Friday, August 12, 2016

First time lucky: Ignorance is Bliss

Governor General's Conference
In my last post, I wrote about the Governor General's reunion conference I attended in the spring.  Over a decade a go, I wrote a collection of lessons for grade 4/5 Social Studies about the Japanese Canadian internment in the 1940s. That resource received one of the Governor General's award for Teaching Canadian History.

Landscapes of Injustice
Fast forward to last year when I was asked to write some similar lessons for a project research project called Landscapes of Injustice. Landscapes is massive.  It is centred in the University of Victoria and is headed by a history professor there, Jordan Stanger-Ross.  His vision is to investigate the issue of Japanese Canadian internment and relocation by focusing on the topic of dispossession.  "What is dispossession?" you might ask, (you might because I know I did).  Dispossession is the forced sale of the Japanese Canadians, which in their case was unusual because the proceeds were used to pay for their own incarceration. 

The project, which is in year 3 of 7, includes other universities (including Ryerson and Simon Fraser University) and several other partner groups, institutions and museums (including the Royal BC Museum, the Pier 21 Immigration Museum, and the Nikkei National Museum).  The project is arranged into several organizational structures called clusters.  The clusters are mainly academic research groups (including land titles and government records, oral histories, GIS digital mapping, etc.) and have been going through an archiving mountains of data. 

So where do I come in?  Apart from the academic research, Jordan wants to engage the public and one of the ways is to have a cluster for Teaching Resources.  Mike Perry-Whittingham is chairing the secondary lessons, and I am doing the elementary.  As a grade 2 teacher, it is a really great experience to work alongside professors, grad students, community members, and museum curators.  I get a chance to see some worlds I know nothing about.

Shouldn't it be easier the second time?
How are the lessons coming?  Well............

Compared to the first set of lessons, these ones have been slow coming.  And that's the reason for this blog post. 

The Magic of the First Time
I was watching the Olympics last night, and Canadian swimmer, Penny Oleksiak, in particular.  Penny burst to the end and tied for gold, but the part that really stuck with me was watching Penny in the warm up room.  She was so loose, so happy just to be there.  She is obviously a fierce competitor, and has won 4 medals at this Olympics, but the expectations for her at these games was to soak in the experience and just get ready for 2020. 

Okay, okay, I can't hold myself up to a 16 year-old athlete, but I do see some parallels about going beyond expectations the first time you do something.  When I wrote the first set of internment lessons, looking back, I really didn't know what I was doing but with that I had no great expectations upon me.  Just like Penny.  The first time, I was loose and just went for it.  Just like Penny. I had fun and had no way to fail.  Just like Penny.  I am inspired by Penny because she reminds of my students: they don't know what they don't know, and just do the best they can, enjoying the experience as much as possible.  I love that first time thrill.

Great Expectations
Now with Landscapes, I am feeling the expectations.  I am working with a bunch of scholars.  They have mountains of work to do and have huge expectations for themselves.  They take their work very seriously and must feel the pressures of targets for grant funding, professional integrity, and out and out scholarly discovery.  I did a good job before, and I think people expect me to do the same or better.  Actually, that last part is not true, instead *I* expect me to do the same or better.

Keep the Wonder
But I know myself well enough to know that that approach does not work for me.  I need to stay loose like Penny, just enjoy the experience, focus on the task, and see what happens when I do my best.  I also admire physicist Richard Feynman, not just because he was brilliant, but he saw the world with a child-like wonder.  He had a great passion for how things worked, but also pulled pranks, played the bongos, and made up his own nonsensical language.  He always had this great grin like he was in on the greatest inside joke. 

So for me and this Landscapes task, and for life and for my students is all about maintaining that first time wonder. 

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Governor General's Conference

Last month, I attended a reunion of the recipients of the Governor General's Award Teaching Canadian History.  In the most professional terms: I had a blast!

We spent the time in meetings, tours, dinners, and presentations.  We learned about interesting directions in historical studies and historical thinking from (you guessed it) historians.  We had sessions at the University of Ottawa, the Canadian Museum of History, the Byward Museum, the National Arts Centre, and of course, with David Johnston, the Governor General.

The GG
Nice guy.


Some of my friends

My history hero: Charles Hou

It was all pretty wonderful, and went by in a flash.  With all the hoopla though, my favourite parts were just hanging out with the other history teachers,  They were all great people and they had excellent history projects.  I could have spent weeks hearing about what they have done and what they are working on next.

So many thanks to Joel Ralph and Joanna Dawson, and the rest of Canada's History Society for their hard work, preparation, and generosity.  We really appreciated it.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Reinventing the Wheel part II (The UDL connection)

You might remember in a previous post, I was talking about my fascination with electric bikes.  I still don't have one, but I did move one step closer today: I rented one.  (If you want to skip the long story, scroll to the end for the big UDL moral).

In the name of serious research, I had scoured the internet for information on e-bikes, and realized I could rent one to check out the whole operation.

I got up early on a Saturday (yup, me), and I drove down to this little shop by Stanley Park that rented e-bikes.  The guy at the shop got me out of the door with one in less than five minutes.  I didn't really look at it in the shop because my car was parked in a limited time spot.  Once out in light of day, the bike did look a little odd.  In fact, as I was walking the bike to my car, a guy said to me, "Nice bike." I couldn't tell if he was kidding or not, so I just shrugged and said, "It's a rental."

I wanted to see what the e-bike would do on some serious hills.  This particular bike could fold down which I did to fit it in the back of my little car.  After a little bit of effort, a few scratches on my car, and a few choice words, I drove off to Spanish Banks.   I parked in the lot and took the bike out, and took a quick snap.

That's when I realized this bike looked a lot like the one I had when I was 8, but that one had chopper handle bars, a banana seat, and a hockey card wedged in the spokes.  (That's also when I knew the guy on the street was indeed kidding, unless he was also waxing nostalgically on his own bike with streamers on the handlebars).  It wasn't really the look I was going for, but in the name of research, I swallowed my manly pride, and hopped on the beast.

Without the electric part on, the bike seemed a little .. precarious. Maybe being a folding bike, I felt that one good bump would turn the bike into a metal and rubber origami project (bike...bump...crane!).  And with the handlebars and seat extended to the appropriate height, I kind of looked like one on those circus clowns following the undersized windowless car full of other derelict clowns.

Pedaling was easy along the path along the beach.  I cranked up the pedal-assist mode and was flying along.  It was cool and weird at the same time in the full pedal-assist, and as long as my feet were in any motion whatsoever, the e-bike went its top speed.  I can't tell what the top speed was but it was slower than the cars but faster than the wiener dog who seemed to like me.  Level grade testing complete, it was time to tackle the HILL.

If you've ever been to UBC from the Spanish Banks side, you know what hill I'm talking about.  It is 2 km of steady uphill.  It's not Lombard Street, but the last time I rode up this hill on a bike (21 years ago), it went okay except I coughed up a lung, my deceased grandmother greeted me at the top, and my life flashed before my eyes.  Now, a couple decades later with technology on my side (and mortality on my back), I wondered how it would go.

It was SO great!  It was quiet on the road, so I pedaled up as if it was on flat ground.  I tooled around UBC and coasted down the beautiful neighbourhoods.  I went up Tolmie which is closer to Lombard Street, and that's when the battery meter went from 3/4 to 1/4 and the mechanism made a complaining ticking sound.  I coasted down again, leaning back so my raised-seat clown perch wouldn't flip me on my face.

I had a little time before I had to return the rental, so I wanted to see if the e-bike would perform differently with the battery at half power.  Nope, no difference.  In fact, I was following some real athletes on their road bikes (think Lycra, team jerseys, and earned muscle tone).  These folks were working it!  They were huffing and puffing, their leg muscles were straining, they were grunting and sweating. How do I know all this so well?  Because I was merrily pedaling behind them on my clown bike for 8 year-old middle-aged men.  The cyclists good-naturedly laughed as I came up behind them on the clown bike, and then they good-naturedly laughed at themselves when I passed them without the strain, without the sweating, without the visits from Grandma (but some of the cycling team I passed may have seen her), and seemingly without the exercise.

Incline test.  Check.  (Pardon the pun: a passing grade?)

Big UDL Moral
On my previous electric bike post last year, I couldn't really figure out what my e-bike investigation had to do with education.  Now I can.

Universal Design for Learning is all about finding modifications for students so everyone has access to learning.  If letting kids stand, or use technology, or express their ideas orally instead of writing, helps them be successful or see themselves as learners, e-bikes help me see myself as a cyclist.  They remove the obstacles (think hills, think sweating) that keep me from cycling on a regular basis.  E-bikes level the playing field for old guys like me, and as I get more fit, I will ease back on the supports as I need them less.  I get to explore and expand my cycling horizons, and understand the joys of two-wheels.  UDL works the same way for learners and their learning.

After my e-bike experience, I can sum up UDL in one word: Freedom.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Is articulation of thinking overemphasized?

The Case for Communication in Numeracy
Currently, one my school's goals is to improve our student's numeracy by having them develop their communication skills.  I have been a big proponent of this drive for communication.  My reasons are: my students are not very good at communicating their thought processes, their strategies, or even their attempts at thinking.  Why do I think this kind of mathematical communication is important?  My students are pretty good at calculation, they can solve problems, they are not bad conceptually, and they do have strategies for tackling mathematical thinking. They are NOT good though, at explaining their thinking.  And I think this kind of articulation is important because I think it will help them to solve similar or different problems in the future.

The case against?  Blink
During Spring Break, I get a chance to read for pleasure but I also listen to a lot of audio books. So while I am catching up on spring cleaning, I listen.  Right now, I am re-reading (actually re-listening to) Malcolm Gladwell's Blink.  It is about how people can make fairly accurate and discriminating decisions in the blink of an eye.  Though Blink is not an education book per se, it is making me rethink my stance on having my students communicate their mathematical thinking. 

Jam and Math
In one story, Gladwell describes how researchers gave a focus group a number of different jams and had them rank the jams in order of preference.  When the group ranked the jams in these circumstances, they ranked them in almost the same order as a field of jam experts.  But when a focus group was first asked to key on different qualities of each jam (such as colour, texture, taste, etc.), there was almost no correlation with the expert rankings.  It is as if getting people to focus on these qualities inhibited them from being discerning jam tasters because they were distracted by a number of factors. 

How does this relate to articulating mathematical thinking for elementary students?  Sometimes we ask students to do things that work counter to the end goal, in this case for example, the ability to be numerate or to solve mathematical problems.  Maybe getting students to overthink communication is getting in the way of being strategic in math the same way preloading the focus group with parameters distracted their jam judgement. 

I just know.
Over the years when I ask some of my best math students to explain their thinking, they will say, "I just knew."  I thought it was a cop out when they would say that, and when I would press them on it, they would get frustrated, not being able to articulate their thought processes.  I took that as evidence for increased emphasis on communication because I thought such emphasis would increase their ability to explain their thinking. 

Now, I am not so sure this is logical.  I think back to my own youth.  I used to love puzzles and logic problems.  I'd like to think that my thinking was ordered and strategic, but even now as an adult, I can say my thinking is never linear or organized.  Usually, when I am confronted with a problem or I am creating something, I think and I think and I think.  Then I sleep.  Then  I think and I think and I think.  Then I eat.  I think and I think and I think.  You get the idea.  I load myself with a whole lot of thoughts, and then during a random moment of clarity (usually in the shower, when my brain unclenches), I reach through the maelstrom of thought and get an idea or a solution or a weird glimpse that will lead to a solution.  (I am thinking of keeping a set of markers in the tub or at least some more absorbent towels handy).   But like my poor math students, how are you supposed to articulate this thought process?

A shift
So what do I do about my students' ability to communicate numeracy?  Abandon communication entirely?  No, but then, what?  I've never been a fan of word walls, especially because in my classroom design journey I've come to realise that they can become visual noise.  No, I think the integration of math and communication has to be more organic than that: lots of reflection and discussion during the thinking process, and lots of sharing after the problem solving process.  I still hope to expand my students' toolkits of strategies through sharing among each other, but also reinforce students internal metacognition strategies.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Teaching is Autobiographical

Last night, I had a dream that I was teaching high school Math (yeah, it was close to being a nightmare), and I was trying to help a student understand trigonometry in a way that was accessible to her and her mom, (her mom was in my tutorial too).  

After I awoke from the dream, my mind started to wander in my semi-conscious state.  First, it started with how teaching is about engaging students to increase their accessibility to learning.  Then I started to think about this workshop I have coming up, explaining about how classroom design helps SEL or Social and Emotional Learning.  Meshing these two ideas together (in the middle of the night, in the bathroom, typing on my phone), I came up with this:

Everything you do as a teacher is autobiographical.  Over a lesson, a term,  or a year, you are telling your story of yourself. The bits you reveal tell a very specific story.  The room is no different. It is part of the same story. Your story has to allow places for your students to come along for the ride. The kids have to be able to see or fit themselves in your story, your setting. 

You are trying to help kids create their own lives, their own stories by showing them yours.