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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Beyond Learning Targets

 

dots                                                                                                           Shared on flickr by Yuki Ishikawa

 

In an intelligent classroom collective, things will arise that the teacher may not have considered previously.
~Brent Davis

Do you remember connect the dot drawings you did as a child? You drew lines to connect numbers and created a simplistic outline of a more complex image. It was a great way to feel a sense of mastery and had an element of surprise. I can draw an owl! 

But let’s face it, is was no artistic masterpiece! At best, the finished outline hinted at the subject. For instance, a dot-to-dot of an owl described owls in a very generalist way. The outline did not provide any detailed information about any specific owl. If you wanted to know about owls in the general sense, then the outline was great! But to discover more about the nuances and special features of a specific owl, a definite no go!

A dot-to-dot drawing tells us more about owls in general. It does not describe any ONE owl.

Ok. How about learning targets? Are they a bit like a connect-the-dots outline? Do they describe every child rather than any specific child? And, if each child uses the same dots to connect their learning lines as they move through school, what picture are they creating for themselves, about themselves? Are they finding out and exploring who they are? Specifically. Uniquely. Individually.

Or, are learners discovering more about who WE want children to be? In general. Do learners discover more about how their learning compares to the connect-the-dots outline of every child?

I wonder if learning targets (or outcomes, standards, intentions) might serve as a starting point rather than a stopping point on the journey of fostering learner agency and personalization. Are the creation and sharing of learning targets THE ultimate destination? Or, are learning targets, perhaps, a move TOWARDS inviting students into owning the learning, and a doorway into clarifying what is important in the learning landscape.

Maybe, learning targets are a step towards clarity but perhaps a world of exploration lies beyond?

Moving Forward with Learning Targets

Continuum over Comparison

  • Celebrate jaggedness
    When students are presented with learning targets and a corresponding 4 point criteria scale (whether these are in words or in numbers) we inadvertently create an unspoken expectation that EVERY child should work towards a 4 for every learning target. But is this realistic? And is this what we want? Could we find a way to represent and emphasize the learning journey of each child as a unique continuum rather than as a comparison to an artificial standard?

Acknowledge the Lived Curriculum

  • All targets/standards/outcomes in play all the time
    Do we see learning as a linear march through the curriculum? Do we as the teacher cover the topic and that determines when it has been learned? Or could we have ALL the learning targets out (like a deck of cards spread out on a table top) and put them in the hands of the learner?
  • Students identify when they have experienced a learning target
    Learners come with unique backgrounds and strengths. Can we assume to know what each child takes away from a learning experience? Or could learners be empowered to do this for themselves? Of course, we as educators still have a vastly important role in this process but maybe it shifts to designer, observer, documenter, and nurturer.

Encourage Diversity 

  • Learning targets that are expansive and open
    Do the learning targets invite diversity of thought? Sometimes learning targets can be quite specific and narrow. For example, I can multiply 2 integers, emphasizes the technical skill. In comparison, I can explore multiple strategies when I multiply integers, invites the possibility of diversity of thought.

Moving Beyond Learning Targets

I have just begun to consider what this might look like in practice. Currently some clues I am exploring are:

Consider Emergent Outcomes

More and more, we are required to map our assignments, assessments, and curricula to learning outcomes. But I find it strange that teachers and institutions would pre-determine outcomes before students even arrive upon the scene. I have argued, instead, for emergent outcomes, ones that are co-created by teachers and students and revised on the fly. Setting trajectories rather than mapping in advance the possible shapes for learning.
~Jesse Stommel 

Use Larger Frames 

Invite learners to consider themselves at a more holistic level. Rather than asking students to measure themselves against a predetermined standard in a content area, use the content area as means for students to explore who they are. The curriculum serves the child rather than the other way around. In B.C. we have the unique opportunity of leaning into the frames provided by the core competencies.

Consider Community as Curriculum

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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?

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Gift of Competence

 

Competent                                                                                                                Shared on Flickr by djemili amin

That you do for me, without me, you do to me.

 

One small bone of contention between my husband and I is the unloading of the dishwasher. If I begin to unload the dishwasher but pause for a second, say to rearrange the pot drawer or maybe wipe a spill on a cupboard door, he swoops in to complete the task.  In that moment he sees himself as being so helpful. In that moment, I see him as being very unhelpful! He is doing for me what I wanted to do myself.  And in that moment, I feel incompetent.

In comparison, if I bring to mind a context of when I feel competent, say like planning a lesson or creating a vision for a learning experience, boy, do I feel like a different person. I am open, I feel positive, I want to help, I want to add to. I feel like a good human! I even feel so good I might consider unloading a dishwasher!!

When I look back to my first year of teaching, my principal at the time helped me to see my competence. He presented me with the contexts in which I was becoming a competent teacher. At a time when I was uncertain about my competence as a teacher, he created the space for me to move into my struggles and missteps, rather than away from them. I felt empowered to find workable answers, I felt valued and valuable. I felt I could do for myself what I needed to do to be competent and I began to believe I was a competent teacher!

The gift of competence was not in what was given to me. Rather it was the space that was created for me to move into, to see myself, to know myself.

To this day, I still feel his gift of competence. Of course, the competency was mine, but he held up the mirror, he created the space for me to own it, for myself. He never did for me what I could do for myself. He pointed out my competencies, and in doing so, he created a place for me to identify my next steps forward, for myself.

To a large part, he helped define for me the contexts in which I felt successful and competent. I recognized that I felt confident and competent when I could forge relationships. I came to understand that I felt confident when I could connect and make real-time meaning with people. I came to see that my confidence grew when I knew I was making a difference. His gift wasn’t that he told me that I was competent. His gift of competence was that he helped me to identify and shape the contexts in which I was competent.

And I wonder:
What contexts and experiences might allow all leaners to see and feel their competence? What contexts might reveal the specific and individual competence of each child, for that child?

Now if you’ll excuse me, I hear the dishwasher cycle ending.