The mouse packs the cheese

As a writer, I deal in disorientation. It’s enormous fun to push characters out of comfort zones and watch them get disoriented like fish at the bottom of a waterfall. In life, though, disorientation is… disorienting…

The upshot here is that in our lives we get to (have to?) sometimes experience moments that dump us over the waterfall and disorient us so fully that we can’t actually tell which direction is up. The only solution is to stop fighting the current, stop trying to “swim”, to let go, and to allow the current to pull us down stream; “up” will become apparent.

This week I experienced one of the most powerful, disorienting moments in teaching I have experienced in recent memory. Sitting in a circle with my learners, listening to Saa’kokoto tell the story of a wee mouse who travelled across the prairie toward the mountains, interacting with many animals and exchanging gifts with them. His first question: what did the mouse pack for lunch? Cheese! They shouted, pleased to get the answer. “Mice don’t eat cheese,” my inner voice thought, “but ok…”

Then he noted that the animal saw tracks in the snow… “What animal was it?” he asked and paused for them to fill in the space: “Cheeta?” “Bird?” They guessed. “Wolf,” he finally filled in the blank for them. They were unable to name an animal native to the region that might have left its tracks for the mouse to find. Upon reflection, I wondered how much of their guessing was related to disconnection from their immediate environment. This crew of brilliant, creative, risk-taking students is situated in stories that come from books, and movies, and video games.

The mouse packs the cheese, indeed… where does this teaching come from? It’s my own first instinct, too. Mice eat cheese. But wait… really? Cartoons teach us mice eat cheese… Experience teaches me mice grow fat on the grain spilled outside of farm-yard bins. And what before that? What do mice actually eat? Saa’kokoto said in our session: names matter. Place matters. Stories matter. Provenance matters. Connection matters.

He tells us that if you are gifted a story you have the obligation to tell it. Stories teach.

I see it in my own children at home: the need to be constantly entertained, the discomfort with boredom and ambiguity. But these are powerful teachers and we ignore them at our extreme peril.

Let’s commit to getting learners outside and situated in their environments. This, for me, is one of the most important issues in education. Knowing how where you are impacts who you are? This most of all. Learners who know their immediate environment are invested in caring for it. This may be Sunday morning pressing in on me, but I feel like there is no learning more urgent than this right now. We have the opportunity to connect our learners back to their senses and back to their environment. Let’s not lose this chance.

This disorientation strikes me as I spent a week of academic work on embodied learning and digitally augmenting experiences to allow students to physically interact with learning objects but I deeply question the role of digital augmentation in situated learning experiences. There is no greater gift we can give our learners than the ability to experience with all of their senses integrated and the silent “grey space” where real wonders and real inquiry take root.



April is poetry month

How to Eat a Poem by Eve Merriam:

Poetry matters. Jason Reynolds talks here about how poetry can be a gateway for non-readers, those who don’t get lost in the pages, and I finally connected to why teaching poetry might be important.

Jason Reynold’s Long Way Down is a wonderful read for middle-years students. It’s a quick read with a powerful message. I won’t share it with my Grade Threes but it was a good read for me and I think the author has an important point: the text in the book is not dense and I can see how it would be a “gateway book” for reading.

On to the books I will be using this year:

The breathtaking book, This is a Poem that Heals Fish, is about a little boy seeking the definition of a poem who finds that poetry is everywhere if we only bother to look for it.

The final pages caught me by surprise in their simple beauty. Finally, I found a poem I LOVE! And it’s available in its original French, which is a HUGE plus for immersion teachers who work so hard for students to experience original texts in the author’s first language.

While writing, I’m planning to have students focus on colour through mentor texts. The following books are beautiful, poetic inspiration.

The Black Book of Colors is full of descriptive language that invites students to explore colours with all of their senses. Each page has a black-on-black illustration that invites children to explore through senses other than seeing.

Green spends an entire book exploring every shade of green and I’ll invite students to choose a colour using a paint swatch and to turn it into a colour poem. The author, Laura Vaccaro Seeger, has also recently published Blue, which I’m excited to add to my collection.

An experiential exploration that makes the quotidian magical: What Color is the Wind?

Blue isn’t typically a happy colour. But I feel happy when I wear it. So my blue is happy, too. What colour is happy for you?

Poetry is small marvels; The Heart and the Bottle is a breathtaking book about a girl who protects her heart from hurt by bottling it up. Students might use the story to write about the small and large marvels in the world that touch their hearts.

The Important Book seeks what is essential:

Sometimes when students are stuck on finding their own words, it helps to have words in front of them that can be pushed around and rearranged without a lot of effort. I’m going to try magnetic poetry. I purchased a couple of sheets of magnet that can run through a printer and found some words here.

Wordle Can be used to create word clouds, a beautiful representation of descriptive language or try a collaborative word cloud with the whole class using Mentimeter

Finally, Celebrate Poem in Your Pocket Day is at the end of the month. I look forward to sharing beautiful language with students and inviting them into a world of reading and writing through expressive language.

I would love to hear your ideas. How will you celebrate poetry with your learners and use it to invite them in to reading and writing?

Red lining and being over the “tired teacher” tropes

This image found its way into my Twitter timeline this week and it actually made me really angry. I am so over the tired “teacher as martyr” trope where it’s expected that teachers work until collapse. It’s just part of the story we tell ourselves as teachers and it’s not ok.

Like any athlete, I often turn to sports metaphors in times of trouble. If you don’t love a good sports metaphor maybe stop reading now. No judgment.

Let’s start by acknowledging the fact that I am an exceedingly average age-group athlete. Middle-of-the-pack finish? Totally elated. Really…

Last year about this time I signed up for an early-season triathlon and an end-of-season duathlon. Training, as winter training often does, didn’t happen the way it should have. I arrived at the spring start line in decent shape run/bike wise but totally undertrained in the swim and zero open-water miles for the season. “Screw it,” I said. “I’ll be fine.” I pulled on the wet suit and toed the line. When the gun went off I concentrated on process goals: face in the water, arms turning over. That’s it. I thought I was ok. But I’ll be damned if I didn’t have a panic attack at the turn around buoy. Stabbing between my shoulder blades, chest pain, can’t breathe… I wasn’t scared, though. I flipped onto my back and floated and breathed. In the middle of a race. Picture that.

About that time I became aware of another athlete struggling near me and that’s when I got scared… wanting to help but afraid of being pulled under. I helped her flag a kayak, grabbed on myself for a minute, and then let go… the paddler asked, “Are you ok?” and I nodded that I was. I flipped onto my back and flutter kicked in. Flutter kicked.

That early-in-the-race panic session cost me the rest of the day. Heart rate blown, fuel used up… yadda, yadda.

So the thing is, the same thing happened to me after a day of teaching the other day… back spasm, head ache, sore tummy… I didn’t think I was actually under an undue amount of stress but it turns out I have a pretty solid ability to work through periods of high stress. Endurance sports teach us to “run the mile you’re in” and so I do… in running and in life… head down, don’t run the whole race, run one mile… until the whole world shrinks down to enduring one mile at a time and forgetting the amazing feeling of sunshine on shoulders and joy in the process.

So here’s what I learned on race day that I can apply to life:

1. Call the kayak

It’s ok to call the race done for you. It doesn’t mean the season is over. When you call for rescue it’s because your life needs saving. This is not hyperbole.

2. Red line vs. endurance pace

Endurance athletes know most training is actually done at endurance pace (a manageable pace that can be held over the entire distance) and the red line is reserved for all-out efforts. It’s for passing, and finish lines, and setting PRs. And it feels. so. good. But it’s not sustainable over the long course. Slow down. Hard feels good but not at the cost of being sustainable. Slow down. Then slow down some more.

3. Train your weakness race your strength

You have a strength. And you have a weakness. Work on the weaknesses until they are less of a weakness. Race the strengths for all they’re worth.

4. People won’t get it. Those aren’t your people.

I told an acquaintance after the race about my day and shared my final time. She said, “you could have walked it faster”. The people who don’t get it aren’t the people you should be sharing with. Not everyone will get it. Walk away from the people who don’t. I’m lucky to have people in my corner who support me, who know when I need a hug or a pep talk, who know when I just need a kick in the butt, and who respect when I need to stop.

When I checked my email this morning, my activity tracker had emailed me my month-end stats:

… and that, right there, is how I got to a panic attack… way too much red lining; too much working, and studying, and projects, yadda, yadda… Not enough taking care of myself. My March goal is to move more. Every day, in fact. I know that’s the place where I’m happiest. Also, I plan on taking my own advice. Call the rescue kayaks, float, refuel. Flutter kick if you must. But keep. moving. forward.

I PRed the end-of-season race, BTW. So… train your weakness, race your strength. I told you I love a good sports metaphor.

A year without worksheets

I’m not a big resolution maker, but I was surfing around Facebook this morning where I spied a really cute back-to-school new year package of worksheets. “So cute!” I thought, zooming in for a closer look. “And free! Great!” Then I took a close look at the work the worksheet actually asked of students, and… “ugh.”

Just because it’s cute doesn’t make it engaging. Sure, it fills time… print out, pass out, go back to enjoying that coffee while the kiddles work. But what if there were something better?

…and, here’s a poorly kept secret, there is…

Let this be the year of no more mindless worksheets. Instead, try:

1. Digital Technology

If your first foray into using digital tools in the classroom is to substitute a technology tool for a worksheet then congratulations! You just waded into the SAMR pool! Replace a worksheet with an app or a G-suite fillable worksheet. Great! Step one done! Keep going until you’re swimming in the SAMR deep end! Invite a guest speaker via Skype. Play mystery Skype. Have students blog or podcast. Use a padlet! How about all-student response systems like Plickers or socrative?

 2. Visual journals

Usually if it’s a worksheet it can be adapted to a visual journal page. Yay! That’s step one! Now… go beyond adapting worksheets by trying sketch noting, or visible thinking routines like see, connect, wonder, concept webbing, or a visual journaling technique.

3. The everything notebook

Write a journal entry. I get it… a blank page can be intimidating. But it can also be creatively freeing. Instead of writing on a photocopied worksheet, let students work in their journal or in their everything notebook. If they need a prompt, I still think it’s not a horrible idea to photocopy a prompt or a cloze paragraph starter. But photocopied pages of blank lines? That’s called a notebook.

4. The everything binder

Looking for a way to move beyond a storage device for worksheets? Try interactive journal pages and personal practice. At first glance, an interactive journal page looks a lot like a worksheet. Don’t be fooled. The difference is that students come back to the interactive journals later for practice while they complete a worksheet and never look at it again. The interactive journal pages I have made so far have the “I can” statement at the top in student-friendly language and then there are 4-5 questions that demonstrate that the student, in fact, can. These often involve some kind of flap so that during personal practice time students can use the pages to review the “I can” skill. Personal practice time is only about 5 minutes each day reserved for review of skills, but I know that each child is reviewing skills relevant to them and I can work during this time in math conferencing.

5. Really think about why it’s being written instead of discussed.

Think about whether or not it really needs to be written down. A well-planned discussion might be a better use of student time than the time spent filling in a worksheet, especially for our second-language learners! They NEED more talk time!

I’d love to hear other ideas! How are you making the photocopier obsolete?

The everything notebook for students

My everything notebook took a long time to perfect for my personal needs, but it’s something I’ve adapted for my classroom needs. The everything notebook is just that: a place to record everything. Scholar and writer @raulpacheco has written about his everything notebook here. I would say, draw from example and tailor for your needs. When I first heard of bullet journaling I thought it would be a brilliant idea to try with students but it didn’t work for me at all.

The reason my everything notebook works for me is I know I have one place to keep everything: reading journal, writing, journaling… I used to be the teacher with buckets of notebooks I mostly kept out of student hands because I didn’t like them to get beaten up in desks. Upon reflection, I think students benefit from being in charge of their own notebooks. I always provide some instruction on organizational skills: how to organize a page and how to track work inside a notebook, but ultimately the work has to belong to students and I have seen them become proud owners of what’s inside their notebooks when they are in charge.

The student version looks like this:

Personalized cover: I wanted to buy hard cover notebooks but those are EXPENSIVE! And given that most students go through a couple of notebooks in my classroom, we opted for less expensive but still personalized covers stapled over the store bought cover.

Front: the first pages are reserved for an index. Each page gets a month and each line is numbered by date. As we work through the notebook, students are asked to go back to the index and make a running record of the work we complete.

Inside cover: I printed out a copy of our reading/ writing routines and asked students to glue it here.

Colour coding: I asked students to highlight the top corner of the page: blue for French green for English. As we move through the year I have found that we don’t really need this; we divided our day instead. If it’s before lunch work is in French. After lunch: literacy work is English.

Write: write every single day! Writing is often choice work for my students. I offer a topic most days with front loaded vocabulary and sentence starters, but students are always welcome to write something else, too.

Respond: I try to respond to written work as fast as possible (my goal is 24h but that’s not always possible) and to conference with my writers while they are working and feed forward can make a difference.

Final pages: Students create TBR (to be read) and TBW (to be written) lists. This is to support them in those moments when they want to write but are just not sure what to write.

Personal dictionary: I have found a personal dictionary effective in support of writing routines. Students are expected to add new words to it and refer frequently to it. It is separate from the everything notebook for now.

The everything notebook goes into the book box, which I’ll post about later. As always, I’d love to hear other solutions for organizing in the classroom. 

The value of off

In my life I make a lot of digital things: blogs, short films, Web sites, podcasts, and ebooks, oh my… There are bits of ideas scattered all over the Internet. I LOVE reading and writing about teaching and learning, but I occasionally need a break from screens to make a thing I can hold in my hands. 

It’s so easy in classroom work to be pulled madly off in all directions; 24 people are all priority one and networks of support spring up… and every one of them a meeting to attend.

It’s easy to get caught up in the whirlwind of busy.

It’s so easy to forget to breathe when everything on the “to do” list is “urgent”.

But an interesting thing happens when we let off the gas for a minute…

Sometimes time off rolls around and stillness has the opportunity to sneak in. And in the stillness comes creativity and fresh ideas. Like a sponge wrung fully dry that must come to a full stop in order to draw in as much liquid as possible in the next squeeze.

Athletes know that intense training sessions are followed by nourishing the muscles and resting for repair. (I do like flogging a tired triathlon metaphor…) Remember to rest, teacher friends. Do more of what calls your soul. 

Draw, write, read, run, play.

Enjoy the last few days of light getting shorter!