Those Fabulous Art Teachers

A few years back, I was assigned to teach “Fine Arts” as an option. I proposed the class be renamed “Rough Arts” but was denied.

Thank GOD for art teachers on the internet. These teachers are a special breed, willing to take hours to share their latest projects with step-by-step instructions and inspiring examples. Take Kathy Barbro, an art teacher who has been online for years. Her site,, taught me how to break down an art project into steps. Because of her, and her generosity in sharing lessons, I now love teaching art. Here are two bulletin boards that I just put up using lessons from her site:


That Intangible Factor (and Larry King, too)


I’m reading Larry King’s latest book. He tells great stories about everyone imaginable. Here’s one about Al Pacino and one of his first stage plays:

The production had a crowd scene. In this scene, a bomb went off. Al’s part called for him to yell, “That sounds like a bomb!”

He rehearsed the line all week.

“That sounds like a bomb!”

“That sounds like a bomb!”

“That sounds like a bomb!”

They never set the bomb off during rehearsal. They just told him that the sound would come on opening night.

On opening night, the scene arrived, and the bomb went off. BOOM!

And Al said, “What the **** was that?”  (p. 105)

Is there anything better than a good story?

My husband is a natural storyteller. In fact, this was one reason I was attracted to him. Unlike other guys I’d dated, his “repeat stories” didn’t get on my nerves. Instead, those stories have evolved over the years and can still make me laugh. (His jokes, on the other hand, need work.)

The real power of story is its ability to connect.

Teachers know this power. If you want to build relationships with your students, you tell them stories, stories about your childhood, about crazy things that have happened to you, about your travels, about your kids. Your stories, their stories become the fire around which you all gather to warm your hands.

But why bother?

Because good teachers know something else: Connection is crucial to learning.

This recently hit home for Professor Michael Wesch, award-winning advocate of technology in the classroom. Wesch is currently on a sabbatical, “rethinking the fundamentals of teaching—and questioning his own advice.” For years, he’s been championing the cause of media in the classroom. But when numerous colleagues came to him complaining that they couldn’t replicate his results, he began to examine his methods. He now offers a new caveat: “It doesn’t matter what method you use if you do not first focus on one intangible factor: the bond between professor and student.” (For the full article, click here.)

Willie Shoemaker, the famous jockey, was once asked about one of his competitors: What makes him a great jockey? And he said, “Horses run for him.”

We know that great teachers get students to learn for them. Yes, we claim we can’t make students learn (“You can lead a horse to water…”)—but this I believe: students will learn from us when they are ready to learn for us.

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.


The Ultimate Principal Rubric

I have worked in eleven schools in four districts with twelve administrators. One conclusion I’ve reached: Nothing affects school atmosphere more than the principal.

I don’t want that to be true. I want to say, “It’s the staff! The students! The coffee!” How can so much rest on one?

But it’s the inescapable reality. I’ve read many books on educational leadership—and they all seem over-thought. So I’ve decided to simplify things by creating my own rubric. I call it “The Four Types of Principals”:



********************* Old School           New School

(If anyone can tell me how to insert a chart into a blogpost, I’d be grateful! This will have to do.)

Bottom left, we have Old School Organized—a.k.a., the Dictator. “I have a clear mandate. The only time I will need to talk to you is when you’ve broken a rule or when I introduce a new Protocol. Oh–and you will teach phonics. From this book.” The best thing about these principals is that they run a tight assembly. The drawback is that you may have to redo your report cards four times.

Top left, we have Old School Disorganized—a.k.a., Slightly Senile Uncle Frank. According to Frank, “Kids basically teach themselves. Also, if I don’t answer the phone, that person will go away. Here, have a candy.” The best thing about working for Uncle Frank is that you never have to hand in year plans. The worst part is that he may not show up to supervise the year-end camping trip like he promised.

Top right, we have Disorganized Mr. Innovation—a.k.a., the Well-intentioned Professor. “This thirty page handout is an elegant summary of current practices and research in Scandinavian countries. Note that (mumble, mumble) is forty percent more likely (mumble) which perhaps goes without saying—ha ha.” The best thing about these administrators is that they’re often gone to committee meetings or conferences. The drawback is that even when they’re in the building, you’ll still be doing all your own discipline.

Bottom right, we have the Organized Innovator. This is the rarest of them all—someone who is up-to-date and on-the-ball. This is the administrator who focuses on several thoughtful initiatives and follows through on promises to kids, teachers and parents. This is the person who orders chairs for the Christmas Concert, remembers to come, has a speech prepared, helps clean up, and is then invited to go out for drinks with the staff. This is the administrator who backs up her teachers when things get tough. This is the one who doesn’t ignore inconvenient truths but faces them with straightforward common sense, the one who makes difficult decisions. She is utterly dependable, the bedrock of the school. No one can imagine the school without her.

This is, in fact, my administrator. Her name is Diane McGonigle, and she’s part mentor, part mom, part Mother Teresa. She is the linchpin. Yes, we have strong players on our team, and yes, leadership is distributed. But it is so comforting to know that there’s a competent co-pilot. We’re not driving this thing alone.

Diane McGonigle, Principal Extraordinaire

So this Friday night, after an insane week, I salute all administrators who have the often thankless job of running schools.   Even Uncle Frank—although I have the feeling he’s probably already asleep.

Day One with Laptops

Last week, a cabinet of laptops arrived at our school. We’ve got six weeks to share 15 computers as part of our district’s technology initiative.

When I started unloading the computers in my room, students stared in amazement, then started cheering.

“Whose are those?” they asked, crowding around. “Can we keep them FOREVER?”

Within minutes, they were all hooked up, so comfortable with the new technology that the classroom atmosphere immediately changed from distracted hubbub to quiet hum. Computers, it struck me, are their comfort zone, their ball caps.

Our first order of business was to “play around” with the new tools. But before I could get around to announcing that, the students had already logged on and started exploring. After about fifteen minutes, we shifted gears to a familiar activity—word-processing. Students had already started a rough draft on our field trip, and so half the class started typing up their written work. The others continued to work on their rough drafts.

I didn’t let them type for long, because I wanted to teach them how to save to a flash drive. None had ever done it before, so I taught two kids, who then watched me teach two more, then those two went out, and those other two watched them—you get it. Because of the level of need in this room, I tend to run it like a one room schoolhouse or a really big family—kids need to teach other kids. I explain to them why each of them HAS to be a teacher in my room. It is not optional. I NEED them to help me when it comes to things like this.

Not having enough computers for all students actually resulted in unexpected benefits. Some students opted to work in pairs to complete their written work, pooling their knowledge in order to get the best results.

Of course, we want to get beyond typing skills (although, as I watch my students, I realize how desperately some of them need practice). But for today, I am satisfied with what they’ve learned.

Legoman guards pencil (aka, old technology) while students play with laptops! 


Go Ahead–Get Yourself in Trouble!

 “Get yourself in trouble. If you get yourself in trouble, you don’t have the answers. And if you don’t have the answers, your solution will more likely be personal because no one else’s solutions will seem appropriate. You’ll have to come up with your own.” ~ Chuck Close

To teach is to be “in trouble.”

Your context, your “trouble,” will always be a little different than someone else’s. Your solutions will inevitably be personalized. That’s why it’s hard to take exactly what someone else does and make it work for you.

Perhaps that’s why I have a complicated relationship with “experts.” I have always been amazed that someone dares to stand and say—without caveats—“This is how to teach.” Does method come before context? Most experts would quickly respond that context is crucial, but most are also pretty darn certain that your context will fit their method (it just might require considerable manipulation, that’s all).  

And of course, most methods do have validity. It’s just that when I’m using “The Method,” I take what works for my students and toss the rest. So—is it still “The Method?”

This leads me to a disturbing admission. When asked, “Do you run an Inquiry Classroom?” I’m never quite sure what to say. What I’m thinking is, what do you mean by “inquiry”? Do my students research interesting questions? (Then yes.) Do I have an overarching “theme of the year”? (No.) Does every unit start with a question? (Sometimes.) Is my classroom abuzz with joyful curiosity? (That’s my goal—do good intentions count?).

Is there one “right” way to do inquiry? And why are labels so important? If I say “Yes, of course—with embedded technology, formative assessment and transformative reflection using the latest research in neurogenesis!”—what then? Is everyone suitably impressed? (I should hope so, because I’m pretty sure that’s going to be my line from now on!)

I’m reminded of musicians who are asked what genre of music they play. Bill Evans, the great jazz pianist once said, “First of all, I never strive for identity. That’s something that just has happened automatically as a result, I think, of just putting things together, tearing things apart and putting it together my own way.” Is this not what we do as teachers?  Use the best of everything, tinkering with any and all methods, to find the best fit for our students?

We are the great improvisers, and this will always be the case. Our plan guides us, but each day, we take what comes our way and try to use it to move learning forward. And with any luck, we will always be amateurs. As Marshall McLuhan says, “The amateur can afford to lose. The expert is the man who stays put.”

Will the book be with us forever?

“The speed with which technology reinvents itself has forced us into an unsustainably frequent reorganization of our mental habits . . . and every new piece of technology requires the acquisition of a new system of reflexes, which in turn requires effort on our part, and all of this on a shorter and shorter cycle. It took chickens almost a century to learn not to cross the road. In the end, the species did adapt to the new traffic conditions. But we don’t have that kind of time.” ~ Umberto Eco

Perhaps you remember that a few months ago, I vowed to embrace technology. Like all unions, this one has had its highs and lows. However, my commitment remains strong. And it was during one of my moments of, “I can make this relationship work, damn it,” when I came across a book with this subtitle: Two Great Men Discuss Our Digital Future. Less interested in the Digital Future than the promise of Two Great Men, I picked up the book.

Turns out it’s a conversation between Umberto Eco and Jean-Claude Carriere, and the title is, This is Not the End of the Book.  Perhaps you have heard of Carriere. I hadn’t (he’s a writer, playwright, and screenwriter who has worked with many well-known directors). I was more intrigued with what Eco had to say, as I admit to a love-hate relationship with the man.

The love comes from The Name of the Rose. The hate comes from Foucault’s Pendulum. I reread the first 100 pages four times. Then I threw the book into the ocean and renamed it F#@% U’s Pendulum. (We were camping at Long Beach at the time.) It just seemed so—infuriatingly unreadable.

So I was curious to see if I could understand even a whit of what these two gents had to say. Truth be told, I expected to be aggravated, gritting my teeth while aging academics played semiotic (feel my pain, look it up) tennis.

I’ll admit to times when I felt like an awkward, ignorant guest. When Carriere said, “It’s worth reading Corneille’s Polyeuctus from time to time,” I just winked knowingly and nodded my head. When Eco noted that a story reminded him of “Girolama Libri, a nineteenth-century Florentine Count and great mathematician who became a French citizen,” I said, “Ah, who can forget Libri!”

But, surprise!  I found the book more fascinating than frustrating. The conversation is full of intriguing questions and anecdotes.

They begin their discussion by focusing on the nature of the book. Then they examine the best way to preserve stories—from the oral traditions to traditional books to media formats. How safe are electronic systems? Certainly paper books can be burned by tyrants, but are media formats immune from intentional destruction?

They also examine the “filtering out” process. What is the process that determines what books are preserved? And have the best books been saved? “However determined we are to learn from the past,” says Jean-Philippe de Tonnac in his preface, “our libraries, museums and film archives will only ever contain the works that time has not destroyed. Now more than ever, we realise that culture is made up of what remains after everything else has been forgotten.”

Eco and Carriere then spend quite a few pages “praising stupidity.” Carriere claims that studying human stupidity is much “more fertile, more revealing and in a certain sense more accurate” than studying only masterpieces. Naturally, they share some great stories and even the occasional dry joke (U.E.: Do you know why the Presocratics only wrote fragments?   J.C.: No.   U.E.: Because they lived in ruins. Joking aside, . . .).

This discussion is hardly a straight path. Although the authors begin with digital technology, the conversation meanders through censorship, evolution, religion, poetry, architecture, art, philosophy, violence and film (to name a few). It’s a stunning trip.

It’s clear the authors feel the book will be around for a very long time. But even Umberto can’t know with absolute certainty. He does say, however, that the question reminds him of a time, five or six years ago, when a Milanese book dealer showed him a superb Ptolemy incunabulum . . .