What I learned in a dojo

I firmly believe in the importance of pushing limits, and for me that usually means putting myself in the slightly uncomfortable position of learning something new. Think about it: as teachers, we often ask students to do something that is hard for them because we KNOW in our hearts that they can do it. But when was the last time you placed yourself in the position of knowing for a fact that you couldn’t do something and having someone gently nudge you towards doing it anyway?

I am certainly no expert when it comes to martial arts. I spent one term learning Aikido in a family lesson and I have so far spent one semester ferrying Darling Son #1 to lessons. Most of what follows are my observations with a large grain of salt because I am actually a total newbie to the dojo.

1. The grammar of the dojo

After the warm up, students break into groups; there are 5 lessons going on at the same time in a space no bigger than a school classroom. Every lesson is completely different and a very targeted practice. Part of the expectation is that more knowledgeable students will teach less experienced learners. Purple belts teach white belts, green belts teach yellow belts and so on. As I watch, I can see that the expectations are different for each group of learners. The inexperienced white belts have a hard time sitting on their knees for long and their patterns are imprecise, while more experienced learners have very precise patterns and are used to sitting in seiza for long periods of time.

2. Construct your own understanding

Sensei asks for a learner to come to the front and suddenly I find myself volunteered to demonstrate a new move.

“Who… me…? You know I don’t know this, right?”

We bow and before I know it I find myself thrown to the mat. Suddenly I have a very clear understanding of what my goal should be. Then Sensei breaks us into small groups for practice.

In the beginning there is a “wink, wink, good job, you got it!” vibe. Many of the newbies in my group play it very safe and we are very much about the choreography of getting the patterns right. But after a few lessons the learner is expected to actually be able to perform the pattern. With other beginners I found that we were all very tentative learners, but once I was paired with more experienced brown and black belts I found that they didn’t go quite so easy and I was thrown to the mats several times before I was finally able to bring a 230lb man to the mats. The sense of accomplishment in that was huge.

This made me think about the heterogenous and homogeneous groupings teachers  do in our classrooms. There is a time and place for both types of groupings and the value of each is completely different.

3. Freedom to fail

Sensei and the more experienced learners help students learn the patterns, the routines, the grammar of the dojo in such a way that there is freedom to fail for less experienced learners. All students have to do is repeat. There is some explicit instruction but there is definitely the motivation to learn. In every lesson there is some intrinsic motivation because learners see that this is fun and useful. There is an element of play in every lesson but there is also the underlying expectation that students must be actually “good” not just “good enough”.

I also see Darling Son against the wall discussing with a partner just how much work it will take to get to the next belt. There is extrinsic motivation: belts with increasing levels of learner expectation. This expectation is clearly expressed and visible to students at all times.

Some of the lessons I learned in the dojo can definitely be transferred to the classroom. Maybe chief among them is the value of putting myself in the shoes of my students.

Learning by Making

This post is not about Integrating Technology Within the Communicative Approach to Language Teaching. This post is about making a film about Integrating Technology Within the Communicative Approach to Language Teaching.

I started by researching and making fairly extensive, referenced notes about my research project. Next, I broke into the Darling Husband’s stash of story boarding Moleskines and began the process of planning out my film. This part was exciting! It’s been a long time since I wrote a creative piece and I found it interesting to be able to exercise my creative muscle.

Even after storyboarding, I wasn’t really sure what the final project would look like and had to spend a few evenings brainstorming what kind of figure I could use to easily move around and create the action. I had a couple of simple rules for myself: it had to be something that wouldn’t normally move on its own (which would kind of be negating the purpose of stop-motion animation in my opinion) and it had to be simple (no need to have to add the complicating factor of facial expressions to an already difficult assignment).

A quick stop at Colours Art Supply delivered what I was looking for: art figurines!

I started filming using NFBStopMo, which unfortunately, I have to say is ultimately a do not recommend. (Edited to add that the good people in charge over at the NFB took the time to respond to my tweet asking for help, which I thought was pretty impressive).

I spent a great deal of time in the planning stages, ensuring that my shots were well-aligned and focussed. I ensured that the photos I took within the app were also saving to the iPad’s camera roll, I did a small test video and exported it to the photo roll easily.

Imagine my frustration after 6 hours of filming when I attempted to export one minute of film and the app wouldn’t do it! I knew after about a minute that my film was getting long and I didn’t want it to crash the app. My plan was to export my video in several small chunks and stitch them together using another program.

No luck…

I tried for about an hour to get the video off the iPad to no avail. Knowing that I was kind of stuck with what I had or would have to start over and re-create the many hours of work, I carried on with the app and planned to simply film the screen with another camera. Kind of bush league…

Time to start film making!
In the end, I was happy enough with the video that I created and I see value in making something to share learning, thus embodying the “constructionist” theory of learning that students learn by doing and actively engaging in their learning. I feel that the theory was thoroughly understood by me by 9 am after having made notes and story boarded my video, but I ended up not completing the project until well after midnight.

Some frame-rate calculations… Real-world math!
The “Studio”

Some wins on the project: I wanted to quit and didn’t. I wanted to ask for an extension and didn’t. I most definitely learned what NOT to do. I would do it again, but now I know I can do better the next time around!

The more I reflect on the project the stronger I feel about it as a way for students to express learning. I have spoken with many people about the ups and downs of making and have also discussed the academic content. I have an artifact in the end their I am proud of and have returned to watch several times (many more than I would re-read an essay). And I have definitely retained the learning and used it in subsequent learning. 

The Math Lab

Many years ago, I worked with some colleagues at Hawrylak to develop a math lab for our students. We put all of the French Immersion students in Grades 3, 4, 5 and 6 together in the Shared Learning area.

We created an extensive bank of levelled math problems and colour coded them according to difficulty. Each student was allowed to choose their own level with the understanding that they were each responsible for the work they did each week in math lab.

Each student kept a math journal. At the top of the page, students were required to record the colour of the problem and the number of the page they were working on. These problems were evaluated through meetings with the teacher, which allowed students to get one-on-one, just-in-time feedback. During this time, we had the support of every classroom teacher, the learning support teacher, and the vice-principal, which helped to reduce the student-to-teacher ratio. Our goal was to check in with each kid every day and ensure that they were getting exactly the support they needed.

I enjoyed this time with my students and am looking forward to adapting the math lab format to my current classroom. I have developed a bank of problems that are eau levelled. So rather than choosing a different coloured sheet, which might be a deterrent to some students who are embarrassed about choosing easier problems, each student gets a problem sheet that looks the same as the others and on the sheet there are four different levels of problems.

Many of the problems I have used for the first batch have been inspired by the book 50 Leveled Math Problems.