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.

Flip This: Film Yourself Teaching to Deconstruct Your Instruction

CC licensed photo shared by Flickr user JonathanCohen

CC licensed photo shared by Flickr user JonathanCohen

I Googled the following for fun.

01 flipped 04 literacy 03 math 02 inquiry

The flipped classroom can be interesting, cool, and useful. But transformative? A high yield instructional tool, tactic, or strategy? Come on.

What if we turned that video camera on ourselves for a different reason? How about, on occasion, we video ourselves teaching and our students learning so we can focus not on the content of what is being explained, but to deconstruct our own teaching?

One of the most important moments I ever experienced as a classroom teacher was the first time I really saw myself teaching a full lesson in front of a class. It was around five years ago. I was fortunate enough to be asked to participate in a series of workshops Barrie Bennett was running for school administrators on how best to give feedback during/after walkthroughs.

I still have the video, but cannot post it here because: a) there are students in the video whose parental and personal consent I do not have to do so; and b) it horrifies me to the core. The voice, the hair, the constant pacing, that weird thing I do with my hands! Ghastly would be the word.

A few days after the filmographer completed her afternoon in my class, Barrie Bennett did something to me which blew my mind. In front of an audience of a couple of dozen principals, we collectively watched the video as he gave me amazingly helpful feedback on everything I was doing during the lesson. It was like a colour commentator breaking down the 3rd down play on ESPN. Really, it blew my mind. If there was a photo or video of me during that moment, it probably would have looked like this. You know how all of us who are kinda OK at this teaching thing can cite a few seminal moments or people that influenced us or transformed our thinking and practice? That day is in my top 5.

Since that day, I have always found it almost too easy to step out of my own shoes and watch myself teach as though I were a fly on the wall. It taught me that one of the most important things about being a transparent, growth-oriented educator is to be not only figuratively, but literally reflective to one person in particular.


Have you ever filmed yourself teaching, or contemplating doing so? If yes, tell me about your experience. If no, what’s stopping you?

Farewell to Failure February (Embrace the Failure)

a tree that spoke to me

In the northern hemisphere, where the winters are long, and our children attend school from September to June, February can be a cruel month. Students are lethargic, parents are weary, teachers visit the liquor store.

I’ve been wondering why this is the case. What makes this time of year so debilitating? No doubt, the weather, vitamin D deficiencies, and general burnout that the September to January track meet can elicit has something to do with it. Still, does that really explain why?

I think it’s because February is the month of Failure. It’s the time in the year when we really discover if something is working or not. If you tried something new, however minor or major, you’ll know if it is turning out as you had hoped, or if it’s a wounded animal who needs to be put out of its misery. February is the test of an educator’s mettle. That relationship you were trying to build? It’s getting there, or it’s worse than ever. The initiative you were trying to spearhead? People gently hopped on the train or never even came to the station. The Twitter trend that all the eduspeakers are raving about that you really wanted to bring to fruition? The reality is staring you in the face.

On Wednesday, while walking to school with my daughter, I had the kind of personal epiphany that can only come about because of the wonders of our natural environment. I couldn’t remember the last time wet, heavy snow had fallen in such a way that every tree branch, all evergreen needles, and each whisker on your grandpa’s beard were coated in thick, wet, glistening snow. It resembled something only the White Witch from Narnia could have summoned. My daughter and I kept saying to one another, isn’t it funny how beautiful ‘bad weather’ can be?

The unusual beauty that I saw as February was fading out like one of those Neil Young guitar solos that goes a bit too long reminded me to embrace the failure. Look at it as a positive, not a degradation of your worth and purpose. You tried some things and discovered they are very, very difficult. Maybe it’s time you abandoned this idea. Perhaps you need to change track with that project. Your recognition of this is a strength, not a weakness.

Embrace, accept, and use February’s reminders of failure. March on with your head held high (I apologize profusely for that last pun; I tried with all my might to prevent it, but it overcame me).

Ninja Training Tip #49

Stormshadow from GI Joe, Lego Ninjago, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles; it’s all about ninjas in my house of four – uh, I mean – three children. I have absolutely no idea how this happened. Every now and again, I get a bit Sensei on the kids and impart some Familylee Ninja Wisdom. Do you do anything similar and fun in your house/school/organization?

original CC licensed photo via Haiku Deck app

original CC licensed photo via Haiku Deck app

Less is More

CC licensed photo shared by Flickr user Austin Kleon

CC licensed photo shared by Flickr user Austin Kleon

One of my main goals as a teacher this school year has been to simplifiy everything I do in the classroom. To turn what is sometimes a turbulent sea into a calmer ocean. This isn’t one of those ‘you should too’ educational blogposts. In fact, you’ll probably disagree with a lot of my sentiments. I’ve been working on doing less of some things.

Less me talking. More students talking.

Less huge projects. More smaller ones.

Less crappy apps. More good apps.

Less web tools. More web environments.

Less presenting. More storytelling.

Less ‘move on’. More ‘try again’.

Less unpredictability. More structure.

Less blogging. More talking in class.

Less loud. More quiet.

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?