Thursday, 25 August 2016

Don't ask your kids "How was school today?"

During the past twenty years of my teaching career, communicating with parents has become increasingly easier. In part, this is because experience has made me better at it. However, it is also because there are more quality online tools (and more parents who have access to communication technology).

Class Dojo is perfect for my Junior aged classroom and teachers in primary classes are exploring online portfolios through SeeSaw. Intermediate and Senior teachers find utility in programs like Edmettle or Remind.

However, invariably, the dreaded telephone call is a necessary means to an end. I do try to sprinkle in sunshine calls throughout the year to celebrate student achievements but, that is usually covered by my daily Class Story picture and update on Class Dojo. So, if I am calling home - it is probably to help problem solve a situation that, despite our best efforts, the student and I have not been able to resolve on our own.

Sometimes, the parent is expecting the phone call. That is always a relief and typically expedites the problem solving process. More often, parents are surprised by the phone call. That is not an indictment of their parenting - I get it - life is busy for all of us. Furthermore, it is my responsibility to keep them informed about their student’s progress. When I do reach a parent who is unaware of a problem, I frequently hear the following statement…

“I ask him every day - “How was school?” and he always says “Good.”

I can relate to their concerns. They feel they have been duped. Parents, like all of us, lead busy lives and they rely on their children to keep them informed about the day-to-day events at school. A blanket statement like “How was school?” is a parent’s way of quickly checking in.

I offer the following advice. Banish that statement.

It affords a child a one word response and, in the event that things are not going well, they escape the conversation and continue to fly under the radar. I’ll admit, I used the same tactic with my parents when they questioned me 30+ years ago - especially when I went through my skip classes to hang out at the mall phase in Grade 12.

Instead, may I offer these ten probing questions that you can ask your child. Each requiring a deeper, more meaningful response.

1./ What are you learning in math this week? Is it easy or hard? Can you give me an example of a question and show me how you solve it?

2./ What skills or games are you learning in gym? What do you like about them? What would you change to make them better?

3./ Is your teacher reading a book aloud to you this week? What book is it? Tell me about the story?

4./ Tell me about the last thing you wrote for your teacher? What made it easy or hard? Can you show it to me?

5./ Are you doing any science these days? Can you tell me three facts you learned in science?

6./ Are you doing any social studies these days? What is the coolest new thing you learned?

7./ Who did you have lunch with today? Tell me about your favourite friends at school? Is there anyone you are having trouble getting along with?

8./ What would you like your teacher to change? Is there something that could be done better? Do you want to write to them about it? I’ll help you with it.

9./ Have you been working on any drama, dance or art lately? Are you learning a new song to play or sing?

10./ Can you teach me 5 new words you have learned in French?

If you find that, on a regular basis, you can not get a good, quality response from your student. It is time to contact the teacher. There are a host of reasons why this may be the case and a meeting with your child and the teacher will get to the root of it quickly.

A final, additional benefit is this type of conversation is that it helps your student crystallize his understanding of new information learned at school. If he is asked to summarize facts or demonstrate skills from the day and explain them in detail - he is more likely to retain the information in the near future.

Here are the questions in a printable version that is perfect for hanging on the fridge. Good luck. Have a great year!

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Wile E. Coyote - Computational Thinking Genius

Throughout the summer, I have been trying to learn more about computational thinking. It is a commitment I made to myself, and my peers, when we applied for a grant through the Teacher Learning and Leadership Program (TLLP). I detail the first steps in that journey here. Computational thinking is a way of approaching problems using key fundamentals from the computer sciences. A comprehensive explanation of it can be found at this site but, simplified, it typically involves decomposing a problem in order to see patterns that can then be used to create a method (or algorithm) for solving other similar problems. My team and I are attempting to “investigate ways that students can use computational thinking, across the curriculum, to problem solve, create and remix - maximizing available technology.” At least, that is a quick “elevator pitch” of our goal.
I have been learning a lot about coding - the lessons available at, Code Monkey and Scratch have been invaluable … and a lot of fun. The connections to math and science are easy and obvious.  However, I did want to put more thought into how I might introduce computational thinking into my teaching of both art and literacy. Eventually, a podcast led me to an unexpected revelation  - The cartoon team of Wile E. Coyote and his fleet-footed nemesis Roadrunner. It struck me that this classic Loony Tunes cartoon could be used to help teach both minimalism and writing within a framework. This is because each episode of the cartoon existed in a universe governed by a specific set of rules. Eleven, well articulated guidelines developed by the show's creator and animation director Chuck Jones to be followed by his writers.  

The rules were as follows:

1. The Road Runner cannot harm the Coyote except by going "meep, meep."
2. No outside force can harm the Coyote -- only his own ineptitude or the failure of ACME products. Trains and trucks were the exception from time to time.
3. The Coyote could stop anytime -- if he were not a fanatic.
4. No dialogue ever, except "meep, meep" and yowling in pain.
5. The Road Runner must stay on the road -- for no other reason than that he's a roadrunner.
6. All action must be confined to the natural environment of the two characters -- the southwest American desert.
7. All tools, weapons, or mechanical conveniences must be obtained from the ACME Corporation.
8. Whenever possible, make gravity the Coyote's greatest enemy.
9. The Coyote is always more humiliated than harmed by his failures.
10. The audience's sympathy must remain with the Coyote.
11. The Coyote is not allowed to catch or eat the Road Runner.

So, here is my idea for a couple lessons and a culminating activity

The students and I could start by exploring the art work of well known minimalists (perhaps a few paintings by Yves Klein and Barnett Newman). Without introducing the term, minimalism, I will allow the students to decompose the art form to discover its essential elements. This interactive Google Slide could be shared with small groups for inquiry and discussion.

This will lead us to a brief discussion of minimalism - perhaps even investigating the music of modern composer Phillip Glass - and organize the rules that these artists embrace.

Once we have explored the elements of minimalism we will view two or three cartoons featuring Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner. The students will work in groups to determine the rules that they feel govern this cartoon world. I suspect that, after we debrief as a class and share our findings, we will uncover most of these rules through our own inquiry.

Students can now be tasked with writing their own episode - using either a script, storyboard or live tableaux format - respecting the rules decreed by Chuck Jones. As a group, they will present their script to the class. I will encourage them to explore as many Rube Goldberg-style devices as possible as their Wile E. Coyote character exhausts the warehouses at the ACME corporation. This video by the band OK GO is an additional way to introduce Rube Goldberg.

It will take a few test runs to formalize the efficacy of this series of lessons and activities. I will also fine tune it with the help of my TLLP team. In the end, I hope this serves to connect Computational Thinking to several Art Strands (Visual, Musical, Dramatic) and Literacy strands (Writing, Story Boarding, Oral Presentation) from the Ontario Curriculum.

As a side note, the funny pseudo-Latin names given to our titular characters (carnivorous vulgarus & acceleratii incredibus respectively) leads nicely into Grade 6 Science - Life Systems)

Monday, 8 August 2016

Tonight, The Tragically Hip perform in my hometown of London, Ontario for the last time. I don’t have tickets. They proved too hard to secure through Ticketmaster and then, when made available through secondary providers like Stub-Hub, they were far too expensive. That’s okay. I’ve seen them several times and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) will be broadcasting their final show live on August 20. Fittingly, it will be performed in the band’s hometown of Kingston, Ontario. Lead singer and lyricist Gord Downie was diagnosed with glioblastoma  - a terminal form of brain cancer  earlier this year. Consequently, this 2 month tour of Canada will be the band’s swan song.

I have always been a fan of “The Hip”. They were pure Canadiana and the riff-heavy “New Orleans is Sinking” was a staple on numerous mixed-tapes I made in the 80’s. However, over the past few weeks, I have been reminded how significant they were in the soundtrack of my 20's & 30's. I like a lot of music and my tastes are eclectic. Since escaping the tunnel-vision mindset of my youth, I have lived by the mantra that all music has value. (Well, all music that is made earnestly and passionately is of value.) Consequently, I listen to everything with an open mind and I don’t participate in Kanye, Nickleback or Bieber bashing. I simply gravitate toward the things I like most and The Hip has always had a place within that inner circle.

My first encounter with The Hip was entirely forgettable. It was the late 80’s and they were playing at a London bar called Call the Office. I was there, visiting with a friend who was about to board a train to Toronto. I paid no attention to them at all (a great regret). It was only their memorable name and later success that informs me that the event even took place. I vaguely remember wandering past the stage to use the bathroom. I am pretty sure they were playing a cover song - but, I cannot remember which one. I even left early - probably before the first set was completed.

It would be 1996 before I saw them again. I got tickets to the show at Cobo Hall in Detroit, Michigan. This would be the performance that was recorded for their live album “Live Between Us”. It was a fantastic show that was overshadowed by the theft of my wallet. I had placed my jacket under my seat, not realizing that there was access to it from the walkway behind me. It was frustrating but, not costly. I was out about $100. This was pre-9/11, so I breezed back into Canada without any identification. Simpler times. Now, when I listen to that live album I find myself preoccupied with the thought - “Was it during this song that the jerk took my wallet?”

In the last 20 years, I have only managed to see them a couple times more. I guess, like many, I assumed that I could always catch them on the next summer tour. Like warm weather, flip-flops, girls in sundresses and Dave Matthews - they are a mainstay of July and August in Canada.

I've always been a lyrics guy and Gord's poetry was, and is, a treasure for me to discover - again and again. It will always remain a gift that continues to give. I am still unwrapping rich, new substance in his words. From the haunting simplicity of “Wheat Kings” to the layered complexity of “Nautical Disaster” and even the clever humour of “Poets”, Gord created a tapestry of words that were both accessible and capacious. I loved that there was so much Canadiana in his writing. Gord found touchstones of my beautiful country in both familiar and obscure references that, for inexplicable reasons, resonate profoundly with me. Bobcaygeon, Bill Barilko, David Milgaard, Millhaven Maximum Security - Gord transported me to a place or time in Canada where I had never been and yet, felt like I knew.

I’ve been revisiting a lot of the band’s catalogue in the past few months. Gord’s lyrics take on a special power and significance when viewed through this current, tragic lens. I keep coming back to the song “Ahead by a Century” from the 1996 album “Welcome to the Hen House”. Twenty years ago, when I (foolishly in retrospect) felt like an old man, this song resonated in a powerful way. Today, the lyrics take on new significance in light of the situation in which I find myself - watching a gifted performer and writer say goodbye.

First thing we'd climb a tree and maybe then we'd talk,
Or sit silently and listen to our thoughts.
With illusions of someday casting a golden light,
No dress rehearsal, this is our life.

Thank you Gord.
May the road ahead be kind to you.