Letting Them Choose

EVERY DAY for CHOICE by Jenn Farr
EVERY DAY for CHOICE, a photo by Jenn Farr on Flickr.

I have discovered, during my most recent attempts to give students the ability to choose the way they will show me their learning, that many of my students will just choose what they have always done. The easiest way. Not the way that would best showcase what they’ve learned, or their particular skill set.

In June I assigned what I thought would be a pretty cool final project in social studies. They were to compare and contrast the three societies that we had studied in grade 8 Social Studies (Renaissance Europe, Japan – Edo-Meiji Period, and Aztecs vs Spanish) as well as interview a person who had grown up in a different decade than them about their Worldviews. The assignment can be found here on google docs. As you can see, I gave them a number of different options for how this would be presented to the class. I honestly thought that they would come up with more original, more interesting options than the ones I gave. I thought that they would seek out new and exciting ways to show what they know. Well I couldn’t have been more wrong. There were eight groups and all but two of them chose to use a trifold or do a powerpoint. In truth, the presentations were quite boring and although they did know the information, I could tell that none of them had enjoyed the assignment.

When reflecting on the assignment, I realized a few things:

1. It was a boring assignment with little critical thinking involved at all.

2. I was the one who gave them the option. I put it out there for them to choose.

3. As this is the first time I have given this kind of choice, I do not have any previous examples for students to see.


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!

A Change in Philosophy

big gym by woodleywonderworks
big gym, a photo by woodleywonderworks on Flickr.

What is your philosophy of teaching?

I remember being asked this question in one of my Ed classes at Jamestown College. My professor told us it was important to have a philosophy, but that he guaranteed that in 5 years our philosophies would likely be very different than the one we formulated as brand new teachers.

He was right.

In one college class, a discussion was had about assessment in physical education classes. One of my peers put up her hand and stated,

“I don’t think students should be marked on skill in PE. Some kids just aren’t good at sports!”

My arm shot up and I waved my hand like a 1st grader.

“I’m not naturally good at math. Should teachers not mark me on my math skills?”

I was strongly in favour of assessing students on how many serves they could make, how many baskets scored or how fast their 100m time was. It made perfect sense to me. If kids who are good at math get an A for getting the most answers right, then students who are good at sports should get the same treatment.

Then my philosophy started to change. I met so many students who were not active at all, many who completely refused to change into proper clothes for class. After a few years, I saw that my goal had to be to get more kids participating in physical activity. I began to care less and less about how fast they ran, how many goals they scored or how far they threw. I focussed on having fun and giving them activities they could do for their whole lives. Oh I taught basic skills and game strategies but I did not assess on how well they were practised. Skill based assessment had no part in my “new” PE philosophy.

I would have to say that, again, my philosophy of assessment in PE has changed. I won’t go as far as to say it has come full circle, but I will say physical literacy has to include some mastery of locomotor and nonlocomotor skills. The look of my PE classes has begun to change. Teaching and focussing on skills has become a part of every unit. I’ve still been infusing fun in class by using more lead-up games and scaffolding of skills. Counting baskets, goals or recording speeds has no place in my PE classes and many times we don’t even keep score in our games.

A change in philosophy is inevitable in education, and the truth is, each educator will likely go through a number of changes as we learn, grow and evolve into better teachers. I hope, for my students sake, that the changes in my beliefs on assessment have and will benefit them in the future.

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.

The Book Club

I’m a reader. I love books and everything about them. I read every night before I fall asleep, even if it is just a few paragraphs.

At the beginning of the school year, I always tell my students about my love of books and how important and valuable they are to me.

One day just before Christmas I was talking to a small group of girls between classes and we started discussing the books we were currently reading. It turned in to a huge “book share” and since then, the four of us have been involved in an impromptu book club. We read books and bring them to school to share with each other. I’m so enjoying the informal connection we have made through reading and the unexpected bonus to a school year full of surprises.

“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.

We Pulled It Off

Last week, on December 14th the grade 8 students at Stony Plain Central School put on an amazing Renaissance Faire for visiting schools, SPC staff and students, parents, grandparents and  other guests. They dressed in authentic Renaissance clothing, presented information and artistic creations and performed music and drama pieces. Here are a few of the highlights:

Artists grotto

Our Renaissance artists displayed, sold and created  different pieces of artwork.  They actually painted rudimentary portraits of some of  our visitors.  Their knowledge of Renaissance artists and techniques was excellent and they answered visitors questions about the art of the time.

Our musicians were an impressive group.  These students came together and learned a Renaissance period guitar piece that they played  during the day.  They also created a display and gave information about other instruments used during this time period.

Sword fights

The sword fights and jousting competitions were some of the most entertaining aspects and drew the biggest crowds at the fair. Kids created their own armour and shields.  They researched different fighting techniques, choreographed some fights and held their own tournament.

These girls were the Renaissance “royalty.” They walked around the fair and sat on their “thrones” to watch the jousting and sword tournaments.

Our Catholic Brother

We even had our very own Mona Lisa!

We had a number of  students who represented the merchant class.  They sold buns, pies, teas, dried meat and art.  One group even made a Renaissance meal and served it to our guests.  The meal  included red “wine” – aka cranberry juice.  Some students sat at the “Bank” and exchanged money into ducats so that fair goers could purchase the merchants’ wares.

Our students competed in a jousting competition.  They rigged cardboard horses heads on a couple of scooters, created armour and used pool noodles as their lance.

We were lucky enough to have access to an authentic Renaissance musician. This lady, who is a friend of one of our EAs, agreed to come with her Renaissance organ, recorder and horn.  She played continuously throughout the event and discussed and answered  questions about her instruments.  We were so thankful and honoured to have her join us.

One of our students and his dad and uncle actually built this stockade at their farm and brought it to the school. These kids were our policing and punishment experts.  Guests of all ages were quite eager to get in the stocks and see how it felt.  Unfortunately we didn’t have any rotten vegetables to throw…maybe next year 😉

The kids definitely had a good time and I know it was appreciated by all those who visited.  As teachers, we already have a plan for how we are going to improve on this project for next year.  As someone who has seen a lot of changes at our school over the last 5 or 6 years, including the loss of some of our long-standing traditions, I am hoping that the grade 8 Renaissance Faire will become one of the new SPC traditions.

“Playing” with the Renaissance

About a week ago PSD’s Division Principal George Couros taped an interview with me about learning through play.  Essentially, he asked me to talk about ways in which I am learning new technology and teaching strategies by jumping into them and playing around – before I know all the answers.

I spoke about my relatively new use of Twitter as a tool to build my PLN, my experiences with blogging for myself and my students, and my use of new technologies like Prezi, with my students.

The one thing I didn’t talk about was probably my biggest foray into Playing in Public.  This year I have decided to let my grade 8 Social Studies class direct their learning of the Renaissance by planning and presenting a Renaissance Faire. I have never before run a Renaissance Faire and I have never given up control like this to my students. I’d be lying if I said I was completely confident.

Let me start out by telling you the great things about this project. We started out by looking at some videos about what a Renaissance Faire actually is and talking about some experiences they had that may relate to this project. It was decided that we would try to run similar show in our school gym and we would invite classes and teachers from our school as well as parents, family and friends from the community to view our learning display.

Next, we brainstormed some topics or presentations that we wanted to be sure to include.  I gave them five that I wanted to make sure were covered (artists, scientists/mathematicians, writers, scholars/philosophers and explorers), then they came up with some others (musicians, actors, jesters, clothing/costuming, food/baking, church/religion, games/leisure). I then had the kids pick which group they would most like to represent, based on their interests. We had to do a little bit of negotiating because there were two very large groups in games/leisure and food (ah yes – the passions of middle years students), but soon we had fairly equal numbers for each.

The next thing that happened filled me with excitement for this project. The students went to work enthusiastically planning their presentations.  The first couple of classes were spent researching and planning. Then it got crazy. Amazingly, messily, crazy.

The “musicians” brought their guitars and got to work learning a Renaissance piece to be performed at the faire. The “actors” wrote a short skit to illustrate the role of the theatre in Renaissance Europe. The “bakers” took a poll to see what kind of pie we liked best so they could prepare it for the visitors to the faire. The “artists” brought in an authentic easel and a stretched canvas that they are planning to paint on the night of the faire. Some students raided the drama room’s props (with permission, of course) and practiced mock sword fights and juggling acts. Others got to learning how to play chess. It was loud. It was chaotic. It was scattered…and it was AWESOME. It was everything I had imagined when I made the decision to take this on.

Not everything is going smoothly, though.  There are definitely some students that are less engaged in the presentation than others.  Truthfully, most of those students are in the groups that I decided needed to be covered.  I just couldn’t give up complete control (there are things that NEED to be covered – cringe). I can tell that these students are not feeling connected to their topic.  My goal this week is to meet with them and see how we can get them back on the rails.  Changing topics will be one of the options.

The last thing, and its a biggy, is assessment.  I do not know how I am going to assess this activity.  Yikes. My original plan was to meet with each group, go over the curricular outcomes and together come up with an assessment strategy.  Well, they are half-way through this project and I have not yet set up these meetings. I think part of the reason is that I am nervous about how it will go.  Likely, they have rarely been asked to do this and they are going to struggle.  Will I be able to help them, or will I just end up taking over?

So that is my explanation of how I am learning through play and watching my students do it as well.  We are failing in some areas but succeeding in so many more.  It is definitely worth it.  I would love to hear your feedback and input on our Renaissance Faire and also to hear how you are learning through play.


I have spoken on a previous post about being stuck between two passions – my love for athletics/athletic leadership and my new goals to build my tech abilities and knowledge.  I’m still flip flopping.  I think I may have come to some conclusions about why.

I believe strongly that athletics unite a community.  Whether its a school, town, province, country or continent I think that if we build a strong athletic foundation the rest of the community with also flourish with the “trickle down” effect. For some reason, people unite around athletic events or teams.

I have been a part of a school with a rich athletic culture.  ALL areas of the school were flourishing, not just the sports teams.

In 2006 the Edmonton Oilers hockey team made an unexpected run to game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals.  There are no words to describe the positive glow of the city.  Friends and strangers alike came together to cheer our team.  Driving down the streets became an uplifting event of togetherness, love and reaching for a common goal.

The Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics did more to unify Canadians than anything I can remember in my life time.

So you see, this is where my beliefs lie.  This is what I “hang my hat on.” How can I walk away from athletics when I believe so strongly that this is the most effective way to bring our school together?

I can’t.

“Puke on a Page”

Creativity by Alun Salt
Creativity, a photo by Alun Salt on Flickr.

I have read about it, heard about it, thought about it, scoffed at it and thought “it won’t happen to me.”

And yet here I am, in the middle of it.

Writer’s Block.

I currently have four drafts sitting in my “posts”. None of them are good. None of them are finished. None of them feel right.

So, tonight I decided that I would take my own advice. Often when I have students who are struggling for a topic, I tell them to write about how they don’t know what to write about. I say, “Put down all of your ideas. Anything that comes into your head, even if it doesn’t make sense. Puke on a page – get it all out.”

I know, it’s gross. It allows them a little giggle and then they can get to writing down some of the ideas that they think don’t work.

I have started posts about:

1. The effects of successful athletic teams on the culture of a school, community or country.

2. A fun game called Kaboom Ball that is a staple at Stony Plain Central School

3. The difficulty schools have in getting coaches for athletic teams and the fact that it always seems like the same people doing the wide majority of the extracurricular activities.

4. The interesting work my grade 8 homeroom is doing while they plan a Renaissance Faire.

5. Tonight I participated in an #edchat discussion about teacher Professional Development that made me think about possible ways that I could provide more meaningful PD for my colleagues.

So there’s my “puke on a page”.

I promise never to scoff at Writer’s Block again.