Extended greetings

Posted on March 8, 2006 by Alan Stange

Capturekf.JPGI was fortunate when I graduated and went to Nigeria with CUSO. There seems to be little call for this now, but it was an interesting start to my teaching career. It was a boy’s boarding school that loosely followed British educational designs. Primary education was universal and it ended with a major life-defining assessment. We were told that young people who passed well gained entrance to secondary school. Those who passed poorly had the opportunity to attend five years of Teacher’s College designed to prepare them to teach elementary school. I worked in a secondary school. It was a five year run culminating in the West African Ordinary level exams. These too were life-defining; if you passed well, you had an opportunity to attend university, if you passed poorly you could attend Advanced Teacher’s designed to prepare you to teach secondary school. One knew where teaching stood in Nigeria during the early 1980’s. But I digress from my theme.

I was posted in Central Nigeria (Kaduna State for those who care), and the multicultural mix was dominated by the Housa. I have lost virtually all of my knowledge of the language and what remains could only be conveyed phonetically in a seriously embarrassing way. I learned right from the start that greetings were very important to civility. They would go on endlessly. Anglosaxon Canadians and everyone they have assimilated over the last two hundred years know that greetings should be brief, generally automatic and unapologetically evasive. “Hi, how are you?”, “Fine”; reality is unimportant except in extreme moments of stress. No one is seriously interested in the traumatic failure of my Palm Pilot, most people simply begin shifting away from me when I whip it out of my pocket. My students, colleagues and neighbors began each conversation with a long list of questions. “How are you in the sun? How is your family? How is your job?” It goes on. Perhaps they were not so dissimilar to us. Each question would elicit a positive response. I don’t recall anyone venting about their troublesome second wife. This would go on for some time and then the matter at hand would be addressed.

Caught as I am in structural change, I find that there are a great deal of questions coming my way. This might seem tedious and distracting, but games of twenty questions are preferable to the alternatives. Communication is always preferable to silence in any community, particularly a learning community. I am not resigned to questions about what we do, I welcome the questions. They will tail off eventually and then perhaps something worse will happen: we will all start thinking we understand enough. Somewhere in the silence that follows monologues full of misunderstanding will begin.
I had to pull a youth aside after class today for a quiet word. “You’re so stupid” he had told a determined girl with a question about the day’s task: not what we like to hear, not the civility we expect. You welcome the questions and kick yourself when you realize that the silence around the room does not actually mean understanding has been achieved. Questions are good, answers need to be good too. Answers are more than civility and they are not always positive. They are meant to be genuine. So there is a great deal to tell about my school and if you want to know a little more just drop me a line. I’m fine, my family is fine thank God, my house is sound, my work is good, the cat is fine (unfortunately), the car runs well, it was a good choice… but the Palm, well there are some problems with the Palm. To begin with…

Daniel and Alan’s Excellent Adventure

Posted on March 26, 2006 by Alan Stange

Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, Or what’s a heaven for?
Andrea del Sarto Robert Browning (1812-1889)

At all times what matters is to act with a fine intent.
ObasanJoy Kogawa (1981)

cb1small.jpgExcellence, the quality or state of being outstanding and superior. The word excellence is dropped frequently in educational circles. Who would not want to be excellent? My school selected “Striving for Excellence” as a vision statement. “Striving for mediocrity” is just not on and we all have a right to live in Garrison Keeler’s LakeWobegon where all the children are above average. Funny how average is somehow not acceptable. Being average comes across as being something of a let down. The median of life’s experience seems to be set at a rather low and unsatisfying bar. You can tell I am not completely comfortable with bandying around the word excellent. There is no rush when you make par. Unless, of course, you had anticipated something well below par. In an act of typical educational redundancy I might reassure a parent that their A+ student had an excellent performance: well maybe not. I’ve known a number of A+ students who were actually not excellent performers. I have a rather strong impression that there would be confusion around the kitchen table if I indicated that my D+ student had an excellent performance. But they do don’t they? We buy into the concept of individual progress and effort. The word excellence does not really encompass what we want to say. Its comparative nature (competitive in our practice) connotations along with the terminology of its definition mislead people about what I hope is our intention when we use the word. Robert Browning said it well in Andrea del Sarto. Our goals should push us forward, though it is not likely wise to discourage young people by always keeping the goal beyond their grasp.

I passed a few hours in a Regina restaurant with my foster brother years ago. I have not been back since because after the first drink the staff rather pointedly ignored us. I choose to believe they thought my foster brother drunk and wished to discourage him from making merry. In fact he had Cerebral Palsy and it became rather noticeable when he became passionate, as he was on that occasion. His quick mind always worked faster than his tongue. I wish I could tell him I have learned more patience. On that occasion he shared his frustration with Terry Fox. Terry set the bar pretty high for the likes of my foster brother and nobody worked with more determination than he did to come to terms with his life, find acceptance and purpose. Terry Fox defines excellence for so many; at his funeral I realized my one time foster brother did too. He and I were rather different people, but I guess we would have shared a common horror of running across Canada. I’m simply not very athletic. He was running his own hard race.

I have read and taught Kagowa’s Obasan a number of times and I remain fascinated by the admonition to always act with fine intent. I have never been able to get beyond the idea that Kogawa was referring to a combination of doing your best and acting with the best of intentions. The ideas swirl around. Learning is intentional. Learning is grasping. Learning is also reaching because the thing we wish to grasp is temporarily not part of us. To borrow a cliche, learning is a journey, not a destination and the path you walk is your own. That is why I like the word striving in our vision statement. I am not comfortable with excellence. I would rather steal the milk slogan: grow always, grow all ways.

Owning Learning

Posted on August 31, 2006 by Alan Stange

So I could be the martyr and talk about how late I worked at the school today. Just the second day of classes but so much to do. While I sorted through individual student time tables and slipped in and out of classes someone unkindly filled my inbox with a week’s worth of mail and stuck ugly pink phone messages on clear space between my chair and the keyboard. My extended learning community shotgunned emails at me.

I guess there is a plan. Most students register for classes in the spring so there is little confusion when they get back. There are a few who don’t and our small school collects a few new students each year. People are on the move these days. What seems to occupy my time is sorting out the distant education classes we offer to broaden the options. A recent review of the division’s programs and services reminded me that our larger urban partners can offer from two to three times the credit choices for students in the tenth, eleventh and twelfth grade. We can deliver ten credits each grade level through direct instruction. The challenge is to establish conditions that successfully broaden the options. Students are buying into this process and this is a little uncomfortable.

We are not all that comfortable in releasing control. We have worked to shift our classroom practice away from teacher-centered activity. Even when we create student-centered activity there remains that within our practice that centers around guiding and mentoring our students; it is the responsibility. As more students are given over to the guidance of teachers in other schools we feel a bit like we have given up responsibility. Generally teachers dislike admitting they can’t do it themselves. It seems natural to step back and watch a student work through a problem on his or her own. It is harder to watch them work independently through a whole semester.

It is the nature of the direction we are leading now. They need the options and we need to broaden the team that meets their needs. I guess we need to break down the walls that contain our curriculum.

"Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?"

Posted on October 18, 2006 by Alan Stange

intern3small.jpgOnly a twenty-four year old fresh out of the College of Education with a double major in English and History would adopt such a cliche as Chaucer’s Clerk for a personal motto:And gladly wolde he lerne, and gladly teach. You need a self-defining phrase and I always thought that one was hard top. I liked the austerity of the earnest clerk and probably envied his physique: And he nas nat right fat, I undertake, But looked holwe and therto sobrely. I suppose I was a little more morose than I needed to be but I was certainly not hollow. I guess only an old English teacher would continue to share Middle English with his colleagues. Time has passed and I am a more humble person (no, really, I am!) so perhaps the the doctor’s, Do no harm, might be a better one for an educator these days.

I’m back from an administrator’s group retreat (we were in fact advancing agressively… with good cheer) and I feel a little performance anxiety. I live on the prairie so as the joke goes when my dog Lucy runs away (regularly…) I have an unubstructed view of her until she reaches the horizon (actually she is not good at straight lines… neither am I when I write). There are over eighty of us and that makes a decent crowd. This Blog was advertized (okay, I sprinkled it around too) during a technology session and naturally I had to rush back and post something new. I mean, one or two of the people at the meeting might be curious to follow the link I conveniently left on my rather crowded biography. I apologize for not answering the “amazing or unusual experience” in my life question. On reflection I decided that some things rightly belong hidden in that special pane of Joe-Harry’s Window marked things I know about myself that others don’t know. Better safe than sorry. I think these gatherings improve each time as the central team settles into a partnership with a better acquaintanceship with the diverse collection of individuals who make up our group. We are all getting to know each other better. It was time well spent and I left better prepared to tackle the next tasks on my lists. I thought I could focus on my curriculum, but the meeting reminds me of some things needing attention.

“Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” This is another favorite quote. My grade nine and tens are in production right now. Not Broadway as you can imagine; but then that misses the point doesn’t it? The performance will be delightful, it might even be good. They will feel like they shine. I know the feeling because I do community theatre. It is a strength of teachers that they are willing to take the same risks as their students. If they are not, then the students quickly understand how much you actually value the things you say you value. It would have been an elementary teacher who told me that if you expect the children to do something then you had better be prepared to do it yourself. I dislike seeing rows of children sitting on the floor for a half hour assembly while their teachers anchor the end of the row in chairs; or a group of high school students told to move away from a wall only to be replaced by their teachers. The art is not an affectation, it is not some object lesson for my students, I love to dabble in the arts. I am never bored if I have my Palm or a pencil and paper (the worst thing I do is dance, this is why you do not see me jigging around at the back of a conference room during a presentation). As long as the batteries last I laugh in the face of a mall visit with my wife and drive eagerly to the interminable hour waiting for the doctor or dentist. Give me some time and I will fill it.

Writing is my newest activity and the one I am shyest about. Some of my colleagues were curious about the sample of writing I had hid behind the clutter of my one page biography distributed at the retreat. Here it is, just to amuse you.

Vimy wakes up late on Sunday. The first Sunday pierces the young people with the inevitability of the first killing frost. By the first service the familiarity of school has dampened everyone’s enthusiasm for rising early. The lazy summer idle still lingers in young minds and the token hour in church is a violation of the weekend’s fleeting freedom.

The order of worship at St. Paul’s is the domain of the elders. Immersed in the comforting rituals the elders are oblivious to the restlessness around them. Like old poplars in an abandoned yard they are deeply rooted. The pressure to change is nothing more than a cloudburst interrupting eternal prairie. Rustling in the worn mahogany pews they exist for the moment when, freed by the ritual, they are able to draw past and present together. Their adult children are less rooted in the service than in service to their children. Like a maturing windrow they are still stubbornly trying to dig in against the wind. The mothers and fathers sit stoically enduring the service for their children’s sake. They have lined up together, braced against the aired wind that might tear away at the nurturing soil of faith around their children.

The lost hour and the dry movement of the service affect the children differently. The youngest exist in the endless euphoria of new experience. The service envelopes them as yet another familiar, and largely incomprehensible, part of the world of their parents. The sprinkling of youth around the congregation sit sullenly spent from probing the hard surface of the order of worship for some contemporary relevance. Between the excruciating agonies of ponderous nineteenth century hymns they steal furtive observations of each other as they wait release.

Communities of Purpose

Posted on October 22, 2006 by Alan Stange

I’ve been searching for interesting conversation tonight. The value (or danger) of blogging is that in time you can develop a community of purpose. Now that is likely a phrase lost to time. I enjoyed my years as an undergraduate and later my year as a graduate student. I was part of a strong intellectual community. Now when I look back at my note book (an ingenious homage to concept webbing) I realize that the conversation represented by those notes is now fourteen years old. Praxis became a personal journey and I’m afraid a largely silent one. The conversations I participated in have continued through he decades. On the infrequent occasions when I reconnect with them I notice changes; but frequently they are Symantec changes rather than substantive. We don’t so much re-conceptualize as rename our co

ncepts. How much farther have we actually gotten from Dewey? On the other hand, how much impact has Apple had on our school practice? My educational discourse shifted dramatically between the context of higher education and the staff room. There are few references besides Wong given in conversation and Wong is our god not for learning, but because we feel he gives us a handle on control. Blogging can reconnect me to a group with shared goals and a conversation that moves me closer to those goals in a language I am comfortable with.

The downside with geographically free communities of purpose is that we work within geographically bound communities of mixed purpose. Our students are overwhelmingly geographically bound communities. Shared goals and mission statements may just laminate a uniform surface over the aggregate unless time is set aside for conversation. That conversation often requires extensive translation.

So what does this mean to me in practical terms. I enjoyed discussing narrative with my students in the 1980's. We had what is generally referred to as “farmer TV” back then. It was not a hundred channel universe in a symbiotic relationship with internet/gaming/media technology. I could draw teenage-friendly analogies and examples from the common shared experience of my students (that was of course the only reason I started watching the Simpsons). Not so now. There are so many conversations and threads out there now that cultural mythology is no longer available to facilitate the essential comparisons and contrasts that bring meaning to new experience and thought. There are moments now when I flounder for a quick example. You might respond that the breadth of experience collectively available in the classroom these days enriches the learning for everyone. True; however, such conversations take time and patience. That is not always available in the finite one-hundred hour, one-hundred learning objectives course. The same is true for us as educators as we follow our unique paths built on communities of purpose.

Okay, Jumbo is not going to move…

Posted on November 14, 2006 by Alan Stange

Captureggaegaer.JPGLest you imagine that learning here exists in eternal sunlight I will lead you into the shadows for a bit. Small rural schools have their advantages and disadvantages. Sitting in the principals chair as I do I am expected to maintain a posture of sincere optimism about the capacity of our school to meet the needs of every individual. It is pretty much a given that my colleagues are encouraged to mirror this optimistic can-do approach. It is encouraged among ourselves and a given when approaching the rest of the school community. Attitude is everything is it not? It is the best approach I guess; clearly when an elephant steps on your foot you will achieve better results imagining the possibility of its shifting slightly to the left (always go left) than allowing the discouragement (and blinding pain I imagine) to overwhelm you.

I sat with a new student puzzling out the credit problems of a move clearly not based on the school year and had to admit to her that we could not match her needs or interests. Like all administrators I have a magic wand that even Harry Potter might envy. I know flexibility and the importance of exercising it for a student needing to learn along the path he or she has committed to. We hammered out a plan to rescue what she had done and make it work for the rest of the year and then I had to sit back and admit that we could not go the distance at our school. Distance education covered half of what she needed but Band and Chorus were out of luck. To my shame we have no music program and no talented directors or musicians to help her move forward on her Trumpet. That hurts big time. I could salvage a credit out of the situation if she moved forward on her own but she was essentially without an available mentor. I’ll contemplate the elephant and consider what might be done, but it rankles me that this person’s metaphoric foot is still going to be crushed before I work it out.

I stumbled across the Wisconsin State Distance Education site that actually did carry Band. I wonder how that works? There need to be so many more options and reciprocal agreements.

Dealing with attendance problems

Posted on November 19, 2006 by Alan Stange


“For the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. When he agreed with his laborers on a silver piece a day, he sent them into his vineyard.

“He went out about nine o’clock and saw others standing idle in the market place; and he said to them, ‘Go to my vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.’ And they went their way. He went out about noon and again at mid-afternoon, and did likewise. And near the end of the day he went out, and found others standing idle, and said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘Go to my vineyard, too, and whatever is right, you will receive.’

“So when evening came, the lord of the vineyards said to his steward, ‘Call the laborers and give them their wages, beginning from the last to the first.’

“And when those came who were hired near the end of the day, each one received a silver piece. So when the first came, they supposed that they would receive more; but they likewise each received a silver piece.

“When they had received it, they murmured against the man of the house, saying, ‘These last only worked an hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden and heat of the day.’ But he answered one of them, and said ‘Friend, I do you no wrong. Did you not agree with me on a silver piece? Take what is yours and go your way. I will give to the last the same as to you…. (Matthew 20)

sfsv55.JPGSaturday morning coffee sessions with Lory can get interesting. We were discussing a topic raised at my last administrator’s group meeting: students with chronic attendance problems. As with most problems the solution may be as individual as the student and his or her family’s commitment to education. Family or personal circumstance may play as large a role as personal motivation and we always need to account for this. I have never been fond of formulas or fixed consequences. Some young people are restored with a warning and restitution, others respond to their parents prodding, a few need the humiliation of a sanction from the school. The response has to be considered because one person’s punishment is another person’s reward. As far as personal motivation is concerned I think it is fair to say that the school needs to make being there at least as appealing as not being there; and by this I mean the learning needs to be appealing. All too often the central issue is actually if there is meaningful learning occurring. I have known both gifted and challenged students to be chronic attendance problems. While some may have authority issues (sounds like another topic to explore), most are discouraged by the learning process in some way. Why do I think so? Because I think people have an innate desire to learn and master the world around them. It has always been a significant challenge for teachers to motivate a group of diverse people to master a rather proscribed curriculum in an artificially designated period of time.
Lory and I were not interested in motivation… as important as it is; we were considering what the school owes these chronic absentees and we adopted a critical orientation. If they are going to miss half the classes have they earned the right to the teachers help? Is their commitment to attend regularly the first step in learning? I think the problem begins when we adopt the common premise that child’s going to school is like a job and each day’s learning is both the work they do and the pay they receive. It follows then that if they don’t come to work they don’t get paid. If they want to get the goods then they have to do the time. School is not a job for students; it is just an opportunity to learn in an economical manner. When our students find the motivation or opportunity to attend we need to be there fore them. I think we need to take this one step further and specify that we will be there for them on their terms and in response to their needs rather than our terms and according to our planner agenda. This is also a significant challenge for teachers.

When we don’t take this stance I think we systemically punish students for non attendance and inadvertently discourage their impulse to attend. We do this when we ask them to catch up, ask them to make up the time lost through detentions or extra tutorials. Another discouragement is to allow them to skip through the curriculum like a stone over water; you know, work on the day’s activity without the context of the missed learning. The day must be confusing to the student. While our inner voice may be saying “Of course its confusing guy, you have missed half the classes and the class is a mystery to you, come to class and things will start making sense”, our response aught to be let’s learn something today. The day needs to be successful, not a reminder that the task is insurmountable. I have difficulty positioning learning in any other way.

I’ll return to the parable for a moment. We are not in the salvation business, we are in learning. The coin is the symbol of salvation in the parable and I choose to see it as the symbol of what we give to our students. We pay each student in the same coin regardless of when or how often they show up. They all get what they need and not what they have earned. It is our daily effort and time. Some students complain that the truants don’t deserve the chance to catch up or should not get as good grades, but we are offering each of them the same thing: an opportunity to grow as much as they can.

Some thoughts on education

Posted on December 3, 2006 by Alan Stange

cb23small.jpgOne of the weaknesses/strengths of the internet is the difficulty a Blog reader has assessing the validity of the ideas presented on complex issues. Educators draw on the patterns established during their university education to assess the soundness of intellectual discourse. Postgraduates are even more rigorous in the measures of validity they use. Inevitably the citations supporting the ideas presented are the measure of validity. These citations need to reference sound research or at least the thoughts of the recognized educational philosophers of our day. These seem to be the measures that reassure us. Blogs and the web in general, allow for a broader and less controlled discourse for educators. Ideas are not filtered through the rigorous selection process used by educational journals. The result is likely an increase in contact with the inner ramblings of our profession; that, frankly, is what you are getting from me now. My credentials are weak, and seem to be fading quickly. Sorry about the lack of citations. I am at best an educational practitioner, so credit my ideas for what they are worth; unless of course you reflect on education in a different way. Praxis was a phrase much used when I was a graduate student. That, along with the two solitudes of Quantitative and Qualitative Research, shaped my approach to education. In the years since, the educational practitioner as action researcher has become firmly established in our practice. I am less clear about the outcome of what seemed at the time to be a titanic and not always respectful argument over the validity of Qualitative Research. I lost track of it all but I would like to think that in the interval a comfortable synthesis has emerged. This medium is a necessary tool for establishing a broader conversation on the directions and methodology of our educational practice. Given our circumstances we need to engage in a broader discussion than we currently do.

All of this is just a preamble to the following thoughts on education I came across. While I might take exception to a number of his views, much of what Stev
e Hein says below resonates with my own experience. It is, as it were, the part of the elephant my blind hands have explored

Some of my beliefs about children
  • They have a very accurate sense of injustice
  • They are good judges of character
  • Children are born empathetic, approval seeking, forgiving and cooperative. Rebellious and defiant children, like terrorists, are created not born. I don’t believe children are born “evil” or born “sinners”
  • Each child has a different set of emotional needs. Children are more different emotionally than physically.
  • They naturally want to share things with adults, and they will continue to share things openly till they are punished or hurt for sharing.
  • They will naturally tell the truth unless adults have frightened them into lying.
  • They need lots of physical touch and emotional acknowledgment and validation. Much more than they commonly get.
  • They all have a natural need to feel helpful, as well as the other natural human emotional needs which I have listed.

Some of my beliefs about teenagers
  • There is an imbalance of power between parents/teachers/police and teens. Teens have too little influence and control over their own lives. They are over controlled by parents, teachers and police.
  • Adults need to earn the respect of teenagers. Respect is not the same as fear, and it is not the same as obedience.
  • To earn their respect, adults must respect the teens’ feelings, needs, beliefs, ideas and dreams
  • The ideas, beliefs, dreams and feelings of teens are important and valuable to society. They can help guide us to a more humane world.
  • Very few people really take teens seriously.
  • Adults often think they know more about what teens need than the teens do, but they are very often mistaken.
  • Teenagers around the world are being over-socialized to adopt the same beliefs as the adults in their particular country, instead of being given exposure to other beliefs and value systems. This creates divisions in the world which lead to wars and international conflicts.

Some of my beliefs about education
  • Children have a natural need and desire to learn, to explore, to experiment, to ask questions and to discover
  • The teacher is there to meet the child’s needs, not the other way around.
  • The child’s needs, therefore, are more important than the teacher’s.
  • The teacher’s emotions affect the student’s emotions.
  • The student’s emotions affect his ability and desire to learn.
  • Many teachers, perhaps the majority, in traditional schools have significant unmet needs to feel powerful, important, respected, appreciated, valued, and in control.These unmet needs hinder their ability to help their students develop personally, emotionally and intellectually
  • The best teachers have the fewest unmet emotional needs (UEN’s). The worst teachers have the most UEN’s.
  • Teachers must earn the respect of their students. They can not demand it.
  • Respect, fear and obedience are often confused. Respect is earned, and then given voluntarily. Fear and obedience are forced.
  • Each child is unique emotionally; all children are not created equal when it comes to the emotional brain, therefore….
  • Each child must be treated individually, especially with regard to his or her feelings.
  • Individuality should be a higher goal of education than conformity.
  • Emotional invalidation is one of the worst assaults against individuality.
  • Repeated invalidation is emotional abuse, and it is common in traditional schools.
  • Education is ideally more about learning than teaching. It should not be about obedience or about creating “good citizens” of the state.
  • The highest goal of education is facilitating happiness, which comes from self-motivation, self-direction, self-discipline, self-confidence, and self-esteem.
  • Many schools are out of balance towards grades, test scores, conformity, control, obedience, rules, threats and punishments.
  • One way to reverse this trend is for parents to support alternative schools, and to encourage their children to question authority while focusing on learning.

We need to test our perceptions and conclusions about the lived experience of educating people and leading teams of educators on each other. Each of us exists in a small island community as part of an archipelago. Thought becomes insular in these situations and as time passes this becomes a threat to our purpose. It makes little sense to me to dismiss our conversations as of secondary importance, regulate them to small and established circles, or be content to engage in them at periodic times. There is no proper voice to use when talking together. We speak in different ways and this is fine. We should know and accept the limitations of our tools. To use Earle Birney’s words from his poem “For George Lamming”:

To you I can risk words about this
Mastering them you know
They are dull
Who say less and worse
Than we feel

I have needed more conversation over the years and I doubt I am unique. The problem folks is not being wrong or foolish, it is silence. Conversation is both restorative and transformative. It is education at its best. If you do not read these words, or you realize you are reading them two weeks after I have written them, there is a problem; not because you have missed something important, you have not, but you have not been part of the dialogue.

Square Pegs in Round Holes

Posted on December 11, 2006 by Alan Stange

Your roles in life have a tendency to remold your personality traits. Over time the familiarity with these role expectations will cloud your own judgement about what your essential satisfiers really are. I was busy taking a variety of inventories as way of an introduction to a software program used in high school career guidance. I’m always up for self analysis so I was curious to see how I might come out. As I did one test I found myself in confusion. Essentially I have a private, core personality type and what would best be described as
an institutional personality type. Perhaps we all do.I tested out as an INTJ: Introversion, iNtuitive, Thinking, Judging personality. I think that reflects my institutional role as an educator: Inner-directed, Imaginative, Logical, Organized. INTJs easily understand complex relationships and use these insights to organize their world in logical ways.The only surprise is that I tested out as an introvert. To teach and work with people calls for extroversion. I have known for some time that this has been a contradiction in my life. They believe in themselves and won’t be swayed easily from their viewpoints. When they go into action, they are business-like and at times impersonal. INTJs like order and can be determined in their drive to see their inner vision realized. Being visionaries, INTJs enjoy the complexities of new challenges and become bored quickly with unchanging routine. They are independent and may appear a little difficult to get to know until a deeper relationship has been established.

INTJs want their inner visions to become reality and can be determined in their pursuit of this goal. They’re good at impersonal analysis, building theoretical models to understand their observations and putting their plans into action. They enjoy intellectual people and organizations, where their gifts are.

What I am like outside the institutional context; in my mind and amidst my family seems different. I see myself as an INFP: Introversion, iNtuitive, Feeling and Perceptive personality: Inner-directed, Imaginative, Compassionate and Flexible. INFPs are creative and complex. INFPs hold harmony and friendship close to their hearts. In their own quiet way, they want their work, friends and school to reflect these values. When they focus on these values, they can be inspired for short periods of time, especially if they work by themselves. INFPs are quiet and adaptable; they won’t easily share their inner selves (or their sense of humour) with others unless they have built a trusting relationship. They will likely be bored quickly by routine jobs that don’t relate to their inner values of harmony and friendship. INFPs need to believe in their work; they need their work to reflect their values of unity and friendship. Their work often is about improving other people’s lives through their verbal skills. They work best when they have the freedom to creatively respond to the needs of the moment for short periods of time. The type of careers that honor these traits include fine arts, counseling, writing, teaching (art, music and drama), library work and entertainment.

What is the reliability of our self perceptions I wonder? I know that I recharge my batteries in solitude (or with my partner), yet here I am sharing my thoughts on a blog with whoever will discover my note in the bobbing bottle. I suspect that traits such as feelings and perceptions have not been my greatest strengths in my current role and in fact provide the strongest source of discord. Perhaps we all have moments when we only feel we are square pegs in round holes. I wonder if it is because we don’t fit, or because at some level we are disappointed in our roundness.

Appropriate Technology

Posted on March 10, 2007 by Alan Stange

watchsmall.jpgAppropriate technology is technology that is appropriate to the environmental, cultural and economic situation it is intended for. An appropriate technology, in this sense, typically requires fewer resources, which means lower cost and less impact on the environment. In practice, it is often something that might be described as using the simplest and most benign level of technology that can effectively achieve the intended purpose in a particular location. What exactly constitutes appropriate technology in any given case is a matter of debate, but generally the term is used by theorists to question high technology or excessive mechanization, human displacement, resource depletion or increased pollution associated with unchecked industrialization.(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Appropriate_technology)

I grabbed a short break in the staffroom yesterday and exchanged a few words with our principal about a suggestion that we acquire mounted projectors for each of the classrooms. This came soon after a staff discussion on replacing chalk boards with white boards. There are of course good reasons to have each of these technologies in the primary learning environment. I like both technologies. I wonder though about the appropriateness of either. Cost and environmental factors compete with intended purpose in both cases.

White boards are popular for a variety of reasons I suppose. For one thing they are likely easier for people to read and allow better color variety and for teachers like me higher precision in diagramming. One of the first complaints of chalk boards is the high level of dust associated with them. White board pens and the cleaning fluids have their own collateral waste that irritate. White boards do not actually stay white for long. The accumulated residue needs to be removed with highly flammable and pungent cleaning fluid. The fumes are so noxious that a classroom full of children will become ill if you attempt it in average ventilation. I am not sure what the environmental impact of the chalk industry is but I do know those blasted plastic pens do not last very long. In the modern classroom, reliant on photocopying as it is, I run through one piece of chalk in about two weeks. In the context of my situation decent chal
k boards exist and do not require replacement. This too is a factor.

I like the projectors and use them when I can. They are very expensive and I have to question whether one or two flat screen TV/monitors could not serve the same purpose in a classroom of 20-25 students for less cost. The life expectancy of any of these high tech educational solutions is appalling. Schools are full of technological road kill. My son has been working with the technology department in our division and commented that they had come across three fifteen-year old computers, green screens and all that had never been taken out of the box. I found two IBM ThinkPads at our school and was told that they were essentially useless because they were Windows 98. In my last posting I commented on the usefulness of a permanent AV component in the teacher’s arsenal. I would love to insert video clips and interactive diagrams into my lessons. The dream requires some reflection though.

First, how often would I use it and would I be using it appropriately? One function of the teacher in the classroom is to offer simplicity and structure to the natural complexity of our world. One quick and often highly symbolic sketch on a board usually serves the illustrative need when developing a concept with people. The complex map, chart or diagram is likely best examined through a color or grey-scale handout. The educational moments for slide shows and videos should be limited. I remember the first time I remarked to a resource room teacher that their classroom walls seemed bare. My colleague responded, “my students do not need the distraction.” Life flows by at an impressionistic pace, information in the classroom should not do this as a rule. Education is the examined life and people cannot do that if everything is a kaleidoscope of moving images and narrative quickly switching like an MTV video or the commercials between a show. There is a place for the illustrations of process and function in the classroom. There are many times when the AV approach is required, but this is as judicious a decision as any other in lesson planning.

Second, projectors (or white boards…) speak to mass modes of education: everyone on the same page. This is one desirable mode of learning. It is, despite the arguments to the contrary, an appropriate delivery method. There is a need for shared understanding and reflection in a classroom and there is also a resource factor at play in the way we do things: time, people and money. Projectors, however, center learning on this mode. Cost factors aside, basic laptops for each student would be more effective for a range of reasons. We desperately need a Model-T equivalent laptop for our students, something robust, simple and cost effective. Channel the textbook-photocopy budget into that for a change. With such a system in the students hands who needs the projector? If that is not the best solution then two or three computers in a classroom and an LCD display for the class are still a more effective use of the $3,500 that would be consumed by the ephemeral projector.

Third, the quality of video particularly coming to us from internet sources like Unitedstreaming and Youtube is not high. I have tried it and they are marginal at best when enlarged on a screen by the projector. Perhaps this may change in the future, but I question both its occurance and the value of devoting bandwidth and memory to the project. Once again, these resources deliver quite nicely on a laptop screen. On a smaller TV-sized screen the obvious imperfections are forgivable.

Appropriate technology in the classroom is such an old discussion. Sometimes computers are referred to as slates and I think that is a telling word. We used to line the students up at chalkboard to apply concepts. Now their desks and the wastebasket are choked with discarded sheets of paper. Where is the sense in that? Let’s keep the concept of appropriate technology to the forefront of our discussions and consider all the costs associated with our options.

Get in the game

Posted on June 5, 2007 by Alan Stange

IMG_0707small.jpgI could just kick myself at times. We worked through an hour of mathematics yesterday afternoon and there was about twenty minutes left before the day was done. The fifth graders were still working, but I finally sensed we needed to change the pace. I told them were would be putting the notebooks away and playing math board games. The energy level rebounded as they divided up into teams insisting on using their own crudely designed boards. They competed happily for the remainder of the period.

Why do I forget so quickly that people love a game? The boards were basic Snakes and Ladders. Some used flash cards and others had the problems built into the board. We had fun building them and then they gathered dust for a while until I remembered them. I guess they gathered dust because another thing you have to remember about people is that they get bored eventually.

Technology is cool, but there are so many interesting gaming possibilities in education. Another thing about simple board games is the students can make them easily. That is the other lesson in this. People are creative.

Education Today and Tomorrow

Posted on June 19, 2007 by Alan Stange

Swimming Lessons 070small.jpgThis is a very catchy little advertisement. Public Education needs to attend to its message, but I worry sometimes. A common observation is that generals always plan to fight the next war using the military strategies of the previous war. I sometimes wonder what archaic baggage we educators carry into planning for the learning needs of our students. Are we actually ready to make the next leap? There was a nineteenth century science fiction story about an electric (robotic) horse. I wish I could lay my hands on it. The author could conceive of electricity transforming a horse, but could not conceive of the possibility that the horse design might not be necessary. Maybe you could move without a quadruped pulling the cart. The cart might just move itself. Are we falling into the same trap in public education? Perhaps the question is not how schools can be re engineered but rather whether the school as we know it is necessary.

Before we get too excited about the brave new world of the communication revolution it might also be worth pointing out that the industrial model of production and management is really no more extinct than the public school classroom. We like to talk about the pervasiveness of change, but it the ethic and method has not changed that dramatically, nor do I suspect will it. Something to ponder.

Resources thin on the ground

Posted on October 17, 2007 by Alan Stange

Teaching in the Millennium is generally characterized by a wealth of information and instructional resources on the Internet. It is indeed an enticing source of support. I use it all the time. Always worth a search for what you need; however, my reaction is actually one of surprise. After the better part of a decade of pervasive Internet use by education and government, NGOs and individuals we still seem bogged down in Google searches for resources.

I became excited by this Canadian government Science site and went to check it out. I immediately found three things I might use with my fifth grade class. Stop to reflect on that, three? Is there some reason why with the incredible talent pool and financial resources available to us that I should not have found fifty?

I have been teaching for a quarter century and during that time I have not been particularly proprietorial about my resources or lessons and units. Neither have many of my colleagues. In fact, I can’t think of a time when a colleague actually refused to open the vault and share their knowledge and materials. So why are we as Divisions, provinces, nations and international communities so disorganized in the sharing of instructional resources? I can file share virtually every other kind of information with great specificity.

As far as I am concerned the PDF student handouts, activities, learning centers, and may I add digital media, should be rolling in with the touch of a keystroke. I am teaching curriculum established over two decades ago. Do the math, in Saskatchewan students might have 180 days of instruction (yes the year is longer, but let’s stay real). In twenty years we should have 180 quality lessons to share and if the truth be told five or six times that number so we can adapt our approaches and materials to the needs of specific groups. Is this an unprofessional concept I am suggesting?

What should be remembered

Posted on April 1, 2008 by Alan Stange

March Ice Fishing 042small.jpg
“Always he had been like a stranger passing through a town, the ways of whose people were different, and who looked on him with a lack of understanding amounting to suspicion. Their language failed on the doorstep of his motives and could not enter the lonely mansion of his mind. They said enemy and friend; they said strong and weak — them and us. They set up a thousand arbitrary classifications and distinctions which he could not comprehend, convinced as he was that all people were only people — and there was little to choose between them. Only, you dealt with them as individuals, one by one; and always remembering to be patient. And if you did this successfully, then the larger, group things all came out right.” (Dickson, Dorsai)

What a pleasure it can be to find a short passage that captures your feelings. I was sorting through some papers last weekend and came across this quote I had recorded in my date planner. I do this from time to time. Copy a quote, draw a picture or diagram, even write a short

poem. My old paper planners were a pleasure to look through (and then burn…). There is an abrupt ending to this journal. It occurred when I began to use a Palm Pilot. My productivity increased dramatically and my creativity declined; how sad.

Unfortunate Presumptions and Graceless Gestures

Posted on April 6, 2008 by Alan Stange

“I suspect that I made a gravely wrong move early in the term, something I’ve not been able to justify, which led to distrust, misapprehensions, a tangle of unfortunate presumptions and graceless gestures that soon became impossible to unravel. None of us seemed capable of acting our best. A clique formed, which of course divided us into those within and those without. Discussions bristled with unspoken tensions, and no one had the good sense to bring them to light so that we might identify and defuse them. It was pure folly, a sorry accumulation of human failures, my own as much as anyone else’s.” (Norris, The Cloister Walk)

I love a good piece of writing and this is certainly one. It is from a work of fiction and I recommend it to you all. What strikes me about it is that it resonates with my own adult experiences of work at one time or another. We make these wrong moves as adults so it is little wonder that we encounter them in our students too. I began the weekend embroiled in just such a situation in my classroom: unfortunate presumptions and graceless gestures. Bringing it all to light and working to defuse it is so draining. As always it remains a central role for the teacher in the classroom.


Posted on April 15, 2008 by Alan Stange

tiasmall.jpgRestitution is mostly about gaining self-balance. When I perceive myself to be out of balance I seek to restore myself back to the person I picture myself to be. Successful people make restitution to themselves all the time. (Diane Gossen)

The behavior is not the element to focus on, the person’s needs are the point of focus, she adds. It is interesting how within a decade I have been encouraged to move from this position to Ron Morrish’s Real Discipline.

Morrish says real discipline has three parts. “The first part is called training. With these techniques, children are taught to comply with rules and limits and do what they are told to do by people in a legitimate position of authority. The second part of real discipline is the teaching component in which we teach children the skills and attitudes for being responsible and cooperative. This part is also omitted from today’s popular discipline which assumes that children will learn their skills from the consequences provided by adults.”

“The third part is called managing in which we provide children with more and more choices as they get older so they learn how to handle independence. Today’s popular discipline concentrates on this part to the exclusion of the other components. What we have forgotten in our rush to provide children with freedom of choice is that adults are supposed to prepare children to handle choices and make sure they are ready. It is well-trained, well-taught children that handle choices responsibly and with respect for the rights and needs of others.”

The two approaches are not incompatible. They inform each other perhaps. Remember, if the only tool you have is a hammer then all your problems will look like nails.

June 30th Triage

Posted on June 30, 2008 by Alan Stange

Triage (pronounced /ˈtriːɑːʒ/) is a process of prioritizing patients based on the severity of their condition so as to treat as many as possible when resources are insufficient for all to be treated immediately. The term comes from the French verb trier, meaning to sort, sift or select. There are two types of triage: simple triage and advanced triage. Triage is now also applied in system development. Requirements and design options are triaged to avoid wasting effort on ideas that will obviously never succeed. (Wikipedia)

Just checked myself over and as I suspected (and despite my age), there is no moss growing on me. June rolls around and I am once more in motion. I might give a sigh of relief, I’m only moving across the hall; however, I am still left with the same pile of carefully labeled boxes I might have produced if I had been moving out of province. I had a suspicion this might occur when they placed me in a very small classroom. Next year’s grade five and six classroom will not fit into my small space. The trade gives me more space, but I lose a few nice features. No more convenient lockers and no more water fountain. I think the teacher’s corner will be missed too. On the other hand I will have slightly more space to work with and I will get more sunshine. That may be a mixed blessing because when they install the Promethean Board in my room I will have to shut said sunshine out again.
Moving is on my mind this month. Last week we finished the move from the country to the city. I’m in the process of moving classrooms and this coming month I have to assist a relative to move into a condominium. Moving is a time for reflection on your assets and an assessment of the value of what you have accumulated. That is a good thing, though as we grow weary of the process our judgement is not always sound. I’ve learned over the years that holding on to too much is not useful. I also seem to lack the encyclopedic sort of memory I would need to capitalize on file systems and cupboards crammed with learning materials accumulated over a decade or so of teaching. I must be losing grey cells rapidly now. I prefer to access global resources in the school’s learning center and on the Net. There are, as all teachers keep reminding themselves, only about two hundred days of school. You need to keep a tight rein on the amount of information you push towards students. A six-year supply of workbook pages and a ten-year archive of superseded textbook series is not as useful as one might think.

June 30th is also a good time to triage your conceptions about teaching and learning. It is the point where the pace slows down sufficiently for you to begin a leisurely reflection on the action research you have accomplished over the course of the last ten months. Some things worked, some things did not. My students let me know that through their actions and behaviour. The room may be empty now, but it is still rich with the memories of the time we spent together here this year. Time to pack the best of that away and keep moving.

A South Asian Pepper Pot

Posted on November 7, 2008 by Alan Stange

Alan August 30 2017small.jpg
Careers that prove popular to INTJs include human resource management. Somewhere along the line I decided this was not completely accurate. It seemed to be a good summary of the characteristics needed for an educational administrator. It was largely what I thought I should be like and what others expected me to be for the good of the learning community.

I was always a fan of C.S. Forester’s Hornblower series. I suppose it is dated now, but I took great pleasure collecting all of the books. It is a blessing that I am the sort of person who can return to a story and savor it repeatedly. I can come back to some stories more quickly than others. I digress from the topic. In one of his books Forester has Horatio Hornblower reflecting on his circumstances. He concludes his life is like an Indian Pepper Pot. Britain in Hornblower’s time, the turn of the nineteenth century must have been a pretty bland culinary experience. Potatoes and a fried chop no doubt. Cheese and bread.

Hornblower was reflecting on both the spiciness and variety in his life. Well that makes a pretty good metaphor for effective teaching. The blog here tends to suggest I’m wrapped up in technological innovations in the classroom: Promethean boards, desktop computers, sound systems. These things are now the environment of contemporary classrooms. They are, however, not the focus of all activity. Live, which is one long journey of learning, is best when there is a stimulating variety.

Learning shifts from one environment to another and the tools shift with it. The variety of partners changes too. Perhaps it takes twenty-two people to achieve something. Maybe it is something you can do on your own, but you need a partner to check your ideas when you are done. Sometimes you just lear
n better when someone else is working out the same problem close beside you. Sometimes you learn best sprawled out on the floor.

Learning comes through experience. That involves understanding a concept, but it might also mean practicing had eye coordination. The tools change over time. Finding the correct spelling of a word in a printed dictionary involves a number of useful skills. Many concepts are demonstrated as you analyze the guide words; but it is so much easier to Google the word or check its meaning on handy on-line dictionary, always you have to learn to work with yourself or others.

I’m happy that I am an adaptable dinosaur. I like the new technologies very much, but my experience stretches back to the 1980’s (and farther as a student). Like the twenty-seven years of accumulated tools arrayed on my workbench in the shed, I have many things at my disposal.

Untangling Wires

Posted on July 18, 2009 by Alan Stange

Capture234.JPGThe sun is finally shining here so I really need to escape back to my yard. I stopped into the new school today curious to see if I could begin settling in. Some two and a half hours later I am ready to end the visit. The brief time here helped bridge the transition considerably.

The Promethean Board was installed over the last few weeks. That is excellent news for me. It means I should be able to organize my year effectively around it. I am still waiting for the software installation. The disks are here, but I do not have administrative privilege to install or update the Promethean software. As much of a relief as it is to find it in place, I am amused to see it not centered in the classroom. I think it is an architectural issue. There is a vent occupying the central location I would select for the projector. Naturally they lined the board up with the existing placement of the projector. I can already hear the complaints from the students in the far left of the room. If the enrollments are low, then I will be able to compensate slightly when I position the rows. All that is for August.

You win some, you lose some. The sound system in the room is excellent and I have a DVD/VHS player in the room. What I have lost is the Front Row system. All the classroom computers are reconnected, checked and updated. What little furniture I have is in the room. I need to repair a book shelf, otherwise it is time to unpack. That can be safely left for August. Okay, I did put up my map of Canada. It makes me feel like I am moving into my dorm room at college: get the computer hooked up and put up a poster; all set to go, well almost.

Carpentry and Cardboard

Posted on July 22, 2009 by Alan Stange

I did go back to the classroom this week. The boxes were calling to me and I was unnecessarily stressing a broken bookshelf lying on the floor. I walk past other rooms and see them stuffed with tables, shelves and wire book displays. That’s not my style really, but even so when I get to my room it feels Spartan still. It is Stange minimalism: student desks, a stool for me at the front, a tiny teacher’s desk discretely in a corner, and three tables to hold the student computers. I know once it is occupied, it will feel crowded. The final piece of furniture is the broken bookshelf.

The bookshelf serves two purposes: a repository for active textbooks and a place for the classroom library. The library collection covers three shelves and it is an eclectic collection of paperbacks that may or may not capture the interest of the nine and ten year olds I will be teaching. I dislike classroom collections. They are a waste of money and deflect students from the more considered collection in the school library. Each classroom replicates resources that, if centralized, will be better used. That said, I have discovered over the years that the classroom needs some sort of backup collection of titles for those moments when a student is short of reading material.

I only dropped into the classroom to repair a broken wheel on the shelf unit and unpack the boxes. Unpacking the boxes and organizing my personal resources was important to me. I don’t plan on returning to the classroom till August now. I will interior decorate then. Establishing the layout and having a mental picture of the organization of my resources has always been important for the next step; imagining and structuring the work I will be doing there. I can turn my attention to curriculum now I guess.

I will have to curb my impatience there though. I need to consult with my grade four and five colleagues before I structure the year. There are still other sorts of things to do though. Some final landscaping of the garden for example. It looks like it will be a good day for that.

An all too familiar moment

Posted on August 31, 2009 by Alan Stange

Technology excites the young people I teach so much. They master email and wikipages so rapidly, mentoring each other spontaneously. [my tweet]
A teacher would have to be lost in a fog not to know this moment. I had a carefully planned sequence in which I would introduce my fourth and fifth graders to their school-sponsored email accounts and the wiki space page assigned to them. Establish contact lists, email, reply, forward, attach. They were pressing to do all of this in the first day. Wiki spaces were to come later. As it turned out one fourth grader listened to my quick summary and demonstration last week and then came to school this morning with his own Twitter account and personal wiki space. He is an excited boy. I rode the resulting wave as best I could knowing a few were struggling to keep up. If we do master the software quickly then it leaves that much more time for them to master the more difficult task of meaningful communication through these two modes of expression. In the case of wiki spaces the real struggle is to make content meaningful and achieve collaboration.

My Prezi and collateral learning

Posted on September 24, 2009 by Alan Stange

Two days have passed and I have not commented on my Tuesday Digital Portfolio Session. My schedule is too tight for quiet reflection at the moment and the Outlook To Do list is growing, not contracting at the moment. This is typical of late Septembers generally I suppose. The Digital Portfolio session was information rich and very engaging. A group of like-minded professionals and I arrayed before our laptops weaving a social network for a new community of purpose. Well I get excited about such things, though I notice no sudden burst of discourse over at the Division Forum.

This sense of excitement does not die the moment I step back into my prosaic classroom routine. It wraps around me now as I work with colleagues, share learning through instructional technologies with my young students, or sit with an arm around my wife using Skype to have a final (but not final) conversation with my son before he embarks on a six-month dream trip to Australia, New Zealand, and Thailand.

My fourth and fifth graders swarmed me yesterday morning pleased to see me back in the classroom. It might be our working relationship, but the first remarks referred to the substitute teacher failing to use the Promethean ActivBoard during instruction. Eyes lit up around the classroom when I made a brief explanation for my absence and showed them yet another opportunity to learn and share themselves. I confess I multi-tasked at one point during my day. The class was in the lab and emails stared coming my way querying me on my whereabouts and activity. How quickly they embrace it all, but we have known that for decades now and many of our colleagues are the product of our early efforts. I found out four of my second and third grade health class students are on Facebook. I am old enough to be surprised by that.

Dean Shareski casually introduced us to Prezi, eye candy for presentations. It speaks to my affinity with concept mapping and I will definitely learn how to use it. Our meeting discussed formats for Digital Portfolios and it came to me that students might embrace Prezi as a logical way to present their learning. Imagine my fifth grader starting with the whole map and then zooming in on the learning outcomes and the media demonstrating their achievement. They would love it. I have a few brighter technological lights I want to share this with. Some people are more linear so they might like the sequential page. We are all learning here so I will see where it goes.

What are we doing?

Posted on October 5, 2009 by Alan Stange

I thought I had a bad day and then I remembered of how my day began and how it ended. The day began when I reluctantly shifted out of my comfortable living room chair intensely conscious that I had only had only consumed a third of my ritual morning coffee fix. Fifteen minutes later it was 7:30 and I was greeting the first members of my volleyball team. For an hour and a bit they trusted me to teach them how to be better players. Nine seventh and eighth grade girls giving over precious adolescent sleep time.

I allowed a few frustrations to rattle me at the pool a short while later when my home room went for their swimming lessons. Delays for forgotten swimming suites and the frustration of missing clothes; its a bit difficult maintaining perspective when you are focussed on a schedule and a bewildered student looking for his pants. Those moments temporarily eclipsed the experience of watching them swim, dive and water slide (well that was recess for them). I was reminded of it all when I was transferring some pictures from my camera to the desktop.

Today was my students’ day in the computer lab. The SLO (student learning outcome) was demonstrating that they could initiate discussion threads on their wikispaces. When they return, we will follow up with replies. Thanks to the delay at the pool, this was all we were able to get through in the morning. My reading period went missing. A student hung back at the beginning of lunch to ask if I could help her brother start a wikipage. He hovered at the door until I invited him in to establish an account and activate the boy’s division email account. His eyes widened slightly with interest when I told him the account was his until he left school. The pair left hurriedly to eat their lunch. The younger sister will mentor her brother for a while and then I imagine he will quickly take ownership. In passing I noticed three students are trying to build their digital portfolios before I am ready. Three students have YouTube accounts now. This started when one wanted to create and upload his own video. His first efforts are embedded on his page now. The three students subscribe to each other’s accounts.

We spent an hour with a First Nations storyteller right after lunch. I was struck by my student’s eagerness to volunteer for the roll plays generated by the stories. A number of boys unselfconsciously acted out the roles from where they sat watching: irrepressible engagement, “Can we stand so we can see better?” Recess was late so all I managed was a brief writing activity before I turned them over to a colleague. He helped me begin the math pre-assessment that slipped my notice throughout September. His time on this was brief. The students ended their day in the library exchanging books. I caught up with them there in order to capture some portraits we will use in a Thanksgiving art project. I had a SST (student support) meeting at the end of the day so I almost missed the departure of my students. A few of them were distracted by their cross country match after school. They were wrapping that activity up when I left a little after 5:00.

I stressed the missed academic classes today. Reading, writing and math benchmarks preoccupy me these days. I marked a spelling assessment as the students swam this morning. The regular classes are feeling fragmented at the moment. Continuity in Social Studies, writing and science is strained for the next few weeks. It is hard to let such things drop.

The beaming person in the picture attached usually smiles. Its hard not to think he had a good day. Volleyball, swimming classes, social networking, a Cree storyteller, library and a cross-country run, the Student learning outcomes are not always clear and there will be no end of year assessment. Well perhaps there will, when the students look back on what they learned and what they did. It is really a very prosaic sort of day in an elementary school I think.

Open Classroom Schools

Posted on October 11, 2009 by Alan Stange

Open education is a philosophy which values the natural development and experience of the child as the primary determinants for the appropriate curriculum and methods…. The open classroom school generally had an architectural configuration of large pods containing six to twelve classrooms, each with an outside access and no interior walls.

Without traditional rooms, teachers could redefine the nature of their role. The teacher shifted from the dispenser of knowledge to the facilitator of learning. Teachers were no longer isolated from each other. They were better able to confer and plan. Learning became an activity that was child centered rather than teacher-oriented. Standard grade-level skill checklists were set aside and the differences in individual needs provided the rationale for the curricula. Students’ progress was not based on rankings, which define success in a competitive context; instead, evaluation of progress was reported in terms of the individual’s achievement in relation to growth from previous levels and the individual’s initiative and responsibility as demonstrated in academic and related arts areas.

In 1975, in my senior year my inter-city high school choir traveled from Regina to Seattle for a tour. It was memorable, but you don’t really want to hear about the parties or the impromptu concerts we performed on the Greyhound bus. I came from a family of educators so I was tuned in some way to philosophies of education. I had two remarkable experiences. The first was watching high schools students at an inner city school demonstrating African dance and drumming. It was an unfamiliar ethnic exposure for a boy raised in middle class Wisconsin and Saskatchewan. I’m pleased to say it is a far more familiar experience for me today. The second was visiting an elementary school that practiced the open concept. It was a revelation to me and I embraced the idea. Understand I was eighteen, finishing high school and three years away from a commitment to teaching. It had a rightness. It seemed a breath of fresh air in the stuffiness of my twelve years of traditional schooling.

The memory comes back to me now like Marley’s ghost rattling chains of lost opportunities. For fifteen years I taught in a rural school with an average of one hundred and twenty students. I realize now I kept tentatively groping toward an open classroom during those years. Echoes of the movement came to me in curriculum development and inservice: learning centers, learning contracts, independent study plans utilizing a variety of spaces. I think the project kept me in that school long after I should have left. It almost worked in the small multi-grade environment of that time and I am convinced it is the salvation and strength that can be given to our small rural schools today.

I am back in a multi-grade classroom. In a real sense we are all in multi-grade classrooms and we have been struggling to remember that. We have also been struggling to make differentiated learning a practicality. I had a moment this last week when I thought it might be possible. It was just a brief hour when my students moved independently and in small groups about their tasks largely mindful of the learning habits needed to make things work in our end of the school.

Students and teachers typically spend the first weeks of the year learning how to work effectively in this space. After they have learned how to minimize disruption to their fellow students, the real work of the school year begins. Rather than having one teacher lecture to the entire group at once, students are typically divided into different groups for each subject according to their skill level for that subject. The students then work in these small groups to achieve their assigned goal, often in a cooperative system. Teachers serve as both facilitators and instructors. Open Classroom
I saw this in Seattle. I think it was authentic and practical, not just an impressionable teen’s momentary experience. I often wonder how long it was sustained before they rebuilt the walls between the classrooms and herded the children back into their cohorts. The open classroom failed for practical reasons. Our current interest in differentiated learning also runs counter to the strong current of pragmatic, economical, industrial education models. Perhaps our success lies in understanding why Open Classrooms failed to become the standard over the last fifty years. It was not simply a matter of confusing physically open spaces. Perhaps there are still collaborative teams of educators making the Open Classroom work. I would enjoy hearing from them. I’m glad that winter day in Seattle is still with me.

Assessment to differentiate or differentiated learning?
Posted on October 24, 2009 by Alan Stange

Zoom in on your home location with Google Earth. There is your home right down to a car you owned three years ago in the driveway. Moose Jaw: your place on the planet, the ephemeral center of your personal geography (50°24’13.21″N, 105°32’23.56″W). Select your destination down to tenths of a second latitude and longitude, let’s say the North-East Cliffs of Molokai (21°10’35.93″N, 156°46’7.98″W). Execute the operation and watch the virtual flight of your journey. A graceful arch to a virtual stratosphere ascends along the great circle before plunging to earth at the precise point you have established as a destination. Global positioning is exciting in its exactitude. Each year Google Earth is enhanced with add-ons and the data on any given location grows in complexity. The process of refining continues. We know so much about where we are and where we want to go. The virtual journey between these two points is a blur of exhilarating motion. The real journey is an often frustrating complexity of interdependent factors and problematic conditions.

Yesterday was a PLC Day here: Professional Learning Communities. I had a very productive day. Sans direct contact with young people, it was a confluence of many personal interests. I suppose the young people in my life were present through my reflections on the names crossing my screen and in the assessments that crossed my desk. My time was divided between goal setting with two partnerships in the fourth and fifth grades and processing pre-tests. I was a good boy and did not detour into class preparation. I love a good test and the satisfaction of well correlated data. The spreadsheet results of the math assessment revealed clear patterns and exceptions. The fifth graders are strong math students. What’s this? Eight out of the ten missed the same item. We will definitely be working on factoring this year. The fourth grade results were more heterogeneous than the fifth grade results and that is problematic. I understand each of my twenty-two students a little better now. They are, you might say, becoming differentiated in my mind.

I felt less satisfied when I reached home. Despite our collective sense of renewal and refined purpose in education, I realized I had been engaged in a familiar activity, defining the problem and clarifying the outcomes. Knowing where your students are at and setting a goal seems very purposeful but the larger challenge is the journey between. It always seems to be about assessment for learning. Assessment differentiates our young people and the new assessments do this as much the old ones did. I recall reflecting on my state of preparedness for parent-teacher (woops! student-led) interviews yesterday. I have so much quantified data to share! Numbers and phrases are so comforting. Where is the research and dialogue on differentiated instruction?

Minutes into a lesson, I am sorting the two cohorts into differentiated groups. Whether I am responding to these different groups, or even whether I am effectively bringing these groups together is my concern. Again, it must be asked, what does differentiated instruction look, sound and feel like in our classrooms? How do we know when this is happening?

Last year I worked with twenty-seven fifth and sixth grade students. It was a community school with greater personnel resources than I have this year. Half of my class were English as second language students. The city’s ESL program was consolidated in our elementary school. Additionally I had two designated students. There were many challenges in the situation but we were able to meet them. The students became accustomed to differentiated groups shifting throughout the day. Two ESL teachers half time, a student support teacher half time, a fulltime paraprofessional and I shared the job of dealing with these flexible groupings. I ran the principal classroom with my groups independently or team-teaching with my SST partner. All three teachers had their classroom space for pull-out groups. By agreement with additional colleagues, individual students could work independently elsewhere. Space was at a premium within the classroom. I had an area for the classroom computers but otherwise had to maintain tight rows of desks. This year I have a smaller, essentially more homogeneous grouping and work virtually alone. It is a more common arrangement. It also challenges differentiated instruction.

Differentiated instruction might involve young people working independently or in small groups. It seeks to address a multiplicity of learning styles so even when students are working toward identical learning outcomes they might both approach and then express their learning in different ways. The classroom teacher needs routines to anticipate and react to a constantly changing dynamic. Young people will be challenged to understand the routines and when necessary switch independently to new tasks without reference to their teacher. To assume differentiated instruction will amount to three or four groupings sustained throughout the school year is optimistic. We are introducing a learning environment of serious complexity into an institution that frankly prises routine and standardized systems. Uniform assessments are given to all students and curricular student learning outcomes are intended for each young person applied by cohort. Public education is industrial by design.

We are striving to remember that young people are pilots of their own craft. Some planes move faster than others, some carry groups heading to similar destinations, while any number carry individual passengers. There are many planes up there now and they are leaving and departing from a busy airport. They have to wait their turns to depart and arrive. They have to keep to their assigned flight paths or in an instant it is all chaos. Watching them all are the traffic controllers: checking individual planes, making course corrections, ordering them all. I understand that traffic controllers have one of the most stressful jobs in the world. The burnout rate is high.

I am beginning to understand the adaptations we have made to assessment and appreciate the renewed commitment to the old ideas of pretesting and teaching purposefully to a test (rather than testing what you might have taught). The resources for this are coming together. We need to ramp up our efforts on the larger task of designing environments and learning cultures where differentiated learning can happen.

It’s all about power

Posted on December 17, 2009 by Alan Stange

About ten years ago educational administration had an enthusiasm for mission statements. District statements, school statements, school community council statements, and classroom statements; I see now that there is something of a relationship between this visioning and the current fascination with articulating student learning outcomes. I do approve of all of this, I really do, but earnestness of it all is a little off putting I think. I recall decades ago attending internship seminars as a cooperating teacher and once as a workshop leader we stressed listening skills. Perception checks were so important to communication. “What I think I hear you saying is…” The idea was good, but it became something of a joke as we inserted it into almost every context. I bought into the mission statements and spent some time reflecting on the purpose of public education. I concluded after some thought that the purpose of public education is to give young people the power to take control of their lives. Young people need to understand the geography of their world and they need help discovering the directions to take in the future. I am very conscious of the implications of this mission as I approach my fourth and fifth grade students this year.

One of my students has been helping to illustrate this for me through his confidence, burning curiosity and determination. I dislike the phrase, but he and I are genuinely co-learners in technological communication. Power, in the context of education, is the ability to do something for yourself. It is not control over others, so in this sense we can link power to independence. Schools are not big on independent learning. Yesterday I introduced Tinychat.com to my class in preparation for a classroom connection with two fourth grade classes in Billings, Montana scheduled later this morning. My students continued the sample connection with my desktop and two laptops throughout the subsequent recess. The lad above wandered the school with a laptop before settling on the floor near the staff room. He was transfixed by the possibilities.

A tech from the division visited our classroom soon after that to instal Promethean ActivInspire software on an Apple laptop I had borrowed. We started an Ellumination room to test connections. I became frustrated because I had forgotten how to connect other participants. I abandoned the problem to organize the next class but the boy couldn’t remain in his seat. He had to slip to the back of the room and finish solving the problem. He did and then explained the solution to me. Before he logged off he was requesting remote control of my ActivBoard.

This young person is not unique in my room (though definitely a force of nature at times). Other students assert their need to learn independently and share in a diversity of areas. He loves his personal journey. What is striking to me is his concept of his role in learning. Independently, he decided to be my colleague at Classroom 2.0. He apparently has no reluctance to initiate chats with adults on the topic of technology in education. I linked his first post above. He is exploring the possible more that seeking sustained networks. I am disappointed that nobody has responded to his post.

He has a habit of shocking me at times and this is both good and bad. Its good because he wakes me up to the possibilities of students assuming control of their own learning outcomes. Its bad because these moments still don’t feel natural to me after all these decades. I still have a distance to go on my own journey it seems.

On Using Technology Without Understanding It at Beyond School

Posted on December 26, 2009 by Alan Stange

I appreciate the sweet irony of this thread. It begins with a cautionary article published in a student newspaper and then proceeds to a thoughtful analysis of the article’s cautions that popular social networking applications do not equate to best practice in the classroom. From there the discussion braids convergences and divergences into a rich thread exploring the strengths and weaknesses of instructional technology in education.

Education has never been about finding the right instrument. It has always been about bringing together an ensemble and realizing that the an instrument in one person’s hands might be more effective that it would be in another’s. This is what we mean by differentiating instruction and attending to learning outcomes when we design instruction. What we are still struggling with is an orchestra paradigm where the teacher is conductor (setting the pace and mood, bringing desperate pieces together to create a harmonious unity). Perhaps what we need to strive for is an ensemble with soloists and shifting roles. Work on my metaphor and get back to me.

Our culture has a mania for technology and innovation. This enthusiasm overwhelms our common sense at times and blinds us to the need for appropriate technology. This is as true of learning as anything in our world. Understand though, we have to open our classrooms to all effective media of communication, then recognize that our students need a basis to critically evaluate those media and the authority to select the media that works best for them.

I have a student attempting to create a Ning network to both gather and communicate his learning. I suspect he is simply exploring a new technology and that it may not be the best vehicle for his end. I suspend my reservations because I can see how this might meet his needs and I accept that, young as he is, he may see how it will work better than I do. To return to the cautions of the article I linked. This student chose the media, not I. My role now is to support his learning.