29 01 2011

(I first told this story to my cohort at our Teacher Education Program Graduation Celebration in June 2010. I thought it was time to re-tell it as it underscores for me the profound influence a teacher can have on a Middle School student – BH)

Tim was a gangly 12-year old who had just made the transition from Gr. 6 to his new school – a middle school. And on this particular day early on in Tim’s Gr. 7 year, his class was about to take PE. He walked into the gymnasium and there was a trampoline set up right in the middle. And he got very excited, because Tim had never jumped on a trampoline before in his life. The teacher came out and saw everyone gathered around that thing, he gave a few opening words, looked around, made eye contact with Tim and said “Son take off your shoes, leave on your socks, climb up on here and follow my instructions.” So the new student proceeded to take off his shoes and when he did, he noticed that he happened to have to have holes in both of his socks (and not just little ones or snags). And one of Tim’s friends also happened to notice that and took it upon himself to make sure everyone else in the class knew about this as well. Nice friend.

Now as all teachers know, in Grade 7, kids can be unusually cruel in social situations like this and Tim was obviously distraught at the embarrassing situation he found himself in. He got up onto the trampoline and did exactly what the teacher told him to do. He followed the instructions to the letter and decided in those moments that when he got home, he was going straight to his sock drawer and he was going to throw out every sock that had the semblance of a hole in them. He would never, ever let this happen to him again.

He finished the trampoline demonstration and stood there while the teaching continued and the whole time he’s thinking, “Man, I really hate being up here in front of everybody.” When the class was finished, the teacher dismissed everybody and he took off. Tim went and got his shoes, put them on. He went to the stage and got his books and as he was walking around the corner to get to his next class, he heard his name, “Tim wait up.  It was the Gym teacher calling out to him. The teacher pulled him aside and said, “Tim I wanted you to know why I called on you for the demonstration.” He said, “You’re the most agile student in my class.”

And then Tim’s teacher reached down and untied his running shoe. And he had this big hole in his sock. He said, “Us agile guys, we’re pretty tough on socks, aren’t we? Now go to class.”

So he heads down the hall and the whole way there, He thinks to himself, “What’s agile?” He had never heard the word before. He was going to English class and he remembered that they had these big dictionaries in the back of the room and that teachers loved it when you looked up a word without having to be asked and so he looked up agile. Now he was glad that he didn’t come across the word argyle, because that would have really been confusing.

He found the word “agile” and learned for the first time in his life that he could move with speed, ease, elegance and liveliness. He found out for the first time that he was mentally alert and very quick. He burned that definition into his brain.  He did a 180 degree turn in 2 major areas of his life – Academics and Athletics. Good things to be good at when you’re in Grade 7. He had been told all of his life that he was just an average student (not after that). And he was told that he was just a utility player (not after that) and at that time there was the challenge of who could do the most sit ups in the school. And wouldn’t you know it, it was Tim who set the record that year.

And those sit-ups weren’t those 1/2 speed crunch-style-bill- jimbob-tie-bo things. He could do a million of those. No, these were the arthritis casuing things that they don’t let kids do anymore. Get this – your legs had to flat on the ground, (not knees bent) no, you had to have a partner sit on your feet. You had to come all the way up, cross over your body and touch your elbow to your feet and all the way down again. He did over 500 of these and as he retells that story he points out that his stomach muscles hurt for several days. But he didn’t care, because he was “agile”.

It took several days for him for him to put all of the pieces together. Why his gym teacher took off so fast after class. (He had to get to the PE office, pull off his shoes, open the drawer of his desk, get the scissors, quickly cut the toes off his socks, put his shoes back on and race to catch up to his student). He didn’t go around with holes in his socks. He was a PE teacher, he got new socks and shoes every year – it was part of his contract.

He saw an embarrassed kid, a vulnerable Gr. 7 student that needed help. He had the ability and the desire to help and so he set out to correct the situation in a pretty memorable way.

Fellow colleagues, we need to be reminded that kids today have these kinds of moments all the time and they need teachers like this one to recognize the situation, to humble themselves and to seize a moment of grace to alter a child’s life. We too can be teachers that have a tremendous amount of influence in the lives of our students.


The Curse of the Electric Garage Door Opener

15 01 2011

I’m going to give you a name and I want you to tell me what comes to mind. Ready?

Wayne Gretzky.

You might automatically think of the number 99, the Edmonton Oiler’s Dynasty in the 80’s or his title, “the Great One”. How about the images of him hoisting the Stanley Cup or the 82 NHL records he once held. You could be thinking of the fact that he is a Canadian (from Brantford, Ontario to be specific). Perhaps your thoughts are on Walter Gretzky – his dad that he respected so much. Maybe the first thing you think of is his trademark: the flap of the back of his jersey tucked into his hockey pants. You might remember him as the coach of the Phoenix Coyotes or his involvement with Hockey Canada as a player and a GM and the Olympic Gold Medals he captured for our country. Some may envision the teams he played on (Edmonton, L.A., New York and the one that everyone forgets – St. Louis). Maybe it’s Janet – the actress he married – who is the first image that comes to your mind. Or most recently, the Olympic torch he carried at the Vancouver 2010 Opening Ceremonies.

Let me ask you another question. Ready?

What can you tell me about your neighbor three houses down?

Hmmm. That he’s got a dog that keeps you awake? That his dog leaves “lawn ornaments” on your front yard? Forget about the dog. What is your neighbor’s name? What kind of work does he do? What’s his wife’s name? What do they typically enjoy doing on a Saturday afternoon? These questions may be tougher ones to answer.

I was with a group of teachers this weekend and the subject of social networking came up. The fact that someone had just crossed the 500 plateau in “Facebook Friends”. One of us raised the point that the term “friends” is probably not the most accurate term. Maybe “connections” or “contacts”, but friends? Not likely. This individual went on to say that he gleans a lot of surface information about people in his Facebook network without actually talking to them. Ever. He also admitted that he’s only got about 20 people who he would consider to be “close friends”.

Why is that? How come we know more about people that we’ve never actually met (Gretzky) than the people in our neighborhood? If you talk to the older generation, many spent a good part of their weeks in casual conversations with their neighbors about seemingly meaningless stuff. As I thought about the way we think of our own neighbors, there has certainly been a shift in attitudes and relationships in the past few decades. What happened?

The electric garage door opener, that’s what. That’s right – the introduction of the electric garage door opener. The point being made was that we no longer need to get out of our car to lift the door up and verbally say hi to the guy in the next yard mowing his lawn or working in the flower beds. Today, many of us give a polite wave and drive right in without stopping to “check in” with the people who live on our block. I’m not sure it’s entirely intentional, but it is an accurate account of how many of us live.

I’m noticing that our communities have shifted radically. They are no longer tied to geography. With the rise of social media, we can easily have conversations with others on the other side of the globe in real time. And with the new social landscape comes a new language:  I’ve got hundreds of tweeps in my twibe that I tweet to. Just look at the red dots on the cluster map of people who have checked out this blog. It’s fascinating and incredible at the same time when you think about it.

The rise of new media has cut into the face time we have with others and it is the inter-personal relationships that end up suffering. As teachers, we must never be satisfied with simply making a connection with our students. As important as connections are, they are simply the starting point and that true, authentic relationships should be what we strive for with others. Relationships are built on trust and trust takes time. There really is no short-cut to deepening relationships with other people – especially with students.

We’ve all been given the same number of hours in our days – 24 to be exact. I think I need to carve some of that out in the coming weeks to converse with the people on my block.

Whatever Happened to Unbridled Play?

6 01 2011

My oldest son Caleb is a table gamer. Doesn’t matter what type, he’ll even let you choose if you ask him. You like playing Uno? He’ll take you on. Skip-Bo? Scrabble? Risk? You name the time and the place and he’ll be there. The Game Of Life, PayDay, Sequence and Greed are all up there on his favorites. Don’t know this 13-year old? It doesn’t matter your age or your gender – if you tell him you’ll play with him, he’ll instantly make you his friend. Caleb will wake up at 5am if others will join him in a game. An with the number of rounds of Killer Bunnies we played, we seemed to re-define the “Family Game Night” concept over the Christmas Holidays this year.

His dad favors the particular games that don’t take as long to play. If pressed for time, you can modify a match of Phase-10 to a “lightning round” where you eliminate every second phase. It’s not that I don’t enjoy the experience with my kids, I just want to compress it a bit. (I was also the guy that would change the clocks back as a babysitter to make kids go to bed early. Sly, but dishonest, I know).

Now Caleb’s favorite game is Monopoly. He has several versions including the electronic version (which uses credit cards instead of the cold, hard cash) and the handheld card-style game of Monopoly Deal. We bought him the original version a number of years back (for $2 at a Garage Sale) and he was hooked for life. If winning is everything, Caleb has discovered a strategy which makes him invincible.

It’s amazing the amount of joy that my son can muster when he gets to play table games with others. When things get close, he literally shakes with excitement and the smile on his face is as wide as you can imagine. It’s actually more fun watching him than it is playing the game. Us Hagkulls like to stick to the rules and even invent a few of our own, but I was reminded these weeks that it’s quite enjoyable to just sit back and simply play and enjoy the people we play with. It also reminded me of an era I enjoyed – the era before “Play dates” were scheduled.

It made me think if we do this enough as educators. It seems that the school day is terribly structured and the student’s schedules don’t often allow for unbridled play – the run your guts out, laugh your head off variety with a twinkle of mischief in your eye to match the sheer wonder of your freedom. Child (and adult!) development needs to include a healthy dose of unstructured play with others everyday. Aren’t those some of the moments of school that you remember the most? Aren’t those among the experiences that you want your own students to remember the most?

The Importance of Names

4 01 2011

I have to admit, when it comes to remembering people’s names, I am the worst. Well, maybe not the worst, but I would consider this to be an important skill that I lack in my arsenal of Teacher-On-Call tools.

I’m holding my own when it comes to pronouncing the names of new students, but the process breaks down for me when it comes to the remembering part. I try, I really do. I know how important it is to call someone by their first name, but my memory seems to not agree with my desire to do so. I’ve experimented with some memory tricks and strategies to overcome my name remembering ineptness, but to be honest, I haven’t had much success.

Each day, when I enter a new classroom, as a bit of an icebreaker, I tell students the story of my own name.  I usually tell them that if they were travel to the far and distant land called Sweden, (where Daniel and Henrik Sedin grew up) they would know that my surname is actually a compound word in the Swedish language (I also ask, “Can anyone tell me what a compound word is?”). The “Hag” part of my name means high in Swedish and the “kull” part of my name means hill. So if you were to see me walking down the street in Sweden and you were to greet me, you would be saying, “Hi Mr. High-Hill“. I don’t usually tell students what my first name is, but I do tell them that it means “a broad meadow”. So, the clever ones in the class have already put it all together and know that I am a broad meadow on a high hill. At that point, I let kids know that they can call me Mr. Hagkull or if it’s easier to remember that Mr. High-Hill would be fine as well.

When I was attending SFU and earning my Bachelor’s degree, I volunteered at a Middle School in Coquitlam a few times a week and worked with an autistic boy named, “Jamie”. After the initial introductions on our first day together, it was apparent that he had difficulties pronouncing the middle letters of my last name. Instead of hearing Mr. Hay-gull it came out “Mr HHHHH . . .ell”. Yes, I was known to him as  Mr. Hell. From that day forward, I told him that he could call me Mr. H.

Is it just me or have other teachers noticed that unusual names seem to be the norm these days? What happened to the short, easy to remember ones like John or Anne? In my two months as a TOC, I’ve come to expect some bizaarro names. One Second Language Learner teacher friend of mine informed me that many exchange students actually choose an English name for themselves when they come to B.C. to make the fitting in process a bit easier. Bella seems to be a very common name of choice, perhaps because of the popularily of the Twilight series. But if that is true, how would you explain a Japanese student naming himself Wallace or Arvid? Or howsabout Dumbledore? (unfortunately yes, that last one is a name of a student my friend worked with).

There is power in a name. An instant connection is made when a teacher looks a student in the eye and with a smile on their face welcomes the class member into the room – by name. Our first names are very individual, very special and they make us unique. There is a feeling of importance when we hear others mention our name and if we believe it is our role to elevate every student we interact with, the simplest way would be to identify each one by their name. Out loud. Pronounced in a correct manner.

(Sigh) I think I have a lot of work ahead of me in this “growth” area.