Straight A Students, Zealots and Rebels with a Cause

A few random thoughts to round out the week


I traveled to Vancouver this week to attend the PLC conference. We wandered up and down Robson Street while we waited for the evening keynote address. I think I have been somewhat starved of the sights of the city – the richness, diversity, the excess. Took pictures of bread, pastries, flowers. I couldn’t help myself.

The conference was excellent. I have been very fortunate to attend both the RTI and PLC conferences. I am looking forward to having collaboration time built into the schedule and to work together as a team to create systematic and systemic interventions. While the task ahead is huge, it feels achievable. Sometimes I go to a conference and think, “Wow, that is fantastic stuff. Why didn’t I think of THAT?? I need to do MORE. HOW can I do more? How can I NOT do more? AARRGHHH!!!” Subtext: I SUCK!

The work these folks are doing made me feel like this job could actually be…doable.

Genius Hour

I am looking forward to a double block of Genius Hour next week. The students are going to present to the class on their learning in the second hour. I am looking forward seeing how the students frame it, how their energy might inspire the few stragglers. Some of the students still don’t believe that I am seriously handing the entire responsibility (give or take) to them. Some of them are not using their time.

I am not giving up. I will do this until June, and next year, when I teach Humanities 9 to this same group of students, I will keep doing it. I am in this for the long haul.

Straight A Students, Zealots, and Rebels with a Cause

These phrases can be used to describe a lot of teachers. There are those who excelled at school. They loved school. They want to do the right thing, and never stop trying to hit the mark. Some teachers are zealots. It doesn’t matter where or when they are, they are talking, doing, thinking, breathing teaching and learning. Some teachers dropped out of high school and understand student apathy and frustration better than anyone. All these folks are in it with all their hearts. They love their schools, they love their students and they love their communities. Incidentally, they also love school supplies.

How is it possible that even with this wildly committed teaching staff, Mr. Abbott feels the need to alienate them, trample on their rights, and generally waste a year and more of energy in order to do…what? The ultimate results of this conflict remain up in the air. What damage has been done? As I often ask my students, “What could you have done differently in order to achieve your goal?”

Teachers are lined up eager to bring about innovation and change. Why isn’t he leveraging their talents and undying energy for their passion – education? All he needed to do was ask. And, throw in some post-it note packs and a stack of books to seal the deal. I laugh or I’ll cry, but this situation is not funny.

Imagine if he’d used the money he blew on advertisements to trash his workforce to support and train professional learning communities.

At the conference this week, I listened to a lot of information on leadership. I did not recognize these patterns of behaviour in Mr. Abbott.

Genius Hour – counterintuitive but feels right

This week I took a slightly different approach to Genius Hour (for a description, go here). Some of the students had expressed an interest in learning to knit. Another had mentioned wanting to get better at playing guitar. I brought in some resource people – one student’s Granny (the knitter), and a few senior students who play guitar. Students who had a project underway carried on. Anybody who wanted to, or anybody who was still casting about for a topic, could pick one of the two.

My goal here was to expand their understanding of what they can learn during Genius Hour. I am trying not to be directive as far as possible, but I felt a little nudge could make the difference in getting buy-in. I think the knitting group is off to a gallop. Five students plan to knit scarves for the next few weeks. The music group – well, we’ll see which of the 5 students that participated will want to carry on. I know I have one keener, and another who wants to learn how to play drums. Good enough. I am going to hire the senior students to come and give lessons for a month or so.

There are some bonus things going on here:

  1. Interactions with folks outside the school. I love seeing folks from other generations coming through the school. Also, maybe this will inspire them to invite some geniuses in their own lives to come in for something.
  2. A little music education in a school with no music program at all. That’s right -none.
  3. Students getting exposure to some young men who live and breath a passion. Just seeing what that looks like is going to be worth it.

Here’s the counterintuitive part. When parents ask, “What did you do in Humanities today?”, the answer will be, “I knit a scarf” or “I learned how to play a guitar riff”. It is a little strange. I was so thrilled by what I saw on Thursday, but it is a little hard to justify in a few short sentences. I get it. I hope they get it, too.

At least I can say that they will have to present that learning in some way.

I blurred faces because I did not ask the students if I could post them online.

Working with students to help them be self-directed

A colleague sent me the link to this blog by Darcy Moore. Here’s my second instalment. I am working my way through the list, answering each one, in no particular order.

Here’s what Darcy wrote:

I have never had a parent ask me any of the questions listed below, except, perhaps, the one about ‘happiness’ in a number of guises. I wish someone would.

How would your child’s teachers fare if asked these questions:

1. What is your educational philosophy?

2. How are you assisting our child to become a self-directed learner?

3. What professional reading are you undertaking at the moment?

4. What are you reading for fun? Done. 

5. How do you use technology as a tool to leverage learning in the classroom?

6. What online resources have you created for your class?

7. How do you assist students to learn about digital citizenship?

8. What professional networks and associations are you involved with regularly?

9. What observations can you offer about our child’s happiness at school?

10. What reflections can you make about our child’s growth as a learner and citizen this year?

How are you assisting our child to become a self-directed learner?

I am taking ‘self-directed’ to mean a few things – the ability to know your opinions and interests, and the ability to implement a plan.

We work with students ranging in age from 13 to 19, and from completely independent and self-directed to just showing up for the social life.

Here are some of the ways I am working on getting students used to being in charge of themselves as learners:

1. Choice in independent reading, fiction and non-fiction (English and Social Studies)

2. Multigenre Research Projects (English and Social Studies)- These are projects where students get the pick a topic. They have to create 5 to 7 pieces of writing, all of which are related to the topic but deal with different aspects of the topic in each piece. Last year, I also gave students the option of creating one longer writing project (fiction or non-fiction). I have enjoyed some success with this, but I have also had students who did not create a project. I manage that by giving them products to create for a topic they choose, or giving them topic and product.

3. Genius Hour (Humanities 8) – I have blogged about this elsewhere, but basically the students get to pick what they want to learn about. I am not assessing this, although they will get a 100% for doing it, and a 0% for not doing it. They have to report their learning to the class.

4. Product Choice– I give students choices in terms of what they write about, or what they create.

5. Class Website – I am pushing my senior students to use the website to keep themselves organized. They will need this skill if they go on to post-secondary education, but it also puts the ball in their court. In the past, students who had been absent would walk into class and ask, “What have I missed?”. I don’t like to use the beginning of class like this- I am usually set up to launch a lesson. In the past, I reminded them to check the back bulletin board for extra copies and see me later. Managing the paper was endless, and it was always up to me to keep them organized.

Now I can say, “Check the website , and then see me for help”. Every day, I post what happened, provide videos or PowerPoints, and upload any handouts or assignments. After about three years, it is finally starting to take hold. For a while, it felt like I was doing it for nothing. Last week when one of my students responded to a query with, “I got everything from the website”, I was overjoyed.

Added bonuses: Sometimes a year or two can go by with courses I don’t teach regularly. The website is a good reminder of the order in which I did something. I print the site out and refer to it to remind myself what  I used, created, linked to. Also, I can let parents know where to go to help students. Finally, I can upload instructions to the website from home when I am sick.

I use Edublog for all my course and classroom information. You can see it here.

6. Thinking about themselves as learners- I am working hard with a group of students to get them to be actively aware of themselves as learners. About once a month, we work on the skills, attitudes, and routines of successful learners. Here’s a description of one, “Bob, It’s Time to Engage!”.

7. Knowing and Showing Thinking – I spend a lot of time on this, and blogged about it here, and here.

8. The small stuff – I know it sounds ridiculous, but just getting students to get up and get their own pencils (which I provide) rather than waiting for me or an EA to hand them out can take weeks or months. Sometimes we never crack that one, and focus on the learning rather than the getting. We work on baby steps. We are always reminding about school skills and the benefits of staying organized.

I am keen to improve my skills around this. Sometimes I use the work by Carol Dweck to talk about fixed and growth mindsets. I post the qualities, make them into book marks, discuss the idea in the context of a character in a text we were using, and so on. I would sure love to hear what else many of you are doing. I am planning to show this TED talk tomorrow as part of our work on school skills. What other texts do you use?

A few student Bitstrips on Genius Hour

We have been working on Genius Hour for about 4 class periods. Last day, I asked the students to create a Bitstrip explaining what they had been up to, and what they have planned for the future. I will be including it in a report home this week. I purchased two classrooms through Bitstrips for Schools. It cost me about $134 or so for 12 months for two classes of 40. It feels a little steep, but the students really love it. As well, I firmly believe that we do have to pay for the work of folks out in cyberspace. The upside is we get to avoid advertising, lurkers, and I have access to all their work, their passwords and can set up assignments for them to complete. I have used it for vocabulary work, reports, and explaining a concept.

Let’s be honest – I have also used it last block on a Friday before a major holiday, when the kids are jacked up on sugar and I am flat out exhausted. That’s worth $130 dollars right there!

It is somewhat cheaper to get the whole school signed up. About $500 for our school, and then we would have unlimited classrooms. Maybe next year.

I look forward to digging deeper into what is possible. I really love the avatars the students create for themselves – it’s a great giggle. (I #love2teach)

I have decided that instead of getting the students set up on a blog, I am going to use this format of reporting out over the rest of the semester. With Bitstrips for Schools, the students can share their comics with each other.



You can tell Levi is a wonderful comedian already – check out that avatar!

Wait for it…

Wait time has always been one of my big challenges.

I sometimes feel useless while I wait for them to complete something. I have to talk myself away from the front of the class and give them the space to think.

I feel the need to use every moment of the period. It sometimes gets in the way of hearing from my students. I am working hard on relaxing so I can have time to communicate with them more about their lives. The pay offs are always tremendous, but I feel a huge responsibility to teach, push, cajole, organize them, work. Kind of my training as a kid, I think.

Right now, I am waiting on a group of boys. I have given my Grade 8 Humanities class a Genius Hour once a week. We are in to it three hours. I am working hard to give them time to find a passion project. If I intercede too quickly, they won’t own it. How long do I give them? Maybe their process just looks different, and they’ll come up with something more creative than the students who launched project immediately.

I am uncomfortable waiting – which is sometimes what happens when we are learning. We’ll see how it goes. Any advice is welcome.

What’s the point, if it’s not for marks?

Today when I introduced Genius Hour, I was a little iffy. Looking around the room, I could see all that could go wrong. That student will head for a computer and log onto an online game. That student has a hard time finding ideas, when presented with choice. That student only wants to research Justin Beiber, and yes, I am going to let her. That student will wonder around and bug other people.

Some students have little to lose, and a lot to gain. The experience of learning something without being led by the nose, or by getting the answer off of someone else. Accountability to themselves, rather than to someone else. Intrinsic motivation.

A relatively strong learner said, “What’s the point, if it is not for marks?”

Exactly. That’s when I remembered I was on the right track.

Genius Hour

Gotta work this out. Might as well do it here. If anybody has any thoughts, I plan to launch this Friday. I’ll also keep you posted on how it goes. I am excited about what this kind of freedom can mean for learners. As I blogged before, I have done this kind of work through the multigenre research projects and really appreciated some of the work that was produced when the students had choice over topic.

Welcome to the

Humanities 8 Genius Hour!

One hour a week, you will have a chance to learn anything you want to learn. Okay, well, let’s not go that far. School appropriate! After that -whatever you want to work on.

Think knowledge and skill.

We have about 18 weeks left in our year -that means you will have at least 18 hours to work on your own interests.

Think about what you would like to do with this time.

I have three requirements:

  • Be in charge of your own learning.
  • Be productive.
  • Report to the class and your parents/guardians.


This is the first time I have done this, so we will figure this out together. I will report on WHAT you do. We have to be accountable for what we do here. So, if you are working hard on learning something, I will put that on your reports home. If you are wasting the time (and I don’t think you will), I will report that, too. However, I am not going to MARK your work. You will write and talk about what you learn, and I will assess your presentations.

What can you do?

It’s pretty endless. I think I am not going to make a list, because I don’t want to direct what you do.

Have fun, and ENGAGE!!