Nothing to Lose

you have nothing to lose by Señor Codo
you have nothing to lose, a photo by Señor Codo on Flickr.

I know that in #PSD70 there has been a lot of talk about “Innovation Week”. This year, two of our division schools staged Innovation Week during the last week before Christmas break, Greystone Centennial Middle School and the school that my husband teaches at, Muir Lake School. The idea is a great one: students take the week to learn, research and create based on a topic of their choice. Teachers give feedback and discuss and guide students in their work, but the work itself is not formally assessed. They learn in the way they want to learn about the things that they are interested in and produce a number of innovative and exciting projects.
My husband, Cam, thoroughly enjoyed his experience with his first Innovation Week. Friday night after school, while sitting around the dinner table, we were discussing this with our two boys, aged 10 and 7. Cam told us about many of the different projects and how they worked out. He spoke of the enjoyment of the students and the ownership that they felt. Then we all came up with ideas for what we would like to study or learn/produce if we were given a week to do so.

At first, my boys parroted what their dad had just told us. When we encouraged them to think about something that hadn’t been done yet, something that was rooted in their own interests, the conversation took an interesting turn. After throwing around some neat, original ideas, our 10 year old asked, “How is this going to be marked?” (Not going to lie, I was pretty happy he asked that question). When I replied that it wasn’t being marked, he was shocked and he said something that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about. He said,

“You mean I’d have nothing to lose? Oh ya…I would do that for sure then.”

Nothing to lose.

My son who is just in 5th grade sees school, or at least assessment, as a place/time where he has something to lose. How often has he finished an assignment or project being worried about what marks he will lose rather than what knowledge or skills he has gained? I was bothered by that comment, but didn’t address it immediately as I had to think through what my response would be. Isn’t this just what we are trying to move away from in education? My son enjoys school for the most part, but I must say, he is not highly motivated. Could it be that he is not just “a bit lazy” as we have always thought, but demotivated by the impact of grades and “old school” assessment? I think it could be.

In the meantime, I started thinking about my own students and how they view what goes on in the our classroom. Right away I could pick out a handful of kids who were focused on what they would “lose” when preparing a project or presentation of some sort. I’d never thought about it in that context before. I could see them asking themselves,

“How much should I risk here? If I risk, and fail, I will lose marks so I am just going to stick to the basics and do what everyone else is doing.”

I don’t think I have emphasized enough that they should take more risks and that failure is the best way to learn. Starting in January, that is going to be my target for my classroom; to change the frame that my students are looking through so that they never fear what they “have to lose” but strive for what there is to gain. As for my son, we need to help him reframe his education as well. My questioning and guidance in both situations is going to take on a different look. We must also look into coordinating an Innovation Week at our school and providing times for my own children to explore learning and creating for the sake of learning and creating.


Someone Gave Me Homework…Now Its My Turn


Yesterday I read a blog post by Patrick Larkin of this same title.  In it, he writes that he is trying to focus on blogging more and that even though he dislikes “chain letter” type posts, he was going to engage in this one, in hopes that it would kick start more blog posts in the near future.  I connected to that because I too want to blog more AND I too hate chain letters. I do however, have a lot of thoughts about who I am and what I believe to be true and the fact that both of those things are constantly evolving.

Patrick linked 10 more people who he challenged to complete this “homework” assignment and even though I wasn’t one of those people…his 11th person was “anyone who wants to play along”. And so…I am going to do just that!  I have to post 11 things about myself and then answer Patrick’s 11 questions.  Here it goes:

11 Things About Me

1. I am proudly Canadian.  I have a Canadian flag tattoo on my thigh. I love Canada.

2. I went to Jamestown College in Jamestown, North Dakota on a fastpitch softball scholarship. Even though winters can be brutal here in northern Alberta, they will not compare to the winters I experienced in N.D. I didn’t realize how much I loved Canada until I went to school in another country.

3. I am addicted to books.  I can’t stop buying them.  I have stacks and stacks of them.  If I walk into a book store (or book fair at school) I WILL be walking out with something. If I had all the $$ I have spent on books in the last year, I could go on a nice little holiday. Obviously, books are more valuable to me than holidays.

4. One of my strengths as a teacher is in my ability to build relationships with students.  I don’t think anyone ever taught me that. If they know you care about them, they will care about you. If you care about each other, you will work hard for each other.

5. One of my weaknesses as a teacher is that I struggle to stay organized.  I go through periods where I work really hard at it and it gets better and then I can’t keep it up and it slips again. I can always relate to the kid with the messy binder, locker, desk, bag etc.

6. I cry when I’m emotional.  That means mad, sad, glad, proud, uncomfortable…all of it.  I can’t seem to have a serious conversation with someone without crying.  I wish I could have more control over that.

7. My husband has taught me a lot of important lessons but these are the most important: 1. Surround yourself with good people 2. Deal with what you can control 3. Keep going

8. My idea of a good night out is a night of Karaoke. I know the words to A LOT of songs. I especially like to rap or sing songs that are fast. Singing makes me smile.

9. My earliest memory is of my dad saving a child from drowning when I was about 2 1/2 years old.  That’s a pretty cool memory to have.

10. My sister is three years younger than me and about 9 inches taller than me.  How does that happen? YES…I am still slightly bitter about it.

11. Forrest Gump is my favourite movie of all time. I always cry at the end even though I’ve seen it a ton of times and know it word for word. The Shawshank Redemption and A League of Their Own are my next favourite movies.

My Responses to Patrick’s Questions

1. Have you ever been to Massachusetts? Nope, I have never been to Massachusetts. I’d like to go, though.

2. What is your favourite sports team (college or pro)? My favourite sports team is the Edmonton Oilers NHL team.  It has been a difficult 6 or 7 years to be an Oilers fan, but I’m still loyal.

3. Name a blogger you would recommend to others. One of the blogs I read the most is the Single Dad Laughing blog by Dan Pearce. He’s real. I like real.

4. When you were little what did you dream of becoming? When I was little I dreamed of becoming a rock star. I really did. I like being on stage. However, I knew by the time I was 13 that I wanted to be a PE teacher.

5. How far away do you live from where you grew up? I live in Spruce Grove, Alberta and I grew up in Trail, British Columbia.  They are about 950km apart. My mom and dad still live in the house they built the year I was born.  I would like to be closer to them, but don’t know if that will ever work out

6. What is your favourite meal? My favourite meal is Pizza. Hawaiian.

7. If you were offered a free trip anywhere in the world, where would you go? If I were offered a free trip to anywhere in the world, I would likely go to Italy. My dad’s family is from there and I teach Renaissance history. I think it would help me if I went there.

8. Do you prefer Macs or PCs? I prefer PCs to Macs solely because I have never owned a Mac and I don’t know what I don’t know.

9. Other than the birth of your children or your marriage/meeting your soulmate, what was the best day of your life? The best day of my life is any day I get to spend with my husband and 2 boys.  I know that sounds cliche, but it is true. Our family has been lucky enough to have lived a pretty steady life so far.  Not too many highs, not too many lows.  A great day is one we spend together making memories.

10. What is the best movie you have seen in the last year? The best movie I’ve seen this year is Hunger Games – Catching Fire.  I haven’t seen too many movies but I really really want to see The Book Thief over the Christmas break.  That book is one of my top 5 all-time favourites.

11. What was the last live concert you attended? Last live concert was Maroon 5 and Train. Pretty good show.  I have tickets to Justin Timberlake in January – I can’t wait.

11 Bloggers to answer my questions

1. Jesse McLean

2. Dan Pearce

3. Dave Oldham

4. Allison Evelyn

5. Tracey Trousdell

6. Miranda Niebergall

7. Travis McNaughton

8. Alan Stein

9. Jen Foster

10. Blye Seehagel

11. Anyone who wants to do this too! Follow the guidelines below!

Here Are My Questions For You

1. Have you ever been to Trail, British Columbia?

2. What is your favourite book?

3. What is the best advice anyone has ever given you?

4. What are you most grateful for?

5. If you could travel anywhere in the world tomorrow, where would you go?

6. If you were going to Karaoke tonight what song(s) would you sing?

7. Batman or Spiderman?

8. What is your earliest memory?

9. When was the last time you cried?

10. How much time to you spend on the internet per day on average?

11. What is your favourite sport to watch or play?

The Guidelines for your Homework

1. Acknowledge the nominating blogger

2. Share 11 random facts about yourself

3. Answer the 11 questions the nominating blogger made for you

4. List 11 bloggers

5. Post 11 questions for the bloggers you have nominated and let them know.  Don’t nominate someone who nominated you.

6. Post back here, in the comment section with a link to your finished assignment.

Get going now…you’ve got homework to do

Becoming a Mentor Teacher

female pe teacher by hadfieldeducation
female pe teacher, a photo by hadfieldeducation on Flickr.

About a year ago now, I received a quick email on Facebook from a former student. She told me that she was taking an education degree and in a year would be embarking on her first of two major student-teaching assignments. She asked if I would consider being her mentor teacher. My initial reaction was to be flattered and to answer, “of course” to her request. When I pondered more intently on the responsibility I was taking on, I thought, “I’m not a good enough teacher to coach someone in how to be a teacher.” I was nervous, but the truth is, I thought that maybe she would forget about it in a year when the time came.

Fast forward a year later, I received another email forwarded to me by my principal with a more official request from the university facilitator. At that point, I accepted and looked at this as a new opportunity to learn and grow as an educator while helping a former student who I was very fond of, decide if this was going to be the career for her.

The duration of the experience is to be 5 weeks, of which we are already done with 2 of them. Miss Seehagel came for three “observation” days before she started so that she could get acquainted with school and class routines as well as start to get to know the students a bit. We used those days to discuss a few tings about educational philosophies and some of the challenges she would see in my classes specifically, and in the profession in general. It was easy to communicate with her and I could tell that we would be a great fit for each other.

For the first week of her IPT, Miss Seehagel did some more observation and got involved in my classes each day. Starting last week, she took over the three PE classes that I have and developed a fitness circuit for the students to do in the fitness room.

So far, I have found it rewarding and enjoyable. It reminds me of parenting in a lot of ways. At times it is hard to know when to step in and help and when to let her handle things herself (sometimes this means letting her fail). Truthfully, there are times when I don’t even know if I can help. When students are acting up, or pushing the limits, sometimes that is just because there is someone else in the class and they do not have a relationship built with them. She needs to handle that herself so that she is able to build that relationship.

The area that we have discussed the most, is not surprisingly, classroom management and dealing with less than ideal behaviours from some students. Again, since we already know each other and are effective communicators, these discussions have been easy. Advice I have given her so far:

1. Be firm when you ask students to change a behaviour. Don’t yell, but let them know you are serious.

2. The more you get to know them, talk to them and build a relationship with them, the easier classroom management will be.

3. Be proactive in your planning. Try to see the future – what roadblocks do you foresee and what can you do to eliminate them? You’ll never eliminate all roadblocks, but try to have a plan b and plan c, just in case.

Every suggestion I have given or discussion we have had, has led to a slight change in how she teaches the next lesson and even over just 4 days of teaching, I can see her confidence growing in the way she talks and handles the students. To be honest, my confidence in my ability to mentor her has also increased.

Together, we presented a half hour active team building session to our staff at our PD day on Friday. This was another area where Miss Seehagel thrived. This could have been quite intimidating for her but she showed no signs of trepidation and session was funny, active and enjoyed by all. I couldn’t have been more proud!

This week will be a bit different as she will be taking on the start of our basketball unit. The open gym and the noise of the balls and distractions will pose some new challenges. I am looking forward to seeing how she handles them.

I would love to hear about other educators experiences with student teachers. Any advice that you have for me as a mentor, or for her as a new teacher would also be welcome.

Reflections 1 – 2012

Myself and colleague Landon O’Hara on the first day of school in September

It is hard for me to believe that it has been a year since my first post to this blog. I think of how new this all was to me and how excited I was to learn more and do more.  I haven’t felt that kind of energy for learning in a long time and I was jazzed.

When I look back, I can say that a lot of great things happened this year and it was, by far, one of my best years of teaching in my career.  I have the most amazing group of kids in grade 8. They are bright, they work hard, they are funny, they are active, they are independent, but most importantly, they are kind.  Oh, I am not saying we didn’t have any issues this year, or that we all got along perfectly every day – we certainly did not.  Just that issues were resolved quickly and there was never any question about right vs wrong with this group.  I am so looking forward to watching them continue to grow and to have them as our school leaders next year in their grade 9 year.

A few days ago, someone posted a question on Twitter that said something like, “What was the best thing you did this year”? I knew the answer to that right away…The Renaissance Faire.  But with that knowledge, there was some sadness too.  That activity was held in December.  So I peaked in December.  Ughhh.

I definitely had the “pedal to the metal” for the first term of the year.  I crashed and burned a bit after that.  After taking a break from the high intensity volleyball season and classroom activities, I struggled to regain my momentum in the classroom.  My blogging became stagnant too.  A focus for the 2012/2013 school year will be to improve my stamina and carry that momentum through to the end of the year.

The funny thing is that I knew that I was lagging.  I tried to start new blog posts a number of times.  I haven’t posted one since March.  When I look back now and read some of those drafts (there are 8 of them sitting there right now), they are actually pretty good.  I am definitely going to finish some of them and post them this summer some time.

There are a few more topics that I would like to reflect on from this school year – keep your eyes open for “Reflections 2” coming soon.

Have a great summer!

The Great Debate

Balanced debate by Articulate Matter
Balanced debate, a photo by Articulate Matter on Flickr.

Once again I have been amazed by the abilities of my students. So many times I worry about the things they CAN’T do and how I am going to find a way to improve them, that I forget about all the great things they CAN do.

The most recent example of this for me was this past week in my Knowledge and Employability grade 9 Social Studies class. I have 14 students with varying degrees of learning, behavioural and health issues. This is the first time I have taught them an academic subject and I would say that we have ALL struggled at one point or another with the material so far. They have some pretty large limitations with reading and writing and I am not sure I have always found effective ways to bridge this gap when directing their learning.

When sharing some of these problems with Brad Arndt (@barndt_77), a colleague who taught the class to last year’s grade 9s, he told me that he had had a lot of success with staging class debates. Ok…to be honest, I wasn’t too optimistic, but I was willing to give it a shot.

We took two full classes to discuss what a debate looked like and they watched some video of actual middle school debate teams competing. Then we tried to come up with ideas on what makes a good argument – this was not easy and I got some push back from the class. Then I brought up easy topics and we quickly wrote up arguments for both sides. The first topic was Cats vs Dogs, then 11:00pm curfews for teens under 16, and lastly lowering the voter age to 16. With every topic, they got stronger and stronger at formulating effective arguments and rebutting the arguments of the opposition.

During our last debate on lowering the voting age, I was astounded at some of the points made and at how articulately these “special needs” students were. At one point, a student who was speaking FOR lowering the voter age stated (I am paraphrasing here) “its like going down the road and choosing which path to take…we want to have a say in the path of our country”

Good point.

In rebuttal another student said “It is like choosing which path to take, but 16 year olds are too inexperienced to choose a good path. They will choose a bumpy path instead of a smooth one…if we drove our car down a bumpy path, it would get ruined, so why would we take our country down one?”

Whoa…remember if I asked these students to write down these arguments, they would need assistance to even get started. If I asked them to turn their argument into a simile or a metaphor I would get mostly blank stares. Yet here they were eloquently and confidently arguing their points. Amazing.

The the first student responded by saying “It may be a bumpier path, but if each of those bumps is an idea then that is the path we should take.”

There were more contributions than just these two students and I definitely felt rejuvenated by their enthusiasm and receptiveness for the debate. Mostly I was reminded not to dwell so much on the things they struggle with.

“Quotes From the Refrigerator Door”

“Love is short. Forgetting is long and understanding takes longer still.  It is hard to know what someone has given us, or even what we have given them, until a long time after the fact.  Sometimes its just best to have loved and learned.”

I memorized that quote in my grade 12 AP English class.  Our teacher, Ms. Virginia Clover, had us choose from a number of quotes that, she said, were from her refrigerator door. We were asked to choose the one that we connected with most and write a short explanation of why (at least I think that’s what it was…1992 was a long time ago, you know).

Anyway, I predictably chose this quote because I had just had my heart-broken by my first love and was finding  solace in song lyrics and love quotes. Definitely not cool.  The “cool” comes in the many times that I have looked back at this quote since then.  That broken heart has long ago been healed and replaced by other heart breaks and consequent healings. Still, I remember, word for word, this quote from my high school English class.

A few months after this assignment was given, I went off to college in North Dakota.  I was far away from my family and all of my friends AND I was even in a new country. I wrote the quote down and kept it in my drawer at Jamestown College. I looked at it many times when I missed my parents, my sister, my friends and my home town. I thought about how I didn’t want to forget them, and about the things that I had learned from each of them. I even reflected on what I may have given to them and if that was something I was proud of, or not so much.

The next time I used this quote to help me through was a few years later when I was working at my first teaching assignment. My boyfriend (now husband) and I spent three years teaching in northern Alberta on a First Nations Reserve called John D’or Prairie. To say that we were connected to the people there would be a gross understatement. We lived right in the community and formed strong bonds with a number of our students and their families. There were some frustrations with our teaching assignments, though, and we eventually made the decision to move on. It was a relatively short time spent there, and it was more than 10 years ago, but we are still in touch with some students, families and colleagues from our time there.  We learned so much about community, resiliency, family, culture and loyalty from our 3 years at John D’or Prairie.  We loved and learned there and will never forget that.

Then, 10 years ago exactly, I became a teacher at Stony Plain Central School.  I had been seriously considering a move to a different career path.  Thankfully, I  stumbled upon my dream job.  In an attempt to turn around a school that had been seen in the community as less than appealing, the admin team at SPC had come up with two new academic programs.  I was lucky enough to become a member of the teaching team for the SPLA (Sports Language Arts) program. Russ Foster (@ruskat1952) and I taught a group of about 30 grade 8 and 9 students Language Arts and combined it with their – and our – love for sport.  Everything they studied in LA centered around sport.  We covered the regular LA curriculum, we just used our own locally developed resources to do so.  The program (and its sister program, LAMA – combined drama and LA) thrived for about five years.  I have never loved a job like I loved that job.  Alas, for many reasons, not the least of which was Russ’s departure from SPC to be the Principal of Woodhaven Middle School, the program as we knew it had to come to an end.  I literally grieved.  I felt like a trusted, beloved friend had died. It has taken me a long time to get over that loss.

The great thing though, is that now that there is about five years distance I can look back and reflect on what I was given and maybe even what I gave during that time.  I learned about what it meant to be a part of a professional team. I learned about what it took to be a leader in my school by following great school leaders. I learned that relationships trump curriculum every time. I learned the importance of confidence – in myself, in my students and in my colleagues. I am a much better teacher than I was then and much of that is due to the lessons I learned in SPLA. I think also that I was a great “role player”.  I was an important part of that teaching team and that school team.  I knew my role and I fulfilled it.

At this point, I am about half-way through my teaching career.  I know that there is much more loving and learning and happiness and heartbreak ahead of me on this journey. The fridge will be covered with new quotes.  Thanks Ms. Clover.