For the last few years the first assignment my Grade 12’s write is their This I Believe blog. This assignment immediately reveals the hearts and minds of my students and helps us to quickly bond as a community of learners, readers and writers. Often students declare this to be their favourite piece of writing, which is powerful because it is their first – this is a confidence builder. Confidence is an essential foundation for us to then build their writing skills to improve. Also, because it taps into their hearts, minds, and spirits – voice emerges quite authentically.
This year my goal is to get their writing viewed on a global scale – hoping for COMMENTS to be made on their writing from near and far, while helping them to see the relevance of purpose, audience, and digital footprints. Please consider reading their blogs and, ideally, leaving a comment:
Last semester I taught AP Language and Composition and we saw quite an interest in our blog-writing with 3800 pageviews from September to January. This is really remarkable if you consider a traditional English class where usually the only “pageviews” are done by the teacher and the student writer, with maybe one or two others who look over the piece for editing. Despite all the wonderful writing on this blog – what got the most attention was our This I Believe blogs. A wonderful friend and former coworker – Ricardo Avelar – who now works in Panama had his Grade 10 IB class read and comment; this international connection really inspired the students to offer their best writing to the blog for the rest of the semester.
Commenting has been the gem behind this assignment. The student writers each are assigned one student to read their This I Believe and to then offer comment feedback following my expectations as outlined on my blog post Etiquettes with Blogging, then they can choose their 2nd student to read and offer feedback. This is when you witness the walls of the classroom literally and figuratively disappear. See Iffrah’s blog post “Angels are my Best Friends” and the beautiful exchange between Iffrah and Keelee in the comments – here’s a brief excerpt of their exchange (comments can be found after Iffrah’s blog linked above):
Keelee: “…Iffrah, you are a beautiful girl. So quiet but so powerful with your words. This piece gave me a connection to you and it made me feel like I know you. It was also nice for me to know that I am not alone and there are other people that feel this way aswell. I would love for this to help us become closer this year and I feel like we can do that through this type of thing.”
Iffrah: “…I love how you felt so touched by that one line, and the story you had behind it moved me to tears, cause that’s truly beautiful. I really hope we become close with what is left of our high school year. It’s quite amazing how you get to know more about a person through their writing, and the connections that you can make with people is so incredible.”
This I Believe offers students the inspiration and engagement to begin the class as writers, readers, learners and even co-teachers. By writing about their beliefs, they begin to believe they can be writers, planting the seed towards their success in ELA – this I believe.
The blogging experience is, as I’ve said time and time again, an opportunity where the walls of my classroom disappear and the students begin to engage – as both writers and readers – in a medium where they find comfort – the virtual landscape. However, the ultimate goal is to have students now “see” each other in ways they never saw before – to see each others’ hearts and minds, transferring that understanding, respect, and friendship back into the classroom when our walls surround us once again. It is builds our community of learners. It teaches them as much about themselves as it teaches them about each other.
Blog Writing Criteria
Ideas:Writer generates original and compelling ideas with astute opinions; synthesizes complex concepts, and offers keen insights.
Students are given a variety of topics where they are given a range of choice within that topic. Their ideas must be fresh, unique, insightful, and truly theirs because they are engaged in the subject matter.
For instance, the This I Believe or Life Philosophies assignment has students express their core beliefs – for each student this is a personal and often transcendent experience. In response to our textual studies, students have the choice of responding to any aspect of the study that interested them. (Tori’s poetic approach to Night whereas Michael wrote a Critical Analytical Essay). However, students also have “FREE CHOICE” opportunities where the students can write whatever they choose.
When a student chooses a poetic mode, I expect them to write about their own poem in prose.
EVIDENCE:Writer’s choice of supporting evidence and detail is rich and substantive; sources are integrated in a sophisticated manner.
Blogs are expected to be detailed, fleshed out, explored with depth. Paragraphing need not be extensive unless they choose to write a CARL (Critical Analytical Response to Literature). In fact, with blogging, shorter snappy paragraphs hold the audiences attention better. Here’s some good advice about When to Make a New Paragraph.
Students may even bullet their approach – as I am doing here – if relevant.
STRUCTURE:Writer’s theme/thesis and evidence are structurally presented clearly and artfully, enhancing impact. Piece flows with coherence and unity.
The key in any blog structure is that it supports the style of writing the student chooses. A short story structure needs a beginning, a middle and an end. An essay has an introduction, a body, and a conclusion. Recipes are guides, but writers need be chefs and to structure their work with their own style – but still make it taste great! Here’s solid advice about Organization.
STYLE: Writer’s stylistic voice is clear. Varied and elegant sentences enhance impact. Rich, effective diction.
This criteria is the one where most students begin to flourish in blog writing – thank goodness! This is where you start to really experiment with diction, figurative language, and all those rhetorical devices and syntax structures you have been taught in class, leading to an emerging voice that is truly yours. Again, Ms. Kathleen Cali offers solid advice here about developing Style in our writing.
GUMPS – Grammar, Usage, Mechanics, Punctuation, and Spelling: Writing contains very few or no errors. Use of mechanics enhances meaning. Writer “breaks rules” artfully.
This criteria is the one many students fear because when students are rather GUMPY their writing lacks polish and professionalism, which is an expectation in blog writing, and so the blog can intimidate when students have not learned these skills. Although we can’t relearn all our GUMPS at once, blog writing can help us pay attention to hone these skills, and writing processes in class can help us learn these skills. Our work with No Red Ink and/or Bedford Exercises will help train us to be less GUMPY and more professional. Again the Conventions are discussed by Ms. Cali.
EFFORT and QUALITY:Generally these are the polishing and formatting techniques connected to the digital medium of blogging.
Length: The entry is a thoughtful and relevant in length = 350-1000 words. A minimum of 350 words is necessary to really establish the writing criteria listed above. More than a 1000 can lose your blog reader.
VISUALS offer support and interest. Use your own pictures or visuals that are free for public usage. If in your google image search you find the perfect visual, then always cite the source in the caption.
QUOTATION feature offers you a tool to have quotes from your own blog or famous quotes that relate to your blog stand out. See Jas’ use of it in this This I Believe blog.
Cites all sources and offers links to sources using embedding connections, as I have done throughout this post. Notice when the colour is different, that is a link to further the information, but can also cite the source of inspiration, etc… It is also important to cite sources at the end of the blog. Use Cite This for Me.
TAGS – Thoughtful and Relevant – tagging is essential to help readers understand key topics and themes in your blog. It also organizes the assignments and topics in the TAG CLOUD. Read about Tags and Categories here.
CATEGORY Clicked – In our class blogs, each Category is the name of a student. Think of the class blog as an anthology of writers. The Category as a students’ name becomes the section where all the students’ writing is stored. In students’ blogs, categories can be genres: fiction, non-fiction, poems, inspiring randoms, letters, etc…
TIMELINESS: Meeting due dates.
Entry is on time by 6pm, early on the day due, or earlier = 5/5. Late within 72 hours is 4/5. Late within 2 weeks is 3/5. Late within 3 weeks is 2/5. Late within a month is 1/5. After a month is 0/5 and will not be assessed..
Writing in the real world requires deadlines to be respected. Writing digitally requires self-discipline and vigilance to maintain your digital footprint and audience.
WRITING the blog is the first step of engaging the students to truly “see” each other. The second step is for students to actively READ each others’ blogs and to discuss what they appreciate about each others work. The third expectation is that students offer feedback by COMMENTING on at least two blogs, ensuring all students in the class receive regular feedback. The criteria for commenting has been established in this previous blog titled Etiquettes with Blogging.
Our goal this year is to expand our readership from within the classroom and school into the great wide yonder. We’ll be establishing connections with schools around the world, starting with Dr. Forman’s senior English class at The Buckley School in Sherman Oaks, California.
Blogging Basics 101,. ‘What Is The Difference Between Blog Categories And Blog Tags? – Blogging Basics 101’. N.p., 2010. Web. 13 Sept. 2015.
In May when I received my classes for the 2014-2015 school year, my heart sunk a little because I was assigned a Grade 10 ELA class and I had been spoiled with Grade 12’s and 11’s for the past few years.
It had been a couple of years since I had Grade 10s, and as I recalled, they were challenging. My 17 years of teaching had taught me that Grade 10s were often irreverent, lazy, and more concerned with their social game-playing than learning.
Yet, being the emotional creature that I am, I have always connected well with these woebegone, ruckus-rising creatures that emerge in the classes of Grade 10. So, I pulled up my big girl pants and prepared for the roller-coaster of Grade 10s.
Alas, these 10’s have become the most beautiful class as a collective that I’ve ever taught in all my 17 years. I always fall in love with my students and my classes, but this group was the heart of teaching for me. It was like playing with puppies, everyday: I’d hold the stick of learning and their eager tails would wag and they’d bark in delight with every task and skill we’d learn. Yes, they were easily excitable, but always respectful to me, to the learning, to the environment, to each other, and to themselves. They were a beautiful class that brought out the excellence in learning for all of us. They created the world of Ubuntu that I’ve so sought to build in my classes.
On days when they were away on field trip and my day would gain a prep, I would miss their energy. Each student – just like all students I have the privilege to love and teach – is extremely special, but what made them unforgettable and life transformative for me was who they were as we came together. We became a family. It doesn’t seem right that our semester came to a close and that our family doesn’t get to come together daily.
I miss them dearly. But I treasure the love they continue to sprinkle through our halls and I feel honoured for their continued visits and hugs. They embody my motto of LAUGH, LOVE, LEARN and I will hold the hope that fate will bring us all together again in the next two years of their journey.
Recreating this world – this Ubuntu – is a practice that I hope to explore, start anew, and resurrect with my Grade 12 students this coming semester. Having 3 groups of ELA 30-1 Diploma courses is a challenge, but I feel the ties of Ubuntu beginning to knit us together. May our journey this semester be as magical as the journey I had with the 10s.
“…my journey as a learner, reader, and writer this year has particularly allowed me to understand the importance of consistency and hard work. … Through this growth, I have also realized my passion for learning, reading, and writing through which I am able to grow in knowledge and wisdom about myself and the world around me.” Carolin – Grade 10
“Ms. Hunnisett has helped me find my voice when it comes to writing, and taught me the importance of reading, … She’s taught me that even the simplest pieces have deeper meaning and many stories of their own to tell. Words can’t describe how much she has changed my way of thinking, because of her my perception of life has become so much more positive…” – Roshni – Grade 10
“The first day of L.A, I had no idea who was in my class and I was forced to choose a spot to sit. Thankfully, as the week progressed, three amazing individuals that I had the privilege to be friends with, showed up and we were all able to create a dynamic group of fun. Sitting in my group of four for the very last time was definitely a difficult thing to do but when I observed the faces of the three people around me, I realized that without them I definitely would not have progressed as an individual and I would still be a very reserved student. As we slowly began to grow in that classroom, it becameterrifying, but knowing that you would always have a shoulder to lean on if it got too overwhelming, really softened the blow of growing up. Hand in hand, we got to face these challenges together and I am very thankful for that.” Sidra – Grade 10
“Being part of our amazing class has really pushed me to strive to achieve for more and help those around me. … Looking back over this semester, I wish that it had lasted longer, so that we could all stay together, but unfortunately it has come to an end. … we have all learntsomething and improved both our reading and learning habits in one way or another. I will always remember the fun ‘adventures’ we had in our class.” – Madhav – Grade 10
“Within these blogs a community of writers was created, a community who supported and built off of one another’s passion. Within the hour and a half classes we made a community of learning and knowledge, but as well created memories. Within the teachings of Ms. Hunnisett, we created a class into a family. I believe that each and every individual was a piece of our classes identity, if we took away anyone we wouldn’t be the class we are today.” – Alisha – Grade 10
“…keeping a journal that we wrote in the beginning of the class was something that largely assisted in my growth, sparking certain ideas or concepts that I did use afterward in the semester. Writing blogs wasanother thing that at first seemed unnecessary, however I slowly came to realize how they were indeed inspiring me and helping me to improve my writing.” Ishmeet – Grade 10
“I sincerely hope to grow as a learner, reader and writer through the years that follow, but above all I yearn the desire of having Mrs. Hunnisett as a teacher again. I have profoundly learned this year from writing essays to performing plays; boosting my inner esteem and allowing me to paint that picture that lay beyond the window. Obviously, that painting will become more vibrant in the years to come, but for that I must read more and write more to escape my inner emotions so I can paint that picture in a poetic manner.” – Mah Noor – Grade 10
“As a reader, this year I feel that I have definitely improved a lot. As of this year, I have read approximately six to seven books in the few months of this course. Therefore, I read approximately one book a month. I feel that this is evidently better than what I have read last year, when I barely spared enough time for myself to read. This year, I was also able to learn that it is very important for a person to continuereading so that they can always have a chance to improve their writing. The more a person reads, the better their writing gets.” – Suchismita – Grade 10
“I’ve always been a fairly opinionated person, wanting to have people listen to what I have to say and actually understand and pay attention, something that can be hard as a teenager. When writing, now I can see that it’s a good way to do just that. The blogging has influenced that significantly as well … It allowed me to try something new and it acted as a good outlet for me to write how I desired to with a clear purpose of simply expressing my feelings on certain subjects. … I feel as though I’ve matured as a writer and even though I still don’t necessarily like doing it because of the hassle, I most certainly have grown to appreciate the art of writing.” – Paula – Grade 10
“One of the most important things that I’ve achieved from this class is wanting to read. I hated reading. but last year when I read Of Mice and MenI thought of reading more, but throughout the year I never actually got to find another book that I enjoyed. To Kill a Mockingbird is one of my favorite novels and that was my ” Aha” for wanting to read more which is a goal for 2015 for me.” Gavin – Grade 10
“By the end of this semester not only did I gain confidence in my writing skills but I gained reassurance knowing that my voice was finally being heard, recognized, appreciated and related to. …coming to grade ten where reading was expected was a shock, but one that I welcomed as a challenge. …As a learner so far this year I have gained more self-confidence that success is possible for me and that I can contribute to the learning community because my opinion is valued and realistic.” Cayleigh – Grade 10
“I love writing personal, and I love reading personal pieces. You see a whole new side of that person that you didn’t see before, and maybe you can even connect with them because of that experience. Writing personal pieces can be hard because you’re showing vulnerability to an extent, and I guess that’s why I admire personal writing so much because you see that rawness in another person and I appreciate when someone shows vulnerability or rawness. … I knew this classroom would be a place of happiness, love and care. I grew closer to people who I thought I wouldn’t even have a relationship with, and I’ve created many new friendships because of this class. ” Daania – Grade 10
“I have never felt so proud of myself while doing a specific course. I have learned so much in this short time about poems , short stories, and so much more. I have learned about how people can transform a catastrophe into something so beautiful in words.” Asna – Grade 10
Everything I am as a teacher, and all that I value as a school leader has been cultivated from my 27 years of experience in the theatre, and these values have navigated my success in my English classroom and school community for many years. The secret ingredient to my success, that theatre has honed in me, is the intuitive skill of foresight! Theatrical productions are successful when they are well designed, directed, and rehearsed, and that all foreseeable challenges, pitfalls, and problems are prepared for, so that in the end the show goes on and succeeds, forsaking all setbacks and managing any failures.
Essentially, to be an effective transformational leader in a school requires the same 4C (foresee) priorities that I learned from the theatre world:
My 4C philosophy was recently reflected in this article in The Globe and Mail: “Liberal arts is the future of work, so why is Canada pushing ‘job-ready’ skills?” (May 12, 2014). This articles argues for the value of a liberal arts education to create today and tomorrow’s leaders by cultivating the same skills of transformational leadership that I garnered from my theatre arts training and experience:
people who can communicate effectively and persuasively, people who can collaborate across departments to solve problems, people with emotional intelligence who can transcend age and cultural differences and who possess the resilience to embrace failure as a learning experience.
This quotation completely resonates for me because these are my daily actions that lead my success and continual growth as a teacher, a colleague, a coordinator, and a team leader and supporter of our phenomenally successful performing arts program, and these are the same values and skills that I seek to inspire in my students and my colleagues through transformational leadership. Here I’ll explain how this transformational leadership is embodied in the 4C for school leadership – Community, Commitment, Communication, and Command:
In transformational leadership, first I seek to build unity within the community – Ubuntu if you will:
“Ubuntu means people are people through other people… [it] acknowledges both the right and the responsibilities of every citizen in promoting individual and societal well-being.” (Nelson Mandela)
I purposefully work to build safe and caring Ubuntu groups that are fostered with each member of the community being recognized as a valued voice. Communities are built on trust, and trust exists when people feel truly validated and heard. A leader must listen to and honour their community – communication is integral to trust building and existing.
I begin this in the classroom by having students begin the year with a values based project that is shared and celebrated in the class: favourite quotes, credos, stories, life philosophies, and “this I believe” essays. Getting inside the hearts and minds of the community members is the key to building this unity.
I continue to foster “community building” with two measures of community accountability: “How are you making your learning visible?” and “How are you contributing to the learning of other?” (ETMOOC) I have really explored this in my classroom in my blog from March titled Community and Culture in my Classroom.
Communities need to honour every member, but leadership also requires one to see those members who are community transfomers – leaders who others look up to. It’s important to balance equity among staff member, yet to also recognize those who intrinsically work beyond the status quo. Your leaders should have trust and voices as their input ultimately affects the whole
Coming together for sharing and storytelling is transformational in synthesizing a group. For example, years ago when there was great divisiveness among the women on staff, I re-introduced Girls Night, a monthly event when the women came together. This had existed when I first came to the high school staff, and I was awed by the tight-knit nature of this group of women, but as our school grew in size and number, this event had fallen to the wayside. By re-introducing the monthly event, and by asking the women to each take on a month that they would organize – so all the work was not falling to one person’s shoulders – we changed the attitudes, behaviours, and communications of the women. Sitting together to laugh and share helped us to appreciate each other in a different light and this helped to unify us. This tradition continues, although our busy lives have limited our opportunities. In reflection, this is something I need to get back to as a priority.
In working as a community leader I let my heart lead the way. I am blessed with an abundance of emotional intelligence and I draw upon this deep well to galvanize a team to meet goals and create visions while building motivation and trust, not just with me, but moreover with each other. I work hard to be present with people and to care about them, their lives, and their interests. By modelling this value, many others do likewise. A caring community builds a family and family takes care of each other. I cannot take care of each and every person, so in transformational leadership I empower the team with confidence to be the interconnected network for support for each other.
The second priority in a transformational leader is to focus on communication as a key value in a school, and one that is necessary to build and support the community. My communication skills have developed through the balancing of both my introspective nature and my interpersonal skills. I deeply care about people, so I consider that communication is my essential tool to motivate and support people. Fortunately, my English and Theatre Arts expertise, my critical thinking skills, and my emotional intelligence offers me a wealth of practice and experience in honing this precious tool, as a listener, as a speaker, as a reader, and as a writer.
When communicating with people I work hard to focus on listening and being non-judgmental. I need to understand perspectives and concerns so that I can measure how to appropriately offer response and support. There are many times that I have dealt with students, parents, or staff who are frustrated or angry about a situation. First I need to let them talk, while I listen. They need to know that I want to help them, to help them embrace resilience and learn from the challenge they are facing. They need and deserve to be heard. As a parent and a compassionate person, it helps give me patience and perspective in these conversations. Then, I offer my honesty and candour to help them understand and to help support them. I believe in focusing on solutions, so I use communication as a tool for refocusing obstacles into opportunities, and once a vision or plan is in place, follow-up communication and accountability is key to creating positive transformation.
Communication is the heart of all we do in education. So it is imperative that we bring our strong communication skills to the job, daily, for grand encounters such as presenting or managing crucial conversations in meetings, but especially in the small tokens of conversation, daily. To share a kind word, validation, feedback, and even a sincere “hello” is so important to building and maintaining relationships of trust and maintaining motivation in hard times.
I have a boundless pool of intrinsic motivation when I’m passionate about something, and I’m passionate about education, people, and in making lives better for all. The flame burns bright in me, and I endeavour to inspire and cultivate the flame in my colleagues and my students. But passion and inspiration result in nothing without commitment. So, I could say that I’m passionately committed to not only offering the best of myself, my skills, and my knowledge, but I’m also passionately committed to exploring the unknown as we sit on the cusp of the 21st Century education.
On a microcosm level, I am highly committed to kids! Individually, I look for the best in each of my students and help them shine and build their confidence – every kid counts for me. For a class, I offer the best of designed instruction that I can to meet the needs of my students on a daily basis – both inside and outside the four walls of the classroom. I strive to have a highly engaged classroom that is buzzing with learning; kids desire to be in my class and that is a result of my passion. I also work hard to constantly improve my strategies for feedback and connectivity with students to help them be the best person and learner that they can be. Although my expectations are high for myself and my students, I don’t seek compliance of commitment; rather, I seek to embed the value and motivation for commitment, and I do this through modelling it.
On a macrocosm level, I continually strive for greater perspective, awareness, experience, and knowledge to lead the charge with initiatives for Inspiring Education and Curriculum Redesign not just in the English classroom, or our theatrical productions, but for the school and organization as a whole. For many years now I have researched and practiced innovations in teaching practices to motivate student learning and organizational growth towards 21st Century capacities. A whole world has opened up to me with the world of blogging and virtual PLN’S (professional learning networks), and I continue to be committed to lead our growth as an innovative and transformational educational organization. I am not afraid of these changes, in fact I embrace it, and I’m committed and poised to navigate through what is uncertain and unknown.
This is a highly contentious word choice for leadership, I know. But it is the right word to describe a key priority for a leader of a school filled with leaders; in the end, I can lead those leaders and be decisive. It is the right word for me, someone who is known as “Ms. Hunni” and all the sweetness in connotation with my name and my personality, because I can be a commanding and authoritative presence, when necessary.
My experience with proven commitment, communication, and community-building skills all contribute to my success and the respect that I have earned to be seen as a “commanding presence” in both the classroom and the the school. It is true that in my idealized world we could all work in harmony and collaboration, filled with intrinsic motivation- where we can all hold the conch and take our turn in harmony. I firmly believe in the power of collaboration, consensus, and consultation. This unity from the community is essential in the school, but so too is the ability to make the hard decisions, to have the crucial conversations, to take the laboured actions, and to even make unpopular decisions, when necessary. It is essential to be able to manage the multitude of foreseeable and unforeseeable issues that challenge leadership on a daily basis, and the word “command” speaks to the duty and responsibility that comes with the role.
In the role of school leadership, we must be the role models and the risk takers for our mission and our vision for FFCA, and I know that I embody these virtues with my intuitive foresight as supported by my priorities of COMMUNITY, COMMUNICATION, COMMITMENT, and COMMAND.
As April comes to a close, I’m left pondering the topic of Professional Development. The prompts for the month suggest:
For PD to be effective it must have the following 3 characteristics…
The conference/book/activity that delivered the most meaningful PD experience I have had was…
My most powerful source of ongoing PD is…
Blogging is essential to my own PD because…
To begin, I feel that to be an educator one must really be an impassioned learner for education is not only about expertise, it is about being confident enough to make yourself vulnerable to a constancy of change and uncertainty; we are explorers, sometimes with a map, sometimes without, but we are always learning something new on each voyage, and constantly depending on our wits to respond and react to the unforeseen.
Professional Development should be the keystone to provide us with the skills and knowledge necessary to navigate the vacillating waters – of pedagogies, teaching assignments, leadership, technology, time, and especially the students – with greater success for each expedition we take. A student once said, “each day I get up trying to be better than I was the day before” (Arsh), and this was one of those moments when you could hear a choir of angels sing, this was the “aha” for all of us blessed to be in the class that day, and so this is what I too strive for both personally and professionally!
Professional development is something I depend on to fuel my growth, and I admit I’m a bit of a PD junkie; I don’t just depend on my administrative leaders to arrange what professional development I need to do to be better and grow; although, yes, as part of a community that is necessary too. But that is like saying “okay – I will eat healthy and exercise on these specifically designated days a year, and that will be enough fuel to motivate my improvement.” We all know that is ridiculous, so why would a professional teacher think their entire professional growth should be motivated by only the school’s designated PD. We grow and learn by our own intrinsic desire to improve, and our own established inquiry and PLNs (Professional Learning Networks). So in the quest of Professional Development, we need to work with our school community’s PD goals and plans, our department’s PD goals and plans, but we must also seek out the PD we know we need “to be better than [we were] the day before.”
I think that our organization at FFCA has worked hard to offer Professional Development time to help foster and tweek teachers’ growth and excellence to meet our Guiding Principles . We’ve seen PD in classroom management (CHAMPS, ACHIEVE, STOIC), in our FFCA Direct Instruction Framework, Character Education, Inclusive Education, English Language Learning, Educational Technology, etc…. I believe that teachers – me included – are one of the hardest bunch of learners in any PD session, but it can offer an opportunity to the workshop organizers to really model excellent “designed instruction” in the planning and teaching to engage these tired teachers; the greatest model of a talented teacher engaging an audience of tired teachers was when our school arranged PD with Marcia Tate’s on brain-based learning. Phenomenal!
One of the other great opportunities I have had for learning and development was through our AISI work (Alberta Initiative of School Improvement – a now dissolved Alberta Ed funding opportunity) with Critical Thinking. The training and learning that I received in developing a critical thinking classroom through Garfield Gini-Newman, the Critical Thinking Consortium, and The Critical Thinking Community was transformative in educating me in how to train myself and students to be more critically mindful! The work we did with Gini-Newman lay a foundation to help meld the ideals of Direct Instruction with Critical Thinking into a Synergistic Reality (as can be seen here in the article written by John Picard and Garfield Gini-Newman).
I’ve also been so inspired by the PD I experienced from being on our Learning Commons committee – this is an endeavour that marries so many of our school’s initiatives while providing the foresight and navigation for 21st century learning and the future redesign of eduction in Alberta. Yet, at the present time – like Columbus’ misunderstood quixotic ambitions – schools lack the funding from Alberta Education to support this transformative work. Someday I dream of evolving into a Learning Commons Leader for our school where I can help create a place to work with all students, all educators, and all curriculums in both physical and virtual settings of learning.
Finally, in our community of Calgary, I also find valuable PD from our local Calgary Regional Consortium whose mandate is to create PD opportunities for our local teachers. Through all of the various opportunities I’ve experienced at my campus, my school, and my community, I believe leaders need to mindfully craft and design PD to maximize teacher engagement, learning, and take-aways, and I am ever so grateful that our organization prioritizes PD towards helping us improve and grow.
This is also where I have come to appreciate our school’s expectation that we create and reflect on Professional Growth Plans (PGP) yearly. When working with teachers and administrators I think it is relevant to know the best PD that the teacher or administrator has ever experienced and why? How did the PD invigorate or change his or her paradigms, for we need administrators and teachers who are learners and know how to direct their own PD and accountability. It is through PD that our paradigms of education are rooted and honed towards excellence! We need great PD, we need great PLNs (Professional Learning Networks), and we need visionaries who know how to help us excel and even change, especially in a world where 21st Century Learning and Innovation in education is essential.
I also believe that the reading habits of all teachers matter – whether the educator teaches English, science, math, physical education, or is an administrator. In his book What is Stephen Harper is Reading? Yann Martel has said that the reading habits of politicians matter because “in what they choose to read will be found in what they think and what they will do”:
As long as someone has no power over me, I don’t care what they read, or if they read at all. It’s not for me to judge how people should live their lives … Once someone has power over me, … it’s in my interest to know the nature and quality of his imagination, because his dreams may become my nightmares. (Martel, p 10)
So, in regards to Professional Development, teachers and administrators should be accountable to answer:
1) What are they reading right now?
2) What professional development book would they recommend to the organization or their curricular team, perhaps as a staff book read?
3) What is their favourite book of all time – from any genre?
The answers to these questions, I believe, are the true secrets to the character and mind of the educator. There is much to be understood and inferred by these answers, and much credibility to our work with students. It can also build a synergy, community, and culture amongst staff who have common reading interests and pursuits. Would I want a doctor who did not read and stay current in his or her practice? The same needs to be said and expected of educators.
Back in 1997-98 when I was in the Teacher Education program at Nipissing University I had a great professor named Terry McEachern who taught us about the need for Professional Development through professional networking and professional journals. This was in the day when the internet wasn’t readily available at our fingertips, so I came to be enlightened through the reading of journals. Today these are a couple of journals that I continue to read for my monthly PD “aha”:
The English Companion Ning – this online network of professional English teachers was established by Jim Burke. On it I found countless lessons, constant inspiration, and answers to my many ponderings from wonderful educators who share their resources and experience! On this site I found one of the greatest of all people in my Professional Learning Network – the humble and talented Carol Mayne – an educator in Canmore, Alberta who has guided me through the many landmines of teaching Diploma courses in Alberta.
Of course, the true soul mate of all my Professional Development has come through the Annual Conference for the National Council of Teachers of English. I first attended in Chicago 2011 (which inspired this blog), was able to take my entire team of ELA teachers to Las Vegas 2012, and finally was offered the opportunity to be a speaker in Boston 2013 – and fingers crossed will be accepted to speak in Washington 2014 about Blogging and Storytelling. The learning and paradigm shifting that happens through these conferences has been nothing short of mind-blowing! It truly meets my PD criteria of being highly engaging, transformative learning, and have immediately applicable take-aways that improve my teaching the next day when I re-enter my classroom. I hope that I continue to afford this opportunity that re-invigorates my spirit each fall! It has made me a much happier and better teacher today, and I’m grateful!
Clearly, Professional Development is something I feel a passionate zeal for pursuing in my life. It keeps me motivated, inspired and hopeful to be the best educator that I can be for my students; it helps keep me skilled to captain my ship, for my students in these constantly changing waters. This “leave of absence” from my school for a semester, so that I could sail away abroad to sunny Argentina has been a total respite, but has also provided me the elusive TIME that I have yearned for in life. Time to find my ZEN life (as I wrote about in my other blog), but also time to invest in my professional development through reflections, reading, and writing – this blogging is a power
ful reflective tool that really helps me make sense of my values, learning, and perspectives. Many chastise me for working on “vaca”, but I argue that I’m not on “vaca”, I’m on “living”, and because I love my work too, and must return to it in the fall, I am loving the opportunity to further my learning and my growth without any pressure, so that I will return in peace with calmer waters because I am reinvigorated!
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. 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.
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:
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.
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.
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. Further resources for UBUNTU:
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:
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.
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.
So, 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. 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.