8 Guiding Principles For Reaching Educational Destinations

Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience.

David Foster Wallace (2005)


As educators, our days are fraught with distractions. Time is precious, attention spans short. Less is more, but which less? To what—and how–should we pay attention?

Here are some guidelines that help me when I feel overwhelmed by all the options—and by all the limitations.

  1. Choose connection. Take time for students. Validate them. Laugh together. Cultivate moments of light. Trust me, you will not get to your destination faster by skipping this step.
  2.  Choose to breathe. Relax. Be clear but do not rush. You will not get to your destination faster by talking faster.
  3. Choose deep meaning. Foster debate, discussion, comparison, reflection. Allow students time to wrestle with an idea. You will not get to your destination faster by covering a topic superficially.
  4. Choose lucidity. Plan carefully, understand thoroughly, explain succinctly. You will not get to your destination faster by talking more.
  5. Choose the arts. Research shows that the arts support academic achievement. You will not get to your destination faster by eliminating them.
  6. Choose physical education. Daily PE is necessary. You will not get to your destination faster by having kids sit all day.
  7. Choose structure AND creativity. Structures (routines, graphic organizers) provide the framework for productive creativity. Without structure, you will have chaos; without creativity, you will have tedium. You will not get to your destination faster by using just one or the other.
  8. Choose risk. Try something different. Dare to fail. There are no ultimate right answers. Taking a serendipitous path could be a shortcut or long detour. Taking chances is one way that you just might get to your destination a little faster.

So what are your guiding principles? Have I missed something obvious?

Leave a comment!


The Ultimate Teacher Cheat Sheet (in case you’re a little behind on latest research)

Ever played “Buzzword Bingo”? Truth be told, I did not know my game had an official name. I just thought it a pleasant (albeit juvenile) way to keep my mind focussed during required professional development.

Here’s how the game works (these are my rules, FYI). Before the pro-d starts, you and a friend pick five “buzzwords” each. You get a point every time one of your words is mentioned. At the end of the presentation, you tally points and declare a winner.

For awhile, I was doing big business with “piece” and “assessment.” Other winners were “collaboration” and “technology.”

But let’s face it. We don’t always get to sit back and listen. Sometimes we have to get up and speak. So, based on my years of listening to educational presentations, I have provided a handy chart. Simply choose one word or phrase from each category and string them together. Of course, the chart is only a stopgap. I know you will get out there and do your own research. Soon.

(You may have to click on the image. As I couldn’t figure out how to make a chart in WordPress, I took a picture of my chart. .  .)

Monday After a Holiday

It’s a Monday, but not just any Monday—the Monday after Spring Break. The transition from home to school is difficult. Many students require nonstop monitoring. Like shopping carts with wonky wheels, the second you remove the firm hand of guidance, they veer off the path.

It’s one minute into the day, and I am greeting the last few students as they enter the classroom. But what is happening to the others? Despite the fact that I have met them at the door, given them directions, and have an activity posted on the overhead, several of them are chasing each other around the classroom.  One starts intentionally yelping. Several start opening snacks. One has pulled out a jumbo Slurpee from inside his jacket. Someone starts banging on a desk. Another tries to get into the laptop cabinet.

I take a deep breath and begin. Within a few minutes, the Slurpee is confiscated, snacks are put away, the runners are seated, the yelper has gone down to get his medication, the rest are settling, and some students are even pulling out books. It’s calm—for now. But getting quality learning to happen will be an  uphill battle (it’s not supposed to be, is it?). At times, it feels like despite all my knowledge (and attempted implementation) of effective classroom discipline, I am playing a day-long game of “Whack-A-Mole”—I just get done with one kid and someone else pops up, and another, and—another.  And just wait a sec—there’s one more (got ‘em!).

I love how teachers have to attribute children’s antsy behaviour to something. Here are some favourites:

*it’s a Monday

*it’s getting close to the weekend

*it’s almost (Christmas, Spring, Summer) break

*it’s too hot

*we’ve had too many inside days

*we’ve had too many interruptions lately

*those students have been in the same class for too many years

*too many hormones

And our all-time favourite:

*it’s a full moon!

So what are your Mondays like? Which day is your favourite teaching day? Here’s my analysis of the week, from favourite to least favourite:

  1. Tuesday
  2. Friday
  3. Wednesday
  4. Thursday
  5. Monday

 Send me your list, and I’ll tally the results. In the meanwhile, hang on to those shopping carts with both hands!


Bill 22, Catch 22, and Gettin’ By with a Lotta Help from my Friend

I spent a long time trying to write a post on why I support this week’s strike. Perhaps because I work in an extreme situation (17 of my 27 students have moderate to severe learning needs), the results were less than satisfying. All I ended up doing was painting my school and students in a harsh light—not my intention. The focus just didn’t seem right, and I couldn’t seem to get it right.

Here is one thing I love about my school: you don’t have to figure out everything on your own. Everyone supports each other in a way that is foreign to me. For example, no one has said to me, “Your kids did such-and-such-bad-thing.” (As a Grade 7 teacher, I’m used to that.) In this place, every student is everyone’s student.

So enter my outstanding colleague Sooz Svennson. She happened to send me the letter she’d written to her MLA. Sooz has spent most of her career working in high poverty schools, and she operates from a place of compassion. She has graciously allowed me to print excerpts from her letter here:

I do the impossible for the most deserving students and families in a community with the lowest per capita income in B.C. I teach in one of Nanaimo’s inner city classrooms amongst a staff of dedicated teachers, educational assistants and a principal who has both compassion and leadership.

  I invite you to walk our hallways for a moment and venture into my room. According to a recently released report from the Vancouver Island Health Authority that made the front page of the Nanaimo Daily News, March 3, 2012, poverty has become noticeably worse. I offer you two realities that need a brighter and warmer light cast upon them: the factual side of what kids experience (the statistics), and the heart they show in living those stats. I am fortunate to see the resilience of many and to fall head over heels into advocacy. Here’s the comparison between Nanaimo poverty statistics and the Provincial averages: 

Children living on income assistance in Nanaimo: 7.8%; B.C. average: 4%

Children living on income assistance in Nanaimo with a single parent: 5.9%; B.C. average: 3.2%

Reported child abuse cases for children in Nanaimo aged 0-18: 11.1 per 1000; B.C. average: 10.9

 From where I stand on the classroom stoop, welcoming my crew every school day, I see much more than just statistics. I ask each one to enter not just as ‘kids’ but as ‘students’ who are becoming more aware of themselves as learners and as apprenticing citizens. 67% of our students are living in poverty, with 118 on our lunch program and many coming early for a breakfast. 61% of our students live in either single or blended family situations. Grandparents raising grandchildren and great grandchildren are our heroes. I could go on. The suffering is palpable.

The real outside world stomps through my room every day, all day, despite my efforts to better fit my teaching to a diverse crew of learners. High transience has students coming and going as rents go up, relationships dissolve and fortunes change. Transitions are not always smooth, and school may in fact be the safest place to be. Calm for many can be disconcerting. Anticipating conflicts and using words to problem-solve is a gift. Survival mode is familiar to many. Reactions come on fast and strong reverberating through the room as old traumas are triggered. Lessons often come to temporary halt as relationships are tended to and mended with ‘mom talks.’ My word has to mean something to hold my class together. I do not make threats. I do not speak in anger. The only card I carry is my disappointment. The tie that binds us is genuinely caring about one another. It is felt.

 This is what I had hoped the Minister of Education, George Abbott, understood before he came up with the heavy-handed Bill 22. I see too much potential in my students to not wish for a negotiated settlement and a restoration of rights as determined by the BC Supreme Court. From 2001-2007, 600 Special Education teachers were cut, while 1000 more students requiring their expertise were added to the existing load. It continues. Class size and class composition are very real concerns for teachers seeking to meet their students needs. I speak from experience in an extreme situation.

I choose to serve the most deserving. I will not sit back to hear of how the minister plans to compensate some teachers when their classes go over thirty. How will those learners be compensated for the compromises they will make? My class of 21 is already compromised. If only a third of a class functions near grade level, how is each member of that class to be best served if, as Abbott suggests, caps are discriminatory? It has become absurd. Education is where hope waits for us to stand up and speak our truth. My classroom is sacred ground deserving of the greatest respect. I tether my hope on being permitted to teach to the prescribed learning outcomes for all my students because it is the right thing to do.

 Thanks to Sooz and all my other colleagues who are fighting for workable, sustainable classroom conditions—so that all kids have a chance at a great education.


Why Do I Feel So Scattered?

I teach grade 5/6 in a K-7 school. With the exception of French and music, I am responsible for teaching all other subjects: math, language arts, science, social studies, career and personal planning, art, physical education and “computers.” I also volunteer coach the Peewee girls.

Do I feel stretched? Just a tad.

As I work to embrace technology, I have been perusing the web. I can’t help noticing middle and high school teachers who specialize in a subject or two. Sometimes I envy their focus. Because I teach such a variety of things, I never seem to become an “expert” in any subject.

Let’s look inside my brain and see what I have been doing in order to prepare for my lessons this week:

Writing: the challenge I am facing is that students appear to have limited background knowledge and are reluctant to talk about their lives. They seem to be unsure about what is appropriate/safe to share (secrets?  Will need to talk to Sooz, my trusted colleague, about this).

Have found some great ideas in Adrienne Gear’s Writing Power. She uses picture books as writing mentor texts. Have folded over the corner on page 91: “Visualizing a Special Place.”  In library, found Cynthia Rylant’s When I Was Young in the Mountains and Gary Paulson’s Canoe Days. My goal is to move from this lesson to teaching memoir.  Have found some inspiring lessons on teaching memoir from kenc18’s blog “RAMS English.”  Also revisited Writing Anchors (Jan Wells, Janine Reid) and What’s Next for this Beginning Writer? (Janine Reid, Betty Schultze, Ulla Peterson) in an attempt to piece it all together.

Literature Circles: Had to grab my Grand Conversations (Faye Brownlie) in order to review how to encourage conversations during lit circles.  I am actually pleased with the “writing in role” activity that students are working on.  At the beginning of the week, students were struggling, but then we did a “hot seat” drama activity where students answer questions in role. From there, they could transition to writing (should have seen that one coming…).

Science: Found a “Simple Machines” unit (with supplies) in the science closet. Also found a list of Simple Machines links on the Scholastic lesson planning site. Put their links onto a Symbaloo. (See how casually I threw that in? Name-dropping is so yesterday! Today it’s all about techno-jargon. Toss in the name of an app and suddenly—you are someone to be respected. Doesn’t matter if it took you hours, or even if the links work! Point is, you are a player. More on this later!) Things I still need to do: find wax paper and sandpaper. Also need to find a way to appear comfortable saying “screw” numerous times in front of adolescent learners. Also, will simply skip the lesson on “lubricant” as friction reducer.

Social studies: just finished an integrated unit on Ancient Egypt. Did focused research, a jigsaw activity, and mind maps (learned the basis of this technique from a great local teacher, Mary-Lyn Epps.) Students found it difficult, so I had to provide a lot of extra scaffolding and find many extra resources. Final results worth it though! Percolating ideas for next unit…

Math: trying to teach improper/mixed fractions.  Have found the fraction circles and Cuisinaire rods. Students need lot of hands-on work. Have been doing some reading on cognitive development—trying to understand how to best help struggling students understand abstract concepts. They CAN learn the concepts, it just takes longer. Also working to develop math confidence. As homework is rarely done, need to really focus on in-class time. Most frustrating thing: absenteeism. Need to look into technology to help me “fill in the gaps.” Have been trying to use the computer as much as possible. However, computers not always available. Also issues with band width. Will keep working this angle. As explained in a previous blog, math problem-solving is taught using a template.

PE: Aside from cooperative games, plan to focus on basketball—really want the kids to try out for the teams. Want them to perceive selves as athletic, able to learn new things.  Many scared to try out—too risky.  Note to self: start a drop-in basketball game after school Fridays. But back to the lesson: find some low-risk, fun skill-building games.

Art: Think I’ll work the hip-hop angle. Fab principal has organized a six-week afterschool hip hop class—and some are making fun of anyone who “dances.” So I really want to play up the “cool” factor. Saw a great activity on an Kids Artists, an art educator’s site. Thank god for the internet. Can integrate complementary colours and drawing circles with compass (the more math the better).

Other things on the go: the district laptops have arrived for six weeks, and we’ll need to figure out how to best use them. Also, Bayview staff reading Embedded formative assessment by Dylan Wiliam for our book club.

Once I actually list all the classes I need to plan for on a weekly basis, I can see why I often feel scattered. Throw in some moderate to severe behaviours (in addition to the wide range of abilities) and it can seem like quite a circus.

How about you? What are some ways you use to feel focused? Do you feel like an “expert” in what you do?

Maslow’s Hierarchy

 I am learning what it means to be a teacher in a low-income area.

Last month a student was crying. She had a severe toothache, so I suggested she call home.

She was back in five minutes. “I’ve got to suck it up, we don’t have money to go to the dentist right now,” she said through a wad of Kleenex, and trudged to her desk. Speechless, I immediately went to my teaching buddy Sooz who knows everything when it comes to this stuff.

 “Go down to the office and tell the principal and secretary. They’ll take care of it,” she said. I must have looked shocked. “It’s okay, Twi. This happens at our school.  But we take care of it.”

Indeed. The school arranged an appointment, and a support worker drove the student there and back.

During lunch, as I supervised Lego Club, I thought back to Halloween and Christmas. I was beginning to understand the wisdom and compassion of my colleagues.

For Halloween, the student support teachers had organized a before-school “costume exchange” in their room. Students had one week to bring in old costumes and/or find new ones. On the day of Halloween, they arranged for volunteer face painters to decorate excited students. During the costume parade, every student was decked out. Every student.

With Christmas came “The Christmas Store.” Loaded with donations from teachers and community members, the newly-transformed music room contained “gifts” for students to purchase for family and friends (prices: from $0.10 to $2.00). The grade seven students then wrapped and labelled the presents for the purchasers and delivered them to the appropriate classrooms. On the day before Christmas holidays, all students had gifts to take home and hide. Brilliant.

After Christmas, the first snow led to a flurry of student concerns. Many did not have boots, hats, mittens, or warm winter coats. Fortunately, the school has a collection of donated/purchased clothing and boots. Students that require winter clothing are snugly outfitted.  

When I mentioned to a neighbour that we give clothing to kids that need it, she said, “Do you feel right giving hand-outs? Shouldn’t kids have to, you know–work for it?”

Work for it?  For clothes? Winter boots? Mittens?

No.  Children do not have to earn warm clothing.

They do not have to earn breakfast or lunch or fillings in their teeth or even Halloween costumes.

Children, all children, deserve to have basic needs met, without judgement and without shame.

Yes, the issue of poverty is complex, and it’s easy to point fingers. But while you debate the issue, children still have toothaches. And they are still hungry.

And watching my colleagues, I am finally seeing the subtext: that dignity, not judgement, comes first.

One: The Number of Good Teacher Dreams I’ve Had

Usually the dreams involve a loss of control. I can’t find the school. I can’t find the classroom. I show up late. The students are crazy. I lose kids on a field trip.

(Wait. That one might be post traumatic stress disorder. I actually did leave two kids behind–at the top of the ski jump at the Calgary Olympics. The kids purposefully didn’t get on the elevator down. No one got hurt.)

Just last week I dreamt that I was driving to school when I realized that I had to give the graduation speech. I had nothing prepared, so I frantically started looking for paper and pen in the car. Unable to find anything but an old tinfoil pie plate and a nail, I started scratching out a message (please don’t send an analysis).

Anyhow, my good dream:

I arrived at school after summer holidays to see—could it be??—a brand new school. The architects had incorporated all my suggestions. I first noticed the huge covered playground. The students would be able to play outside when it was raining!  The playground equipment was vividly coloured and creative. The landscaping was beautiful. Going inside the building, I noted the spacious lobby/lounge and plants. My “room” was now a series of rooms! First was the art room, a light-filled work space with tables and endless supplies. My classroom proper had smooth round wooden tables, big windows that opened, and an entire wall of books. Then came the viewing gallery with tiered seating and giant projector.

Suddenly, unexpectedly, all my students arrived! I immediately went into teacher mode, establishing routines. I was trying desperately to figure out how best to get students seated efficiently in the new gallery when my husband’s voice kept interrupting: “Twi! Twi! Time to get up!”

Emerging into reality, I slowly watched my new school vanish.

I was most sad to see that playground go. Never another inside day? That should have tipped me off.