the way (the school board tried to shut her down) but as a result of Martha’s blog the quality and quantity of food at her school (and others) has improved, and along the way she’s raised over $150,000 to improve the quality of food at schools in Africa.
  2. o-ANN-MAKOSINSKIAnn Makosinski: Since grade 6 Ann Makosinski, of Victoria, British Columbia, has had an interest in harvesting surplus energy. She started exploring this interest in independent science projects in grade 7 and continued to refine her ideas. In 2013 (she’s now in grade 10) Makosinski produced a flashlight that can be powered by the heat from the user’s hand. Her $26 prototype uses Peltier tiles (which she bought on Ebay) to turn heat into electricity. Makosinski is one of fifteen students in the world, and the only Canadian, presenting at the 2013 Google Science Fair in California. Makinowski did this, not in class, but independently, on her own time, between her part-time job and rehearsing for the school play.
  3. Ebony Oshunrinde (aka WondaGurl): When Ebony Oshunrinde was nine years old she saw a video of rap artist Jay-Z wondagurl_2and producer Timbaland working in the studio together. She decided it looked cool and she wanted to learn how to do it, so she downloaded music software and taught herself how to use it by watching YouTube videos. Oshunrinde is now a grade 11 student in Brampton, Ontario and made a piece of music she liked. She sent it off to a producer she’d recently met for some feedback. Her ‘beat’ was so good he shared it with Jay-Z and they decided to use it on the song “Crown” which is on Jay-Z’s just released album Magna Carta Holy Grail. Oshunrinde worked on the beat after she finished her homework.

These are just three of thousands of stories of students that are increasingly taking learning into their own hands. They’re not getting what they need in school and so are using technology to ‘go around’ school.

Schools need to facilitate and support more of this kind of independent learning, to provide a space for students to follow their passions. If we don’t, formal schooling will become increasingly irrelevant to students. Instead of a place of learning and inspiration ‘school learning’ will be another chore that students HAVE to do. Another thing on the to-do list before they live their real life.

Never Let Them See You Teach

3 Jul

There’s an intersection between the role of stand-up comedian and teacher.

Both stand alone before groups of people and try to engage their audience or class and move them to action (laugh/learn/both). Like stand-up comedians the best teachers write their own material (to rely on someone else’s lessons or text books is pretty hack) and are always ready to improvise when the needs of the class require it. And as most experienced teachers know, a little humour in the classroom can improve the learning. Because of this I’ve had a passing interest in what stand-up comedians have to say about what they do and how it helps me as a teacher.

I’ve been a fan of stand-up comedy in general and Bill Cosby specifically since I was young. I listened to his stand-up on vinyl and saw him perform in the early 80’s. It ranks up there with one of the best performances I’ve ever seen. Recently, Cosby’s gone back to stand-up (did he ever leave?) and the stories of his shows are legendary. At his last performance at the Just For Laughs Comedy Festival in Montreal he did a two-hour show where he walked onto the stage, sat down, told TWO STORIES, killed and left.

Last week I was listening to an interview with Bill Crystal (not a fan) and he told a story about Cosby. When Crystal was coming up as a comedian he was also a big fan of Cosby’s. He was doing a set at a comedy club and looked up to see that Cosby was watching him at the back of the room. After the show and later they talked about comedy and Crystal related Cosby’s wisdom on what makes good stand-up comedy.

The secret he said is “Never let them see you work”. Good performances should come across as natural and unrehearsed. Be relaxed in the delivery and casually throw out things so that people think “wow, he’s naturally funny”. If people think it’s forced they put up resistance. The secret is to relax and get them to drop their defences.

I think the same is true of good teaching. Inexperienced teachers try to control everything and pre-plan learning so that nothing  can “go wrong”. As teachers get more experienced they develop more confidence and believe that, whatever happens, they can handle it. They relax more into the role and, in doing so, get students to relax, which increases engagement. Students think this is something you’re doing with them rather than to them.

This doesn’t mean that things aren’t prepared and planned, rather that when content or instructions are being delivered it doesn’t seem that way. It’s almost as if you’re deciding what to do there and then and you’re just as delighted and surprised by what’s happening. This leaves space for moments where something unexpected happens and suddenly learning is happening in a completely new, unplanned direction.

Most lesson plans and unit plans really miss the boat on this. Teachers need to have a general idea of where things are going but the route should be negotiable. After all, aren’t those the most interesting journeys?

Five Summer Reads For Teachers

1 Jul

Classes may have ended three days ago but to my “fantasy mind” summer vacation still hasn’t started. The first “official” day of summer vacation is tomorrow when, after a long weekend, THE REST OF THE WORLD resumes regular life and I don’t.

This is the most precious moment of the summer vacation, when it’s all about to happen, full of potential. In my first couple of summers as a teacher I learned that July and August can disappear faster than a kiddie cone at the beach. At the start of summer vacation I pause and appreciate the ten weeks stretching out before me and ask “What will I do? How will I use this gift?”

I’m also aware of how quickly the lessons of the previous year fade. In the blink of an eye I’ll be thinking and planning for next year, not considering what did and didn’t work last year. That’s why, in early July, I also try to think about what I need to know more about to make learning in my classroom better. How can I improve my knowledge and understanding of teaching and learning?

This year I’ve compiled a list of five books I’d like to read to help make the 2013-14 school year as good as possible. Here they are:

  1. Finding Your Element: How to Discover Your Talents and Passions and Transform Your Life by Ken Robinson & Lou Aronica. This is the follow-up book to Sir Ken Robinson’s book The Element about the importance of finding your passion. Finding Your Element contains strategies to help people find their passion. I’m hoping I can use some of those strategies with students so that when we discuss topics they’d like to learn about I’m met with fewer blank stares and more enthusiastically raised hands.
  2. Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined by Scott Barry Kaufman. Kaufman, a cognitive psychologist who was “relegated to special education as a child” uses the latest research to question our traditional notions of intelligence and suggests that what we consider exceptionalities or learning difficulties are really different forms of intelligence. I’d like to learn more about this. I think our current ideas about what makes someone ‘smart’ are much too narrow.
  3. Teaching with Poverty in Mind by Eric Jensen. The subtitle of this book “What Being Poor Does to Kids’ Brains and What Schools Can Do About It” is intriguing. Society and schools greatly underestimate the effect of poverty on children’s learning. Comparing student achievement without taking these effects into consideration is both unfair and damaging to student learning. I’m especially interested in what I can do as a teacher to offset the impact poverty has on my students.
  4. Visible Learners by Ben Mardell, Mara Krechevsky, Melissa Rivard, and Daniel Wilson. I’ve long been a fan of the Reggio Emilia approach to teaching and learning but am unsure how to apply those principles in a “mainstream” classroom. This book provides “…practical ways to enhance learning by increasing collaboration and critical thinking across grade levels and subject matter”. There are also strategies to improve educators’ ability to observe learning effectively with minimal impact on the learning, something I want to improve at.
  5. Teaching: It’s Harder Than It Looks by Gerry Dee. Dee is a stand-up comedian and star of the CBC comedy Mr. D about Gerry Duncan: an under-qualified high school social studies teacher. Before becoming an entertainer Dee was a physical education teacher and hockey coach at De La Salle College (Toronto)“Oaklands”, a private co-ed high school in Toronto. This book is a collection of his funniest anecdotes about teaching and, according to a couple of colleagues who’ve read it, it’s pretty funny. I hope so. Summer shouldn’t just be about serious learning for teachers or students. It should also be a time to recharge and reenergize  Reading this will, hopefully, put a spring back in my teaching step so that, come September, I’m excited to again jump ‘once more into the breach’ with a smile on my face.

How about you? Any summer books for teachers you’d like to recommend? Suggestions in the comments please.