Monday, June 24, 2013

Our Grads Are Better Than We Thought

On June 19, our Grade 8 students had their graduation ceremony. It was a wonderful ceremony and a great celebration afterwards. A couple of days later, we held our Sports Day and our graduates returned to participate. My job was to supervise and run the "free time" area. As each grade group rotated to their allocated event, rumors and stories began to swirl among the staff:

"Did you hear what the Grade 8s did?"

Word on the field was that the Grade 8s chose to flaunt the rules and regulations around Sports Day. Some said it was a protest because their last year of elementary school did not have clubs and teams. Others reported that they were probably upset because a request they made to the administration had been denied. I was shocked. I was dismayed. I was disappointed.

And I was wrong.

In the afternoon, the Grade 8 girls spoke to me. I can't report everything they told me, because I vowed a degree of confidentiality. However, I can share that they were horrified to learn that their intentions were totally misinterpreted. As they told me, they were not interested in competing against each other - they wanted to collaborate, to cross the finish line all together as a show of solidarity with each other. The young women I spoke to that afternoon were very sorry about the ruckus their actions unintentionally caused.

But we teachers should be the ones to apologize.

We were too quick to make assumptions about their actions, to attribute negative connotations to their decisions, that we missed the lesson that they were teaching us - it's not about earning the ribbon or the first place, but it's about the bonds of friendship and working together for a common goal. I should have listened much more attentively to our valedictorian's speech, when she said:

I remember in health class one day, Mr. R gave us four balloons.On each balloon, we were to write things that were important to us, like family, food, water ... Then he told us to try balancing all the balloons at once in the air. It was really hard! Some of us secretly helped each other when they saw one falling. That activity can teach us a lot about our future. We may need a lot of things like friends, money, love, but balancing it all isn't as easy as it seems. Never refuse a little help, because if you don't accept it when you need it, you'll be all over the place, and you'll have so much stress!

I needed their help to understand how empowering and wonderful their actions truly were. In a Roman Catholic Mass, there is a part where we admit our failings: "mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa" (my fault, my fault, my most grievous fault). In this blog post, I want to apologize, to offer a "mea culpa" for misunderstanding our graduates. Our Grade 8s showed a level of maturity that put me to shame. Our graduates are better than we thought.

Monday, June 17, 2013

What's left to learn? Life & death, actually.

It's tough for some teachers to avoid the "June Slide", when report cards are done (or nearly done) and when it's difficult to keep the restless students' attention. The beautiful weather and exhaustion following all those end-of-year tasks (graduation, moving rooms, filing OSRs, etc.) make it tempting to simply pop in a DVD for the afternoon. As I've said before, the easy way isn't always the learning-filled way. Learning doesn't end with the completion of the report cards. This week, the theme was pretty serious in my library, as we discussed the unexpected death of our school pet, Max the skinny pig.

Max was staying at my house while I was at OISE conducting one of the Tribes training sessions. When I returned late Wednesday night, my husband greeted me at the door with a worried expression. Max was behaving in an unusual manner, lying on his side outside his much-beloved sleep sack. All the vets were closed and past experience with our other skinny pigs (Wilbur, Orville, Monty, and Roger) suggested that the situation wasn't promising. We made him as comfortable as he could and within the hour of my return home, Max passed away. He was four years old, a senior for skinny pigs.

The last time I had a school pet die, it was a gradual process - Julio the veiled chameleon was unwell for a long time and it gave the students plenty of time to get adjusted to the idea of his death. Back then, the students had a chance to see Julio for themselves, ask questions, and write farewell messages to him before we took him to the vet to be euthanized. (Julio had kidney failure, a malfunctioning tongue, and anemia - all efforts to help him, including oral and anal antibiotics/medicine did not work.) Max was a lot more interactive with the students and his death was unexpected and occurred off school property. How would we approach this topic sensitively and in a way the students could grasp? After all, just the week before, a few kindergarten students had helped me bathe him, clean his cage, and play with him in the library.

Thanks to some great advice from our ECEs, we designed a session that went quite well. We read a couple of pages of a non-fiction book that was appropriate to young children on "saying goodbye to a pet", and asked the children why we might have chosen to share this book with them. Slowly, some realized the connection to Max's missing cage and the book. We answered questions, read more relevant pages from the book, used a couple of Tribes strategies (Thumbs Up/Thumbs Down to indicate our feelings, Community Circle to discuss our favourite memories of Max), and ended with looking at some photos of Max from my pet photo album. It ended on a positive note and with assurances that if they had more questions or concerns, that they could talk with me or their classroom teacher.

This class led to some emotional, deep discussions and interesting inquiries - when we explained about animal life spans, one SK girl asked about what the life spans are like for other animals. We'll be researching that in the last nine days of school. Another entire class decided to work on a "secret surprise" for me as a tribute for Max. A SK boy wants to draw a picture to give to me. I'm not happy that Max died - he was my favourite pet (and the smartest, since he's been going to school since 2009) - but I'm glad that he is remembered fondly by the students (many of whom have never had the experience of owning a pet) and that both his life and death have provided opportunities for authentic learning. Bye Max - I'l miss you.

Monday, June 10, 2013

How 23 Individuals Became a Community

The 5 Tribes from OISE Room 212, June 2013
I was away from my school for the entire week of June 3-7, 2013. I wasn't sick and I wasn't playing hooky; I had the great fortune to be at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) building facilitating a Tribes TLC training for recent University of Toronto Faculty of Education graduates and other people from around the province that signed up. I've conducted many Tribes courses, but I particularly enjoyed this 24-hour training with these people.

What made it so wonderful? It was the people. The eight modules that form the Tribes basic training are designed to help create a safe and welcoming community of learners, but as I've said before, you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink. These adults chose to give up four days of their time and voluntarily pay an additional fee so they could understand how Tribes works and how they could use it.

(I took several photos during our time together, but in the interest of respecting their privacy, I'll only share some of the shots of the art or displays we posted in the classroom.)

The agreements with our symbolic stuffed animals.
Last week's blog post touched on one of the four agreements (attentive listening) and today's blog post will focus on a different agreement - appreciations. In our sarcastic world today, it is almost counter-cultural to give a genuine appreciation to someone. Thanks-giving is a gift, one that should be accepted in the spirit it is given. We need to learn how to give and receive appreciations appropriately. When we first began giving appreciations to each other in the training, it felt artificial, but as we discussed, students (of all ages) need practices to be modeled, and having sentence starters (such as "I really liked it when ..." or "I appreciate ..." or "Thank you for ...") help make the appreciations we share become more natural over time. I saw the evolution in our own group over the short period of time we were together.  Brief, perfunctory phrases soon gave way to heartfelt, detailed tributes to individuals and groups. During certain strategies, people would choose to provide an appreciation in lieu of another type of contribution.

My two insights on appreciations after this training have been:
1) give people something to appreciate
2) there are many different ways to appreciate someone

To elaborate on the first point ... if you demonstrate to people that you care about them and their learning, even if it means going the extra mile/kilometer, 99% of people seem to notice and appreciate your efforts. The organization that supports Tribes is very firm, and rightfully so, about attending the entire training so that there are no gaps in participant knowledge. Sometimes, life gets in the way, and it helps to try your best to accommodate. You'd also be surprised at the little things that you can do that mean a lot to people. I brought in one of my costume bins from home and people were delighted to raid it for props and tools for different activities.

As for the second point ... I learn just as much from the participants as they do from me, and one of the many things this particular group has taught me is that there are a variety of ways to indicate how much you can appreciate someone. I have no clue how they managed to do this without me noticing, but the group passed around a card and wrote the most incredible and lovely things. One participant is busy creating a painting, symbolizing all the tribes/groups in our class, which she'll share with me and the other members as a way for her to show her gratitude to the team. Another graduate is working on creating the means to keep in touch, realizing that attending the session alone is not enough to sustain and as a testament to the great relations forged during the training. Appreciations can be public declarations in front of others, or private thoughts whispered to an individual in a quick moment. Thanks can be verbal, or visual, or electronic. This is my chance to give one more appreciation, to the individuals that spent a week in Room 212 at OISE and became a community. (School boards - hire these people!) Thank you, for re-energizing and inspiring me.

  • Jenn M
  • Georgette
  • Andrea
  • John
  • Daniel
  • Amy
  • Kim M
  • Natalie
  • Jocelyn
  • Julie
  • Parveen
  • Salima
  • Rochelle
  • Natasha
  • Jenn N
  • Laura
  • Kim P
  • MJ
  • Julia
  • Mary
  • Rosa
  • Eleanor
  • Elizabeth

Monday, June 3, 2013

The problem with online discourse

There are a few links you may want to reference if the first half of this blog post is to make sense.

First, there was the Toronto Star article that led to comments on Twitter.

Then, there's my gaming blog, where I embedded some tweets.

After that, there's another blog post on a different blog, in response to the embedded tweets.

The blogs definitely helped clarify what sounded on Twitter like a bit of a heated exchange. However, there's still some difficulties with relying on blog posts to dialogue ... something that became much clearer to me after today.

What was special about today? Today was the first of four days that I'll be spending at OISE (Ontario Institute for Studies in Education) at the University of Toronto, facilitating a Tribes training for recent Faculty of Education graduates. I've posted about Tribes before on this blog. Tribes is a process that creates a culture that maximizes learning and human development. The four community agreements that provide the foundation for Tribes are:

  • mutual respect
  • attentive listening
  • appreciation / no put-downs
  • the right to pass
During Module 2 in the afternoon, the group and I examined some of the aspects of attentive listening: attending, paraphrasing, reflecting feelings and non-verbal communication. Some of these aspects are nearly impossible to do when relying on text-only digital communication. Going beyond the 140 character limit in Twitter helps significantly, as does elaborating on one's opinion. For instance, there are a couple of points in the other blog that I agree with (e.g. supervising students while using Minecraft - this is what we do on There are some views he expressed where we just need to agree to disagree. However, I have no clue if he was upset by my gaming blog post or not. I couldn't hear the tone of his voice, or observe his body language. Online discourse, especially in the fast-paced, immediate response Twitterverse, doesn't seem to have time for someone to paraphrase to check for understanding (and in my opinion, retweets don't count towards paraphrasing - it's a Twitter version of the Facebook "like"). 

Jared, if you read this (and I hope it's okay if we use each other's names), I wouldn't mind touching base some time in the future (be it at the Academy of the Impossible on June 20 when the topic is Minecraft in Schools, or at the Educational Computing Organization of Ontario) so that our conversation can be full of mutual respect and attentive listening on both sides. Even if we do not persuade the other with our opinions, it will still be an opportunity to overcome the obstacles surrounding online conversations.