Friday, February 22, 2013

The Bigger Picture

Kath Murdoch (@kjinquiry) posted this video on Twitter today with the challenge to use this to explore the concept of perspective.

Kath's time spent at CDNIS this week prompted many professional discussions. Perspective was one of the big take-aways for me. Just as our "first world problems" seem important to us in the immediacy of our own lives, we can often lose sight of the bigger picture - that the world is a much bigger and complex entity than how we might perceive it when caught up in the minutiae of our lives. The charger not reaching my bed simply does not equate in importance to the lack of clean water suffered by millions each day.

So what? What's the connection to education, or, perhaps the disconnect? There are moments in the school year that I lose perspective. I get caught up in the "school" part at the expense of the "learning." Planning, assessment, meetings, asking students to engage in tasks that might not always have a clear and useful purpose, worrying about coverage of curriculum and content more than ensuring students understand essential concepts: the minutiae.

Kath reminded me that it is about the learning: the bigger picture - authentic engagement, understanding, critical thinking, creativity, building a passion for learning. This is what I want to focus on more, the "learning" over the "schooling" - individuals over systems, passion over imposition, teaching for a love of learning over a love of high grades.

Friday, February 1, 2013

20% Time

With CDNIS recently recognizing 100 Days of School, I suddenly realized just how busy and pressed for time I've been this year. An amazing amount of learning (and work) has been happening in Grade 6, so much so I lost track of some of my goals. Ever since attending Chris Betcher's session on Creativity and Innovation in the Classroom at Learning 2.012 in Beijing, where he shared the notion of 20% Time, I knew I wanted to try this in the classroom and, way back in October, I set this as one of my goals.

I was also inspired by Dean Shareski's talk at Learning 2.012 in which he highlights the various meanings of rigor, which include terms such as strict, severe, harsh, cruel, rigidity and stiffness. Contrast this with creativity, where you will notice terms such as "bending of rules", innovation, flexibility.

I was sold and I've managed to get this thing going finally.

Two weeks ago I introduced the idea to my students and last week we started a Google Doc to gather ideas. This week we've started getting into our projects.

I'm very impressed by the diversity of tasks chosen by the students. I have a small group of boys learning how to knit (!), some girls planning to make a movie, another group of girls remixing music, one girl creating Harry Potter fan fiction, yet another creating a figure skating magazine, one of my musical boys using Finale to compose music, another group of boys creating games, and more! As I walk around the room discussing their projects there is a buzz of excitement. Engagement. Creativity. Innovation. Not harshness, rigidity, cruelty or severity. So far, I'm loving it. It's not directly tied to our written curriculum, but when one of my students excitedly and proudly shares a remix of Maroon 5 and Gym Class Heroes, something is working and I need to not care too much about documents.

I'm not sure where all of this is going. I've decided to release all control to see where the students take themselves. The only "rules" I've put in place is that they need to create something and they need to share their creations to the class in a whole class presentation.

Stay tuned. I'll be contributing to this blog more often since just as they are involved in their creations, I've stated to them that my goal is to create here, in this space.

Photo credit:

Thursday, December 13, 2012

New School Thinking, Old School Tools

Check out the view from our art class yesterday.

Teachers at my school do fantastic things. In this case, our art teacher was working with our students to create Earth Art, literally pieces of art made using resources such as rocks, leaves, sticks, etc. 

We have a fantastic environment around CDNIS, including a hiking trail on Nam Long Shan. We hiked up the hill, to a fantastic vista and started locating resources. As students were creating their art (see images below), I felt inclined to tweet the following: "The perception that classrooms and homework are the primary avenues to success in learning is antiquated and needs to go." The learning that happened in just those two periods was amazing: students needed to discuss and collaborate on their art, they needed to consider the possible resources they would use and how to arrange them in an original and meaningful way, they reflected on and wrote about the messages they wanted to convey. 

All that with leaves, rocks and twigs. No computers, no desks, no projectors, no text books. 

Best practices in the 21st century educational landscape include student engagement, critical and creative thinking, collaboration,  innovation, communicating. I've witnessed another example of best practices at my school, all with old school tools, but not with old school thinking. 

Saturday, December 8, 2012


Scroll down to see what I wrote on my class blog yesterday. I feel that as teachers we are constantly justifying our practices. This is not meant to be a negative comment; in fact, scrutiny keeps away complacency. Scrutiny challenges us to be better. It keeps us on our game. It fosters constructive dialogue and moves us forward. However, uninformed scrutiny can hinder progress within a learning community and damage trust. Dana Watts (@teachwatts) captures this sentiment when she tweeted the following this week, "What profession constantly has to defend informed choices they make more than teachers? When will society begin to trust teachers?"

If you are not having professional discussions, engaged in ongoing action research, attending professional development, or reflecting on and tweaking practices then it can difficult for you to understand what happens in schools. It takes time. I understand this, but the default view of education if you are on the outside has to go. It is uninformed. Inquiry, constructivism, understanding, differentiation, individualization, concepts over facts, thinking over rote, problem-solving over computation, quality over quantity, collaboration, authentic and meaningful assessment, real world connections. These are the characteristics of progressive education today. Testing, hours of mindless homework, memorization, and number-crunching do not hold the validity they did twenty years ago.

I believe as a school, we have done very well in promoting and publicising our pedagogical principles through blogs, newsletters, videos, assemblies, student-centered parent meetings, etc. With transparency, we hope to build trust. We are held accountable to our publicised principles and we are committed to practicing what we preach. We have a mission and are responsible to it.

However, if we are to face scrutiny, isn't it fair and responsible that it is informed so constructive dialogue can happen?

What can we do differently to build trust in what we do?

Do you suffer from Math anxiety as a parent? It’s OK to admit it because it’s a common condition suffered by many. Is Math for you all about number crunching and computation? It’s certainly been a one of the dominant topics during the Three Way Learning Reviews. Society and culture are different from when you and I went to school, so is our understanding of how we learn best. Traditional, factory-style schooling has been proven to not be the most effective way to develop critical and creative thinkers, nor does it easily allow for differentiation and individualization between levels of skill and learning styles. I’m not suggesting that we throw the baby out with the bathwater because there are times when traditional approaches can work, but to be the sole approach to Mathematics teaching would be a disservice to our children. Our approach to Mathematics is steeped in a history of action research and professional discussion that extends beyond our own school community and includes progressive educators worldwide.

Check out these two amazing videos. If you don’t have the time, please watch the first five minutes of the second video. What do you think? Leave some comments on this blog or email me. Let’s open the discussion.

First 5 minutes – very relevant to our Math classrooms today

Friday, April 13, 2012

Success from Failure? Student Advocacy

I wrote the following note on my class blog, which is designed for an audience that consists of primarily the school community. I advocate for my students. There seems to be general consensus amongst the teaching community about where we want to go and how we can get there (not that there is "harmonious" agreement ... but I would say we all agree that giving a Grade 5 student a percentage grade is no longer good practice ... you can get my point). The students get this too - and they can express this ... to us.

Enter parents.

Don't get me wrong. I love the parents within our school community. They are engaged, they participate, they support; however, in the hyper-competitiveness that characterizes Hong Kong culture, I often feel students are coming to school with lots of baggage, notably expectations to perform and excel. Mistakes are not often viewed as being positive and learning journeys are more focused on product over process.

Again, don't get me wrong. There is increased understanding of this amongst those that don't work in schools daily, but how often have we heard parents describe (and compare) how it was when they went to school? Is this fair? Is the era they went to school the same as now? Aren't there societal, cultural, economic differences between now and then that we need to acknowledge as educators and address within our schools?

Why do we allow these comparisons to the past be made as if they should be even considered valid in  today's educational landscape?

Therefore, I see myself as an advocate for students, someone to help them find a voice to express their learning, their struggles and their successes.

I can't wait to see my kids in action next week!

Also, thanks to the Twitterverse for the opening quote and the links shared below.

Sometimes courage is the little voice at the end of the day that says, “I’ll try again tomorrow.” — Mary Anne Radmacher

As our Student Led Learning Reviews are occurring next week, I thought I’d share two very important (and short) articles that I feel are extremely poignant in today’s educational landscape (here and here). Believe it or not, our Grade 5 students get this and clearly understand that our classroom is a place where failures and mistakes can be celebrated as learning opportunities; indeed they are viewed as part of the overall learning journey. I make mistakes just about daily and, when I reflect upon them, I learn valuable lessons. The space we provide our children to discuss their learning (and mistakes) is equally valuable.

On Wednesday, you will be a part of your child’s learning journey as they take the lead in sharing their academic, social and personal development over the past school year. This journey is self-selected; that is, each student has decided what he/she will share with you as well as the format for this sharing. Some of you will be taught a game, others asked to solve a Math problem. Sometimes you will be asked to listen to an explanation or a description. What will be consistent in all of this is that your child is expected to connect every aspect of this journey on Wednesday to their learning. Parents should be probing more deeply by asking constructive questions about learning, and which may involve skills, knowledge, understanding and/or the attitudes and attributes of the Learner Profile. Reserve judgement on the mistakes you might see and instead focus on the process and learning that has taken place.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Connecting Virtually: Differentiating Twitter

I'm typically private and reserved when interacting with others. That's who I am. I'm always listening keenly and I quietly admire those that stand up speak what's on their mind - no matter the audience. But that's not me and I'm comfortable with that, comfortable with being in my shoes. This article floated through Twitter earlier in the week and caught my attention. I connected with it immediately.  The 21st Century Learning landscape requires collaboration, sharing and discussion. How can these introverts fit into this?

Recently attending the 21st Century Learning Conference at HKIS, I saw many people I follow on Twitter in person for the first time. Some of these Tweeps have known each other through Twitter for quite a while and many consider themselves personal friends. It was quite impressive to see people who really only know each other virtually interact so effortlessly face to face. For me, being more the introvert that I am, the face-to-face part doesn't come so easily. However, reading the Twitter chat at the conference, tweeting my own thoughts and sharing resources that others so graciously shared with me throughout the conference sustained my involvement, challenged my current understandings and allowed me to question my current practice. In short, Twitter kept me in the conversation and engaged me ... and I engaged it.

When asked by some of my colleagues why I bother with Twitter, my response is that it can become what you want it to become. For some, it becomes a personal connection. For me, it has become one of the most valuable resources informing my practice.

Jabiz Raisdana mentioned in a panel discussion about social networking and its impact on learning that he's learned more through Twitter these past few years than he did in Teacher's College. When I think of the cutting and pasting activities I did in Teacher's College that really seemed irrelevant to what I needed to know as a teacher, Jabiz's statement should be considered valid.

Like all best practices in our 21st Century approach to learning and teaching, all students learn differently and the approach we as educators take to engage our students need to reflect this. Twitter is the ultimate tool in differentiating our own professional learning.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Angels Singing About Fractions

This week I heard the angels sing. As students were being told to start cleaning up the room for the day, quite a few of them moaned. I was ecstatic. I was overjoyed. I was head over heels. I was pleasantly surprised to see some of my reluctant mathematicians disappointed that we were stopping our investigations into fractions and decimals for the day. These same moans erupted earlier in the school year when we were starting Math, not ending it.

So, what changed? Simple: Me, my attitude, my desire to engage ... my desire to change myself.

I've alluded earlier to new responsibilities at work. I found that I was increasingly chaining myself to my desk and I was disengaged while I expected my students to be engaged in learning activities. I had to look back and question what I was doing. I had to re-examine aspects of my practice. I had to re-learn that best practice is about personal engagement over anything else.

My first step was to rearrange the classroom so that there is a huge open space in the middle of the room. My "desk" involves me with some scrap paper, small whiteboard and my computer as I lay sprawled on the floor with the kids. I go to my desk when they leave the room for specialist classes.

My second step was to find ways to make Math interactive for the individual. My inspiration was from my colleague, @jennysfen. She created a very interesting Math menu for fractions that I loved. She was so welcoming in sharing with me and allowing me to pick her brain. What I came up with was this:

Using the inquiry process, individual students are engaging with fractions at their own pace and in a way that is not threatening. I've found my sprawling on the carpet has provided me with opportunities to ask students to come over to tell me/show me what they have learned or are learning. I can check for misunderstandings and work through them with students. I can get brief snapshots of skills development through the Coaching Function of Kahn Academy or That Quiz. My more advanced mathematicians love the fact that they can extend themselves. This is not Math through technology for technology's sake - it's using technology to engage and motivate. It's using technology to differentiate. It's using technology to open up pockets of time for more small group mini-lessons and conversations. More importantly, it's an attitude adjustment on my part: it's about personalizing education because we all know by now that one size does not fit all - we get bogged down my administrative tasks and sometimes take the easy way out. This is the source for my re-examination.

The angels have been singing all week and now my challenge is to keep the music going. As the unit comes to a close, I hope to write some final reflections in this space. My prediction: as long as the personal touch is there, the music will continue. 
For now, here are some links to students' work. They seem to be relying on the safe way to present - Prezi or Keynote. I'm hoping I can inspire them to take on more risk-taking in they way they explain and present their understandings. As they create their presentations I will upload them here.

This student linked to his blog using Slideshare, as did the student below: