Working on Change

As part of my masters research I am piloting a participatory inquiry project with 3 of my students this semester. I have been fully immersed in the inquiry cycle and doing a lot of reflecting on my practice. While the actual implementation of student inquiry in my classroom has not gone entirely smooth, I can say that the feedback from students is overwhemingly positive. Recently I had the opportunity to hear Brooke Moore (@bmooreintheloop) speak when she visited the SFU Cohort I work with. She spoke about shifting her practice and a little bit on the struggles inherent in change. I have a few thoughts on the process of change and I would love any feedback or advice you could provide.

1. Working with students is key: During my career I have attempted a few major shifts in my practice. In each of my previous attempts I focused on democratizing my classroom with varied results. It seemed that the democratic practices I implemented were always superficial, and I think a lot of that had to do with the fact I implemented them. This time I have committed to working with my students to implement the changes in my practice and so far the results have been much more meaningful. When students are included in the process the buy in is that much quicker and transitions that much smoother. Perhaps more importantly the change is better embraced because it is more effective. When you speak to your students and include their voice the changes that occur will better meet their needs.

2. Baby steps will get me there: Originally I had visions of shifting my entire practice to one centered around inquiry based learning. While this is the eventual goal, I felt that making a drastic change might upset some of the success my students are currently experiencing. Working in an Alt-Ed program I have students who are experiencing success in school for the first time. I felt that shifting my practice completelymight be like pulling the carpet from under their feet. I decided that working with a few students first would allow me to pilot the program and work out some of the inevitble kinks in any new practice before introducing it to my class as a whole. Looking back I am happy I made this decision. It has given me the opportunity to establish a new practice in a manageable way but more importantly it is creating a sense of excitment in my classroom. The students taking part in the inquiry are sharing their experiences and building support for my work at a peer level, something I could never acheive alone.

3. Know your audience: From the start the three students I am working with have been at the centre of the process. I have been gathering evidence on their attitudes towards school through surveys and interviews and the information I have collected has shed a lot of light on engagement in my class. I should note that I have been working closely with these three students for four semesters and we have established a degree of trust where they feel they can be honest with their feedback on my practice. They have no issues telling me they feel something is “useless” or “boring.” I also primed the conversation by showing the RSA video clip featuring Sir Ken Robinson and his thoughts on education reform. This did a great job of articulating some of my feelings about the education system and showed the students that it was ok to criticize the system we work in. Knowing these three students really well has made the process that much easier. We have a great working relationship and that allows me to handle bumps along the way skillfully and personally.

Change is always tough, especially when trying to change something as complex as a teaching practice that encompasses so many different variables. I feel that by working with the students, taking baby steps and knowing your audience can really help towards making meaningful change manageable.

I will continue to update my progress on this process and would love to hear about your experiences in implementing changes in your teaching.

Thanks for reading,

-Bryce

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What is essential to my practice?

I went to my first Edcamp this weekend and it was mindshaking. My head is still spinning from all the ideas whizzing around Delta Secondary. To be sharing with so many passionate educators was really inspiring. The organizers did a fantastic job and I want to thank them all for their hard work. I know there is an Edcamp coming up on Vancouver Island and I am going to try to get out to that one as well. I would really recommend anyone to try to get to one of these fantastic experiences if they have the opportunity. Check out #edcampdelta on twitter to follow some of the conversations and http://edcamp.deltasd.bc.ca/on-the-day for google-doc links to session notes.

Ok, enough with the edcamp plug.

During one session a group of us engaged in a discussion around what is essential in education. What are the “babies” and what is the “bathwater”? Some great ideas were thrown around and I wish we had more time for a deeper discussion (a complaint I have about the edcamp format was that each session was way too short). What I took from this experience was the need for some personal reflection in my own practice on what is essential to hang on to. I like to reflect back on my Professional Philosophy as it helps me stay grounded in my beliefs but I think I could still spend some serious time getting to the essentials of my practice.

I start a new semester in two weeks and I want to embrace a new beginning to toss out parts of my practice that don’t align with my beliefs. Towards that end I have identified what I believe are my three “babies”. My goal is to throw out any practices that don’t connect directly back to these three goals. Here they are in no particular order.

1. Focusing on relationships: Working in an alt-ed program is all about forming positive relationships with students. Getting to know them as human beings is one of the great joys of my job. I do this well and it forms the backbone of every other part of my practice.

2. Building skills: I want my students to leave the program with some skills and abilities they will use for the rest of their lives. While I have some ideas on what skills are important, I want to honour them in focusing on skills they feel are important as well. As this exercise is all about reduction I’ll narrow it down to the two most important skills I want my students to leave with – communication skills and critical thinking skills. I feel like these two skill sets will best equip them to be able to shape their worlds into ones they want to live in.

3. Promoting student agency: All of my graduate work over the past three years has been around increasing student agency in my classroom. I  believe that if we encourage agency in schools we will increase personal agency in the world as more active students will translate to more active citizens and those versed in democracy in the classroom will be more likely to demand democracy in their communities.

I have no idea how successful I am going to be in cutting out everything that doesn’t relate back to these goals. My practice is constantly evolving to try to meet the needs of my students.  I may remember more “babies” tomorrow morning or find new ones in a week, regardless, I think the attempt will be rewarding and give me much more to think on. I do plan to introduce these ideas on the first day of class and see how the students feel about them. Hopefully the students will have some ideas they want to focus on, and together we can keep our classroom accountable to sticking with our goals and not straying in our practice.

Just reflecting on what is essential to my practice has been unsettling for me. So much of what I do in my practice doesn’t jive with my motives. While I am constantly thinking about teaching and learning I’ve never really looked at tearing away all the layers to get down to my core essentials. I’m excited to see where this takes my teaching.

As always I would appreciate any comments you may have!

Thanks for reading,

-Bryce

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A Blanket Policy against Blanket Policies

“Toronto School Bans Hard Balls”

Lately I have been reflecting on the effectiveness of large (class wide, program wide, school wide, district wide etc) blanket policies regarding conduct and student behaviour. Over the past two weeks it seems that discussions around this topic continue to pop-up with different colleagues in different situations. I find myself more and more forming a personal blanket policy against blanket policies. Some of my reasons…

1. One of my main goals as an educator is to be reflexive teacher – one who constantly changes and adapts my teaching and learning based on the variables within my context. I want to be an educator that meets my students as who they are and where they are and then works with them to create something meaningful for the class as a whole (both my students and myself). I find blanket policies hinder my ability to do this.

One example is policies regarding technology in classrooms. Many schools continue to have blanket policies banning personal electronics in the classroom.  I would have real difficulties with this. Do I ignore the needs of my students or do I ignore the professional relationship with my colleagues? Not an easy decision and one with consequences either way. Often the only technology available to classrooms is the technology brought by the students – their smart-phones. By denying access to this technology are we really engaging our students? I don’t know the right answer, but I do know that my students benefit from lessons that embrace technology to explore meaningful inquiry questions. Recently a colleague took on a similar policy with the staff at my school and had our policy changed. I applaud her for her courage and leadership.

2. Democratic teaching is another pillar of my professional philosophy. If, as teachers, we want to encourage students to become active citizens in a democratic state we need to model that democratic process and encourage an investment in it. We can’t do that by acting as authoritarian dictators lording over our classes with totalitarian control. We must learn to work with our students to co-create a meaningful experience. How can I exercise the professional flexibility needed in a democratic process when blanket policies smother our options?

In many schools there are designated silent reading blocks. I love reading, I encourage my students to read and I love how schools have demonstrated their commitment to reading by devoting time to it. But I don’t love coercing students into reading. Are we really fostering a love of literacy by forcing students to take up a book? By punishing them if they don’t? There are times I can’t focus on a book, there are times I don’t feel like reading, and I know my students share those experiences. A blanket policy doesn’t allow for any flexibility. There have been days when my students would benefit a lot more from a walk around the block, from a discussion on a topic in the newspaper, from going outside and playing basketball for 20 minutes (secondary students don’t get recess), or just by having a 20 minute nap, than reading. I would love to have the flexibility in my teaching to really meet my students where they are. I pride myself in doing this in a lot of ways and get really frustrated when I can’t because of systemic pressures.

The contradiction of this post’s title is intended to explain that I am my grappling with this issue. In such a large system blanket policies are going to happen and are often necessary. Working in the program I work in also necessitates blanket policies.  I believe it is important to revisit some of these policies and work out ways that flexibility can be worked into them. Our job is to meet our students needs not force them to conform.

Any thoughts or comments would be more than welcome.

Thanks for reading,

-Bryce

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Today I am just going to ask questions

Last night I heard Chris Kennedy speak about his vision for his school district, I really recommend his blog Culture of Yes and following him on twitter @chrkennedy. He has a lot of really interesting ideas that challenge many of the traditions that keep educational systems from evolving.

When I got home I stayed up all night reading blogs and thinking about my classroom and my practice.  I spend a lot of time nagging my kids to get to work, to stay on task and to meet deadlines and I know very well it is because the engagement level in my room is very low. Working in an alternate ed program I sometimes mistakenly believe that low engagement is simply part of the job. It is too easy to blame the students because they are “at risk” or “problem students.” The real issue isn’t with my students (or any students for that matter) it is my teaching.

I have always focused a lot of my attention on building positive relationships with my students and I firmly believe that these relationships are key to the success of my students. My focus on relationships, while really important, has left my actual teaching lacking. I spend almost all of my time lecturing or leading discussions, and leave almost no time for my students to create anything meaningful within the curriculum. It is no wonder I have to coerce them into “learning.”

After listening to Chris speak and engaging in a number of new ideas last night I have decided today not to lecture, not to give notes, not to “teach” but simply to ask a few questions and let the students engage with them through technology and discussion. I am excited to see how it works out and how my students feel about a more student centered approach.

I am currently working through a teacher-inquiry project focused on a pedagogy that will engage with students in a more meaningful way. I am really excited for next semester when the action plan will be put into practice and I will really start to experiment with humanizing my practice, but right now my teaching and my values are miles apart and it is killing me. Hopefully today can provide a respite for both me and my students.

I will write up some reflections at the end of the day.

Thanks for reading,

Bryce

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Schooling VS Learning

Working in an alternate education setting with “at risk youth” I am constantly confronted with negative attitudes towards schooling. All of my students, for many different reasons, have not been successful in the traditional school model and this lack of success has left them frustrated, bitter, resentful and sometimes defeated. Despite these deep oppositional feelings towards schooling they continue to display a very real love for learning. I want change my practice to capitalize on my student love for learning and distance myself from the constraints of schooling.

It is important to emphasize that I consider schooling much different from learning. Schooling can be seen as the institutionalized approach to educating the masses. It is a top-down, authoritarian approach that leaves students powerless in the process of their own education. Schooling is exemplified by mandatory course work, high stakes testing, letter-grade based assessments, teacher-centered classrooms and other practices that refuse to recognize the student as a human agent. In short, schooling is what Paulo Freire referred to as “Banking education,” where students are empty vaults, passively waiting for official knowledge to be deposited. I consider learning to be the process of furthering ones own human potential towards the highest human good. I first encountered this idea as “eudaimonia” or “arête” when reading Aristotle’s ethics as an undergrad and again in Paulo Feire’s work Pedagogy of the Oppressed early in my career. I knew that what Freire called “Humanization” was why I wanted to teach, not covering syllabi in mandatory courses. Pursuing this ideal has led me to understand that the for the process of humanization to occur in schools we must reject the traditional student-teacher dichotomy and embrace  a practice based on a student-teacher relationship of co-creation.  It is my hope that by embracing this methodology I will be embracing a practice that empowers students as learners and people. In her work that describes a similar process, critical pedagogue sj Miller stated, “Youth, with an empowered sense of self, can act on and transform the worlds in which they live.”

My biggest challenge is not embracing these ideologies, but enacting them in my class. I have flirted with democracy with my students for a number of years, but it always felt shallow; I never felt that my practice had actually shifted from teacher-centred to one of true co-creation. I still engage in schooling my students while I yearn to engage in learning with them. While I struggle with this implementation I am excited to go through the process.

I would love any feedback, advice or perspectives offered.

Thanks for reading,

-Bryce

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How Can I…

This Monday’s class was supposed to be centered around a really interesting article by John Heron and Peter Reason on the “Participatory Inquiry Paradigm.” If you are new to participatory inquiry I recommend it. I was honestly really looking forward to discussing the article because I got a lot from it. I felt like it really focused me; gave me some boundaries in which to start my work. This is what we were supposed to discuss in class, but we didn’t.

It was clear from the start of class that I was in the minority in my attitude towards the article. Instead of working through the article as a class our very responsive professor sensed the mood of the class and allowed us to shift the conversation away from the reading and to our inquiry studies. It was clear many students (myself included) were feeling stress over writing proposals and some attention was needed in that area. As a result a large chunk of time was devoted to sharing out our wonderings and inquiry ideas.

Listening to everyone’s thoughts allowed us to share our passions, tensions, strengths and stretches. I think it was an excellent activity that shed some light on us as a classroom of learners and teachers. I loved it.

Obviously listening to my classmate’s inquiry focuses got me thinking more about my own. Since my first teaching assignment I have been concerned with student motivation in learning and more specifically democratic education as a pedagogy to increase student engagement in learning and student agency in their lives. This has been the focus of a number of past inquiries and I am really excited to delve deeper into my democratic practice.

As it stands right now my inquiry question for this upcoming year looks like this:

“How can I implement democratic principles into my practice in order to increase student engagement in learning and agency in their lives?”

I have some concerns with the wording of this question, but I am happy with the spirit of it. I know what I want to accomplish – “increase student engagement in learning and agency in their lives” and I have an idea on how to do that “incorporate democratic principles into my practice.” My concerns are that by articulating my intended outcomes I may become blind to other outcomes that result from a more democratic practice. I am also concerned that I will be focused too heavily on results and not enough on process. These are some questions I have posed to my classmates and to my professor and I am looking forward to hearing back from them.

Thanks for reading,

-Bryce

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The problem with students is they are never what you expect.

This week has been a week to remember; in good ways and bad.

This week I’ve had two students drop out of school, one suspended, three sent home for the day (one of those students has been sent home twice), and three more disappoint me with their selfish behaviour. It is just that time of year, the “honeymoon” period has worn off, many students fall back into old habits and the novelty of learning in an alternate program is gone. It is always around this time when true colours shine through.

I’m really upset two of my students dropped out, unfortunately it comes with the territory. One of them I saw coming; school and this student clearly didn’t mix. Other interests were the priority. No one was surprised when the attendance fell apart and the student stopped coming to school. It is sad, but expected. The other student totally shocked me. I have worked with this student for over a year and watched a lot of learning take place. This year didn’t start well, but I never imagined it would lead to dropping out of school. We (the team of teachers I work with) tried everything to convince this student to stay. We rationalized, we appealed to emotion, we got angry, we got sad, we pleaded and begged. We even brought in a best friend who is committed to graduating to help convince the student to stay. Nothing was going to change this young person’s mind. I fully expected this student to graduate and now that isn’t likely to happen anytime soon. I feel hurt, betrayed, sad, frustrated and guilty. As teachers I think we rejoice in our student’s successes and suffer in their failures. Having a student drop out is one of the most painful things I’ve experienced in my professional life and it is sad to say I experience it far too often.

The student’s decision to drop out iced this nightmare week’s cake (and it is only Wednesday). Needless to say on my bike ride home today I felt terrible. I was frustrated with the student, frustrated with the school system and frustrated with myself. One of the reasons I love biking home from work is because usually by the time I’m home I’ve hammered through all my frustrations. Today was different though, no amount of pedal pushing was working. I thought the whole night was going to be a write-off until a mini-van pulled up beside me and I heard my name being called “Hey! Mr. Miller!”  I turned and saw a face I haven’t seen for months. It was a student I had kicked out of school last June for a myriad of issues. “Perfect” I thought, “now I’m going to get run off the road by this bitter kid”. But the student had a big grin on his face, “Mr. Miller, I’ve been meaning to call you!” “I went to summer school and graduated! I’m working as a plumber!” the light turned green and we had to move “I’ll call you tomorrow!” the student yelled as he sped off.

Two hours after hearing this I am still floored. I can’t wait to hear all the details. This was a student who had been shipped through four different schools in the past three years and was nothing but trouble during his time with working with me. I honestly thought he would end up in prison or dead.

It is experiences like this that make me think the world isn’t such a bad place. It gives me hope that the students who drop out have a chance to be O.K. This lucky encounter couldn’t have come at a better time for my professional morale, and it came from the last place I would ever expect.

Thanks for reading,

-Bryce

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Professional Development

Today is the first Pro-D day of the year. My students were excited to have the day off, and a few of them are off on a camping trip. I wonder what they will learn as independent young people living, if only for a short while, in a context much different than their own. Removed from plugged in, urban lives they will be forced to approach basic activities like cooking and sleeping from different angles. I am excited to talk to them about their experience “away from it all” on Monday. Excited to see if they gained any unique perspectives from their time away from home. I hope they learn something valuable; I hope the experience for them is positive and they gain a love for the outdoors, an appreciation for simplicity and form bonds with each other that stretch beyond their regular friendships.

Pro-D days, depending on how they are used, can be very valuable for everyone. While some of my students embark on a camping trip I will sit through meetings. The main focus of our activities is to triangulate provincially prescribed learning outcomes, new school goals and our teaching units. We started this process last week in a short Pro-D session and at first I was less than enthused.

One of my major contentions with in-school professional development is staff attitude towards the whole idea. I get the sense that a lot of teachers (and I assume this is true for many professions that require Pro-D) don’t really value growth. I hear a lot of complaining around Pro-D and I have voiced my own displeasure at some of the activities we engage in. Like so many others I don’t do this in a constructive way, I grumble to colleagues about how I could better use the time. Last week when we started this activity I was one of the grumblers. I should have kept my mouth shut, given the activity a chance, and taken from it what I could.

My issue with this specific activity is that it doesn’t apply to my teaching context. I teach in an alternate program that is housed in a school but remains separate in many ways. The activity in triangulating goals doesn’t apply because the grades we are focusing on, 8, 9 and 10 aren’t taught in my program. So I grumbled away as I sat down and worked with my content group.

What I found is that even though we didn’t address grade specific material relevant to my teaching context I could still connect my practice with the Pro-D activity. There was still meaning I could pull out of the activity to help me grow as an educator. While we triangulated goals we discussed individual lessons or units that we felt met specific learning objectives. In sharing these ideas I got a rare glimpse into other teachers classrooms and the amazing things that go on. As always, when ideas are shared new ones spring forward. I found myself  jotting down ideas that sprang forth as we discussed teaching and learning. My teaching will improve because of the time I had to sit down with colleagues and discuss teaching even though that discussion was centered around a context not immediately relevent to my experience.

Reflecting back on that short 1 hour session I think the biggest professional growth that occurred was my attitude towards prescribed Pro-D. Today, as I wait for the triangulation session to start, I am not grumbling as I did last week; I am excited. I know that I will glean some bit of pedagogical wisdom from my colleagues that will help my practice improve. Approaching all Pro-D sessions with this attitude will certainly help me value the opportunity we are afforded to sit together and discuss with colleagues, an opportunity that often goes missing during the course of a regular school day.

I hope my students find their weekend camping trip as rewarding and thought-provoking as I know I will find my meetings. I hope they have the wisdom to approach each experience as an opportunity for growth which is something I have learned and hope to embrace on all Pro-D days to come.

Thanks for reading,

-Bryce

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Forming a Professional Philosophy

A number of years ago, when I was completing my B.Ed at UBC, one of my professors discussed how important having a professional philosophy is to educators. He urged us to really reflect on WHY we were studying to become teachers, WHAT we hoped to achieve in our classrooms and HOW we felt those achievements would best take place. At the time I honestly didn’t pay too much attention; I was overwhelmed with assignments requiring lesson plans timed to the minute.

Now as a teacher I reflect daily on my practice and I see how important a professional philosophy is. Too often we are bogged down with a seemingly infinite number of day-to-day tasks. I know I have found myself whipping together a lesson plan just so I would have something to keep my students busy the next day.

Assigning busy work is NOT why I became a teacher. Philosophically busy work goes against a lot of what I believe education should be. By reflecting on my personal philosophy I am able to refocus and reenergize towards fulfilling my goals. I am able to step back from the administrative tasks and apply myself to designing meaningful lessons that (hopefully) engage my students.

It is always interesting to reflect back on my professional philosophy as I have grown and matured as a teacher. One of my earliest written philosophies was this:

“I aim to be a critically engaged teacher, guided by clearly articulated views, who responds creatively to the needs of my students.”

Looking back on this I realize that it actually doesn’t say too much, but I know at the time I wrote it and the months that followed it served its purpose. When I reflected on this philosophy it inspired me to work at the aspects of teaching that were meaningful to me. Instead of becoming drained by the prospect of filling out forms or assigning letter grades to projects it reminded me to focus on designing lessons with impact and getting to know my students.

Now that I am back at school as a learner I am engaging with many new thinkers by way of assigned readings. We recently read articles in class by Gregory A. Cajete, “American Indian Epistemologies,” and Elliot Eisner, “The Educational Imagination.” Both of these articles articulated orientations, or philosophies, towards education that I had never considered. While I was engaged with the works I felt myself constantly swayed by the author’s arguments for one approach or another. This made me realize two things.

1. I am not nearly as grounded in my own philosophy as I thought. This is good in that I am open to new approaches to education. It is bad in that in my current state I might be too easily swayed in one direction or another. Each of these highlights the importance of a professional philosophy. A professional philosophy can ground us and keep us on track when distracted by educational fads or fleeting ideas.

2. My personal philosophy must be malleable; able to bend and flex under the blows of contacting new ideas but strong enough to withstand new pressures and not break.

I have so much to learn about teaching and learning and that excites me. I can’t wait to open a new article or engage with another teacher in discussion on an exciting idea. I know that as I grow and grapple with issues in my practice I will always be able to reflect back on my own philosophy to guide me through the dangers of becoming paralyzed by the details of work or swept away by new ideas.

After reflecting on my older philosophy I am able to see growth in a new professional philosophy

As an educator engaged in a critical pedagogy I see education as a universal right and a medium for social change. In attempting to fulfill this right and work towards change I engage students in critical thinking through a social justice lens as we explore a co-created curriculum in a democratic environment

Thanks for reading,

-Bryce

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First Post

Welcome to my blog,

I’ve never written a blog before, but as I follow a number of them I am beginning to see their worth, both as a personal outlet and as a hub for communities to connect and grow. I am excited to log my thoughts, discoveries, successes and failures as I grow as an educator and a person. I fully intend this blog to be focused on my professional life, but as I have come to understand my professional world does not live independently from my personal world; as such I will not be surprised if my personal interests and hobbies get some “air time” as well.

I currently teach senior students in an academic alternate program housed in a traditional high school and I am pursuing my Masters Degree in Education at Simon Fraser University.

I am determined to update this blog 3-4 times a week and I hope the content will generate some discussion. Please feel free to comment, question or give me feedback.

Thanks for reading,

-Bryce

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