Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Do we treat academic mistakes differently from behavioural failures?

Recently I came across a Tweet that caught my attention, stating that we treat academic mistakes differently from behavioural issues? My initial reaction was to question the premise and refute its credibility outrightly. None of us educators want to think that we aren't being equitable in the classroom and not treating every student the same. But the reality is often disconnected from what we preach. We call ourselves student-centred in our pedagogy, but are we sudent-centred when it comes to discipline? The next Tweet I read outlined examples of inequity in how we treat mistakes in the classroom. I was hit with the reality that exists in many classrooms and schools across the country. 

I don't know about you, but has this been your experience? We go to great lengths to ensure students have second chances to relearn learning outcomes, fix mistakes, and retake tests or exams. All which are the right thing to do for students. We will reteach a concept until the students get it, but how different the story is when it comes to negative behaviour from students. We often assume that when a student misbehaves, they are willful and deliberate in their lack of respect for us. Students are then removed from the learning environment with little hope of being given an opportunity to relearn the expected behaviour; even though studies show how long it takes for students to unlearn and relearn attitudes. I love the quote by John Maxwell, who said "once our minds are 'tattooed' with negative thinking, our chances for long-term success diminish.  

It's so easy to forget about where many of these kids are coming from. Sadly, so many of the students with behavioural challenges come from broken homes, neglected home lives, uncommunicative parents, stressed out and even depressed personal battles. And all we can do is look past their hurts and fears to see the anger, defiance, and bad attitudes. It's so easy to pass judgment on these students when we have no idea what they are going through. I realize not everyone is like this, but it happens enough times to tell me we have a problem that we need to address and fix. I see students sent out of the classrooms to sit in the school hallways  too many times to think that these are isolated incidents.  

I was speaking to an elementary administrator recently, who recounted arguing with a teacher who wanted a student suspended because they were being defiant and refused to get their homework done and turned in on time. The principal was arguing that the teacher needed to take into consideration what the student was going through. He had recently been removed from his home because his parents were going through some marital issues, and he was living with a non-relative without any idea when he would be able to return home. And somehow his homework was the most important thing that mattered.

We have a dual mission as educators: 1) to teach these students the curricular outcomes, and 2) to guide and inform them in the virtues of life that form their character as the future citizens. That means we cannot be so detached in our role as teacher to only be concerned with teaching the curriculum. Yes, it's important, but how do you teach a child whose life is a mess when the last thing they want to do or can do is think about learning.

We need to think about whether we treat academic mistakes differently from behavioural failures? I think we do, but what do you think?  Maybe the better question is, "Would I want to be a student in my own classroom?"

Sunday, April 10, 2016

I Have my Opinions, But I'm Still Very Open-Minded!

I've never been one to shy away from controversy.  Some might say that I can be quite opinionated. I would have to agree. I do hold some strong opinions about things. Lately, though, I find that I am less willing to share my opinions because I'm so tired of the intolerance. I may be opinionated but I am very tolerant of others opinions as well. In fact, I want to hear others express their ideas and opinions, because I believe that helps me learn as well. Many of the opinions I have held have been tweaked and modified because someone else made a good point that I hadn't taken into consideration.

While I'm opinionated, I have also noticed people being intimidated by another person with an opinion. That's the last thing I want people to feel around me. I want to hear what they have to say. Then there are those people who use their strongly worded opinions as a form of intimidation to keep people quiet and not oppose them. They use words like "That's stupid or crazy," because it shuts people up. This tactic is simply a means to shut down any further dialogue and indicate they are not interested in hearing another perspective. 

Maybe it's because of my college days studying philosophy cross-legged on the floor in a circle in the professor's office that I learned the value of debating ideas, asking the right questions, and utilizing the Socratic method.

We were taught that the Socratic method was one of the oldest teaching tactics for fostering critical thinking. Using the Socratic method we focus on giving students questions, not answers. We inquire and probe a subject with questions. As a result, we explore elements of reasoning in a disciplined and self-assessing way that heightens learning. Yet, recently, I saw this quote sourced from John Hattie on Twitter that said "Some teachers ask between 200-300 questions a day. Most students ask 2 questions a day."  I don't know about you, but there's something critically wrong with this picture. If students are engaged in the learning process, they will ask the questions. Our role as teachers is to engage in such a way that students are drawn into dialogue and discourse that causes them to dig deeper for their own understanding. So why doesn't that happen.

In a recent Gallup Poll, a couple of things were highlighted regarding engagement levels in schools:

Student engagement in school drops precipitously from fifth grade through 12th grade. About three quarters of elementary school kids (76%) are engaged in school, while only 44% of high school kids are engaged. The longer students stay in school, the less engaged they become. If we were doing this right, the trend would be going in the opposite direction.

About seven in 10 K-12 teachers are not engaged in their work (69%). And teachers are dead last among all professions Gallup studied in saying their opinions count at work and their supervisors create an open and trusting environment. We also found that teacher engagement is the most important driver of student engagement. We'll never improve student engagement until we boost teachers' workplace engagement first.

This falls completely in line with the quote from Ken Robinson, who said, " There is no system in the world or any school in the country that is better than its teachers. Teachers are the lifeblood of the success of the schools." While as a teacher and administrator, I wholeheartedly agree. However, there is some onus on teachers to first and foremost possess a positive outlook about students. Sadly, that's not always the case.  I have worked in some extremely challenging school environments where teacher opinion or ideas was never listened to or considered. Yet, despite the difficult and hostile work environment, it was my love for students and their learning that kept me coming back day after day because I wanted to instill hope in the kids' lives. I didn't get into teaching for the paycheque or for a job. No. I became a teacher because it was my mission in life to give to students what I never received going to school. I had some horrible experiences as a student in school. I could hardly wait to get out of school. What awaited me in college clearly demonstrated how unprepared I was by high school. 

Today, I love learning, and I am learning something new everyday I go to school to teach. I look around me and see families suffering from the loss of employment in this present economy, and I am grateful to be employed. I don't take it for granted. I don't worry too much about work conditions and how alone I feel in my role sometimes. It's not easy to lead, but I hope that I am modelling a hope and a care that I have for students, their learning, and their future. As teachers, sometimes we have to be extremely selfless and humble We make mistakes and fail miserably at times, but that's how we learn. So, yes, teachers are the lifeblood of a school, but they need to possess the ability to breathe that life into their students. Sometimes that means we need to change the way we are doing things, or have done for 20 years. Inherent in the word, "change" is the idea to transform, adjust, adapt, amend, modify, revise, or refine. We don't change for the sake of change or just to be different, but to improve something. That means we need to be open-minded despite our opinions and beliefs and consider the possibilities of improvement. So I've come full circle to where I started. Teachers have lots of opinions, and I love to hear what they have to say, but what I take exception to is; "That won't work," or "That's a stupid or crazy idea," or "I hate change." All which I have heard in the recent years. When educators discount any other thought or opinion in other adults immediately without any discourse, I have to ask, "is that how students feel in the classroom?" Discounted and dismissed? 

How many times do students feel that way with me? I hope they don't, but I know I have messed up lots of times over the years. I still make mistakes. But I'm all about the growth mindset for myself and my students. And most importantly, I hope that students are engaged and learning in my classroom. 

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Lavish, Magnanimous, Munificent, Ungrudging Giving of Time and Money called Generosity

Generosity is something we all need in our lives. It's a natural progression of kindness and caring for one other. Our acts of kindness activity at the school this past month really took off. The students received a footprint that they put up on the wall, leaving a trail of kindness. 

To build on this enthusiasm, we are extending the acts of kindness for another month and adding acts of generosity. It's important to note that generosity isn't only about giving money or making a donation of some form, but it also includes acts of service and giving of our time. So we are encouraging the students to practice their generosity  and collect a hand print, which they will put their name on and the generous action they performed. Each classroom will have different colored hands and as they collect the hand prints, they will place them on a wall in the gymnasium in the shape of a Christmas Tree. When the parents arrive for the Christmas concert later in December they will see the visual of the Christmas tree made from all the generous acts of the students. This is just one activity that we will do to promote the virtue of generosity within the school.

Here a few practicing generosity ideas for home or the classroom

Give Away the Extras

At our home, we have had a longstanding practice that every time you bought a new piece of clothing, you gave something away from your closet. Otherwise, we found that we just began to accumulate too much stuff. So here's a game you can play with your kids,  “What do we have extra that we could share?” Go through your stuff at home and if you haven't worn it or used it in a year or even in 6 months, give it away to a local charity.

Some examples include:

  • Food – take some food to the Food Bank,
  • Clothing – pack up clothes that have been outgrown or not being worn, and give them to a charity or needy family,
  • Blankets and other household items – many inner-city ministries make home starter kits for those in need,
  • Toys – many organizations collect toys for underprivileged children.
Acts of Service

It's important to note that generosity isn't only about giving gifts, or money, it is also about giving your time. So it's important to think of different ways in which we can help someone out with our acts of service. Make a gift for someone – a card, cookies or a care package – and pay them a visit.

Have the kids make something for someone else. Ask yourself, "is there someone who needs to be encouraged by a gift or a visit from us?” Maybe it will be creating a card for a relative, baking cookies for the homeless, making a care package for someone in need, or spending time with a widow who struggles with loneliness. 

Fun with Generosity

I think one of the things children and even adults struggle understanding is what it means to be generous. Generous is defined as showing a readiness to give more of something, as money or time, than is strictly necessary or expected. The word comes from the Latin, Generosus, which means to be magnanimous or lavish kindness on others. So to illustrate this, have the kids make ice cream sundaes or decorate monster cookies for other members of the family, being generous with the toppings.

Each family member makes a sundae for someone else in the family. Put out ice cream and a variety of toppings, and allow your children to be generous in making sundaes for other family members. You can also do this with “monster cookies,” which are oatmeal cookies filled with numerous additions like nuts, chocolate chips, sprinkles, etc. Family members can make monster cookies for designated family members, decorating each other's cookies generously. 

When it's all said and done, talk about it with the kids and ask them to explain how being generous with the toppings can translate into being generous in everyday living.

Habits of Sharing

During meals and while you are visiting with others, model how to share treats and be specific about encouraging your children to share.

Some fun ideas include:

Sharing your dessert with your spouse or children and say something like, “This ________ is so much sweeter because I shared it with you.”

A family tradition you could start is that when treats, desserts, etc. are given out, whoever divides the treat allows the other to choose which part of the treat they would like. For example, one child breaks the chocolate bar in half, then lets the other choose which half they would like.

Demonstrate sharing without being asked. Provide extra treats for your children to take when going on outings with friends so they can practice sharing and being generous.

While driving, use these questions for conversation starters:
  • How do you feel when someone else has a treat and you don’t?
  • How do you feel when someone is playing with a neat toy and does not share it?
  • How does it make you feel when someone shares a special treat with you?
  • How about when someone gives you first choice of which toy to play with?
These are just a few ideas about teaching generosity to our children.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Time to Practice...No...Live Out Our Kindness

It doesn't matter where you go, there’s always a bully, that’s not to excuse it, but state the facts. The idea of bullying is not a new concept. We've all had our own experiences with bullying. I’m sure if we sat down and had a chat about our childhoods, we would have stories to share about being picked on in school. School was a difficult experience for me because I was by nature a very gentle and kind individual.  It didn’t help that I was a red-haired, freckled face boy growing up. I’m not sure why people naturally gravitate towards targeting the gingers. But they do! Then add to that my teeth were a mess. I broke my jaw when I was 4 yrs. old,  and my teeth came in all over the place. So I had braces for five years during school. Many a school picture had me barely smiling, because I didn’t want anyone to see my teeth or later on my braces. However, I survived with a few bumps and bruises along the way.

My mother always said that if I saw somebody hurting or have a need I was the first one to offer to give them the shirt off my back if that would help. Maybe I'm too trusting or always trying to see the good in people, but I have found over the years that it is easy for people to take advantage of me because of my kind nature. I dislike seeing people hurting. I think that's why I like being a teacher so much because when I see students coming from difficult situations I want to help. I can't always fix things or make things right but I can at least show some kindness and care for the students. My hope is that with a little bit of care and compassion I can make a student’s life a little bit better. So when I hear about bullying in school it is certainly something that we want to address at the school level. But rather than focus on bullying or anti-bullying, we try to focus on the virtue of kindness. We do so because when we only point out the negative or what behavior we don't want to see it doesn’t call our students to the practice of the virtue that we want to see from them. Rather than saying to a child, “Stop bullying,” we ask the students to be kind to one another. What does a child learn when we only point out mistakes or failures or what isn't working rather asking what it is we want from them.

The flipside of this also is that if we want to see more kindness we need to model it for them as well. It's so important that we speak to our children and students in a way that builds them up and encourages them to do the right things rather than pointing out all the things that they don't do right. This doesn't necessarily come easy or naturally for us as human beings because we’re inundated with such negative messages around us, so we find it easy to criticize and put others down. So if we want our children or students to practice kindness, we as adults need to do our part as well. So Nov 13th is World Kindness Day. Let’s be kind to one another.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Connections are Essential for Student Learning

If you have time, watch the TedxTalk by Johann Hari, Everything You Think You Know About Addiction is Wrong. Johann has been researching and writing about the War on Drugs for a number of years. But during his research about drug addiction, he realized that all kinds of addiction, such as gaming, gambling, sex & pornography, internet, cell phones, and other kinds of issues had one common factor in the lives of those who were living the addiction. Each person struggling with addiction had or were experiencing a loss of connection. Many of those caught up with addiction replaced relationship for alcohol, or drugs, or gambling, etc. Johann states very clearly that what individuals struggling with addictions need most is connection to people who love them and surround them with hope. He says, “the opposite of addiction is not sobriety; the opposite of addiction is connection.” 

It has been my experience that relationship building is hard work. We are flawed, imperfect individuals trying to make something beautiful in our lives. No matter what we do with building relationships someone will mess up, make mistakes, say something they will regret along the way. But when we replace connection for something other than something living and breathing we get into trouble. Where’s the relationship in playing video games for six or seven hours a night? Or what about the youth who can’t live without their phone for five minutes? I’m worried about our next generation that would rather resort to texting or Snapchatting, than sitting down and actually talking face to face where you can engage all five senses. 

I say all this knowing full well that relationship building is a lot of work. It’s no different for us at the school. We have families, spouses, children, and friends in our lives, in which, we strive to maintain healthy relationships. So it is only natural that we extend that relationship building to our students. It’s been said that very little learning goes on where relationships have not been first established. All of us need to work on those relationships, first between staff members and then with our students. Sometimes we have to be reminded of that from time to time because we get so busy and our priorities get misaligned. We have a saying in our home, “family first.” That means we put relationship first over everything. We want our school to be the same way. We need to operate like one big family working through challenges and coming up with ways to work together in order for learning to happen. But it doesn't stop there, we need to have the relationship with parents at home too. We know we have some work to do to build stronger relationships with parents. Our hope is that this year will be a turning point that engages the home more and increasing student success.