There is no box

Posted on February 11, 2015 by Alan Stange

“How can we foster imagination in the classroom? Why is it important for kids to be able to use their imagination?” This was posed by Amanda Brace for Week #2 of the #saskedchat blogging challenge.

We need to teach creative strategies. Creativity is innate. It expresses itself in my classroom all the time through art and play, however, some struggle. I have sometimes been described as creative, yet rarely think of myself that way. I always use strategies, tools and models I have learned through others or independently. I think we are better able to synthesize and repurpose as opposed to create new. For example, we don’t create Minecraft, we use it to express something uniquely ours. Most students don’t independently discover collage, they are exposed to it, and then make it their own. As teachers, we need to introduce possibilities in student’s minds. Mostly, they will run with them.

I devote a quarter of my available space to making – mostly you would describe it as an arts and craft centre. Students use the materials for free play as well as trying curriculum related challenges. Every classroom from k-12 should have such a space permanently established in the room.

“If, as it seems, leaders wants schools to be “business like” then let’s create them to be like future businesses not past factories.”

That is the most positive spin I’ve heard on the business model of learning. I still find myself unreconciled to the concentration of young people into confined spaces with a poverty of resources for interminable hours each day. These conditions constrain imaginative expression.

I watched my class during indoor recess a few days ago. That, and my weekly Genius Hour period illustrate the problem. Solitary drawing and writing fit neatly into the room, as did groups of several crafters over at the Maker’s Space. Three dancers occupied the open space in the middle, but they were interfered with by the group of boys playing a pickup game of floor hockey they had invented. Their imaginative game had nowhere to go without disrupting others. Schools lend themselves to solitary, unobtrusive forays into imagination. Schools hate physical movement.

The Internet, and our learning networks are not the only source of creative teaching strategies. Our Saskatchewan curriculum, and the many textbook programs that support it, suggest opportunities for creativity. As we plan our units, we have to stop shying away from poster making, cartooning, model building, experimenting, role playing, and all the other time consuming or messy activities. Too often, we take the controlled path of GRR or workbooks.

This month we are trying the Canadian Heritage Fair. I provide a detailed scaffold for my students to follow. Students in fifth grade have not internalized inquiry processes yet. Very quickly, they use my scaffold as a springboard for their own solutions. The structure of an essay is followed by greater freedom to express their learning in a presentation. It is always fascinating to see how far some students take their projects when we have a fair in March.

Young people will use their imaginations. They need to know we not only value creativity and innovation when it occurs, we expect it as a matter of course in learning. What was it I read recently on Twitter? “We don’t need to think outside the box. We need to realize there is no box.” Learning in our classrooms should be untethered in every way.

Burning Out

Posted on February 16, 2015 by Alan Stange

“Introducing merit-based pay for extra hours and exceptional work, as well as allowing teachers more flexibility and creativity within the curriculum, and cutting back on work that is not teaching-related would do much to reduce teacher burnout, says Bradley.”

Overwhelmed Canadian Teachers Quitting in Droves
By Justina Reichel, Epoch Times Staff
Created: February 19, 2013
Last Updated: February 20, 2013

Put this way, pay for extra curricular hours of additional supervision makes sense. My district provides that, though the return is inconsequential. I supervise 18 hours of lunch, covering six classrooms, about 150 students, and earn a day off… Which I have to prepare for. Most people think of merit pay as measured by test score results. I cannot accept that. Too many factors outside of a classroom teacher’s control affect progress. How about a bonus above grid for each designated student in a teacher’s classroom?

I am working through my 31st year in Saskatchewan school systems (It’s all about pension contributions.). Of course, I have taught longer. I stood before my first classroom the Fall of 1980 in Kagoro, Kaduna State, Nigeria. I think I will superannuate June 2019 (four more years). There are already moments, mornings, days when I could just leave. I have felt all of the concerns expressed in this article.

I left at 55, with 32 years of teaching high school, the last 6 with horrific, inhumane workloads.
— Former teacher Debra Barry

In response to a recent Montreal Gazette article on teacher workload and high resignation rates, former teacher Debra Barry noted in a letter to the editor that it is not just new, young teachers who are quitting.

“I left at 55, with 32 years of teaching high school, the last 6 with horrific, inhumane workloads. I taught 14 groups of students, 400 teenagers, twice a week in what felt like a factory assembly line. As a teacher who ran multiple student activities and sports teams over the years, I was exhausted. The success of my students sat squarely on my shoulders with little or no support from a board obsessed with the budget over students’ needs, and an administration with so much paperwork they never came out of their offices.

“Many of my colleagues are leaving for the same reasons, most before full pension. I am so glad I got out, but my daughter, after three years of teaching, is exhausted by her workload of four different elementary school levels, many special-needs children not properly supported, and hours of unpaid and unrecognized preparation time.”

Like Debra Barry, I have a son in his first decade of teaching. I am ambivalent about that. When you know something institutional, like public education, intimately, it can sometimes seem like a crock of shit. Politics, religion, parenting, all economic endeavour can be viewed with frustration.

I have not always been a good teacher. Moments, hours, days, probably years found me not at my best. I am trying to be as self aware as I can these final years. Take a moment to watch A Scene From The Browning Version (1951) – The Crock Apologizes. This is from an old movie, and older play, that had quite an impact on me as a young teacher. I have composed my own speech just like it many times. I really don’t want to need to give it.

Everyone involved in public education has competing interests and mistaken beliefs. That is why it will inevitably seem like a mess to us. I think I can handle that for several more years. Cynicism and discouragement have not overwhelmed me yet. It helps that I have finally learned not to sweat the small stuff and as they saying goes, remember, the vast majority of it is small stuff.

A Secret love of Chaos, thanks P.K. Dick

Posted on February 24, 2015 by Alan Stange

… I will reveal a secret to you: I like to build universes which do fall apart. I like to see them come unglued, and I like to see how the characters in the novels cope with this problem. I have a secret love of chaos. There should be more of it. Do not believe—and I am dead serious when I say this—do not assume that order and stability are always good, in a society or in a universe. The old, the ossified, must always give way to new life and the birth of new things. Before the new things can be born the old must perish. This is a dangerous realization, because it tells us that we must eventually part with much of what is familiar to us. And that hurts. But that is part of the script of life. Unless we can psychologically accommodate change, we ourselves begin to die, inwardly. What I am saying is that objects, customs, habits, and ways of life must perish so that the authentic human being can live. And it is the authentic human being who matters most, the viable, elastic organism which can bounce back, absorb, and deal with the new. (P.K. Dick)

Philip K Dick on Disneyland, reality and science fiction (1978)
By Cory Doctorow at 12:00 pm Mon,

I recall telling someone when I first began teaching that I did not intend to fall on my sword when I reached eligibility for early retirement. There was much grumbling back then about superannuated teachers monopolizing substitute teacher spots. Room must be made for young teachers in the profession, people said. As I just wrote recently, the prospect of falling on my sword is now a bit more attractive; to rest… perchance to dream…. Yes, Hamlet is talking about death. Dylan Thomas was also talking about death when he urged his aging father to not go gentle into that good night. I won’t be raging all that much as my career enters its last few laps, but I don’t plan to ossify.

I’m no anarchist. I imagine a survey of my colleagues throughout my career would characterize me as something of a company man. Order and stability are attractive qualities. My wife and I like routine and long range plans. Yet, like Phillip K. Dick, I have a secret love of chaos, or perhaps just the unpredictable. Interesting things happen in the apparent chaos of a classroom where students are given some responsibility for managing their time. My plans can come unglued for many reasons. The measure of myself as a teacher is how I deal with the moment. Dick remarks, “Unless we can psychologically accommodate change, we ourselves begin to die, inwardly.” I think that is true, and while teachers may not die in the classroom literally, we certainly become far less effective teachers.

A strong case can be made for retaining many of the practices and principles of public education. I won’t make it here. Our culture is changing around us in North America and Europe. Technology is once again transforming us, just as it did when the printing press challenged the practices of the medieval university. I relate to weary colleagues worn out by constant change, certain that we stray from good past practices. The change we face is real. We have to keep learning don’t we? It does not matter what point in our career we are. To paraphrase Dick, [it is] the authentic [teacher] who matters most, the viable, elastic organism which can bounce back, absorb, and deal with the new.

An invitation to Grow

Posted on February 25, 2015 by Alan Stange

Creating positive learning environments has so many nuances that we could explore and discuss…

Questions to start us thinking:

  • What do we mean by “learning environment”?
  • Who is responsible for the ‘positive culture’ of the learning environment?
  • How does school culture affect a learning environment?
  • How can learning environments include global learning?

Kelly Christopherson

I understand environment to represent the external world that has an impact on us. The environment consists of the physical, social, and cultural world I live within and interact with. For a young person, the physical environment of learning begins with their personal space and the classroom. It extends outward to the school, home, local community and our physical and natural world. Human interaction is part of that natural world. I am making a distinction between our culture and socializing here. A person learns their culture. This is the history, myths, values, beliefs, norms, traditions, and artifacts manifest in the curriculum and influences of home and community. Peers, family, organizations, and community provide social exchanges. These are also factors in learning. Humans do not passively react to the stimuli in their environment. We interact, and modify it, whether it be physical world, culture, or relationships.

Positive culture is a subjective term. In my classroom, the core values were reduced to respect, acceptance, and appreciation by Cayle Fiala, my intern. Perhaps I would add empathy, cooperation and learning to the list. Schools are for personal learning and the contentedness of learning in public schools demands cooperation. Achieving a positive classroom climate is the responsibility of all stakeholders in education. The teacher, by virtue of his or her resources, knowledge, and authority takes a leadership role in creating a positive culture. Each student in the school shares responsibility for exemplifying the core values. I encourage them to influence their peers as well. I think our culture should embrace and socialize young people in these values. Families in particular exert huge influence over young learners. The messages from home are critical. As young people become more independent, our popular culture’s values influence learning. We really cannot afford to absolve anyone in the global village from this responsibility.

At times it seems as if elementary schools, high schools, and post secondary institutions exist in a separate reality. They lie on continuum’s of cooperation-competition, reliance-self reliance (suggest others someone). Elementary schools push at the values of high school and post secondary through assessment for learning. Learning is less Darwinian in the elementary school classroom. Failure is less of a disaster. To me, this promotes a climate where the core values flourish. Without fear of the consequences of failure, the only valuable consequence is learning from experience, teachers and students can be risk takers. They can stop seeing solutions as lying within established boundaries. Learning can be untethered in every possible way.

One important way to untether learning is by broadening our experience of the environment (Another is reflecting on our own inner world). I have commented over the years on the ways digital technology opens doors for learning about the world. There are so many ways to link learners together these days. Part of what makes learning authentic is recognizing connections in the world around us. Technology is the quick fix for that. I advocate a studio classroom design with maker spaces, tech tools, and an acceptance of BYOD because this facilitates the core values I think promote a positive learning environment. I struggle with my training and decades of experience to move towards more democratic, student-centered, problem-based learning. I want my classroom to be inclusive and differentiated for the same reason. Sometimes, it even seems to be working.

Connecting to the Grid

Posted on March 5, 2015 by Alan Stange
What does ‘collaborative planning’ mean to you?
  • Why is working in collaborative groups important for teachers?
  • What skills are necessary to work collaboratively with others?
  • What is the difference between collegial and collaborative?
  • How can a staff develop collaborative habits?

Kelly Christopherson

I did a quick search through my posts on the topic of collaboration. I ran into a number of references. I reflected on Division directed teacher collaboration in my post Collaboration should be flexible and differentiated. It spoke to my beliefs about teacher collaboration. Most of my meditations on collaboration are directed toward student collaboration. I have always assumed I worked in a culture of collaboration. Looking back, I can only vaguely recall a handful of incidents where my request for curriculum ideas was rebuffed.

Formal collaborative planning in Prairie South Schools manifests in our Learning Improvement Teams (aka Data Teams). These are grade alike teams focused on a Division goal; currently, Reading Comprehension Strategies. Our LIT meets every two weeks essentially following this strategy:

Creating Data Teams

I am not a fan of the process, but I am a fan of the team. We are sharing and learning together. The conversation broadens my understanding and I profit from different perspectives and resources. My problems are validated by my team mates and their solutions often help me when I am at a loss. Informal collaborative planning is embedded in our culture, though not to the extent I would like. I have attempted to share my Drive Curriculum and Instruction link with colleagues. Apart from being helpful to my grade four and five classroom colleagues, I wanted them to begin contributing to it. I guess I am still waiting for a teacher with my enthusiasm for Google applications.

Learning is connected and teachers are learners. We can simplify our connections and follow limited strategies or reach out in different ways to tap into the power of diversity. I think every teacher understands that. , or perhaps they don’t. There is sometimes a disconnect between what teachers think is good for themselves and what they think is necessary for young students. For example, children need recess outside and adults do not, or children should sit on the floor during assembly while adults sit in chairs. As adults, we dislike having others define what our learning goals should be. Collaboration involves sharing goals and group norms.

The nice thing about working collaboratively with your peers is that we don’t all need to bring the same skills to the group. The point of collaboration in my mind is that we lend each other our strengths and experience. In today’s learning improvement teams someone needs to be technologically literate. Do we really need to consider skills or do we need to consider attitudes? A lot has been written. Below is one list I found in a cursory search.


I think collaboration begins with a willingness to be open about your interests and needs. There is a lot of chatter and staff rooms about frustrating challenges to learning. These need not be venting moments. They can be the moment when a collaboration begins between two teachers. Being open is critical. If a teacher is not prepared to talk to the principal or consultant about learning issues, then they are not taking advantage of a real opportunity. Collaboration requires soft skills.

Soft skills is a term often associated with a person’s “EQ” (Emotional Intelligence Quotient), the cluster of personality traits, social graces, communication, language, personal habits, friendliness, managing people, leadership, etc. that characterize relationships with other people.

Teachers develop collaborative habits through working with partners and mentors on immergent projects throughout the school year. I don’t believe that the district can create habits among teachers through professional development activities. Districts play a large role in building collaborative culture. The role of the district, through the school-based administrators and much-maligned consultants is to foster a culture of collaboration through building connections between staff, and offering opportunity. Consultants and administrators are supposed to be more in touch with the big picture then classroom teachers. A consultant should be able to to build a connection between two or more teachers were unaware of each other or the shared interest. If teachers refused to disclose their practice in an honest way to their principal, then the principal can’t take the opportunity to connect people together into teams.

Teach Like a Pirate, not so much
Posted on March 26, 2015 by Alan Stange
#saskedchat questions:
1. How do you integrate your Passions/personal side into your classroom?
2. How do you Immerse yourself into the content you are teaching?
3. Why is Rapport important with students important and how do you build on this daily?

I suppose this whole notion of teaching like a pirate hinges on romanticized archetypes like Long John Silver and Jack Sparrow. Who among us does not fancy Johnny Depp’s panache? I can imagine swaggering about the room, an edgy, fascinating creature captivating my students with my outrageous antics. Long John Silver is the better trope for educators. Jim Hawkens, bored with his mundane responsible existence, is drawn to Silver’s mystery and the promise of adventure. Long John can talk a good line to Jim, he knows how to build a relationship. Long John has a map to treasure and the map helps Jim negotiate an exotic island. Jim learns practical lessons on his journey, finds a treasure, and also struggles to find personal solutions to extreme problems. He respects the wise and practical Dr. Livesey, but Jim is not inspired by him. Morally ambiguous pirates like Silver do.

I have issues with us romanticizing pirates. The history of pirates is frankly horrendous. They terrorize for personal gain, flout morality, and either lack empathy or disregard their humanity. The real pirate in the classroom is a pretty destructive, self-centered adult. Personal gain, not learning is this adult’s goal. The sorts of management tactics applied are inspired by paradigms of power. At best, I imagine the character Fagin from Oliver Twist. A rather twisted mentor grooming children to serve and emulate him. Creepy, and dangerous. I am not pleased with the pirate metaphor for teachers.

I confess I am something of a pirate about the school. There is a little hoarding in my room. I have resources I snatched from previous schools. I recall exchanging computer monitors from colleague’s classrooms simply to achieve aesthetic uniformity. I have a great deal of trouble respecting copyright laws. I will pirate media and text ruthlessly at 8:30 in the morning to create a lesson. I acquire PDFs (and distribute them) with abandon. I confess to overlooking age restrictions on media and application accounts. I am not a perfect moral exemplar.

I have always been passionate about literature, technology, and art. These are three things I now find easy to integrate into my classroom. We spend a great deal of time talking about integrating technology into learning. For students this is an obvious approach. My blog here is an extended journey into integrating technology. There seems little point in elaborating on it and this post. There are always fellow travelers in the classroom or appreciate art. Understandably, there are other students find art pointless. I am called on to teach my students how to represent their learning in different ways, aesthetics enters into this. I’m feeling my greatest grief about integrating literacy into learning. It seems that my students are increasingly reluctant readers. I often read to my group and that affords me an opportunity to indulge my dramatic side.

I can’t immerse myself in every topic that I am asked to address in the classroom. I know I fail to inspire often. I believe passionately in the concept of a liberal education. An education that provides young people with a map, compass (moral and geographical), and the varied tools they need to explore. Where I don’t feel the passion for the subject, I try to remember to listen and respond to the passion that my students might feel for that subject. For example I have a little passion for sports, but I do know how deeply engaged my boys and girls are in very many different sports. You build relationships through being open to others. Pirates are passionate about themselves and their own needs, teachers are passionate about their students.

Equity or Equality, We Keep it Simple, but Stupid
Posted on April 2, 2015 by Alan Stange
I have hardly said it all, however; one of the first things I do before composing a new post is to search back through my previous reflections on edustange. Equity surfaces in my reflections on BYOD, assessment, and curriculum. Equity in my classroom is often accepted as a sensible response to personal needs. Students consistently expect me to respond to their needs equitably, yet significant numbers challenge me maintain equality. I think this is partly because equality is so simple to measure. Equity is entangled in subjectivity.

The terms equity and equality are sometimes used interchangeably, which can lead to confusion because while these concepts are related, there are also important distinctions between them.

Equity… involves trying to understand and give people what they need to enjoy full, healthy lives. Equality, in contrast, aims to ensure that everyone gets the same things in order to enjoy full, healthy lives. Like equity, equality aims to promote fairness and justice, but it can only work if everyone starts from the same place and needs the same things.

Distinguish between Equity and Equality
Rising to the Challenge, SGBA e-learning resource
The concept of cultural capital is important. Cultural capital refers to the valued cultural attributes that an individual might have. For example, a child from a literate background will be advantage or privileged in a school where this cultural attribute is shared. Other examples of cultural capital are being of a certain race or gender. I stress the factors such as these that I habitually overlook.

It is interesting to recall the equity flash points over the years.

Allowing selected students to use calculators in class, or multiplication charts.
Computers for students with poor motor skills (they can’t print legibly).
Offering high school students who failed a course an opportunity to redo a particular unit or outcome to fulfill the credit.
As an administrator, assigning more challenging groups to master teachers and extra preparation time to new teachers or teachers with challenging assignments.
In each case, people challenged the inequality because it was interpreted narrowly as a zero-sum situation, or a competition. Perhaps my decisions were debatable.

Equality seems the measure of fairness, but it advantages the powerful and privileged. To achieve learning equality, we have to address issues of equity.

My Current Events Problems
Posted on August 6, 2015 by Alan Stange
Integrating current events into the classroom curriculum troubles me. I am not doing it intentionally at the moment. At one time, I was passionate about current events. It was misplaced during a series of shifts in my work and I need to restore it to my classroom.

My first position in the 1980’s and 1990’s was as a middle years and high school social studies teacher. We called them division three and four back then. That was part of an interesting (failed) attempt at continuous outcome-based learning her in Saskatchewan; but I digress. I incorporated newspapers and news clips in my lessons. Students monitored topics as homework and shared their conclusions in class. At the end of the year, a parent told me she was impressed with her son’s new interest in reading the newspaper.

During these first two decades of teaching, my current events focus was on the Cold War, South Africa, and Free Trade. I spent a weekend painting a huge outline map of the world (Peter’s Projection) on the back wall of my room. It became a huge infographic complete with article summaries, graphs, charts, timelines and images. On Fridays I took a period to watch a weekly current affairs program broadcast for middle and senior grades. I do not recall the name of the program now.

I took on administration at the turn of the century. Eventually, I gave up social studies and took on other assignments. That was a mistake in retrospect. My mentor at the time cautioned me to take care of myself first, but I ignored his advice and I put myself into areas I lacked strength. Current events should have been as relevant to computer science, health, and arts education; I did not see it. Picking up the new curriculum and trying to be an effective administrator became far more important to me. I do not believe I completely neglected current events, but it was far more incidental.

Incidental is not wrong. Student concerns and interests about the world around them must be attended to. Student initiated conversations about current event may be the most effective approach. It is authentic conversation (just to toss that word into my discourse). It is not always particularly relevant to the learning outcomes. That it be relevant is important to me because learning needs real world connections.

Since 2007 I have been an elementary generalist teaching up and down between grades four and six. Student initiated conversations about current events are less sophisticated. I have not been effective either. This needs to change. I found Teaching Kids News this Thursday during the #saskedchat discussion. What other grade appropriate sources are there out there? How are you approaching current events?