The futility of trying to teach everything of importance . . .

1 07 2011

It’s July 1. The school year is officially over, my keys have been handed back to the drawer where they came from, and the pile in a corner of my garage has grown considerably. I’m fairly new to the profession and I’m discovering that I’m a bit of a hoarder when it comes to educational materials. I don’t want to throw out the meaningful stuff and in doing so, I run the risk of not having a warm place to park my car in the winter.   Even though I should be making the transition to summer holidays, there are too many post-it notes on my brain to enjoy the long-awaited break.

I’ve been the recipient of much encouragement over the last week or so as staff and students have affirmed my role as an educator. I’m taking a course of my own right now and have been reading a lot on the theme of assessment of late. I’m finding that there are fundamental questions that I continue to ask long after I’ve said goodbye to my students:

“How do I really know if they learned (insert subject or concept here)?

“How much of what I taught did others before me cover? How much will be repeated with the next teacher?”

“Are there significant gaps that my students will have in their learning because I can rationalize that I didn’t have time to get to it all?” and finally,

“Who am I to decide what the essential elements in my student’s curriculum are when it is apparent that the school year is too short to possibly cover it all?”

I struggle with this last one as I know I did my best with the circumstances I was given (walking in to a new class on April 11), but I continue to wrestle with the mandate B.C. teachers are given to teach all of the Learning Outcomes the provincial Ministry of Education provides. Does anyone actually get to all of it? Does anyone else struggle with the almost unbearable burden of responsibility to get to all of it?

I’m taking solace in an article written by Grant Stiggins where he writes, “Students cannot possibly learn everything of value by the time they leave school, but we can instill in them the desire to keep questioning throughout their lives.” He feels that the goals of education are not to eliminate ignorance. Furthermore, it is his opinion that “the view that everything of importance can be thoughtfully learned by Grade 12 is an illusion.” An authentic education will therefore consist of “developing habits of mind and high standards of craftsmanship” necessary to learn. If this is true, then why don’t I feel better?

Stiggins goes on to explain that since it is impossible to teach everything we know to be of value, then our primary mandate must be to equip students with the ability to keep questioning. If I follow this idea through, the role of the teacher then should be one where we act as more of a concierge at a hotel and less as a distributor of knowledge. A concierge directs the curious in the right direction, (e.g. “Where can I get my suit drycleaned?” or “Where’s the best family restaurant within walking distance?”) without taking ownership of the request itself. What a privilege it would be to engage students so thoroughly that they learn to take pleasure in seeking important things on their own!  There is satisfaction in the ability to steer without having control of the gas pedal, don’t you think?

The essentials, I’ve come to realize, are not necessarily the basics when it comes to education. The laws of physics, the rules of grammar, the concepts of geometry, determining the difference between fact and opinion, and knowing when to speak up and when to listen, are not skills learned in isolation all within a school year. They represent embedded and persistent problems within organized knowledge that should appear and reappear in different ways and levels of ability within the student’s entire realm of formal education and beyond.

In realizing this, I suppose I can breathe easier as I approach the summer season. Learning for students of all ages should never end as I’ve come to realize that important questions don’t always need to be answered within the boundaries of the school day. Simply put, there is too much for any one educator to know, never mind teach to dozens of students in a crowded day or busy season. Wisdom therefore, should matter more than the accumulation of knowledge. (A common theme of King Solomon’s in Ecclesiastes, but I’m not sure how that can be explained to curriculum deciders though!)

I suppose that’s one of the reasons why I’m going to look forward to September – I get the opportunity to start the process all over again with the new wisdom I have gained. And for this, I’m psyched to be a teacher.


51 Qualities I Admire About the Teachers Around Me

20 06 2011

There are many Teachers-On-Call who are itching to get their own class and to solidify relationships with the same group of students throughout the year. While it’s no secret that I fall into this category, I have thoroughly enjoyed going to a new environment each day. The novelty certainly has not worn off yet.

While many of my reflections have focused on what I’m learning from the kids, it struck me that I’ve really appreciated the conversations I have with new staff members each day. I can say with confidence that there are some phenomenal teachers that I’ve met up with, ones who give up their lunch hours and valuable after school time each day to talk with me – the new face in the room. I’ve been mentally compiling a list of qualities I admire about the teachers around me and although the following list is incomplete, it will continue to grow. Here’s what I’ve come up with so far.

A love for learning, * a zest for life * compassion * buckets of patience * gentleness * kindness * self-control * restraint * assertiveness * good eye contact * a contagious laugh * appropriate silliness * professionalism * composure * a command of the material * enthusiasm * a belief in others * a “you can do it” attitude * solid classroom management skills * coaching and mentoring skills * firm convictions * a cooperative spirit * steadfastness * generosity * tact * an attitude of risk-taking * an emotional even keel * humility * organization * the ability to be concise * the ability to have a conversation and draw information out of others rather than talk about themselves * cheerfulness * a team player * appropriate silliness * someone who is reflective * being positive * appreciative * willing to serve * knowledgeable * someone who can communicate clearly * relevance * shows insightful * an awareness of what’s going on in the world * transparency * a willingness to admit when they are wrong * being a good listener * a teacher with clear goals and achievable expectations * a willingness to learn from mistakes * a thankful heart * A desire to learn from those around them * an ability to draw information out of others rather than spend time talking about themselves * lotsa smiles

(which ones did I miss?)

In Defense of the Volunteer Referee . . .

30 03 2011

Before Spring Break, our 14-year old son went to an all day Soccer Referee Clinic in our hometown. Caleb had been talking about this for quite some time and after exploring the opportunity, we encouraged him to “go for it”. From an early age, his mom and I discovered his passion for knowing and sticking to the rules, (you should see him in action at a Monopoly game!) and it seemed like this was a natural fit for him. Much to his delight, he became certified and proudly showed us his patch that demonstrated he was now among an elite group of people that could ref mini-ball, micro-ball and other soccer matches for kids under 10.

One of our destinations in Southern California last week became a soccer store in MountainView to purchase a referee jersey for his new occupation. We sought out an impressive retail outlet and  by the time we left, he had procured flags, a whistle with a wrist lanyard, a referee’s wallet complete with yellow and red cards, socks, shorts and of course a very official black with white pinstriped jersey. Caleb was all set!

Just yesterday, his brother participated in a Gr. 6 basketball game against a neighboring school. I ended up catching the latter half in this tight affair with my son’s team winning by a single basket. What struck me most though, was the tough job our ref had in officiating the game and as I observed the proceedings, a bunch of thoughts came to mind. Having been in that fellas’ shoes as a basketball ref of Elementary Schoolers, there was too many post-it-notes in my brain to ignore and so I thought I would storyboard the works in this blog. Here’s what I have come up with In Defence of the Volunteer Referee:

a) I’m doing the best that I can. Anyone who has competed at a high level of sports will tell you that it’s much easier to play the game than to coach or officiate it. As a ref, I’m not trying to be biased, I’m trying to be fair.

b) I’m not doing this to become popular, I’m doing this for the kids. I’m responding to a need that has arisen and I want the kids to enjoy the game that they’re playing in a safe and competitive manner. Part of the structure of inter-school sports includes having a ref to oversee the game and that’s what I signed on to do. Without me, there would be no game or competition. You need me.

c) I’ve only got one set of eyes and I cannot possibly see everything. Imagine you were at an intersection where a car accident just occurred. Your perspective would be limited and may in fact be quite different from the bystander across the street. It’s the same in sports. Simply put, as an official I am going to miss calls and I am going to make mistakes. Even the makers of pencils have figured that one out – that’s why they put erasers on the ends of them.

d) I’m the one with the whistle, which makes me the one who gets to control the flow of the game. In yesterday’s match, the ref certainly could have been blowing the whistle more with all of the double-dribbles and traveling that was going on. On several occasions he intentionally chose not to acknowledge those. When kids are learning a sport, I have taken the approach of calling the blatant fouls and using those ones as teachable moment for both teams by explaining the infraction and why I whistled it down. I’ve also used the “Play On!” phrase to acknowledge that I’ve seen what went on and yet kept the play moving. I want the kids to know what is wrong and what is fair, but I also understand that it’s hard for any team to gain a sense of momentum when the whistle is always blowing.

e) Every game I ref gives me more experience and more experience will make me a better ref. Do we expect our kids to stand and walk fresh out of the womb? Is it fair to expect excellence from the first day driver before he’s had the chance to go out on the highway or navigate winter conditions? It’s the same in the officiating world. With practice comes improvement. In the amateur sport’s arena or the even in the classroom, it’s not about perfection, it’s about progress.

f) Learning for me (and you) occurs when split-second judgement calls are made. Even though I have some skill and I have a whistle, I’m learning too! One piece of advice I’ve given less experienced refs is to blow the whistle hard. Right or wrong, your whistle needs to indicate to everyone that you’re in charge. You can’t project that image with a soft whistle.

g) I need encouragement too. In an NHL game, there are 4 officals on the ice and several more beyond the glass (and even at a control center in Toronto) to make sure the right calls are made. They are paid and have hundreds (thousands?) of games of experience to make sure the game is called in a fair manner. As volunteers, we do not have the luxury of other eyes, video review and several camera angles. This is not our full time occupation. A bit of encouragement (specific encouragement rather than “good job!”) every once in a while will do much to affirm the developing gifts that refs have. We are people too and deserve the respect that our striped jersey affords us. Parent shouts and player cursing does nothing to enhance our experience either.

I’m sure there are more. These are the ones on the front burner for now.

Cartoon Insights

27 03 2011

One of the great things about an extended Spring Break is the fact that you get to do things you may not otherwise get to do throughout the school year. Our family went on our first big road trip to Southern California to meet with family along the way and spend three days at the “Happiest Place On Earth”. Our school district experimented with a 2-week break this year which meant that car travel was possible. Next year, School District 33 is going back to a one-week Spring Break, so this year we decided it was a great opportunity for us to make the big journey.

Exotic breakfasts, sleeping in or getting up early to watch cartoons are rare and luxurious morning choices in our family, but on several occasions on this trip, our boys got to do just that. One one of our stops, our two little fellas discovered that their aunt had a plethora of channels to choose from and they quite enjoyed plunking themselves in front of the giant T.V., (which I’ve learned stands for “thought vacuum”) and flipping through the channels. Apparently it’s wired into the male DNA that we don’t control the remote to see what’s on – we flip channels every few seconds because want to see what else is on.

A bunch of things struck me as we watched cartoons together. Many of today’s cartoons have a lesson (e.g. good people share, it’s wrong to hurt someone without saying sorry, or it’s proper to be polite and respectful to adults). As superficial as these messages may be, today’s cartoons all seem to have a point to them with a moral lesson to be learned. Good always triumphs over evil and in a 1/2 hour program, things always work out and get restored to the original state no matter how many accidents and messes occur.

When I was growing up, (makes me sound like an old timer now, doesn’t it?) the grainy animated images on KVOS-TV 12 were pretty bad. Violent even. Popeye would get walloped by Brutus, people were getting bonked on the head with cast iron frying pans and that poor coyote had a lot of anvils dropped on him.  How many ACME dynamite boxes exploded in his face? How many times did he chase the RoadRunner and have hard landings from impromptu cliff dives when the road ran out? Cartoons were extremely graphic back then and bullying behavior seemed to be the norm.

Not so anymore. What changed? Cartoons back in the day were terribly aggressive and abusive, but respect for others in real life seemed to be quite high. A shift happened and the cartoons got tamer with moral messages and yet in youth culture these days, there seems to be greater incidences of injustice, racism, bullying, violence and homophobia. Don’t get me wrong, there many GREAT things happening in the classrooms I’m in and so many inspirational young people in the schools that I visit. I’m aware of the good stories. I just want to know what shifted and why.

Could it be that it was our parents that taught us those moral lessons back then and that isn’t happening as much anymore? Could it be that (for some families) it is a struggle just to make it through the day and that intentional moments of what we may have called “good parenting” in the past just aren’t on the front burner anymore? I’m noticing a trend in that there are a lot of “surrogate parents” out there for kids (teachers, coaches, club leaders, youth leaders) and maybe, just maybe, our kids are getting bombarded with positive messages from all angles and that parents no longer feel that their voice is the only one that kids need to hear anymore. But in situations of moral and ethical issues, shouldn’t mom & dad’s voices be the loudest one that rings in our kid’s ears?

Watching cartoons with my boys over the Spring Break sure seemed to raise a lot of questions.

The Friends That Shape Us: (Stan, Lev, Chris and Ryan)

7 03 2011

What does the Stanley Cup, a dead psychologist, a friend’s blog and an out-of shape goalie have in common? All of these otherwise unconnected items have wiggled their way into my thoughts this week and together are shaping the way I look at the world.

My brother-in-law Dave (far left) standing with my niece Jasmine (front left) and their new friend Stan.

It was a historic day in my hometown this past Saturday as a local bank had a very special guest: the holy grail of hockey – the Stanley Cup. My brother-in-law Dave, is a coach and a prominent figure in Chilliwack Minor Hockey and his team (including my niece Jasmine) got to have their picture with the historic icon. Very cool. The line-ups were long and yet they both agreed it was well worth the wait. What a special memory for the two of them, and a day that I’m sure will have a lot of meaning for their family in years to come!

While cameras were flashing at Scotiabank, I was making a presentation to my cohort in a neighboring town. Two Saturdays a month, I meet with 19 other educators, all who share a journey which will end in a Masters of Education Degree. The presentation I was giving was on a Jewish Psychologist named Vygotsky, who grew up in the early 1900s (during the Russian Revolution) in the former Soviet Union, became a prolific author and educator and studied quite a range of human behaviors. In teacher circles, he is probably best known for his Social Development theory, the Zone of Proximal Development and MKOs. It was Vygotsky’s Most Knowledgeable Other concept which was most interesting to me. He believed that the greatest atmosphere for learning would take place when students were around peers, coaches, teachers and others who knew more about the area of focus than the student himself. In other words, you could learn a lot when you hang around people who know a lot about something. Vygotsky’s MKO term was groundbreaking stuff (framed in a scientific way) to examine and affirm the concepts of mentoring and modeling in an atmosphere of learning.

The day after my presentation, a principal friend of mine whom I greatly admire posted a blog about affirming the gifts of each student. In his post, he shared two separate stories of girls who had a passion for the Arts and yet were both discouraged from following their dreams by influencial people who felt the University route was a better career path. He writes, “Numeracy and literacy are very important skills, but at what point do we put too much emphasis on academics and lose sight of what is important for all our students?” (from These words have been ringing in my ears as I think of the way that many teachers (myself included) smugly convey an attitude that “we really know what is best for our students”. It’s quite an arrogant premise really, and a belief I hope we are willing to let go of.

And finally, I got the nod last night to be a G.O.C. (yes, you guessed it: a “Goalie On Call”). I’m an avid hockey fan and have been playing goal since my University days when a roommate of mine took a puck to the throat and became gun-shy. He unloaded his equipment on me, (sticks skates and everything) for $200 and I’ve been hooked ever since. Since I’m not playing on a team this year, I’ve made myself available to a number of “over 40” teams that find themselves in a pinch where they need a, (ahem), reliable starter. Last night’s game was a late one – a 10:45 start – but the adrenaline was pumping and we ended up winning a close one, 4 to 3.

So here’s where I put all four of these experiences together: As a hockey goaltender, my #1 objective when I hit the ice is to protect my team’s goal. As an educator, there is a parallel here in that I need to deliberately step back and make it my purpose to protect the goals of those who look up to me (thanks for the reminder C.W.).  I have had many experienced goalies (MKOs) over the years recognize that I was a late bloomer to the position and give me tips and informal coaching sessions to make me a stronger player.

One of the best pieces of advice came from Stanley Cup Winner and former Canuck, Ryan Walter at a Men’s Conference we shared speaking duties at. Ryan said, “Some nights, you’re gonna feel you can stop everything and other nights it’s going to be like they’re firing dimes at you. As you gain confidence,  you’ll be tempted to play the puck more, But don’t forget that your primary job is to stop pucks. The best advice I can give you is to make sure you square up to every shooter and make yourself look big.”

Isn’t it great when important, but random things in your mind manage to find a common thread and connect themselves to each other?

Birthday Invitations

28 02 2011

In one of the Gr. 3 classrooms I was in last week, a mom came in near the end of the day with a stack of coloured envelopes. “My daughter’s birthday is next week” she said, “How would you like me to hand out these invitations without making the other kids feel bad that they didn’t get invited?”

I really didn’t want to get involved, partly because it was the end of the day and there was a scramble of things yet to do before dismissal. Also, even though I knew the name, I also knew that I wouldn’t be able to pick her daughter out of a line-up. Us T.O.C.’s get to know a lot of names and faces, but putting them together can be quite a challenge on most days (see a previous post). “Why don’t we call your daughter over and the two of you can put them in the kid’s backpacks in the hallway?” I responded. Whew! For an on-the-spot decision, I thought this was quite a good one. And that’s exactly what they did. The dozen or so who made the cut had the goods in their bags and the ones left off the invite list didn’t even know (at the time) that they were overlooked.

Teachers in Primary grades have rules for all kinds of things and I agree that routines and structure bring order to a class and that student anxiety about the day’s events can be greatly reduced when kids know what is coming next. What I still struggle with though, is that I’m finding that the line between being the teacher to kids and being a parent to the same kids is a thin, grey one at best. Seasoned Primary teachers know that a good chunk of their days end up being parenting anyways with the amount of shoes they tie, noses they wipe, jacket sleeves they turn outside in and arguments they adjudicate.

As I reflected on my day in this class, I wondered why the teacher must be the one to solve the “someone’s feelings are going to get hurt if they know that they weren’t invited to the birthday party” dilemma – something that has nothing to do with the school day. The planners that all students have seem to be a good communication tool and a great mail delivery system to parents, but why aren’t there guidelines as to what makes it into the plastic folders at the front of them? Should Birthday Invitations make it in?

I’m aware that the birthday party circuit has become a big and booming business. Forget the cakes, candles, hats & horns – birthday cards alone have become a $1.5 billion industry. As a dad whose kids have attended more than a few parties, the festive celebrations start to teeter on the one-upmanship of the last party the child attended. Birthdays can cost parents hundreds of dollars. Gone are the days when pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey and pinatas were the focal point. I’ve read stories where parents almost need to take out second mortgages to pay for birthday parties that feature “the Reptile Man” (he brings live snakes to your living room) or “Cartoon Cuts” (girls get manicures and new hairdoos: boys get spiked hair and pretend shaves). You name the party – bowling party, pool party, gym party, magic party, horse party, laser-tag party, rocket building and launch ’em party – each year the parties seem to get larger and more lavish. I’ve also heard a professional party person tell war stories of the difficulties parents have in trying to bring sanity back to their home after one of their outlandish bashes.

Researchers who are interested in these things tell us that 93% of Canadians and Americans hear the words, “Happy Birthday” on their birthdays and 71% have the song sung to them – you know the one. As you think about your last big day, were you among the 71%?

Our celebrations speak volumes about the desires and drives of our lives. Acknowledging birthdays and planning celebrations are good things to do, but at what cost? Sadly, I’ve found myself being one of the parents who looks around and wonders if we’ll ever be able to compete with the other parties that are thrown. I think I need to give my head a shake, since hosting parties are not designed to be a competition (are they?)

Isn’t it interesting that we live in a culture that likes to celebrate birthdays – getting older – while at the same time we are obsessed with how “young” we are and how much “younger” we can make ourselves?

Things are a lot less complicated when you’re in Grade three.

Our Family’s Facebook Dilemma

14 02 2011

For about a year and a half, our youngest son has been begging us to allow him to create a Facebook account. Initially, we weren’t thrilled about the idea for a host of reasons, but we didn’t tell him no right away. There were teachable moments that needed to be seized and lessons to be learned about our “digital footprint”. As parents, we were finally able to buy some time with our decision by telling him that “we’ll let you get your own Facebook account when you’re 12” and that seemed to make sense to him.

Well, this past weekend he turned 12, and in the weeks leading up to his big day, he was quick to remind us about the Social Media arrangement we had made with him. One evening last week, Ben wheeled up and asked if together we could create his new account the night before his birthday, since (in his words) the big day would be “far too busy“.  This seemed like a reasonable request to us. He made an interesting statement after that: “And you’re sure that you don’t have to be 13, right?”

This kind of caught us off guard. Why would he ask a question like this? Where did the number 13 come from? We had this all arranged . . . or so we thought.

After he went to bed that night, I went to the Facebook main page and had a look at their Terms and Conditions. Now for those who haven’t encountered this detailed document before, I must say that it’s an enormous amount of legalese that would certainly make a good late-night sedative. In there, I discovered the crucial bit that I was looking for. Right there under Section 4 in the Registration & Security section came point #5: You will not use Facebook if you are under 13. BOOM! (As my friend CW would say).

We were in a bit of a pickle. We had told our son that we would help him create a Facebook account when he turned 12, but at the 11th hour we came across the rule that morally should prevent us from doing so. Ugh. What to do?, What to do?

Now the birthday boy has a number of friends who have been Facebooking for years. I’m sure you can think of many elementary-aged kids who have as well. There was a couple of options available to us at that point:

a) create the account (i.e. ignore the rules and lie)

b) respect the rules and not create the account for the 12-year old (and suffer the effects of a pre-teen’s uber-disappointment)

c) see if there is some legal loop hole that would allow us to proceed (or bend the rules) without actually breaking them.

We decided to pursue the latter and Ben and I crafted an email to the Facebook people, explaining what we were trying to do and letting them know that we wanted to do the right thing. I thought that if we presented our case that the reader might sympathize with our dilemma and understand that this dad was trying to do the right thing with his underage son. We found the contact link, sent the eloquent email and felt good about our decision. We received a reply within 20 minutes and wouldn’t you know it, it was a friendly, but totally impersonal, computer-generated reply. It spoke to none of the issues we raised.

In one sense, I understood completely. How many emails does the Facebook team receive on a daily basis. But in another way, it was ironic that a culture-altering computer program that was created to socialize didn’t have a mechanism for true communication with its users. We were left with a dead end. I thought my little guy would be crushed – and he was, but he has since handled it really well and hasn’t pushed further from that day. I’m really proud of him and the fact that he hasn’t gone down the path of sneakiness and registered on his own speaks to his sense of integrity (and solid parenting?). For now, the issue has been put on hold until his next birthday.

Why would Facebook have such a rule? Has it always been that way or is this a recent move? Did they bow to the wishes of their legal team to prevent a rash of litigation from parents of pre-teens? Or are they taking a proactive step to thwart online predators?

Finally, a note about the wording of their rule – did you catch it? Facebook is not only limiting the age of registered users. You will not use Facebook if you are under 13 speaks to it’s usage by pre-teens as well. As teachers who promote honesty, speak about fairness and model integrity, what is our response to any elementary student with or without an account who uses the tool to communicate with others?

Although I’ve been discouraged to accept students as friends on my Facebook account (and rightly so), I’m sure there are others in my profession out there who encourage students to use Facebook as a way of promoting communication between class members. Although Section 4, #5 seems black and white, are there exceptions to this rule?

My son and I would love to hear from you if there is.