Monday, 24 November 2014

Every Teacher Has a Choice

On multiple occasions I’ve been asked by coworkers if I’m always this happy about teaching.

…let me let you in on a little secret – only 99% of the time. Yes, even perpetually excited teachers like myself who can (and do!) talk on and on and on about how great the job is – even we sometimes have days where we feel tired, and where we feel run down. As willingly as I admit that I think our job is incredibly rewarding, I’ll also admit that it can be trying at times.

So, in these moments, when I do feel this way, what do I do to get through?

Simple. I remind myself – every teacher has a choice.

Say for example your students are wiggling around on the carpet while you’re attempting a lesson.

You can:

a) Get upset with them. Tell them to they need to sit still, over and over again, because you said so.

OR you can:

b) Remind yourself that developmentally young students aren’t even meant to sit still for long periods of time. Maybe your lesson’s gone overtime and you need to change gears. Maybe you should ditch the whole thing and revisit later. Maybe you’re not reaching the diverse learning styles in the room. Maybe it’s no fun. Maybe you need to get up and dance. Maybe it’s time to continue this lesson outside. Maybe this lesson is better suited for hands-on, play based learning in a smaller group. Or maybe you’re just caught up in this outdated, and frankly, pointless idea that students need to be perfectly obedient. Your message may in fact be getting across –yes, through the fidgets and all - and battling a little wiggle here and there isn’t even necessary and actually just sidetracking what you’re trying to do.

The point is, why get hung up on the students’ behaviour when really what needs to be reflected on is your own delivery. It’s so easy for teachers to fall into the trap of thinking that our jobs are all about telling students what not to do (Don’t run! Don’t move! Don’t shout!), but I’d argue that rather than focus on their behaviours, we should attempt to focus on what we CAN control: our own teaching. It’s about structuring our teaching in a way that appeals to them and therefore weeds out the “problematic behaviours” that may materialize from a bored or unstimulated student. Now, don’t get me wrong – students need to be respectful – they shouldn’t be flat out ignoring anyone in their learning community. But do I care if they aren’t perfectly still and quiet on the carpet? No. They’re kids. They shouldn’t be perfectly still and quiet, so why try to make them? I decided long ago not to be a teacher who fights the fact that children are by nature wiggly.  They just are. Honestly, I don’t think it matters. Fight the wiggles, and you’ll basically be fighting all the time. Not the sort of classroom atmosphere I go for.

So to any teacher out there who may be pulling out their hair over that one student who just won’t sit still on the carpet: remember, you have a choice. You can spend your days sounding like a broken record, repeating over and over again that said child needs to stop. Or you yourself can stop. Stop and reflect.

Every teacher has a choice.

Monday, 10 November 2014

What IS inquiry anyway?

As is the case with any field, be it fashion, music, art, or film – education too has terms that are “in”, or currently all the rage. Mention “inquiry” and the eyes of anyone in education will suddenly light up – and for good reason too! I couldn’t be happier to see inquiry come to the forefront of current educational discussions as I truly believe in the value of an inquiry approach, not just for early learners, but for all learners. Hallmarks of inquiry such as honouring students’ wonders and involving the teacher as a facilitator of knowledge rather than the sole source of knowledge have always a large part of my own philosophies as a teacher. It’s no surprise to me that I’ve found inquiry an easy fit for what I like to do in a classroom. But, inquiry isn’t natural for everyone – and that’s ok. We all have different experiences, beliefs, and journeys. Before I clarify what inquiry is to me, I am going to point out what it isn’t. This is by no means to shame anyone, but rather point out how I have seen the term being misused, and to encourage all educators to continue their own life long learning.

So…let’s start with this.

Inquiry is not:

When you students are interested in spiders so you Google/Pintrest/Facebook/Twitter search spider themed activities and place them at every learning centre. You can call it “inquiry” all you want, but it’s just theme based learning in disguise.

So, with that in mind? What IS inquiry?

Inquiry is:

          -       unpredictable
          -       scary
          -       giving up control
          -       honouring student wonders
          -       exciting
          -       rewarding
          -       fun
          -       saying “I’m not quite sure, let’s find out together”
          -       purposeful
          -       process driven
          -       unique, no two inquiries are alike
          -       fluid
          -       flexible
          -       ever-changing
          -       cyclical
          -       a journey for student AND teacher
          -       a pursuit of knowledge
          -       a construction of knowledge
          -       a reformation of knowledge
          -       completely natural in an early learning setting

That last point – inquiry is natural – is, in my opinion, maybe the most important for teachers looking to try an inquiry approach in their own settings for the first time. We all come with different teaching backgrounds, and there’s nothing wrong with admitting that perhaps you’ve never done any true inquiry in your classroom. The joy of teaching is that we as educators get to educate ourselves and learn about/try out new approaches. For anyone looking to try out inquiry, know this – it is truly natural for children to ask questions, seek knowledge, and build understanding through hands-on exploration. To put it quite simply, inquiry just works.

Wondering where to start? First, let go of control. Instead of planning every single minute of your day, sit and listen: What are your students interested in?  What are they noticing? What are they talking about? When and if something emerges, resist the temptation to look up lesson plans on that topic. Instead, ask them – what do they want to know? Yes, asking other teachers online for advice is great, but your own students are your very best resource. The classroom down the hall may be doing inquiry on a similar topic, but no two inquires look alike if they are truly guided by the unique students in your room. Once some juicy wonders have developed – time to find your answers! You yourself may not know these answers right away…that’s great! Teachers are learners too. Together with your students go through the research stage, and model how to seek out information in this increasingly digital world. Learning HOW to learn is far more important for your students (and will serve them better in later years) than memorizing facts and statistics or filling out some premade worksheet on the topic. Along the way, more questions may emerge – and quite possibly some questions can’t be answered – that’s a piece of learning too. Along the way, document, document, document! The best part of inquiry isn’t even what you find out at the end, it’s the learning journey you went on to get there. Above all else, have fun.

Sunday, 2 November 2014

On De-Gendering Your Language

As much as I’ve enjoyed getting more and more into writing blog posts, I’ve equally enjoyed coming across other blogs to read, be inspired by, and learn from. There is something so powerful about teachers across the city, the country, and the world being connected online. My wheels are still turning from one such blog – the incredible Tracy Pickard’s “How Language Impacts Learning”. If you haven’t read it yet, get to it - How Language Impacts Learning

Tracy's insightful post highlights the power that seemingly minor word choices can actually have on the students in your classroom. It’s terrific and helped me to examine a lot of my own language use in the classroom. I was delighted to see lots of educators online discussing this topic, as it’s often overlooked and deserves attention whether you’re a brand new or veteran teacher.

Thinking more about language choices in the classroom, specifically through my own lens – one which is admittedly focused on staying away from overly gendered roles, led me to want to write a bit about how language can also be used to create an atmosphere that is inclusive for all. I know many of the educators reading this will have already thought of the following suggestions and likely make them part of their daily practice. However, I’m not blindly optimistic – I know that in many classrooms today there isn’t a single thought given to any of the following. This is something I’ve always felt strongly about, and is at the forefront of my beliefs as an educator. So, with regards to de-gendering your language in classroom, consider the following:

-       “I need some strong boys to help me move this table”.

I really hope I don’t have to explain what’s wrong with this one. Boys are strong. Girls are also strong. People are strong, and all people can work to be stronger. Let’s encourage that sort of thinking in all of our students, and not plant the seed that boys are physical and athletic, while girls are delicate and frail. This outdated notion serves absolutely no purpose in an educational setting. Let’s encourage all qualities in all students. Don’t present the Art Studio just to girls and the Building Area just to boys. All humans possess different characteristics, interests, and strengths, and one of the greatest joys of a play based learning atmosphere is providing students with opportunities to look at themselves as capable in ALL areas as they discover who they are and what sort of activities they enjoy.

-       “There are some new princess books for you girls in the Book Centre!”

The concept that certain books are for certain genders has never made sense to me. A book is a book. The lovely thing about working with a whole group of students is that they come with varied interests. Sure, many of your male students may like Lego and Ninjago, but that in no way guarantees that ALL male students will. If a boy wants to look at a princess book, that’s his prerogative and doesn’t really require any sort of attention. It’s irrelevant. And while we’re on the topic of “princess books”, can we all work to ensure our classroom library reflects all facets of “being a princess”? Check out “Not All Princesses Dress In Pink”, “The Princess and the Pizza”, “My Princess Boy”, “Princess Smartypants”, and of course, the classic “Paper Bag Princess”. Challenge your students who adore the Disney princesses to think critically about the idea of what being a princess really means. Time and time again, I’ve seen even the youngest of students embrace these new ideas. Princesses can be much more than beautiful and helpless ladies who need to be saved and it’s our responsibility as educators to recognize this.

-       “Boys line up here, girls line up here!”

I know this is the one that most educators have never thought of, as it seems like a pretty arbitrary way to divide your students. No judgement at all to teachers who have done it before, but a call to make yourself a life long learner who can reflect on their own practices. At OISE, I remember a guest speaker, transgendered, speaking about the anxiety felt as a child when the “boy/girl” division took place. Maybe all your boys identify as boys, and all your girls identify as girls – or maybe they don’t. The point is, we don’t really know, so don’t assume. This guest speaker spoke of feeling tormented as a child because their inner gender identity didn’t match their physical appearance. If you were doing something in your teaching, that unbeknownst to you, caused unnecessary stress to one of your students, wouldn’t you want to stop it? I’ve been in one too many classrooms where a boy or girl happens to follow the wrong group – and yes, it’s publicly pointed out by the teacher and corrected. Sure, maybe the child simply wasn’t listening and just went with the wrong group – or maybe it’s something more. Again, we don’t know. For that reason, avoiding this kind of sorting is simply best practice for all. Challenge yourself to find more creative ways to divide your students outside of gender.

I could make additional suggestions, and likely will follow up on this topic in the future, but for now I’m going to leave it at that. Removing gender stereotypes from my classroom is one of the most important things to me as an educator who values equity and inclusion in schools. It’s my sincere hope that this blog post either reaffirmed your current practices, or inspired you to look at things in a different way. Here’s to life long learning, and to creating safe learning communities where all students are valued, encouraged celebrated, and encouraged to be themselves!