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!


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!


The More Things Change


One reason I started this blog was to connect with other teachers. As an educator, I sometimes feel I am hacking a trail through jungle, only to look back and see new growth already creeping over the path. Nothing remains. Of course it does (after all, “2 teach is 2 touch lives 4ever”), but as we’re trail blazing, it seems we’re very much alone, pioneers. Which is ridiculous, because teachers everywhere have been hacking trails for centuries (do I sound conflicted?).

So I was intrigued to come across a book entitled The Teacher and the School written in 1911 by Chauncey P. Colegrove. Colegrove was the “Head of the Department of Professional Instruction” at Iowa State Teachers College in Cedar Falls, Iowa. He writes that his book is “the outgrowth of many years of study, observation and experience.” Fantastic! He’s put together all of his blog posts in one convenient publication.

Colegrove’s overarching “supreme conviction” is that the teacher is the life of the school. “Every other educational problem can be reduced to this question of the fitness of the teacher,” he writes in his preface (p. viii). Looks like Colegrove figured out what the latest research is finally confirming.

He encourages young people to get professional training in the art of teaching. He believes that teaching is “best acquired by (1) observing good teaching, making lesson plans under guidance, and discussing the plans and work of other teachers; and (2) by practice-teaching under competent supervision” (p. 20). A fan of “understanding the child,” he encourages all would-be teachers to delve into the new research on child psychology.

However, he laments that society is changing: “Our intense modern life with all its complexity, its rush and roar of traffic, its social unrest and keen competition, its tendency to congregate in cities, makes greater and greater demands upon all classes of our people; and if the American race shall be able to bear the strain—shall be saved from degeneracy—the physical and nervous energy of our children must not be exhausted in the process of education.” Teachers alone, he believes, can prepare students for this “new world.”

Colgrove bemoans the fact that the average monthly salary of women teachers in the United States is only $38.00. He is discouraged by the focus on “negative incentives” which he calls “criminal and foolish.” Such incentives include “pulling the hair, boxing the ears, blows on the head, washing out the mouth with soap and water, and binding a cloth over the mouth to prevent whispering” (p. 389). He advises against calling students “idiots, dunces, and stupid things.” (What really happened in “the good old days?)

I must admit that I feel connected to Chauncey (and it’s not just because I love his name). His observations and advice still hold water one hundred years later. Perhaps a century hence, some teacher will read my blog entries and give a nod to my musings.

I will share one last quote that Chauncey attributes to “an English teacher” (why do English teachers always seem to have the last word?): “Educational salvation lies, not in bricks and mortar, nor in sumptuous equipment (Chauncey, would Ipads fall under this?), not in courses of study on paper, nor in elaborate machinery of whatever kind, but in the subtle influence of informed and cultured men and women up the pupils committed to their care. However thoroughly and liberally public authorities discharge their school duties in other respects, all is in vain unless the ranks of the teaching profession, in its various grades, are so recruited that the daily work of the school is done with knowledge, skill, and sympathy. To have built schools, to have filled them with pupils, and to have devised means of supervision, are all excellent things in themselves—as machinery.  It is the teacher alone who can supply the driving power.”

You know, Chaunc, if you had a blog, I’d subscribe.

Reality Check

Last Monday morning, Vancouver Island University (VIU) students facilitated science centers in our gym. They had prepared hands-on presentations as part of their coursework. For almost an hour, my students experimented with unknown liquids, rolled toy cars down slopes, drummed drums, guessed smells, created circuits.

As staff, we saw an opportunity to play with one of our “Project Success” questions: will having students write about field trip experiences increase written output?

So, the day after the centers, we organized a school-wide write. Most students grabbed pencils and started writing. Two, however, did not–for a very specific reason.

At lunch, I sought out my colleague Sooz.

“How’d your write go?” I asked.

“Pretty well,” she said. “But here’s the disturbing part: three students could NOT remember what they had done yesterday. They were pretty sure they had gone to the centers, but they couldn’t remember what activities they did. I tried jogging their memories by asking who they were with, but they just couldn’t remember. I know these kids–they aren’t faking.”

“You’re not going to believe this,” I said, “Two of my students had the exact same thing.”

We looked at each other, the implications sinking in.

These students could not recall–after one day–a learning situation that was, in many respects, “perfect”: a low adult-student ratio (one adult to three students); hands-on activities; novel material; presented in the morning (just after having breakfast at school).

We compared notes and realized all students came from “traumatic” situations (in foster care, just out of care, history of violence).

As an educator, I suppose I knew that stress affects memory. But I had grossly underestimated the degree to which children’s learning is impacted.

I feel a bit sick. I can only imagine how much they’ve remembered from last month’s lessons.

Writing Report Cards: Ideas for Teachers-in-Training

Our school is close to Vancouver Island University. An Educational Assessment class meets in our library every Wednesday morning. Thirty students and their professor discuss ideas and then go into the classrooms to see “assessment in action.”

Sometimes the teachers are asked to come and present ideas. Tomorrow, eight of us are sharing the “Road to Writing Report Cards,” a process often daunting to young educators.

So I am preparing my notes. (This is what I enjoy about having university students in the building: I have an opportunity to reflect upon processes not often verbalized.)

I’m trying to keep in mind that these students have never written report cards before. What should I tell them?

Here are my thoughts so far:

  1. Become familiar with your district’s report card. Ask the principal for a top-notch exemplar.
  2. Know your goals. Assessment begins with planning.
  3. Know your students. Yes, look at the files. It is crucial to look at the files. How would you react if your doctor didn’t look at your history? If she thought she’d just gather her own impressions, give you a fresh start? The files contain all designations, assessments, referrals, medical reports, psychological tests, legal papers, number of absences, and previous report cards.
  4. Spend most of your assessment energy on formative assessment (see Dylan Wiliam’s work). Do NOT put all eggs (and endless hours) into the summative assessment basket.
  5. Allow students to demonstrate their learning in a variety of ways (see #3).
  6. Listen to classroom interactions and conversations. Keep a clipboard ready to record observations.
  7.  Keep work samples, projects, journals. As report cards near, have students submit their best work in a portfolio with a self-assessment.
  8. Keep report card comments clear and precise. Include ways to move student learning forward.
  9. Find a colleague in the school to give you feedback. You are not alone!

I think these will make a great start. What do you think—have I missed something obvious? Let me know!