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’s so special about extra-curricular activities?

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remixed from the original CC licensed photo shared by Flickr user US Mission Canada

If you’re a reader who is unfamiliar with the current labour strife between public school teachers and the Ontario provincial government, click here for a great breakdown from People for Education.

I appeared alongside Zoe Branigan-Pipe, Stephen Hurley, Earl Manners, Misha Abarbanel, and George Thomas on TVO’s The Agenda last night to talk about “The Role of the Teacher” (aka Are Teachers Gonna Start Extra Curriculars in Ontario Again Or What?). It was an honour to be a part of and I enjoyed myself. But there’s one thing I wish we had discussed in greater depth.

Why has the loss of extra-curricular activities left this supposed chasm in our schools? Why do so many students, educators, parents, and other stakeholders see the loss of ECs as a reason to cry foul with deep, passionate tones?

Correct me if I am wrong, but ECs seem to be beloved for the following reasons:

  • Students and teachers can pursue personal passions.
  • They tend to be growth-oriented.
  • They are often project-based.
  • Collaboration is valued highly.
  • Losses and failure are celebrated as learning opportunities.
  • There are often concrete goals to pursue.
  • They tend to include mixed age/grade groups.
  • There is much more movement, less sedentary work.
  • Paper-pen tasks are rarely seen.
  • There is very little rote memorization.
  • The process is seen as more important than the destination.
  • There are no standardized, high stakes evaluations.
  • No one gets graded.
  • Assessment is feedback and improvement based.
  • The development of mastery is understood to be a long process.
  • Students and teachers have autonomy for the direction of the activity.

So is this a conversation about our beloved ECs or a discussion about what’s missing from learning in curriculum proper?

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.

Is Tweeting for Everyone?

CC licensed photo shared by Flickr user Lonics

CC licensed photo shared by Flickr user Lonics

In the same way that it is not for everyone in our everyday lives, is it not entirely possible that Twitter and blogging legitimately doesn’t apply to all educators? There’s no question that social media spaces can provide small to large benefits to pedagogues, ranging from simple utility to deep transformation respectively. However, who’s to say ?

I don’t know about you, but I have always felt comfortable and content with the idea that, while I myself cannot imagine doing this profession without my beloved learning network, perhaps it’s legitimately silly, if not irrelevant, for another educator.

What do you think: is tweeting for everyone?

Questions about Group Work

cc licensed photo shared by flickr user charamelody

Reading and commenting on Aviva Dunsiger’s post on classroom desk arrangement reminded me of a related but different topic I’ve been wrestling with lately. I’ve been asking myself questions about what it means to do group work.

I’m not certain which lady or gentleman first automatically equated group work with collaboration, but I need to have a word with her/him. When it comes to project work, l’m a proponent of my students taking a larger role in deciding whether working with a partner to create, produce, and/or present is really in the interests of everyone’s progress and learning. Some cite the infamous ‘real world’, in which we are supposedly inundated with demands to work with random people (in many cases, ones we can’t stand), as the pedagogical impetus behind group assignments, but that reasoning just feels lukewarm to me. It’s a strangely defeatist vista which I don’t see reflective of reality, and essentially lays our own adult baggage onto kids. Just who are these masses of people creating great works with people they have little to no working chemistry with? And what kind of bias are we promoting for our extroverted learners over our introverted ones in this equation?

For the next group project you intend on assigning to your class, have you considering having some students work on their own? Shouldn’t our learners be comfortable with the idea that we can differentiate in this area? Why can’t the environment, culture, process, and assessment be collaborative, but products be individual?

On the other hand, perhaps there’s something to be said for the serendipity of picking names out of a bag, forcing learners out of their comfort zone? Perhaps it’s a comfortable idea for some but not others? Maybe it disturbs the regular social dynamics for the better?

How do you do group work with your learners?