What I’ve Learned From the Danes (Part 1)

I have spent the last week presenting to and learning from Danish principals, teachers, and pedagogues (a role we don’t really have in Ontario).

I won’t attempt to summarize everything I learned in this post because it’s my last night in Denmark, but I want to capture a few things now:

The main thing we can learn from the Danes is that if you want a student to be a self-regulating, independent, resilient person, they won’t do that (and yes, I am using the non-gender-specific “they” as a singular pronoun. I do that now) if we create rules for every possible situation, remove all “potentially dangerous” playground equipment, and refuse to let them out of our sight for a second.

Here, children at school can climb trees, play on climbing walls, use knives, and start camp fires. 5 year olds drink out of glass cups and are responsible for carrying them back to the kitchen on their own. There are candles everywhere. Children don’t touch them. Because they’re hot. Children are allowed to work in small groups in hallways, libraries, and other common learning spaces without teachers looking over their shoulders. And they do the work. They don’t misbehave. Because if they did, there would be consequences. Natural consequences.

Danes are much more relaxed about their students. They have rules and expectations, but not about everything. They expect students to learn to make good choices. Students can’t do this if they’re not given any choices.

The Decline of the Arts and the role of ENG4U

(or “Breaking up is Hard to Do”)

Grade 12 university level English is a mandatory course for acceptance to university programs here in Ontario as I’m sure anyone who reads my blog knows.

I get the sense, and I’m looking for statistics to back this up, that since I began teaching in 2003, more students are applying to STEM programs at university now than arts or humanities programs. This really hit home for me when, in my grade 11 enriched English course, I listened to one of our guidance counselors survey my class to find out what programs my students were planning on applying to: engineering, medicine, and chemistry, were popular answers while I heard one student say philosophy, and a few others say law.

For the most part, this is not a class where students get passionate about literature or art. It’s a bit of a bummer for me, but I also need to get over it. I still think the arts in general, and literature specifically, have an important place in my students’ education regardless of where life takes them after high school. Literature forces us to deal with the big questions about life, death, love, hate and what it means to be human in ways that more concrete, or “black and white” disciplines can’t. I don’t want to live in a world with people who don’t care about these things or don’t ever think deeply about them. I will always firmly advocate for literature and the arts as being essential to a student’s education.

That being said, if 85% of my grade 12s have no intention of studying English literature in university, should I still be teaching ENG4U the way I do?

For example, in ENG4U, I teach Hamlet. I love Hamlet. So my reasons for continuing to teach it are partly selfish. If pressed though, I would say that while I think it’s good for students to know the basic story of Hamlet and the key issues the play raises, I don’t think it’s important for them to be able to quote lines from the play or even to be able to do a close reading of a soliloquy (please don’t make me return my BA for saying so). I think that learning to make meaning from a particularly challenging text is an important skill, but that doesn’t logically support me covering the play in as much detail as I currently do. In fact, I’ve been paring down the amount of time I really spend digging into to the text over the past four years or so. But I still do the whole thing. I still spend at least 4 weeks studying the play–although I’ve moved from reading and then watching to doing a combination of both, to mostly watching and reading specific passages to compare a director’s interpretation to the primary source. But really, I don’t think any of this is necessary. I think I could probably cover the same expectations in about a week or two.

So what should I focus on instead? And how do I break up with Hamlet without turning into Ophelia and drowning myself in a river?

Much Ado About Tweeting

Well, ladies and gentlemen, it’s been a while since the fun and silliness of “Brevity is the Soul of (t)Wit,” an experiment using Twitter to present Hamlet. When we did this back in the spring of 2011, (!) Twitter was really just coming into its own and we were just discovering how we could harness that tool. Over the March Break I thought, hey, wouldn’t it be cool to try to present Hamlet over Twitter? I and those who joined me for the ride, learned a LOT from the experience. You can discover what I learned by clicking through this presentation (it will also show you how I adapted the exercise for my students):

There will be a few changes this time around:

1) We’re doing a comedy (although it gets pretty dark at times) Much Ado About Nothing.

2) I will create and retain access to all the Twitter handles (Why? I might want to use them again in the future)

3) I’m not going to use a separate webpage to curate this material, instead I’ll make a page on this blog.

4) We’ll use a hashtag this time as well as a list. The hashtag is yet to be determined. I’m open to suggestions.

How can you get involved if you are interested?

If you want a role in our play, I’ve created a call sheet:

All you need to do is give me your real name, Twitter handle, and email address.

What are you committing to?

1) Researching your role and the general plot of the play. Know what your background is, your motivation, and how you relate to the other characters in the play. You don’t need to know the original text inside and out. Using a student-friendly site like Shmoop will be enough.

2) Using our group calendar:     to stay synchronized with the other actors. In the calendar, I’ve indicated when events should happen by. I’ve also given you a summary of the events of the scene. If you’re planning on tweeting about time-sensitive stuff, I recommend you co-ordinate with the other actors through direct messages, but please only use the direct messages to coordinate tweets. There’s no point in staying in character in direct messages since the general public can’t see them.

3) Focusing not only on tweeting what happens on-stage in the play, but also on what might be happening off stage. This is one of the most powerful parts of this exercise: There are literally no small parts. You can tweet as much as you like whenever you like–even if the summary for a particular scene doesn’t involve your character. Your character still exists when he/she isn’t on stage!

4) If you would like to create multimedia content and share that in a tweet (a picture, video, link to other content), you are welcome to do so.

5) I would encourage you to watch the Joss Whedon film version of Much Ado About Nothing. It gives the right feel for what I’m imagining for the play–BUT we tweet in modern language.

6) You’re also committing to being respectful and courteous in your behind the scenes conversations with other actors (that should go without saying, but I’ll put it out there just in case.)

I’m hoping to get started by next Saturday, but if I have to change dates I will.

One final note: I would like to share this project with my staff and high school students. Our tweets are public anyway, so I’m not sure that the fact that I want to share with my students will change your the way you plan your tweets but it might so I wanted you to know that up front.

Any questions? Contact me on Twitter! I’m @danikatipping

Nothing worth having comes without some kind of fight.

I find the first few weeks of school the toughest. Generally my students are wary of me and so they are reticent to offer ideas in class discussions and afraid to take risks (even on tiny assignments that aren’t being marked) because they’re so deathly afraid of making mistakes. I get that. They’ve spent years learning that mistakes are the worst things they can make in school. It takes time to get them to trust me. But it’s still frustrating.

The one thing that’s frustrating me the most right now is that I teach an enriched grade 11 English class, filled to the brim with very bright, high achievers (and a few very bright underachievers). My take on an enriched class is that my students complete the same summative assessments as the other grade 11 classes, but they get to design their own formative projects. I give them lots of guidance on this. We’re very clear about their learning goals and success criteria. I give them exemplars. But so many of them would rather just do worksheets because they would rather be bored and guaranteed a good mark, than engaged and risk a not quite so good mark. EVEN THOUGH this is formative, and the major marks come from the summative assessment. Insert coaching analogy:

It’s like I’m coaching a cross country team (because that’s actually the only coaching I’ve done), and I give the athletes the choice between running laps on a track or playing a new game, and they all choose the laps because they’ve done it before.

Problem #2 and this one really bugs me. The students have chosen to take enriched grade 11 English (Or their parents chose for them which is another problem altogether), and yet when asked to choose a novel for their independent studies, many of them only want to read YA fiction or airport bookstore murder mysteries. You know, books with simple plots, simple characters, and unimaginative writing styles. Now before I get gasps of horror from YA fiction apologists, I like YA fiction. I love the Divergent, and Hunger Games series. But these books do not challenge my students. And that’s the problem.

Many of them don’t want a challenge. Many of them have expressly said “I want an easy read.” They don’t understand the pleasure of the challenge.

Many of my students have been told they are bright, and talented, and gifted since they were in grade 1. I feel that, as a result, many of them also believe that learning should be easy. They should never experience frustration of any kind when learning. I want to tell them that frustration is a part of learning–that, if you are not persisting in the face of a challenge, you’re not really learning anything.

I think many of my students aren’t interested in learning. They’re interested in grades.

And so I’m frustrated, which I suppose means I’m also engaged in a challenging learning process.

Changing our mental outlook

I’m generally a pretty happy person (I think. How do you measure that?), but I do often enjoy wallowing in a good b*tch session. Yesterday, for example, my classroom computer took so a half hour to load and then I couldn’t actually access the internet. It made me so angry and I spiraled into an anger cycle of increasing fury: Oh great, the internet won’t work! It probably never will! Why doesn’t our school board have better infrastructure? How am I supposed to do my job??!! Now some of these concerns are legitimate, but dwelling on them doesn’t do me or the students any good.

Then yesterday I watched the following Ted X talk at an elearning staff meeting:

Of course this message meshes very nicely with our board’s current focus on having a growth mindset. And it’s a very simple message: Success is not the road to happiness; happiness is the road to success. But that sounds a little to trite without elaboration:

Many of my students are labouring under the impression that if they just work harder and get better marks, they will be happier. But as Achor states in the video, we keep moving the goal posts, and we’re never actually satisfied. But if we instead reverse this formula and begin with a positive mental outlook, we are more productive, more creative, and more focused. The key of course is establishing that positive mindset.

Achor mentions specific strategies that, when used for 21 days, helped rewire brains to start scanning for the positive things in life, rather than the negative. The specific strategies were journaling, random acts of kindness, exercise, meditation, and gratitude.

So after watching this video and discussing this with my students, I asked if they’d mind if we gave it a shot–starting each class for the next 21 days with something that trained our brains to focus on the good. Like taking the first two minutes of class to send a nice note or text to someone, or spending two minutes just meditating. Or stretching. The cynic in me is embarrassed that I’d even consider this but the optimist in me figures, “What’s the worst thing that can happen?” It costs us nothing to try.

So I’ll keep you posted!

Resurfacing

imageHello world,

I’m back! I’m not going to dwell on the “it’s been a while since my last post” stuff because who knows? It might be a while until my next post. I won’t say I haven’t had the time to blog. I’ve been busy, sure. We all have. But frankly my head hasn’t been filled with educational musings for a while. Partly because of the new dude in my life (His name is Leif and he enjoys puppies and throwing his food on the floor), but also just because I started to get…bored by the whole “techie English teacher” persona I’d been wearing for the past seven years.

But I’ve had a year (and a bit) away from the teaching world (although I still taught a course online and wrote curriculum for eLearning Ontario), and my mind was mostly focused on new jargon like “baby-led-weaning” and “sleep training”. I think it was a good reset for my brain.

As I prepare to return to the classroom I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around leaving my tiny bff in daycare, because even though I know the daycare is full of kind, professional, highly trained people, they’re not me. They’re not the person who loves him and knows him better than anyone else in the world (other than my husband of course).

But that feeling is what’s going to make me a better teacher. Because now I see all my future students through the eyes of a parent. And I want to be the teacher that I would want my own son to have. I want to be a teacher who is  doggedly persistent when it comes to encouraging kids to reach their potential. I want to be the teacher who takes her professional development seriously. I want to be the teacher who has high standards for her students and makes them believe they can achieve those standards.

But more importantly I want to be the teacher who is patient and compassionate and treats each child with dignity and kindness, even when I’m tired or frustrated or even angry. Because that’s what I’d want for my son.

I know some incredible teachers who don’t have children of their own and they managed to figure this out long ago, but it took me a little longer to get here.

Wish me luck!

I think you’re confusing “want” with “need”

I came across a blog post tonight that articulated a very familiar concern that I hear from many new and seasoned English teachers. Essentially the concern was the following question: Are we incorporating multiliteracies at the risk of not focusing enough on things like literature and essay-writing.

Here was my response:

Hi ____________,

I read your post while taking a break from working on writing curriculum for an adult ed English course. I understand your passion for literature; it’s part of why I became an English teacher too. One of the things I learned quickly, however, was that my job as an English teacher was not to create a bunch of mini-mes (I’m tempted to put an apostrophe before the s for clarity but I can’t bring myself to do it).

I work in Ontario, and the Ontario curriculum clearly articulates that literature is only a portion of the secondary English curriculum. Additionally, our curriculum documents do not specify which texts we must teach. I don’t teach my students Hamlet (or any other work of literature for that matter). I teach my students skills, using Hamlet. (I do not need to teach them the entire play either, but that’s another story).

And yes, I take a multiliteracies approach to English as much as possible.

Why?

a. I don’t have any courses that are explicitly English literature courses.

b. When I look at the curriculum (and sure, partly my own agenda), I see the ultimate goal being teaching my students to be effective critical thinkers and communicators. They’re already communicating in a wide variety of media and they’re not always doing it critically or effectively. Rather than create an artificial and inauthentic environment in which they communication meaning, I think it’s more important that I acknowledge the myriad of ways in which students communicate (and consume texts) and find ways to help them do that more effectively.

I still have to review comma usage with my grade 12s. And no I don’t blame texting because correlation does not equal causation.

I still teach students how to write essays, but I don’t think that the essay is the best way for students to demonstrate their thinking.

When you add in new things you do have to take out some things, but we need to ask ourselves why we are clinging to the “other things” so firmly. Is it because it’s a specific curriculum expectation? Is it because all the students absolutely need it? Or does it say something about our own firmly established paradigmatic views about the way the English class should look based on our own positive experiences in high school English? (or a few too many viewings of Dead Poets Society)

It’s not about what we like. It’s about what our students need. And sometimes we confuse the two.

 

The Answer

My grade 12s are currently working diligently away on preparing seminars for their classmates. We’ve been studying literary criticism and now they are becoming the experts, preparing a short story to present to the class and explaining how analyzing the text from a particular lens reveals certain insight.

It’s tough. It’s frustrating. It’s totally worth it.

As I listen to the conversations happening all around me, I hear students puzzling through really challenging questions, and some of them ask me, “But can you tell me what it means?” A part of me really wants to. Not that I necessarily know the answer, but I’m very tempted to tell them what I think. Still, I resist that urge, because I remind myself that the second I tell them what I think something means, a part of their brains shut down and that’s the very part that I want them exercising. The steam coming out of those ears is good.

It can be torture for English teachers to listen to students come up with off-base or misguided conclusions, but we need to restrain the urge to give students “the answer” and instead ask them more questions.

Whether students arrive at what we consider to be a “right answer” is much less important than whether or not they ask critical questions, look for support for their ideas, and have meaningful discussions with each other. If all we want them to learn is  “the right answer” then we are emphasizing lower order thinking skills at the expense of higher order thinking skills.

Some thoughts about change theory

I’m currently in my final course of my MEd before I do my project. (YAY!)

My professor posted this question in our discussion forum: 

 In describing his “systematic strategy for change” in Chapter 1, Ellsworth (2000) states: “[The] situation becomes even more pronounced when the core innovation under discussion is an emerging technology. Successful infusion of such an innovation will generally require accompanying innovations.” This relates to an example discussed in some breakouts regarding the the infusion of new educational technologies such as interactive whiteboards (e.g., Smartboard) or digital gaming in the classroom. Please elaborate on the meaning of Ellsworth’s statement and relate this to some of Fullan’s (2006) ideas regarding successful and unsuccessful change processes (theories of action) and/or also to Roger’s (1995) Diffusion of Innovations framework as described in Ellsworth (2000).

I’m posting my response here too, because it seems very relevant when considering current change initiatives involving technology. 

Ellsworth states that “[s]electing and coordinating the types of changes that one makes are also critical aspects of a systemic strategy for change” (2000). Essentially,  problems in education usually are not the result of one simple problem that needs to be set right. He goes on to write that, “[m]ost often [the types of changes] reflect a desire to bring new tools to bear to enable the system to meet new requirements.” And then cites the fact that although it seems logical that smaller class sizes would yield positive results, there is little evidence to support this. This is likely because the teaching methods have not been adapted to the needs of a smaller classroom.

This is very much like what happens with technology.  Students don’t appear to be reading or writing enough in a traditional sense. Where are they reading and writing though? Online. Therefore perhaps online technology is the solution for improving students’ literacy scores. But this idea, while appearing to be sound, is flawed on its own because it neglects one very important component: How must teachers’ instructional strategies change when implementing new tools for teaching literacy skills?

For example, if a teacher wants to try blogging in her classroom rather than traditional reader response journals, she needs to consider the ways in which the affordances of a blog are different from those of a traditional model. What are the characteristics of a blog? How do individuals interact with them? What are the different skills that are needed?

The sheer novelty of composing online versus composing on paper may appeal to some students enough to engage them when traditional methods wouldn’t. But is engagement enough? And for how long? What about the students for whom this new form of composing is frightening and unappealing?  Shouldn’t we have a better reason for implementing the change?

This connects to Michael Fullan’s (2006) article when he describes flawed change theories. When he describes the flaw in the standards-based district-wide reform initiatives, he points out that  “If theories of action do not include the harder questions – ‘Under what conditions will continuous improvement happen?’ and, correspondingly, ‘How do we change cultures?’ – they are bound to fail.”

It’s not that blogging can’t be an effective tool to improve student literacy, but it’s bound to fail if the teacher or change agent doesn’t ask the harder questions. Often in education, I think administrators, and superintendents are looking for the “silver bullet,” the one simple magic solution that will solve all the problems and will be simple to implement and understand, without considering things like school culture, classroom culture, and broader pedagogical underpinnings that need to be in place for a change to be successful.

Ellsworth, J. B. (2000). Surviving changes: A survey of Educational change models. Syracuse, NY: ERIC Clearinghouse (Chapter 1, pp. 20-30 and Chapter 3, pp. 44-58).

Fullan, M. (2006). Change theory: A force for school improvement. Centre for Strategic Education, 1-14.

Learning Skills 2.0

As the first day back at school drew to a close I found myself at my desk confronted by the reality of all the paper around me. I try to use technology to reduce the amount of paper I use but there’s still all this…. paper.

So I was rethinking the learning skills tracker. There had to be a better way. I want to be able to quickly track a student’s learning skills on a mobile device like my iPhone. So to make a long story short, I fiddled with the tracking sheet in the previous post and made a Google form that I could call up and fill out on any given date for all my students.

It basically looks like this, but instead of “Student Name” I have my actual students’ individual names and then a little tracking sheet with space for comments.

Screen shot 2013-09-03 at 20h12m02s Each time I fill out this form it will send the information to one spreadsheet. So I should, in theory, be able to select the data in the sheet and then at midterm make a more accurate assessment of their most consistent achievement in each area.

I just don’t know how. Any spread sheet wizards know how I could do this?