“Can You Untie Knots?”

28 10 2010

Watching kids tie their shoes makes me smile. Combing down the cowlick is hard, putting the right amount of toothpaste on the toothbrush can be challenging, but tightening shoes by wrapping strings together? There’s nothing easy about that. Who came up with the idea of shoelaces anyhow?

Everyone has a different method to tie their shoes. When I was a kicker in university, I experimented with tying my shoes with the knot on the side or the knot in the back on my heel. That way, the football wouldn’t shank to the side when I punted it. Kids have certain songs they sing when they tie their shoes these days. I didn’t have a song to learn when I was young. I must have had an inferior teacher.

And, the advice that is given! “Shape a bunny ear, then wrap it with a ribbon.” “Make a squirrel with the loop and let it run around the hole.” My brother told me, “Go fast”. My grandpa told me, “take your time”. The advice was conflicting, but the message was clear: You will need to do this for the rest of your life, so you better learn how.

It’s like a rite of passage. It’s right up there with learning how to ride a bike without the training wheels. And the process can be terribly frustrating if the squirrel gets distracted and ends up going through the wrong hole. Knots are a painful introduction to reality. When things can go wrong, sometimes they undoubtedly will.

I was watching a young student struggle with this process in the hallway and as I walked by, a request to a strange face emerged: “Teacher – Can you untie knots?”

I didn’t know the student’s name and he didn’t know mine. But he knew that all adults have encountered the problem he was faced with and out came his plea.

As I’ve thought of this encounter, three things come to mind:

It’s never a wrong thing to ask for help. Somewhere between childhood and adulthood we absorb the message that it’s wrong to ask for help (or directions). I’m not sure where that message came from, but it’s a lousy one. If you don’t know – ask. I’ve learned that it is actually a character strength to ask for help. Who cares what others think.

Life is full of tangles. No need to expand on this one. Agreed?

The best people to help with the issues you’re faced with are those who have gone through similar struggles before. Untying “knots” are what teachers do all week long. How many hats have you worn since the beginning of the year? Counsellor, taxi driver, lesson planner, medic, academic consultant, barf cleaner-upper . . . and the list goes on. We have experience because we have weathered the storm of many experiences. All teachers have the wonderful priviledge of helping others on their learning journey and at the end of the day, this role is pretty satisfying, isn’t it? I’d welcome your comments.



25 10 2010

I like carrots. Although I’m pretty sure that they do nothing for my vision, I enjoy them raw, cooked and juiced. My son Ben has participated in his School Garden Program for a few years and each year, carrots are included on the list of things he must grow.  And carrots that are grown in your backyard simply have much more flavor than the “garden variety” ones you get from the store.

Though carrots are the trademark of Senor Bugs Bunny, it didn’t stop the Utah Celery Company from offering to supply all Warner Brothers Studio staffers with their product if Bugs would switch from carrots to celery (true story!).

In teacher circles, I’ve heard the phrase “carrot on a stick” thrown around a lot lately. I wish there was another phrase that could be used since this one doesn’t sit well with me. My initial understanding of “carrot and stick” was that it was based on the idea of luring a donkey, by tying a carrot on the end of a stick. As someone who has gone through the teenage years as an active male, I can attest to the fact that hunger can be a powerful motivator.

Mules are stubborn, and as the story of this phrase’s origin goes,  some enterprising farmer rigged up a stick with a carrot on a string that would dangle in front of the mule, a few inches from his nose. The mule could never get close enough to take a bite but would keep running to try and catch up with the carrot. I’ve seen evidence of this on a Little Rascals routine, a Janis Joplin monologue, some clipart, and a story told on a religious web site. Weighty evidence, don’t you think?

So if you were using the “carrot and stick” with someone, you were constantly promising them something as a means of motivating them. Teachers use all kinds of strategies to increase motivation, but I just don’t like the comparison of students with donkeys. As I said earlier, It doesn’t sit well with me.

Historically, extrinsic motivators have had their place in the classroom setting. Stickers, sparkly pencils, prizes, candy and the coveted gold stars led to the promise of high grades and the sought after “G” in the Effort column  I think many will agree that the Intrinsic motivators – loving learning for the sake of learning – are better outcomes for educators to pursue. But these take time and effort and creative thought (commodities that are often in short supply). How can we better cultivate this learning approach in the students we’ve been entrusted to teach?

An intrinsically motivated student will work on a math equation, for example, because it is enjoyable. They like the challenge of discovering the answer on their own. Is the challenge then for us , to discover what part of each student’s day is most enjoyable? I think so.

What if we were to dovetail our knowledge about each student’s interest or hobby with an appropriate challenge that will help them discover that learning can be enjoyable  . . . if their learning is tied to stuff they are already interested in?

The key then, would be knowing each student. Teachers will need to find out their student’s interests and then be on the lookout for ways to expand their understanding with what they already love. Maybe it’s hockey (“What is Luongo’s Save Percentage this year? How could we calculate that?”). Maybe it’s cooking (you could try measuring out ingredients and in turn combine fractions). All of us have interests (i.e. carrots) outside of the classroom. The goal for the teacher would be then, to determine what those are and create learning challenges to expand student understanding.

From this carrot cruncher’s perspective, these will be investments with high dividends.

“i.e. or e.g.?” – the Results of a Staffroom Discussion

20 10 2010

Knowledge and understanding comes to us in many ways. As teachers, we are aware of an array of learning styles and multiple levels of learning. These days, I find myself being  fascinated by how quickly teachers can become students again when it comes to their own personal development. It’s quite encouraging, actually.

A point was raised in our Staffroom last week: “Students are confusing the terms ‘i.e’ and ‘e.g.’ on a regular basis.” I wasn’t aware that there were rules governing the use of this and so I  naively asked, “What’s the difference?”  I quickly realized that I wasn’t the only one in the room that had the same question.

A lively, (but scholarly) debate ensued forcing each of the participants to consult their sources and report back to the group. When is it proper to use “e.g.” and when should the writer use “i.e.” instead? Here is what we learned:

The picture above isn’t entirely correct. It should actually have a period after the “e” as well as the “g” since it is an abbreviation for the latin, “Exampli gratia” or “an example for free”. Use this if you are wanting to introduce one or more possibilities among many.

“I like root vegetables, e.g. potatoes and carrots.” (Potatoes and carrots are examples of many types of root vegetables.)

On the other hand, “i.e.” stands for id est which means “that is”. Use i.e. when you are introducing an explanation of what you mean.

“I like root vegetables; i.e. the ones that grow underground.” (It is used to reword a sentence or provide an alternate explanation). Essentially, i.e. means “in other words.”

See the difference?

So to recap, e.g. and i.e. are both Latin abbreviations. Both introduce additional information to a sentence, but e.g. offers an example while i.e. explains or rewords. If you can replace the abbreviation with “for example” then use e.g. If you can replace it with “in other words” or “that is,” use i.e.

To those who are seeking  to improve their English usage . . . you’re welcome.

A Classroom of Travellers or a Class Full of Tourists?

14 10 2010

One thing I’ve learned in my short career as a teacher so far is that the classroom is not a salad bar. You cannot pick and choose what ends up on your plate.

The makeup of your class will have already been decided and your role will be to work with what you’ve been given. I’ve also learned that in each setting that I’ve taught, that there are two distinct types of learners: the traveller and the tourist.

The difference between the traveller and the tourist is that the first is active and the second just observes. The traveller seeks out people and adventure, the tourist goes sightseeing. One will be eager to climb the mountain, the other will be quite content to watch. One will jump in with both feet and the other will be concerned about getting mud on their shoes. The traveller is hands-on. The tourist has his hands in his pockets.

In my long practicum in a Gr. 5/6 split in an inner-city setting last year, I had the opportunity to teach a unit on the Human Body – specifically the circulatory system. There were media clips and worksheets available to for me to use, but I wanted to do something memorable to enhance student understanding. I went down to the local butcher and after explaining my intentions, some eyebrows raised and I ordered a cow heart. Since it was for “educational purposes”, it was free! I came back to the butcher the next day and was surprised to see how big a cow heart is (it was massive and “harvested” that morning!). When I unveiled my object lesson in Science class, some were grossed out (the tourists) and others were fascinated (the travellers). A handful of tourists were not into this at all. Several of my young travellers poked around at it and one student even stuck his hand in the upper aorta and followed the channel down until he was elbow deep in the heart of the matter (lousy humour . . . sorry). I asked him questions along the way and after hearing his responses, it was clear to me that this was so much better than filling in blanks on a worksheet. I’m convinced that this was a memorable learning experience that he will remember for months, even years.

Every pupil was given the opportunity to touch a real heart. Some students were quite content to sit on the sidelines, while the majority were much more adventuresome. In this sense, our classroom was made up of both tourists and travellers. Teachers have little control over the makeup of the student population and so, I suppose the real question I find myself asking these days is, “Brad – What kind of teacher will you strive to be?

A tour guide will talk and walk and hope that the group will listen. A tour leader, on the other hand, will jump into the raft with the white water seekers and use his experience to give others their own experiences.

Some of the greatest moments for teachers happens when they get to see what understanding looks like in the eyes of their students.

For me, that’s a pretty contagious feeling.

Thoughts on School for the Incarcerated

12 10 2010

“We don’t get the chance to choose very much around here. Me, I choose to go to school!” – a student in my class

Philip (not his real name) has been in an Institution since he was 13. He has been in Youth Detention Centres, Provincial jails, Pre-trial Centres and he now resides in a Maximum Federal Institution. Phil is well-versed in what he is not allowed to do. He knows the rules of the house and for the most part, he is abiding by them.

What separates Phil from many others in my class is that in less than 40 days, he is getting out. Outside. Out from the watchful eye of a Corrections Officer. Out from the daily routines of prison life. Out from having to make few decisions to a world where he will make all of his decisions. I suppose that is one definition of what it means to be free. A classmate of his asked Phil what he’s looking forward to and he had a long list. One snippet of that conversation caught my attention:

I haven’t had an ice cream cone in a long time. And the beach. It’s been a long time since I’ve been to a beach. People don’t realize that it’s things like that that a guy really misses.”

Phil has never written a cheque or had an email account. He’s never been on a sports team where he’s worn a jersey that matches his teammates’. He knows a lot about the Internet, but he’s never surfed the web.  He’s driven (albeit stolen vehicles), but he’s never owned a Driver’s License.

Although Phil will be leaving the confines of the Institution soon, he recognized the value of his education and he has chosen to pursue the path of higher learning. Adding decimals will be a necessary skill when he checks his receipts from the grocery store. Calculating Simple and Compound Interest may no longer be abstract concepts.  His writing skills will also be tested everyday. He had the choice to take high school courses while on the inside and by choosing to do so, I believe he has strengthened his chances of making it on the outside.

Phil will always be a questionable character in the eyes of those who know of his prison background. Acceptance is going to be an uphill battle for him for the rest of his life. There is a peculiar sense of satisfaction that I feel though in knowing that I’ve been one person who has helped him build skills that will benefit him as he pursues a new life in society.

I’ve been thinking about his release day a fair amount this past week and I’ve been wondering if his preparations will be adequate enough for him to successfully make the transition back into society. Only time will tell. I’ve also wondered what I will say to him. It will probably be one of the only times in my life where I will hear myself say: “Good luck – I hope I never see you again . .  at least back in this school.

Celebrating the Baby Steps of Learning

8 10 2010

In the 80’s movie, “What About Bob?” Richard Dreyfuss plays a Psychologist who is tormented by one of his patients played by none other than Bill Murray. The plot sounds like a low-budget thriller, but if you’ve seen the movie, you’ll remember that there are some pretty choice scenes . Besides, Bill Murray isn’t really the right character to cast in a horror film.

“Bob” suffers from an extreme Anxiety Disorder and in one memorable scene, his doctor successfully coaches him to refrain from looking too far into the future and to rather view the path of his progress in “baby-sized steps”. The Doctor’s theory did break down with Bob however, and the result was a bumbling mess of alternate sub-plots and Hollywood laughs.

The idea of tackling tasks in bite-sized chunks has merit for educators and I’ve witnessed the results of celebrating the learning that takes place at each step. Rewards don’t need to be tangible, they just need to be meaningful.

A few years back, I was an Educational Assistant at a Fine Arts School in Abbotsford. I was part of a tremendous team of individuals who modeled affirmation daily in the Resource Room. Goals of any size were worth celebrating, because with each of our students, learning was about progress, not perfection.

“Gloria” (not her real name) was a Gr. 4 student who had several profound learning disabilities. She was deaf and could only see 10% out of one eye. She was fed through a tube and didn’t talk in ways that any of us could understand. In spite of her communication challenges though, she did know how to express joy.

On this particular day, Gloria and her EA were working on spelling simple one-syllable, three-letter words. The strategy being used was that the EA would write the first and last letter on the white board and hand Gloria the pen to put in the middle letter. I watched the letters “B” and “S” put on the board with an open space separating the two.

The pen was handed to the student and a long silence followed. No one moved, because this was Gloria’s moment to shine.

When Gloria put the letter “c” in the middle, all of us who were watching felt the same sense of disappointment. The correct answer (we thought) was the letter “u” that would spell the word “bus”. But what Gloria did next will be something that few of us will forget: She put a letter “a” in front of the word so that it spelled “ABCS” – a song that she sang daily with her teacher.

It was cause for celebration and collectively we praised Gloria for her achievement. The smile she then displayed was one of my favorite memories of that year. That day, I learned that academic achievements at any level are always worth celebrating, and that the rewards of those achievements are not just for the students.

I’ve since heard that Gloria has made some significant strides in her learning and surpassed the expectations of many in what she is able to do. For me, it underscores the importance of encouragement, affirmation and patience in the development of all learners. Is there something you see around you today that is worth celebrating?

Inventions or Innovations in Education?

5 10 2010

When the latest issue of Maclean’s magazine arrived in the mail, it somehow looked different. The title and fonts were the same, the publication’s size hadn’t changed, but the layout did. The publishers decided to do something innovative this month and they decided to spin the magazine 90 degrees.

They changed this particular issue to a “landscape” format with the staples on the short side of the periodical rather than the traditional long side. I’m sure it was a tremendous amount of work for one issue – changing the printing techniques and the ad layouts – but the result was effective. Slick even. Easy to open and easy to read.

 It’s been said that the only person who likes a change is a diapered baby. I’m not particularly fond of doing things differently if the original task is working just fine, but if the change makes it better, then I’m all for it. That’s really what technology is: making work that we must do, easier, more efficient, with less effort and less expense. The emerging generation is growing up in a world where change is now the norm.

 Innovation and Invention are two words that are often used interchangeably, but their meaning is quite different. Inventions are things that are produced that are new to the world. Innovations refine what already exist. Invention creates the mousetrap. Innovation makes it more efficient, easier to use or more profitable to sell. Invention is the light bulb. Innovation is the light show. Invention is the “think”. Innovation is the “re-think”.

 As a new teacher, I have been fortunate to be around some very gifted educators, many whom I would call innovative teachers. They have the natural ability to convey information in creative ways using fun and imaginative methods. They get their students to invest in their own learning. Often, they will bypass the worksheets for a more hands-on approach. These teachers realize that their role is not only to dispense knowledge, but also to solidify understanding. They thrive on seeing the “a-ha!” moments in student’s eyes and pay little attention to things like their own retirement eligibility date.

 The age of Innovative Teachers is here and I’m so pleased to know that my own kid’s will be the beneficiaries of such a fantastic approach to education.