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.

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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

 

 

 

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?

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Ingredients for Learner Centered Spaces

Recipe

When I first moved out on my own, my grandmother gifted me a recipe box that contained her all-time favorite recipes. Bless her wonderful heart, she wrote or typed out each special recipe on an index card. Aww! I still have the wooden box with her recipes in my kitchen today. Even though the recipes are incredibly sentimental to me and bring back childhood memories of family meals, I don’t often use her recipes.

For one thing, lifestyles have changed significantly since she was alive. We eat far less sugar and sweets than in her time. For another, there are many ingredients that I use now that were not around in her time. For example, kale is not something my grandmother ever cooked with but it is a common ingredient in our fridge.

My grandmother loved to cook. She baked her own bread, made her own jam, and was up every morning cooking a hot breakfast. Most of her recipes lived in her mind as she didn’t have a stack of cookbooks or the internet to rely on. She had her trusty collection of recipe cards that she had amassed over her lifetime. But more than anything she relied on her memory and familiarity with her ingredients. Her bread recipe was one she knew by heart but always adapted on the fly. The exact mix of ingredients depended on the flour she used, the temperature of the day, and even the humidity of the season.

And I wonder if cooking is like creating learning experiences? I wonder if the changes in cooking parallel the evolution in our understanding of learning. We have at our ready as educators, a big pile of ingredients, and we get to combine these in unique and creative ways each day for the learners in our care. In BC, we have seen the arrival of some new ingredients that we may be unfamiliar with. But this doesn’t mean that these new ingredients might not produce some incredibly delicious learning!  We just might have to try these new ingredients out a couple of times, to get the right mix and combination.

One of the turning points in my teaching career (#truestory) was when I heard a teacher I respected explain that there was no one recipe for how to run a classroom. Say what??? No recipe???? He went on to explain that each of us as teachers, knew what was best for the children in our care and we had to make these decisions. For ourselves. We had to create the recipes for learning. This rocked my world! There was no ONE recipe.

I have cooked with content for a long time now. I know how whip up a solid learning experience with content as the main ingredient. But I wonder is content like the white flour of the modern learning space? While we might not need to eliminate it completely, we might want to limit it in our learning diets. We may see the health benefits of a diversified diet with a new and updated understanding of what a healthy diet consists of.

If I look back on the ingredients I relied on heavily in the first years of teaching they were: compliance, accountability, coverage, content, and one size fits all.

Fast forward to today and we have a whole bunch of new ingredients on the horizon! And undoubtedly cooking with new ingredients can be daunting, especially with guests at the door all the time. But if we trust ourselves to invent new recipes, recipes for our times, and we taste along the way and ask our guests for feedback, we will become competent with these new ingredients. Just as my Grandmother was with her ingredients.

A few of the new ingredients I am trying out in my “cooking”.

  1. Developing empowering routinesflex time
  2. Community building practicesdeciding on class norms as a class
  3. Bringing the First Peoples Principles of Learning to life 
  4. Content – I didn’t include this ingredient on my initial list. A comment from Chris Wejr (see below) got me thinking. My knee-jerk reaction to his comment was “no, that wasn’t what I was trying to say.”  After sleeping on it, I woke to the realization that he was exactly right. In omitting content as a key ingredient from this list, I was inadvertently conveying that content was a “bad” ingredient that should be avoided. But as Chris aptly pointed out, without meaningful content, the skills and processes are meaningless.
  5. Curiosity – provocations, questioning, wonder wall, thinking bubbles
  6. Learner agency – flex time, learning logs, learning detectives
  7. Knowledge buildingknowledge building circles

What are some the ingredients you are trying out? What combinations are working for you? What ingredients are you curious about trying?