Kids listen to kids

Recently our school had a guest speaker come speak to students on the topic of bullying and positive lifestyle choices. Ordinarily, guest speakers find difficulty in fulling holding students attention for a full hour. However, this speaker was able to hold their attention despite spending most the time “lecturing”. As I listened to his message I wondered why he was so successful where others often struggle. There was nothing substantially different from his approach, but there is something very different in his appearance. He is younger than any speaker we’ve had before – likely in his early 20’s. Our students really seemed able to connect to his message and his presentation. The students were really engaged in the medium and the message. It reminded me that if you really want kids to hear a message, they need to hear it from other “kids”. I can’t help wonder about how this could influence how schools teach about risk, or even career guidance.  

I want to play again

It is hard to imagine, but another summer holiday has nearly come to a close. Only two weeks until I step back into my office and the classroom for another school year. Teaching can be a strange profession. Where else do you get 30 “do-overs”, “mulligans”, and opportunities to “play again”? As a somewhat dark joke, I sometimes tell students who are experiencing hardships at school that at least they can get out in a year or two…imagine what it is like for their teachers who not only suffer through it once but are stuck in high school for 30 more years 🙂 Seriously though, having the opportunity to start fresh and write a new “page” is a unique and wonderful attribute to the profession. I’m certainly looking forward to the upcoming school year. It’s exciting to think about what I might improve upon in my practice and what new experiences I’ll have – even if they are challenging. In particular, I’m looking forward to continuing my work on helping to engage all students. To me this is an area where schools can make a huge difference in the culture and climate of their buildings. We often think about what teachers, administrators, and school systems can do to help engage students. However, what about the role of students or student groups, such as student leadership, in fostering a more engaging school environment? This is something I hope to investigate this year.

Teaching is an art; it involves emotions

 I recently have been observing some formal debates in an English classroom. Hearing students articulate their thoughts through debate is a rewarding experience. They never fail to impress! The kids were very engaged in the debate process despite some often daunting and advanced topics. However, it wasn’t always the content that was resulting in the engagement, but the kind of rapport the students and teachers have created between one another.

Then later in the day I was reading the latest issue of Edutopia about the question of whether teaching is an art or science. I was struck by the response that “teaching is an art; it involves emotions”. This statement really ‘hit home’ as our school tries to promote the importance of fostering trust and building relationships. Not just between students, but among staff, students, and parents. We often say that the school is not built of bricks and mortar, but one of interconnections between people. As an administrator, I work frequently with the at-risk group and see first hand how critical the emotional connections are in keeping at-risk youth attending school.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation found that nearly half of high school dropouts reported school to be uninteresting and that students were not motivated to work hard. What role do the relationships established between staff and students play in making school interesting and fostering work ethic?  I don’t have any statistics but my “gut” and experience tell me its incredibly important and easily overlooked – particularly with challenging students.  I often think about making content relevant and engaging in my courses. However, what about the role and importance of building relationships, or art?

If anyone has any systematic plans/programs they use with students or at-risk youth to help build relationships I’d love to hear your comments.

Keeping Kids Connected

I started a discussion today in a staff meeting about a topic I feel pretty strong about; keeping kids connected to the school. The discussion went fine, although I didn’t really have time to get to the ‘heart’ of the issue and look at solutions. In our school of approx. 500 students, the majority are what you would say are ‘connected’. That is they have a strong sense of belonging and often show this through their involvement in both structured and unstructured extra-curricular activities , etc. However, there still remains a significant group of students who are not connected. Not surprisingly, some of these students exhibit academic, social, and behavior difficulties. So as an administrator, it’s not uncommon for me to deal with these students regularly.

So, I have two main questions about current secondary education. Firstly, what do we do about the kids who are not connecting? And, secondly, are the numbers of disconnected youth increasing? If so, how might we start addressing the issue? Is focusing on youth engagement a great first start? Okay, I guess that is more than two questions 🙂

A few years ago a group of administrators were part of the “revolution” group. It was a group aimed at examining these questions in more detail. A primary resource for our discussions came from an excellent Saskatchewan Learning resource . However, due to other priorities the group was dissolved for a portion of time. The good news is that recently our senior administration has decided to start discussions with interested teachers on the very topic. Needless to say, I’m excited by this prospect. This is not because I believe secondary education is ‘broken’. On the contrary, but by examining these questions I believe we can only strengthen our education system.
So, please help me out…what do you do to ‘connect’ kids? What is your district or school doing? How do you help ‘engage’ students?

When did your world go flat?

I was introduced to Friedman’s book “The World is Flat” by one of division’s consultants, Dean Shareski, about two years ago. At first, some of the ideas were hard to internalize because they really disrupted my reality. However, over time, I have become more familiar with his work through experiences in grad studies, reading blogs, and hearing Dean and others speak about the topic. However, to date, I have yet to actually read the book – but it is on the list.

Yesterday I had my own little “flattening” epiphany while participating in a online connectivism online conference. I was truly stunned by similarities around the globe in how schools are challenged by a data and connection rich reality. Over 1300 teachers, administrators, researchers, and others from the U.S., Canada, U.K., Australia, Japan, China, and so forth all talking about how connectivity is changing learning. It truly opened my eyes to how small our big world can become when we connect. So, when did your world go flat?

Locations of visitors to this page

A Reminder…from Nascar

I have a secret – I’m a Nascar fan. Actually, I’m a huge fan.  Anyhow, I read an interesting set of quotes earlier this week that gave me a laugh and a reminder. The quote was from former champ, Tony Stewart, who wrote about the newly remodeled Vegas race track as being “ridiculously fast…. it’s stupid to be running that fast in a stock car”. In contrast was a quote by another popular racer, Michael Waltrip, who stated ” don’t know why people complain about it. We’re race car drivers, for gosh sakes.” I nearly fell of my chair in laughter when I read it – talk about telling it like it really is.

So what does this have to do with education? I suppose what I see is a quick reminder for us “drivers” to remember what our job actually is about. Often times its easy to be negative when we feel pulled and pushed in various directions which often can appear totally disconnected from what our job is all about. I certainly felt this way one morning earlier this week. So, the next time I’m bogged down by email or buried under paperwork I’m going to listen to Waltrip. If what I’m doing has to do with helping students, or supporting those who help them learn – well, “for gosh sakes – that is my job”.

Video games in school?

For the first time in years our internet connection ground to a snails pace this morning. Of course, this happened precisely when I was trying to use my blog, wiki, and various sites for an HTML project with the computer science 30 class.  Instead I chose to jump ahead a few days and introduce the students the a fascinating program “Game Maker“. It allows students to learn how to create actual working game applications.

I have used this program in the past with my classes and it is always a smashing success. Their abilities to think critically, solve huge problems, and be creative always impress.  By in large it is the most motivating and engaging topic I’ve ever used in my teaching. In reality, entire courses could be built around the topic. As I teach programming, this application is a direct curricular fit.  However, the more I work with the program the more curricular ties I see emerging in other areas. For example, good games are built upon stories – good stories, themes, and historical accuracies. They also utilize design principles used in graphic arts and could use music manipulation. There are also some math and science ties as real life physics models are incorporated into the program.  I’m really looking forward to seeing what kind of projects are developed in the class this semester.  I’m also looking forward to getting the opportunity to share this program and my “ramblings” with fellow teachers next week at a PD session. I’m not sure how game creation and design fit directly in what others are doing, but I can state strongly it engages students like nothing else.

Listening to My Students

For several years I have used a Course Evaluation with my grade 10 to 12 students. The form, although far from being statistically sound, has been very valuable and has greatly influenced my practice. By listenting to my students and allowing them to provide honest and critical feedback I know I’m building better relationships with my students and also improving my practice. I primary concern for me has always been trying to meaningfully engage my students – the evaluation has been a window into how I can do that.

When I first used this form with students I was very nervous…what if they tell me that I’m the worst teacher ever or tell me I’m weak at what I perceive are my strengths? In truth, some of my early feedback was very critical and required me to reflect seriously about how I organize and instruct. However, over the years I’ve come to look forward to the exercise. In fact, in some classes I do the evaulation at the half way point so there is time to make changes. What I have learned over the years is that students (at least those I’ve taught) want some flexibility in the learning through assignment choice and options to work collaboratively. They also like ownership in the classroom and want input into how the class is organized. For example, students decided that as a motivator to work hard all week that if they were to cover a weeks worth of content that on Fridays we could study “fun” topics such as video editing, graphic design, or game programming. The best comment I’ve ever received was that students look forward to my class … on Sunday nights.

Now, granted I teach in an an elective area so it’s likely the students are more motivated due to the fact they chose to take the class. However, could this work in core classrooms? I do believe that by giving students a chance to have a voice in the class and an influence on how it operates schools can improve student engagement. Anyone out there had experience with this? I’d love to hear from you.

Coffee Beans and Cell Phones

I’m taking an online class from the UofR on educational leadership of technology and we are discussing an interesting issue this week. The issue is that students expectations with using technology are often very different from how it is used in schools – or at least what is appropriate use. My contention is that students expectations with technology are built on the expecations that techology:

1) Allows freedom 2) Is a social tool and symbol 3) It is engaging (suduko effect)

I often get concerned when schools first response to some of the social problems created through technology is to ban technology. Worse, it starts being easy to see the technology (cell, IM, mp3, banning sites, etc) as being the problem when in reality it is the way it is being used. As a result, administrators and teachers spend resources developing and enforcing policy to deal with new technologies…why? In the end, the real problem is the disruptive nature of the way the technology is used. I have used the argument that a cell phone is no different than an espresso machine. What I mean is that using a cell phone to text while in math class is really no different than grinding and pressing your favourite speciality coffee during math class – it is disruptive and distracting. My fear is that the more we push these technologies away from education we are creating a digital wall between ourselves and our clients. Moreover, how are we ever going to realize the contributions such technology can make to schools when our solution is to just push them away?  I’ll stop here – my coffee is ready 🙂

Educating the “New” students

I learned a new word today – Millennials. In essence it describes people born since 1982 and who are described by the following indicators (as taken from Oblinger’s article in Educause):

  • gravitate to group activity
  • feel close to their parents
  • spend time on homework – not TV
  • fascinated by new technologies

I can’t say that my experience with teenagers would entirely support their descriptors. Regardless, the summary of the article is that these Millennials “prefer teamwork, experiential activities, structure, and the use of technology”. The article then extends how the characterisitics of these “new” students has impacted post secondary education. For example, online experiences, connectivity, competitiveness between universities, and a large increase in customer service.

In the end, I’m struck with the image that what “new” students, or Millennials, really want is to be meaningfully engaged in learning. Universities are being forced to become more learner centered in order to remain viable. But, what about in a secondary environment where competition for tuition is not largely and issue? I have seen some very exciting things happening in my school division that address some of the needs of “new” students. However, I think we can still go a long way to engaging our youth in more meaningful ways. Where can we start? One place is to to continue trying to understand these “new” students and try to adapt our schools to more closely meet their needs.  What exactly does this look like? In fact, this is one of the reasons I have started a blog. To start developing, testing, and reflecting on this issue. If anyone out there has any good starting points – please let me know!