Lessons from the gym

I go to a great gym in my town three to four days a week at six in the morning. I credit it, and its owner, Scott, with making my life more manageable. Almost every time walk out of there I am feeling flexible, strong, and mentally ready for the day. I love it.

In spite of this, I don’t really want to go. Or, I should say, I don’t really want to get up at 5:30 am, four days a week. However, with a busy work and family life, it’s really the only time that works for me. And, there is a lot to be said for starting the day early. However, when that day starts in the deep dark, and I have to bundle up to go outside and shovel the snow off the van and scrape the windows, and meantime, my family is all cozy inside…. Even in the summer, I am compelled to stay snug in bed.

Plus, I usually sweat on the floor of the gym. It is hard work.

So, I mentally prepare. I lay out my gym clothes. I picture myself walking out of the gym, feeling good. I remind myself that I love to eat. I remind myself that I have to keep weight off, and take more off, to slow down the progression of my arthritis.

I wonder if my students have to talk themselves through the doors of school in a similar way, even if they love school. I wonder if they realize how much of what we do starts with talking to ourselves, visualizing, seeing the outcome. I wonder if they understand that it is hard work even when you love what you are doing.

I am reminded to talk with them about this in a more systematic way.

Sometimes, while I am watching my sweat drip, I think about teaching, and learning, and doing.

Scott is a great facilitator.

He is almost always cheerful; he doesn’t come in complaining about the time of day.  I hope my students can see that in me, too, even if sometimes I have to lose the ‘cheery’ Ms. Inden and get out my ‘teacher voice’. I do not ever complain about having to show up. Sometimes I tell classes that I am about done in and need their help, but I want them to know that there is no where else I would rather be at that moment.

It is clear loves what he does. He is always improving his practice and showing us what he learned. His passion for his work comes through.

He has a routine that does not often change. Oddly, this provides a degree of comfort. It’s odd, because I don’t do this well enough for my students. I recognize the impact this has on my comfort level, so I am thinking about more ways to routinize my classroom.

Scott has routine, but varies the activities within that structure so we don’t get bored. Activities change frequently over the hour so that we don’t stick with any one thing for long. His activities are interesting, and sometimes a lot of fun.

This is a strategy I use a lot. I don’t want the students to get bored, so I mix it up, keep it moving, vary the location of the class, the style of learning, the kinds of out-put I am expecting, the level of choice they have for topic or product. I want them to be a little surprised by how much they learned. (This is also why I find routing hard to implement.)

Of course, there are also the times when I feel frustrated at the gym. A key frustration is when the instructor lays out the plan, and then, on the fly, adds in something I was not expecting. Because I am often doing exercises that are just plain hard work, it is, again, a mental game as much as anything.

“Okay, we’ll do three rounds of the core circuit today, five reps.” We gather our mats, our balls, benches, or other devices we might require. Mentally, I am going over the 3 planks I will be doing. I am picturing it, and telling myself, you can do it. I know my arms will shake, my muscles will burn, so I am getting ready for it in my head.

As he punches times into the interval app he has on his phone, he says, “Never mind, let’s do four rounds, five reps.” I already did the heavy lifting – which was mental. Now I have to prepare myself again, and I am frustrated, surprised at the depth of my emotional response.

I get it that he has calculated on the fly what we have done as a class, and what he thinks we can handle that day. In spite of his sometimes evil ‘bwahahahah’ that we tease him about, he not out to torture us. Mostly. Also, I trust him to know that this is best.

But I am reminded that my own ‘on the fly’ changes of the plan I laid out for the students could elicit a similar negative response. I need to be sure I am not pulling the rug out on anyone, especially not anyone that struggles to keep up in the first place.

Going with the teachable moments provides some of the best learning. It is not about sticking rigidly to the plan. It is, however, about being careful to acknowledge that students might be stressed by what I am doing, to pay attention to the behaviours that might show me that a student is frustrated and then mitigating it as much as I can.

Because of my arthritis, I am a ‘special needs’ student and this provides me with some insight I don’t normally experience. School for me has always been easy, because I have a facility for reading and writing, for remembering and analyzing.

At the gym, I become a disabled person. Some exercises I can do the same as everyone else. Other exercises are entirely impossible.

Scott is good at finding ways to help me achieve close to the same goals as other participants, but in a different way than the rest of the class. It can’t always completely match, but it keeps me in pace with everyone else. I don’t have to go off and do something entirely different, or find a different gym, or join a special class.

However, even though I am a forty-seven year old woman, I still can feel the following, especially if I am tired or in pain:

  • an odd shame and embarrassment when new people find out I am different
  • frustration when Scott forgets temporarily about my disability and asks me to do something I can’t do
  • anger and grief because of what I can’t do, and what it means for the future

Scott creates a kind of learning environment that has both community and individualization. We are in it together and in concert with each other, but at the same time he is talking with each of us about where we are, where to go next, how do something different to nurse a sore shoulder, or how to add challenge to an activity if we can take it.

I strive to match this kind of environment. It is harder at school, where young students often don’t know why they can’t read or get their ideas out of their heads. Tests can show where a problem is a disability as opposed to failure to learn, but it doesn’t provide a script to follow. Students may not have been taught, or have not yet grasped how to be reflective about themselves as a learner. They may have developed a host of highly effective behaviours for avoiding thinking about it or doing any work at all.

At the gym, nobody ever calls me dumb, or points a finger and laughs, or takes home a report card with an A, while I take home my inevitable C+. (There is assessment rearing its ugly, slobbering head again, but that is another post.)

However, the principles hold. If we can help students win the mental game, if we can mitigate frustration when it gets hard, if we can differentiate, if we can teach students to be knowledgeable about their challenges and their goals, if we can provide opportunities for differences to be honoured, and engage them in the process as much as possible, we can help them be strong and flexible.

Extra-curricular volunteer time hard to come by

The issue of teachers and extracurricular activities is of course a topic of conversation in BC now. Teachers are struggling with ways to fend of the attack on their hard-won collective rights. Some are considering, long and hard, and with considerable strain, the removal of our volunteer work at the school. The idea is that this would cause the public to put more pressure on the government to deal with teachers fairly.

This post is not about the merits of this strategy.

As the conversation took place in the #bced Twitterverse, the general topic of teacher volunteering came up and some were questioning why fewer teachers are giving their time. I don’t really know if this is empirically correct, but I would say anecdotally that we have a lot more community volunteers helping out with coaching than I remembered from the past. Keith Rispin provided this look, and I thought I would add my own observations as well.

To start, I do volunteer at my school. In terms of direct volunteer service to students, I run the Free the Children student leadership group.

I think it is important for people to understand that there are also a variety of volunteer jobs at a school that don’t involve students. I volunteer a lot of time as a teacher-leader,  organizing professional development, sitting on various committees, chairing the local Computer Using Educators group, and being a member of an on-again, off-again education book club.

I also volunteer on a community board of directors, and support my children’s activities as a casual volunteer. Of course, I also support my husband’s volunteer work with the sailing club, the local historical society, and the cross-country ski club.

In spite of all this activity, I still wish I could volunteer to coach or run a drama club. I simply can’t.

Teaching has changed. I am oversimplifying to a degree, but as a teenager, my Social Studies education involved a lecture, in which I took notes, and textbook assignments in which I answered questions. I remember the odd poster project, or model project, or essay assignment. This is also what my teacher education prepared me for.

These days, as a Social Studies teacher, I do a lot more preparation than I was trained at university to do.

When confronting a topic in Social Studies, I do a lot of work. This is not a comprehensive list of actions I take, but can give you an idea of the time I need to invest.

  • What is my big picture or essential question and what resources (stories, current events, movies, documentaries, websites) can I use to leverage understanding? The text book won’t cut it, for a variety of reasons. It takes time to find these additional items. By the way, here is a link to a blog post that I wrote recently on the death of the textbook.
  • What key terms do I need to teach directly, and how? I make flash cards, word walls, word sorts, games. Vocabulary/terminology is a huge issue for a lot of students.
  • How can I build some simulations of these key ideas so students can identify with the concepts?
  • I teach a very diverse group of students. It is not unusual to have multiple-year differences in reading and writing ability. By multiple, I mean a range from as low as Grade 3 to students reading at the college level. How can I assist students who cannot read to access the material? I create texts that are accessible, or photocopy pages of textbooks so students can highlight rather than write. I scour stores for books which cover the material but do it in a more visual way.
  • I maintain a website so students can access assignments online and parents can see what is going on.
  • I spend a lot of time on twitter finding and trying out Web 2.0 tools for students to use for researching and showing their work.
  • Assessment has also changed a lot. Where in the past we might have tick, tick, ticked our way through chapter questions only, now we do much more work on formative assessment procedures that assess skills such as critical thinking, note-taking skills, analysis. As a result, our summative assessments are more complex. In between those, we are generating learning intentions with students and teaching them to assess their own work.
  • My goodness, I could keep going for some time on all the things that go on in my day. Also, I am not yet as good at some of it as I would like to be, and there are strategies I have not begun to incorporate, but look so promising.  Ongoing professional development is huge. This year, I have added the goal of blogging 365 days a year and hanging out on Twitter. Fabulous, but also a time-consumer.

So, yes, I do think school has changed, teaching has changed, and teachers are deeply involved with all the above and more. This ain’t your Mama’s old high school, kids, and it is not even the high school she started teaching at 20 years ago.

By the way, take the time to thank anyone who is giving their time in your school and/or community as a volunteer.  They are modelling the best of what it means to be an engaged citizen, working to make the community and school a wonderful place to belong.

BC ED Plan Advertisement or a boot to the head

So the script (narrative) for the advertisement I ran into (while streaming CTV shows I missed) goes something like this: BC teachers are doing a very good job. BUT. Our students deserve the best to prepare them for a changing world. How students learn has changed. We need to change our teaching practices to meet the needs of the 21st Century. The government needs to ensure that professional development days really are used in such a way that they can meet this challenge. We need to put students first. 

It would seem that no right thinking person could argue with any of the above ideas. Heck, I mostly agree with them. I find it funny, and not in a ha, ha kind of way, that I am going to be on a ‘withdrawal of services’ (we aren’t allowed to call it a strike) for ideals I believe in.

Back to the advertisement:

1. Take a look at the image below. The image runs while the narrator informs us that world has changed, that teaching has to change, too. The conversation taking place in the education field is that the sage on the stage style of education does not create the kind of lasting learning and engagement that we need. Recently, I read this article on a Harvard professor who has changed his teaching to address this issue and I think it captures it nicely. I blogged about it here last month. Here is another blog by a West Vancouver Superintendent of Schools, Chris Kennedy, that also discusses how teaching is changing. Here is another blog I wrote about how I think we should not be too quick to throw out the sage on the stage.

Here’s one of my worries. When the Government talks about how education needs to change, we need to be very careful that we are not talking about many, many more students taking courses online, in isolation. It can be great in some situations for some students, but the best learning is collaborative and socially constructed. Nothing about learning has changed. The spaces and the resources and some of the skills are different, but good learning and teaching are as old as the hills.

2. The Government is telling us that teachers need to develop the skills to help students in the 21st Century. Yes, Pro-D days are one aspect of our learning, and critical. One of the areas that we are in disagreement over is teacher control of professional development. The Government would like to have control over what we do. Teachers have long said that we know what we need, just get out of our way and let us do it. A good team functioning at a well-run school will be making these decisions together some of the time.

Now here is some irony; look at the image above. In the advertisement the teacher walks out of the classroom and sits down at this desk to receive her professional development. Apparently how the teacher in the top image is teaching the students is no good, but then she heads off to her Government controlled professional development. This man teaches her how the ‘new’ teaching should look, by teaching her in the ‘old’ style way. Also, she reads a book (below). Love it.

The absolutely best professional development happens…..wait for it….. in a lot of ways, just like all learning. Sometimes, we listen to an accomplished educator in her or his field. Sometimes we read a book. Sometimes, we stand in the hallway of the school and chat with a colleague. Sometimes we organize workshops after school. Sometimes, we engage in research-in-action projects. Always, we are learning as work with students.

Many of us, teachers, administrators, parents and trustees, are now engaged in 21st Century professional development through the blogosphere and the twittersphere. It is the most exciting advancement in my own professional development. It has accelerated my own learning incredibly. This year, I am blogging every single day as part of my professional development. I learn when I write.

I don’t need the Government to ensure I am using my professional development days properly. I am developing professionally, every day, all day.

If some teachers are not using their 5 days appropriately, their supervisors need to deal with it. That is not my job, and I should not pay the price for them not doing their job.

Also, this drive toward improvement in education is not this Government’s fresh idea. Incredible work is already being done across the world, and we are talking to each other every day.

3. One of the images that I did not manage to capture from the advertisement was when the teacher’s book in the image above turns into a computer. The Government informs us that they want to give us the training and the resources we need to move education forward.

This is another moment in the advertisement when I have to breathe. Teachers and administers across the province have fought for every dime we can to integrate technology into classrooms and schools. PACs have fundraised at bake sales to get more technology. It is not as if the Government has been trying to get us to use it and we have been reluctant.

We don’t have enough money, enough time, enough teacher-leaders released from classrooms to help other teachers get up to speed. Most of us are doing it off the side of our desk, and with our own money.

In my classroom right now, I have students using my Mac laptop to make movies, students using my iPod to listen to audio books, students watching lectures from MIT, movies, TV shows and audio books I have purchased with my money through iTunes. I maintain and pay for several Web 2.0 tools (sometimes Voice Thread, Bitstrips for Schools, two class blogs/websites).

Of course, teachers supply a lot of old school technology with their own money as well. I give out at least 10 pencils a day. My baskets are full of high lighters, glue sticks, pencil crayons, felt pens, craft supplies, coloured paper. I have a back book shelf loaded with books that I have purchased for my classroom. I am not alone in this.

4. Finally, the Government ad suggests we put students first. Yes, indeed. I agree. It is the suggestion that we are not doing this already in so many ways that concerns me. Of course, there are teachers, administrators and EAs that are not doing this. But, the vast majority of teachers, administrators and EAs are, as well they should.

We do need to put students first. We need to know what they need to learn best, we need to figure out how to help them develop their passions, we need to listen to their voices, we need to teach students, not curriculum. Of course. Assessment for learning, integration of technology, assistive technology, differentiated instruction, project-based learning, authentic products…. we have a lot of work to do and a lot to learn. Giving teachers more time in the day to learn these skills does not seem to be on the agenda because it would cost too much money. However, it is not because we don’t want this time.

Education is messy, complicated, hard, wonderful, exciting. It is a great profession to be in, especially when we are all working together, focusing on the good work that is being done, being a team that is focused on doing the best we can for students. A team.

At a very basic level, this kind of advertisement is pure propaganda. The Government has to figure out how to spin this “withdrawal of services” better than the BCTF. Both groups are engaged in a PR war now, and the Government needs to make us look bad. I love it when my leadership, in the form of advertisements and sound bites, treats my hard, passionate work like a political football. It feels like a boot to the head.

Of course, the BCTF wants us to look the best we can. There are aspects to how we train, certify and supervise teachers that need modification. However, I would ask you to remember that teachers do no hand out degrees, nor do we hire, and nor do we supervise. If we are hiring people not suited to the profession, that problem started long before the person is part of a collective agreement.

I am sure there are steps in the contract that need some work. Neither side should have absolute power – that’s the point of collective bargaining. Let’s get to work on that.

The really unfortnuate part is that the Government has tied this topic of 21st Century learning to the labour dispute.

There are many, many more things to write about and clarify. That’s it for today, though. The sun is shining, my family is waiting.