DIY… with a network

CC licensed photo shared by Flickr user greeno777

CC licensed photo shared by Flickr user greeno777

We’ve spent the past couple of weeks transitioning from the first home we’ve ever owned to what we imagine could be the last one we ever reside in. It’s not a dream home like the ones you see on TV, yet it’s our own little piece of royalty. The move has gone as well as anyone can expect, but I wanted to mention something spicy and educationally pertinent here. A house is almost too ripe for metaphor exploitation, so I’ll try to keep it at a minimum.

We are discovering that the previous owners of our house, a dour and fiery couple of empty nesters, were fairly infamous for their cartoonish grumpiness. Our new neighbours looked relieved to see a new, naive looking young family move in. We weren’t surprised at the former owners’ reputation as we encountered it first hand on our visits to the house before moving in (they almost beat up our home inspector). Basically, it seems you could call them a lot of things, but lacking in pride was not one of them.

The man of the house was so proud of his DIY ability. He installed the garage door opener, new hardwood flooring, and even an old school intercom system, among other things.

“See? Much better, cheaper than contractor,” he asserted with his thick European accent, his chest literally and figuratively puffed out.

Indeed, much of his handiwork was acceptable if not impressive. Except for a few things. Well, one in particular.

We discovered that Mr. I Don’t Need Nobody just happened to have an electrician’s license. And, by ‘license’, I mean the kind my daughter makes using Crayolas and paper. One hack job in particular nearly floored the legitimate electrician we brought in. ‘Fire hazard’ doesn’t cover it.

So it got me thinking about myself and other educators I know. Although I would classify myself as a fool when it comes to home DIY, I simultaneously define my educator self as DIY to the max.

When I first entered the profession, I was constantly befuddled by some colleagues who asserted to me things like: I can’t do x because ‘they’ didn’t provide me with the y; or it’s not possible to do blank because of this, that, and the other.

Why not? I would and still always wonder. There’s always a way to get the resources, tools, or permission needed to do great things in our schools. If no one’s going to help or provide the necessary ingredients, then I’ll just do it myself! Someone’s gotta blaze that trail, right?

In actuality, I believe the majority of teachers and administrators are of this mindset, and it’s a bloody good thing indeed. Most of our schools and classrooms accomplish extraordinary things (often off the radar) solely because of innovative DIY dispositions.

Nevertheless, when I saw that clump of wires in the basement ceiling of our new home, I had a stark reminder that there is a point where a Do It Yourself mentality jumps the shark. At some point, you cross over the line which separates problem solving to prideful arrogance. You can’t always do it yourself, and if you do, you’re going to end up clumping a bunch of electrical circuits together in a manner which is terrifying, if not fire starting (and I don’t mean the good flame).

Some time ago I asked the question of whether tweeting and blogging was for everyone, and I still believe that we need to think critically and contextually about evangelizing ed spaces like Twitter. Still, seeing some of the handy work by Mr. Just Me And My Toolbox On A Deserted Island, I’m ever more firm in my feeling that I can’t do this teaching thing without my face-to-face and avatar-to-avatar crew of education ninjas.

Keep Doing It Yourself… with a network of Do It Yourselfers.

What Can We Learn From the Bike Helmet Paradox?

In my neighbourhood I'm affectionately known as crazy because my family and I ride our bikes everywhere - so crazy that I get into the local paper just for riding to work:)

This photo of me appeared in our municipal newspaper. In my neighbourhood I’m affectionately known as crazy because my family and I ride our bikes everywhere – so insane that I get into the local paper just for riding to work:)

A few questions to begin.

You would agree that people, especially children, should wear helmets when riding a bike, yes? Why am I even asking? If your eyes are on this blog, you’re likely an educator, parent, or both; it’s kind of our thing to be in favour of this stuff. Now be honest: do you hate the way bike helmets mess up your hair? What about the way they look and feel? Could be designed better, you say? Well, guess what, researchers have discovered something counter intuitive but logical.

In most Western nations, bike helmets are mandated by law. Statistically, we have seen an overall decrease in bike-related head injuries that can directly be correlated to these trends. This data should support the rationale behind bike helmet legislation. Except for the fact that there are other correlations:

  • Many people admit they dislike biking because wearing a helmet is uncomfortable, inconvenient, and unattractive.
  • The type of injuries bike helmets are designed to prevent rarely occur.
  • The fervour with which bike helmets have been mandated is not matched in any way with similar infrastructure (safer lanes, reduced speeds in urban areas etc.) that makes cycling significantly safer than helmets do.
  • People ride their bikes (an incredibly healthy activity) far less than ever.

What does this mean, and what analogies can we make to other initiatives in education?

What I Learned from the Dog Whisperer

CC licensed photo of Cesar Millan's dog Daddy shared by Flickr user puck90

CC licensed photo of Cesar Millan’s dog Daddy shared by Flickr user puck90

When puppy fever hit the Lee family in the Spring of 2012, one of the many obsessive activites we engaged in was to watch every episode of every season of Cesar Millan’s Dog Whisperer. We read all of his books, subscribed to the Cesar’s Way blog, listened to every interview, and, heck, there might even have been a man crush or two developed. Cesar, with all his charisma, captured our imagination. We loved his messages about being a calm influence on your dog, and could see a lot of parallels to the kind of parenting we espouse.

We wanted our Harry to be that perfect dog Cesar always talked about: calm, obedient, submissive. Like so many over-confident new parents, we pretty much figured it would be easy. Hey, just follow Cesar’s recipe! We had it all under control.

Nope. Somehow the reality of becoming a dog whispering family felt a little like opening a can of Coke after a prankster has left it shaken for you.

That’s not to say we regret becoming dog owners. On the contrary, we now cannot imagine living on this planet without a pooch. Harry is the most active, fun, loyal creature in the world. He was relatively easy to potty train, has always loved playing with other dogs, and has had an enormously positive and powerful effect on our large family of four adults and three kids.

These days, however, we don’t watch The Dog Whisperer episodes, and Harry is by no means the perfect dog. He barks like a mother bear protecting her cubs if anyone parks in our driveway or knocks on our door; he turns his nose up at gourmet dog food; and he is the most brilliant, extrinsically motivated command following pooch in the world (Alfie Kohn would not approve). It’s not that we don’t like Cesar any more, and it’s not necessarily that we don’t subscribe to his ‘Way’. In fact, we don’t blame Cesar at all. It was us and our approach that was problematic. It made me reflect on a few things which are pertinent to the education sphere I am immersed in.

The Problem with Knowledge

I feel our experience with dog whispering was the perfect illustration of the limitations of knowledge on its own. We knew what we were supposed to do, and we were extensive in our knowledge of everything to avoid when raising our little guy, but, in practice, it was so much more complex. I had that hand into the shape of a dog’s mouth to correct bad behaviour down pat! Every time I saw Cesar do it on TV, dogs would look at him like he was the second coming. Every time I did it, however, Harry would look at me like, ‘Why did you just do that horrendous thing to me, and when can I exact my revenge on you for it?’ This reminded me a bit of our collective forays into inquiry based learning in schools. We seem very enamoured by the theories underpinning it, as well as what it should look, feel, and sound like when it is realized, but our ability to apply these concepts in a meaningful way leaves many of us a tad wanting.

The Problem with Gurus

Self-appointed gurus are often criticized (and rightfully so) for being disingenuous, if not outright fraudulent. However, I don’t think Cesar attained his status with this kind of subterfuge. From knowing a bit about his life history, my guess is there was a lot of serendipity and authenticity involved in his ascent to dog stardom. Still, I know there are many critics of Cesar Millan and his ‘Way’. I won’t pretend to deconstruct his method as I simply don’t have enough experience with the paw set. I am still wet behind the ears when it comes to dog ownership. So my problem with him as a guru has very little to do with accusing him of being hypocritical or false in any way shape or form.

Drinking the Dog Whisperer kool-aid, however, did remind me how important it is to avoid overly lionizing someone for their ideas or methods. In the education bubble, we are frequently guilty, if not pathological, when it comes to this propensity (my wife calls me Royan the Bandwagon Jumper). Do you remember the blue brain vs. pink brain craze that swept the education world approximately a decade ago? Well, you cannot be blamed if you missed it because Leonard Sax came along not long after, debunking all of it, then took over the gender guru helm with his theories on boys and girls. The education conference circuit may always need new second comings. Let’s always be wary of their bandwagons.

The Problem with Perfection

When you watch Cesar’s show, he frequently tames the wildest, most anxious canines. All the while, he proudly walks around with the most noble, calm looking animals under his own charge. Essentially, he is the perfect dog owner and has a wonderful disposition for communicating this perfection. In addition, the people he helps on the show frequently come across as having glaring imperfections in dog care, ones that seem so obvious to anyone on the other side of the LCD screen. When you juxtapose the two, you can’t help but tell yourself that you want to be perfect like Cesar, and not painfully imperfect like the people he visits. Seeking that perfection is usually our first mistake, dooming us to failure and, ironically, a lack of resilience. I worry about this sometimes when giving presentations about successes I’ve experienced in the classroom. Does this really help anyone if all it does is draw attention to the end results rather than the long, sometimes messy journey on the way? These days I’ve been trying to talk a lot more about failure and the importance of appreciating continuums of learning in my workshops.

Have you ever been led astray following a guru or a ‘way’ and realized that you should have looked more within yourself?

This is cross-posted at my dog blog Harry the Dawg.

My Students Rapping

CC licensed image shared by Flickr user Foro do Eixo

I was perusing my hard drive, taking a click down memory lane. Man, I have no idea why I’ve never shared these before. I wish I could show you the accompanying music videos we created, but it’s difficult for me to work on the privacy rights on that one. I hope you enjoy them. Watching my students perform these songs for audiences is definitely one of the biggest highlights of my career.

Bringing back my calluses

My guitarI have this idea. What if we put a guitar in every classroom? How about a piano? Maybe some drum machines. We’re always sitting around talking about BYOD this and 1:1 that. Why don’t we think outside the glowing screen for a moment or two? I used to use my guitar all the time early in my career, but I realized recently that I’d drifted away from it. Did I get crusty and rigid in my old age?

So I brought it back. This was partly inspired by the group of boys in my class who live for 70s prog rock. Let me tell you something: I’ve never taught a group that was into Rush or Emerson Lake and Palmer. Ever. I’ve taught kids who adored all kinds of nostalgia such as grunge, hip hop, gangsta rap, techno, brit pop, but never Eric Clapton. It’s a musical lesson for me.

They can’t keep their hands off the guitar. While talking about math, they strum. Sharing their insight into the big idea of a book, they pick and pluck. The give lunchtime concerts.

Today I actually heard them talking about drop D tuning. Yes, you can go right ahead and wikipedia that. I absolutely love listening to students having detailed conversations about topics of their own interest.

I was so horrified that I myself had gotten out of practice. I admonished myself for losing the calluses on my fingertips. How dare I forget the chords to Hallelujah? Shame on me. I wondered if it was symbolic of something.

I find it’s hard to keep joy out of your classroom when you have a guitar in there. Even if no one can play, you end up learning. And, boy, if there are some adept ones, watch out.

Long live the classroom piano/guitar.

We are not sugar cubes: A love letter to my daughter

cc licensed photo shared by flickr user madpoet_one

Let me brag about a couple of things which I think are worthy of boastfulness, though others may think are horrifying.

First, I live very close to the school that I ply my trade in. Very close, as in, I could probably sneak out at any time, race home, put on a blue spandex suit with a big red ‘S’ on my chest, come back, and people would think there was a phone booth outside the school.

Second, my eldest of three children, Yumi, has recently begun attending the same building as a student. She’s in grade 4, and she’s as jubilant about this as a squirrel who has found a Cadbury Fruit and Nut bar.

One of the best things Yumi and I do is ride to and from school together on our respective bikes. It’s a special thing. I shudder to think that there might eventually be a time when feeling the wind brush back our eyebrows while coasting on our mountain bikes together will be an unappreciated endeavour. Sometimes I even find myself getting choked up, cruising behind her while watching her  little body, capped off with a mushroom-like bike helmet, bobbing up and down. She tries to talk to me and tell me about mundane moments of her day, and most of the time I have to yell, “Tell me later, honey, I can’t hear you!”

It’s been interesting to observe others’ reactions to Yumi and I. It’s perhaps a sign of the times.

The first reaction is surprise that we ride to school in the first place. Everyone burns gas to get to their destinations, you know. I’m not trying to jump on my high horse here; I understand that most people are captive to our bizarre, sprawling infrastructures, that context is king, and that everyone’s family decisions are often based on circumstance. It does concern me, however, that many people seem to have simply discounted travelling to school by foot or by pedal as an option. Like it’s Cherry Cola or something; it doesn’t exist any longer.

Another response I’ve received is one of mild horror when people realize I sometimes allow my daughter to walk/ride to school by her lonesome. The distance is 900 metres. That’s half a mile. We’re talking 984.252 yards.

Once, on a rainy day in September, I actually had a stranger admonish me for riding home in the rain with Yumi. I was flabbergasted. Are we sugar cubes?

I don’t think they realize I’m trying to raise eagles, not budgies.

At this point I have to step off my soapbox in the interests of: a) preventing blograntism, and b) keeping this post for what it is.

This post is a dad’s love letter to his daughter. I adore eating pho with you on our lunch dates at Sweet Basil. I treasure getting a glimpse of your face in the hallways. And I get all fuzzy in my stomach when we’re cruising around the streets together, ringing our bike bells.

drawing by Yumi Lee