Jordan Shapiro; Global Education and Skill Forum

I watched an engaging talk by Jordan Shapiro that discusses game-based learning. What he is really talking about is powerful learning. He’s a humanities teacher, and states; “I honestly hope that my students learn nothing….No-thing. No things….Education is about ideas…I don’t teach things.”

It reminds me of something that I always put at the top of my History 12 course outline:

“Nothing capable of being memorized is history” R. G. Collingwood

This often is very confusing for my students, as they have a long career of memorizing things, but my goal is what Jordan Shapiro outlines. What we want in education is for students to engage with new perspectives, to be creative thinkers, to be able to solve complex problems, and engage in metacognition and self-assessment. These are the types of high-leverage skills that will allow them to tackle issues in any discipline and in life itself.

I often hear people say, I remember nothing from high school. I tackle that one head-on in my classes, too. I tell my students that they will likely forget a lot of the discreet facts they do indeed have to know for a time in my class: dates, names, events. What I want them to remember, however, is that they grappled with big ideas that are essential to understanding history, their own lives, and the future.

  • What are the impacts of technology on society?
  • What does it mean to be human?
  • How does power imbalance lead to the violation of human rights?
  • How does our world view shape our actions? How does my world view shape my actions?

I also want them to remember the broad strokes of history, to build up a time line that they will continue to refine as they engage in a life of learning. We are becoming educated, not filling in pieces of paper.

It is a beautiful talk and even if you don’t watch the entire 30 minutes, you won’t regret the philosophical underpinnings he outlines at the beginning. I especially love the analogy he uses about not being a big pitcher of knowledge giving out small sips of “expert knowledge”.


Follow him on twitter: @jordosh

Also, here is one of the links he discusses right at the end of the talk; Graphite

Kindle and Immersion Reading


Immersion copy

I have been noticing that the audio books I have been purchasing lately from Audible have something called Whispersync  for Voice. The idea is that you can listen to your audio book on a device and then sync it on your Kindle, so you read on from where you left off.

When I looked into it, I found the above description for immersion reading. Not only would it sync across devices, but you could read along with the fabulous narration of the audio version. 

I was pretty excited by this. That’s an understatement; my heart just about burst with excitement. I quickly ordered my first Kindle last week to try it out in my classroom. Was this the technology we have been waiting for? Good books, read well, supported by text, for reluctant readers, learning disabled readers, readers with comprehension issues?

It arrived Friday, and I spent several hours this weekend trying to get a book set up for a student..

When it didn’t work, I called the company to get support. After several transfers back and forth between and, it turns out we can’t do this in Canada at this point.

The Kindle Fire HD I just bought doesn’t have that feature enabled. Even if I bought a Kindle Fire from the US, which I then tried to do, it still wouldn’t work here.

So, now we wait. I hope it doesn’t take long. I haven’t been this excited about a technology for students for a long time. It seems so easy, so right.

I guess it won’t be a complete waste of time and money. I am going to bring it tomorrow with both the Audio and Kindle book loaded for a student tomorrow.

Doing my homework. Thanks, Glen.

I think.

This is, as Glen called it, a ‘meme thingy’ being circulated around the twitter/blog-verse and it works like this:

  • Post 11 Random facts about yourself
  • Answer 11 questions asked by another
  • Provide 11 questions that you ask to another 11 people in your PLN (professional learning network)

So, 11 random facts about myself.

1. Coming up with 11 random facts about my self is weirdly difficult. I wonder why the number 11.

2. I had a Bronco that did donuts down the logging road that led to my first teaching job. After many, many months, a nice mechanic believed me when I told him it had to be something wrong with the vehicle rather than just that I was a ‘woman driver’. The suspension on the vehicle was shot. That’s random.

3. I have not blogged much this year, and was thinking I would manage over Christmas. (Un)fortunately, we got high speed internet, and Netflix, and I have fallen into it and I can’t get out. Also, I am tired.

4. I was born in the USA, in Salem. A different one.

5. I was born premature, which caused my mother to file bankruptcy. I weighed four pounds. My mom told me that it was because the Kennedy’s premature baby died in 1963 that the technology was pushed forward, and I survived in 1965.

6. I am a Canadian. I am a settler.

7. I am Anxiety Girl – able to leap to the worst possible conclusion in a single bound. It is my greatest superpower and my kryptonite.

8. Wine. Sometimes red, sometimes white. With bread and cheese. I could live off it. Coffee. Coffee snob.

9. I am married to the perfect man for me. Whatever. He would be perfect no matter who he married. We have two kids and when they were born, my heart was permanently removed from my chest and stuck, with no protection, outside my body. Survival is questionable.

10. Sometimes Aragorn. Sometimes Legolas. (That’s for you, @gthielmann.)

11. I believe, as a student of the humanities and a citizen of the world, in the responsibility to witness, to know, to have a voice. I still believe in world peace, and I am 49. I prefer the utopian illusion, because the dystopian reality cannot be allowed. It cannot be allowed.

Glen’s questions for me:

1. If you morphed into an all-round Olympic athlete, what would be your Winter Sport and your Summer Sport?

-country skiing, biking

2. What was the most interesting book or written work you read in 2013 (and was it paper or digital)?

I’ll pick two – Indian Horse, by Richard Wagamese (paperback), and Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein (audiobook). I picked Indian Horse, because I believe it to be the Canadian novel that we all must read. I am stilling hearing the voices of the narrators in Code Name Verity, and I think I will for a long time.

3. What is a major change you would make to the BC Education system?

Assessment – in particular, percentages and letter grades, which I despise. And, more generally, I would change what we ask students to do with the limited time we get to spend with them. Death to worksheets. It is more complicated than that. This is a blog post in waiting.

4. What is a work of art (any genre or form) that inspires or challenges you?

I am trying to write a piece of creative fiction. It is hard because it keeps turning into a memoir. I don’t know what to do. Whatever it is, I don’t have time to do it.

5. Considering the wealth of oil in northern Alberta that we seem anxious to liquidate in a single generation, are you in favour of the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline?

No, I am not. I am not in favour of the bitumen going out via pipeline, or tanker, and I am not in favour of literally burning through fossil fuels as fast as we can. We need it. It has some unique properties and we have an ethical obligation to preserve it for as long as possible. Then there is global warming…. In the meantime, though, fracking scares the hell out of me, and I am worried we are not paying adequate attention to that. Our real problems are more system-wide.

6. What is a food experience that you wish on your children (or nieces/nephews)?


7. If your house was burning, but insurance would cover the obvious expensive items and your family & pets were safe, what meaningful artifact would you rescue from your home?

Pictures, on the computer.

8. If you had to pick a different career than the one you’re in, what would it be?

Farming. Some days, I just want the simplicity of growing things. I know that farming is not simple, or easy, or even profitable. I grew up on a farm and suffer no illusions. But sometimes I crave the land, and having no greater responsibility than to make sure my soil is good, the animals fed, and my plants watered. No one else’s skill level, passion, understanding, or life is in my hands. Then again, I have felt guilty about plants I have killed….

9. If you were to ever publish a book, what would you like it to be about?

Assessment, or previously mentioned novel

10. What was a great event or experience in your work life from 2013 (e.g. teacher experience for many of you)?

A particular student wrote a paragraph.

11. What was a great family moment from 2013?

The small ones – a game of Settlers of Catan. Having dinner with the relatives in the Netherlands on Oma’s birthday. Listening to my daughter play ukulele and sing with her friends. Christmas morning. My son and I watching Walking Dead together. My daughter and I watching a romantic comedy. Breakfast in bed with my husband. Skiing out onto the lake where the morning sun is already shining. Sailing with my husband on the off-shore breeze. Our annual autumn beach walks. The small and great moments that make a life.

Questions for my (victims) PLN:
1. How do you balance your work and your personal life in a job that is never done?
2. What was your favourite vacation?
3. How do you make use of story in your life?
4. What is a current event that is gripping your attention at the moment?
5. Which place in the world has made the biggest impression on you?
6. What would you change about the education system?
7. What is something on your bucket list?
8. What was a proud moment for you this year?
9. What course do you/would you like to teach above all others?
10. What book/movie/non-fiction/ text made a big impression on you this year?
11. What is your favourite musical group?
Post in the comments or on your own blogs!

In search of a new assessment

This year I had the privilege of teaching a History 12 class at our school. I get the course about once every three years. Our school is shrinking and this means we often don’t have enough students to run a section of the course every year.

In BC, this course is 20th Century World History. The Paris Peace Conference of 1919 which brought WWI to a close and arguably launched WWII. The Russian Revolution and communism. The Depression, especially the impact in the US and Roosevelt’s New Deal. The rise of fascism and totalitarian governments. This year we focussed on the Spanish Civil War. WWII and the rise of the Cold War. Korea, Vietnam, Apartheid, India. The Middle East. The Civil Rights Movement in the US. It is great history, with little time to dig deeply into everything, so choices usually need to be made  about where to skim along the surface, and where to dive. I prefer the diving.

During the year, I provided opportunities for students to write and discuss ideas together on our class blog, to research, to do the basic textbook work, take notes, and write essay exams. But I kept thinking and thinking about the final assessment. I wasn’t sure what to do, or how to tie it all together and get a sense of how the students had really integrated the information, ideas, patterns and essential questions. I wanted to step outside the box and see what might happen.

In the end, I decided on a trial run. I couldn’t guarantee that the test would work, and I also didn’t want to throw the group into a tailspin in June of their graduating year. I ran it as a seminar conversation, but didn’t assess the students at all. I just asked them if they would help me see if the test would do what I wanted it to do.

I worried unnecessarily. I think the assessment would work, and better yet, really get at the big picture. Here’s what I did:

The essential question I asked was something along the lines of, “The 20th Century was a clash of social, political and economic ideologies.” I asked them to consider the material we had covered  and examine the Left vs Right political ideology chart from Information is Beautiful.


I centred the image on a piece of flip chart, and we sat around and discussed the image in relation to the topics we had covered. I recorded as much as I could as we chatted, but only in very brief detail as I was also facilitating the conversation.

At first, the students weren’t sure they had anything to say, but as we examined the chart, ideas started to flow. They started to see the logic of the assessment. I got some feed back that they would enjoy the style of test.

They could see both where ideology had played a role in conflicts, but also when the chart fell apart and the motivation of nations and individuals was more about nationalist or autocratic goals rather than ideology.

They were applying the chart to historical events, as well as considering again where their own ideology might best fit. Early on in the semester we had taken a political ideology test, so it tied back into that conversation as well.

I liked it. We had aha moments, and I could tell the students had learned a great deal. What I really love is to watch students see their own brains work, and to be excited by it.

If I get a chance to teach the course again, I’ll do it.

The students would know what the exam is from the beginning of the course. I would give them a two hour assessment slot, and they would be allowed to bring a sheet of notes.

I have some work to do in terms of the actual assessment rubric and the essential question needs work, but I think this would be a great final.

Here’s hoping I get to try out!

Teach less, teach more, do both

As usual, the twitterverse led me to various places of discovery and thought in the field of education this weekend. On the one hand, I was exhorted by Grant Wiggins to back off, to teach less, in order to give students the autonomy they need to apply what we have taught them.


Then again, E.D. Hirsch Jr. tells me that I should not be spending valuable time on how-to-ism. Instead, increasing domain-specific knowledge and vocabulary is the best way to improve learning and increase equality.


Sigh. Both of these articles posit assertions that make complete sense to me, and I am quite certain we need to be doing both, not one or the other. Nor am I suggesting the articles are diametrically opposed.

Essentially, I don’t think that we should allow the pendulum to swing away from intense, domain specific study. In order to think, students must have something to think about. However, they also need time to apply what they have learned, and see how it informs areas of their world that we did not get around to ‘covering’.

Both are right. There is no time to waste at school. What we do matters. Each decision, each lesson, each student, each time.

Voices Visible: BCTELA’s writing contest for students

Looking for an authentic writing experience for your students? Here is the information on the BCTELA contest:

Voices Visible Writing Contest Poster - Secondary

I was unable to upload these documents onto the BCTELA website this morning, so I am temporarily linking them here so we can get the contest going:

2012-2013 Voices Visible Rules and entry form –  REVISED!


BCTELA Poster – Elementary

The Provincial Specialist Association of BC Teachers of English Language Arts puts out a publication of student writing. The contest is free, and the deadline for submissions is April 30, 2013. We’d love it if you would help your students publish!

Audio book as an art form

I have been sitting and staring at a blank page, and toggling back to Twitter, Facebook, and BBC news for the past thirty minutes. Let’s be honest; I have repeated this useless process several times in the last couple of months.

I have been somewhat distracted by… work.

I know I have a lot to write about, but whatever it is, it has yet to make itself clear. And yet, I miss writing. It is a hole, an ache, even.

I am going to use the “write anyway” strategy and see what pops up.

One thing on my mind is the issue of audio books and whether they ‘count’ for the independent reading portion of our courses.

I was thinking about it the other day when I ran into a blog, Caution: Use as Directed, a blog by Jane Kise about  the reading of, rather than the viewing of, Shakespeare.

as intended

It got me thinking about the audiobook as an art form, and the telling of story as an oral language activity in its own right. Of course, I have always read to my high school classes, and I am a good reader, so my son tells me. He’s pretty good himself.

I also use audio books for anchor texts in my classroom. One the favourites at our school in Grade 9 is Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Alexie reads it himself, brilliantly, and we all read along because of the funny and brutally honest comics that are scattered through the book. Another author who also reads some of his books is Neil Gaimon, and I have used all or parts of Odd and the Frost Giants and The Graveyard Book.

Audio books are so gorgeous these days. They are sometimes acted (read?) by an ensemble cast, as in Lian Hearn’s Tales of the Otori series where the male role is read by Kevin Gray and the female role is read by Aiko Nakasone. Sometimes, the voices of many characters are acted by a single narrator, as in Cornelia Funke’s Dragon Rider read brilliantly by Brendan Fraser.

But. When we get to our desire to have students read independently, do we ‘count’ audio books? My book-lover, story-lover self says, A book, no matter whether the student reads it her or himself, is still a story that got told, a story  that got heard. The reading teacher in me says, They have to read. They have to read. How else will they learn to read? 

Where are you on this one? What are your favourite audio books for high school?

Now, I better go make breakfast. And, truth-be-told, get on with my semester-end assessments that are waiting and the real reason for this Sunday morning procrastination!


Authentic Writing – YWP and NaNo

It’s been a while since I took the time to write. I have been swamped since I decided to take the NaNoWriMo challenge with a few of my Grade 8s.



Our school recently switched to a linear Humanities in Grade 8. Because I get the students all year for English and Social Studies, I felt that the class time I would devote to the project would be worth it. I wanted them to commit to trying to write (almost) everyday, figure out a word count goal for the month and then experience the process of sticking to it. Four students agreed to the challenge, although a few others were tempted.

The rest of the class carried on with our usual routines and work, although I planned content that would allow me to teach mini-writing lessons. I delivered a short story unit and assigned a creative writing project for the whole class. The “Nanos” would stick around for writing lessons, or pick up homework they would do at home and then go find a computer in the library or lab.

Here is the link to the Young Writer’s Project. There are some great writing resources and lesson plans here. There are tons of resources if you plan to bring the whole class along for the ride.

Next time I would plan a smoother set of lessons. I wasn’t entirely happy with the flow, but we aren’t done yet. Regardless, the project was worth it. Two students decided to co-author a novel based in the Middle Ages. Each of them took a character to write. Another student is working on a dystopia. and another is writing a zombie story. They will continue to work on the writing for the rest of the year.

I decided to take the challenge, too, although it was a very last minute decision. Teaching does not afford a lot of extra time and while the young writer’s can set their own word goal, mine was pre-set at 50 000. But, if not this year, then when? Sometimes you just have to leap. So I leapt. Creative writing is something that I usually do in small bits, mainly for modelling a strategy or genre in class, but I never really tried to do it in a serious way.

We felt pushed, and like we were doing something real. We were able to cheer each other on, and talk like ‘real writers’. They are pumped for next year!

My idea was that I could share my writing with them, however, I was not really able to pause long enough to think about what and how. Now that the challenge is over, I can pull some pieces and get them to help me make them better.

I have ordered us t-shirts. We are recovering from the hard work and have set aside our writing for now, but we’ll get back to it and see where it leads the rest of the year.

As far as authentic learning, for authentic audiences, this one is a keeper!