What really matters?

Sometimes, life seems like a long list of have to’s: get the winter tires on before the snow flies, get through the pile of emails before Monday, get the house prepped for winter, and the list goes on. Sometimes, there just doesn’t seem to be enough time to think deeply about what really matters. I mean, generally, we would all say similar things about what really matters. Things like: family, spending time with people we love, finding fulfilling work, and other such things. We all know in general terms what really matters. But sometimes the details around what really matters get a bit hazy, get a bit blurred. Kind of like being at the ocean, when you’re working hard to build a sandcastle and whoosh, a wave rolls in, and completely erodes the fine details. Life keeps sending us those waves.

“We can either make our choices deliberately or allow other people’s agendas to control our lives.” Greg McKeown

Luckily, life also presents us with moments of clarity and truth. In these moments what really matters and all the corresponding details become crystal clear. Everything else, fades into the background. These moments get you back on track or they change your perspective completely.  You probably have had moments like this in your life: looking into the eyes of a newborn baby for the first time or, feeling the mystery and wonder of this universe as you look at the night sky. 

I had a such a moment last spring, as I got to learn from a group of youth, who were speaking at TEDx Youth @DoyleAve. I could call them students but I didn’t learn from the fact that they were students. Instead,  I learned from their human-ness. Each one of these amazing humans had fought hard to create their own identity, and each had worked hard to find an authentic voice to express this identity. These inspiring humans were complete individuals and were complete long before we adults came along. All we did was stop to listen to their stories.

Their successes were not achieved by marching along the adult-centric pipeline model. You know, the elementary school, to middle school, to high school, and then university, model. Instead, each of these youth had discovered their unique strengths and indenties when they strayed away from the pipeline. 

“Students already have complete control over their learning.
Our hubris is to think they don’t.”
  -Will Richardson

From this experience, I had a moment of clarity and truth around how much I had to learn and that it wasn’t going to happen from listening to people exactly like me. I recognized that I had to move well beyond my bubble of sameness and hear diverse perspectives. 

sameness

The world we live in is becoming increasingly complex. As the challenges we face increase in complexity, these diverse perspectives and identities are becoming more essential.  Think back to the last meeting you attended and think about who was around the table. Diverse or homogeneous?

simplevs complex

If we are going to meet these complex challenges head on, we will need to assemble diverse teams. And let’s be clear: diversity doesn’t mean you have different Starbucks orders. Identity diversity includes gender, religion, sexual orientation, ethnicity, etc.  Thanks to the extensive research of Scott E Page, we know that diversity and inclusion are not just the ethical thing to do. Diversity and inclusion are also the better thing to do when tackling complex problems. Better like bottom line better.  This intersection of what is ethical and what is better, gives us a moment of clarity and truth: diversity and inclusion ARE what really matter. 

“Diverse groups of problem solvers outperformed the groups of the best individuals at solving complex problems. The reason: the diverse groups got stuck less often than the smart individuals, who tended to think similarly.” ~ Scott E. Page

Finding one’s identity and voice and discovering your unique strengths is not just nice, not a luxury if you have time or money, but instead, it is a necessity.  Each child who enters school needs discover their unique identity and create a voice to express themselves. Each child needs to find their proverbial mountain, climb it, and say: “Hello World! Here I am in all my glory!!”

Then, they will be able to challenge the complex question: what really matters?

(This is an adapted version of my mike drop for Innovate-Ed 18, slides are below)

 

Privilege

blindspot                                                                            Shared on flickr by Thomas Hawk

We all have a blind spot around our privilege shaped exactly like us.
                                                                                    -Junot Dias

I am white, straight, married, middle class, and neurotypical. I could go on. Basically, I am privileged. I have privilege. Privilege, like the air around us, is omnipresent but invisible and easy to forget. We take note when it is low supply.

Before last spring, I hadn’t given much thought to privilege. While listening to a series of youth give their TED talk, I had a moment of what I call “clarity and truth.”  These students were exploring their own privilege or lack of privilege, and how they had created authentic, unique identities. Wow! Mind blown! Here were these teens who recognized their own privilege. Somehow, I had moved through life without even considering it! Blind spot alert.

Throughout my life, I had been aware of situations when I didn’t have privilege (like in university when every science prof was white, male, and middle-aged). These big moments of no privilege were easy to spot. Just look to the news to see this how lack of privilege stands out. When a women wins a Nobel Prize in Physics (only the 3rd women in 117 years!) it is headline news. Yet, in the very same week, we hear a Cern physicist announce that physics is a field for men (not women), because it was designed by men. How crazy is that? He got the second part right!

It is easy to recognize situations when there is a huge lack of privilege (just think of #metoo) or when there is a lot of privilege (Bill Gates type privilege). It becomes more challenging when privilege is more subtle. I had missed the subtle areas of my life where privilege was present and how it manifested.

As I listened to these youth describe how they had forged an authentic identity, without privilege on their side, I began to realize that I had taken my privilege for granted. I hadn’t been aware of how I could use my privilege to make space for others to create identities for themselves.  In the months to come, I reflected that the materials, books, movies, and paradigms that I relied on in my classroom were not as diverse and inclusive as they could have been. I accepted that my lack of understanding of neurodiversity had caused me to create learning that was incredibly biased towards neurotypical learning. Most ironically of all, I recognized that I had presented science as status quo truth, while ignoring other world views. My privilege was not only invisible to me, but it was a set of blinders that kept me looking at a very small slice of the world

I had to look at my privilege (even the ugly parts) and say: I see you privilege but you don’t own me, I am not yours; I see you privilege but I can topple you; I recognize that you are part of me, but you are not going to define me; I am not going to work on your behalf and keep your status quo.

Privilege, I see you now.

_____________________

Keniesha, Tor, and Hannah: thank you for the moment of “clarity and truth”, thank you for teaching me so much about the world, thank you for being role models, thank you for your bravery and wisdom.

 

perfect-everything

light streams in

“I am struck by how sharing our weakness and difficulties is more nourishing to others than sharing our qualities and successes.”  ― Jean Vanier 

I still remember the expectations during our teaching practicums: handouts and materials out on desks BEFORE students arrive, every minute of the class accounted for, a hook, a review, and don’t waste any time.

The deal with school seemed to be: perfect-everything.

When I didn’t accomplish it ALL, well you know…I felt like I had failed. I wasn’t perfect, at everything. Somehow, my shortcomings managed to overshadow my successes. Somewhere in my brain, I had the belief that I should be perfect at EVERYTHING. I was supposed to be all these things, all the time. When expectations were given, then the object was to be good at ALL of them.  If you were a “good teacher” then you were supposed to be perfect at all the teacher-y things is how my faulty logic went. As an extension, I believed my ability or inability to be perfect at everything, somehow correlated to my student’s ability to be perfect. I had warped thoughts like: oh, look at that teacher, she is so neat and organized, I bet her students will do better! I thought the object of school was to be perfect at everything, do everything expected without question, and live up to ALL the expectations.

In my mind, the deal with school was: perfect-everything.

Years go by.

One day in class, I notice the look in her eyes. She is sitting in the second row and I see that she, too, is trying to be perfect. She doesn’t want her mistakes and shortcomings to be noticed. She is focused on being the person she thinks she is supposed to be; the person she thinks school and teachers want her to be. The uncertainty I see in her eyes haunt and pull at me (and have for many years). Her eyes say: if I get perfect grades, do my assignments perfectly, and ask clarifying questions, then I will be perfect, right? Then, will you think I am perfect?

In her mind, that is the deal with school: perfect-everything.

When I see her again in grade 12, she doesn’t look up. She keeps her head down and avoids eye contact. When I try to engage her, she is distant and vague. She isn’t trying to be perfect any more. She isn’t even there anymore.

Finally, she shares that the 11 years of trying to be perfect-everything have caught up, and she can’t do it anymore. There is no joy in the perfect marks anymore, in being the perfect student, and in being who she thinks she is supposed to be. Exhausted and conflicted, she has hollowed out.

Who am I, she wonders, if I am not the person who makes everyone happy? If I am not the perfect-everything girl…then, who am I?

Is perfect-everything the deal with life, too?

Years go by.

We begin to move away from letter grades. We start to write and use student friendly learning targets.  New scales, that remove numbers and use strength based language, become popular. Self-assessment and student portfolios are more widely embraced. These are solid and concrete steps, no doubt. But will they shine a light for each child, on their specific and unique strengths?

Have we given the design of meaningful learning experiences, the same focus and priority? What comes first: the checklist of competencies or knowing what you might check? It is a chicken and egg question. Regardless of phrasing, a person who is sensitive to external suggestions, will always remain so.  Identity creation can quickly slip into role fabrication, if we don’t yet know who you are.

Can the deal with school be, that we figure out who we are, in school, not after?

When I see her again she is 28, married with 2 youngchildren. She looks me in the eye. No uncertainty. After high school, she traveled. Nothing exotic or far-flung, but along the way she figured out who she was.

Finally, time and space, allowed her to know who she WAS supposed to be. But this time, from the inside out.

___________________________________

“We now understand that higher-level thinking is more likely to occur in the brain of a student who is emotionally secure than in the brain of a student who is scared, upset, anxious, or stressed.”  ― Mawhinney and Sagan

 

 

 

 

 

Start from Abundance

joy                                                                                      Image shared on Flickr by Agnieszka

Making a dream into reality begins with what you have, not with what
you are waiting on. 

                                                                                                  ~T. F. Hodge

 

A couple of weeks ago, I spent time with a grade 8 class of 50 students, co-taught by 2 teachers. The teachers have adjoining classrooms, but when all 50 students come together, a larger open space is used. This wall-less space is directly off the school’s entrance way, what you might call a multi. What I noticed first about this space were the limitations and shortcomings: the ambient noise, the uncomfortable tables, the distracting hallway traffic, and the lack of technology.

Later, as we debriefed with the 2 teachers, they willingly acknowledged the limitations of their physical space and some of the challenges they face with a class of 50. But here is the thing: they didn’t stop to perseverate and get all tangled up in what was lacking.  Instead, like a smooth, flat rock, skipping over top of the water, they kept right on going, past what was lacking, and onto what was possible.

The teachers described the numerous advantages of the diversity and size of the group. They talked passionately about their partnership and how co-planning had amplified their professional growth. They shared examples of student work, project outlines, and non-linear standards. Listening to them, my perceived limitations of the space seemed insignificant compared to what they had created.

They had believed in the possible. They had started from abundance.

After our visit, I spent time reflecting on the experience, wondering if I would have believed in the possibilities of the situation. When I imagined myself stepping into something similar, I felt an overwhelming fear of the unknown.  There were so many things that could go wrong, so many pieces missing, and so much uncertainty. I realized that I would have camouflaged my doubts and fears by pointing out the deficiencies of the situation.  If I pointed out what was lacking, maybe no one would notice what I was lacking. Instead, I would set the ransom high and demand that EVERYTHING be certain before I stepped forward.  Certain I had the right reseources, furniture, classroom, etc. I realized that when faced with uncertainty, it wasn’t easy to feel hopeful and imagine the possible. It was scary to start from abundance.

In the weeks to come, I looked closely for more examples of abundance. I heard it when teachers were collaborating and saying: yes, let’s try that! I saw it when students had the time and space to fully share their ideas and thoughts. I felt it when the pace of the class was the same as that of authentic relationships. It didn’t look like I thought it might. It looked messy, and noisy, unplanned, and a bit disorganized. It looked like diving in to the deep end and having fun. It felt like letting go of fear, embracing hope, and stepping into the abundance of the possible.

___________________________________

Scarcity is the “never enough” problem.  The word scarce is from the Old Norman French scars, meaning “restricted in quantity” (c. 1300). Scarcity thrives in a culture where everyone is hyper-aware of lack.  Everything from safety and love to money and resources feels restricted and lacking.  We spend inordinate amounts of time calculating how much we have, want, and don’t have, and how much everyone else has, needs, and wants. ~Brene Brown

 

 

 

Putting Down the Busy Badge

busy
    “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life.”
                                                                                                          ~Mary Oliver

It starts slowly. At first you don’t even notice it, and in a funny way, it actually feels good. You feel fulfilled, you feel valued, and let’s face it, you feel important.

I am busy!!! Busy, busy, busy!! Doing very important things. LOOK AT ME GOOOOOO…..

At first, you only wear your badge at work. But it’s so hard to take off darn it!  So, you wear it home for dinner (no one will notice).

But the clasp somehow starts to pierce through your sleep and you wake up in the middle of the night with it on. Eventually, you wake up and busy is already shouting orders at you in the early morning.  You start wearing the badge 24 hours a day.

Busy has become a way of life.

Then one day. All of sudden. Out of nowhere.
The bottom drops out. You get sick or a family member becomes ill, or you wake up one day and realize that you have hollowed out. The busy badge needs to be paid for and the cost is your inspiration and passion.  You own the badge but you feel flat.

__________________________________________

For me, it was a series of events that caused me to look at my badge a little closer.
Our family dog passed away and the badge felt I should get busy right away. But I just couldn’t.
My husband ran into serious health problems and I thought I might lose him. Busy badge was understanding, for a while. But it demanded I make up for the lost time.  I felt guilt for needing to be away.
When I took the badge off to spend time with my dad for his 80th birthday, I felt the guilt of slowing down to be fully present in the moments of his life. Yet, I also felt the incredible guilt of all the lost moments. The moments I had spent polishing my badge. The moments I had spent admiring its brilliance.

But still. I felt the badge was worth it. Sure it was a bit tarnished, but it is a great badge to have!!

Finally.

I fell down the stairs rushing to work one day. “I have to get to work NOW!!”
My phone was in one hand and my coffee cup in the other (because coffee helps you wear that shiny badge ALL day). I rode my left side down the stairs because I was no longer in the moment. I was too busy thinking of all things I needed to do that day.

Busted. I was busted. Wide open. And it hurt. Not just my shoulder, but my heart and how I fallen for this false prophet. Busier wouldn’t make me happier, healthier, or more loved. Busy had asked me to disconnect from myself and from those I loved.  I had complied.

I wish I had an easy fix answer. For me, it was riding on my left side down the stairs in the service of speed. Since then I have had some small personal epiphanies.  I share these here for what they are worth:

  1. Savor the small wonders of each day – It might be the sunrise as you drive to work, or lighting candles for dinner, or watching your kids play. Look for and find those small moments of absolute wonder. Make note, savour, and soak these up. These moments matter.
  2. Really listen – When someone speaks, let your heart crack open and be in the moment with them and for them. What are they saying? What is their perspective? What do they need in this moment? Are you there for them or are you there for yourself?
  3. Find a space you feel free – Notice where and when you feel outside of the domain of busy. For me it is outside. Whether it is walking or snowshoeing, I feel no pressure from busy when I am out in nature.  Find this place and go there regularly.
  4. Cultivate an inner life – Spend time reading, writing, thinking, and contemplating.  Develop your inner life as you might cultivate a garden.
  5. Notice yourself – After I fell down the stairs, I went for many chiropractor and massage appointments. These moments forced me to realize I had previously ignored myself.  Stop every once in a while to notice how you are feeling. Are you clenching your jaw, are your shoulders up in your ears, are you breathing deeply?

What are you going to do with your one precious life?

 

 

 

 

 

Does planning need an update?

free_to_learn

“…to be educated is to be ever open to the call of what it is to be deeply human, and heeding the call to walk with others in life’s ventures.”
~Dr Ted Aoki

When I was in teacher training, we were asked to make elaborately detailed unit and lesson plans. To be honest, I never used said unit plans. The lesson plans were useful, in so far as they prompted me to think through the flow of a class in advance. This was helpful, for a while. In my first year of teaching, when I had 5 preps, lesson planning went out the window. I didn’t show up to class unprepared, but the detailed, step by step, static lesson plan became unrealistic.  I quickly realized that to survive and thrive, I had to become more responsive and make decisions mid-stream. “Nope! That plan for a jigsaw is not working!” “Three quarters of the class is struggling with a certain type of problem, press pause and try something else.”

I felt a bit betrayed, as no one had mentioned that I might have to be responsive to the humans who sat in front of me every day (although, it does seem rather obvious to me now). The tool I was given was: plan, plan, and plan some more. Create year plans, create unit plans, and then finally, create lesson plans! Somehow extensive planning did not create the classroom of my dreams.

Does more content equal more learning?

Never mind that one year, I didn’t even get to the Fungi unit in Biology 11. Instead, we had decided to build a model rainforest in our classroom and it took longer than expected (you know those types of projects!).  At year-end, the science department-head heard that my class had not covered the Fungi unit and let me know that this was unacceptable. As she explained it, Fungi was on the departmental final exam (the same one given each year) and it was required content for Bio 11.

Obviously, my “haphazard” planning strategies had failed me. At the time, I felt a fair amount of guilt, but I also felt conflicted. The rainforest project felt worthwhile. The students worked together as a class, everyone participated, and the process was filled with laughter.

What matters or what works?

As I moved on in my teaching career, I eventually became a super-planner. Teaching content heavy courses, such as Bio 12 and APBio, caused me to plan the year out, in detail, day by day. And I never deviated from this plan. I did my photocopying in August and had the unit packets lined up and ready to go in my cupboard. I did this because it worked. The advance planning allowed me to efficiently cover the curriculum and get students well prepared for a high stakes final exam.  Planning was an effective tool for scaling the brick-like wall of content, each brick a unit of content, immutable in arrangement. Planning was a tool that ensured that I never left any bricks out (as with the Fungi unit).

Every once in a while, a situation would arise that reminded me of what really mattered, and I would feel conflicted again. Except this time, my hyper-focus on the content-wall that caused me to ignore the ideals and values that had brought me to education in the first place.  Students didn’t have time to develop deep understanding of biology or to discover their passions, and I didn’t have time to get to know them, as people. Regardless, the planning worked, so I carried on.

Trapped in a living contradiction

At the time, I felt trapped in a space between what worked and what mattered. The over-the-top advance planning worked as students were well prepared for that exam. But, I was trading in my idealism for efficiency, and my idealism began to give way to cynicism and doubt.

Does planning need an update?

Now, years later, does it seem we are trapped in the same living contradiction? On the one hand, we talk of inquiry and personal learning, and on the other, we create year plans, lesson plans, and curriculum checklists. We want to move forward but we also want to drag the tools of the past with us. We talk of beliefs and values as vital to change, but make little space for inner reflection and dialogue and the shine from our busy badges blinds us to everything, except what is deemed urgent. Have we mentally dismantled the content-wall for ourselves? Or, do we continue to tinker deferentially in its shadows?  Until we topple the wall and free the bricks, can students authentically construct their own unique understandings? Have we moved into the uncomfortable tension between curriculum as prescribed and curriculum as lived, and acknowledged that despite our plans, students often take away learning that is vastly different from our plans? We talk of creating student agency and empowerment, but, as Will Richardson reminds us “students already have complete control over their learning. Our hubris is to think they don’t.”

Will the tools used in the past to scale the content-wall, still serve us in this new landscape? Is planning something we can do for children but without out them? Or, do we need to harness our finite energies and lean into the messiness of planning, emergent and responsive, in concert with students?

When we reach for yet another tool or template can they quickly become a panacea for real change? Do we mistakenly hope the tools and templates will do the heavy lifting of change for us, as our energies continue to be consumed by doing what works? How do create the space and time to clarify for ourselves what matters?

Does planning need an update?

_________________________________

 

Clearing the Clutter

wonder
Shared on Flickr by Jimmy Brown

The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.
                                                 ~Stephen Covey

Lately, a common theme has emerged from conversations with educators. The theme sounds something like this: Where do I start?; What do these terms mean in practice?; How do they these ideas fit together?; How do I make time for all of these?; How can I do all of these well?; Where does what I have always done fit in?

To sense make, to break new ground, and to connect old to new, can all be daunting propositions. Especially when we are attending to already established initiatives. Especially when we have children in our care who deserve our full attention and presence. Especially when the educational landscape is shifting daily, with new words, concepts, approaches, practices, and projects.

We may, like squirrels in fall, launch into action and gather up as many new projects as possible. Everyone else is doing it, right? Don’t want to get left behind! Before we know it, we are knee-deep in initiatives. We are keen and fearless but somehow we don’t make the head way we imagined we would. Quite frankly, we end up dabbling only superficially with each new initiative and before we know it, our interest and enthusiasm wanes. Eventually, our new initiatives lie abandoned, like discarded oxygen canisters at the base of Everest, varied in colour but empty none the less.

Is there another way? Can we reduce the clutter? Can we come together to create a cohesive story for what is at the heart of the matter? How do we navigate the increasingly cluttered educational landscape?

Articulate Your Big Picture 
“If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will.”
~Greg McKeown

If you don’t have a big picture of what you are after, get one. Make it detailed. It doesn’t have to have every detail. You can fill in as you go. Make it big, but not too big. Make it big enough so that all the smaller initiatives can fit inside.

The big picture (or call it vision, the why, or big rocks) should get to the heart of the matter of what you do. It should clarify for you what you are after. It should describe what you are trying to create. It should inspire you. It should stretch you just the right amount.

The big picture should add clarity to everything you do. Everything you do should be in service of this big picture. If you can’t come up with a big picture ask someone you trust and respect to help you with this process. If you don’t have such a person, rely on research based principles such as the OECD principles of learning.  Or look out into the educational field to thought leaders and see what they are saying. Regardless of the source, work towards articulating the big picture in your own words. Make it meaningful to you. This is important.

Refer to this big picture every day. Refer to it several times a day. Write it down on index cards, on rocks, on posters. Just refer to it. All the time.
My big picture looked like this:

  • Make space for student ownership
  • Play school less, play learning more
  • Create a self-sustaining community of self-regulating learners

    rock
    Part of the picture I was trying to create included making space for student ownership.

These simple statements helped me to judge whether a new initiative was worth my time and energy. Just because a new initiative appeared on the landscape, didn’t mean it was going to serve the big picture.  I needed to ask myself if the initiative revealed more detail about how to create the big picture, or did it create another pile of clutter?

For example, even though Jupiter Grades was extremely popular at that time, I didn’t jump on board. I decided that Jupiter Grades wouldn’t help create the big picture I was after. In fact, Jupiter Grades would have maintained the status quo I was hoping to move away from. Jupiter Grades didn’t make room for student ownership. Jupiter Grades was really good at playing school but it didn’t help to create clarity about learning. Jupiter Grades wasn’t an obvious yes, so it was an obvious no!

To recap, some ideas for clearing clutter:

  1. Articulate your big picture – Make it meaningful, make it yours, and make it visible. Use it as a filter for identifying clutter.
  2. Before you add, let go – Just as with children’s toys, entrance way closets, and kitchens, we need to edit on an ongoing basis. Decide what practices might be vestigial and let go. For me, this was elaborate daily quizzes, marking absolutely everything, and huge assessments. Eliminating these practices freed up time for me to introduce new routines to create the big picture.
  3. Stop to synthesis – Reclaim some time to think. Use any found time to sense make, to think, to fill in details. As with students and the internet, we have to rely on our brains to be the filter for the irrelevant and the clutter.  Your big picture is valuable. Don’t let junk obscure it.
  4. If it isn’t an obvious YES, then it’s an obvious no – If a new imitative doesn’t jump out at you as helping to create the big picture, then walk on by.
  5. Treat your time and energy like money – Protect the asset of you! Scrimp and save for what really matters. Say no to the cheap and small items. We have finite energy units to spend on creating the picture we are after. Spend those energy units wisely.