Support and Control

Insert cliché opening about how-time-flies-and-I-should-blog-more here.

(CC BY-SA 2.0) by quinn.anya

(CC BY-SA 2.0) by quinn.anya

Thank you to mbedchatblog challenge 2014 for encouraging me to maintain a blogging pulse.

The last several years I’ve tinkered with creating a more student-centred classroom, and the last few semesters I’ve really gone all in. In various  high school humanities classes I’ve worked with passion projects, workshop models, and Genius Hour. I’ve done some team teaching, solicited student input on working with outcomes, and included self-evaluation as an important element of assessment. Certainly I have made messy, sometimes wonderful, often nerve-wracking mistakes, but I’ve learned from them and managed to increase student voice and choice in the process.

And then, last week, while a student was pushing and pitching alternatives to an assignment that already had many options, I caught myself self thinking, “I’ve been working hard on this student-centred thing for a while now; I think I know what you need in order to learn.”


What did I just think?! I think I know what you need in order to learn. How did that get in there?

So, I did what many teachers before me have done–I stalled. I told the student that I’d think about it and get back to them.

Don’t get me wrong; I do believe teachers need to use their expertise in content and craft to maximize learning for everyone in class which requires planning, design, and execution, but if that planning, design, and execution does not embrace and encourage student voice and ownership, then it isn’t realizing its full potential. When I reflected on my hesitance to say, “Yes” to my student, Neil, it was clear that my reluctance was based less on his idea (it was rough, but feasible) and more on my desire for control, that sometimes monster/sometimes friend of teachers everywhere. For that moment I was more interested in a teacher-centred classroom than a student-centred one.

(CC BY 2.0) by .faramarz

(CC BY 2.0) by .faramarz

How can I be attentive to this kind of thinking and evaluate it with greater clarity? Here’s my plan:

  1. Think like a student
  2. Focus on outcomes
  3. Cut myself some slack

By “think like a student” I mean asking the question, “Why not?” If I’m to avoid inadvertently making decisions about student learning based on my own comfort or convenience, then I’m going to have to put the burden of proof on myself by asking, “Why not let, Neil do this?” If I can’t come up with a compelling, educational reason why Neil’s proposal for learning isn’t a good idea, then I should support it.

Outcomes should be the focus as students and teachers learn together. I know this is obvious, but it is so easy to shift focus to discussing an assignment or a mark instead of a demonstrable outcome. The more that student and teacher interactions involve curricular standards and outcomes, the better. Sharing that vocabulary and purpose allows for clearer communication, cooperation, and success. If Neil had made a case using course outcomes, or if outcomes had been more front and centre in my brain at the moment, my resistance to Neil’s proposal would have been easily brushed aside.

The last part of my plan, cutting myself some slack, is a dangerous one. Not enough slack and I’m on a stress leave with a seasonal affective disorder cherry on top by mid semester. Too much slack and I’m right back to where I started, obliviously making classroom decisions that over emphasize my  control rather than supporting student learning. The sweet spot between requires admitting that sometimes a bit of restriction or uniformity in class is okay. Sometimes students need to be challenged by teachers in ways they won’t challenge themselves. Sometimes I’ll have to admit to students that they have a good idea, but that I’m not sure I’m up to the challenge of managing or assessing it with the time and tools available. Perhaps revealing that reality and my humanity will inspire them to help find new tools and new assessments. At very least it will be part of honest relationship and community in the classroom.

That’s my plan, squeezed off from the hip at the end of February. I’m sure to be missing something, so I’d love to hear from other teachers about how they handle sharing the control and ownership of learning with students. Surely the collaboration and support of colleagues is part of the answer, but that’s a topic for another day. Stay warm.


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Warm in Manitoba


(CC BY-NC 2.0) haglundc

Here in Winnipeg we’ve had days and days of -30 degree temperatures, but this week I found a hot spot in Manitoba–#mbedchat. I’m still fairly low on the social media learning curve, and this was my first Twitter chat, but it certainly won’t be my last.

Doing something new always comes with a degree of nerves or uncertainty. As a teacher I’m learning to embrace those feelings because 1. they are simply part of learning (and I want to be a life-long learner) 2. I expect students to handle these feelings on a daily basis, and I’d like to credibly empathize with and support them in their learning. It was time to take the next step on Twitter and in my personal/professional development and join a Twitter Chat.

Even though I know the group wasn’t huge, the pace of the tweets was quick for me at first. I was working with HootSuite for the first time and trying to follow etiquette as well as I could. After the first 10 or 15 minutes, I settled down, stopped obsessing about perfect tweets, and started enjoying the electricity that always seems to generate when passionate teachers get together. During a lengthy cold spell, it isn’t unusual to hear complaints about Manitoba, but 60 minutes with a dozen Manitoba educators melted any negativity and rekindled my Manitoba pride. These dedicated, generous folks left me with tabs full of great resources, confidence that my children are in excellent hands, and renewed energy for the next teaching day that comes from knowing that you belong to something important and so much bigger than yourself. That is quite a pay off for the small price of overcoming a few nerves and trying something new. Thank you #mbedchat.

So, if you haven’t yet tried a twitter chat, I’d encourage you to give it a go. Jerry Blumengarten (aka Cybraryman) has a great resource page to help you get started. The page includes a link to an extensive list of chats, so you’re sure to find a chat that fits you. I don’t want to oversell, but after weeks of frigid temps, the deepfreeze finally broke–right after #mbedchat. Coincidence? Try your first Twitter chat and then you be the judge.


January 12, 2014 · 9:46 pm

Spreading a Little Sunshine

The Sunshine Award or the Sunshine Elevens or one of several other versions of inspiration and encouragement for bloggers has been rapidly circulating the blogosphere. Thank you, Sheri Edwards, for nominating me. It seems that no matter where I turn on the web these days, @grammasheri is doing something thoughtful and helpful. She practices what she teaches. Inspiring this blog post is further evidence of her thoughtfulness.

(CC BY 2.0) Dhaval Jani

(CC BY 2.0) Dhaval Jani

Here’s how this chain letter of inspiration works:

  1. Acknowledge the nominating blogger.
  2. Share 11 random facts about yourself.
  3. Answer the 11 questions the nominating blogger has created for you.
  4. List 11 bloggers.
  5. Post 11 questions for the bloggers you nominate to answer, and let all the bloggers know they have been nominated. Don’t nominate a blogger who has nominated you.

 Eleven Random Facts About Me

  1. I ride a bike to work year round. -38 Celsius (no wind chill) is my coldest ride.
  2. As a student teacher I auditioned for a movie with a class of drama students. I lost the part in callbacks to Paul Walker.
  3. I once spent 7 days (168 hours) without human contact. I did have some decent conversation with squirrels once I warmed up to them during the final few days.
  4. I’ve lived as far south as Phoenix, AZ and as far north as Winnipeg, MB.
  5. The first time I laid hands on an iOS device was just over a year ago, and it fundamentally changed some of my thoughts about the future (in education and in general).
  6. I live in a house filled with women (wife and four daughters).
  7. The strangest summer job I worked involved shaking tea bags to ensure they were properly sealed.
  8. I have a Masters degree in English: Creative Writing
  9. I’m one of the six people on the planet without a Facebook account.
  10. I brew beer with my dad for the pure enjoyment of the beer and the company.
  11. The first movie I experienced in the theatre was Star Wars.

Answering Sheri’s Questions

When did you know what you wanted to do for a career? How did you discover that?

In grade nine I knew I wanted to teach. It was a deep-down knowing, but there were some more conscious moments of clarity. For example, my literature teacher was discussing a poem with the class and asked us to consider what could inspire someone to leap off a cliff (this was a dramatic love poem). Before thinking I blurted, “A push!” and the teacher laughed. It was a simple moment, but instead of the scolding I was expecting for my rashness, I received a human response. Teachers were suddenly human beings! I was a human being, too, and perhaps that meant I could really become a teacher without morphing into some caricature of a grown-up. Teaching could be about relationship. Ah Ha! I was hooked!

What are your top three favorite books of all time?

This question is too difficult for me. I’m cheating and naming three authors (which is difficult enough).

C.S. Lewis

Garret Keizer

Flannery O’Connor

If you could only read one blogger next year, who would it be?

George Couros

What advice do you have for educators today?

Relationship, relationship, relationship! Craft, credibility, assessment—these are important elements of education, but they all rest on the foundation of relationships: with students, with colleagues, with parents, with administration.

Teach students, not standards.

Say you’re sorry. (It’s a real relationship enhancer.)

Collaborate generously and humbly with colleagues.

Learn without fear of mistakes.

What is on your bucket list?

Design and build a bicycle by hand.

Finish a full-length writing project.

Grow my own ingredients and turn them into beer.

Get a hole-in-one.

Catch a notable Rainbow trout.

If you could go anywhere in the world where would you go?


Travelling is wonderful, both around the planet and in the mind, but nothing is as fine as truly coming home.

What is your favorite quote?

“The sun looks down on nothing half so good as a household laughing together over a meal.” –C.S. Lewis

What song lyrics move you?

Grace, she takes the blame
She covers the shame
Removes the stain
It could be her name

Grace, it’s the name for a girl
It’s also a thought that changed the world
And when she walks on the street
You can hear the strings
Grace finds goodness in everything

What once was hurt
What once was friction
What left a mark
No longer stings
Because Grace makes beauty
Out of ugly things

Grace, U2

If you could sit with any 5 people dead or alive around your dinner table, who would you choose and why?

This is an easy one. I am married to a wonderful woman and have four lovely daughters. There are no five people, dead or alive, with whom I would rather dine. Christmas break has been delightful, not because I’m away from school (I love school), but rather because I enjoy three squares a day with my favourite people.

What are your five favorite verbs?

Love, reflect, embrace, wonder, laugh

What six words sum up your philosophy [of life or of education]?

Foster growth mindset soli Deo Gloria

Bloggers (some of these good people have been through this exercise, but they are worth taking a look)

Eleven Questions for Bloggers

  1. What do you do for escape or relaxation?
  2. What is one concern you have about the future of technology?
  3. Share one Ah-Ha! moment you’ve had (in or out of a classroom).
  4. Which books (one fiction, one non-fiction) would you recommend to new teachers?
  5. What’s one of your guilty pleasures?
  6. If you had to change careers, what new career would you choose?
  7. When you’re not immersed in the present, do you find yourself more often looking back or looking ahead?
  8. What is your favourite season? Why?
  9. If I handed you $100, what would you do with it?
  10. What metaphor/simile describes your writing process? (eg. My writing is like a tube of toothpaste. It flows quickly at first, but at the end it’s hard to squeeze out the last little bit and finish the tube.)
  11. Which Twitter hashtag would you follow if you could only follow one?

Happy blogging in 2014! Thank you for your inspirational words and efforts.


January 3, 2014 · 5:08 pm

Clearer Skies Ahead


(CC BY 2.0) eldh

Recently, during an online conversation about the existence of a generational divide in the Twitterverse, @d_mulder expressed interest in what I was doing with Twitter for my students. The honest answer? Not much. I’ll elaborate.

This semester I polled 50 students (grades 11 and 12) about their use of Facebook and Twitter. Ninety-eight percent (49 of 50) are Facebook users. Twitter is used by 44 of the 50. Where the poll gets interesting to me is when the students revealed their perceived audience. Almost every Facebook user polled professed to having adults as Friends and using a variety of settings to control which friends could see specific content. However, only one of the 44 Twitter users had their tweets protected, and none of the users connected with adults on Twitter.

Finally, I asked them to consider the differences, if any, in the content they posted on Facebook and Twitter. That’s when the squirming started (for some). Some confessed that their Twitter content was a bit less “adult friendly” than their Facebook posts. When I asked why, one student actually said, “Because our parents can’t see what we do on Twitter,” and then, when I gave a look of surprise and ‘oh, yeah?!’ quickly revised the statement with, “well, they probably won’t see what’s on Twitter.” This attitude makes sense considering that 40 of the students knew at least one parent is on Facebook while only one student thought his dad might be on Twitter.

This knowledge has me very cautious about invading what my students see as their space (Twitter) and quite determined to teach and model digital citizenship. I’ve tried to be clear about how Twitter is a public space unless tweets are protected. We’ve discussed the use of multiple accounts (one for more casual content and one for school), but that model has limitations as well. George Couros has an excellent post on the difference between personal&professional versus public&private.

I prefer the private/public model when teaching and modelling for students. I try to have Circles of Publicthem think of concentric circles of privacy. The innermost circle is the most private–stuff between me and God. As the circles widen, so does the public audience, so my next circle includes only my wife. This is an audience of one, but an audience nevertheless. As the audience grows, I need to adjust what I’m willing to say/do/post in order to respect the boundaries of both myself and the people who may encounter my words/actions.

Now if only I could get more students to really believe how broad the circle is where Twitter’s audience resides. Then I’d worry less about them submarining opportunities like this college hopeful,  and I’d be able to more effectively hone their citizenship skills (face to face and online). But, the high and low pressure systems that are the teenager’s “personal” and (mostly non-existent) “professional” Twitter accounts still make for stormy weather when they collide.

For example, last month I thought I’d send a student a friendly reminder. Strangely, I didn’t have her email address, but I knew she was on Twitter. I hesitated and then thought better of the tweet, abundantly cautious about her boundaries. I asked her the next day if she would have appreciated the reminder or if it would have been weird to get a tweet from a teacher. “That wouldn’t be weird at all. I would have loved a reminder,” she said, but after a millisecond of hesitation, continued, “just don’t read my tweets, though.”

*Sigh* I’m teaching to ensure clearer skies ahead.


December 26, 2013 · 4:40 pm

A New Start: Practicing What I Teach


CC BY-NC-SA by -eko-

The new car smell has faded from this school year, but I’m making a new start. Blogging ideas have germinated and stretched their tender shoots into the air only to wither under the heat of a heavy schedule. I’ve read many blog posts and felt inspired and guilty in turn as I consumed and didn’t offer much in return. What finally pushed me past excuses to action? Students.

Student voice and choice have been the focus of my new school year. Last year I kicked the tires on approaches like genius hour, but this year I bought the car, declined the insurance, and stomped the gas on the biggest road trip of my career. I’m running genius hour (we call them passion projects) in two classes, and in another our activities are almost entirely designed collaboratively with students. This class of grade 12 students began the year by “translating” the course outcomes into more student friendly language and have been devising ways to show mastery of them ever since. I’ll discuss what they’re doing in future posts (Yes, there will be future posts), but first l’ll share how they inspired me to start blogging again.

Several students were getting overwhelmed by the wide-ranging freedom of the class and the challenge of making their learning visible. “Just tell me what to do!” was the secret cry of their hearts. I offered journalling as a way to work through their fear and document what they’re learning. “Writing/thinking through your learning,” I explained, “will help you focus and organize your thoughts. Then you’ll have a record that you can analyze and that can give you direction.” Students are not unfamiliar with journals, but for the first time I saw students clearly recognize their value. Shock slowly drained from their faces and smiles settled in when they realized that they wouldn’t have to wait for a teacher’s journal prompt, but that they could write about present and pressing challenges AND that doing so could find solutions.


For them. For me.

How could I kneel along side their desks and give them this advice–advice I believe to be sound–while my neglected blog waits, patient as a loyal dog, in my digital dog house? So, thanks to my students who are journalling their way through their discomfort and challenges, I’m back.

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Mistakes in Education: a reblog

*note: This post was originally posted on a blog I use with my students, but I thought some of my colleagues and readers here might find it interesting. I’m not finished with this topic. 

This week I learned more about how important mistakes are when learning. In class I mentioned how our school system has inadvertently taught us that being wrong is a very bad thing. This has stunted our creativity, our critical thinking, and our playfulness. We’re so concerned with avoiding being wrong that we’d rather not raise our hand or participate in something challenging. Failure is the ultimate shame.  The embedded video is a TED talk by Kathryn Schulz who studies being wrong and its role in our lives. If you’re interested and have 18 minutes to spare, you may want to check it out.

I’m trying to change our attitude toward mistakes and failure starting with this class, and this week only increased my belief that it is a much needed attitude adjustment. Not only did this video inspire me, but so did an encounter with one of my daughters. She’s six, and on Friday after school she started crying. I took her into my arms, calmed her, and tried to decipher the sniffly, sobby story of what was wrong. Turns out she made a mistake at school.

The class was working on optical illusions. Students were supposed to draw boxy, plaid-like patterns on a circular piece of paper. The paper circles were pierced in the centre by a pencil, resembling a flat umbrella. When the pencil is rolled between the palms, the circle spins, and the boxy pattern whirls into a colourful circle. Well, my daughter, not seeing the relevance or the big picture, quickly scribbled a blotchy pattern on her circle. When the teacher gently tried to show her the need for a plaid pattern, the shame of being wrong descended on my little girl. The only thing that reduced her shame to a manageable level was another little girl in her class who immediately volunteered that she had made the same mistake.

Back at home, I tried to convinced my daughter that school was one of the best places to make mistakes. She recently learned to ice skate at school, and she’s getting pretty good. I asked her if she ever fell.

“Of course!” she said with her silly-daddy look on her face.

“Oh no! I said, “That’s a mistake.”

She quickly replied, “No it isn’t. That’s how you learn to skate.”

I let her wisdom sink in and then we talked some more about learning, but I have haven’t been able to shake her innate understanding that learning involves mistakes while at the same time she’s ashamed to make any at school. This is a big problem within our education system. I learned a bit more this week about how deep it runs within me and the system, and I want to be part of the solution. Any ideas? Let’s talk and learn playfully without fear of being wrong.

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Out of the Pool; Into the Ocean


image via Post Ranch Inn

About two weeks ago I hopped out of the ETMOOC pool in order to kick start my second semester. That feels like yesterday, but I’m typing my first post in February, and it’s after Valentine’s Day! ETMOOC has been quite the immersive immersion (Sorry, I shouldn’t mix technology and water terminology ;-)). I’m new to Twitter, Google+, Blackboard,YouTube, vlogging… I wasn’t drowning, but I felt I needed to focus on my students’ classes and not my own.

Somewhere in the midst of prepping for second semester, I realized that my subconscious pool metaphor was shortsighted and wrong. Suddenly, I didn’t see myself climbing out of the ETMOOC pool and diving into my Second Semester pool, but rather, I knew I was swimming in the ocean. The two bodies of water weren’t separate at all, but connected in ways that I hadn’t seen. My learning is an essential part of student learning.

Why was I compartmentalizing my learning and my students’ learning? I discovered that in the past I connected my learning to student learning in a very linear way. I learned so that I could better help them learn. Notice how that thinking sets up a Me-Them relationship? I work intentionally to build relationships with students, and yet, my thinking about my own learning has been holding me back from greater depths of relationship and learning in class. My learning needs to take place far more visibly during class with my students, not only before and after. When students and I are learning together, much of the Me-Them dynamic switches to We.

So now what? Well, I decided to share my ETMOOC experience and learning with my students, and, to start learning more visibly with them. I committed to turn one of my classes (a small group of grade 12s) into a learning lab. I started by ensuring every student had a mobile device. Next, I handed them the provincial outcomes for the class, and we began re-writing them in more student-friendly (read people-friendly) language. They sat, stunned, as I explained that they could demonstrate their ability to meet those outcomes in any way they liked, using content they liked and that I’d help them do it.

We’re two weeks in, and the shock is beginning to wear off. We’ve set up blogs to use as learning logs and, possibly, portfolios (You’ll find mine here). The students use a shared Google doc to take notes. One or two students each class handle the notation while the others engage without the extra responsibility. The practice has allowed several students to participate at a much higher level while others are improving their note-taking skills because of the accountability of others relying on them.

The group wanted to start something together before branching out; they’re unsure about how to exercise their freedom (I’ll have to give them improved support). We decided on poetry, so we’re using the poem of the day on Writer’s Almanac to authentically learn together. I sit with them as we discuss the poem projected on the screen. We make meaning, and tease out relevant terms and concepts for the notes. It’s liberating and exhilarating for me to not only avoid leading students through a poem with heavy hand, but also to see real proof that previous lessons about poetry in earlier years have taken root. It’s empowering for the students as they participate in dictating the direction of their own learning and discover that they can read poetry far more independently than they thought. They suddenly see evidence of their own learning in action, which is far superior to a good test grade. It’s been a fine start to our semester.

So did I really get out of the ETMOOC pool? Well, my developing PLN gave me the inspiration and encouragement to recognize and rectify my situation. The tech challenges of ETMOOC gave me several new tools for school and the confidence to use them. I’m hoping to continue to collaborate with ETMOOC participants and that my students may even work with their students. Did I get out of the pool? No, I just saw the ocean for the first time. Ain’t she grand?


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