Wednesday, 6 September 2017

Instructional Coaching Journey - Day 1

Today was the first day of school. This is something I have experienced from both sides of the desk over 40 times. However, for the first time since 1998, I did not begin my day greeting a new group of eager and excited students. Instead, I made a left turn at the end of my driveway and traveled to the Board Office to meet, mingle and learn with an eager and excited group of Instructional Coaches & Math Coordinators. This was the first of many upcoming Professional Development sessions that will help me acclimate and settle in my new role as an Agent of Change for the Thames Valley Board.   

The supervisory team welcomed us with a fun video and a thoughtful treat. In many ways, they demonstrated the collaborative, collegial and professional approach that I hope to present.
Ice Breaker Activity
There was a new twist on an old icebreaker activity. Much like my students, I alternate between liking and loathing these activities. I do enjoy meeting new people and sharing my ideas but, I often find myself caught up in moments of awkward silence at the end of these encounters. More frustrating is being stuck in a veritable "no-man’s-land" between tables and a human log jam, waiting for a chance to move or engage someone else. I know it is in my head - but I always feel utterly graceless and oafish in these moments. I was fortunate today, I was stuck near the snacks and coffee table.

We broke down some numbers from EQAO and solidified our focus as coaches. I summarized it quickly as a personal mission statement and put it at the top of my calendar and into a Canva poster for Social Media. I’m not sure why that works for me. I think it is something about making things concrete for me. It reads as follows “My Focus needs to be intentional & precise, and must be directed toward tangible improvements in Literacy and Mathematics.” I will reflect on it regularly as I move forward.
It is nice to finish at exactly the end of the day. It is also a treat to be able to spend a little time on professional reading & writing. Typically, the first day after school is spent organizing lesson plans and preparing for another hectic and engaging school day. Instead, I did some reading and wrote this reflection. More PD tomorrow.

Saturday, 8 July 2017

Alright, Fair Enough

Recently, I was visiting a friend when a noise erupted from the basement. His children, two young boys, had obviously reached a tipping-point in their play, and a screaming match ensued. Frustrated, he did what I have seen many adults do. He interceded, a little angrily, and the argument stopped.

I’m no stranger to this tactic. I’ve done it many times at school. Two students are in a conflict at recess and, immediately, I default to a well rehearsed proclamation - like a code in a program, randomly selecting a line of script.

“Stop it!”
“Just try to get along.”
“Find someone else to play with”
“You go that way … and you go that way.”

However, I have been thinking about a line from this classic Monty Python sketch

“An argument is an intellectual process”.

Recently, I heard comedian Bill Burr discuss the topic of arguments between friends. He highlighted the power of three words that can bring two sides to a quick and amicable resolution when the exhaustion point in a quarrel is reached.

“Alright. Fair Enough.”

The intersection of these events got me thinking about curriculum and teaching - which might be the mantra of every teacher.

If it is important to learn how to argue, or debate, how can I teach my students (Grade 5 - 8) to do it?
Can I do this in an effective, fun, cross-curricular, & collaborative way?

I’ve decided to call this activity “Fair Enough”.

  • Perhaps, the Monty Python argument sketch could be used as a “Minds On”.
  • Start with a discussion about arguments. Present them as valuable. Make the connection to science, essay writing, political opinion, sports, laws, etc.
  • Allow for Student Voice. Have them Think-Pair-Share stories about arguments they have had, won and/or lost.
  • Talk about the idea of a debate as a formal, respectful exchange of ideas in front of a crowd.
  • Students find partners and choose a pair of opposing topics. I have started a list here, but students can determine their own.
  • Collaboratively (or independently), they prepare their arguments. Depending on age and ability, this could be done as simple point form notes, or as a Ignite or Lightning Talk with a Google Slideshow.
  • Practice time can be provided depending on the desired complexity.
  • Students go head-to-head in front of the class.
  • When ideas have been exhausted, the students look at each other, shrug their shoulders and say “Alright, fair enough.”
  • I’ve included a Google Slide that you can edit for your purposes.

Curriculum & Learning Skill Connections

  • The connections to Oral Language, Literacy and Drama are obvious.
  • I like the idea that we are embracing the importance of an argument as a foundation for progress in our society.
  • I think it connects well to curriculum expectations for writing structure (The five paragraph answer sandwich model).
  • I like that students who are about to argue are encouraged to collaborate to help each other solidify their points and counterpoints.
  • I like that this activity could be unplugged (scrap paper and a pencil) or plugged (Google Slides).
  • I like that there is a safe conclusion for both parties: “Alright, Fair Enough”. This is also a useful social strategy for future arguments.

Hopefully, I can share this lesson with a class next year. I’ll write about the results. If it doesn’t go well...Alright, fair enough.

Thursday, 6 July 2017

#BookSnapping my way into Instructional Coaching

On Friday, June 30, at approximately 8:00 am, I got to the end of my driveway and made a left turn.

This is significant because, for the last six years, the start of my work day has always required a right turn, westbound, to Eagle Heights Public School.

As I made this slight kinesthetic adjustment, a cognitive shift occurred. A new reality became tangible and I drove, east, toward the Board Office, reflecting on my new career path.

I began my first day in a new role as a Teacher on Special Assignment (TOSA) working as an Instructional Coach (IC) with a focus on Literacy and Math with Kindergarten to Grade 8 classes for four schools in our Board.

When asked by friends to describe this role, I have had to rely on my own experiences working with the IC's assigned to my schools. Last April, I accessed release money provided by our Federation (ETFO) and had the chance to “shadow” a colleague, @Kylede08, for half a day. This helped me solidify my understanding.

Recently, I was provided with this article by Heather Wolpert-Gawron called “The Many Roles of an Instructional Coach”. I was asked by the supervisory team to read it and ...

  • Identify three, very important points.
  • Identify a personal “aha” moment.
  • Reflect on how I see this impacting our work (as IC’s) moving forward.

I have decided to use this article as an opportunity to do some professional writing and also to explore the idea of #BookSnaps that I had read about on the @TaraMartinEDUTwitter feed and through her R.E.A.L. Weblog page. #BookSnaps make use of Snapchat and Bitmoji to annotate and share ideas from things that you are reading.

So, here are my “three, very important points” using #BookSnaps.

"The position is defined differently...and attempts to standardize (it) can undermine its effectiveness."
TOSA's don't evaluate teachers/ We're teachers just like them. Through a partnership based on trust & respect...(we) help teachers reach their fullest potential."
"Instructional Coaches...have a lot of insight into the daily victories that occur in all classrooms. He or she would know that photos need to be taken & tweeted for all to see."
My personal “aha” moment came here.

"I use all of the walls and don't have a front of the room, per se."
I had no idea that some Instructional Coaches had access to a classroom where they could set up a flexible seating space for students and teachers to visit. That would be a wonderful situation. Many teachers with whom I speak are interested in moving toward a flexible seating/student centered classroom design. Wouldn’t it be great to provide them, and their students, with an opportunity to experiment with the experience, rather than making a bold and sudden transition.

Here is what I will reflect on as I move forward into this role.

Know your role.
Identify your strengths.
Keep learning.
Model learning.
Enjoy learning.

This is what I am going to focus on next.

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Summer Goals 2017

Last year, I decided to set some fairly lofty S.M.A.R.T. Goals and I made them public through this blog post. I was not successful meeting them all, but it did keep me on track and motivated. As I said last year, “Past summers have taught me that, left to my own devices, I will increasingly accomplish less.” Consequently, I know that I need to put a plan in place before the first week of July ends.

I am moving into a new position with the Board in September. I will be a Teacher On Special Assignment (TOSA) acting in the role of Instructional Coach for four schools in the Zorra Township area of Oxford County.  I attended my first Professional Development at the Thames Valley Board office on Friday, June 30 and got plenty of literature to read over the summer.

Additionally, I will be teaching another three day Summer Academy course, sponsored by the Elementary Teacher’s Federation of Ontario (ETFO). This year, it will be in Toronto at the end of August. My topic is similar to last year, Blending Tech into a Junior Classroom. However, this year I am putting more specific focus on Math and Literacy.

So, my S.M.A.R.T. goals for the Summer of 2017 are…

  • Preparing for the Summer Academy Course I will be presenting (August 22 -24)
  • Reading the books on the list above.
  • Participating in a TOSA Summer Book Study for Trevor Mackenzie’s “Dive into Inquiry” Join us here.
  • 20 minutes of Spanish daily using Rosetta Stone and Duolingo.
  • 2 hours of guitar practice weekly.
  • At least 6 blog entries before September 1st.
  • Continued work with Scratch, Makey Makey, Google CS First and Lego Mindstorm EV3 Robots. Let’s say, 3 hours per week.

Beyond this I want to continue to nurture the important relationships that I have with family and friends. I am planning a 50th birthday celebration for a good friend who will be visiting from Iqaluit, Nunavut in August, so that will keep me busy. I am also going to work hard to maintain a good level of physical fitness through beach walks, kayaking, weight training and a good stretching routine using Fitness Blender.

According to the researchers in The Happy Movie the three keys to achieving life's most important emotion are…

  1. Exercise your mind and your body. Learn every day and challenge yourself physically.
  2. Give of yourself. Be charitable - not just with money, but with your spirit and your talents.
  3. Build and strengthen important relationships.

I think my summer goals are a recipe toward that success.

I look forward to hearing your goals. Share them with the hashtag #Summer17Goals

Monday, 3 July 2017

Keep on Truckin'

On Thursday, June 29, I spent my last day at Eagle Heights Public School as a member of the staff. I walked to school in the morning, leaving early so that I would have time for a coffee and the opportunity to reflect. It was a spectacular morning, with a bright summer sun illuminating an impossibly blue sky. Perhaps, I am romanticizing a typical Ontario morning in June. In retrospect, I think I may be personifying an optimism that I needed to embrace that day.

Many teachers will agree that the final day of a school year brings with it a strange energy - a deliriously heady mix of excitement, nostalgia, anticipation, trepidation and resolution. It is a place of wild dichotomy, where a year’s worth of structure seems to come undone. Emptied desks, blank bulletin boards lead to backpacks stuffed with memories and mementos. An odd community where wild packs of exuberant ten year old boys, drunk with summer excitement, might race past hugging congregations of weeping grade 8 girls, some still clutching day old graduation bouquets.

This year, more than others, my ballasts were swayed by this turbulent sea. Unpredictable waves of wistful reflection and hopeful optimism swept over me throughout the day. At the morning assembly, two of my closest colleagues shared kind and honest words about me as I looked across an ocean of familiar faces. I was suddenly aware of how many students have passed through my class, or been on a team I have coached, during my six year stay.

My current students were wonderfully kind. Their sweet words, hand-written letters and determined hugs were a bittersweet reminder of the change that was ahead. I had a much needed laugh when one student said, “I hope you like your new job, but not too much - and you can come back and teach us in Grade 7”. My wife reminds me that I say this every year...but, they really were a great group of kids who made me a better educator.

The momentary calm after the final dismissal bell was short-lived. Staff members quickly scattered to predetermined locations where they met in groups of four. The annual Eagle Heights Road Rally was about to begin. Our team’s theme was “Sensing the Seventies” and I made the practical decision to dress as a 70’s basketball player because … shorts! My teammates rocked everything from platform shoes to tan coloured cullottes with yellow socks.  
Me and Captain Canada 

We raced around the city (respecting traffic laws, of course) guided by a list of eclectic instructions. This was, in many ways, a recipe for competitive mayhem. We were tasked with gathering as many peculiar items and intentionally choreographed, but comically ludicrous, photographs as we could before travelling to the party headquarters by the 5:30 deadline. It was the perfect distraction.

The evening featured lots of laughter, a great meal, sing-a-longs and speeches. It was a chance to reflect on the past while receiving and sharing well wishes for the future. I left at a reasonable time. A new chapter in my educational career would begin the next day and I wanted to be rested. Even though I am excited about my future, I will miss so much about Eagle Heights. I grew tremendously as an educator and a person over the past six years. I have such great respect for the wonderful colleagues with whom I worked. I am not sure if I conveyed that fully when I made a brief speech after dinner. I guess I am still not sure it has fully registered. I suppose, I'm still adrift, sailing between two ports and adjusting to the winds of change.

Saturday, 24 June 2017

Listen to the Music - Part 2

In my last post, I introduced my approach to music in my classroom and the “eight song bracket challenge” my students and I explore throughout the year. In this writing, I would like to share the story of an unexpected opportunity that resulted in an authentic conversation and a positive outcome.

Recently, the students wanted to look at eight songs by Michael Jackson and have them square off in the challenge.  For fun, I decided to share “Eat it”,  the ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic video lampooning Jackson’s “Beat it”. It was wonderfully well received and I squeezed in a quick lesson on parody, particularly focusing on the notion that the individual being satirized would be more flattered than offended. I currently have a group of boys who have a fascination with “pranking”. They are, as one might expect, still learning that a gag may not always be harmless, or be received as it was intended.

A few weeks later, we watched the “Bad” video - which is actually an 18 minute short film directed by Martin Scorcese. It generated lots of talk. There were some obvious commentary about how it hadn’t aged well, but we also discussed street violence, crime and poverty. We even brushed up against  the idea that we all wear different masks for different people in order to feel safe or belong.

It was around this time that I remembered that ‘Weird Al’ had a parody video called “Fat”. When the video was released, in 1987, I was working as a bartender at a pizza joint. There was an upbeat cook who would parrot lines from the video, peppering them comically into his daily kitchen banter. Consequently, I only remembered the song as being tremendously funny and hysterically quotable.


Thirty years later, I reflected on things differently. The song, although clever, could easily be seen as staggeringly cruel to people who were obese. I realized that endorsing it as “great comedy” would not be appropriate and I debated moving on. However, I also reflected on a mantra from the world of improvisational comedy.

“There are no mistakes, only opportunities”.

I decided to turn the wheel of my pedagogical car into this skid, and embrace this situation head-on. I showed my students the video without giving them any preamble. We then looked over the lyrics. Then we debriefed.

I began by asking the students to gather at the front of the class to show a continuum. We have done “opinion continuums” before, so they were familiar with the process.  

At one extreme was a space for students who felt the song and video was “totally fine, just good fun and not a big deal”, and at the other end was a space for students who felt the song was “inappropriate, clearly body-shaming people who were overweight”.

Interestingly, 94.7% of the class (19 out of the 20 students who chose to participate) gathered on the “totally fine/good fun” side, with 12 putting themselves near the most extreme end. The message was clear. Overall, the students did not think this was a big deal.

We then had a discussion.

  • Students openly shared their opinions about their position. Several suggested that "people were fat by choice" and that "it is okay to make fun of fat people because they are funny."
  • I floated the idea that other factors could contribute to obesity, including
    • Poor food options in childhood due to poverty.
    • Mental health issues, like depression leading to overeating.
    • Physical health issues, like issues with the endocrine system.
  • I asked them if their opinion would be different if we had a student in the class who was obese?
  • I asked them if their opinion would change if it was, equally cleverly written, but called “Black” or “Gay”?

There were some great ideas shared and the conversation was lively. My students, who are nearing Grade 6, are starting to become more aware of social charged topics. Their world of black & white truths are starting to bleed into an intricate mix of grays. Being part of this process with them is as wonderful and important as it is complex and delicate.

We returned to the opinion continuum after the discussion. This time we self-evaluated our choices before and after the chat by completing a Google Form anonymously. The results are here. As you can see, most students moved toward the opposite end with 26.4% recognizing it as some degree of insensitive, 31.6% in the middle and the remaining 42% still seeing it as a lesser degree of “just fine/good fun”.

Some final thoughts and questions

  • I am constantly amazed at the great things that can come out of a simple idea.
  • I sincerely feel that this activity made my students kinder, more thoughtful & considerate about the feelings of others.
  • There are some who might argue that I am using my position of authority unfairly. That, perhaps, I am trying to create "soft liberals". Students who will become overly concerned with Political Correctness & stereotyping while learning to be afraid of free speech.  I’d like to tackle that in Part 3 of this blog series - but that might be too big a nut to crack in a forum like this.

Thursday, 22 June 2017

Listen to the Music - Part 1

I love to incorporate music into as many lessons as possible. I try to have music playing during every work period. This year, I am responsible for about a third of the music instruction with the rest being covered by a rotary music teachers.

When I volunteered as a (very) late night DJ at a University Radio station, I picked up a rule that I still apply in my classroom today.

We can listen to anything that was not released in the last 12 months.

That radio station, CHRW 94.9 FM at Western Ontario,  still celebrates “a mandate to look outside what commercial radio stations and CBC are doing” on their home page.

My Grade 5 students are just at the point where they are discovering commercial radio and are defining their own taste in music. Consequently, I want to provide them with a rich & expansive buffet from which to choose.

Our musical choices come from many sources…

  • They can be curriculum inspired, Pump it Up by Elvis Costello & the Attractions was picked as a theme song by the group presenting their Cardiovascular System Talk Show.
  • They can be selected for practical reasons. Perhaps, they are simple enough for me to play on the guitar or ukulele. “Ahead by a Century” was our entry into the Canadian Music Class Challenge this year.
  • They can be situational. We looked at the music of Chris Cornell when he passed this May.
  • They can be selected through student voice. We often take a vote and pick a genre of music that we want to explore. This year, for example, we did New York Songs, Funny Songs & Hip Hop to name a few.

To facilitate this exploration, we select 8 songs from the artist or genre and then have them do battle, bracket style, to determine a winner. This is an example of a Knockout Bracket that we completed when David Bowie passed in January of 2016.

We put the songs up, head-to-head, using the Polls feature in Edmodo and voting (which is optional and anonymous) takes place each night. This is an additional tool to get the students onto the Edmodo (a teacher moderated and student safe Facebook-like environment) where they can chat and share opinions, building both their literacy and social media skills.

My 2016-17 class is currently in the last 5 days of school and we have reviewed the 32 entries on the Class Song List we have curated over the past 10 months. Spotify has made it easy for me to make the playlist that is the soundtrack to our year.

The songs are currently going head-to-head in an elimination bracket similar to the NCAA Basketball Tournament (aka: March Madness) format to determine our Song of the Year. At the time of this writing, we are into the Elite Eight and there is much debate about the eventual winner.

There was also agreement that ...
1.) We covered music from many decades (even centuries with our Genius Hour Mozart Soundtrack)
2.) We covered music from a variety of genres (Beatles to Reggae, Cajun to Hip Hop, Pink Floyd to Taylor Swift).
3.) It is okay to say that something "isn't my cup of tea", but we reserve the word "hate" for things like racism and war.
4.) It really was a good idea to look outside the music from commercial radio,

In Part Two - I will discuss how looking at a parody of a Michael Jackson song turned a potential mistake into a great, teachable opportunity.