Autonomous Professional Development | Your not cooking if you can’t write your recipes down | The Tyranny of our Circumstance | Going with the rhythm and flow | Staying Connected… with your simmering passions | Should Social Networking be Part of Learning? | Are We doing Work Today? | I need Learning Journals | Writing thoughtfully | It was a busy year | San Francisco Meditation | Teaching Students to think While They Read | I am history | | Valuing Professional Experience | Collaboration should be flexible and differentiated | Should we choke off the bandwidth for personal devices? | It’s a community | Taking Risks | Fine tuning technological integration in my classroom | | Let me teach in a library | Our Ghosts

Autonomous Professional Development

Posted on January 14, 2013 by Alan Stange

Joe Bower shared a video clip of Dylan Wiliam briefly describing why one-size-fits all professional development is foolish and why teachers need to be trusted and treated as autonomous professionals. You can see it here.

I agree that professional development within a formal organization like our education systems needs to be a blend of top down and autonomous PD. organizations have standards and goals they need to maintain; however, our organizations tend to micro manage goal setting, the process of professional learning, and the way that learning is shared. The results are often disappointing. I’ve usually found my autonomous PD more effective. I think it is telling that the most successful outcomes of district mandated PD are those that are the result of hacking the system.

Goal setting in my situation is not an independent process. My school division asks me to select two formal goals each year. The first is based on my personal evaluation using the school division’s rubric. The second goal has to relate to an annual division-wide goal adopted by the school staff. After these goals have been set, my PD plan is autonomous. I would contrast this process with the truly authentic professional development I am continually engaged in.

To teach professionally is to be engaged in near constant action research. Some take exception to my use of that term, because it is not a formal process; never-the-less, I feel it applies. I set goals, research background, network, apply my theories to my practice, evaluate, and publish my results with my network. This is the authentic professional development in my life.

I’m less clear about what we all mean by hacking the system. What is in my mind is the way in which we take a professional development process like my school’s Learning Improvement Team and use it for authentic goals identified by the group. I think this is often called, “getting off task” and we actually have a person in the group designated as time keeper and leader whose role is to discourage this from happening. Think of this as the informal outcomes of the professional development process.

I am hoping to attend the Saskatchewan IT Summit this year in Saskatoon. The agenda has not been set at this point. I am sure I will find a number of sessions that meet my generalized goal to integrate technology effectively into learning. At the moment, my anticipation is about the informal learning available when professionals gather. Ready, Fire, Aim; often the best strategy is to begin with a generalized goal, begin the process, and then narrow or shift your focus as you go along. That is why we need autonomy in our professional development.

Your not cooking if you can’t write your recipes down

Posted on January 29, 2013 by Alan Stange

This is sort of the same argument made for research. It’s as if you can’t really do research if you can’t write out your report and have other people replicate your own results. Perhaps it’s the tree falling in the forest metaphor. The tree doesn’t really fall if someone else can’t hear it collapse on the ground.

I was doing an extension lesson on symmetry with my students in fourth grade this morning. This is not really my idea it comes from the textbook. I have simply extended it in order to give students more practice time. But I don’t write up these sorts of lessons. They come to me on-the-fly sometimes first thing in the morning, and then I tried them out on the students. There’s often never an opportunity to write up a formal explanation of what I did, or what the specific outcome was.

In our school’s Learning Improvement Team meetings we are given about fifteen minutes to share these sorts of moments every two weeks. It is so critical to share and collaborate on developing effective strategies. I absolutely agree that this is a measure of our professionalism.It is such a great idea, but like so many others it fails.

This sort of collegial exchange usually happens informally and orally. So little is documented for accountability. My specific role in this professional development process is translating unscripted explanations shared by the group into jot notes conforming to the accepted terminology of instructional strategies (AKA jargon). My composition needs to fit onto an 11×8 chart. The 140 character discipline of Twitter has prepared me admirably for this task.

The Tyranny of our Circumstance

Posted on February 19, 2013 by Alan Stange

A colleague approached me at noon to vent about conditions in her child’s classroom. Never a good moment for me to negotiate. What, she wondered were my views on daily homework (I assign it rarely)? What did I think of booklets that had not been marked by the teacher? What can one say? I prevaricated quite a bit. We have our different ideas about student work flow and where or when teachers should connect with that flow. I would rather have the conversation with this unknown peer somewhere else in my school division.

Later in the day I was working with thirty-one fourth graders helping them with their Heritage Fair essays. I had 35 minutes today, so I was only able to critique a handful of the five paragraph drafts. Most students were left to their own resources. For quite a few, that was not a good thing. I’ve scheduled five hours for writing. I will have to be creative if I want to meet with each student to review their report. When I do, I will be taking time from the rest of the group.

I sympathize with my unknown colleague. My student’s exercise books and binders are full of practices that have not been checked personally. We correct together in class frequently, otherwise little will get done. I circulate during that time to assess which students are engaged with the group. The numbers of students we deal with make this approach seem necessary to me.

Whether I am doing drill and practice, or projects, the numbers of students and the time available work against us.

Going with the rhythm and flow

Posted on February 27, 2013 by Alan Stange

IMG_1087small.jpgI seem to take this sort of picture frequently. I am drawn to the image of students partnered in learning, loving a private corner in the room. We opened up the centre of the room for improv this morning. The fourth graders loved that and want to do more, but they really love the private spaces in the room. I think, like me, they crave a chance to ramp down from the clutter of networking with twenty-two other people. Perhaps I am simply projecting my own needs on them. They do gravitate to my two crash pads. Young children, they like the scuffed mats and cheap pillows even more than they like my bistro tables (two standing tables with stools).

The Walmart mats and Liquidation World pillows were such an easy fix. Stools and standing tables were too. They are part of what is working in my room this year.

I was doing my mid-year review today with my school-based administrators. I went into the meeting planning to report a fail on my goals. I was, shall we say, ambitious and perhaps unrealistic. I have not met my objective to get most of them setting personal learning goals, working independently, and following up with authentic reflection. I realized as I talked about my frustrations that these struggles should not blind me to what is working.

Maybe it is too much to ask nine year olds to work methodically through a process like goal setting and metagognition week after week (this is week 24). There is a great work flow in my room. The spaces are working, we transition smoothly from the solitude of seat work to collaboration. The room accommodates these two girls working through the complexities of a math text together while others work alone.

We are deep into the last two weeks of a disruptive inquiry. It is disruptive because it is a very large project for my fourth graders. They are noticing the absence of some of our comfortable routines. I feel the need to return to them. They miss independent writing projects and their literature circles. They miss a pace that allows for short personal activity times. The inquiry they are working on is personal and independent. There is room for individual expression, but it is overwhelming. Our year’s routine turns out to be scaled right for them. I need to remember that for my next inquiry.

Anyway, things are going well. I am happy with that today.

Staying Connected… with your simmering passions

Posted on March 24, 2013 by Alan Stange

One of the teachers who impresses me is John T. Spencer in Arizona. He got me stuck on the word “nuance” in the past year. His critical thinking on public education certainly demonstrates that. His interests are broad and those of us who follow him even casually recognize his many dimensions. He probably would question this, but I think he is a person in balance. Okay, so maybe he is in a dynamic tension, wobbling around a good deal. That is certainly the way I feel.

When I teach needs and wants, I inevitably make the point that need we always face scarcity. Pick the factor that frustrates, something is lacking. Often it is knowledge, understanding or the ability to apply them effectively. It might be organization, resources, or sufficient numbers to achieve my goal. No shortage of examples of this in my current life, some epic examples from my past. The essential factor that frustrates me is often simply time.

I cherish my partner, family, creativity, ideology, vocation, the list goes on…. These are my passions and I feel somewhat less than Alan if I cannot nurture them. Still, along with those other pesky frustrates, there is that matter of time. Nothing I do gets the time I think it deserves. I can feel inadequate about my commitment and attention to just about anything.

I cannot remember the last time I was bored, and that is a blessing I guess. There is always something I think I should be doing, including abandoning this post to spend an hour meditating as I do Yoga on the floor.

My life is a banquet and I cannot invest too much time in a single course. I am on short order moving purposefully from one task to another. Most of us recognize this and find tranquility in the dynamic tensions around us.

I suppose that is one reason I become impatient with Professional Learning Community models. No matter how earnest we are and thoughtful about their design, they disturb a necessary balance. It feels wrong for me to assign a greater priority to the acquisition of numbers concepts in fourth grade, than literacy, health, aesthetics, culture, science, kinisthetics, or simply socialization. I cannot allow myself to become that narrowly focused in my personal life.

I finished my second term with reports last week I think my fourth graders were amazingly connected to their math and writing. I know we had not connected so well with the rest of their curriculum. That disturbs me.

Should Social Networking be Part of Learning?

Posted on March 29, 2013 by Alan Stange

7small.jpgSocial networking is a contemporary form of sharing and therefore aught to be considered when my students consume, create, and publish. It makes sense to see learning as connected. Social networks help untether learning from the rather limiting traditional connections of teacher, classroom peer, and (text)book.

People generally absorb a full range of media in an unreflective, impressionistic manner. I certainly watch a movie or surf Facebook without deep reflection, or a persistent critical stance. How exhausting would that be? However, when my students use Edmodo or Posterous (RIP) I do ask them to use it intentionally and reflect critically on the process. Deconstruction can kill the love of learning, but the activity remains central to what I conceive as being educated (as opposed to what you might describe as unreflective training). Our students need to be educated in the use of social networking.

Are We doing Work Today?

Posted on June 6, 2013 by Alan Stange

As we got off the bus for our field trip to Claybank Brick Plant, perhaps the best remaining example of a brick plant that used round kilns, one girl asked me if she was going to have do do any work during the day. I said, “Sure, you’ll be doing and learning lots of things.”

She clarified her question. “No, I mean with paper and pencils.”

We were not, as it happens. I suppose it was a fair question because our previous two excursions did indeed involve some paper and pencil inquiries. We took a day long habitat hike and I created stations. The other trip was to the Saskatchewan Natural History Museum. They completed an inquiry. I suppose I should work up an inquiry as a companion to this end of year activity. Perhaps next year I can build something.

As it was, we had a great time making pies, trying to create clay sculptures, touring the plant (closed in 1989 partly due to NAFTA), and risking death and injury on a hike through the open clay pits. We talked a lot about what they were learning about rocks, minerals, and erosion. Nobody was injured, so they will be good memories.

I need Learning Journals

Posted on June 8, 2013 by Alan Stange

I don’t use bookmarks very often, particularly since the demise of Google Reader. Search engines are so useful now that one can recover sources with a brief key word search. If I could not remember the key words, it is a safe bet that I would not remember I even had a book mark on the topic.

I am using Evernote more frequently to capture ideas. I use Pinterest at times for this as well. I also drop links into Drive documents. My unit and lesson plans are sprinkled with them.

I also keep a learning journal. So old school of me. The ideas are summarized in my own words and context. I assimilate and reflect on the ideas more deeply than if I resort to cut and paste. Does this sound familiar? I suppose that explains why I believe there remains a value in students creating jot notes on paper.

I am not a dedicated journal writer. My thoughts and reflections are far more prolific on my edustange blog and places like Google+. In my career I have only created four small journals. I should have begun doing this when I began teaching in the 1980’s. in fact, I only began it after grad school.

Have I written on this before? I am not sure. I began the year with a plan to have my students keep their own learning journals. I was excited by the idea of their taking home a small collection of exercise books that were essentially a reflective portfolio on their learning this year. That did not really happen. I allowed the exercise books to become exactly that, practice books. They are filled with math problems and spelling tests. I need to rethink that for next year. I think the idea still has merit.

Writing thoughtfully

Posted on June 13, 2013 by Alan Stange

In the 3rd term my class was challenged to really worked on writing a paper that developed an idea around one incident with supporting details. Their writing was expected to develop interesting details to explain the problems and solutions they were writing about. Stories need an exploded moment with few gaps. This is a challenge to nine and ten year olds who generally produce stories that shopping list of disconnected events. The lack of clear intent is signalled by an inadequate lead or conclusion.

Predictably, I encourage prewriting with scaffolds. Largely because our school is not 1-1, I expect a draft on paper. that draft needs to show evidence of editing and revision. Then the story moves to word processing for further revision before it is considered ready to publish. When it works, as they move from planning to finished work the writing develops because they are thoughtful about each step. Ryan demonstrated that in the examples above.

It is a process that works, but other processes work too. I remind myself to leave room for different processes. I am mindful that these steps are not the only way to write. It is the way I write. I know some writers like to begin with a well developed character and then let that character lead them somewhere. I do like the transparency of prewriting, drafting, edit and revision on paper. It helps me understand my student’s writing better. That is not the way I write. I plan and write digitally from the beginning. My students would like to write that way too.

I have had some resource issues shifting my student’s writing to Drive documents. Our software is out of date and we do not have sufficient computers or iPads. The students like the method. I give them timely feedback and they respond to my comments. This is the way I would like to integrate technology into writing. I think switching to Drive will exploit the possibilities of personal devices. Drive is an excellent cross platform application (for writing anyway). Finally, Drive documents help make student writing processes more accessible to parents with the document link.

It was a busy year

Posted on July 13, 2013 by Alan Stange

This school year I underused wikispaces. Wikispaces have been a central component of my tech integration. I’ve used it as a sandbox and peer collaboration space in the past. It is the platform for my students digital portfolios. All that slipped a bit this past year. Partly, it was competition from other tech applications I used this year. In some measure, it was a growing issue of mobile compatibility.

Wikispaces do not edit or view well on the iPad tablets my school acquired this past fall. iPads and the students personal iPods don’t accommodate the widgets I have usually taught the students to embed. I will stay with the wikispace digital portfolio in the fall, but the shift to mobile platforms has created a problem I need to solve.

I wonder how mobile technology, and its incompatibilities with desktop applications is impacting other teachers.

I paid for VoiceThread this year and never used it! I have had a lot of success using VoiceThread collaboratively over the years. I accidentally paid for my subscription again this next year. In consequence, I think I need to take time to exploit it. It does seem to be compatible with the iPads we use. I just stumbled on that app as I was writing this. At first glance it does not seem as friendly as the desktop application.

I social networked with Skype, Edmodo and epals this year. I think those cross classroom collaborations enhanced the units they supported. They were not as integrated into learning as I would like. Edmodo was probably the most useful. I’ve reflected on these experiences in this space earlier in the year.

It is easy to understate the constant utility of browsers, Microsoft Word, and other tech staples. My students use so many, but Google Drive became much more important as the year progressed. Drive is where I will begin this year.

San Francisco Meditation

Posted on July 29, 2013 by Alan Stange

Last week I was in San Francisco for four days. It was a total tourist experience. We whiled the time away with three extensive walking tours: China Town, Fishermen’s Wharf, and Golden Gate Park. I have lived most of my life on the prairies in sprawling urban spaces and small villages. The high densities, well used public transport, and insane topography for vehicles impressed us both.

We walked for three days. One day I calculated we walked for 25 kilometres through a variety of neighbourhoods. Inevitably, I was drawn to the children I saw as we walked along (The street people were too depressing to meditate on). Such a variety of languages on the streets as the tourists mingled. Groups of young people, usually dressed in common t-shirts, trouped about with adults. Some were in from surrounding California communities and others were from local child care programs. I was capturing them in a brief moment in their summer life.

I wondered about the sorts of schools they went to. As you can imagine, many of them had ear buds attached to their heads. The visitors snapped pictures of their own with cameras, iPods, and tablets. I wondered if these devices followed them into their schools. I started searching for signs of schools as I walked. I found evidence of so few. On Height Street I passed a Chinese Immersion School. There was a public school in China Town. For all my walking, I did not get a sense of San Francisco’s public schools or how they might compare from one neighbourhood to the next.

I’ll be honest, my PLN is pretty weak right now. My blog rarely warrants comment (it serves me in other ways, none-the-less), and my digital footprint in general is in decline. I do not have strong connections. Yet, the people are there across the world (though particularly in North America). I do connect. My questions are answered. At times I even feel useful to others. My network is strong enough, that when I knew I was going to San Francisco, I wished I had a Twitter connection there I could talk to. I could have asked about those illusive schools I was searching for. Wouldn’t it be nice to arrive at an airport and see a message from local educators welcoming you?

Saskatchewan is not a monoculture. A NATO training base and immigration have made our classrooms a bit more eclectic. I have some sense of the schools the Chinese, British, and German children I noticed in the tourist crowds because I have had young people from those communities in my classroom. I can guess at the schools the American children go to from all that I have heard from my network.

I also know that I will be tuned now to San Francisco education simply because I have been there. I would enjoy strengthening my network in that direction. Too bad there wasn’t a short conference there last week. That would interest me more than the shops of Haight Ashbury I think. Ah well! I was there to spend time with my sweetie, and that is what really matters!

Teaching Students to think While They Read

Posted on August 12, 2013 by Alan Stange

I am working my way through Adrrienne Gear’s book, Reading Power as part of my summer PD. It is a blend of useful perspective on reading applying mostly familiar strategies to introduce, practice, and master reading skills. The intent of her program is to enhance metacognition through establishing a common language in the school about specific reading strategies. We foster an awareness about thinking through model think-alouds so students can see what it looks and sounds like before practicing each of the five powers. These powers are connecting, questioning, visualizing, inferring, and transforming. The sequence of instruction for intermediate students terminates with a reflection in the student’s journal.

I have written my thoughts on the importance of journaling earlier in this blog. Reflective journals are not something that I have used successfully. I am not convinced that I have emphasized reflection enough as a teacher. Reflection has been incidental too often. I suppose that is because teaching it is difficult for me. Math Makes Sense, the textbook we use, ends each lesson with a reflective question. I have not helped the students learn how to address these questions. A goal this year is to shift practice work to a three ring binder, and emphasize exemplars of learning and metacognition in the notebook. This notebook can be the primary document for student led conferences, along with a digital portfolio. I wish it could all be digital, but we lack the resources.

Gear’s advice on connecting, deep-thinking questions, visualizing, and inferencing will be useful. I think I can adapt it to other discipline areas this year. Her second book, Nonfiction Reading Power is also on my summer reading list. That remains to be read. Time to set all this aside and ride my bike in the August sun. My thoughts turn to school frequently as I ride, but they turn more often to other things; my life and family, and the worlds and people I create in my imagination (and try to put down in words).

I am history

Posted on August 14, 2013 by Alan Stange

I am commencing my thirtieth year with Saskatchewan public schools this year. Under different circumstances, that might mean freedom fifty-six. Reality intrudes, so I know I am in the classroom till freedom sixty-five. inevitably, I think (stress) retirement, but that is at least six highly productive years away. As an older teacher in the profession, I present the same study in contrasts as my younger colleagues: indifference, passion, self-consciousness, and the list goes on. I am not comfortable making generalizations about myself. I project different things to my colleagues. I’m influenced by my own journey as a teacher (been there, done that, bought and burned the t-shirt). I’ve burned out badly in my career, so I have learned to give more cautiously, pace myself, and always seek balance. I have led and followed, and met glory and ridicule. I have eaten crow both hot and cold, for things I’ve done or failed to do (and for colleagues too). All this plays across my face, my body language, vocabulary, and intonation. I bring a lot to the game these days, not all of it admirable or inspiring, but sometimes it is, sometimes it is.

Valuing Professional Experience

Posted on August 24, 2013 by Alan Stange

We need to respect the learning teachers gain through the years in the classroom. Accreditation in Saskatchewan recognizes a confidence in a teacher’s ability to assess student learning. Throughout my career seniors in Saskatchewan have written comprehensive final exams in required subjects. The Ministry of Education sets these exams, unless the teacher has been accredited in that subject.

I left the high school classroom in 2007. Between 1983 and 1999 I taught 30 level Social Studies/History and ELA continuously. I returned to History 30 for four years later. I have a major in social sciences and minor in English. My undergraduate experience with instruction was outstanding. I returned to the University of Regina in the mid 1990s to work on a Masters in curriculum and instruction. Any classes I took in Educational Administration seemed passionless. I certainly should have taken that as a warning.

My experience with Saskatchewan accreditation is positively historic. I can only pray that it has evolved in subsequent decades. The accreditation seminars were four days, I think. One afternoon we listened to a woman reminisce on her roll as an inspiration for a Leonard Cohen song. My only other recollection is a strong sense of cynicism after they explained how departmental grades were not registered in the system until they had been adjusted upwards along a bell curve. This was particularly important for science and Mathematics.

My father was part of the Faculty of Social Work at the University of Regina. It was a new program in the 1970s brought in to offer professional development to social workers active in the field as much as it was intended to train new people. These social workers frequently lacked necessary academic credentials. Not a problem, the faculty reviewed their life and work experience and gave them credit. My father and his colleagues did not suffer illusions that formal education constituted the only path to learning. I have deep respect for that approach. I suppose that is why, as a school-based administrator, I advocated work experience and the special credit projects.

We should not be made to feel deskilled as teachers. We have our own paths for learning and they can be shared through reflection very well. Our portfolios, curriculum and assessment plans, and administrative supervision should be validation enough for the Ministry of Education. Certainly they are a more credible source than system wide testing.

Collaboration should be flexible and differentiated

Posted on September 1, 2013 by Alan Stange

I’m a bit disappointed in myself today. I was meditating on the inservice on Friday morning. I offered an opinion to my assembled colleagues that lacked thought and contradicted my own beliefs on collaboration in the classroom. I wish desperately I could have a do over.

We were asked to respond to eight areas of concern about the process used in our learning improvement teams over the previous two years. The sharing activity involved quickly circulating around the gym and posting thoughts. We read previous group’s sticky notes and add our own. I had selected a bold black gel pen for the activity, apparently the only person without a modest blue ink. The session presenters certainly knew who made those black comments, but that is okay. I own my words.

As best as I can recall, I was responding to a concern about dealing with colleagues who were unwilling to collaborate in their assigned teams. Perhaps these teachers did not agree with the proscribed process, the goal of uniformity, or collaboration itself. Their unwillingness to cooperate makes the team dysfunctional. These sorts of reasons motivated my response. I asserted that the other team members should address this with the person, and inevitably the school based administrator should intervene. “All learning is connected!” I emphasized. The implication being, that participation and collaboration with an assigned group is not a choice. We must all, “Do the work.”

What I overlooked in my quick response were those colleagues who were having problems with the process for other reasons. Perhaps they remained confused by the process. There might be significant trust issues arising from past experience or current relationships within the team. A colleague might be at the point in their career where unfamiliar strategies are unacceptable risks. We all like to work to our strengths, and most of us believe that benefits the students more. Finally, I need to stress that collaboration does not work well for everyone.

My shared opinion really did not address this. It also included the knee-jerk response that the heavy hand of administration needed to come down on someone so collaboration could happen. That is not a very nuanced response.

I find there is a constant tension in my practice about group work. Do I assign groups or allow students to select their own partners? Mostly I assign groups randomly, or by some critical criteria. The argument is to present young people with opportunities to exchange strengths with unfamiliar people and avoid encouraging cliques or exclusion. I would still argue we should do this in our classrooms.

Part of the tension in group work is whether to require collaboration, or offer it as an option. I believe passionately that we need to see all our learning as connected to other people’s learning. This contentedness is inherent in learning, whether a teacher attempts to limit the connection to a textbook and single adult, multiplies the connection through peers, or untethers learning from the classroom. The tension for me lies in whether we should empower students to make their own choices about connections.

Put more concretely, if a student says she wants to switch groups, or prefers to do the work by herself, do I enforce compliance or accommodate? I have come to see this as a subjective decision. It is situational and requires professional judgement. Increasingly, I do allow shifts in grouping or students to opt out; just as I also allow collaborations when my plan was for individual effort.

If I transferred this practice to Learning Improvement Teams, I would advocate more flexibility in composition and a recognition that perhaps not everyone needs to be in a group. Some people, for varied reasons, will not fit. Judgments need to be made about this in conversation with the participants. In a different context, collaboration might make sense.

I know exactly why I referenced the ultimate authority of the school based administrators in my comment. That is the teacher’s lizard brain reacting to conflict. If we are not getting along, bring in the adult. We like our students to resolve problems themselves, but we intervene frequently. They rely on us to do so, and so teachers, in their turn, rely on administrators to clean things up. There are many reasons why a collaborative team might become dysfunctional. I think my comment should have emphasized that the team should be able to work out its own solutions.

Should we choke off the bandwidth for personal devices?

Posted on September 2, 2013 by Alan Stange

IMG_1030small.jpgI thought I was making progress with integrating iPods into my fourth grade room (few have phones at ten yet, but the difference is negligible), but our division guest network was overwhelmed by new users. Their solution was to switch to a web-based login much like your hotel would use.

I hope to see this activated tomorrow because my personal iPad plays a pivotal role in my work flow. As I said in the thread earlier, I do have students who bring their own devices. Apart from some obvious photo restrictions, our school policy stresses classroom teacher discretion. Most teachers remain both uncomfortable about PD activity in the classroom, and I think unconvinced of its efficacy in learning. I am aware of their distract ability, but don’t share the view.

I borrowed a policy whereby use of a device must be visible at all times. If my students are going to use their iPod, it has to be on top of their desk. They are young users, relatively compliant, they network with their devices and play games. It has been a challenge to get them to see the devices as learning tools. Virtually all of them have used them appropriately. All I have to do is confiscate a device for some appropriate period. They get it.

If we don’t find a way to bring these devices into the classroom and make them work for learning, public education’s influence in learning will decline. People will gravitate to spaces where they can exploit their connections and dismiss learning spaces that limit their connections to adults, textbooks, and immediate peers. Bandwidth is a real problem for our systems. Turning down the taps to manage the flow might seem practical, but it will ultimately disadvantage many.

It’s a community

Posted on September 20, 2013 by Alan Stange

IMG_1479small.jpgThe fourth graders and I were talking about producers and consumers in science. Our textbook (yes, I use a textbook often) reminded us of the First Nations and Metis world view that habitat communities are circles and not hierarchies. We understand ecologies to be fantastically complex and interrelated communities interdependent on both living and nonliving things. Of course we do not always act on that understanding. The hierarchy is a comfortable paradigm when you delude yourself into thinking that you are part of the indispensable, all-important 1%, and everything flows to you. I took the time to try and alter some perceptions.

We omnivore humans do not often think of ourselves as a humble part of our ecological communities. A mosquito or tick is a nuisance. A human consumed by an animal is an aberration. It is unseemly to discuss the reality that we are food for the worms. I like to end my lecture (yes, I take the stage still) by sharing pictures of dust mites. My students are horrified to find they are a habitat for many things. But that is us, part of the circle.

I have often prefaced a hierarchical question (name the topic) by confiding that I hate ranking things. What is my favourite sport? Best book? Greatest strength as a teacher? Any answer I gave would lack nuance and accuracy.

Children come first in public education. You do not have to be a parent or teacher to proclaim this fervently. Even the financial bean counters will subscribe to this tenant, as they advocate fiscal restraint and educating with economies of scale. It is not true. They do not. But then, neither does anything else I think.

I confess. If I am drowning in the stream, I hope someone jumps in and rescues me. I think I would risk myself for another human being. My cat Max (by far my favourite animal) is probably on his own I am afraid. I would be totally unmoved by a helpless willow torn violently from the bank destined to destruction on the cruel rocks. Things are not all that equal in my mind. You have to be aware about that. Which is not to say you should be complacent about your self-centred biases.

Teachers’ job actions violate the children come first paradigm. So do funding cuts. So does the industrial nature of modern public education. I am wondering if children do always need to come first. Would we set other groups with needs (like the frail elderly) on the metaphorical ice flow in order to meet the needs of children? If communities are a network of interdependent populations, then perhaps we should abandon a hierarchical perception of public education. There is something of fantastic complexity going on here in education. I am not sure I really understand what constitutes a healthy educational community after all these years. Somehow, the word “balance” appears in the answer.

Taking Risks

Posted on September 29, 2013 by Alan Stange

Friday a colleague and I took fifty fourth graders on a three-hour tramp along the Trans Canada Trail where it skirts the city. It was quite an adventure for our students. Although the reality is, they were never more than one hundred yards from a road. It is accessible to us and makes a point I think needs emphasizing when you are talking habitat with students: humans are embedded in virtually every habitat on earth. The world’s habitats are responding to our ubiquitous presence. It was a risk to take so many of them out of the school. But it was not much of a risk. We had nine parents along, each shepherding five students and helping them with their work at the stops. The school was just a cell phone away.

Falling off a cliff, twisting an ankle, getting bit by something; these are not the risks I was thinking about. It did occur to my colleague and I that we had neglected to bring a first aid kit. I need a better checklist next time. Perhaps you would think it silly, but what really bothered me as I let this long string of children along our well-marked trail was how little I knew about the plants and animals we looked at. I’m not a science teacher. I’m more comfortable tramping around a book or poem with these kids, or discussing global education with juniors and seniors. I kept telling myself someone else should be leading this walk, and I kept apologizing for the uninspired activities I had developed. Part of me felt I had wasted the learning opportunity.

I was imagining every conceivable science experiment we might have done along the way: community counts, pond studies, orienteering, lectures, etc. I dreamed of superannuated science teachers strategically stationed along the way ready to explain everything I could not. I saw QR codes on posts everywhere linking my students to references and Google Doc surveys. I guess I would need to create some hot spots for that. All they had was a hapless high school English/SSt teacher as a guide. Yet, I know I am the one who got them out there, unprepared as I was. I remind myself that it was worth it to them.

Before I went home, I took the time to pull all 870 pictures off of the ten digital cameras we took along on the hike. They took some amazing pictures. I think the pictures show how aware they were of their surroundings. Their journaling was sketchy at best, their concept of habitat, communities, and populations poorly expressed (not much more than third graders at this point). They had an experience they can come back to throughout the year. Each of them hopefully has something they can connect with as we finish the science and social studies unit this month. I remind myself that this time it was fine not to have all the answers ready. They just needed someone who knew the trail. They shared what they knew along the way and brought their questions home. It was a great field trip again.

Fine tuning technological integration in my classroom

Posted on October 8, 2013 by Alan Stange

I’m wondering how to evaluate my technology components this year so far. It’s hard to decide whether things are going well, or whether there are insurmountable problems to deal with that will force me to change the direction in which I’m taking some of my activities. I have three projects going on right now. First there is edmodo connecting with classrooms across North America and hopefully around the world. There is switching my writing workflow to Google Drive. Finally there is my effort to include personal devices in the classroom.

I’m watching bringing personal devices into the classroom very carefully. Increasingly students are bringing their iPods to my class and using them both for classwork and personal social networking. iPods have been disruptive in my class. Perhaps no more so than coloring, playing with plasticine, or reading a book. There are always distractors in the classroom, if they are nothing more than going to the bathroom or talking amongst themselves. There is always the question of equity in the classroom as well. Not all of my students bring iPods. This is not always simply a parental choice. My students cannot all afford iPods. I’ve spoken of this before. However, I do see many positive results from allowing the students to bring their iPods to class. Our edmodo project with classrooms around the world has been a catalyst for using iPods for learning. Between the iPad lab and the iPods students bring to class my students associate edmodo with Apple applications.

I’m having mixed feelings about switching from Microsoft Word to Google Docs for my writing. The students have taken to Google Docs quite well. The problem with Google docs in our school seems to be bandwidth and the laptops that our school has brought in this year to replace the computer lab. The laptops of not been as friendly as we hope they would be. Students have trouble logging onto Google and their pages freeze or they lose connection. I’m going to stick with it and hopefully we can work the bugs out. I want to include Google Docs in my writing flow because it has been working very well from a creative standpoint. Students are getting quick feedback and that is what it is most important.

Someone tweeted about pushing the envelope with technology in the classroom and I replied that I didn’t think that my pushing the envelope had not resulted in pushback. It seems that things were going fairly smoothly. I guess the truth is that my innovations or adaptations in the classroom have indeed pushed the technological resources of my School division more than I thought that they would. Like the social impact of allowing BYOD in my classroom I need to adjust the workflow to allow for the limitations of our situation here. Technology learning has evolved very rapidly. I think in the next few years, before my retirement, I am going to see even more exciting changes.

Let me teach in a library

Posted on October 20, 2013 by Alan Stange

We discuss “getting rid” of traditional spaces like desks, when we should be discussing when and where desks, or any type of furniture, are appropriate. I had tables, and now I am back to desks. The change was not my choice. I liked the tables because they unleashed my student’s from static learning space. They did not own the table spot. It was not their territory.

The tables took up far too much space. Some students were uncomfortable without the personal space they needed. People do have habits. Think of your place at the dinner table for example. There is security in personal territory.

My fourth grade students have a half locker, a drawer, a spot to hang their coats and bags, and a shared shelf. They also have space in their flat topped desks. They do have territory. Using tables would not eliminate that.

Apart the questionable ergonomics of traditional school desk design, I do not think the furniture is as critical as the way it is organized and used in our classrooms. My flat topped desks are flexible. We default into a rectangle and reconfigure regularly into groups (even rows). I have 24 desks and 21 students at the moment, so there is movement off “home base”. Students shift to our two study carols or to the pair of standing tables in the room. Ideally, the room would accommodate at least one conference table. There is no space. Our wing winks at the fire marshal’s directives and keeps three tables in the hallway.

My ideal classroom would have quiet areas for personal learning, common areas for discussion, sensible acoustics and a sensitive color pallet. It would have WiFi for personal devices and learning resources readily at hand. My ideal classroom is a library with a science lab/art room on one side.

Our Ghosts

Posted on December 2, 2013 by Alan Stange

My mother-in-law approaches ninety. I’ve seen her in the context of the last thirty-five years. Throughout those years she has been a widow stubbornly maintaining her presence on the family farm, and later, a grandmother living in Swift Current, Saskatchewan. My wife and I have embarked on a project to convey something of her life to her grandchildren. We have begun with her oldest photo albums. I want to move on to incorporate some of her personal narrative and (give me strength) some representation of her appallingly awful poetry. I forgive her that. I too have an overwhelming passion to write. I will self publish a few copies of the result.

She was a farm girl who loved the land and liked the lifestyle in principle, but not much in practice. I have listened to her story with half an ear, more absorbed in the trials of her present. The pictures in her albums are so illuminating. What a precious technology photography is. She went to Normal School in the 1940s and taught briefly until her marriage. She told me about the frustrations. Her pictures convey some of it. One picture shows a tiny isolated clap board teacherage she utterly hated. Others document the series of one room school houses. She taught for less than seven years. As was expected, she quit to raise her family. My grandmother returned to the classroom after raising my mother and uncles. My mother-in-law never did. I think she was proud to have been a teacher, but the work involved teaching multiple grades in the prairie isolation was too frustrating. You have to respect the women who did it.

She has many pictures of her classes. Not so many years teaching, such small groups, yet together they made a crowd. What happened to them all? Do any of them retain memories of the slender bookish woman who taught them briefly? I wonder about the host of students I have taught these last three decades. I have been turning my mind to them more lately. At one time I could have laid my hand on each of their names. I let that go some time ago. The lists went up in smoke. They only matter to me. I have a much larger collection on pictures documenting my years teaching. Even better than my mother-in-law’s pictures, my pictures capture so many fascinating people. I hope they found me as fascinating.