An Open Door

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Have you ever thought about what makes your class or school special? Ever wondered what makes the difference that makes the difference? These have been questions that I continue to look for and reflect on all of the time.

Today something sparked my thoughts even more. I was in a meeting today, with a bunch of staff, talking with our Superintendent about our wonderful school, when one of my colleagues made an interesting statement.

When I first came here I took a back seat to reflect on what makes this school special. Part of what I noticed was that everyone’s door was open….

She went on to further describe that having an open door showed her how open and comfortable we were with one another. I can go to anyone for help no matter what.

Now, I am slightly paraphrasing here but you get the understanding of this message. Even as I write this I am still struggling to find words to talk about my thoughts but I thought I would share some of these thoughts with you. You see, she hasn’t been the first person to mention that there is something special about Ray Lawson.   I have also noticed that things are different here but couldn’t figure out why. When my colleague made this statement it was a big aha for me. It never dawned on me how something as simple as an open door could help others see you were warm and there to help, it was something I just did.

 

As teachers, we want to create a culture where students are competent, curious, and capable. We also want to create a culture of love and understanding. But for that to happen it starts with us. The comment my colleague said, made me think about how I present myself to my colleagues and to my students/ parents. Do they see that what I am saying is put into practice? or do they see something different?

I never would have thought that something as small as an open door would make such a difference but it does. Here at Ray Lawson, we walk into each other’s classrooms all the time. No one ever bats an eyelash. We talk about best practices, we talk about students and we question our teaching, ALL THE TIME. Screen Shot 2017-11-01 at 6.48.57 PM

In Peel, this is one of our beliefs but how do we put this into practice? What do you do in your classroom that allows students, parents and other teachers to see you as open, flexible and responsive to their needs?  Love to hear your thoughts.

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Relationships Matter…I cannot stress this enough

The last couple of weeks I have been struggling with being a parent and a teacher. There has been many things lately that I haven’t agreed with but I have tried to stay calm and understand. It has been hard to sit back and find the right words to describe what I wish would be happening more in our profession. Then this tweet came across my feed today and it allowed me to center my thoughts that I have been struggling to communicate.

I want this quote to sit for a minute.

 

I know when I first started teaching I often neglected this very important piece. I often felt that I knew my students or that I was allowing them to be a part of the learning but the more I reflect the more I think I could have done more. Stuart’s work on self reg has been revolutionary for me. Reading his book was a breath of fresh air. The greatest take away I had was:

There is no thing/ concept as a Bad Child

I now firmly believe this but it is one of the toughest things that we have to realize as an educator. If you have been reading my blogs for the past I have often talked about the importance of relationships. I also have talked a lot about Stuart’s work and my daughter Izzy.

The latest update in Izzy’s school saga is that she has been formally tested and diagnosed with an LD, and ADHD. Now this wasn’t new information for me and my wife but it explains a lot of the problems that we have been seeing. The problem is Izzy is often misinterpreted. Izzy is not an easy child to get a long with. She is often difficult and stubborn. She has melt downs and high, high anxiety around school. These problems hinder her progress and have unfortunately labeled her as one of the problem children. However, there is a reason for her behaviour and she doesn’t do these things on purpose.

Izzy finds school hard, she finds learning hard and when she finds it hard she breaks down or is in a high stress situation. Like adults high stress causes her to be in a flight or fight mode, which in turn causes her to have behaviours.

For the past two years she has had two great educators who have taken the time to learn and honour Izzy as a person. They laughed at her quirkiness and joined in her loves. When she was stressed or struggled they often saw them even before Izzy did and was able to redirect and help her through them.

Now this relationship building takes time and I know oh so well that time is a very precious thing. As educators we often struggle with meeting all of the curriculum that we have to cover. There is so many things that we have to do that is not in the scope of teaching that we a lot of times forget about the most simplistic thing.

Teaching is not about teaching but about building

Our students know that we care. They pick up on our vibes, our stresses and our comments. This is for both the good and the bad.

Like most, if not all students, my daughter thrives on teachers who take a moment to see her for who she is. When you take the time to understand why she behaves the way she does, she actually has less bad behaviour and focuses more on the good. However, when she knows you think she is a problem then she tends to lean towards that. Students are pretty much the same. Relationships are needed and the time spent on them is time well spent.

When you take the time to honour students voices, who they are and what they like, they give it back to you. So I encourage you learn the stories of your students, understand who they are as individuals, recognize that they all of potential to do amazing things. I know that we all came into teaching to do just that but I think some times we loose site of it and get bogged down in all of the politics or curriculum.

If you spend the time building relationships I promise you will not be let down. My daughter is an amazing little girl, who I know has difficulties and causes a lot of stress in the classroom. But when she knows she is loved, she will do anything for you. I’ll end with this quote from Peel’s Modern Learner.

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School should be….

To borrow a phrase from my good friend Matthew Oldridge, “School should be a place of excitement and constant wonder!” I don’t really have any way of putting it so nicely and yet school is often a place where many students dread.

I want to share a personal story. As many of you know my daughter has had her fair share of difficult times at school.  I have often blogged about her difficulties and what they have taught me. But nothing pains me more when I hear her tell me she hates school and doesn’t want to go back. It has been very interesting to see her natural development around this concept of school and where her divergence went towards that famous, “I hate school” line. When Izzy was young and in preschool she absolutely loved it. I mean this was a girl who ended up being potty trained because she wanted to go to school so badly. During preschool, she couldn’t get enough. She would wake up early and eagerly wait for her time to go to school. Even the very first day of JK you could see her face beaming with excitement. But unfortunately, that was where everything seemed to change.

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It broke my heart, as a parent and as an educator, to see my happy child go from the above pictures to this.

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Now, I know that my daughter is not the easiest child to get along with. She has her many downfalls and is full of energy. In JK, she got into a lot of fights and a lot of discussions with her teacher about how we could help.  She struggled with the academics and what the teachers wanted her to do. We now understand that learning is very hard for her. She has a low working memory and ADHD. It’s not an excuse but it does explain why school is hard. It also explains why she sometimes seems like she gets it and then all of a sudden doesn’t.

But what changed?

When you ask Izzy, why she doesn’t like school she can’t really pin point it but when you explore further it is often because she has to follow certain rules or when she interprets something as fun and told to stop she doesn’t want to. Or according to her, is viewed as a “problem child”. She often tells me that her teachers don’t like her or that she feels like they pick on her.

As a teacher, I understand that places have rules and in the “real world” there are things we must follow but at the same time shouldn’t the purpose of school, especially in younger grades, be a place to foster the excitement of learning? Shouldn’t we foster growth and natural wonder and curiosity?

School for a long time has been a place meant to conform our young ones to the “way of the world”. It was made to have workers who could work the lines. But the world has changed and yet school hasn’t. We no longer need to have kids be little robots that do exactly the same thing. Is it important that we have students doing exactly what we want them to do or is it more important that students see themselves in the learning and want to be a part of it. In the bigger picture of the world, is it vital that students walk in a straight and orderly line down the hallways or do we teach the students the value of not disrupting others thinking but just being quiet. Do we stop the learning of our students because the bell has rung or we must move on the the next period/ curriculum expectation or do we foster the love of learning by allowing our children to naturally explore.

As a parent, my goal for my kids is that they love to learn. I am glad that school fosters academics but I also know that will come with time. Nurturing that natural wonder will allow students to want to learn and I think as educators we have a big role to play.

So I ask you, is your classroom a place of natural wonder and curiosity? Or is it a place that students dread to come?

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My Guest Post on Starr Sackstien’s Blog: A Grading Journey of Epic Proportions (Part 1)

Here is part one of my guest post on Starr Sackstein blog post. It is a post about my journey ongoing gradeless. Part one deals more with my beginnings and initial thoughts and part 2 will deal with my classroom and student samples. Hope you enjoy!

 

Jonathan So shares his experiences of going ‘gradeless’ and offers some insights into his process. Read on to see how he reflected and adjusted his learning to better help students reflect and grow as learners.

Source: Guest Post: A Grading Journey of Epic Proportions (Part 1)

Some more reflecting

Last week I asked my students to do a final reflection on Grade Six. I gave them a google form that asked four questions:

  1. Rate your year
  2. What is your favourite memory?
  3. What is one thing that you loved about the year?
  4. What is one thing that you would change?

It was amazing to hear their words and voice through the form. I loved the honesty and it really has me thinking.

The questions that I focused on was what did you love and what would you change. Here is the response to what I loved:

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What really struck me were two things:

  1. They loved the use of technology
  2. They loved their freedom

Technology struck me because you often assume that these children are growing up in a digital age, shouldn’t they be used to using technology? But that really isn’t the case. Sure they are digital consumers of things but they don’t really know how to use it. In addition, I know that we have the tech in the classrooms but it isn’t always being used. I know that it is more but many teachers are hesitant to use it because we ourselves have no idea what to do with it. But what this really shows me is that our students don’t really know what to do with it. It shows me that we still need to teach them proper digital skills to create and use technology for educational means. They need to learn and be taught how to harness the power of technology and not just use it in the classroom. The kids want to use it they just need to know how to apply it.

The last part really struck home. This year I have been experimenting more with allowing my grade sixes to have the freedom to choose the path that they want. I want them to be in charge of their learning. The more I teach the more I am getting tired of pushing curriculum and telling students how to learn. I want my students to learn because they want to learn. I want them to be in school because they want to be in school. I know that we have a curriculum to teach and that it was made with good solid research but I still want my students to feel empowered by it and not because I put on a song and dance. This year I have tried a variety of things from rearranging my classroom, passion projects, to doing badging and going gradeless. It is great to see my student are loving those changes, that they actually made an impact. It’s amazing to see when you turn things over to your students what and how they learn. They are amazing people.

I was also equally shocked by what my students said they wanted to change:

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A lot of it centered around working in groups for math. I think I need to do some more work around how to work in groups and why we work in groups. Though I also wonder if students need some time alone to think. It reminds me of the book “Quiet.” Do we as teachers sometimes forget about those quiet moments where we reflect or think on our own? I know that group collaboration is a skill but so is working on our own. Do we give our students enough balance? I also loved the line about more homework, had a chuckle with that one.

Overall, this year has been about showing my students that they have a voice and that they are in charge of their learning. I want them to be comfortable in who they are, and know what they need to do in order to learn. I did ask one more question and that was what is one piece of advice you would give next year’s Grade Six. I did smile a little when I saw the responses because it was exactly what I was telling them all year, “Be bold, Be Brave, Be confident!”

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What would your students say about their year?

 

5 Best Things that I have done this Year

This year I started a new grade and even a new division, grade 6. On top of this I have decided to do a lot of things differently. I have thrown out grades completely, I have no desks, I have gone 95% digital with my classroom, collaborative problem solving and I wanted to turn my grade 6 middle school classroom into a place of inquiry and learning. As the year has progressed I have gained more and more confidence in my decisions.  I am close to my 200 limit here but let me briefly share with you what those decisions have looked like.

1) Throwing out grades: 
In the past I have done this for the most part but this year I have not given one grade to a child. Instead, I have written monthly reports or updates about students strengths and weaknesses. Students have then written down what they think their strengths and weaknesses are and next steps for improvement. This goes home to parents (well actual in their drive). Students are more engaged, they ask questions not about marks but what they can do better. I have students who are now conferencing with me without my prompts. It has been great.

2) I have no desks: 
As part of making my space inquiry driven and “play-based” I have no desks, just work stations. Kids choose where they want to sit. The carpet, desks, under desk, wherever they feel comfortable to work. This has given me more freedom to worry about the learning. Kids have also become more independent as they have learned to move where they will be getting work accomplished not just with their friends.

3) Going Digital: 
I honestly keep forgetting the photocopy code. But having google drive it has allowed me to open the classroom walls and share every file with my students. They want a note or homework taken up its there. Want to share a video with parents, its there. No more paper, no more mess all online.

4) Collaborative Problem Solving: 

I have been blogging about this for quite some time and I am in no way an expert but this has single handily been the best thing that I have done this year. For those that are unfamiliar with CPS, it is basically working together to get our difficult kids to not be difficult. I started it because my daughter is one of those difficult kids. It is not because she wants to be or because we have really bad parenting but because she doesn’t know how and needs help to learn it. This year I have done it with certain kids and the whole class and I really don’t have problems in the classroom. I don’t have to be the mean, strict, yelling teacher but one that can talk to my kids and work through a solution. Just a fair warning CPS like any method is not a immediate fix. It will take time but it is time well worth it.

5) Inquiry in a Middle School

Some may think this isn’t possible but again another great moment. My kids are driven to work on projects because they care. I have gotten some of the best writing and learning from them all because of inquiry and allowing them to invest in a big idea versus checking off curriculum. The funny part, all curriculum is done.  Now if you have been reading my blog I absolutely love inquiry but I have often heard that it is hard to do in middle school. I would like to challenge that notion as it has been amazing.
Take a look at these writing samples (please remember that my kids are all ELL): https://drive.google.com/folderview?id=0B_euA7pkOAyXeERZTnMyNjd3ZU0&usp=sharing 
What has been some of your best things that you have done this year?

Global Awareness Projects: Grade Six

I have started a new grade this year and moved up to six. Its been a lot of fun. The social studies curriculum in six has the students learning two things: 1) Global Issues and how Canada and other countries deal with them and 2) The Canadian Identity and the various parts that have made it up. 

My teaching partner and I felt that Global Issues might be to big of a topic to start with as many of our students don’t really know what happens beyond their neighbourhood. However, we decided to start broad, then go closer to home and eventually go back out to the world. We felt that the students needed to understand various problems that are out in the world to than see how the world has impacted us as Canadians. 
To do this we developed a Global Awareness project. The students had to pick a global issue in the world and research.  They had to figure out what the issue was and why we should care about it. I knew that being August (we are a balance calendar and teach in August) my students wouldn’t have a lot of research back ground so we also turned it into a unit to learn how to research and write smaller reports. 
The focus of the centers was on asking critical questions, taking jot notes and writing paragraphs. Students also had to create short movie trailers for their global issues. 
Once this was done students wrote a mini report about their global issue. Here is their writing: https://drive.google.com/open?id=0B_euA7pkOAyXeERZTnMyNjd3ZU0. 
It has been amazing because I was able to team up with Peter Cameron from Thunder Bay and Barb VanHatten from Lakehead University. Together the two of them have been giving feedback through the ConnectED project that Peter started. 
My students have loved the impact that their writing has done and they have loved the real feedback, instead of just my thoughts to them. 
We plan to revisit these global issues again at the end of November and revise the learning that has happened from their other units. Please remember that these projects where their first attempts at writing longer report writing pieces and making videos. 
Just thought I would share this project and if you have any thoughts or feedback for my students please message away, they would love it.