Culture and Community in my Classroom

Standard

images (1)

In January I signed up for BLOG-A-MONTH where I get to read some great blogs from inspiring educators, and I get to write a lil’ something too and have it read by the hard-working, inspiring members of the group.  It keeps my blog writing skills honed and also provides me with the motivation for the educational reflection and reading that I have sought on this sabbatical abroad.  

Each month we are provided a topic (optional) and I have discovered it takes me well over a month to mull over it.  In February we were to consider the topic of School Culture and Community – a topic nearest and dearest to my heart as a classroom teacher because I treasure the process of building a family, a community, and a culture with each group of students who enter into the class; however, this topic is one that left me with that ineffable silence, a paralysis on the keyboard, a true writer’s block. 

Here are the prompts (again, optional) that have been the cause of my conundrum of dumb dumb:

What is the current culture of your school? Do you want to see it change? What do you do to contribute to the culture/ culture change in your school? How do we change the culture of a school? How do you foster a community of growth and learning at your school? How do you create a culture in your own classroom? How do you see the culture shifting at your school or district?

Perhaps some of the challenge was feeling the expectation that I should discuss our school culture  - one where I am a proud, card-carrying member, but still we, as a community and culture, are in the midst of learning and evolving as our school continues to grow in population (300 in 2008 to nearly 700 now) and has changed location with varying leadership styles numerous times in only a few years.  It is hard to express in words that emerging culture, at this time. So, I leave that blog to the future.

Given my ineptitude of getting this done earlier,  I should have abandoned the cause for this blog, but I have been unable to let it go because it is just too important to me.  So, I have journaled about it, read about it, “Pinterested” about it, and tried to talk about it.  Alas, here goes my attempt to find articulation in the darkness in order to ensure I have completed a March blog – for a blog-a-month – on this last day of March!  No pressure!  No procrastination, no, not at all!  So, here I offer my perspective of culture and community in my classroom.   eaff231ddb4794cf418da806cf733e81 I am extremely proud of my classroom as it has come to symbolize a home and a harbour for my world-weary teens.  I love that students enter the space and feel safe and in the heart of our home. But before the students even enter the room, I spend countless hours preparing the space for them.  I know that most teachers also do this, but not always at a high school level.

My classroom is my home away from home, so the setting is the first important element for establishing our culture.   I work to build that home-like feeling with cool, calming turquoise walls; a carpeted floor below their feet with light grey sound-baffles hung overhead (a gracious leftover from the days it was an elementary music room) lulling the students into a reverence as they enter (who am I kidding, in my dreams, but the baffling does lessen their noisiness); posters of poetry, quotations, and art inspiring and entertaining (or at least giving them something of value to stare at while I Charlie-Brown-teacher away the hour); walls lined with bookshelves, enveloping the learning space with the whispers of bewitching writers that I hope will seduce them into reading, aromatherapy redolently enhancing the students’ minds, bodies, and spirits (or at least taking away that adolescent I forgot to shower odour); and sometimes (needing to be regularly) music resonating with their souls or inciting their curiosity (a little Pink Floyd will do nicely); and finally, the room is furnished lamps (avoiding the fluorescent institutionalized aura) with some talk-show-like Oprah chairs and turquoise patterned pillows softening the space, or at least making me awfully comfy and cosy.  In the recipe for my classroom’s culture, the physical setting of the class – our four walls – would be the first ingredient and the underlying continuity in building cultures and communities year after year.

community Of course, no room is a home without the people, and for the past many years I’ve been graced with students for consecutive years, so we have an established bond, and when they come into the class for the new year, they are truly returning home and our family gleefully reunites.  I am always impressed with how the new configuration of students unites and also embraces new family members openly; when the community is strong and the culture is foundational, it endures and evolves equally. These are my kids, and to them I’m “mom” – a role and calling I cherish and embrace.  But just showing up isn’t all it takes for the cultural enlightenment to establish itself; rather, it takes a value that we collectively cherish and aspire to make our reality.

This value existed for me, for us, in our classroom, but it was undefinable and could not be explained until I discovered the philosophy of Ubuntu from South Africa whereby the essence of the ideology inextricably links a community’s respect, purpose, existence, and accomplishment together. Reverend Desmond Tutu explains Ubuntu as: explained

One of the sayings in our country is Ubuntu – the essence of being human. Ubuntu speaks particularly about the fact that you can’t exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness. You can’t be human all by yourself, and when you have this quality — Ubuntu — you are known for your generosity. 
We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole world. When you do well, it spreads out; it is for the whole of humanity. 

I have longingly worked for this interconnectedness to reign in the classroom, and when a group of teens, in a high school English class can come together as a family – that is a community, a culture where I am proud to be a part of that realization. images

Furthering the “aha” of this worldview, I experienced community and culture building via a virtual course – a place of professional development whereby I never expected to discover a unified sense of belonging and community.  Last year in the ETMOOC course (Educational Technology Massive Open Online Course) that I participated in, the paradigm became realized with two questions that were to dominate the learning and the participation: How are you making your learning visible?  How are you contributing to the learning of others? These questions provoked an epiphany in me that these are the same questions I want to dominate the learning in my classroom where students hold themselves accountable and simultaneously work together and contribute to each other.  So, it has become a mantra in our class.

I see this realized in many subtle ways in my class.  When students easily move in cooperative groups, when discussions are lively and interesting, when students help each other before-during-after class and online at night, when students speak up for each other, when students cry together, laugh together, and work together, and in countless other ways.  Our space provided the home, but the culture and community has permeated beyond our four walls; the dream of this Ubuntu is clearly visible in the students’ own voices on the students’ blogs and in the comments students write to each other – their unity, respect, and support of each other is undeniably visible as share their writing and they contribute to the learning of each other through their wisdom and written words of support and celebration.des tutu Ubuntu

Community takes much time and care to foster, and a culture of shared beliefs, values, customs, and behaviours can often be far too elusive to attain in a classroom, let alone a school, dominated by a quirky melange of hormonally charged and stressed-out teens.  I will continue this quest to mindfully bring this Ubuntu philosophy into my future classes, and I idealize that it will embed itself into the school wholly too.  For now,  I am proud that in room 1315, at the farthest corner of Shakespeare Street, in the deep south of the school – nearest the escape route to the student parking lot – a little oasis has been found in Hunni’s Room; it is their home, our home, a place where we belong and come together as a family, but continues in the virtual landscape that defies our time or our place. ubuntu_drawing Further resources for UBUNTU:

The Magic of Feedback

Standard
words-are-our-most-httpwordzeal-com

Image credit: http://wordzeal.com

I believe in magic.  I believe in the power of positive thinking, positive words, and positive feedback.   As a high school English teacher, this has served me well to build long-term relationships with my kids.  Maintaining positive interactions with my kids has been a truism of my days, in this way the cycle of validation and feedback for who they are – as I see them to be – must be present in my communications with them, always.

Teenagers are often filled with apathy, low self-esteem, regret, guilt, etc… – a cluster of negativity!  So, how can we expect them to be positive unless we bring the light to them, unless we hold up the mirror so they can see the possibilities?  You and I both know that sometimes you have to dig deep to find that “something special” in each kid, but it is our responsibility to seek it.  Fortunately, as English teachers we mine the motherlode inside the hearts and minds of our students through their writing and their creating – when we give them the opportunity.  It is there where we can pan for their gold and show it to them.

I want my kids to share the VALUE of feedback with me, with each other, in our classroom, in our community.  This value cannot be an abstract ideal, rather it is embodied and modelled through me and nourished through them.   I can proudly say that I see that the environment in my class between me and my students, and my students with each other, is filled with feedback that is motivating and validating!    See here how my students write feedback to each other on their blogs, and this is just a random example because the blogs are filled with such feedback:

Dear Hatif,
This is such an amazing post! After reading this piece, I am inspired and it has truly made me reflect upon my own life. The topic of this blog was great choice for you because just as Simran previously stated, you are a very positive and happy guy. The way you connected your personal life with your definition idea of happiness was very well executed throughout the piece. I really admire how you know how to use running and exercising as a way of escaping, which allows you to only achieve positive outcomes. Your voice as a writer is very powerful and inspiring. However, I would suggest just editing to fix up those small GUMP errors. Overall, excellent work!
Kiran  ( this was on Hatif’s Post “Your Choice”)

In this aspect of feedback, I can say that I have found great success through the coaching of commenting (see Etiquettes of Blog Comments).  Only, I didn’t realize until these past few weeks of reflection that I was ever very successful with feedback.  In fact, my Professional Growth and Development Plan for this year had FEEDBACK as a goal, one which I condemned that I had, once again, failed miserably!  But I was only considering “feedback” in terms of marking piles,  one-to-one conferencing, and data driven results, which I must still work at improving.

If I look at the criteria of feedback that I had set out for myself, I did fail in many regards.

The piles were some important piles for far too long to offer any kind of timely feedback for kids.  Sigh!  Ironically, blogs are never a problem, I actually LOVE marking them because they are the panned gold, the students’ voices are authentic and they are usually interesting to read; I feel motivated to get them up on the blog (all blogs are “approved” by me before they appear on the blog), so that the students can offer the feedback to each other through the comments.  As I “approve” them, I evaluate them and post feedback immediately to the students via Edmodo.  So, in this regard, I’m quick with feedback.  But it isn’t authentic enough.  It is far more authentic when the students give their feedback.  However, I do need to offer more narrative feedback to them, somehow, in comment writing or conferencing.

Yes, conferencing, another failed attempt.  After attending Penny Kittle’s sessions I’m always so “sold” on the concept of one-to-one conferencing and the value of it!  Then I get into the busy-ness, to-do, and management of classes – and then never make the time to have that one-on-one with kids.  I do manage some great conferences with the kids who come in at lunch, and I encourage them to come in for such “office hours”, but despite the thrill of spending lunch with me, it is never enough to lure the students who need it most away from their social lives.  So, I do need to find a way to embed the value and management of conferencing with future classes. writer conference

Finally, the last failure was in such things as progress reports and data – the kind of numbers I despise, but students crave.  I’m still not so sure where I sit on this other than my dislike of having kids identify themselves via a percentage value, and my disdain for numbers in general.  I believe in students, not the % they earn.  Perhaps I fail at generating these reports regularly for them as a blessing in disguise.  So, I need to get better at this, I guess.  Truly, this is a very grey area for me.  But I do feel duty-bound to provide the data, but in 16 years of teaching, this is still my Achilles heel.

One Kind WordSo, it is evident that I have some areas for future growth, but it is also important that I have reflected and realized that feedback comes in various forms, and in some measures of relationship and connecting with students,  I have really succeeded.  Now don’t get me wrong, although I’m positive-focused, I’m also honest and have a knack for those hard, yet honest conversations with kids.  Once I met a woman from the southern US who used the phrase, “Don’t piss on my back and tell me it’s raining!”   So, I work to be honest with kids, but kind, showing where hope exists for them!  Kids have a huge meter for BS, so if you’re just blowing smoke at them, they won’t buy into it.  It must be authentic and it must connect with them.

The first time feedback authentically connected with me was from a brilliant theatre adjudicator named Mira Friedlander. images (1) She explained to our adolescent audience that it was her job to give us feedback on our performances and her opinion was based on her perspective and expertise.  That she would give us all balanced positive feedback with feedback for improvement if we were to perform our show again.  “Improvement” – huh!  To my adolescent brain, I had only considered feedback to be praise or condemnation.  I always worked so hard to ONLY get praise, living in fear of condemnation.  Suddenly, Friedlander had turned my world upside down.  So when she offered each group, publicly, both praise and improvement – I came to crave the learning from feedback.  With drama classes, I have always trained students in the Mira-way, to great success and growth.  It is this same framework that I need to develop more coherently and mindfully in my English classroom.

Ultimately, the feedback I will continue to do, naturally, is choosing and modelling happiness and positive interactive feedback to build confidence and identity in my kids; validation and recognition is a wellspring for motivation and a sense of security.  But, of course, I will continue to strive to improve my efforts for feedback to improve their skills as readers, writers, and learners.  This time for reflection and reading has helped me to make cognitive sense of feedback, and incites me to improve my time and class management when I return to teaching in the fall so that I can implement these important goals for my kids.  I believe in lighting the fire in kids to learn, and I believe in the magic of my words having the power to transform both hearts and minds.

This post is inspired by:

1. Blog A Month Challenge: January’s topic: Think about how you will either give or receive feedback this semester and reflect on the practice of feedback. 

2. Allison Petterson’s Blog Post: The Power of Positive Feedback 

3. ASCD Types of Feedback 

4. “You’ve Been Doing a Fantastic Job. Just One Thing …”  - New York Times – Alina Tugend

5. “For Best Results Take the Sting Out of Criticism” - New York Times – Alina Tugend

For Rue!

Standard

IMG_1890Today my heart broke into a million little pieces as I learned of the passing of my darling Ruthanne Penrose at the mere age of 29! When I taught this lil’ sprite, I was blessed with this goofy little loving angel who would sweep up and organize all the pieces of my world into some funky lil’ artistry that would turn darkness into light for all who let her in, which were many because she loved so unconditionally. She was my student, my actress, my director, my student-teacher, my friend! DSCN4965

I am grateful that Rue was more than a student; she was a soul-sister! I’ll now need to believe that my angel, my friend, my child, my student, my sister will continue to cast her light, love and quirkiness from above because I’ll never forget her.

She has blessed us with visits these past two years and infused her love into my children’s world; she was family for us all and I am eternally grateful that she found her way to be part of both my past and present! My children have been blessed to have loved her too!

Rue makes me a believer in heaven and angels; God must have called her on for greater things, although I struggle to understand because this world so needed her! We needed her! Her love of life and people are an eternal inspiration. I’m so grateful to have so many memories of such a wonderful person in my life; she made me a better person.

DSCN4983Rue – never will I be on a mountain without remembrance of you and the joy you found in their majesty. I hope you will still find your way to visit me now and then, for if it’s possible, I know you will. I’ll miss your yearly visits, your New Year missives, and your hilarious being in Facebook-land. Bless you my Rue! I miss you so much! We all miss you! My most sincere love and condolences to her incredible family and friends.

Here are two poems for you my girl. The first you sang in the CHCI choir – you would practice it incessantly , but your voice was beautiful and I never forgot it. The second is a favourite and reminds me so much of you and your success!

Thanks for the precious memories!IMG_1942

Remember
BY CHRISTINA ROSSETTI
Remember me when I am gone away,
Gone far away into the silent land;
When you can no more hold me by the hand,
Nor I half turn to go yet turning stay.
Remember me when no more day by day
You tell me of our future that you plann’d:
Only remember me; you understand
It will be late to counsel then or pray.
Yet if you should forget me for a while
And afterwards remember, do not grieve:
For if the darkness and corruption leave
A vestige of the thoughts that once I had,
Better by far you should forget and smile
Than that you should remember and be sad. DSCN4979

Success
To laugh often and love much;
To win the respect of intelligent persons
And the affection of children;
To earn the approbation of honest critics
And to endure the betrayal of false friends;
To appreciate beauty;
To find the best in others;
To give of one’s self;
To leave the world a little better,
Whether by a healthy child,
A garden patch
Or a redeemed social condition;
To have played and laughed with enthusiasmIMG_1879 DSCN4970
And sung with exultation;
To know that even one life has breathed easier
Because you have lived -
This is to have succeeded.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Blog-telling: Storytelling in the 21st Century

Standard

Story   builds community, and blogging is a 21st century story circle. Storytelling is the essence of building culture, and so too is “Blog-telling” whereby the walls of the class disappear and the community circle strengthens identity and relationship within the classroom walls. Blogging has built our community and crafted our culture.

Story is the essence of my pioneer efforts with blogging in my Grades 10-12 English classes. Students carve out their stories and knowledge through blog writing, and in the process of sharing their works, publicly, they are connecting with each other. Blogging creates an e-portfolio of the evolving story of our writing identities – theirs and mine.

Writers in this 21st Century learning space are not only sharing stories, but in doing so, they are the stewards of their digital footprint – a footprint that not only contributes to their personal identity, but also to our class culture. Essential questions are asked: What will you contribute to our world? Will your voice be a voice of change, creativity, logic, inspiration, reflection, enlightment: “That you are here – that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse… What will your verse be?” (Dead Poet’s Society)

The students’ verses become transformational when the students are not just the writers, but also the readers, as fans and critics, of each other. The exchange of story and feedback builds the community. The comments that the students craft for each other are thoughtful, relevant, and constructive. The most surprising benefit is that the blog has developed a trusting, compassionate, respectful community, virtually, that has transferred into the classroom itself. Blogging has allowed our walls to literally and figuratively disappear as the students work together to inspire, encourage, and validate each other.

As a teacher, I continue to “write beside my students” (Penny Kittle). My blogging journey continues this coming year: professionally and personally. Professionally, colleagues are jumping into blogging, with many cross-curricular classes; this is exciting to mentor the evolution of voices from various disciplines. My professional reflections will continue on my blog: http://thehunni.wordpress.com/. Personally, my family of four will be a family of blog travel writers living in Argentina for a semester; blogging will be the vehicle of our story to be shared with our friends, family, and classes. So, my experience in teaching blogging to students will expand to my nine and ten-year-old where they’ll share their journey, both experiences and learning, with their classes back in Calgary.   Our personal story, as a family, will be evolving at http://writeawayhunni.edublogs.org/ .

The journey of blogging has brought so much reward and satisfaction.  Please enjoy the journey of my students at our class blogs:  Creative Writing (see their individual blogs on the sidebar to the right), Grade 12 (ELA 30-1), Grade 11 (ELA 20-1) ,  and Grade 10 (ELA 10-1).

As my semester comes to a close, I will miss my students so very much as I journey abroad, but with blogging I get to keep the treasury of their voices always nearby.  I am so grateful for their efforts, for this treasure chest is filled with gold.  I’m also grateful that they too will keep me nearby via my blogging.  Like I said earlier, blogging makes the walls disappear!

“Story is the song line of a person’s life. We need to sing it and we need someone to hear the singing. Story told. Story heard. Story written. Story read creates the web of life in words.” Christina Baldwin – Storycatcher

Spreading the Sunshine

Standard

The Sunshine Award or the Sunshine Elevens or one of several other versions of inspiration and encouragement for bloggers has been rapidly circulating the blogosphere. Thank you, Scott Hazeu, for nominating me. Scott has been an inspiring educator since we met a year ago, in virtual-land, via the ETMOOC (Educational Technology Massive Open Online Course) through the genius work of Alec Couros.   His commitment to education, reflection, and writing is a motivator in my teaching, and he always seems to pop-up when I need a boost.  Thanks for this too Scott, it’s a great blog post that I’ll use with my Creative Writing class for their blogs!

Dosia McKay - Abstract Art

Dosia McKay – Abstract Art

Here’s how this chain letter of inspiration works:

  1. Acknowledge the nominating blogger & let them know when you complete your blog post.
  2. Share 11 random facts about yourself.
  3. Answer the 11 questions the nominating blogger has created for you.
  4. List 11 bloggers.
  5. Post 11 questions for the bloggers you nominate to answer, and let all the bloggers know they have been nominated. Don’t nominate a blogger who has nominated you.
  6. Hunni’s additional criteria: embed links and visuals that personalize the post

Eleven Random Facts About Me:

1. My first university degree is a theatre degree.

2. I bite my nails and it drive my husband crazy.

3. I’m an introvert (few believe this, but it is true).

4. I broke a girl’s arm in three places, in Grade 8, and the kids called me “Rocky” (I kicked her in defence, I swear)

5. I am an art and music aficionado, but suck at both, being neither an artist nor a musician!

6. I procrastinate with Facebook games (sigh) – Candy Crush, Bubble Witch, Words of Wonder, and Solitaire.

7. I have loved home architecture and home design since I was nine years old.  Pinterest and HGTV continue the passion!

8. I have wanderlust to travel and experience the world!

9. My classroom is a like home and to my students I’m “mom” (I love that they feel this way about me and my class space)

10. I love being surrounded by flowers and in nature.

11. We hope to retire half-time in Argentina.  (as we’ll be doing for a semester starting next month – tee hee)

Answering Scott’s Questions:

1. What do you do for escape or relaxation?

I LOVE escape and relaxation, but usually as a lazy homebody!  People never believe I’m capable of it because I’m a workaholic.  I guess I’m like a faucet – I can be all hot (working like a maniac), but easily switch to pure cold (totally relaxed and chill). So, what does my cool look like?  

  • IMG_2280hanging with my beautiful children and husband
  • reading
  • writing
  • music
  • film
  • theatre
  • cooking and baking, especially with my hubby or kids
  • dinner parties, tea parties, or BBQ with friends 
  • TV shows (HGTV, Coronation Street, Parenthood, Orange is the New Black – otherwise, it is tough to get my attention to watch TV well)
  • gardening
  • biking
  • day-tripping
  • beach lounging
  • hiking
  • camping
  • travel
  • I hate being cold, but have enjoyed skiing and snowshoeing

2. What is one concern you have about the future of technology?

letter-writingAlthough I’m a strong voice for the use of technology in my teaching, I don’t believe that school should just have students hiding behind computer screens.  I believe that having my home and class lined with actual books is essential, that opening a book and smelling the pages will always be a value to me and I want to model this for my students.  I believe that students should learn the art of cursive writing – we may type more than anything else, but a paper and pen never fails you and I pray the beauty of cursive should never die; along with the beauty of journal writing and a snail mail letter!  Regarding thinking with depth and breadth, I fear students often don’t expand their thinking beyond 140 characters.  Finally, I also worry that students could lose the ability to carry face-to-face conversation. We, as teachers,  are the vanguards to save books, handwriting, critically thoughtful writing, and speaking with social etiquettes.

3. Share one Ah-Ha! moment you’ve had (in or out of a classroom).

My greatest “ah-ha” came from attending NCTE 2012 (National Council Teachers of English) in Chicago when I sat in an audience watching – in utter awe and humility – Penny Kittle, Kelly Gallagher, and Jim Burke.  That moment changed the trajectory of my teaching practice, my writing identity, and my blog pioneering with students!  It lead to me finding the courage to present at NCTE 2013 in Boston!  I am a fan-girl of those three gurus and an NCTE junkie every since.  The more I experience, the better I get in the classroom!  I love the growth, inspiration, and learning and I especially love meeting great teachers from across the US and Canada!

4. Which books (one fiction, one non-fiction) would you recommend to new teachers?  1034

An Interesting Question!  And I cannot control myself to ONE of each when asked such a question, silly man!

Let’s start with non-fiction that would help an English teacher:  Book Love and Write Beside Them by Penny Kittle, Readicide by Kelly Gallagher, English Teacher’s Companion and What’s the Big Idea by Jim Burke, and Teacher Man by Frank McCourt.  For any new teacher I’d recommend: The Courage to Teach by Parker Palmer and What Great Teacher’s Do Differently by Todd Whittaker.

For personal fiction – this is hard because it is based on such a personal preference (see my Goodreads).  I believe that people can connect when they have like-minded interests in books.  So, my favourites of all time are Wuthering Heights, Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series, The Book of Negroes, The Virgin Blue, The Last Cato, The Shadow of the Wind, A Thousand Splendid Suns, Unbearable Lightness of Being, Time Traveller’s Wife, and Tess of the d’Urbervilles. (okay – I’ll stop here, but I could go on and on)

Regarding the teaching of novels, I believe teachers are always seeking “to teach” lists, so I’ll share some of mine.  These are the books I enjoyed teaching at various grades: Shakespeare with every grade from 6-12 – but I am a true devotee to Hamlet with Gr. 12, The Giver (Gr. 6), Diary of Anne Frank (Gr. 8), Of Mice and Men (Gr 9), Speak (Gr.9), Cry the Beloved Country (9), Forbidden City (Gr. 9), Joy Luck Club (10), The Hunger Games (Gr. 10), To Kill a Mockingbird – this one is my old friend (Gr. 10), The Kite Runner (Gr. 11), Flowers for Algernon (Gr. 11), Haroun and the Sea of Stories (Gr. 11), Cyrano de Bergerac (Gr 11), The Crucible (Gr. 11), Frankenstein (Gr. 11), Life of Pi (Gr 11), The Wizard of Earthsea (Gr. 12), Streetcar Named Desire (Gr 12), Night (Gr. 12), Handmaid’s Tale (Gr. 12), One Hundred Year’s of Solitude (Gr. 12), Things Fall Apart (Gr.12), and House of Spirits (Gr. 12).

5. What’s one of your guilty pleasures? (again one? I’ll take 4)

  • books (obviously from above) and reading anything from blogs, to news, etc…  coffee
  • coffee – oh, how I love thee, especially hip coffee houses with cappuccino
  • red wine
  • Indian food

6. If you had to change careers, what new career would you choose?

  • In Kati Marton’s memoir Paris: A Love Story I felt that I was reading my other life’s calling:  international diplomacy and journalism;
  • Owner of a hip coffee/tea shop with a borrowing library: a meeting place for music, slam poetry, improv games, small theatre, and classes in all art forms;
  • A travel writer;
  • An architect or home designer.

7. When you’re not immersed in the present, do you find yourself more often looking back or looking ahead?

  • ALL!  I’m a hopeless muser of the past, present, and future: a dreamer and a reminiscer.

8. What is your favourite season? Why?

  • Summer!  Although I love my work, I hate structure, bells, routines, marking piles and to-do lists.  So the freedom of summer let’s me revel in a peacefully creative state-of-being and I get to see my own family and friends.  Plus, I’ve come to love camping in the mountains!

9.  If I handed you $100, what would you do with it?

  • I’d go out to dinner at Notable with my wonderful husband!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA10. What metaphor/simile describes your writing process? (eg. My writing is like a tube of toothpaste. It flows quickly at first, but at the end it’s hard to squeeze out the last little bit and finish the tube.)

  • A small boat on a river – get in and it starts to float with ripples and rapids along the way; I love that each journey is different and I always end in a different place.

11. Which Twitter hashtag would you follow if you could only follow one?

  • Penny Kittle – a constant source of inspiring PD

Bloggers (some of these good people have been through this exercise, but they are worth taking a look)

Eleven Questions for Bloggers

  1. What do you do for escape or for relaxation?
  2. What film or play has captured your heart?
  3. What books would you recommend?
  4. What has been the best vacation you have ever had – specify where, when, and why?
  5. What’s one of your guilty pleasures?
  6. If you could travel to any ONE place in the world, where would you go?
  7. What is your life mantra, or quote, or credo?
  8. What is your favourite season? Why?
  9. What is your favourite musician/band or artist (or all)?
  10. Who or what inspires your writing?
  11. What metaphor/simile describes your writing process? (eg. My writing is like a tube of toothpaste. It flows quickly at first, but at the end it’s hard to squeeze out the last little bit and finish the tube.)?

Happy blogging in 2014! Thank you for your inspirational words and efforts.

A Year to Create, Explore, and Expand

Standard

explore-dream-discover-mark-twain-picture-quote

My title owes complete homage to an inspirational blog post that stirred my imagination at 10:30am on New Year’s Day – a post that instantly spun my world and gave clarity of purpose to my new year – my 2014!  This post is a must read: 50 Ways to Find Inspiration: Create, Explore, Expand at Tiny Buddha: Simple Wisdom for Complex Lives.  inspiration-create-explore-26868877

I guess my whole life’s mantra has been to “Create, Explore, and Expand” as there is a wind in my spirit that craves to be in the world, to experience and learn in awe from the stories of its people and its places. This blog post and list reminds me to live mindfully and engaged while fanning the embers of my inspiration, my curiosity, and my creativity! For 2014 I will do everything on this list; most I do every year at some point, but I like the challenge of doing so with intention and love doing so while adventuring abroad in Argentina.

The blog begins with this quotation: “If we look at the world with a love of life, the world will reveal its beauty to us.” ~Daisaku Ikeda.  The list in the blog categorizes sources of inspiration in nature, on the web, in possibilities, in people, and in yourself.  Here are a few favourites in each category:

  • In Nature: Take a camera outside and photograph everything that looks beautiful to you.
  • On the Web: Watch a TED video to learn about inspiring ideas.
  • In Possibilities: Try something you’ve always assumed you can’t do but secretly wanted to try.
  • In People: Spend time with children and see the world through their eyes.
  • In Yourself: Try something new and revel in the sensation of stretching beyond your comfort zone.
Costanera

Costanera in Santa Fe, Argentina

I am contemplative of all possibilities as my journeying of the horizon nears.  This February brings a respite as our lil’ family of four moves to live, for nearly six months, in Santa Fe, Argentina.  This journey allows me and my family so many opportunities to find inspirations to create, explore, and expand – to mindfully live a life of opportunity, dreams, and learning.

My husband – Cristian (who is from Santa Fe) –  is on sabbatical from teaching math at the University of Calgary, so his journey will be about researching, writing his papers, working at the University in Santa Fe alongside his professors and peers, and joyously being with his extended family and friends.  He both revels in the joy of us living near family and learning spanish, but he also worries about all the issues of safety and finances that come with such an endeavour.  Yet, he shares my enthusiasm for this change of pace and the opportunities that abound.  He is my soulmate!

My children, Luca(10) and Tulia(9), are so excited for our journey to begin.  They just get it!  DSCN5380They are willing enthusiasts of this opportunity – a spirited energy that is a constant source of inspiration.  They look forward to being with their Argentina family, living in constant warmth with a pool, the giant slide in the park (tee hee – their favourite memory – kids!), but most of all they are so excited to get to go to school at Nivel Primario – Universidad Nacional del Litoral and learn Spanish – it offers a half day of classes in English and a half day of classes in Spanish! I, too, will be an eager student to learn the romantic language of Spanish beyond my fragmented Spanglish – so this will be a co-journey where they will likely be teaching me!   They are so brave and filled with curiosity – this, too, inspires me to live without fear!  At that age I would have been paralyzed by fear to have my parents send me to a foreign school in another language, fear of being “foreign”, fear of failing.  Obviously, those fears have subsided in my adult self – so I admire their youthful positivity and energy.  The purpose of life is to live itOf course, they are not jumping into the unknown – they’ve been to Argentina many times, they LOVE our family there, and they have visited the school they get to attend. They are also excited to become bloggers – reporting their adventures and learning to their classmates in Calgary, their friends, and their family – plus they are excited to become “travel writers” as children with a – hopefully – world wide audience.  Luca’s writing will be found at Write Away Luca , and Tulia’s reporting (she likes the idea of being a reporter) will be found at Write Away Tulia.  We got them set up in the fall and I worked with them for a first post, but we’ll engage with this as we begin our journey.

imagination_by_archannFor the romantic side in me, my journey is filled with so much hope, reflection, and exploration.  Blogging will be the central axis for most of my goals and purposes.  I am so enthusiastic to do the blogging with my children, and even my husband is interested.  We will be a family of bloggers whereby I’ll be using a “hub and spoke” approach that interlinks all our blogs via Edublogs (the same platform I use for class blogs and powered by WordPress), and keeps me in control (for safety) of my children’s blogging.   For my “travel writing” experience of living as a Canadian ex-pat in the centre of Argentina, I’ll keep a separate blog from thehunni blog – it is called Write Away Hunni .  0703_writing_cogThis is the blog space where my life experiences will be ruminating, rummaging, and reflecting on all the wonders, curiosities, and challenges of living abroad in a foreign space and culture.  I LOVE travel and Argentina – I am compelled to capture and share it this time with an audience.

The teacher side in me is compelled to delve into digital citizenship and educational technology with my own children – to really learn about all the possibilities of blogging from an elementary to high school perspective (see the side bar to explore my high school class blogs in the Blogroll).  So, I guess you can say this is self-declared  Action Research project for me.  My children are happy to be my lil’ guinea pigs (or so I keep reminding them)!

blogging journey

Further to this personal writing journey, I will be looking at achieving professional writing too.  First of all, this blog – thehunni: Blogging Beside My Students – will be a continuous space where I’ll write as a learner, a teacher, a professional.  I plan to continue to read and learn from my PLN (personal learning network) and to reflect on this learning so that when I return to my classes in the fall of 2014 I’m refreshed, refocused, revised, and relevant.  Secondly, I’m apprehensively excited to look at publishing the work I’ve done pioneering class blogs to improve and empower student voices as writers. travel-quotes-12908-hd-wallpapers I’m hopeful to at least look at article writing, but ambitiously, I am hopeful to write a book on the topic.  The work my students and I have engaged in has been inspiring!  This past year when I presented at the NCTE conference in Boston I was so inspired by the collegiality and support I received from like-minded educators.  I hope to follow-up with professional writings and hopefully will be offered an opportunity to present again at NCTE 2014.  I would love to explore the possibilities of being a professional teacher writer/consultant.  Who knows?

So, my bustling life continues just in a far more adventurous and personally reflective way.  I am so grateful for this opportunity to re-engage with my personal interests and passions.  My days in Argentina will rarely be lazy-hazy, although there will be plenty of opportunities pool-side and beach-bound for that too!  length and width of lifeI will get healthy again with yoga and daily walks, I will learn Spanish because I want to build stronger conversational relationships with my amazing family there, I will explore and experience all that Santa Fe and Argentina can offer me, I will capture the beauty of that world through photos and writings, I will read – voraciously, I will cook to nourish my inner foodie-wanna-be, I will inhale the opportunities to live in a foreign country, I will play with my children and family, I will become the writer I dream of being – even if it is merely enjoyed by my family and friends,  and I will use the list of 50 Ways from Buddha Wisdom to help me find inspiration so that I can mindfully create, explore, and expand myself!  Here’s to 2014!  Happy New Year!

The Value of Penny Kittle PD

Standard

Charged with the task of trying to articulate what has Penny Kittle done to transform my teaching feels like a daunting task – but a worthy task.

Well, to begin, Penny Kittle has written two amazing books (among others), which are touchstones in my professional development:

Book Love

As for her PD Workshops: I’ve seen her in about 10 NCTE 20-30 minute Sessions in the last three years, and I participated in CRC’s Workshop last year for an entire day.  With every encounter I have a new strategy, a new “aha”!  Her generosity knows no bounds, and she empowers teachers with what they need and how to do it for student engagement and success.   She helps teachers with inclusion strategies so that all kids can find success and inspiration too.   Plus, she provides all her materials through handouts and on her site.

Her books are excellent, but like getting materials from any good teacher, you need to find a way to make it your own.  Usually with most good PD or good materials, the piles of good ideas remain in piles – awaiting the elusive concept of “time” to come along to allow a teacher to comb through the pile.  Yet, Penny’s full day PD is different, it forces you into the “doing”, allowing you time, inspiration, conversation, and practicality so the PD develops you quickly and effectively.  In “the doing” her materials and strategies become accessible to our classes and our collegiality, immediately.

Sending ELA teachers from our campuses of middle to high school, allows for wonderful collegiality to develop as the teachers can equally be inspired, can equally develop common language and paradigm shifts, and they can equally experience collective transformation of pedagogy and practice.  It is a common place to build collegial practice and professional conversations that can unify our goals and strategies.   In fact, I’d encourage administrators to join in this paradigm shifting PD too!

Here is a list of things I (and some of my ELA colleagues) do differently thanks to the Kittle-aha (I’m sure I have only captured the tip of the iceberg here):

READING:

  • Daily SSR – for students and for me to model
  • Strategies to help kids find the “right book” to hook them into reading
  • Methods to manage student accountability in reading (i.e. book talks, read-write-revise in Writing Journals, Reading Ladders)
  • Inspiration to build the classroom library
  • Book talks and book trailers
  • Reading strategies that work to improve students’ reading skills
  • Conferences about reading – how to do this well
  • Class discussions about Reading Identity of students
  • Close reading analysis strategies – how to dig deeper
  • Poetry – teaching it for kids to connect (especially been inspired by Slam Poets I would have never heard of if not through her – Sarah Kay, Phil Kay, etc..)
  • Non-fiction writing and writers as source materials – and how to analyze the rhetorical strategies in the text.
  • Novels and authors that have been popular with her students (this is a huge asset when trying to match students with the right books)
  • How to have a Reader/Writer notebook for novel studies (authentic academic note-taking that moves students beyond worksheets)
  • Learning to read info-data as a text (this is significant for new things we’re seeing on Diploma reading exams, but given no resources for to prepare students as all our “Released Material” is at least 4 years old.
  • How to “Read like a Writer” with annotations

WRITING:

  • Writing Journal – which she calls a Writer’s Notebook.  She does extensive work showing the effect this has on the teacher-as-model-writer and the effect on students.     Notebook
  • Quick Write ideas/inspirations
  • Writing with students – “Write Beside Them”
  • How reading great writers inspires great writing through emulation and inspiration
  • Revision and editing strategies – mini-lessons, notebook, revisions/editing, polished writing revisions/editing
  • Narrative writing strategies
  • Argumentation writing strategies
  • Expository writing strategies
  • Targets in writing – how to, scaffolding, and assessment
  • Scaffolding to increase skills and learning habits of writers – process and skills
  • The Creative Writing course for my Grade 12’s originates out of inspiration from her Writer’s Workshop.
  • Rubrics and assessment strategies

STRUCTURE:

FURTHER PD INSPIRATION:

Penny Kittle is a rock star in English teaching circles.  But her humility and integrity compels her cite her sources and her own inspirations through her books, her website, her PD workshops, and her twitter updates.  She leads teachers to other rock star English teaching inspirations, forcing us into a transformative world of English teaching that continues to morph and improve.  Here are a few other great teachers she has led me to:

Thoughts about the Kittle-effect by other ELA teachers:

My Response to a Central Office query regarding the value of Kittle:

Penny Kittle is, without a doubt, one of the most powerfully inspiring educators I have ever seen.  She has been the source of my shift in crafting a much stronger ELA program over the past couple of years since I was first inspired by her in Chicago at NCTE.

I believe she is “THE” missing link for our Scope and Sequencing from K-12, as her work is both as an ELA High School teacher AND the Literacy Coach from K-12 in her district of New Hampshire.

It is my belief that ELA teams – inter-mixed from K-12 – attend.   What I mean by intermixed is that at a session HS doesn’t sit with HS, MS with MS, and E with E; rather, we build conversations and PD across campuses and grade levels.  I would support and persuade that the entire HS team to attend.

IF we can support CRC’s efforts to bring in this amazing educator, we would benefit greatly!

http://pennykittle.net/

Original email proposal supporting a Scope and Sequence of educators to attend PD:

CRC has arranged for Penny Kittle to come to Calgary.  She has been my #1 mentor these past few years regarding my professional growth and development.

Penny provides practical advice and strategies for teachers to foster student reading and writing.   As ELA teachers we have so much to manage, with very few resources for HOW to do what we need to be doing.  Penny’s advice is sound and effective, as I’ve witnessed in the success of ELA classes through my improved design of instruction and the students’ improved engagement.

The beautiful thing about Penny is that she too is in the class.  So, her advice and strategies evolve and are tried and tested with everyday classes, everyday challenging kids.

As an organization, I believe that our Scope and Sequencing from middle school to high school is an essential ingredient for our school’s success, yet we have so few opportunities to foster this.  If ELA teachers are sent to this PD – en mass – from 7-12, intermixed in groups from different campuses and grade levels, we would all share in some powerful strategies to develop our students’ reading and writing skills; with Penny, the focus is not on the “what” should we teach, it is on the “how” we teach.  So, the more our teachers develop “Kittle” proficiencies, the more our organization benefits, the more our kids benefit.

Hopefully, we can find the funding to support this PD opportunity for our ELA teams.  I suggest that teachers sign-up soon as she renowned beyond my world and I have a feeling this PD could fill up quickly!

http://www.crcpd.ab.ca/uploads/programs/2762.pdf?92166

Setting the Stage for Learning

Standard

I’m an aesthetic kind of person.  Setting really matters to me! Theories about what works best in classroom design and structure, to optimize student engagement, has been an obsession of mine.  I have worked so hard to create an ambiance and space of learning, peace and calm – a home.

My newly organized bookshelf

Our school practices a common classroom management program from K-12- CHAMPS, ACHIEVE (champs at the Secondary level), STOIC (all acronyms from the same origin of Sprick’s work); Structure is the first consideration in the STOIC model, and Structure is the first aspect I consider for the kids to enter the class.  Structure means many things, but the one that I attune to is all the structural aspects of my room in terms of sight, sound, smell, and feel – I love “Setting the Stage” for learning.

It must be the same appeal I feel when guests are coming to my home; my students are honoured guests for their 90 minutes – guests whom I want to feel they are “at home” in our space.

How do I Set the Stage?  Here’s a list of things I try to do:

  • The walls are a seafoam green colour, which is bright yet homey (not chosen by me, but intuitively our facilities boys did well with this choice)
  • I was good at having music playing – must get back to that on Monday (lost that touch)
  • The desks are arranged based on activity – rows (uh oh – testing), amphitheatre, partners, study groups, etc…
  • Aromatherapy – I love using my diffuser with oils to calm, focus, or energize depending on the kind of day it is -  (i.e. casual days are lavender kind of days).
  • The front of the room is like a talk show set – two cushioned comfy chairs with table in-between and the Smartboard behind.
  • Bookshelves line all corners filled with books.
  • Lamps around the room for softer lighting with natural light spilling into the room and maybe one row of overheads light on in the room – I never use full overhead lights (they induce headaches)

    baffles

    baffles (Photo credit: Martin Deutsch)

  • Art and poster and words surround the space for inspiration
  • Acoustic Baffles – my room was a music room and we managed to keep the baffles that absorb sound = beautifully peaceful!
  • And, yes, carpet!  I am a teacher not to complain of my carpet – it affects sound too!

So, in June last year when it was announced that I’d need to clear my room for floor tiles to be put in – I had a panic attack not only because I was far too exhausted to pack up, not only because this would have been my 7th pack up in 8 years, but because I don’t want flooring tiles!!!

Carpet has become a h uge factor in my efforts to “Set the Stage”.  Here are three of the strongest factors for me:

The Flying Carpet by Viktor Vasnetsov (1880). ...

The Flying Carpet by Viktor Vasnetsov (1880). Oil, canvas. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

  1.  It provides a sound buffer from scraping desks and reverberating sound, which help students to stay focused and on-task.
  2. It creates a “home-like” atmosphere.  This is a huge psychological benefit for student learning.
  3. The students in my room (me with the artsy-fartsy background) often work on the floor for group work, journal writing, and SSR reading.  I give them that choice and many use it daily.  It is really important for kids to be able to establish their comfort, when possible, for thinking and creating.

Please see these articles to support what I am saying regarding “atmosphere” as being a key to learning.

http://profcamp.tripod.com/ClassroomDesign/IdealClass.html

http://www.carpet-health.org/pdf/GA_Dissertation02.pdf

Please know that I “get” the ease and cleanliness of tile – my whole house is laminate, even our bedrooms.  And true, my house is echoy, but we’re generally quiet people.  But through my years of experience in carpeted and non-carpeted spaces, I believe that 30 kids in one room get much higher success in their learning when the environment supports them, not works against them.

For the Love of Reading

Standard

My all-time favorite book is… Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte!  

Cover of "Wuthering Heights (Barnes & Nob...

Cover via AmazonWhy?

 I have always loved WUTHERING HEIGHTS by Emily Bronte as it stole my heart and mind at the age of 18.  It taught me about the pitfalls of idealism and single-mindedness – two flaws I possessed as an adolescent and continue to struggle with today.  I saw so much of myself in spoiled Catherine, and I longed for a mysterious dark Heathcliff to come my way even though my sensibilities warned me otherwise. 

In the pit of my existence I am a hopeless Romantic and the pathos in this novel is evidenced in the quote where Heathcliff mourns the loss of Catherine: “… for what is not connected with her to me? and what does not recall her? I cannot look down to this floor, but her features are shaped in the flags! In every cloud, in every tree—filling the air at night, and caught by glimpses in every object by day—I am surrounded with her image! The most ordinary faces of men and women—my own features—mock me with a resemblance. The entire world is a dreadful collection of memoranda that she did exist, and that I have lost her!”  Ah, the intensity and melodrama of this Gothic tale stirs my heart, but it is also the intensely layered darkness and horror of these pathetic creatures that rapt my imagination.  Ironically, I never really loved these anti-heroes or anti-heroines, but I connected to them, understood them.  Furthermore, I loved the journey of Romanticism through the storytelling magic that the wildest Bronte sister weaved. 

Notably, at the age of 18, the novel was a monumental challenge for me to comprehend in terms of historical thematic genre, narrative structure, and the stylistically poetic language of the 19th Century Romantic movement of literature, so it was such an accomplishment when I got through it and wrote an essay about it.   Although I had always been a reader, this novel was painfully difficult, and I believe it is the book that made me fall in love with English as a subject to study with the mind, not just with the heart. 

Reading Wuthering Heights helped me to find the confidence to pursue a life of academia and it was the beginning of my quest into the literary landscapes of Europe during the Romantic and Victorian Era of the 19th Century.  It led me to the great Romantic poets, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (another absolute favourite), the other Bronte sisters, Thomas Hardy, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Wilke Collins, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Twain, Ibsen, among many others.  Ultimately, Wuthering Heights is the book that lured me into a literary realm where my mind and heart co-exist in the tumultuously transformational epic landscape of my imagination.

Death of the Mouse

Standard
Field Mouse/ Mulot

Field Mouse/ Mulot (Photo credit: Max xx)

So, in case you are unaware, I have had a mouse in my room.  UGH!  Horrific!  Poison baits didn’t work.  Starvation didn’t work. So, trusty James, the superman of keeping our school clean and orderly,  put in a “sticky” trap.

Alas, the darn mouse managed to get stuck in the trap during the middle of my first class!  There it was flopping on the dang sticky pad.  The kids freaked.  I freaked!  No child would deal with it.  Me, heck no!  Some kids jumped up on the desks in terror.  Me, heck yes!  Some mousers gathered near the terrified Stanley (my name for said rodent), and within seconds my sleepy teens turned into the fervent paparazzi of Mouseville.

So, I went in search of a brave soul to save us.  Classen apparently isn’t into mice. So I continued along the hall until (drum roll please) the Wid!  Wid will be my hero!  He growled a little.  Scoffed.  And started rummaging through his drawers in search of his survival knife.  No luck!  He told me to grab Symonds from the office and we’d three meet in my room.  So Symonds “Mouse-slayer” to the rescue.

As Symonds and I came into the room, the kids were now protecting it from us.  Yuv was on a campaign to save the critter; he even Googled how to get the mouse off the sticky to save it.  Alas, Symonds said, “Move it”!  Despite the heartfelt protests from the kids, he promptly took the trap, with mouse, outside and stomped it to its death, then threw it in the big old trash bin.  The kids were horrified by the inhumanity.  So, Symonds assured them it was quick and merciful as he pointed out the mouse guts on his shoe, while adding some humour with other rodent catching stories.

In the middle of Symonds’ tall tales of rodent killing, Wid enters – mighty heroically with his Popeye pirate scowl, carrying a shovel in one hand and an axe in the other, armed for the attack: “Where is this thing?”  We laughed hysterically.

Symond’s looks him up and down and mocks, “Really?”

Wid defends, “Quick and painless! Chop off his head and scoop him up!”  Symonds disappoints with the news that he already took care of business – smirking and pointing to the blood soaked sole of his shoe.

Alas, I told the kids that if they wrote a poem in honour of Stanley the mouse, we’d have a lil’ ceremony the next morning.  So, within 2 hours, two students submitted this little ditty, with much credit due to The Fresh Prince himself.  So, on Thursday, May 30 we lay Stanley to rest in the waste container outside the school.  Alkarim and Kishan rapped their lil’ Tribute while TK offered a heartfelt eulogy. A bonding moment, indeed!

Never a boring moment in the ol’ Hunni Pot!

Here is what the boys wrote (put it to the tune of The Fresh Prince of Bel Aire):

Tribute to your Roommate

Now this is the story all about how
My life got flipped, turned upside down.
And I’d like to take a minute, just stick right there
I’ll tell you how Symond’s stomp made me the ghost in The Trash Lair

In Northwest Calgary born and raised
In the classroom where I spent most of my days.
Chilling out, maxing, relaxing all cool
And learning some English inside of the school.
When a couple of guys, they were up to no good,
Started laying traps in my neighborhood.
I got in one little trap and Mrs. Hunnisett got scared
So Sy snarled, “You’re moving with your auntie and uncle in The Lair”

I whistled for help and when it came near,

the License plate said “Widmer”  – with an axe n’ shovel for a deer.

   If anything I could say is that this man was rare
But I thought nah, forget it, yo homes to The Lair!

I pulled up to the bin about seven or eight,
And yelled to Sy and Wid “Yo, homes smell you later!”
Looked at my kingdom, I was finally there,
To sit on my throne as the Prince of my Lair.

- Kishan and Alkarim