joe

Just as ripples spread out when a single pebble is dropped into water, the actions of individuals can have far-reaching effects. – Dalai Lama

I struggle with report cards. They’re when the requirements of working for a large public bureaucracy directly conflicts  with what I believe is best for my students. Most years I swallow hard and just get it done, but four years ago was, for some reason, particularly difficult. I decided there had to be a better way, and my search for answers lead me right to Joe Bower.

Joe blogged about how he’d resolved his similar struggles with grading and report cards and I needed to know more. Was it really possible to do things differently? Even in a regular public school classroom? How?

I wrote to Joe:

After just finishing my term 1 reports I’m ready to give up on grading. I’m hesitating however because I’m required to do report cards with grades. How do you handle that?

Joe responded almost immediately. He was open, supportive, encouraging and made some suggestions. When our discussion went deeper he suggested we Skype to discuss further, which we did. I was amazed that he was so willing to take the time to talk with someone he barely knew about this. In doing so he fundamentally changed how I thought about assessment, and influenced how I teach still to this day.

As a result of that interaction I began to really pay attention to Joe and what he was doing. The more I read his blog, the more excited I became. It was thrilling to discover that a teacher could be open, outspoken, honest and fearless about the kind of schools and classrooms we should be creating. I aspired to be as courageous, uncompromising and passionate as Joe in what I wrote and said and thought.

Eleven months later Joe asked if he could share one of my blog posts and I delightedly agreed. I was now part of a select group. Joe thought my ideas were worthy of sharing. I don’t know how many others work he shared but I’m sure it was in the hundreds. He was generous and didn’t care who got the credit.

Joe and I connected through social media on and off and I was impressed with his progress. He was getting widespread recognition and raising the issues and concerns he cared about wherever he went. He was part of an elite group of people who were making classrooms better places for students and teachers and influencing how we think about education, and remarkably he was doing it while he was a classroom teacher.

In 2014 I was invited to be on a panel with a well known educator. As we chatted before the panel he said that he’d been reading my blog and that I reminded him of “…a bearded Joe Bower”. I’m not sure he intended it to be the compliment I took it as, but I was elated. To be compared favorably with Joe, to be mentioned in the same sentence, was as good as it got.

These stories I have about Joe aren’t special or unique. I’m only one of thousands of educators, and by extension hundreds of thousands of students, that Joe influenced. He lead by example, with the passionate strength of his convictions.

I’ll miss Joe’s leadership and support, and judging by the outpouring of condolences so will many others. We’ve lost a giant in the efforts to create more progressive and student centered schools. It’s a huge loss.

 

beingwrong

While traveling this summer I toured an old Victorian jail at night. Very spooky!

The lights were turned out and an actor, in character as one of the original jail guards, took us through the jail. He told horrific stories of how the prisoners were treated. The conditions were so bad that when they opened the cells each morning convicts would burst out and try to kill themselves by jumping down a three story drop.

After the tour was finished I wandered around, reading more of the history of the place. I was amazed to learn that when it was opened the jail was in fact hailed as a model of progressive rehabilitation. This was an improvement on prisons where inmates were clamped in irons and tortured. This “new” prison was designed to use the most modern, most effective methods.

The people who were doing horrible things to people were, in their minds, being progressive and cutting edge. No doubt they were criticized as “do-gooders”, soft on crime by conservative, back to basics advocates. I’m certain they persevered, firm in their belief that what they were doing was right. Now, decades later, they look like monsters.

This is how knowledge and understanding works. When Newton wrote “If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants” he was confirming the truth. Anything we know and believe now is the result of a past mistake that we, collectively, learned from. We must also accept that we are unknowingly making the mistakes that pave the way to the future.

If you’re a parent you understands this all too well. Before a newborn arrives you diligently study the latest parenting advise to make sure that you are doing the best for your child. But as soon as the child’s grandparents come to visit you quickly discoverthat that how we parent has changed a lot just in one generation. What we often fail to realize is that all too soon we’ll be the asserting old-fashioned beliefs.

And so it is with teaching.

Very few people go into teaching just for the money and benefits. At it’s heart teaching is an act of hope. It’s a belief that we can make things better, today and tomorrow. And because of this most teachers are passionate about how they teach. It’s hard to change a teacher’s fundamental beliefs about how they teach because they are deeply personal expressions. How we teach says something about us. Who we are and what we value.

But as with all knowledge, all of our deeply held understandings and practices are wrong. No matter how up to date and current we strive to be everything we are doing is eventually wrong. Sometime in the future someone will share an insight that will explain how the best lesson or the most effective activity is completely wrong. All our understandings come stamped with a best before date, we just don’t get to know what it is.

Our real challenge then, as educators, isn’t in deciding if we are right or wrong, but rather in deciding when it’s time to let go. When is it time to admit that what we are doing isn’t as effective as it could be, and move on to the next thing?

 

Persicope in the Classroom

In education, just as in society in general, there is a healthy community of early adopters.

DiffusionOfInnovation

The same people who line up for hours outside electronic stores to get the latest gadget are also in classrooms. They’re the educators who want to be the first to try something new. They’re willing to put with the annoyances of beta-testing and dealing with debugging to be the first to use the latest tech tool in their classroom.

Hot new tech tool Periscope has recently caught the of all those geeky early adopting educators:

For the uneducated, Periscope is a live streaming video mobile app for android and IOS that was purchased by twitter in March of 2015 for a reported $100 million. Since it’s release on March 26th it has started to become integrated and used in a variety of ways.

Read More

jump-rope

A recent school assembly threw up an object lesson on how far we have to go with student data privacy.

My school is an enthusiastic participant in Jump Rope for Heart. I support the work of The Heart and Stroke Foundation, and on “Jump Rope Day” my students will be skipping and I will be encouraging them as they raise funds. But it was during our Jump Rope for Heart kick off assembly that I heard something that made me shake my head in amazement.

Not long ago there was a steady parade of children knocking at my door and asking for donations for a variety of causes. That doesn’t happen anymore. Shifting societal attitudes combined with parental concerns about safety means schools now insist that students don’t solicit donations “door to door”. Not even from neighbours they know. Read More

silencing students

Student Voice, a cornerstone of “modern” education, is actually over a hundred years old. Dr. Dennis Harper describes Student Voice as “…giving students the ability to influence learning to include policies, programs, contexts and principles”. Student Voice can take many different forms in education. It can be as simple and “grass roots” as peer teaching or as formal and bureaucratic as giving students seats on school boards.

Whatever form it takes, the underlying principle behind student voice is that the ideas, opinions and views of students are important and valued. Students are not subordinates, they are valued partners who deserve to be heard. However, that this isn’t always true. There’s growing evidence that many schools really aren’t that thrilled with some students expressing their “voice”. Read More

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