Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Essentials Exercise

The Essentials of Education exercise
Through the months of November and December, I wrote on this blog about what I felt were the essentials of education.  I whittled down everything I teach to 7 key ideas.  I attach all my learning intentions to those 7 essentials.  I find the framework useful because it justifies everything I teach and helps me to focus on what is important.  So at the same time, it is liberating and focusing.  But it is even more powerful when I take another teacher through the same exercise. 

Last month, I took two staff members through my little exercise.  It was really, really interesting.  I have taken other people through the process before, but in a very informal, conversational way.  Even though it was only two people this time, I ran it as though it was a workshop.  It took a couple of hours, (plus a couple of pots of coffee, some pastries, and a thick stack of sticky notes), but I found the conversations rich and sometimes intense because I really pushed L and K (I knew I could because we have a lot of trust). 

The really funny things is,when we started looking for patterns within their lists of essential things in education, the things they chose were very similar to mine and to each other's.  The other times I've done this, the overlap was not as significant.  Were L and K's similar because we have similar teaching styles or foci, or because we are on the same staff and see the same things, or was it because of something else?

Improvement, Engagement, Adaptation
We did differ though, in another interesting way.  My overall "umbrella essential" is Make Things Better.  I am about constant improvement, or kaizen, in my teaching, in my life, and in my spirit.  Like the movie, "Groundhog Day," if we're not here to improve ourselves and each other, then why are we here?  (I think I might be a closet Buddhist.  Nah, too materialistic). 

When I worked L through the process, she was really adamant that her teaching approach was about Engagement.  She really wants her students to embrace everything they do.  And that makes sense because she can be a very enthusiastic and passionate person.  And it shows in her classroom because she draws kids in with her love of what she does.  It like what Parker Palmer says: "You are what you teach," or "Teach your own truth." 

In the same vein, K was about Adaptation.  She wants her students to be able to respond to change, to interact with their world, and to fit in.  And that totally suits K's personality.  She works so hard to meet the needs of each of her students, sometimes in extreme ways (e.g. trying things outside of her comfort zone, bringing in all kinds of resource people into her classroom, teaching two or three separate lessons at the same time, co-teaching with another teacher for an entire year, etc.).  And why does she do these things? To adapt to her the needs of her students.  She does not teach from the same cookie cutter lessons, but seems to reinvent herself based on the diverse needs of her students. 

I think I'll have shirts made.
Mine will say: "Improve.  Make Your World Better."
L's will say: "Engage. Embrace Your World."
K's will say: "Adapt.  Change with Your World."

Maybe this exercise will be my new thing.
After all, it fits in with my vision of improvement.  I enjoy taking people through the process, and I like seeing what comes out the other side.  Maybe I'll do it with you sometime.  Let me know (How about  you, Z?).  It could be really enlightening.  You might not be as lucky as L and K.  I made them lunch too.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Pictures of My Slight Classroom Revamp

People were still not understanding the way I redid my shelf,(see January post) so I decided to post some pictures. Last fall,  I didn't like what people saw when they entered the room, and there wasn't enough flow to the room.  So I started moving things around (again).

Before (in December)
Here is a before picture.  You can see how messy it is with the books all piled on the "feature wall" shelf.  Your eyes were drawn to the clutter by the window as you walked into the room. 

shelf in November

The Smartboard was where the ukuleles are in this picture. 
I raised the ukuleles and eventually moved the library to this spot.

After the Refocus

I moved my library to a side wall. When kids are in the room, you barely notice the clutter of the books. Actually, your eyes are drawn to the ukuleles instead. People really remark about the rhythm, the cool pattern that the ukulele shapes create on the side wall. The frames are the ones my dad and I created from crown moulding.

Library wall

I decluttered the reading corner as well.  Kids snuggle up in the chair or huddle under the warm glow of the lamp.  I used to have storage bins there, but the ukuleles open up the space.  The one downside is that kids don't get to lean against the wall, but I'd rather have the flow to the room I have now.  I'll keep looking at it though.  Notice the paper lantern.  I have four of these hanging in spots around the classroom, and rarely have the overhead fluorescent lights on completely.

Reading Corner

The counter is what I envisioned it to be: a picturesque, inviting, open, usable, and flexible space.  I was going to create a series of display shelves in the window sill, but my wife and the students talked me out of it.  They all liked the idea of the unencumbered view.  (Okay, they were right.)  Here are some different shots of the window counter at the back.  The only shot I don't have is when we use the counter sometimes for our laptops.

Window counter taken with flash.

Taken without flash. 
Notice the faint glow of the accent LEDs above the window,
and the real plants in the bottom corner of the sill.

The counter is a good place to check things out ....
... or to write or think.

A few other features
I don't think I ever took a picture of the risers after I recovered them with some leftover laminate flooring I had lying around.  At the end of last year, the risers were in good shape structurally, but really stained.  Bare plywood absorbs a lot of scuffs and stains.  The laminate has really been a dream.  It looks decent and cleans up with a wipe or a rub with a damp sponge.  I also stained the 2x4 supports with a light stain.  Here is what they look like after the slight makeover.

On the advice of Linda, the Occupational Therapist, I also put up places on my bulletin boards where kids could stand and write.  I put up coloured pieces of construction paper on the surface to define the spaces, and to take some of the roughness away from the bulletin board material.  It is funny how these spots on the verticals have become a useable space, especially when we have Writing Workshop.  I also have an art easel that we use for vertical writing.  I guess this is how I am able to have over 40 kids in my room (and at least 3 adults) and have it not seem overcrowded.  All the spaces are used: floors, counters, risers, tables, a few desks, and even some verticals are functional work spaces.  

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Holistic Learning

Miller and Holistic Teaching and Me
Speaking of crystallizing vision, I was invited to a talk by Dr. Jack Miller from OISE. He spoke about holistic teaching. I found it interesting how many of the ideas I stated at the Ethic of Care class turned up in Dr. Miller's session as well.  (Okay, okay, I am NOT comparing myself to this brilliant man with a PhD, but it did help to legitimize a lot of my ideas.)  Probably the biggest idea he talked about was how we must educate each child's head, heart and body.  In the same way, I talked about teaching hands-on, minds-on, and hearts-on learning.  (Man, I thought I coined those terms, but probably not.  More subconscious plagiarism.)

Some other ideas that Dr. Miller had that really struck a chord with me were to try to develop kids' awe and wonder, and to keep the joy that they have inherently.  We try to keep that sense of relevance as well by emphasizing the sense of purpose in our learning.  He talked about Montessori's "Cosmic Curriculum," in that our learning should benefit ourselves, but also the world.  Also, in the same way we are learning about emergent curriculum, Miller advocated the balance between planning and spontaneity.  It is good to have an idea of where you are going, but be open to the teachable moments.  Miller keyed in on Parker Palmer's idea of you are what you teach, and told us to "use our own truth."

The Structure
One of the really interesting things about the session was how M structured it.  Miller talked for about 45 minutes, and then we used the rest of the time to debrief with the people at our tables.  I thought it was a really valuable use of our time.  I go to so many workshops where I am bombarded with ideas, and no matter how great they are, I have trouble digesting them or even remembering them because I did not have time to bash the ideas about or even reflect on them.   

It is akin to going to a big buffet and stuffing yourself with all sorts of good food.  None of the dishes become very memorable.  But if you savour each one and have time to really enjoy each dish as you discuss it with others, the sensation is heightened and the experience is more memorable.  That's what this talk was like.  "Just enough" learning.  It was a great connection between the message and the method. 

Hmmm.  Now how do I apply that to my own class?  Less teacher talk.  More student thinking.  More pauses and discussion.  More napkins?

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Reflections on Ethic of Care and the Space 2

The Presentation last week
In my last post, I submitted the notes from a presentation I did for a class on the Ethic of Care and the work of Nel Noddings.  When I was asked to speak to that class, I told the instructor I would be happy to give a talk, but that I just had two questions: "What is the Ethic of Care? and "Who is Nel Noddings?"  Interestingly, she still wanted me to speak.

So I gave this talk and there was another speaker, Joan, who actually was really familiar with Nel Noddings.  Joan had done this really fabulous project at her school that started with a simple conversation about bees and grew into a massive cross-curricular, K- to 12 project that has global implications.  My talk went okay too: I told them what I think and gave them a tour of my classroom.

The really interesting thing for me was how having to prepare a talk in front of an audience crystallized my thinking.  My thoughts are very at home rattling inside my head, but sometimes when you have to tell someone else, the thoughts must take a clear, understandable form.  I am pretty sure everyone understood my umbrella concept that learning and caring comes from 3 interactions:
  1. student with other students
  2. student with teacher
  3. student with the world or environment
The third one, the interaction between student and environment, was the relationship that I think I am starting to explore more fully.  I hadn't really thought of it before, but looking at some of my original blog posts, I see that it stems with my observation of how teachers' performance and mood are affected by environment. 

The Space
Even this year, in the fall, you could sense the tension in by building.  People felt overwhelmed.  For some, it was because they had to do something new (new grade, new position, implementing full day kindergarten).  For others it was something beyond our school (health issues, university courses, etc.).  And for a couple, it was the lack of a juicy project they could sink their teeth into. 

It might have been just coincidence, but we also did not have our Space to retreat to, (it had been taken by a new program in our school).  As a staff, we informally talked about the tension that was felt in our school.  We realized that a lot of the sources of it were beyond our control, but we also talked about what we could do about it.  The Space came up as a possible solution, so we went searching for a new usable space.  Luckily, we were able to find a small unused section of the ESL room and were given the green light to remake it.  The couch was brought in,  Lights were put up.  People brought lamps, vases, ornaments, and pictures from home.  With some strategic placement of the furnishing, we were able to put together another haven. 

We still use it at least once a week.  Again, it might just be coincidence, but I detect a great weight lifted off our teaching staff.  I, personally, have had some really enlightening conversations in the new space.  (Some even with other people).

Me?  A Designer?
When I spoke to that Ethic of Care class, I held it at my school so that people could see how I integrated my classroom environment into my philosophy.  It was really interesting when people walked into my classroom.  As usual, (though they may have talked to me about my design, or seen pictures, or read this blog), people don't really get it until they actually see my classroom.  The elementary teachers were really interested and had a whole bunch of questions about where I got things and how the risers worked. 

Perhaps the most interesting conversation I had was with L, a high school math teacher, who wanted to know how she might use some of the design ideas with her students in her portable.  I just kind of laughed; I don't really think of myself as a designer, just someone who likes to tinker with things that are within my own domain.  I guess when I talk to her, I'll just have to help her focus her own vision and what she wants from her own environment: it's not about the stuff, it's about the intent.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Ethic of Care presentation

Last night I presented at an Ethic of Care class.  The text below is my notes from the key points of my presentation.

I see learning within the Ethic of Care has three factors:
  1. The Teacher
  2. The Student(s)
  3. The Environment

1. The Teacher

Who you are is what (and how) you teach.
The teacher must understand him or herself.

It's not just Personalized Learning, but Personalized Teaching as well.

2. The Students

Treat each learner as an individual.

Mother Theresa: If I look at the mass, I will never act.  If I look at the one, I will.

Start with individuals. It is less overwhelming.

Build relationships: Don't teach subjects. Teach kids.

The teacher needs to know the students.  Talk to them and LISTEN.

(It’s the same with adults).

3. Kids also learn by interacting with their environment.

Teachers create the conditions for learning and caring to develop.

The conditions are reflected in the environment: Trust, compassion, safety, self worth, etc.

The conditions are dependent on who teacher is and who students are.
I want my classroom environment to be better than the real world because
  • some of my kids come from challenging home situations.
  • this world has already been created. I want a better one.

Hmm.  Doesn't seem as powerful when it's not said out loud. 
Feel free to read this out loud imitating my booming voice.  Make sure that you pause, stroke your chin thoughtfully, and have that knowing look on your face.
Yup, WAY more effective.