Sunday, August 28, 2011

Asking Big Questions

Earlier this month I blogged about being touched by the words of Rob Fisher and Dean Shareski at  the UnPlug'd Canadian Education Summit.  Since then, the wonderful people responsible for translating the powerful stories and collective learning from this weekend experience have been working hard at producing, one chapter at a time, our UnPlug'd ebook.

 Chapter one, "The Change We Need" begins with Shelly Wrights' amazing story of a fundraising experience that changed her, her students from Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan and the students in Uganda who benefited from their efforts.  For me, Shelly sets a new standard for taking courageous directions into uncharted territory in education.

Chapter two, "Voices and Choices" begins with Bryan Jackson's story of integrating the tumult of the recent political upheavals in Egypt into teaching the history of Louis Riel. Listening to him tell the story of how his students struggled with questions of 'truth' and 'pespective' in life and in history was inspiring. His voice and writings are powerful and eloquent.  Take some time to read his blog and share it with other teachers.

Chapter three, "Shift Disturbing" begins with me sharing a personal story about why asking big questions matters in education.  I am deeply honoured that my story was chosen to feature chapter three as I am a small fish in a very big pond of truly amazing educators.  (I was not going to publish this blog post but my mother and a friend urged on.  Who wouldn't listen to their mother?)

Please stay tuned the UnPlug'd Vimeo channel and the website to enjoy the upcoming essays and videos.  Share this with your friends, especially other teachers so that we can talk about what really matters in education.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Thinking of Jack Layton

Jack Layton Portrait by DevinAJohnston
Jack Layton Portrait, a photo by DevinAJohnston on Flickr.
My friend Mitch Wapen who loves to write limericks sent this to me today with this picture of Jack Layton:

"When I learned of Jack's demise, it hit me like a brick.
I KNEW that he had cancer, but not how very sick.
"Le bon Jack" in Quebec,
was given a blank cheque...
to make the country more like him,
without his walking stick."

It's not a sonnet, not even a homage; only a glimpse into how two ordinary Canadians (Mitch is an honorary Canadian!) are thinking and speaking about Jack Layton on this sad day.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Einstein in Your Classroom

One of the best things I did this summer (apart from participating in the unique Canadian educational summit, Unplug'd) was to listen to almost all of Dr. Virgina Campbell's episodes of the Brainsciencepodcast.  I recommend this podcast to anyone who is interested in understanding the brain and I urge teachers to listen because it will give them rich insight into their students.  (For example, this episode explain the neuroscience of why we 'choke' and 'freeze' before a big exam or performance.)

Dr. Campbell, is an emergency room physician with an abiding interest in neuroscience, philosophy of mind and the area where those two connect.  She reads books about the brain and interviews their author, making the material 'layperson friendly'.  Most of her title choices are accessible and interesting, even for a non-neuroscienctist.  A friend told me about this podcast in mid June and since then, I have listened to at least one a day; most often on morning walks with my mini Schnauzer.  I am up to episode #63 - of 75!

Today I listened with interest to an interview with Dr. Bainbridge, the author of Teenagers: A Natural History.  He explained the neurological basis for much teenager behaviour that can be challenging for some parents and teachers: the inability to wake up in the morning, the intense need for friends, the seeming lack of inhibitions and risk taking behaviour.  Some of what I heard was not new to me: the teenage brain actually 'shrinks' (relative to the prepubescent one) because it is engaged in a necessary 'pruning' of unnecessary synapses.  The brain works by the 'use it or lose it' principle and will eliminate synapses that have been abundantly overproduced in early childhood.  I was surprised to hear Dr. Brainbridge talk about how little impact hormones actually has on the teenage brain!  (You'll have to listen to that one and see what you think.)

But this is what really caught my attention, my heart and is the reason for this blog post. Dr. Bainbridge maintains that the teenage brain is intensely creative.  This is his description from the episode transcript:
Many of the great human flights of creativity that have really made the difference to us, I think have often been based on ideas which people have had when they were teenagers. I don’t think they could necessarily exploit them fully when they were teenagers, because they didn’t have enough experience or skill yet.
People like Einstein, many writers, many artists, although they didn’t necessarily produce the work when they were teenagers, would often hark back to ideas or thoughts that they’d had when they were teenagers. So, the teenage creativity, I think, is very important, even though they often don’t seem to do anything tangible with it.
His words resonated deeply for me.  I have long been convinced of this part of the teenage psyche and their creative insights and work is in no short supply from my vantage point.  (Part of my reason for becoming a teacher was rooted in my own transformational and creative experiences as a teenager which I shared with my Unplug'd participants and will be released soon in chapter 3.)

Teachers reading this blog post will not need to be convinced of the creative teen sitting in their classroom.  They have tons of experience in that arena.  So why do I write this?  What's the point of 'preaching to the choir'?  Simply because this book gives us good science to support why the teaching of 21st skills is absolutely critical.  I do not suggest that science is the sole legitimizer of pedagogical practice and policy.    But I am using this author and his findings to impress upon teachers the importance of using technology to truly leverage the naturally creative thinker in their classroom.

To honour our students' creativity is essential and even, imperative, given the teacher's privileged access to the teenage mind.  This might mean more than giving students several options in the essay topics we assign.  This might actually mean giving up some control, moving over a tad, and letting them design their own learning, using the tools of their choice, after you have co-constructed a rubric of what evidence of learning might look like.  (A topic best suited for another post.)

 I encourage every teacher who reads this blog to pass on Dr. Bainbridge's name and his book title (as well as Dr. Campbell's Brainsciencepodcast to those teachers who consistently pass up on opportunities to infuse their teaching with web 2.0 tools, who hand out the same stencils year after year, and who have a golden opportunity to be the catalyst in some teenager's creative moment of insight that might only express itself years later.

If you don't have the time to listen to the podcast, you might want to quickly look over the show transcript.  I know that I am not alone in my conviction that under the surface of that teenage face, lies great possibilities.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Unplugging Joy

This past weekend (Aug 5-7), an amazing event happened; thirty-seven Canadian educators came together in an idyllic, off-the-grid location to share thoughts about what really matters in education.

from Cleversheep's flickr stream
Unplug’d Canadian Education Summit was a ‘conference’ like no other:  no hotel conference halls, plastic nametags or workshop schedules here; just nature in all her summer splendor and intelligent, caring educators with important things to say about education in Canada.  Each participant came with a short essay (that will be available as an e-book shortly so stay tuned) and a personal story that explained the “________” in our prompt, “Why __________ matters in education”. For many, these essays were torturous to write.  How can I express what matters most to me in 250 words?  How can the ‘guts’ of an entire teaching career fit on one page?  The secret was in the story and the conversations that ensued from our shared stories. 

It makes complete sense when you think about it.  Our stories communicate the essence of who we are, what we have lived and our most cherished values.  They are tiny vessels of highly concentrated meaning packaged in metaphor, drama and emotions.  A good story is like a strong farm horse; it goes a long way and gets the job done.  So as I reflect on this past weekend, their stories will resonate for me well into this upcoming school year.   I learned so much but I will remember one story especially.

Rob Fisher shared this as we wrapped up the weekend Sunday morning.  He reflected on his wife’s parting words to him as she dropped him at the airport; “Have fun with your geeky friends!”   How was he going to describe to her exactly who we really were?   These people were much more than techno geeks!  I listened to his words and answered his wife with my own thoughts; “I met incredible educators with huge hearts!”  Rob paused a second, put his hand to his head and said, “I met people who care so much about education that it hurts.”  How did he do that?  How did he reach inside my head and pull those words right out of my thoughts? I felt exposed; I hid my face in my hands and (uncharacteristically) released the tears that had been hiding all weekend long; tears of frustration and hurt from years of feeling disconnected; tears of joy at having found my small place in an amazing community of real people who care, just like me.   In one second, in a flash, Rob’s story encapsulated not only the entire weekend but also the ‘guts’ of Unplug’d.  Thirty-seven educators came together, investing considerable resources to talk about what matters in education.  We spoke about curriculum, parents, power, politics, successes, failures and especially students learning.  We spoke about our hopes for the future and how we might ‘carry this forward’ (Darren Kuropatwa's words)so others could benefit from the tremendous community we began building.

Dean Shareski spoke about joy.  Learning is, after all, an experience of joy.  (I wonder about the neuroscience of this and the neurotransmitters responsible for this feeling of joy when we connect ideas and experience.)  When we learn, we instantly feel ‘bigger’ than whom we were one second ago.   Educators have a privileged position of vicariously participating in that joy; and that brings us our own special joy.  So Monday morning, feeling a bit sad at the sudden disconnect from the intensity of these new connections, I found myself re-reading students’ letters of gratitude and love from years gone by.  I reached for that green folder because I remembered Dean’s message about honouring joy.  Their letters reminded me of how one caring educator can make all the difference in a child’s life.  All I did was listen.  All they wanted was for someone to care.  Years later, their gratitude still morphs into my joy and reminds me that I am exactly where I want to be in my life, doing exactly what I’m supposed to be doing but now, my community of caring educators has grown considerably. 

If these words have resonated with you, please leave me a comment and please visit Unplug’d so that you may see for yourself the faces of educators who care and listen to our stories when the book is published.  You can participate in this community of educators and help us to bring JOY forward this year. In a short time we will be back at school.  If this fills you with dread or sadness, go find your 'green folder' and remember how important you are to somebody who needs to see you light up with joy because learning is better than drugs, because growing is cool and especially because it forges a lifetime of irreplaceable and priceless meaning.