Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Learning From the Floor...not the chair.

My first memory of formal education in Canada involves being told to sit still. Most of my memories of formal education in Canada involve being told to sit still -- "like a good boy." My behaviour was corrected a lot over 12 years.


Kindergarten
cc licensed flickr photo - shared by maja thurup


Yesterday, while I awaited my chiropractor, I watched my nearly 2 year-old playing with the toys in the waiting area. For nearly 10 minutes he tried to figure out the operation of a rather complicated toy garage with a neat little elevator.  He was clearly frustrated with the elevator's operation for a time and eventually lay on his side staring intently at the apparatus. 
 
Ignoring the silent pleas of a concerned mom, to pick up my child and admonish him for laying on the floor and exposing himself to germs, I watched his eyes methodically scanning the mystery toy from a new perspective.  After a short while, his hands began exploring a part of the toy that he had not seen while standing/squatting/sitting/bouncing/crouching.
 
He never did figure out the elevator, but he sure enjoyed the flap that allowed him to hold several toy cars at the top of a ramp before releasing them simultaneously.  This was especially enjoyable when he placed a small stack of blocks at the bottom of the ramp (carnage!).
 
Reflecting on the boy's experience, I find myself wondering how many discoveries I failed to discover because I was too busy trying to "sit still and learn," or cooling off in the principal's office.
 
Currently I teach teenagers who would likely burst into flame if they had to sit in a chair for 82 minutes, so I don't often expect silent or motionless learning in my classroom.  On the rare occasion that I've been evaluated, this lack of classroom management has been noted as a refreshing method of addressing hyperactivity (adolescence, as I call it), but earned me a lower score because it didn't fit the expectations of the evaluation format. 
 
As a "satisfactory" teacher whose students move around while they read or write or collaborate or explore, I offer this warning to the future teachers of my children: they're like their father and they're not going to sit still while they learn.  If you ever tell them to "sit down and shut up," or "sit still like a good boy," or "stop shaking like that," you will answer to me -- and, I will not sit still whilst I dress you down for believing that little boys should ever sit still in silence.  You want silence, you'd better captivate 'em; otherwise, get out of their way while they do their learnin' thing.
 
If you want my boys to excel in your classroom, you'd better get used to kids who learn by not sitting still, and don't do silent obedience very often.
 
Just saying,
 
Kabachia, who still doesn't sit still and ain't never gonna shut up about it.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Future is Here...Again

My three year-old cannot operate the mouse on my desktop and remains mystified by the trackpad on any laptop he's seen. He has just begun, after a year, to operate the "mouse" on his "laptop" computer that introduces him to letters, numbers and words.

Give him a touch-screen, like an iPhone, and he's off to the races. Within a month of the iPhone's appearance in our home, he (at 2 years of age) was operating the apps downloaded for his enjoyment. It wasn't long before he was unlocking the phone, scrolling to "his" page and choosing his own games to play. With the introduction of OS 4 last spring, he quickly learned to open a folder to select his game as well.

Given that, in the last few years, CD-Rom has gone the way of the floppy, and flash memory is becoming obsolete to advances in cloud storage, does the mouse have any future in a world of multi-touch displays? Some of my students already lament the limited capabilities of the IWB in my class -- it only recognizes one touch and one cannot manipulate the display (rotation or zoom, for example) as on any smartphone of 2010.

By the time my 3 year-old enters school, will we lament the new generation that doesn't bring "basic computer skills" the way we lament the loss of writing skills like penmanship?

Kabachia...who's wondering if you're ready for computers to look different too.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Meaningful Assessment

Anybody that works in my school has heard this lament before.  Why is it that, as a basketball referee, I'll be evaluated at least ten times during a season, but my teaching has been evaluated twice in 11 years?

This week, I'll write an officiating test (50 yes/no questions about rules of the game; I need over 85% to qualify for national tournaments, or something like that), but every referee knows the value of this test is limited -- anybody can pass a test by memorizing rules, but can they implement them fairly, accurately, and correctly while people are screaming at them about their genetic deficiencies?  That's why we're evaluated during games, repeatedly, by different people who bring different perspectives to the practice.  Immediately after each game, the evaluator(s) provided critical feedback, identifying perceived strengths as well as a couple of areas they would like to see improved (strategies for improvement are available upon request).  They will also complete an evaluation form that, hopefully, includes the same concepts discussed post-game, and their suggestions for advancement or remediation.

Screw the test, but can you imagine the effect on teaching if we knew we'd be evaluated 10 times in a school-year, by several different people who each stayed with our classes for entire periods (days even); then sat down with us to give immediate feedback about our strengths and weaknesses?  What if we had several written evaluations to compare at the end of the year, each of which examined our teaching from individual, professional perspectives?  Wouldn't it make the feedback and evaluation our students receive even more meaningful to them, if they saw us experiencing the same?  Imagine if the people giving us feedback weren't evaluators, but our peers (especially those in our own buildings) -- wouldn't it be neat to regularly share our teaching practices with our friends and compatriots, or would it make you uncomfortable to be critiqued by someone you respect and saw drunk at a staff party once?  Either way, aren't the benefits clear?

Too bad Education's an expense, not an investment, though.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Shadow Scholar -- Am I Part of the Problem

I was drawn to an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education entitled The Shadow Scholar via several blogs in my Google Reader feed.  The Educated Reporter dared me to read it "without feeling a little ill," especially since "education students are among his most frequent clients, unfortunately."  I wasn't ill -- does that make me a bad person?  Thoughts on Education Policy bothered me a great deal more by asking "wouldn't it be more productive if we instead focused on fixing the problem?"  I have to admit, I'm not sure if I'm not part of the problem.

While I take great pride in my efforts to develop the writing skills and academic ethics of my students, especially in regard to issues of plagiarism, I must admit I'm much less inclined to severely sanction the student I catch "cheating."  Generally, my high school students avoid cheating (I think), but when they do they're not very good at it; a quick google search generally reveals their intellectual transgressions.  In the past, I was quick to slap a zero on the paper and chastise them for their criminality with all sorts of horrible threats of university-level repercussions and a lifetime of shame.  Now, I prefer to record their assignment incomplete (still a zero) until they complete the assignment "honestly," using their references to support their ideas and properly citing the same sources.  I also spend much more time with students on formatting sources (during our introduction/review of digital citizenship) and properly embedding their references in their writing.  Also, e-mails and texts (and now tweets) from recent graduates have uniformly expressed gratitude for making them master the basics of researching a wide variety of sources and properly citing them in their work -- one student wrote, in a text, "that crap you made us learn has been very useful."  However, I am still left to wonder if they're honest or just well-versed because they invariably also lament the uselessness of their course-work in university, suggesting a loss of intellectual curiosity.

It's hard to evaluate how effectively I have embedded a respect for intellectual property in my students, and (much more importantly) how seriously they will take the love of learning they showed me in my classroom to their post-secondary studies. 

I sit here now, a bit shaken.  How can I be sure that one of my main objectives, a love of learning, is being achieved beyond the walls of my classroom?  I remember, myself, the struggle it was to remain curious about literature and history when so many of my professors seemed intent on crushing any attempts to deviate from the curricular norm.  I don't mean to blame universities, but am I missing something important in my gloomy vision?

**sigh**

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Global Perspective -- is it taught or learned?

One of my students recently reflected, "if I did not have access to the internet for sources that are not available through the text or other books...I would be concerned whether or not I would have enough sources to represent the world in the my assignment."

Clearly, this student is aware of the need to explore multiple perspectives on a global scale.  The question I ask is, are we teaching this behaviour or are students learning it by being connected in manners that amaze and frighten us? 

The student I have quoted is new to me, and to my school; I will apparently teach this person very little about the importance of global thinking, though I aim to help the entire class improve their critical thinking and inductive/deductive reasoning. How did this young person reach such conclusions about the value of online sources?  Was it the work of teachers at the local Junior High School (a highly skilled and effective group of teachers, despite their distaste for web 2.0 in the classroom)?  Was it playing online games (you know, the violent and socially distorted kind)?  Is the learning a result of wide exposure on Facebook?  Most of the students I teach have been connected since they learned to operate a mouse, so maybe I should be thanking parents for guiding their child's learning.

It's a wide open world, more now than ever, and more students entering my classroom with an embedded sense of global perspectives makes my job easier and allows for more time spent on discovery, rather than instruction.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

I've learned a lot about teaching from coaching, and a lot about coaching from teaching.  From both, I've learned to be a better referee.  And, becoming a better referee on the basketball court has made me a much better teacher.

So, here are the top five things I've learned about teaching from sports:

1) It is not possible for everyone to do everything at the same level.  It is our job to identify each child's strengths with them, and help them see how their strengths can be beneficial, to themselves and others.  Furthermore, our job includes helping each child further develop their strengths, as well as overcoming their areas of weakness.  Our goal is not uniform excellence, but excellence -- this is different for all learners.

2) Very often, we see the reaction, not the instigation, and end up punishing the victim severely, since the reaction is usually an escalation from the instigation.  It is our job to be aware enough to recognize a retaliatory action (better yet, see the instigation before there is a retaliation), and address both parties involved more fairly.  This does not guarantee freedom from discipline for those who retaliate, but all will see that we are trying to address the whole problem, not just the last person to act.

3) Some children are inspired by defeat, others are crushed by failure.  Those who are inspired are easy to teach -- they will always look for a path to success.  Those who are crushed believe failure is bad, that it is a measure of their worth -- they must be taught that failure is a necessary part of success, that our reaction to failure determines our fates.  All children, however, will learn more from failure/defeat than from success -- if they understand that learning does not come from easy successes, but difficult challenges.

4) Parents don't really understand why you're doing what you do.  Everybody believes they understand the job: the drive to find success in every student; the belief in the inherent ability of every student who enters the room; the desire to leave every student's mind fulfilled.  They don't, though.  Many will challenge what you do and how you do it -- your methods, your values, your evaluations, your assessments, your learning tasks -- because they do not understand that you are trying to meet the needs of all learners and that their child is as special as every other child in your heart.  They cannot understand this because, like fan-parents or player-parents, they only see their child and are blind to the experiences of others' children.  This is not a bad thing -- parents must protect their children from perceived harm.  Do not, however, question yourself only because of the loudest voices in the room.  Question yourself daily because some kids are struggling daily.

5) The reward is not measured by money or promotion.  The most rewarding experiences are rarely recognized outside of those most directly and intimately involved.  Only the student and their teacher know if they've truly met their potential, and we don't need the student to tell us their grateful to reap the benefits of knowing success.  (Note: I learned this as an athlete too)  Doing well is innately reward enough because we know when we've reached the highest levels of success we are capable of reaching.

Teach, coach, ref...it's all the same to me.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Well, Here We Go...

I started this blog last February, mostly because I was making my students create a blog and I felt it important to model the kind of writing I expected to see.  My first post mirrored the assignment I gave them: to explain their blog's theme as stated in the name they gave to their blog site. 

I explained that my blog is named for something Nelson Mandela wrote in his autobiography, in which he explains that none of us are free until we actively attempt to "enhance the freedom of others."

Now, on the precipice of a new school year, I find myself revisiting that concept as I plan for my new students.  I've spent most of this week wondering if I'm preparing lessons and assignments that will encourage them to explore beyond the boundaries of textbooks and tests, if I'm ready to accept student work which may demonstrate knowledge and skills other than those I intended to assess, if I'm as capable as I'd like of guiding my students towards our learning goals without forcing them to take a prescribed path.

I suppose questioning my efforts is good for my teaching, in that it helps keep me focused on the aspects of teaching and learning that are important to me, but I sure could use a couple of Tums right now.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

The End of the Beginning -- saying farewell to the class of 2010

Well, here we are.  Most of you have endured two full years in my classroom; Laura, Peter and Avery, the new kids, you have earned your place in this august group of learners and scalliwags.  All of you have made lasting impressions on my teaching and, more importantly, the way I see the world.

In no particular order, I want to thank you (all, some, one of you):

- for always reminding me that the world is an odd place in which the things we do can be perceived far differently than we ever imagined.
- for showing all of us that life needs balance
- for reminding me, nearly every day, that time is an illusion that should not be the first measure of quality.
- for showing me that patience is often its own reward.
- for seeking answers, even when they weren't forthcoming, and forcing me to listen to my own words
- for demonstrating that the pursuit of excellence is not a goal unto itself, but a product of higher aspirations.
- for pursuing excellence without the outward appearance of stress
- for showing dilligence in difficult tasks, and striving to learn in all things
- for reminding me that art carries the weight of many words
- for forcing me to reflect on my own values, and challenging to me recognize the importance of perceptions
- for proving daily that stereotypes have no place in this world
- for bursting out in laughter, or causing a burst of hilarity at the most inopportune times; I needed most of those laughs, even when I wasn't laughing.
- for your determined commitment to the slacker image, and your often unappreciated humour.
- for relentlessly pursuing excellence, and remaining surprised at your successes.
- for rising to new challenges, and occasionally surprising yourself.
- for eloquent written ideas, and questions which, though not plentiful, often made me stop to think.
- for listening to a crazy man's suggestion and proving him reasonably perceptive.
- for always expecting more from yourself than I have any reasonable cause to demand.
- for being your best version of you without heed for the expectations or restrictions of a silly world's requirements.
- for showing me that literature captures the soul, sometimes, but not always when I say it should.
- for teaching me that strength is mostly internal, and excellence is a commitment.

All of you deserve greatness, though only some of you will be recognized for your achievments here, and there (wherever your lives may take you).  I hope you are comfortable with the knowledge that I admire all of you for your efforts in my class, for your representation of our school and its Humanities program, for your activities beyond the classroom and beyond the school, and for the people you are becoming.  You are, as I hope I have said often enough, excellent representations of all that is right with your generation.

I do not need to wish you success, because you will all achieve some form of this -- in your personal lives, in your careers, in your public activities.  Rather, I wish you all greatness; not the kind that receives awards or notoriety or fame, but the kind of greatness that allows you to sit back many years from now and sigh contendedly with the knowledge that you have done so well, in that one thing you care about, that any accolades you may or not receive pale in comparison to the satisfaction you have taken from the effort required to attempt the doing.

Go forth and make a great noise! And, may you all achieve the greatness you deserve.

Sincerely, and with much admiration,

Steve I. Kabachia
LCHS Humanities

Thursday, April 15, 2010

What's a Diploma Exam Worth?

Having just completed the ELA 30 diploma exam with my Humanities students, I am once again drawn to wondering about the usefulness of a standardized English exam.  While Alberta Education consistently produces quality exams testing students' ability to read, comprehend, analyze, make personal connections, think critically, organize ideas and control language, the diploma exam itself contradicts other aspects of the program of studies. 

For example, revision and editing are nearly impossible in a timed exam situation.  Research and resource management are ignored, though these skills will be used for the rest of a student's life, especially in a post-secondary setting.  Collaboration, forget it, but that's okay; it's not like any employer expects you to share resources and ideas with other people while collectively working productively, right?  I know universities like diploma exams because they verify or correct the grades students receive from their teachers, but don't universities want to know how effectively their prospective students research, or manage resources, or collaborate with other students, or how well someone evaluates their own work in order improve the final draft?

Perhaps I'm wrong here, but a standardized English exam that only tests reading and writing in limited forms is not really an examination of a student's ability to understand, create and communicate meaning.  It is, however, a handy way to generate data measuring student success on one occasion (actually two, since the exam is split in two parts, written 12 days apart).

Sigh.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Culture of Creativity

Is a new work only creative if it does not bear any resemblance to existing work?   Many people would answer in the affirmative; after all, if you borrow someone else's ideas are you not guilty of copyright infringement or, as a student, plagiarism?

I wonder what an author like Shakespeare would say to that.  After all, his famous love story, Romeo and Juliet, is based on Arthur Brooke's poem, The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet, which ends when Romeo "drinks his bane. and she with Romeus' knife, when she awakes, herself, alas! she slay'th."  In fact, many of Shakespeare's tragedies are reworkings of stories written by other people.  Brooke published his poem two years before Shakespeare was born.  Macbeth and Hamlet were based on Scottish and Danish legend respectively.  However, in English literature, Shakespeare is hailed as our greatest playwrite and poet, and his plays continue to be performed on stage and in film.

This does not mean that I accept outright plagiarism, presenting the words or ideas of another as your own.  However, I do not believe that we should decry the reworking of existing literature or music or art, which brings me to Larry Lessig, a professor of law at Stanford University.

In his Ted Talk, he explains how copyright law is used to stifle creativity in our youth.  He believes that, by criminalizing the sharing of music and remixing of existing work, we stifle the tendency of young people to use existing art (musically or visually) to present new ideas in engaging formats.  Like the generations before us, we see how young people use technology and we are afraid because "we have to recognize [you] are different from us. We watched TV, [you] make TV as we see what technology can do.. we can't kill the instinct technology produces, we can't make [you] passive we can only make [you] pirates...[you] live life knowing [you] live life against the law."  Because society forgets what it's like to be young, we punish our youth for taking our work and making it better in innovative ways.

As an aside, note how he uses powerpoint in his presentation.  Each slide uses an image or a minimum of language to express entire ideas as he verbalizes each concept -- brilliant!



Larry Lessig on Laws that Choke Creativity ( 2007) TED: Ideas Worth Spreading. Ted Conferences LLC. Retrieved 16 March 2010 from the Internet: http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/larry_lessig_says_the_law_is_strangling_creativity.html

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Creativity in the classroom


The effect I have on students, in relation to the theme of this page, demands that I consider their creativity and provide opportunities for that creativity to develop and be demonstrated in their learning.  As Humanities students you probably know this best since many of your assignments do not tell you how your response should be formatted.  I know this often frustrates you guys -- you want to know what I want or exactly what is expected.  However, like Ken Robinson in the video above, I want to cultivate creative thinkers, not just regurgitating automatons.  To allow my students to escape the creative process would violate my commitment to protecting the freedom of others.  I will encourage creativity in my students, as often as possible, because you have the right to determine how to best express your knowledge and understanding.  To knowingly and willingly suppress this right would affect your willingness to learn freely, and in the spirit of Elizabeth Gilbert in the following video, I am firmly against ruining genius because I don't understand it. 

In the end, I want your mark to become secondary to what you take away from this course in the form of knowledge, skill and understanding.  I want each of you to understand yourselves in relation to the world (today, historically, and in the future) and be able to explain what you know in a manner that best reflects your strengths.  No percentage score can accurately depict that kind of smart.



Note: both of these videos are taken from TED.com
Ken Robinson Says Schools Kill Creativity. (2006) TED: Ideas Worth Spreading. Ted Conferences LLC. Retrieved 22 February 2010 from the Internet: http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/ken_robinson_says_schools_kill_creativity.html

Elizabeth Gilbert on Nurturing Creativity. (2009) TED: Ideas Worth Spreading. Ted Conferences LLC. Retrieved 23 February 2010 from the Internet: http://www.ted.com/talks/elizabeth_gilbert_on_genius.html

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Elusive Nature of Freedom


Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison before being elected South Africa's first Black president. In his autobiography, he wrote:
"I am not truly free if I am taking away someone else's freedom, just as surely as I am not free when my freedom is taken from me. The oppressed and the oppressor alike are robbed of their humanity...to be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that enhances the freedom of others." (Mandela, 1995)

His words initially struck a chord with me for two reasons. First, prior to his imprisonment, he advocated violence against a regime that denied his humanity and oppressed its own citizens based on their ethnicity. Upon his release, he immediately returned to advocating peaceful change, harbouring no desires for vengeance or payback. Second, he empathizes with those who oppressed him as a young man and those who imprisoned him through most of his adult life. He insisted in his biography, and as president, that there was nothing to gain by punishing those who participated in the system of Apartheid.

I am inspired, therefore, by his ability to endure a lifetime of imprisonment, both physical and societal, including periods of torture, without carrying any signs of bitterness for his oppressors. His words remind me that my freedom in Canada is not prescribed by our legislation, but by actions toward others. If we fail to support the rights of others, at any time - in any place, our own freedom becomes elusive.

Mandela, N. 1995. Long Walk to Freedom. New York: Little, Brown & Co.