It is okay to feel scared

This post is more of an attempt to rationalize and calm my own nerves than make a commentary on anyone else and their feelings. When Izzy (my daughter) was learning to communicate more we were told by her therapist that to help her with her feelings it was important that we expressed ours. We often said, ” I am feeling….because…” and this in turned actually helped her to open up. The theory was that the more we opened up our own feelings the more she felt that it was normal to do so and it gave her permission to as well.

These are scary times. For me it isn’t so much the virus itself but the uncertainty of life. I have never done well with the unknown. I have faith and a believe that things will work out for good but that small 1% of my voice is always the loudest. I love routine, which I know for many of you to hear me say it may make you laugh but I do. I thrive on keeping logical thoughts and things in order. These past view weeks and to be honest the year has thrown all logic and structure out the door for me.

So I am here to write down that I am scared. I am scared for my family. I am scared for my friends who may or may not have jobs or a business once this is all done. I am scared for my students who have lost that structure. I miss them and the connections that I have made. I am an extrovert by nature (I know shocking right?) and those human connections fuel me and make me feel alive. I am scared that those connections will change and the way we interact with each other will. I already see it now. People are afraid of one another. There is a dark cloud over everyones faces and it hurts me to see this. I am scared that I have no control over life right now.

I know that many of you are scared as well and that is okay. What I am trying to do is state my feelings. Stay away from social media that isn’t purposeful (I love those memes but some times the news articles are too much). I am also making sure I maintain my running and exercise as this keeps me from going completely stir crazy. I am also trying hard to reconnect with my family and my kids. I am a firm believer that everything happens for a reason. I may not see that reason, it may stress me out and scare me to death while I go through it but there is always something I learn about myself and about my life. This is be no different.

I hope this finds all of you well and safe. I know these are tough times but I am reminded of this….

The sun will rise soon and when it does we will rise to the new day with amazing new skills and learning opportunities. Till then continue to smile, continue to love and continue to be amazing.

Minecraft in the Classroom: Going Beyond Creepers and Zombies

This past month has been a very exciting month for our classroom. We started a deep dive into using Minecraft in the classroom. Now I know you hear the word Minecraft and automatically think two things. 1) What is that? or 2) zombies, creepers and kids playing video games but it is so much more than this. I won’t go into the whole premise of Minecraft but you can check it out here.

Now what did we do with it. In Ontario, one of the subjects that we go into in Grade 4 is Early Societies (or better known as Ancient Civilizations). Here are the overall expectations:

Now in the past I would grab some books, have the students read through them and fill out a graphic organizer. This graphic organizer would then help them to write a report about the civilization of their choice. This is great. It gets at the curriculum, I teach writing conventions and concepts and they learn an important skill in researching information but do the kids enjoy it? Does it really get them into understanding the research? or is it just words on a page. I think about my own daughter, who just happens to be in Grade 4. I personally love Ancient Civilizations, especially Medieval Era. I talk about it with her all the time but it wasn’t until we went to Medieval Times that she was like whoa daddy this is cool. That rich immersion into a society that is gone is very hard to replicate but this is exactly what we got with the use of Minecraft.

So what did we do. The first step was the same. My students started out looking at books and looking for information in regards to the environment they lived in, society (class structure, daily life) and various innovations. When we first started out we felt this was the best way to get students into the various civilizations and allow them to explore. I then introduced them to the world of Minecraft, which many if not all went nuts. I told them that they would be working in their groups to make their civilization come to life. I decided that they would need a small sample so I created my own world to show them. You can see this world in the Minecraft folder below. Here is a screenshot:

I also gave them a set of parameters.

  1. I wanted at least three structures that would represent their civilization
  2. They had to have 2 pieces of innovation
  3. They had to show me the social structure
  4. The environment and the materials they chose had to represent their civilizations time period.
  5. Once that was all done they could go in and add anything else they thought was good to know from their research

The next step was paper prototyping their Minecraft worlds. Students were given a large piece of newsprint and told to map out what they felt like their worlds would look like. In hindsight some more skills on mapping may have been needed. However, students had a plan of what they wanted to design. They then took this plan into the Minecraft world to start their crafting. This was where the interesting discussions started.

At first, the students where just exploring their worlds. For many of them it was new and exciting but as they started to build their discussions became richer and richer. Many students argued about the materials that they were using, some noticed that the vegetation was all off and had to be changed. Some of the students asked about various materials and when it was developed. One group had some of the most interesting conversations:

Me: What are you building?
Group: A doctor’s office
Me: Really? Did they have doctors (this was the medieval era)
Group: I don’t know
Me: Why did you want to build it?
Group: Cause we have them so they must have had them
Me: Go do a quick research on it?
Group: OMG!!! they just cut of their hands and let them bleed
Me: (small chuckle inside)

Another conversation I had was around Libraries.
Me: What are you building?
Group: a Library (they had used the bookshelves in Minecraft and built this elaborate place of learning)
Me: Did they have books?
Group: Why wouldn’t they? How else did they learn?
Me: Um…. (left them for a while)
Group: They wrote on scrolls and only certain people read, that isn’t fair?
Me: so what changed?

I had numerous conversations like this with many groups. I could not believe the rich and engaging conversations that the students where having. These conversations started right away. As children built they talked about materials, dimensions, where certain place had to be built and the scale of buildings. Not only did these conversations happen but more questions and further research had to happen. This is something that I never saw with my older versions of Ancient Civs. Sure the students enjoyed the different civilizations but there was never a real thirst to learn more.

With the buildings complete the next step was to use the black boards, signs and NPC players in Minecraft to share their research. With these components students are able to share their research in small sections at a time. It helped us relearn proper paragraph writing and focusing on main ideas.

Once students developed their worlds they each got a chance to go around to different ones and explore them. Within Minecraft EDU students have a camera, portfolio and Book a Quill option. With these options students can record their thinking down which can later be downloaded as a PDF or kept in the world for others to read.

As we wrapped our project my teaching partner and I reflected on some changes to our process for next year. One I would have started in science with teaching more about habitats. We felt that this would give more students a connection with the environment and biome piece. We also felt that instead of starting with the research we would just jump right into an inquiry and paper planning. The reason for this is that we felt as soon as students started to build they really got into asking deeper questions, which in turn lent itself to higher research and more meaningful connections to the work. The final piece we felt that the students needed more work with basic gameplay. As you look through their worlds you will find that students didn’t lead you through the world. The nice thing is that with Minecraft EDU there are already a lot of pre-made worlds for lessons on all sorts of topics. One that I thought would be great is called the Mindful Knight which teaches students about Mindfulness in a simple game-based play. If combined with a story map students may see how to map their own game and the learning path for the civilizations. I also want to add in a section where they would show the evolution/ inspiration that their civilizations gave to other civilizations. I feel this was an amazing piece that time just didn’t allow. I will have to make this up later on in the year.

There is so many options in Minecraft EDU it isn’t even funny. It is by far more than a simple video game with zombies and creepers but one that allows students to explore and immersive themselves in the learning.

Here is a video link of one of my students worlds: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1GxtxKaRBqPjJpUZVED8f_AOv6cWgvgyq/view?usp=sharing

Would like to check out their worlds here are a few to download:
https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/1xd0zrJQPppGKrZj8Kt4XWgOUhhHLjPoe?usp=sharing

If you don’t have access to Minecraft check with your board many people don’t know that they already do. If you do have it I highly encourage you to use it in the classroom. Minecraft EDU works on Microsoft devices and apple devices, sorry no Chrome books.

My Daughter has ADHD….

My daughter has ADHD (I don’t know if I have ever said this in print) but this is not how she needs or should be defined. As many of you know my daughter has been one of the greatest inspirations for me and many of my writing. She makes me think and yes all kids make parents think but she makes me question everything I do as a teacher. For my colleagues the reason why I always ask “what are your intentions” is because of Izzy.

Having a child with a learning disability and ADHD has been a struggle. The system we currently have unfortunately is not enough and I work in this system. Now don’t get me wrong she has and does have fabulous teachers but like all great teachers there is only so much that they can do with the resources they have. As I mentioned before this has been one of the hardest things I think I have ever dealt with as a teacher and as a parent. There has been many battles with IEPs, discussion with teachers about what ADHD means about LD and more importantly how Izzy learns. I have spent countless hours researching and learning about Izzy’s disability because I know what it takes for her to be successful. It has been very frustrating at times because of these battles. I know my daughter, I know she is frustrating but I also know that she has one of the most beautifulest minds you will ever see and I felt that many teachers just didn’t see it. I still remember one year I was just told, “I have never had a girl like Izzy.” I have sat in cars crying, I have sat in my house yelling and screaming in frustration but with every battle I have learned more and more about my daughter and also about how to talk and teach children.

As I have mentioned before I have always said having Izzy go through school has been the best thing that has happened to me. I have been trying to write a post like this for quite some time but it often turns to anger instead of my intent. I have many posts that start with “all teachers should have a child with a disability” or “what I wish our education system should know from a parent point of view” but it wasn’t till my good friend Ruthie Sloan wrote her post about empathy that it finally clicked. My daughter is one of the most amazing people that you will ever meet and one of the most frustrating. Here is what she has taught me:

  1. Have empathy towards our students:

This has probably been one of my biggest learning. When I first started teaching I would love to say I had compassion for students but I don’t know if I truly did. I see kids a lot differently now that I have had a child who struggles to be seen, heard and understood. I listen to conversations in staff rooms, or interpret in school review committees differently because I know what its like to be the parent of a child who is not seen, heard or understood. I try to look at children with “soft eyes” because that is what I hope teachers do with my daughter. All children want to be loved. I know at times this is one of the hardest things to see. As teachers we have extremely busy and frustrating days but children don’t come to school to make our lives miserable and just want to be loved.

2. There is always a reason why students misbehave:

This comment goes with the above. I know with my daughter and with most kids that there is always a reason for the misbehaviour. Because Izzy has ADHD the impulsive things or the on point one moment and not the next isn’t her choosing. Yes, she is to be held accountable for behaviour but we as educators need to think about why those behaviours are happening. Stuart Shanker’s work on self reg has been absolutely fundamental in learning about this. Understanding that we as educators need to reframe and redirect behaviour has been a huge change for me.

3. ALL kids need accommodations:

This is everything and yet one of the most frustrating things as a parent and teacher. ALL kids will benefit from accommodations and because we give them doesn’t mean that we are cheating the system or the kids are some how not meeting standard. I am not trying to be preaching here but something that irks me a little. That being said ALL kids need them but for students like Izzy they will not survive without them. As a parent the amount of times that I have had to fight for her accommodations is crazy and I know the system. Our students deserve better and we as a system can learn more about how to accommodate our students. Four questions that I have been focusing my planning on are 1) Do they know what to do? 2) Do they know when to stop? 3) Do they know what to do afterwards 4) Is it developmentally appropriate? If we can answer those questions you will see a lot more happier children.

4. Relationships Matter:

I have written many posts on this that I don’t even know where to begin here. You can see my Tedx talk on it too. Bottom line is the more we make connections the less problems we have. We need those connections between children in order to make sure that when we have to discipline it isn’t seen as an attack but at a place of love and learning. Izzy is no different. She listens more to the ones she knows love her and she doesn’t resist as much when she has a relationship with you versus when she doesn’t. When kids feel threatened their animal brains take over and the with fight or flight; in my daughters case you get the fight 99% of the time. This is protective mode. This is survival for them. But when you have that relationship you can talk her off that ledge and then reason once she is calm.

5. Not all disabilities are visible:

This has probably been my biggest learning. ADHD isn’t a disability that you outwardly see. The other problem is that Izzy has moments where she is on fire and you look at her and go man you get it one day but not the other. Many students with ADHD are also gifted. But then there are moments where it just isn’t there. The video below has a great analogy about a race car with a super engine but with bicycle brakes. I often call ADHD my super power (yes it is hereditary). It has allowed me to do many amazing things but it also has hinder me in many other areas. See disabilities means that you see the child for who they are and accept who they are for all that they have. It means allowing them to express their learning in a variety of ways, to be super energetic or to move. It means that we have to let go of our notion of compliance and question why we do what we do.

6. No this is not an act or done on purpose

This sort of ties with the above but Izzy doesn’t often act out on purpose. Her actions are often impulsive and she has social lagging skills. Many students with LDs have this and even more so with ADHD. There is often anxiety and mental health issues tied to ADHD because they are so misunderstood. Because Izzy can be on one minute and off 10secs later it is perceived that her actions must be intentional. Even as a parent I have to remind myself that this is not the case.

7. Be kind you are still learning

I have to remind myself of this every day. I make mistakes all the time. There is no one that beats them self up more than me as a parent. I blame Izzy’s misfortunes on my failings but I have to have kinder eyes. I have to say it is okay, keep learning and keep growing and I think as educators we have to have that too. We all have busy careers and classrooms. We have many balls we juggle and those balls will fall.

Thank you for listening to me write about this topic. I have been trying to articulate these past two years for quite some time. I want educators to learn more about ADHD but also that we as educators can do more to shift and rethink how we work with those with special needs. Seeing with empathy is a great place to start.

If you want a really great video about ADHD take a look at this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jhcn1_qsYmg or if you are a podcast person take a look at this: https://www.adhdrewired.com/. Or learn more from this website: https://www.understood.org/en

As always if you have questions or comments please add them below or message me. Or if you have a story to share I am happy to listen.

Perseverance, struggle and a little grit: How running a 53km race relates to Education

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Its done its done and im alive to tell the tale

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So this Saturday I did something I never thought I could possibly do, I ran a 53.9km race. This was and has been one of my biggest accomplishments but also has me thinking about goals, perseverance and having a little grit.

This race was not what I was hopping for. When I first started out on the journey I was feeling the best I have ever felt (when it comes to running) but then well injury came into play and right at the peak of my training. This was devastating, I was devastated. I had to shut it down and started to rebuild. This also made me reevaluate my training and my goals for this race. And then there was the race. For the first 25km of the race it went according to plan. I was keep pace and felt amazing.

But then that is where it went down hill. I hit a wall at 28km and than another at 35km (this was the farthest that I have ever gone due to my training being cut short). But then something came over me and at 45km I just said, “enough!” and pretty much willed myself to the end.

It was a pretty huge feeling crossing the finish line and being able to say that I ran 53km but this blog isn’t really about me running a race it is about education. So how does running a race relate to education.

  1. I recently wrote about if we want our students to _____ than we need to show it. Reaching out of your comfort zone isn’t something we as human beings naturally do. We like our comfort blank and we like keeping the status quo and yet we as educators all want our students to go beyond this. This has something that is still nagging me but I will come out and say it. If we want our students to persevere, to do something that no one has done, to take risks than we as educators must also do this. Now it doesn’t need to be running 53km, it can be as simple as trying a new lesson, learning something new and visibly sharing the learning, writing a blog post even though writing is something you struggle with or whatever pushes you out of that comfort. We as educators must show that risk and that risk taking is important if we truly want our own students to do this. Last year, I ran 21.3km a half marathon. That was the most I have ever run, till now. The same day in which I did this the world record for a marathon was broken. The human limit is endless and only grounded by what we put it too. Show the students they are more by being more.
  2. This race also taught me the importance of grit. Grit isn’t something tangible. It isn’t something that can be truly taught but it is something that can be learned and often learned through hard fought lessons. I wanted to give up. There was one point in my race I went to stretch and fell down because my muscle cramped so hard it wouldn’t even hold me up. But I didn’t. Why? Because I was going to cross no matter what and nothing was going to stop me. That same grit needs to be discussed and show to our students. How often do many of them want to give up? Why? Because they haven’t had the experiences of wanting something or learning how hard it is to learn and grow. Life doesn’t really get better, we just get better at understanding. We understand by making mistakes and we learn by pushing our limits. No one learns when someone does things for them.
  3. No good goal can be done alone! I want to say this again. No good goal can be done alone. I had a huge team behind me all the way from my family, my friends, my physiotherapist (who also ran the race) to my running groups. This accomplishment was a group win and the same goes for our students. Yes, they need to have the goal. They need to realize it is important. They need to put the work in but they also need to realize that they will need help along the way. Helping our students understand to work together, to sacrifice their own goals to help others, to be kind and share joy goes along way. As I was running, the constant voice of “you are done, you aren’t good enough and you should stop” was met by other voices of, “You got this, I am hurt like you” and cheers of you did this. The bad was balanced if not out weighed by the good and we all need that in our lives.
  4. Sorry one more: No matter what always smile

Overall, this was an amazing experience and one that I will always treasure. It has shown me that I am capable of so much more and that I can and will continue to do amazing things. Love to hear what your goals are and if I can help let me know that too. Post in the comments or tweet me.

All photos where from Sue sitki photography.

If we want our students to (insert word) it starts with us

As teachers, we have a great responsibility. We are entrusted with 24 (maybe more or maybe less) random children. Our job is to impart some sort of knowledge so that they are ready for the world that awaits them but one most important parts is that we show them that they are capable of anything. But I guess the question is how do we do this?

Being a parent has been one of the greatest things and the most frustrating thing that could ever have happened to me. It has taught me to be more patient, to be a better teacher and to value every moment I have with them and it has also given me many many grey hairs (which you would see if I didn’t shave it off every two weeks). That being said one of the most frustrating parts is that my kids won’t take risks and it’s not because I haven’t tried to encourage them or to help there is just something that holds them back. This thought has been frustrating me for some time. I know that all kids are different (we see that in our classrooms) and I know that risk takes time but I feel like there is more to it; like something is missing.

But the more and more I have thought about this the more and more I pin it back on me. When I come up to a new challenge do I inadvertently shy away? Do I some how model a hesitance to try something new and take that risk. For better or for worse we are the models that they follow and the example we set for them is the example they internalize and create for themselves.

This goes back to our classroom. We all want our students to be curious, competent learners. We want them to feel safe to make mistakes and take that leap of faith but do we truly model this for them?

If we want our students to truly be in charge of their learning, to feel safe to take risks we have to model what that looks like. We have to be willing to try something new and incorporate it into our teaching practice. We have to be willing to fail in front of our peers and students and say that’s okay, what did I learn.

This is just a short thought that I have been having. My hope is not to question but to maybe make you ponder. I am still thinking this through but I wonder if over time, if we as teachers take more risks to try “one thing” a month, than our students will also start to take more risks to try something new.

I love to hear your thoughts on this as I haven’t fully formed an opinion or a side. And if you are trying something new I would love to hear about that too. Hit me up in the comments or tweet me @mrsoclassroom.

What should be the purpose of technology?

I have been doing a lot of thinking about the purpose of education and more importantly why do we do what we do. Technology is one of those things that I question. I often wonder why we use the tools we use? Are they used to be helpful? Are they used because we saw it at a conference or on Pinterest? Do we use them because a child has asked to try it?

For me it doesn’t matter what type of technology you are using but more why are you using it? This year we have used Dash and Dots to teach coordinate grid systems to grade 1’s, we have to use Makey Makey kits with the grade fives and sixes to discuss electricity and the idea around the inquiry process, and have even started to dabble in Microbits to help students with space and coding. All of these ideas are great (at least in my opinion, but I am a little bias). However, it isn’t the tool per se but what that tool has allowed the classrooms to do. For me, technology is an extension of learning. It allows me to do things with my classroom that I couldn’t do in the past. Let us take a look at the Makey Makey:

For this lesson we wanted the students to learn about design thinking and the inquiry process. For this, the students learned what Makey Makey was, considered an audience and then made a game, or a device for the audience to interact with at the Halloween fair. At first, some of the projects didn’t work out as planned but then the students did more research and revised their thoughts and ideas. Now Design thinking and inquiry isn’t new. It isn’t even something that needs to have the technology but what the Makey Makey kits allowed was for them to have an interesting purpose and also create something that would be interactive and fun. At the same time, they also learned about coding, logic, teamwork and the purpose of our lesson design thinking. 

I mentioned the Dash and Dots. For these students in grade 1, they were learning about directions. Directions can be taught by having them move around the room and learn left and right but instead, we decided to play a game called capture the kingdom (I got this idea from Jacob Lee off of Youtube). So now students are interacting with Dash and learning their directions at the same time learning to subitize, add simple numbers and work collaboratively. It was also a great introduction to coding. 

Both of these examples show that technology is great but it really is the purpose behind what we do as educators that matters.  So as you read all these great ideas or look up information about the latest tool to use always think about this, what is my purpose and will this (insert technology) be helpful to extend the learning of my students. 

Love to hear your thoughts on this.

We have always done it this way

I have recently been thinking about this phrase, a lot. The main reason is that I feel like as teachers we believe that this statement is true and yet the system we teach in continues to do things a certain way and to be fair hasn’t really changed since its inception.

I have been watching the documentary “Most Likely to Succeed”. The writer of the documentary mentions that he looks at his children’s reaction to school and tells them that one day this will all be worthwhile. However, the more he has invested in the documentary the more he has started to realize that the things he says about school are slowly becoming a lie.

The documentary states that “Most children today will grow up not being able to find a job.” For the most part, our parents grew up, learned facts and were able to settle into a job. Now students go to school, then to university and may not even get the job they want. Even worse they may end up with a job they didn’t even need to go to school for.

As I said, school has been about learning facts, given by the teacher. Those facts are assessed and then given a mark to show the students how well they have learned. Sure we have moved the aesthetics of school (e.g. groups, changed the furniture, we even have more technology) but the fundamental ways in which “school is” are still ingrained in our system.

I asked this question on Twitter:

Just doing some thinking. What is one thing you have changed/reevaluated in your practice and wonder why you ever did it in the first place? #edchat #Peel21st #loguefos— Jonathan So (@MrSoclassroom) February 4, 2019

Responses ranged from asking more questions, giving marks, waiting to the end of the learning process for assessment, to even more ideas around stickers for rewards, reading booklets. It showed me that there are things that teachers are thinking and changing.

For me, my greatest change was when I moved to a gradeless system and gave more authority to my students. I saw a huge growth in my students but more importantly, I saw students take charge in their learning. They weren’t there because it was something they had to do or told they had to attend. They came to school because they wanted to be there.

The world is an amazing place and school needs to honour that amazingness. For me, School needs to be a place where students want to be there, where they want to learn and explore.

I am not saying let’s throw the baby out with the bathwater but more let us rethink why we do the things we do. The major problem is we are teaching students information that we don’t know if they will need or not. The world is changing faster than we as educators can keep up. The skills we may have thought important need to be reevaluated. But more importantly, as educators, we have to think about the purpose of everything we do.

Interestingly enough I followed up my essential question with this one.

Doing some more thinking. What has been the best thing you have ever done in regards to your teaching practice? #edchat #peel21st #loguefos
— Jonathan So (@MrSoclassroom) February 5, 2019

I loved the responses that I got from this and it truly created some great motivation to continue in education.

I loved how the documentary ended, “With all of the schools, we saw, out of all the truly great innovative thinking, the one common thread was that students seemed to be working on things with a sense of purpose.”

As educators, we need to constantly think about our students. Education is messy, learning is messy and not one way is meant or is best for every student but if we continue to do things for the sake of doing things then we will fail all of our students