The Speed of Enlightenment

If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.        ~African Proverb

Seriously? We have to choose?

What about this: “If you want to go fast and far, let there be spaces in your togetherness”?

You’re guilty, I’m guilty. We want things relatively fast. Just not, for the love of God, slow. And please: not always together.

It can be infuriating. The meetings.The waiting to hurry up. The feigning of interest in someone’s absurd point of view. The humouring of curmudgeons. The compromises. The time.

So we see senior administrators trying to fast track change by circumventing due process. Here’s one way to ensure that your initiatives falter—make them unilaterally. Don’t ask your teachers. Keep everyone guessing. Post job openings that start the rumour mill humming. Keep a low profile. Remember, lasting change comes from the outside in.

“I think the first thing one has to do [in setting out to change a culture],” says Robert Dockson, “is get people on one’s side and show them where you want to take the company. Trust is vital. People trust you when you don’t play games with them, when you put everything on the table and speak honestly with them. Even if you aren’t very articulate, your intellectual honesty comes through, and people recognize that and respond positively” (p. 161, On Becoming a Leader, Bennis).

Attempting to change culture without communicating purpose is futile. Leaders must be able to articulate their vision, because, as Marty Kaplan says, “if someone is a complete master of what they need to know, but is unable to explain why I should care about it or want to help, then they can’t get me to support them.”

If you want to go fast, go alone. We’ll catch up sooner or–more probably–later.


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!

Observations: What Contributes to Poor Academic Performance?

In the months I’ve been working at my new school, I have tried to determine what factors contribute to poor academic performance. Here, for what it’s worth, are my observations thus far:

  1. High absenteeism: This shocked me. I added up how many days students have missed since kindergarten. Some have missed over a year, some two. There’s a strong correlation between attendance and achievement, and over time, gaps become chasms.
  2. Transience: Students move from rental to rental, school to school. Schools need considerable time to get supports in place for vulnerable students—difficult when students are frequently uprooted.
  3. Biological conditions: Some students have neurological issues that affect learning (Fetal Alcohol (or Drug) Syndrome, malnutrition, lack of medical care). Often, memory and language appear to be most impacted. You can teach—they may not remember.
  4. Unstable home environments: Highly stressed students have a harder time learning and engaging.
  5. Lack of home support: When survival is top priority, homework is not.
  6. Cultural differences: Not all cultures value what “western culture” values.

All the while, I keep thinking about Einstein’s famous quote: “Not everything that counts can be measured. Not everything that can be measured counts.” My students teach me every day about what cannot be measured: resilience and laughter, the importance of the now, of belonging, connection, and  beating the odds.

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. .  .)

Teaching the Real Basics: Addressing Personal Hygiene

Several months ago, I had a student who couldn’t run properly. Her shoes appeared to be too small, so we went down to the clothing room to find some “new” runners. These new shoes didn’t improve her gait, so I assumed she had an injury.

A month later, this student arrived at school in obvious need of a good scrub. So one of the educational assistants helped her take a shower and clean up. In doing so, the EA discovered why the child was having such a hard time running: her toenails were over an inch long and starting to curl down under her toes.

This experience led our team to examine the topic of personal hygiene. We understood that our intermediate students required several straightforward lessons.

But then we realized that some students didn’t have access to basic amenities—deodorant, nail clippers, toothpaste, lice combs. So our principal came up with a great idea: Why not put together hygiene kits? We could bring in some “health experts” (nurses), have them address a variety of topics, and then hand out the kits.

Thanks to several generous donors, this idea became reality. Diane McGonigle, principal, and I went out on a Friday night, found the best deals, and purchased the necessary supplies. School EA’s put everything together.

Here’s what was in the girls’ kit:

Here is the guys’ kit:

To ensure students were clear on how to use these items, we enlisted the help of nurses from the Tillicum Lelum Health Centre. Vancouver Island University  nursing practicum students presented two fantastic hour-long presentations on personal cleanliness.

I was nervous that students might find the information “babyish,” but they loved it. Of particular interest to them was how to remove head lice and how to use feminine hygiene products (although a few boys had their hoodies pulled over their heads at this point!).

After the second presentation, students received their kits. “Excited” really doesn’t capture the mood. Students carefully examined their new treasures and tucked them into backpacks. The next day, many brought their kits to school, afraid someone at home would use “their stuff.” Some girls started using the bags as “purses.”

Our next step, apart from the occasional review, is to teach students how to access community services if they cannot afford to refill their kits. We will be taking a “field trip” down to the exceptional Tillicum Lelum Health Centre to discover what resources are available.

Thanks to everyone–Tillicum, VIU, donors. It does take a community.

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!


Preparing for a Research Project

My grade 5/6 class is researching Canadian endangered species.

Breaking down the research process into manageable pieces has been challenging.  I’ve divided my steps into steps so many times, it feels like I’m running the Fermilab. The Higgs boson has not only been discovered; it’s now known as The Higgs and The boson. (Disclaimer: Any analogies dealing with particle physics should not be scrutinized closely.)

Teaching research skills takes time. Students are impatient. They want to jump in, start immediately. How hard can it be? Print off a few articles, change a few words, throw in a few pictures—what more do you want?

For those new to teaching research at this level, let me break it down (and down) for you.

First off–the bad news: you’ll need to get organized. And getting organized can take a little time. So if you’re looking for tomorrow’s lesson, stop now. This is like one of those recipes that require a week of marinating.

Here’s how I got organized.

My first stop was the school library. I checked available resources and then did some research online, looking for materials at my students’ level (I have many students with low reading abilities). Because these students have not done much previous research, I decided to prepare packages of information on 18 animals (was that a groan?). That way, we could focus on reading, taking notes, arranging notes, and writing.

  1. Why go to all that work? Isn’t finding resources an important part of research? Absolutely—just not at this level. Finding appropriate resources is one of the most difficult and time-consuming aspects of research. I know from previous experience that these students cannot gauge their reading level accurately. They will print out a 32-page scientific paper on the Beluga whale—and then come to me for help. The other extreme–they will copy out another kid’s report they’ve found somewhere online. Again, not an appropriate source of information.
  2. Why 18 animals when you have 27 students? Some students feel more confident working with someone else. I decided that up to two students could work on one animal, sharing the info folder. However, I also knew that some students would prefer to work by themselves.
  3. How did you organize the information? I stapled together the edges of old legal-sized folders and wrote the animal name on the tab. I put information and books in each pocket and stored the folders in a plastic box.

Although this might seem like a lot of work, your first attempt at research will go much more smoothly. Plus, you can reuse these packages. (I’m thinking of having students repeat the process with a different partner and animal.)

After I prepared these packages, I created a very specific outline of what information I wanted the students to find:

Endangered Species: Our Outline

I.    Introduction

II.  Description: What does this creature look like?

  • A.  Colour
  • B.  Size
  • C.  Weight
  • D.  Unique features: paws, fins, claws, fur
  • E.  Babies: what do their babies look like?
  • F.  For birds, describe eggs

III.  Habitat: Where does this creature live?

  • A.  Provinces and territories
  • B.  Natural Environment: what kind of home does it prefer (forests, fields,     marshes, oceans)?
  • C.   Plants and animals that share this environment
  • D.  Climate of habitat

IV.    Adaptations: How does this creature survive?

  • A.  Body (sharp teeth, long claws, thick fur)
  • B.  Diet (What does it eat? What do babies eat? Who hunts?)
  • C.  Home (What is it? Where would you find it? Any interesting details?)
  • D.  Enemies (Who are they? How does your creature fight them? Are humans an enemy? How?)

V.   Conclusion:

  • A. Why this creature is endangered?
  • B. What is being done to protect it?
  • C. What else can we do?

You’ll notice: clear, simple, specific. No surprises.

I also needed to decide on a note-taking format. Yes, I know, this is my year to embrace technology, but the technology at my school is not reliable, nor is it available whenever I want it. So—I went old school. I created folders where students could organize post-it notes:

This folder’s four categories are taken directly from the outline: Description, Habitat, Adaptations, and Bibliography.

Then I needed to determine a way to have students choose animals. If you are doing this for the first time in an elementary classroom—beware! Riots can occur if students don’t get “their” animal. Here’s one way that has worked well for me.

  1. Have Popsicle sticks labeled with the students’ names. Prepare a chart with the animals listed.
  2. Pull out sticks one by one. Allow children, in order, to choose an animal. Once a child has chosen, allow that child to invite another student to work with him/her on the same animal. The invited child can accept or decline the invitation. (Before we start the process, I explain how everything works and why I think this system is fair. I allow them to ask questions. I explain that they are not obligated to work with anyone.)

OPTIONAL: Over the years, I have found that creating a booklet for students to keep  their research materials together has been very successful. Students are more motivated—they really want to complete their booklets.  For this particular project, I folded four legal sheets in half and  included the following elements:

  • Page one: Title page with name and due date
  • Page two (inside front cover): Mind map of outline
  • Page three: Outline
  • Page four: What I know/ don’t know about description and habitat
  • Page five: What I know/don’t know about adaptations
  • Page six: How to take notes
  • Page seven: How to turn Post-its into a report
  • Page eight: Space for a hand-drawn, labelled picture of animal
  • Page nine: Introduction (glue in final copies for pages nine-fourteen)
  • Page ten: Description
  • Page eleven: Habitat
  • Page twelve: Map of Canada (draw in range of animal)
  • Page thirteen: Adaptations
  • Page fourteen: Conclusion and Bibliography
  • Page fifteen: Research journal (each day, write down what you did)
  • Page sixteen: Assessment


Preparing a research booklet is simply putting all the pieces in one place. For storage, place red folder into research booklet and throw both into a page protector.

And now it’s your turn. How do you break down the research process into manageable steps?