Shoulders of giants.

There is a wonderful quote from Sir Isaac Newton that goes, “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.” To me, this is nothing less than a gigantic nod to everyone who “tried and paved the way” before him, and a reminder of his then obligation to do the same for the generations to follow-including you and me.

I think Newton was right to pay tribute to his predecessors, but he did so implying that he was focused on the future. He knew that the past played an important part in his understanding of all things Math and Physics(Natural Law), but he was also keanly aware that there was still much work to do during his life in order to prepare for something far beyond his time, work, failures, and accomplishments. This was Newton’s way to say to his successors, “My shoulders are ready for you to stand upon and see further”. Like all teachers, Newton created the conditions where his lessons would go far into the future to a time, space, and place where he himself would never visit.

And now to the classroom

Imagine this repeating itself around the world everyday where a class is in session? We see the future everyday as we prepare students to stand on our shoulders to see further. In some ways, teachers are like conduits of time that possess the ability to bridge the past and present in service of the future. In the process, we continually build and strengthen the foundations on which we all stand and seek to see further than before.

To me, this is one of the coolest places to be as an educator because we have the ability to see through multiple states of time. This is a gift from the past, and it is important for us all to take a moment to enjoy the 360 view atop the shoulders of giants on which we now stand.*

Think about the beauty of looking back at where we’ve been a.k.a hindsight. In education it’s better known as ongoing professional reflection. In itself, reflection will always be an important tool in our collective kit. However, if we’re not careful, we can dwell too much on the past, which could then mire us in the present, and ultimately cause us to lose focus on the future – our students. That’s why we need to keep our eyes looking forward and further as we stand together to protect education from fundamentalist firestarters trying to burn its foundations with fiscal forest fires in order to fleece the future.

Despite the acrimonious arson taking place, we stand firm and united in the fight against cuts to education. Our solidarity, current WTR focus on government, and willingness to wait at the negotiating table are clear indicators to families that ETFO members are rallying around our learners even as the government burns bridges to benefit a bogus budget dilemma. Our shoulders are squared and strong.

It’s time we douse the doubt and the doubters by continuing our amazing and impactful work in education which has placed Ontario among the best in the world. Imagine what heights our students will reach when each one has equitable access to learning at all phases of their educational evolution from JK to post-secondary? Imagine underserved and under-performing students who will never fall through the cracks because there are shoulders for them to stand on too?

Stand strong. Stand together.

*This is never more meaningful when I think about the educators who stood up for teachers in the past to fight for the benefits, pay, and working conditions we have now. There is no doubt that things are better for educators in some areas, but have deteriorated in other areas. It is now our turn to clear the way and make new roads for those to come in the future. I am so thankful for those who fought for me. Even though I may never meet them in person, I am here standing on their shoulders.

Optimism at 9.2 %

I was working with my students on some proportional reasoning exercises in Math. It didn’t take long before I began thinking about numbers and the relationships that exist so beautifully and naturally within them – as one does. After considering the fractions, decimals, and percentages of our tasks that day, I realized that 18 days have sped past – as of this past Friday (Sept 27th, 2019).  Here is some numerical context.

18 days 
= 2.57 earth weeks (Monday to Sunday)
= 4 school weeks (Monday to Friday)
= 1/20th of a year(non-leap)+/-
= 432 life hours
= 5400 minutes of class time
= 3480 minutes of my teaching time (preps deducted)
= 1620 minutes of recess/lunch time (school days M to F)
= 9.2% of the instructional year

Reflecting on the numbers always makes it clear for me to see that we (grade 7s+ me) have already spent a lot of time working at the speed of education. With 18 days in the books, I am feeling optimistic and here are the P.R.I.M.E reasons why.

Patience pays off, not packets of paper

So often students are hurried back to full speed once September rolls around. I have always found it better to ease learners back into the year with broad cross-curricular learning, to activate as many areas of ability from past grades. This approach may make some teachers uncomfortable because it runs counter to archaic ideas of photo-copied workbooks. However, the buy-in from students has always been positive when they are given the time, space, and appropriate tasks to challenge them.

I choose collaborative work that offers low floor and high ceilings, whether it’s Math problems that cover more than one strand at the same time, or whole class discussions/inquiries into current events. Think about tasks and activities that allow each student to show what they can do, and are differentiated enough to honour each learner’s abilities.

My students are responding well to every chance they are given to work with each other instead of another “busy worksheet” packet. I encourage teachers to possess the patience to allow students a different start to the year instead of photocopied packets, to promote engagement instead of ennui.

Relationships = good

We have worked hard to establish our relationships and expectations. In my classroom this has always meant open and ongoing dialogue. Student voice is key in this educational democracy. By always allowing a place for students to be heard, I have found that classroom management and community building become a collective responsibility and benefit.

Since the first bell in September, we have established irreducible norms about responsibility, respect, collaboration, determination, and otherliness. When students have time to grow within their community in these areas, the dynamics of our class relationships are made more positive and enduring.

Invest with interest

The past 18 days in the classroom have also been about learning what makes each student come alive or avoid at school. Having students share their highs, lows, strengths, and weaknesses has provided invaluable insight into what makes them tick in and out of the classroom.

In 11 years, I have always been surprised by the amazing and diverse interests and talents of my students. Making sure they know I am interested in getting to know them is an investment I am happy to make over and over.

Manage it all

The first 9.2% of this instructional year felt like it happened in a blender. Regardless of years of experience, this can be hard when so many daily variables (ie. schedules, personalities, tasks, etc.) are swirling around for teachers to sort out – myself included. Despite 10 years of practice, I still find that I’m overprogrammed and behind schedule. Thankfully, most of my turmoil occurs outside of the classroom from instructional planning, SERT work, and meetings.

Teachers are known for their tireless work ethics, but there has to be limits too. It’s important not to burn out at the start of the year. Setting some boundaries and giving yourself permission to leave some work for the next day is good advice to manage it all.

Encourage everyone, everytime

Take time to celebrate accomplishments on a daily basis – no matter how small. I used our recent Fire and Lockdown Drills to comment on how my students responded so well in those situations. I have also filled our corkboards with fresh work to celebrate each week. When students know they are being noticed, they will feel and have validation. This is something we can honour 100% of the year in the classroom.

Even though 9.2 % of instruction is in the books, you can see how optimism is reaching its prime already. Wishing you all an excellent next 90.8% of your school year.

Additional reading:

Building bridges

The Photographer [CC BY-SA 4.0 (]

Recently, I found myself staring from the platform of a steel, wood, and wire bridge at the top of Les Chutes Montmorency in Quebec. As the water spilled down the worn rock face into the St. Lawrence River, I could feel the structure moving, ever-so-slightly. Dozens of tourists were there too. I wondered if they felt it while they crossed, stopped, and admired the power and natural beauty.

To me, the vibrations were reminders that things are in constant motion and that the gentle movement of the bridge was making my senses aware of my surroundings much more than usual. What struck me in between the movements were thoughts of the incredible collaboration that went into designing and building this structure for everyone to safely enjoy the view. So much commitment, preparation, and care had to be put in long in advance of the first steps ever being taken across this spectacular wonder.

This made me think about how teachers are so very much like bridge-builders in their schools. We start laying out possible plans in late August and September. Once the first bell rings, we usually have to head back to the drawing board in order to re-coordinate, re-calculate, and reconsider it all once the classroom is filled because it is not until then that we really know the exact terrain or the distance we will need to span. Experience says that there is always a danger when we start construction too soon. Ocasionally, a demolition is required to re-start the build on a stronger and more secure footing.

Come October and November, construction of our bridges is in full swing. Shifts are organized, jobs are evolving with new work being delegated daily, and of course, focii reframed. Foundations are set and you can see signs of progress. As with any project, unknowns are constantly popping up that could not have been predicted on paper while planning. Usually these are best mitigated through preparation, experience, and flexibilty. Construction must go on.

December and January has our crews working productively in all areas. A well deserved break to rest, recharge, and regroup sees everyone returning to routines. Unlike September, the plans are not in flux. There is clear evidence of the mission, along with a sense of quasi-accomplishment, and it is encouraging to be at the half-way point. By now, some significant challenges have been overcome. Trials and tests are natural parts of overcoming impassable terrain. There is much to learn on a construction site.

It seems like we roar through February and March at school. Our bridge is really occupying the skyline now. We are able to see things from new perspectives. There are so many clubs, teams, and lessons to reckon with and distractions are not uncommon. It is important to remind everyone about the goal and the importance of the bridge they are building.

For me, these are some of the most frantic yet peaceful months of the school year. Frantic because of completing first term reports and peaceful because the rhythms of learning are clearly clicking. March Break doesn’t hurt either. Through it all brick by brick, board by board, and wire by wire it is all coming together. Through all of this time, attention is focused on safety and stability. Each day, measurements are taken to make sure everything is going as planned. In the classroom this might be a conversation, or an observation. Some times the ears and eyes of a teacher notice more and gain far more insight than is ever conveyed on a paper through a pencil.

April and May seem to happen at an accelerated pace. The end is in sight, yet somehow it can seem like the finish line is being moved further down the track. Students have become increasingly more interested in outdoor activities after being cooped up all Winter, and then kept off the grass for nearly the first 6 weeks of Spring. Movement is crucial here. Construction on our bridge is nearly complete.

Come June, our 10 month bridge building project concludes. What was once a rough and uncrossable expanse is now connected from one side to the other. As if, for the very first time, we collectively look up from our work, take a few steps back, and marvel at the work that has taken place. Our work.

By June’s end, the memories of lessons, tests, and reports are already fading, but not the positive relationships made, the acts of kindness shared, or the struggles overcome. Know that these memories will last like a well built bridge that can be crossed over years after being completed.

Thank you for being the bridge builders teachers. I look forward to building new ones with you all in September.



The Downside

It’s a wonderful time of the year…ish. However, there are a few downsides.
Starting with the scary winter weather commutes, bone-chilling outdoor supervision at -16C, or the daily loss of at least a half hour of instructional time while students remove their winter wear or gear up for recess. Today I was convinced that a child went out for recess and returned as a snowman. It was touch and go whether we would need a lifeguard on duty once all of the snow the students brought inside began to melt.

Then, there’s the realization, that maybe, just maybe I missed assessing something for my upcoming report cards. That sent a shiver down my spine. In my mind I just wrote report cards a few weeks ago. 10 weeks is a few, right?

The end of January signals the half way mark of our instructional year and things are clicking in the classroom. We have our routines back in place, students have shown a lot of growth since September, and there is a feeling of hope in the air at times. Maybe that’s tied to the temperature rising a few degrees and for the days when the trek between the portapack and the main building does not require a Sherpa or tethering students to a guide rope. With chilly temperatures, indoor recesses, and daylight still getting longer, this time of year can sneak up on your mental health and well being to blind side you when your not expecting it.,_Cascades.JPG#file CC BY-SA 4.0,_Cascades.JPG#file CC BY-SA 4.0

Today, a student was having a bad day. No one saw it coming. I was called into another class to provide support. The student was experiencing an anxiety attack. The entire class was genuinely concerned for them, and offered their support and kind words. Seeing this warmed my heart on a chilly day, but it also screamed about the fragility that exists in our learners. In my opinion, we never get the whole picture of our students lives. Finding time to fit it all in beyond the superficialities is difficult when deadlines and commitments loom.

Although we are in each others’ presence 6+ hours per day, we are often humans doing more so than humans being aware of one another when they are feeling sad, frustrated, or stressed. I am finding it more and more important to let students vent about what is weighing on their minds. Yes, it’s during instructional time, but it is an absolutely integral part of my classroom mental health strategy.

If my students are sharing from their hearts, they will also know they are being heard in a safe and supportive space. If we miss these chances in favour of trudging through the lessons hoping it will just go away, or that the student will get over it in time, then we are at risk of missing our opportunity to help our students when they need us most. There is a downside to this that could lead to depression, disconnection, and despair.

In his 2017 TEDxKitchenerEd Talk, Andrew Campbell shares the reason why he meets his students at the door each day. While watching him share this incredibly personal message, I wondered whether all of the other educators in the theatre wanted to be back at school at that very minute to greet their own students. I know the next day couldn’t come fast enough for me. I wanted to make sure they knew they mattered, that our classroom cared, and that even though we had just started the year, I cared too. It is only through these connections with students that I see any learning made truly possible.

The choice of whether to support, stand still, or dismiss could mean the world of difference to someone who is struggling. Choosing to connect and care over the curriculum at times may be the cure. No downside there.


Painting with the same brush.
PublicDomainPictures / 18043 images CCO 1.0

An artist was preparing to paint one day. First, she stretched and secured her canvas over its wooden frame. The artist continued by arranging her brushes, planning a colour scheme, and then by setting up her supplies. Finally, it was time to ponder her subject forever to be captured in a moment of time and occupied space – where her vision would be on display in pigment, oil or acrylic for evermore for all to enjoy.

The artist could already see her finished masterpiece. As if the picture had miraculously painted itself. Without anything left to imagine, conjure, or deliberate she began.

Un-(der) inpired
It was all right there in living, er um, cold dead colour. All she had to do was slather it onto the wintery whitewashed space in waiting. She pulled out the widest brush in her kit, dipped it into the first colour, white, and painted a perfectly straight line across the top of the canvas. She dipped her brush again and repeated, the same thing over and over, with the precision of her first strokes until she has covered the entire canvas. She felt satisfied, but did not have time to admire her work for long. There were 29 more canvases to cover just like the first one. She smiled, sighed, dipped her brush, and started on the next one.  Yet, with a pallet of colours and brushes at the ready, the artist only knew how to paint with a single brush and to use white paint to do her work. CCO License

Under pressure
Does teaching ever seem like this to you? Do educators feel they are asked to paint blank canvases everyday, but are only given one wide brush and a single colour to work with? I wonder whether that is how some teachers have come to feel when a learning system is imposed on them which expects students to be taught to the test?

Teachers plan and prepare their materials to deliver a lesson much like the artist in the story above and in the end are expected to use the broadest brush and one shade of paint. What may be more disappointing, is that many only have time to paint one coat before feeling they have to move on.

I am not a huge fan of the traditional textbook. In fact I have called them “knowledge coffins” in the past. When traditional textbooks are at the centre of the instructional day, there is little option for learners to explore beyond its pages.  Yes, it’s all in there, but at what cost are other things and ideas being left out?

First, consider the cost of purchasing texts/licenses per class. Math books alone can range upwards of $1500 to $2000 for a class set per subject. What happens when the curriculum gets revamped like what has recently happened in Ontario with the French(2013), Health/Physical Education(2015), and Social Studies(2013). Could the money schools, boards, and government pour into photocopies and textbooks be used to provide Chromebooks for every student instead? Imagine the cost savings in paper alone. If we did this, every learner from K to 12 could be equipped with a productivity and research tool for the classroom at their fingertips? And, at home too if WiFi is available.

I am a fan of adaptive and hands on learning environments. In the classroom, I want students to have a voice in how and what they are being taught so we can democratize education. I believe all educators possess the means/ability to transform and tailor their instruction to suit their students. What they need now is a safe place to do so and that’s an issue of system and school leadership.

JFK Paint by Numbers
JFK Paint by Numbers

To paint a portrait of the future, educators need to use the prescribed curriculum as a pallet filled with colours that is not limited to a paint-by-number task. However, many are afraid to use other, less traditional brushes and materials to paint their masterpieces because the outcomes might not look resemble or match work gathering dust on the walls.

Yes, there are things to be taken from the past, but the world outside our classrooms has not remained fixed in space and time. Neither should it remain static inside. The classroom must become a vibrant and connected place where students have access to, and be able to contribute to a world of knowledge.

This requires courage to happen. It requires time for others to understand, accept, and embrace. It doesn’t have to look perfect. The mess is an important part of the process.

Ask yourself what or who inspires you to take chances as a learner? What new idea(s) would you try in your classroom if you knew you couldn’t fail? Start by giving yourself permission to change things up in one subject area, and then go from there.

I’ll be here to chat if you want to talk more about how we can change the portrait of education to a landscape of creativity, differentiation, and encouragement.

In the meantime I have some brushes to clean.

Batting 300 – Swinging for the fences pt 2

This is the second post in my word series in spirit of circling the bases of baseball and education. I’m back at the plate to take another swing. Click here for an instant ‘read’play of my first at bat.

It’s the 7th inning, and your back at the plate, again. So far you have popped out to short stop, struck out looking, and are starting to regret getting out of bed today because you are sitting on 2 strikes already for this at bat; and the pitcher is feeling pretty smug about setting you down for the third time in a row.

photo by jcclark74 CC0
photo by jcclark74 CC0

You shake off the crowd noise and focus on the pitcher itching to make you look bad, again. Here it comes. The moment that defines you, validates you, and proves to the watching world, and yourself, that you deserve to be here. Your focus is Zen like. You want to hit one out of the park so badly, and leave the doubters gawking in awestruck wonder of your talent, and requisite, albeit, controversial bat-flip.

Here’s the pitch! Muscles tensed, eyes trained to the ball, hips and hands executing the swing in a fraction of a second, and in your mind play the immortal words of Jerry Howarth, “There she goes!” But the sound you hear is more of a thunk! You make contact, and the ball leaves the bat with barely enough force to escape the infield. Somehow, you are on base with a blooper, and after 2 failed attempts to get on base, you take what you can get. Time to make the most of it.

The classroom, like the baseball diamond, is where learning gets ugly and messy. Mistakes are going to be made, and that’s ok. Thoughts of perfection on every play only lead to frustration and disappointment. They are also unrealistic and can come at the detriment of the learner/player.

In baseball, like education, the goal is to get better every day. Results may often not be a result of what was planned or prepared for, but they allow us immediate feedback to keep our heads in the game. Do we quit when things are not going our way? Of course not. A perfect lesson in education, like a home run in baseball or pitching a perfect game, may be moonshot goals that should not keep us from swinging for the fences anyway.

Funny how life is like that too. The sweetest victories usually come after the most difficult times. As long as we are willing to be learning we are capable of achieving something. Success will look different from day to day. Are we preparing our students to stay in the games, step up to the plate, and take their swings? How we prepare our students will make all the difference. This comes through coaching, practice, resilience, and confidence. There is only one way to make this happen and it comes from believing in our students.

In a sport loaded with statistics, it is easy to glean relevant information about everything in baseball. Did you know that the last person to hit 400 was Ted Williams of the Boston Red Sox. It was in 1941 and few players ever since have even come close to attaining, what is arguably, the most illusive achievement in professional baseball. Education has been known to keep stats too. Between government standardized tests, and need for assessment metrics from JK to infinity in the classroom, there is no shortage of data. But what of it? Are we using the data to its fullest? Are there better ways to measure success in the classroom like Sabremetrics I mentioned in my first post?

Baseball Player by Paul Brennan little paul - Public Domain
Baseball Player by Paul Brennan little paul – Public Domain

Imagine that since 1941, not a single player has been able to hit the baseball 4 times out of every 10 at bats. That’s a 40% success rate! What if we looked at our students that way. Would any of them be in the hall of fame with a success rate like Ted Williams? What would are world look like if our students were lauded for their swings and misses as much as their hits?

To some, it gets worse. In the modern era, if a player is able to hit the ball 3 times out of 10 over lengthy career he too has a good chance of being enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame*. That’s by being successful only 30%. This got me thinking. How are you celebrating the success of your students? Are you finding them stressing over their last at bat(test result, essay, project)? Are they able to learn each time they come to the plate and take a swing without losing confidence when they get out?

In her incredible TED Talk Every kid needs a champion Rita Pierson shared how important it was to celebrate success in learning, even if it was a failure by all standards. I often lose track of this myself and need to take stock of the little victories that happen in the process. As teachers, if we are greeting students heading back to the dugout after an out with disappointment or derision then we are missing a chance to build confidence in them, and a chance to help reflect and prepare for what needs to happen for success next time.

If we can share this with our learners then success is possibly only a few innings away. In this way we can encourage and equip students to be ready for when their turns in the batting order come around again.

*Canada has its own completely different Baseball Hall of Fame.