Keeping our tools close | Your classroom arrangement is not practical Alan | An array of unnetworked learners | Synectics | Privacy lies in discretion and is never absolute | Reading Authentically into the Foggy Future | The Status of Public Service in Canada | The Ambiguous Authenticity of Collective Creations | Learning Continuum | Whose wasting time? | Voice recognition, and recognizing voice (memories of father) | A sense of place | Sometimes it is working | Sorry, my students do homework | What’s with my student’s writing? | Keeping an open door | Dinosaurs and Teepees | George Winnik, Lost in Time


Keeping our tools close

Posted on January 21, 2012 by Alan Stange

After about seven months I decided to dig the Promethean ActivExpression voters out of the cupboard. Our school bought them around three years ago and I’ve used them rarely. They spend the year tucked away in an accessible closet. They were bought for the whole school. I think one other teacher attempted to use them in that time.

One barrier to implementation is a required software upgrade. This has to be done by tech support on each teacher station. I suppose that should have been done as a matter of course when the Promethean ActivInspire software was installed. I think it should have been integrated into the operating software. Another barrier to integration into the classroom is the complexity of registering a unit with a student. After three years I think I’ve finally learned to do a simple pairing with ease.

However, I have not attempted to create class lists and begin recording results. The device allows a teacher to ask multiple questions and have the results stored for review. That feature is a principal selling point I think. I’ve made no use of it because I see little use for it. There would be little value creating extensive objective and short answer tests integrated with ActivExpression and residing on my ActivInspire flipcharts. If I wanted something like that I would build a GoogleDoc form.

I asked my colleagues (yet again) if anyone wanted to take possession of the black bag. When I registered their lack of interest, I decided to distribute the units to my fourth graders for the month. They have them in their desks. Occasionally I ask them to take them out for a quick pole on some question. They could just raise their hands I suppose. The channel does provide an immediate personal response that is less subject to peer pressure.

They love the technology at the moment. Like every class I’ve shared them with, they wish they could text each other. The technology itself seems old when children are more likely to slide a keyboard open and type. I’ve decided I should use them before they become completely archaic. I am not convinced they are appropriate technology in a fourth grade classroom where I can assess student learning in richer ways. I have better technologies in my room.

An example of technologies that are integrating nicely in a cost-efficient way are the simple document reader and amplifier in my room. The microphone assists small voices to share their ideas. I just got the camera and I like how easily Jacob used it to share his pictures as he read his story to the class. I hope we can use it to share with other classrooms through Skype.

Whichever tool you use, what facilitates integration is having the tool at hand, not in a bag in the closet. Preparation and planning are a virtue but the dynamic flow of learning in a classroom like mine calls for accessibility and flexibility.



Your classroom arrangement is not practical Alan

Posted on February 3, 2012 by Alan Stange

We had a professional development day on Monday. At one point the staff gathered in my room to get introduced to the ActiveExpression voters that have been in my classroom for the last three years. I have decided to use them but since my enthusiasm for the technology is limited I made an effort to offer them to my colleagues. At the end of the week, they are still in my room, so I gather everyone’s enthusiasm is limited. One of my colleagues asked if the student desks were always in a large rectangle. She offered an opinion that her own older students would not manage the arrangement very well.

I told her the desks were not always in a rectangle. The principal advantage of the desks (which I accepted with a protest) is their flexibility. Sometimes they are grouped and other times they actually end up in rows. I think the rectangle has become the default arrangement. It is so inclusive. It defuses the social tension of small groups. It reinforces social learning and focus. It is also hardly novel to North American classrooms.

It no longer strikes me as a risk to group students or allow them to sit facing each other. I suppose I have been doing it for decades. Enough classrooms rooted in rows have gone south on me to make me realize that a physical arrangement might encourage responsible behaviour, but it won’t be the critical factor. Rooms are generally too overcrowded to benefit from grouping strategies. They will socialize if they want to.

The undefined part of my colleague’s remark is her concept of “responsible behaviour.” The picture above captures my room at about 2:45 PM on a Friday. We were doing a personal contract period and virtually everyone was in the zone. “Quiet, purposeful activity.” To quote one 1980’s superintendent's management wet dream. They were all on personal tasks except for four girls collaborating on a story and one boy sharing his very long story with another. They were disbursed around the classroom, hallway, and neighbouring computer lab. Each had a Post-it with them showing their goal for the period and the time they were going to take. Goal setting and independent learning are outcomes I am working for. They are essential for inquiry projects.

The arrangement of my desks was not critical. What they were doing was critical. After a long week with them, I admit I liked the ordered quiet. Quiet, purposeful activity was very nice. It was not like that all day and certainly not all week. We were very busy. Responsible behaviour is not necessarily quiet nor sedentary. Responsible learners are not always focused on their teacher as if he or she was a glorified switchboard operator governing networked learning in the classroom.

I like my geometric, symmetrical perfection very much, except when I don’t, and then it changes. My students go along with my anal designs, except when they don’t, and they change it. They stand at tall desks, shift to the computer stations, trade seats, sit under furniture, whatever works for a nine-year old depending on the activity. It’s all cool.



An array of unnetworked learners

Posted on February 6, 2012 by Alan Stange

My class shifted into an array for assessment today. Each student tried to ignore the incidental distractions of the room and find the resources within their own memory to answer questions about arrays, related facts, and measuring time. My exit poll indicates we have not mastered all of this yet. To use our preferred edubabble, intervention is going to be required and that means some serious differentiation of learning. Time to fragment.

Easy to tap that out on my tablet, harder to arrange in room 7. I have to decide which indicators are critical and which should be left for another time. I don’t believe everything must be mastered before we move on. That must be a legacy of dealing with bloated curriculum and the supposition that age equates to readiness or development. I also have to decide on the reliability of question design. The way a question is framed may not get at what these kids know. It is frustrating; the experiences of learning never quite match the experience of testing. I suppose that is why so many classrooms are locked in an array of desks designed to isolate learners. It makes sense to teach to the test.

Before heading off for P.E. one boy asked if we could move the desks back into our rectangle. He is not a strong independent learner. He is easily distracted but learns best through peer support. Others might settle into these rows for isolated work. I honestly don’t think it is a good fit for most. It looks like a school classroom. It doesn’t look much like the rest of the world these young people will learn in. The array suites our traditional notions of preparation for assessment. It fails to nurture cooperation and collaboration; social modes I think are far more critical at the moment. By lunch we will be back to normal here in Room 7.



Synectics

Posted on February 19, 2012 by Alan Stange

Our school staff is going to look at an instructional strategy this semester. I listened distractedly as this was announced. A colleague suggested synectics when the list of alternatives was offered. I woke up and agreed that it would be worth looking at. We extol the virtue of creative thinking but rarely think about what that might look like. I think we all think synectically and this is reflected both in our teaching and the way students learn and respond.

My understanding of synectics derives from one source. Nicholas Roukes explained synectics in his book Design Synectics (1988). I referred to his book frequently when I taught middle years and high school art in the 1990’s. Until I applied his trigger mechanisms to my art class, I was confused about the term. Roukes called it creative discovery. It applies analogical thinking: the process of linking unlike subjects. Synectics aids such innovation by jostling the brain and stretching the imagination to make unique comparisons.

We use synectics in learning. I think it is at the heart of much of what we do in learning. Roukes writes that the more outrageous the association, the better the chance there is of bringing to the surface important ideas and inventions. Roukes lists twenty-three synectic trigger mechanisms that can be tools for transformational thinking. What follow is largely his words with my meditations.

  • Subtract: remove certain parts are elements take something away from your subject compress it or make it smaller. All too often we simplify learning. Complex ideas are simplified in order to make them understandable to young minds. But I think subtraction means more than that. If you take a familiar element out of a system, that makes the system’s interdependency that much clearer. A good example of that is asking students to consider what life would be like without oil.
  • Repeat: repeat the same color for an image or idea. Echo, restate or duplicate your subject in some way. My love of history comes from two sources. When I was quite young my brother and I played historical games with each other. History back then was narrative for me. It was until I was in grade eight that history became a subject of analysis. My history teacher applied and I think would be called a functional analysis to history. I guess I’d forgotten the proper term. The best example that comes to mind was when he explained how the Jim Crow laws in the Southern United States replace slavery. We’ll pattern, so I think applying patterns to history becomes a very common strategy. I think we use this idea of repetition in interdisciplinary themes as well. We show how ideas can be explored in science, social studies, language arts, as well as art.
  • Combine: bring things together. Connect, arrange, link, unify, mix, merge, wed, and rearranged. Bring together similar things. Ask what else can you connect your subject? What kind of connections can you make from different sensory modes, frames of reference or subject disciplines? I teach fourth graders and it still surprises me how quickly they have adopted the notion the disciplines are discrete. We will be doing some activity they associate with science and ask why we’re doing it in math class. This sort of compartmentalization is probably why it’s so important to create interdisciplinary units with students.
  • Add: extend and expand or otherwise develop your reference subject. Augment it, supplement, and advance or annex it. Magnify it. Make it bigger.
  • Transfer: move your subject into a new situation, environment or context. Adapt, transpose, relocate, dislocate. Adapt the subject to a new and different frame of reference. Move the subject of its normal environment; transpose it to a different historical, social, geographical were political setting or time. Look at it from a different point of view.
  • Empathize: sympathize. Relate your subject; put yourself in its shoes. How can you relate to an emotionally or subjectively? This is something I think teachers excel in these days. We work hard to build authentic connections between the subjects of learning and student’s life experience.
  • Animate: bring life to inanimate subjects by thinking of them as having human qualities. Also apply factors of repetition, progression, or narration.
  • Superimpose: superimpose dissimilar images are ideas. Superimpose different elements from different perspectives, disciplines or time periods on your subject. Think syncronistically: what elements are images from different frames of reference can be combined in a single view?
  • Change scale: make use of a bigger or smaller. Change proportion, relative size, ratio, dimensions or normal graduated series. I think I use fee scale down to the classroom size.
  • Substitute: exchange, switch or replace: what other idea, image, material or ingredient and you substitute for all were part of your subject? What alternate plan can be employed?
  • Fragment: separate, divide, and split: take your subject are idea part. Dissect it. If anything, I spend most of my time fighting the impulse to dissect and fragment content and ideas. We too often kill our love of reading by dissecting works of literature.
  • Isolate: separate, set apart, crop, and detach: use only a part of your subject. Crop your ideas too with the mental viewfinder. Think about what element you can detach or focus on. With curriculum as bloated as they are today cropping your ideas is important. I think case study is an example of isolating part of the subject.
  • Distort: twister subject of its true shape, proportioned were meaning. Distortion also denotes fictionalizing. I liked the idea of fictionalizing quite a bit. A student of mine quite recently wrote a short story on residential schools for First Nations in Canada. She is studied in class and it caught her imagination.
  • Disguise: camouflage, conceal, deceive: how can you hide, mask or implant your subject into another frame of reference? Think about subliminal imagery: how can you create a latent image that will communicate subconsciously, below the threshold of conscious awareness?
  • Contradict: contradict the subject’s original function. Satire is based on the observation of social hypocrisy and contradictory behaviour. We present students with examples of satire frequently. We should probably do some more often. Students can always find them easy to understand.
  • Parody: ridicule, mimic, mock, burlesque or caricature: make fun of your subject. Roast it, lampoon it. Transform it into a joke or pie and.
  • Prevaricate: fictionalize, bend the truth, falsify, and fantasize. Although telling lies is not considered acceptable social conduct it is the stuff of legends and myths are made of.
  • Analogize: see similarities between things that are different. Make comparisons of your subject to elements from different domains, disciplines and realms of thought.
  • Hybridize: cross fertilize, connect your subject with an improbable mate. Creative thinking is a form of mental hybridization in that ideas are produced by cross linking subjects from different realms.
  • Metamorphose: depict your subject in the state of change. Think of cocoon to butterfly types of transformations.
  • Symbolize: imbue your subject with symbolic qualities.
  • Mythologize: build a myth around your subject.
  • Fantasize: fantasized your subject. Use it to trigger surreal, preposterous, outlandish, outrageous, bizarre ideas. Think what if thoughts.


Nicholas Roukes wrote that analogical thinking is the keystone of synectics. Essentially, it is the process of recognizing similarities between dissimilar things; a form of cross-referential thinking wherein things from one classification are subject realm can be related to that of another. Analogies are psychological tools which at the conscious level almost everyone uses. I think this particularly true of learning.

I would have to meditate on how these trigger mechanisms connect with my own instruction at greater length. I should be able to surface more examples. Perhaps you can share some with me.



Privacy lies in discretion and is never absolute

Posted on February 21, 2012 by Alan Stange


There is always an artificial distinction between personal and professional identity. If you have worked in close communities you quickly accept that you likely won’t achieve an insulated private life. I worked in small villages for twenty-five years. There was essentially no privacy beyond the front door of your house and often little within. My children brought their friends into the house in the same way family entered my classroom with each year I taught my own children. There was always a single store, single church, single recreational facility, or community hall. Perforce, family friends were drawn from the school community.

In those circumstances, you come to understand that privacy is family and only exists to the extent that the family members maintain discretion. Ultimately, you understand that you are human, frail and imperfect. You act with intent and self control at all times, always mindful that assumed anonymity does not influence your behaviour with others, nor do you generally expect to achieve it. There is no time out zone you can really retreat to safely in life.

I have often shared my conception that the web in general and social networking in particular is like a mall. Keep that in mind at all times. Conduct yourself accordingly. I never avoid students in a mall, box store, recreational facility or network. We share the public moment mindful of our relationship, respectful of privacy, acknowledging each other as unique individuals with lives beyond the classroom. We do quite well it seems.



Reading Authentically into the Foggy Future

Posted on April 4, 2012 by Alan Stange
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Fourth graders in Saskatchewan are supposed to read for twenty-minutes. They should be able to achieve a rate of 135 – 185 words per minute. This is an outcome that supports their learning in all subjects. We put time aside each day because these days I guess we cannot be sure the time is set aside at home. I do unrestricted reading during this time. The girl is reading a chapter book. To the boy’s right, another boy is reading a nonfiction book. The boy in black is reading a graphic novel. He will sustain his twenty-minutes of concentration, but his attention will shift between the colorful images and the terse text. He won’t sustain 135 words per minute with this book. But all three children are reading authentically. They all want the information in these particular books. The books speak to them. (The bell just rang and the boy in black stayed absorbed in his graphic novel for an extra two minutes. He obviously needed to read to a transition in his story.)

I suspect the Saskatchewan Ministry of Education (or are we a department again?) wants each fourth grader to read less authentic textbooks as well as personal interests. Nine-year-olds are less motivated to do so. Five or ten minutes immersed in a science textbook is probably a win for me.

I really have not found the right trigger to stimulate even sustained authentic reading. I could not even tell you why a switch was thrown in my mind at about the age of thirteen. I just suddenly seemed to discover the fiction collection at my school, moved my attention to the public library, and then worked my way through my dad’s science fiction collection. As a young man I traveled through the Canadian Rockies – spectacular scenes – buried in a book. While my colleagues explored Africa, I settled down to read books in my Nigerian home. I should have climbed Mount Kilimanjaro with them, I know. Still, there were those books….

If there is a trigger, it lies in access, opportunity, and exchange. I can offer that here in my room.



The Status of Public Service in Canada

Posted on May 5, 2012 by Alan Stange


These three middle school students were enjoying a moment together at the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Heritage Center in Regina, Saskatchewan. It was one stop on their two-days of activity at the School Safety Patrol Jamboree. I have no involvement with my school’s program, but I was free to chaperone the event for two nights. Kathy Cassidy tweeted about 7:30 PM yesterday that she knew the conference was worth it, because she was willing to spend hours preparing for it. Mid-week I was wondering if preparing to be out of my classroom for a day and a half was worth it. This Saturday morning I know it was.

Scanning the pictures I took of the groups activities I wondered how much my school recognizes public service around the school. I think we generally do a good job. They get a private pizza party at the end of the year, and a few members go to the annual jamboree. I wonder how effective this recognition is with the student body. Young students volunteer for the patrol, but by grade eight them have almost all lost interest. I would not want to over do the recognition; however, schools should nurture a strong culture of public service.

There is still evidence of respect for public servants in Canada. I remind myself of that. Our governments, and the people who elect them, do not seem to share that feeling. Perhaps they are simply conflicted about our role. We hear the appreciation, but we also get the clear message that public service is a poor substitute for private enterprise. Beyond that, our mission is often seen as harmful. People need less regulation and better choice. I go to work with these prevailing attitudes in the back of my mind every day.



The Ambiguous Authenticity of Collective Creations

Posted on May 24, 2012 by Alan Stange
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Either I’ve started my prep day really well, or very poorly. I cannot decide. After reviewing my plans with my substitute (guest teacher… like I invited her in to contribute), I grabbed a laptop and headed to the staff room; the only available work room in the school. As I was occupying a corner of the table it was brought to my attention that we were out of coffee. That prompted a quick trip to the store. While I was driving back I thought about my lesson plans for the day and how one element of them paralleled my conversation with Kathy Cassidy last night. We were exchanging impressions of our second year experience exploring problem-based learning with Powerful Learning Practice. As a culmination to that experience we were asked to publish our reflections and share outcomes of our research. I feel challenged by this task, and wonder if my fourth grade students will feel equally challenged by the similar task I set them: to blog about their collective creations. I wonder if we will all feel challenged for the same reasons. I wonder if I have started my prep day well by buying coffee and blogging, instead of organizing my end of year assessments as I had planned.

I divided my twenty-four fourth graders into four random groups, gave them a cardboard pillar, told them they were to agree on a theme, and then represent that theme through color, images, shapes, words, and movement. I then stood back and watched. Originally I had planned to limit the themes to curriculum we have studied this year. I decided my project might be more authentic to them if I left it open-ended. They settled on mythology, space, ocean, and fast food; then they set to work with all the enthusiasm I might have hoped for. They impressed me with their ideas, construction skills, and collaboration. The groups sustained engagement for about four hours (5-6 periods over 2 weeks). Predictably, there were varied levels of engagement. There was also a good deal of negotiating. The project did allow them to work to individual interests and strengths. Many of them took ownership of their work in as much as they are fighting over the right to take the finished project home. It turned out to be a success, except I’m not sure what it has achieved.

I created artificial groups. They had no opportunity to discuss themes and products, before moving into groups. Their themes were mostly compromises. I constrained the form of publication as well. So I don’t feel the result is authentic as I interpret the word as it applies to learning. Learning in school creates so many boundaries and expectations: curriculum, policy, time, resources. Then too, the process held value, but the product is a limited exchange of learning. Now I am asking them to briefly describe what they did together and share their thoughts.

This connects with my experience with PLP this year. I was grouped with five others around a general topic and we were tasked with developing a collective creation. Our problem, storytelling, was a compromise. Like my students, I think I learned something about the process, and unlike my students we did not complete our collective creation. Perhaps if we had accomplished our plan in the time we had available, it would have connected to the flow of learning in my classroom. As it is, it feels all unfinished. Is an incomplete journey. The students’ collective creations are displayed in the hallway now. Some students don’t feel they are finished, and I share that view. I’m not sure what we built.



Learning Continuum

Posted on June 12, 2012 by Alan Stange
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This semester I accepted a work experience student into my classroom. She is an eleventh grader exploring education from the other side. As an administrator I set up quite a few high school students with in-school placements. It is an easy placement compared with arranging work experience with a manufacturing firm or clinic. The student was not particularly interested in teaching, but she committed herself to the work, and I enjoyed working with her.

I am pretty sure I spent my entire K-12 experience exclusively with my own cohort. When I was in fourth grade my awareness of younger and older students was limited to collisions in the hallway. Junior high was much the same. I had no contact with elementary students, and I was ignored by the high school students completely. So it continued until my first teaching experiences in university. This did not give me much of a context for my own learning. Things are different today. My fourth graders have second grade buddies. Earlier this year they worked with seventh graders briefly. It would have been better if that had been longer. High school students have visited the school, but not worked with my room. When I worked in a K-12 rural school those encounters were more frequent. Technology could certainly facilitate more collaboration and mentoring. These activities consume time, but they benefit everyone. My work experience student came from a small rural school. The population is under one hundred, so she is quite familiar with the experience of working with students in other grades. She made me conscious that my fourth graders will likely have little contact with elementary students when they transfer to high school. They will become more isolated and it will be harder for them to see the progress and authenticity of their own learning.

This all applies to us as teachers too. This year I was lucky to have an intern work with me in the fall. I think I was also lucky to get a work experience student in the spring. To an old man like myself, the two young ladies seemed hardly different. They were different though. There was a 5 year gap between them. That represents a significant amount of learning. They were both competent young people. I could clearly see the difference in maturity. My intern was at the end of her formal training and ready to have a classroom of her own. The contrasts this year were interesting. I worked with first graders beginning school, my fourth grade, an eleventh grader and a woman ending her undergraduate education. The comparisons were interesting too. We are all facing challenge, communicating, and achieving success. It is good to be aware of that.



Whose wasting time?

Posted on July 21, 2012 by Alan Stange

I’ve certainly invested a lot of energy into time lost during the day. My colleagues struggle with letting students enter at the bell without lining up. Something loves a regiment of children silently facing forward, poised to enter the school in single file. Its like we won’t have control later if we cannot achieve that 30-second moment of silence. The routine is justified as a safety measure. We would have a frightening stampede otherwise. Not likely. Classroom transitions are notable. I’ve not made great progress here. We practice transition routines. One reason so much time is lost entering, exiting, and transitions, is that we generally suspend everything until we get 100% compliance. A hundred students shuffling their feet as the teacher stands glowering at three hyperactive people. Later in the classroom everyone waits fidgeting while the same few students putter. I’ve been learning to proceed before I have this 100% compliance. My hyperactive or disorganized students are not really class disrupters, they are just slow. I can catch them up, or they get help from a peer. Some are simply waiting for the activity so they can engage. They cannot engage in waiting. Our expectations can create the lost time. On the other hand, I think we need to take a deep breath and stop stressing the pace. It really is not a factory work floor. Sometimes learning takes time.



Voice recognition, and recognizing voice (memories of father)

Posted on July 25, 2012 by Alan Stange

54 Tung Ying Li
(Chin Tsai Yuan)
Changsha, Hunan

March 14, 1948

Today is Sunday just two weeks since my first looked at Changsha and it seems so long since we last wrote you that I scarcely know where to start.

We left Shanghai on February 26, I believe –flying to Wuchang. The weather that day it was a good prelude to Changsha, for almost every day we’ve been in Central China has been cloudy in raining. We flew in rain all the way from Nanking, are only stopped, to Wuchang. On landing the plane got stuck in the mud on the field, which gives some idea of the weather.

After a day or two in Wuchang, during which we got reacquainted with the Fulton’s, and I made a trip across the Yangtze River too Hankow on business, I came on to Changsha. I stayed here for four days, opening freight and arranging for necessary repairs to the house and then went back for Bobbie and Paul.

Train travel in China is not always comfortable or fast – but it’s usually exciting in some way. First class out here means compartments, much like those in European trains. Except for being awakened several times a night by military police wishing to collect another personal calling card from me in lieu of looking at my passport – things were rather quiet and uneventful. I was fascinated – and also scared stiff by the make-shift trestles of toothpick like logs which gave us passage over rivers and mountain gorges. They would actually creek and sway as the train went over them. But the ingenuity and labor involved in this improvising bridges to replace those blown up in the war with Japan is certainly impressive.

I was struck again by the great labor pool existing in China. Apparently anything that can be done by a man or men rather than by machine is done by a sheer brute Manpower. Our freight, instead of being moved from the railroad station to our house by truck (cost four million) was carried on backs of men and on small carts (cost one million!).

Remember how heavy the desk and transformer were, or the case of food, etc packed with the chain? In spite of my frantic protests that it was too much for one man – one man would pick up the whole crate in his back and stagger up a steep incline as high as your house!

Opening the freight was exciting – I was about to add “and depressing” but I’ve been here long enough to not get too attached to material goods which are too easily lost or damaged to get emotionally involved with. Most of the freight was in excellent shape – but there were some rather surprising things. The mirror, packed with a table and chairs, was broken and a loss. The pressed wood card table top had come completely loose from its frame, but can be fixed, I think. The transformer, dad, tore up the boards to which it was bolted and just rolled around inside the desk. Only your foresight and packing other things around it saved the desk for use instead of match wood. The crossbar was splintered, and the top and back sprung. But it can be repaired and we are glad we have it.

And the other big case one from jar full of sugar was smashed and all the rest were okay except for being sugar coated. In another case one jar of dried apricots broke but no other damage. And still another case one box if bluing had broken and the powder was all over everything. But as I say most things came through very well.

Right now and for just one week now we’ve been staying with Dr. And Mrs. Dwight Rugh. He’s the head of the Yale Mission which operates the school, hospital, nursing school, and medical school here. They have been mostly congenial hosts and though we’re happy to be moving to our own house tomorrow, we have enjoyed our stay here greatly.

That’s only part of it, for there is half again as much behind the house! But it gives you an idea of the size. Bobbie says nowhere near that much, but look at all it includes and make your own guess. Very well swept grounds and gardens and the only usable clay tennis court in town. It’s very beautifully landscaped and well proportioned.To our own house! It is a magic in that for us for we’ve never been able to say it before now. And a special excitement this time – for what a place it is! We’ve relayed some of our reports about it and haven’t quite believed everything we said but it’s all true it’s really too big and grand for us, or anyone who’s doing religious work. Here is my very rough diagram.

The house is big – three stories; I’ll try to diagram them –also, very roughly. I’m sorry it’s so not to proportion and it doesn’t give you much idea. The first floor is OK, like all rooms in the house not too large nor high ceilinged, very homey. Also pretty well arranged. Since the woman of the house does little housework there’s no need for first floor lavatory, though it might be nice for guests. Lots of built in cupboards, drawers but short on hanging space. Rooms are fairly small. Rose’s drapes go very well with white fireplace in our bedroom – as does Jean’s present of a white rug. We like the entrance to Paul’s room from our own and the beautiful sleeping porch opening into both rooms. The third floor has the largest rooms – but until you two or the Leetes come, we probably won’t use it much. If you do come for a long visit – will give you the whole third floor. Quite a house eh what?

Really when you add to it a big yard in back – with the flower garden about the size of your whole garden – as servants house and laundry about as big as Eva Koehl’s house and an outdoor “ting de” – sort of a large grape Arbor for covering a sandbox or eating outside – we have what can rightly be called either an estate or a plantation. Bobby and I think more often of that last word. For with so large a place and so few conveniences – will need at least three, possibly for servants. Already they open doors for us and stand around ready to jump if we ask a question or make a request. It will take getting used to.

We’re moving in tomorrow – and though it will be like camping for a while we greatly expect to make it a home – and a place of use not only for us – but for others as well. Our consciences just wouldn’t permit us to live here if we didn’t, for there are so many who don’t have even one room to themselves. Better stop now and after assuring you that were all well, happy and very busy, promise another letter soon –and send you all our love.

Karl and Bobbie

I visited my mother yesterday, she is eighty-eight this year, and often her attention turns to a treasured drawer in her filing cabinet where decades of family correspondence is carefully sorted by year. I don’t suppose the archive is an entirely unique collection. People like my parents, essentially missionaries to China (1946 – 1949), wrote frequently. It is special to my siblings though. I have this nagging thought that I should make their experience accessible to their great grandchildren. Mother was struck by this letter and wished it could be typed up and added to her digital collection. I brought it home thinking it would be an interesting experiment to try dictating it into Microsoft Word using Windows 7 voice recognition software.

Imperfect as it is, I’m impressed with the results. Microsoft Speech Recognition handles my voice fairly well. Except for the most familiar Chinese place names, cities were an amusing train wreck. “Dash” turned out to be problematic. Sometimes I got the punctuation, sometimes I got the word. The language arts teacher in me badly wanted to correct father’s composition. At this point in his life, Dad was a maniac with dashes; much the way I am with semicolons. I wonder how biographers handle this problem.

I don’t recognize my father’s particular voice in this piece. I knew his mature voice from later when he was on the Faculty of Social Work, University of Regina. Yet he is voicing a significant experience in a young man’s life: establishing a first home for his family. He was twenty-six in March, 1948. He thought he was following a vocation (he did continue his work for the YMCA until 1965), and establishing a permanent home in China. His enthusiasm reminds me of my own at about the same age as I renovated my first home in Limerick, Saskatchewan. Like Dad, I was beginning my career, and like Dad, I was a new father with my eldest son Joel. This summer, Joel (aged twenty-seven) is building a new home overlooking Lake La Ronge. He has started his teaching career and he and his wife Calyn are building for my first grandchild: generations.

Mother and father thought they would be in China their whole lives. They discussed taking Chinese citizenship with their colleagues and friends. He envisioned their parents travelling out from the States to visit them in this home. Dad wrote this letter within eighteen months (I think) of their flight from China in 1949, six months after the communist victory. They were driven from their plantation before that. You never know. We lasted in Limerick longer than that. Like Mother and Father we let go of that dream and started building a new one. Next week I plan to travel to La Ronge and help my son build for a few days. I will not dampen Joel’s enthusiasm and optimism. Houses change, but all three of us build for the future.

We teachers watch our student’s build for the future too. I’m mindful that I have to let their voices form without too much revision from me. I’m mindful they are following familiar paths, their authentic writing repeats the archetypal stories of humanity. Karl, Alan, and Joel at a familiar point, self conscious of the continuity and tradition of the moment, yet living an experience uniquely personal. So too the progression of students working with me over the years, learning and creating, unique.



A sense of place

Posted on September 3, 2012 by Alan Stange


So much of learning is still oriented to the classroom. We spend much of our time in Room 7 wrapped in its walls and routines. Textbooks dominate the courses I’m less familiar with. The juxtaposition of a wall map, National Geographic, and laptop represents geography in my classroom. As I type this, I reflect that their aught to be a window to the side because I do make geography real with walks in the neighboring parks and nature areas. There is justice in the window’s exclusion though. A trip to the park or natural history museum is rare. The picture represents the tools at hand. I thought about discarding the traditional wall map. There are three in the room: world, nation, province. They take up space that could be used for student contributions, or simply left unadorned to lessen the visual distraction. Interactive maps on the computer, with their many layers, contribute so much to learning. Yet over the past few years my students return to these three maps constantly. They seem to like the ready reference. Place names are popular spelling challenge words for example. For that and other purposes, the maps are placed too high for my fourth graders. Fortunately they like to climb on furniture. I think in a classroom increasingly dominated by personal and shared devices, it is important to still give our physical spaces some focus and order.



Sometimes it is working

Posted on September 23, 2012 by Alan Stange


Habitat Hikesmall.jpgSome years I manage to incorporate inquiry learning, projects, and field trips successfully in my units. This school year seems to have started well in that regard. A spider dropped into my classroom at an opportune time, the weather cooperated ans last week we had a successful five-mile hike. I’m a shake science teacher so I turned that to my advantage. The students found out what kind of spider we had and determined it was female before it became obvious. The pictures captured along our hike demonstrate that collectively, my twenty-three students can contribute as much about our local habitat as I can.

I had a moment of jealousy on Twitter the other day. CBC TV News was profiling a Regina classroom that was capitalizing on personal devices in the classroom. It annoyed me briefly because I quietly invited iPods and tablets into my classroom four years ago without a ripple of attention. My students ranged between fourth and sixth grade over this time. Inviting them in in was not controversial, but it did cause discomfort. If I want everyone to have a personal device then the activity uses the class set of calculators, the Promethean ActivExpression voters, the iPads from the cart, or the PC lab down the hall. They don’t all have devices at school… yet. I’ve been noting the gradual increase. Friday I compared tablets with one girl. I have my early adopters. The middle years classrooms have more. Like my successful start with experiential learning about habitats, my technology integration is on track. We’ve started portfolios, we’re connecting with ePals this week, and blogging and a Skype in the Classroom project are in line. More and more classrooms are looking like this and it excites me. CBC TV News is right to report on this.

One of my students brings his iPod to school everyday. He generally leaves it in his desk and not infrequently, he runs back into my room at 4:00 to retrieve it. When a general reference question comes up he is quick at the draw. He searches efficiently and reports back to the group. He probably plays games on the playground (and other times), but he seems to get the value of his device.

Other students began the year with iPods. They are not present in learning. What would it take to tip the balance in my classroom? I figure that if I could encourage three more students to get comfortable using their personal devices, then I might get my shift.



Sorry, my students do homework

Posted on September 25, 2012 by Alan Stange

Homework should come from the student, not the teacher. I have no consistent homework … to the point where I might as well say I have no homework assigned at all. Three weeks, I’ve sent one activity in math home so parents have an understanding of what we are working on. Meanwhile, students in my class have been electing to take creative writing home and excitedly sharing the result with me the next day. They have been researching the spider in our classroom habitat. They have been building their personal wikispaces in the evening, asking experienced siblings for advice and tips, and then sharing their design discoveries with friends. They are excited by Mathletics and work on it at home. Today they wrote to their first ePal. One student asked if they could write from home. The look on his face conveyed every expectation that I would say this was an activity for school. They even asked permission to take school library books home, as if I might restrict that practice. My students do do homework.



What’s with my student’s writing?

Posted on November 4, 2012 by Alan Stange

I exchanged a few comments with William Chamberlain in Missouri on Twitter. He initiated it with a comment about finding time on technology for writing. There are, he remarks, many competing interests on the technology resources. I agreed, and shared my discouragement about my student’s writing this last nine weeks. I feel like so little has been accomplished. Perhaps it is competing demands for time and resources. Perhaps, as William Chamberlain asked, it is where writing stands these days.

Access to technology is a everyone’s issue. We don’t have 1-1 at my school, but we have strong resources both in the classroom and around the school. On almost any occasion I can find twenty-three computers somewhere. It’s not ideal. Students have to work independently. Most are good at that, but it is better if I’m close enough to mentor them. When they are scattered around the school looking for free computers, there’s no monitoring their needs.

I relieve the pressure on technology by insisting pre-writing, drafting, editing and revising be done on paper. Perhaps that is a good way to begin writing, but that is not the way I write. I compose everything on computer. Most of my students would prefer to do it that way too. My method is just expedient.

I am frustrated about my class’s output. My class reads for twenty minutes. That seems like a major investment of class time to me, but it is a commitment we need to make. I don’t invest the same time in daily writing. Just to illustrate the power of Twitter, I will observe here that I paused to respond to the blinking light on my phone. William Chamberlain tweeted that I should invest 15 minutes daily in writing. I wonder how others handle this. We read frequently in the course of our class work. The twenty minutes I schedule is sustained, unrestricted, silent reading (what I wish they would habitually do independently at home, I can dream). We write as well as a matter of course. They need to have more time to write creatively. They also need the time to reflect on their writing – edits and revisions.

I think I need to structure that into our day this next term. The ones who love to write and have engaging ideas, pull their writing folder out when they need an anchor activity. The continuity and energy of their stories are sustained almost daily. The reluctant writers need prompts and external feedback. They need help focusing and they need to establish the thread of their narrative. Learning’s connectedness is the flow of ideas back and forth. While listening and speaking need attention, reading and writing need more work in my classroom.



Keeping an open door

Posted on November 27, 2012 by Alan Stange


Room 7 said goodbye to Ms. Carlee Quiring and Ms. Ashley Tran. Both first year Faculty of Education students at the University of Regina, completed their eight week block observing and participating in our classroom Tuesday afternoons. The purpose of this involvement with Sunningdale School was to begin recognizing and acquiring the knowledge, skills and abilities needed to be a successful teacher. We appreciated their joining us and we wish they could continue with us longer.

I rarely turn down an opportunity to engage with preservice teachers. They have always added value to my student’s learning. To varying degrees, they prefer to be actively involved in the activities. This eight week period they had an opportunity to see how assessment works in my room. They helped students with their independent writing projects and problem-solved architectural models. They helped in the computer lab. They even saw us singing. I think my class offered them a broad range of learning styles.

I always find preservice teachers help me to reflect on my own practice. I’ve been lucky to have about three years of collaboration with the University of Regina at one level or another.



Dinosaurs and Teepees

Posted on November 28, 2012 by Alan Stange

6small.jpgSome topics seem to capture student interest year after year. Dinosaurs are a perennial favorite with elementary students. Over the past few years I’ve noticed Tepees hold a similar fascination. I guess kids love tents.

My fourth graders are studying Saskatchewan’s geography. One indicator is the impact of a region on architecture. We began by sharing what we knew about how the climate and resources of a region affect the architecture, and how human cultural patterns dictate the choice of dwelling. Then I helped them expand their list of dwelling types.

I might have left it at that, but I offered them a chance to do a deeper inquiry into one kind of home. They liked the idea, so they began researching and building models. A few students elected to work alone, most formed groups. I am watching them build an apartment building, two dugouts, three log cabins, and three Tepees. I was hoping to see a sod house.

They are finishing their projects fairly soon. I’m sorry I didn’t impose on them more. I would have liked an example of each of the architectural designs we thought of: tepee, log house, dugout, sod house, stone house, frame house, mobile home, and apartment. There would have been more new knowledge shared. Instead they answered their own questions. That has its own strong arguments.

They were eager for each period. They love the modelling. They are adept at pooling their experience and talents. How many skins would they use for a tepee? That depends on how big it was. How long would it last? A few questions send them deeper into their topics. They are anxious to share their creations with their parents. They cannot all keep the group model so I’ve given them some suggestions for how to record a bit of it on their digital portfolio.



George Winnik, Lost in Time

Posted on December 12, 2012 by Alan Stange

I’m used to the girls in my class churning out long rambling narratives for creative writing. One year a girl wrote a fantasy approaching one hundred pages. Today, one of my fourth grade boys brought his creative writing book to share with me. He was shy about it. He had an identical book given to him by his grandmother that e used as a personal journal. I wonder how much he writes in the journal. The story he shared had legs I think. I could tell he was pleased with my enthusiasm.

His leather-bound journal was damaged along the spine. When I saw him trying to tape it together, the latent librarian in me surfaced. I helped him repair the binding. After we set it aside, I decided to share my writing book with him. We compared pictures.

It was a creative writing period. He approached me as I was editing a student’s draft and asked me if I would share a story with him. I confess, I was shy myself. My black book contained only an incomplete murder mystery, not something I liked particularly, nor thought appropriate for him. Nine-year-olds are not my audience. Instead I shared a story I began on the iPad. He read that with interest, but I don’t think he was overly impressed. It was a science fiction piece and hardly started. He understood the connections I was making when he returned my iPad. If fourth graders were my audience, I might care more. I share, but I am the primary audience at this point.

It was wonderful seeing this side of my student. People have such depth! I’m glad I had a chance to share this common interest with him as well. We are all storytellers in our different ways. Our words are so powerful. They feed us.