Monday, 14 May 2018

My Mother's Influence on my Profession

At this point in my career, my practice is the product of many influences.

  • I have been guided by mentors, colleagues, administrators and students.
  • I am the sum of all my opportunities, from my early days on the supply list to my current role as an instructional coach.
  • I am shaped by my studies - from formal education to daily blasts of learning from my Twitter PLN (Professional Learning Network).

However, I have to give a nod to the influences that have been there for my entire life. Specifically, on the occasion of Mother's Day, my mum Doreen Hodgkinson (Sutcliffe).

My mom us responsible for so many things that shape me as an educator. I'd like to highlight just a couple.
  • From an early age, I was taking to the library regularly and she fostered my love of literature. She let me know that there was a world of wonder to be found in books and that it was up to me to uncover it. She read to me regularly, bringing the text to life with dramatic flare. She only stopped reading to me when I informed her that I preferred to read by myself - I sometimes wonder if this was something she viewed with relief, or sadness (probably a mix of both). When I embark on a read aloud (especially of a book I have read before) I remind myself of the need for panache - and I employ all the tricks of the trade - whether the text calls for a booming Scottish brogue or a meek and mousy whisper.
  • She took me (and still takes me) to the theatre. We attended everything from high school to amateur to top level professional productions. I was fortunate to see an eclectic mix - dramas, comedies, musicals and dance performances. I was introduced to "The Hobbit" as a play before I devoured it as a book. I learned about Canadian First Nation history by attending a performance of James Reaney's "Wacousta" at a time I was just old enough to understand it. I even intervened during a performance of "Pinocchio" when the titular character called to the audience for help. She is still a season ticket holder at the Grand Theatre - and she takes me to every performance. My love of theatre, as a performer, audience member and educator, can be traced directly to my earliest exposure.
  • She taught me about equality at a time when that was a message that I didn't always hear around me. It was the 1970's and racist or homophobic slurs were far more commonplace. However, my moral compass had already been well tuned by my mother's frequent statements about respect for all people. I wasn't perfect - I certainly said things that I now deeply regret. However, when I slipped, I knew in my heart that "my mother wouldn't agree" and that "this was not right". I eventually began to gravitate toward friends who felt like I did and helped me act like I should. She often said that "your friends should elevate you - and make you your best." I took this to heart and have lifelong friends who are kind, honest & generous.
  • She taught me that everyone deserves a second chance. She worked as the volunteer coordinator at the maximum security prison in London and at a number of group homes (mainly for young women). She approached every day with a positive attitude and the sincere belief that people could change - if given the chance and had a kind mentor to guide them. She even brought a former inmate to our home to spend Christmas with our family. A person who had no other positive options available to him. That decision has always stuck with me.
I  could go on, but I think those are the big four. Thanks mom, for helping me become a better person and for inspiring me to make a difference in the lives of others. Happy Mother's Day.

I'd love to hear how other's were inspired by their parents - I'll write about my dad next month.

Friday, 13 April 2018

Updating a dated Unit - "Lost" Part Two

In a recent post, I talked about my efforts to re-launch a highly engaging, cross-curricular unit built around the first season of the television program "Lost". As I mentioned, at least four Transition Years (Grade 7 & 8) teachers were intrigued. However, to seal the deal, I would need to organize and present a massive unit to them in a way that was manageable. In order to do this, I would need to search my storage area (where all of my "teacher supplies" are currently housed, anxiously awaiting my return to the classroom) for a big box labeled: "Lost" Stuff. Additionally, I would need to collate dozens of computer files that contained the lessons that would build this unit. Fortunately, it was March Break.

The Roadblock

Here was the problem. I hadn't looked at the unit since leaving Grade 8 in 2011, to teach the Junior division (Grade 4-6) at another school. Additionally, our board had moved from the early 2K Corel Suite (WordPerfect, Excel, Quattro Pro) to Microsoft Office (Word, Powerpoint, Excel) to the Google Suite (Docs, Slides, Sheets). Consequently, any document I had saved needed to be converted...but...our school computers no longer supported the format in which it had been  saved.

The Detour

My old Dell laptop (circa 2007) had been gathering dust for about 4 years (coinciding with the time I got my first Chromebook). It still had Corel programs installed on it; so, I could access the files and convert them to .PDF which could be uploaded to my Google Drive. Unfortunately, none of the "Presentation" files could be converted to Google Slides - so that was frustrating. Consequently, this was a time consuming (albeit pleasurable) grind. It did, however, give me a chance to reflect on the type of educator I was in 2010 and the type I am learning to be now.
  • How could I upgrade these activities to reflect the technology that is available to me and students in 2018? PadletFlipgridKahootEdmodo etc.
  • How could I adapt these lessons to take full advantage of the Google Suite? Not just Slides - but Blogger and Google Sites.
  • How could I connect these lessons to the  Rethink Secondary vision that we want, in order to prepare our Transition Year students to embrace Global Competencies - skills that will be invaluable in their future?
  • If I get more than one class from more than one school to participate, how do I get them to share their writing and thinking with each other? How do I create an authentic (not just the teacher) audience for these students? 

The Finish Line

My goals are to ...
  1. Update this unit for 21st Century utility - connecting it to meaningful (and engaging) technological approaches to learning.
  2. Connect it intentionally to the (revised) Ontario Curriculum (particularly in Math & Language).
  3. Get a group of teachers to embrace it - with my support (justifying my time in my current role).
  4. Roll it out successfully to over 80 grade 7 & 8 students.
Then... I might have the makings of a blog series (perhaps book and updated workshop*) that could be presented to other educators.

In my next post - I will discuss my use of this unit to secure my Master's Degree - and the stats I wish I had gathered.

 *NB: I have presented this at day long ETFO workshops in the past (2008-2010) - but not with this new 21st Century direction.

Sunday, 8 April 2018

It's not about the floor

Recently, I heard an story from writer David Mandel (Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Veep) about his time on Saturday Night Live in the mid-90's. Nicole Kidman, who was married to Tom Cruise at the time, was hosting and Mandel was tasked with writing her monologue.

He decided on a premise where she took questions from the "audience" (which was populated with cast members or writers as "plants".) Every question would be about Cruise (who, arguably, was the biggest blockbuster star of the day.) After the 3rd or 4th question about Cruise, Kidman would run off stage in frustration. Moments later, she would reappear, dramatically sliding across the stage while wearing only a man's white dress shirt, boxers and a pair of white socks - a look made famous by Cruise in his 1983 film "Risky Business". She would then recreate the dance scene from the movie, complete with couch and trophy microphone.

However, the real story took place during the week preceding the live broadcast of the show. According to Mandel, Kidman approached him on multiple occasions to express her concern about the wax on the stage. She was quite worried that she would slip and fall because of the socks and the waxy floor. Mandel took her concerns seriously and consulted with producers, directors, stage hands, custodial staff, costume makers and even stunt coordinators to ensure her safety. Socks were tested, waxes were evaluated, the stage was inspected - regardless, Kidman continued to become increasingly nervous that the sketch was a bad idea.

Just as Mandel was about to scrap the plan and return to his writing desk to pen a new monologue, Kidman's personal assistant caught wind of the situation and approached him. Quietly she said, "It's not about the floor - she's just really nervous about performing on live television. It'll be fine."

That story stuck with me because I recognized its application to my profession. When dealing with a student who is angry, rude, confrontational, oppositional, even violent; it is important to remember that it often has nothing to do with the things that seem the most likely triggers, or even the things that they say are bothering them.  There are a host of other questions you need to consider.

Are they hungry?
Are they tired?
Are they feeling unloved?
Are they feeling vulnerable?
Are they frightened?

Likely, it isn't something that can be solved quickly or easily, regardless of the help you might enlist from those around you. Sometimes, it's just about being patient and kind...and listening. Sometimes it is about realizing...

"It's not about the floor". 

Thursday, 5 April 2018

Lost - The Pitch

In Medias Res

This is Part One to a series of posts I hope to complete about my journey to explore the first season of the television program "Lost" with Grade 7/8 teachers and their 12-14 year old students in the spring of 2018. Spoiler: I am in the middle of it as I write - and I am having some success. Hope you will join me on this journey....(cue "Lost" Intro Music)

I had a problem I needed to resolve.

I was in my 7th month as an Instructional Coach to four schools, and I was not getting into enough Transition Years (Grade 7 & 8) classrooms. I am not saying I was never getting opportunities to work with these classes. I had done some coding and a little math with a couple groups and two of the teachers had embraced my Football Pool approach to Data Management. However, there were several TY classes I had not worked with, and I knew it was important for me to make connections with these teachers - particularly if I was going to stay in this role for up to three more years. I realized that it was up to me to remedy this. I needed to make these connections.

I caught a break.

I was asked by two principals to present some professional development I had received on efficient decomposition strategies (for large numbers and fractions). The schedule gave me the chance to work directly with TY teachers, which allowed me to network. The sessions seemed to be well received and this gave me my opportunity to make a pitch.

Lead with a good story.

When I taught Grade 7 and/or 8 in the late aughts (2005-2010) I began to make use of the first season of the television show "Lost" as anchor for a multitude of cross-curricular expectations. I recognized, as I was watching it, that it had great utility as a vehicle for student engagement. My hunch was quickly supported: my students absolutely loved the series.

There were two clear byproducts of this success. 

  • Improved attendance: I had been teaching at a school where punctuality & attendance (both physical and mental) was often an issue. This was particularly true in the more senior grades. Additionally, some students took great liberty with permissive parents who allowed them to leave early if they were "feeling sick" - even when they regularly had miraculous recoveries in time to meet their friends at dismissal. The "Lost" unit remedied this in a number of ways. First, absenteeism dropped and punctuality improved. Second, students began to engage more in class discussions and curriculum based activities. Finally, spontaneous departures due to unexpected illness, showed a steady decline. I began to get used to the question: "Mr. H. - are we doing some "Lost" stuff today?"  "Of course," I would confidently say and, over the course of the few years I ran the unit, I found more ways to connect the series to curriculum expectations in as many areas of study as I could.
  • Improved performance: I would not say that the unit was a panacea to the academic malaise that infects many adolescent writers, readers, mathematicians & oral communicators. It did, however, help many show significant improvement. Students embraced new language and invested more meaningfully in heady discussions. They willingly engaged in purposeful and respectful deliberation around rich & mature topics that challenged a black & white reality they may have accepted for years. These moments were powerful and felt important. They were certainly rewarding to experience as an educator.
These realizations would also become the backbone for my Masters' research - but that is a discussion for a future blog.

So, I made my pitch.

Through conversation, and email, I began to sell my idea - with great enthusiasm. Four teachers expressed interest in hearing more. However, March Break was upon us. This was fortunate, because I had another hurdle to overcome.

More on that next time.

(Cue Cliffhanger "Lost" End Credit Card.)

Tuesday, 3 April 2018

OK GO - Rube Goldberg in the Grade 5 classroom.

In January, while writing my #OneWord blog post, I made a commitment to contribute 24 articles to this site by the end of the year. I started well, putting two up in the first 14 days of the year. Since then .... crickets.

I know that my new role as an Instructional Coach is getting in the way. I have spent much of my time reading and learning in order to better understand the curriculum (particularly in the Primary grades). Additionally, I am taking a Leadership course, offered by my Board as well as being part of a Crucial Conversations study group with other 1st year coaches.

However, I’m taking some time today to share an idea that came to me while working with a Grade 5 teacher during a Science period.

He was tackling some concepts from “Understanding Structures and Mechanisms - Forces” section of the Ontario Curriculum (p.100-101). Prior to meeting with the students I told him about a great video by the band OK GO called "This Too Shall Pass". In the video, the band members move around an elaborate, warehouse-sized Rube Goldberg machine while singing the song. I have used it in the past to introduce the idea of a deliberately complex contraption that serves a simple task. My students have, in the past, worked collaboratively to design their own*.

However, as this teacher screened the video for the students, another idea struck me.

  • Why not have the students use the screen capture tool on the Chromebook to identify simple machines in the video? 
  • They could then identify the mechanical advantage as well as the input and output force.
  • Ideally, they would work collaboratively on this Google Slide Deck in order to demonstrate the vocabulary skills associated with this unit - load, friction, tension, torque, etc
  • This could then be presented to their peers, further crystallizing their understanding of these concepts.

I’ve made this link for easier distribution. I have tried to include everything in the slideshow to make this a self-contained lesson. I won’t likely get a chance to try it out this year - but would love to hear from any Grade 5** teachers who do.  

* A colleague at a school in Singapore made use of the EV3 robots. The challenge was to keep a marble in constant motion for the longest time possible.
**There are some Grade 4 connections possible too.

Sunday, 14 January 2018

Gimme Feedback! Getting rid of Marks in Elementary School.

A few years ago, I came to the uncomfortable realization that my evaluation methods were not working. Well, it wasn’t really that they weren’t working - they were generating grades, information and feedback for report cards. They served as a brief and fleeting triumph for students who were already academically successful. However, they were not sparking the growth and progress that I wanted to see in my students - particularly students who struggled academically.

I was trying to do everything right. I had looked over the most recently literature which, In Ontario, is the Growing Success Document. (2010) I reviewed the Seven Fundamental Principles that would “ensure that assessment, evaluation, and reporting are valid and reliable”.( p. 6) I discussed Success Criteria with students based on specific curriculum expectations and, collectively, we built rubrics and settled on “mutually agreed upon timelines” for work completion. Still, I wasn’t seeing the growth that I knew more of my students were able to achieve.

It was around this time that I began to focus on my professional Twitter account. I had been using a personal Twitter account for years (Est. January 5, 2009), but, for the most part, followed Pro Sports Teams, Stand Up Comedians, Musicians and Television Writers and rarely posted. A colleague suggested creating a professional Twitter account (Est. April 24, 2013) and a quality Professional Learning Network (PLN) was growing. I think I followed about 200 people at that time.  Wonderfully, for the first time in my career, a post on Twitter led me to an answer that was so simple that I was a bit frustrated that I had not thought of it myself. Get rid of the marks.

I began to evaluate following these steps:

  1. Continue to build “mutually agreed upon” curriculum driven expectations with students. Make them part of the process of learning from the start. Be sure that the language is “student friendly”.
  2. Give feedback at an approximate midpoint in the activity.
  3. Let the student return to the work in order to take advantage of the feedback.
  4. Have the student self-evaluate.
  5. Conference with the student about the self-evaluation. (a) Be sure to celebrate achievements, (b) Be sure to discuss potential next steps & optionally (c) Agree on report card comments that include a & b.
To help, I began using a No Marks Rubric. Once again, I want to make it clear that  the genesis for the idea was not mine - but from a post on Twitter. I have tried, unsuccessfully, to track down the author of that first post, so I can give the appropriate credit. If it comes to me, I will make the changes here immediately.

However, I have evolved that initial concept over the past four years and a blank copy of my current version is here. It is divided into four columns.
  • The center column is for the expectations
    • Mutually agreed upon with the students.
    • Curriculum connected.
    • Ideally, connected to the 4 categories outlined in the Growing Success Document (p. 17) Thinking, Application, Communication and Knowledge (TACK) or sometimes referred to as  (CAT-K) cat-ka.
  • Immediately to the right, is a narrow column for checkmarks. If the expectation in the cell beside it has been met, the box is checked. If not, it remains unchecked (for now).
  • The left column is broken into cells that match each expectation. It is here that, when necessary, next steps can be written. Sometimes, the expectation has been met and the next step is a suggestion. More often, the next step is a reminder to review the expectation or an idea to prompt additional action.
  • The far right column is a place for celebration.
    • What has been done particularly well?
    • Which things exceeded expectations?
    • What caught the evaluator’s eye as “interesting”, “fun”, “humourous” or “unexpected”?
  • There is space at the top to identify the activity and student. Optionally, a parent signature could be required at the bottom.
Here is an example using Cereal Box Biographies - a Grade 5 cross-curricular activity which draws from expectations in Writing, Reading, Media Literacy, Health & Art curriculum.

Students are asked to ...
  • research a famous person and create an aesthetically appealing, easy to read cereal box biography to share the information. EX: Obama O’s Cereal - detailing life of 44th US President.
  • create a “tag line” for the product. EX: “They’ll give you HOPE!”
  • create a food label replacing the percentage values with personal qualities instead of nutritional facts. (A little math embedded in the activity). EX: Persistence 30% Intelligence 20% etc. Here is a complete example
Some Additional Thoughts (regarding No Marks Rubrics)

Students are quick converts. There are some who persist with the question “What did I get?” and that needs to be met with the responses: “What did you learn? What did you do well? & What could you improve or change?”

Parents sometimes take a little longer - particularly parents who put a high value on grades. Sometimes, a private conversation with them helps. Ask them if they remember their Grade 4 Social Studies mark more than the things they learned in Grade 4 Social Studies ...or perhaps that awesome pyramid they built!

Unfortunately, Ontario report cards still require a grade. Consequently, the teacher is eventually forced to quantify this information and reduce it to a letter (Gr 1-6) or number (Gr 7-8).

Fortunately, report card comments are already done.  The completed rubric allows the Teacher to synthesize statements that are personal, and include both the celebration of work achieved with concrete next steps.

Optionally, the “mark” can be determined with the student present. As I was preparing report cards last May, I had frequent discussions with students about both the comment and the final grade for many of the strands and subjects - Complete transparency and, for some students, the opportunity to make changes.

My hope is that the province makes the bold decision to move away from grades, at least prior to Grade 7. For now, the No Mark Rubric has been a valuable tool in my classroom and has been well received by teachers I meet in my role as instructional coach. I hope it can be useful for you.

Monday, 1 January 2018


2018 arrived quietly for me last night. I was watching “Black Mirror” on Netflix and my wife and I almost missed the turning of the hour...and the year. Thirteen hours later, things are much like the chorus of that popular U2 refrain from "New Year's Day"...quiet.

That is probably for the best as it has given me time to reflect. Over the past week, I have had the opportunity to read a number of excellent #OneWord blog posts from friends, colleagues and members of my Professional Learning Network on Twitter. The #OneWord phenomenon, established in 2009, has become an annual tradition where, instead of making a resolution, a single word is chosen to become a personal mantra for the upcoming year.

OneWord Wall 2017 @ Eagle Heights
Typically, I do not officially select my #Oneword until I return to my classroom and present the concept to my students. Since 2016, I have used it as the first writing challenge of the new year. It is a great opportunity to help them think introspectively, expand their vocabulary and set up a personal mindset for the upcoming months. We also create artistic paper banners for classroom display and learn how to make Twitter banners using Canva and Google Drawings.
In 2016, my #OneWord was Mindfulness. In preparation for this post, I pulled up my lesson plan notes on Google Drive. In them, I noted that I wanted to “slow down and be more mindful of the world around me and my own feelings”. I reinforce the idea that I wanted to “stop myself regularly and enjoy the moments in life through which I am prone to rush." I’ll admit, I wasn’t very successful and I still struggle with this. I am a chronic multi-tasker and, despite the mountains of research to the contrary, I still feel that this benefits me.

In 2017, my #OneWord was Revitalize. Following a health scare in late 2016, I looked toward a new year that included healthier dietary choices, more exercise, a renewed effort at mindfulness and quality time reconnecting with my family, friends and passions. After an unsuccessful attempt in 2016 (due to the aforementioned health scare) I embraced the mile-a day challenge in which one attempts to run 365 miles over the course of the year at an evenly balanced pace. I managed to hit 1000 kilometers (620 miles) on the elliptical and I have noticed significant improvement in my flexibility and strength. My friends and I often remark that we used to exercise for reasons of vanity; now, fitness is entirely about the quality of life in the future.

For 2018, I spent much of today (while multi-tasking through the writing of this article) reflecting on the things that make me happiest. Thoughts turned to the documentary “Happy” (2011) which highlights the importance of looking for happiness through intrinsic sources. It continues, through research and example, to distill the simple elements that can amplify joy. They are: exercising, creating, learning, giving and community. With those ideas in mind, I am selecting the word Cultivate as my #OneWord for 2018  

  • I want to continue to cultivate a healthy lifestyle through better dietary choices. In particular, I want to reduce my carbohydrate intake and increase the number of times I make vegetarian choices at meals. This, in combination with the gym routine I have established should help make me healthier and happier. Maybe even an extra step in my weekly hockey game?
  • I want to cultivate my creative spirit. I have been working on a novel targeted at middle school students and it needs more of my attention in the new year. I intend to write more frequently on this site and I have set a goal of 24 posts for 2018. Well, 23 to go now!
  • I want to cultivate my learning by continuing my professional growth. I am at 54% in my Spanish studies on Duolingo. I would like to finish the program before the end of the year. I will also give more time to my guitar and, when the environment permits, my saxophone playing.
  • I want to cultivate my capacity for giving to my community. I am fortunate to have a job where I work with children on a daily basis. I would like to find a way to give more. There is a quote that I often pin to the top of my Twitter feed: “Treasure relationships, especially family and your obligation is to make a difference in the world and help people that can not help themselves.” I would like to redouble my efforts to this end. I think I’ll begin with those closest to me and then move outward.

Thank You for reading. I hope you have a wonderful 2018.