Monday, September 26, 2011

Relationships Trump Curriculums

September is the month when our recent grads come back to visit and tell us how they are doing in their new junior college.  Their stories resemble one another: "I was the only one who knew what the teacher was talking about!" or "I got the best mark in the class on my essay".  That's great and it reassures me that our curriculum is really preparing them for higher education, but that is only a small part of this story.  Why do they feel the need to return?  Are they boasting? (Maybe just a tad.)  Are they lonely for their old haunt?  (Only a few.)  My sense is that their need to return is a testimony to the importance of relationships in learning.

Think back to your own high school and junior college days and recollect the teachers who had the greatest impact on your life.  My hunch is that the relationship with these significant teachers was nourishing and probably provided sustained encouragement well into your adult years.

It's the relationship we remember more than the curriculum.  A few days ago, I received an email from a recent grad grappling with universal questions of meaning.  She must have enrolled in a philosophy course.  Maybe they were studying Nietzsche?  Whatever was happening in her life, she was, in her words, "thinking about death and feeling bad about it".  So she reached out to me in an email.

Philosophy for Teens 2011

Can you remember when you asked these same questions about life, meaning, and death?  We all do.  These are among the most important questions we ever ask and teachers have an important role in presenting these timeless issues.  Did you turn to a friend, an adult you trusted or did you keep it to yourself?

I have many answers and no answers for my student who looked to me for guidance.  I answered her questions, shared my own experiences and suggested several books for her.     But her instinct to reach out to her teacher and share her intimate questions about the world and her life to me, is better than gold.  This is the great beauty of teaching and learning; the relationship is the power that fuels both.  Relationships, not the curriculum, are what we remember about our schooling.  As teachers, we need to remember that when we rush to finish the unit, the book and the course.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

On Loss, Losers and Zealots

It has been almost two months since Alan November's  BLC11 conference in Boston.      Since then, I have consistently returned to Rob Evan's advice to the audience of tech-zealots for how to understand the resistant teacher.  (You know the one. No descriptions are necessary.)

 Here is a brief and embarrassingly insufficient summary.

   Human beings are deeply ambivalent towards change.  We love what is new but cling to our safe routines.  Many teachers have swallowed their hopes of finding satisfaction and meaning in their career.  They hate what is there but they also reject change.  Loss and bereavement is what the resistant teacher feels when confronted with the necessity of change.  Technology, in their perspective, devalues their work (personal notes, lectures, years of experience) and makes them feel unimportant.  So, their sense of loss and bereavement is completely normal.  Add to this, the confusion and general unsettled work atmosphere when technology is added to the mix.  (The darn stuff never works the first time around and often fails at critical moments!  Even the tech geeks can become infuriated.)  As if that were not enough, (always from the perspective of the resistant teacher) the introduction of technology creates winners and losers; those who 'get the tech' are winners and those who don't are the losers.

I have thought about this a great deal and I admit, Rob Evans is spot on in his observations.  It's true that loss and grief are normal reactions that might be experienced by many.  It's also true that technology can increase confusion and possibly even create divisions where none existed before.  I hope that I have become, as a result of considering his advice, a more understanding 'coach' with an inner disposition of calm despite emotional outbursts (not mine) and difficult situations.

I understand that we learn in different ways and for different reasons.  I appreciate the fear that technology can provoke in some people.  And then I think of my mother, Luci, who at 78 years of age began to learn how to surf the web and manage her files on the laptop her children bought her for Christmas.  She is the model learner in my books; independent, insatiably curious, and excited about her learning.  Luci takes great pride in learning how to do something by herself and then showing me her accomplishment.  She learns for the sheer joy (there's that Shareski word again - read his essay here) of it.

And then there are the students; you know, the ones who sit in our classrooms  and politely (or not) accept our mediocrity, who put up with our stale stencils and ideas from years past, and who don't complain when we ask them to 'power down' because we don't get the tech.  That's when the wise advice from Rob Evans begins to fade into the background and my ire creeps into the foreground.  Why should our students, who have the tools to fly, be forced to walk with cement boots?   Who are the real losers here?  How difficult is it to learn some small web 2.0 tool and integrate it in a meaningful way to help the students collaborate and connect so their learning can become authentic?  How long, oh, how long, must our students wait?  We are past the first decade into the 21st century.  Technology in our classrooms and pedagogy should be invisible by now, like the air we breath and the enthusiasm we exude.  Yes, I'm a zealot and I hope you will become one too.   So, almost two months after Rob Evans, and much consideration, I have returned to my previous position.  It's about the students and not our comfort zone.  If you don't know the tech, then learn it.  Get them to show you.  Become learners with them and see how much fun you'll have.  

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Going Beyond Key Words

Wordle: Effective Web SearchingLast week I asked my senior students how many of them entered a question into Google's query box.  Almost all the hands shot up.  Then I asked them how many used other search engines.  A few of them mentioned 'Ask Jeeves'.  It was clear that after four years of high school, most of my students only used Google and had not mastered search techniques beyond basic key words (which would have been an improvement over framing the query as a question).

Learning how to find relevant information and developing the ability to evaluate the credibility of the sources are perhaps the two important skills that our students need. This is basic information literacy and it needs to be taught and reinforced by all educators; not just in one class and by one teacher.  That said, it would still be an improvement if it were taught at all.  My worry is that teachers assume their students know how to search for relevant information.  It seems that many have not yet learned this important literacy.

I am offering this easy reference sheet for teachers who don't have the time to learn all the cool tips and tricks for efficient web searching.  This is a Google document that anyone can edit.  I am certain that many people will have lots of great ideas to add to this open document.  Click here to read what I have begun, add your contribution or simply share it with a colleague.  Send it around and let's see what we can build.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Thinking About Plato

Plato taught that 'evil' was the lack of knowledge of the 'good'. I love to ask my students this question:
"If we KNOW that smoking kills (fumer tue), why do we persist, even until death?"
Sent from my iPhone

Luci learning web surfing skills


Here is one of my favourite pictures of my mother, Luci.  I use her as an example when I talk to my students about being a life-long, autonomous learner.  Luci has the tenacity of a pitt bull and will spend HOURS trying to find the answer to a question before asking me for help.  She gets excited about what she learns and is always ready for more.  The laptop was her Christmas gift for 2010.  Yesterday she learned how to text on her (very outdated) LG cell phone.  She is always willing to be my guinea pig when I need to test run something.  Last year she skyped into one of my classes and my students asked her about her new laptop adventures.  Luci rocks!

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Philosophy for Teens Goes Public

For the past three years, I have had the immense good fortune to indulge in my heart's desire - and be paid for it!  The Philosophy for Teens course was launched in 2008 as a trial options course at my school.  The initial registration of only eight students quickly rose to eighteen enabling me to run the course.  (As a private high school, our students benefit from our very small class sizes - 21 students!) The first year was intense and oh so very satisfying.  We created memories and bonds that many alumni still talk about.  After this initial experience, I wondered if a repeat performance would be possible with the next group in 2009.  I felt like a woman about to birth her second child.  How can any love match what we feel for the first child?  (Actually, I have only one child so I'm really imagining on this score!)
Read the footnote to learn about the story of the red rucksack

That following year's cohort was simply amazing!  They were eager, funny, insecure at first, bold and daring afterwards and they loved to challenge me!  They took immense pride in presenting their work and their projects provoked misty eyes and standing ovations by the class.  Many of the conversations in class continued beyond the bricks of mortar of the school as they blogged, used the class wiki and followed one another (and me) on Twitter.  Some of them even skyped into the class from a vacation spot in Florida!

Last year's class was also very special in their own way.  They were willing guinea pigs and tried out new ways to communicate, collaborate and produce work together.  My most special moment is the debate they prepared using Diigo and Google docs.

Towards the end of the course, I asked them how they felt about going public.  I told them about David Truss' surprise when he realized the global traffic that their grade 8 science wiki was getting.  I expressed my desire to share our wiki with the world as well as some of my concerns.  They looked back at me with that 'look' that only a teenager can master; "What's the big deal? Whatever."  To them, it was a non issue and so I decided that I would offer this wiki to the world.

To say that I am proud of my students is an understatement.  I showcase their work from other social science courses here but this is my special offering today: Philosophy for Teens.  This is the wiki that houses our work.  This is our living book.  I think of it as a cake with layers, each one revealing the flavour of our conversations and work from that particular year.  Unfortunately, some of their wonderful words are hidden because only the last year's students gave permission.  The students from 2008 and 2009 are alumni and it would be time consuming to track them down.

I hope that this wiki is useful for teachers and encourage them to ask the big questions with their students.  I especially hope that some teenagers will find this wiki interesting and might want to join it.  One thing is certain; the students who take this course beginning in January of 2012 will give another flavour to this living book that we are writing together.

* One day I sauntered into class sporting my red rucksack.  I ignored their stares and began to speak about beliefs, how they are formed, why they are so hard to change, how some limiting and others liberating.  For maximum drama, I slowly removed the rucksack, untied the strings and began to examine its "contents"; objects that symbolized our most cherished beliefs about ourself and the world.  I had no idea how powerful that lesson was for them.  (They still talk about the red rucksack!)  That is why we adopted the red rucksack as the symbol for homepage of this wiki.)