Monday, August 27, 2012

Plan, Prep & Read What You Want

Here it is.
The home stretch.
The dying days of summer vacation.

I love my job. I really do. I have to confess, however, that I find it difficult to transition from the leisurely pace of July and August to the structure of September and beyond. My school's caretakers are kind enough to allow teaching staff to come in during most of the summer; I did it quite a bit in the beginning of July but haven't darkened the door much since. Now that it's the last week before school, it's time to seriously contemplate what and how I'm going to teach this coming year.

Here's a dilemma - I want to take a more authentic approach to student-led inquiry this year, so how can I plan when my main teaching partners (also known as the students) aren't around to help? I guess this is something I should discuss with our kindergarten and grade 1 teachers, who are quite devoted to inquiry learning. I'll start by developing the class culture/community (gotta love Tribes) and discovering what excites them.

People I follow online have also thought long and hard about their intentions for the upcoming year. Cale Birk, a great principal in British Columbia, wrote about his plans here and the first line of his blog reads:

As we are getting ramped up for the start of another school year in British Columbia, I have now shelved my John Grisham novels and Sports Illustrated magazines until next July. 

I asked myself why this reading material had to be temporarily discarded. His next line explains it succinctly:

Like many educators at this time of year, I have re-engaged in professional reading to get myself amped up for Day 1. 

Being my perverse self, I wondered why we "force" ourselves to read things we wouldn't always be drawn to consuming. I'm not saying that Cale is reluctantly reading education-related material; he was pretty enthusiastic in the rest of the post about Five Disciplines of PLC Leaders. I like to be contrary. Why should I stop reading things I enjoy just because school is starting? I guess it boils down to our reasons for reading - reading for pleasure vs reading for information. I'm just trying to figure out how I can have my cake and still eat it. I just finished reading Stieg Larsson's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. In some parts, I had to put down the book because I was so frightened. I would never dream of using it as a read-aloud, but maybe I could consider how social issues from the book or genres can be incorporated into my library lessons.

Before you get the idea that it's a simple fiction vs non-fiction thing, I'm actually dying to read some gaming studies. I attended a session at The Academy of The Impossible recently and got to mingle with some pretty fascinating individuals.  I talked with someone who told of an interpretation of Club Penguin as a place where you can learn to be revolutionary - a complete 180 from the usual description I hear of Club Penguin as a place to train capitalists and consumerists. I want to read a study like this for personal interest!

If we are allowed to choose what we read, we'll be more eager, regardless of the reason. I still intend on reading The Choreography of Presenting both for interest and for professional enrichment. We'll see how much planning, preparing, or reading I get done in this last week.

Monday, August 20, 2012

I Remember - Thanks Mr. Sturm

I have a very poor memory, especially of my childhood and teen years. These gaps concern my parents but I have come to accept the huge holes in my memory. This is why, when I remember something, it is pretty significant and surprising.

In June, as I was co-teaching a media literacy lesson in the computer lab to some intermediate division students, I quoted my Grade 12 English teacher. It turns out that it’s a small world, because the Grade 7-8 teacher with me that day recognized the name of my former teacher and my school – he even claims that he remembers being in my class back in high school. (I searched my yearbook for proof but couldn’t find my colleague’s picture.) He had very vivid recollections of this particular teacher and, to my surprise, despite my faulty memory, so did I. What I cannot recall is whether or not I actually told him what an impact he made. Heck, I just quoted him last week in this very blog! I’ve hunted him down, found a contact email, and I hope he takes the opportunity to read this open letter.

BPCI Writers' Club: Winnie, Sean, Brian, Mike, Mr. Sturm, ZsaZsa, Kiran, Gita, Diana

Dear Mr. Joel Sturm,

My name is Diana Maliszewski (nee Diana DeFreitas) and from 1985-1990, I attended Birchmount Park Collegiate Institute in Scarborough. You were my Grade 12 and OAC English teacher. I just wanted to take this opportunity to thank you for teaching me and to tell you that I remember.

I remember the inventive strategies and methods you used to motivate and instruct the class. I probably still have a “Sturm Buck” somewhere around, with your daughter’s photo on it instead of Queen Elizabeth, which we were able to earn if we participated in class. We used to have to compile portfolios, which might be commonplace nowadays but was quite avant-garde in the 1980s. I worked really hard to develop items for that portfolio and reflect on what they signified. I can still recite part of the best poem I ever wrote (for your class), a response to Andrew Marvell’s poem “To His Coy Mistress”. Mine went like this …

Have we but world enough and time
Each man would give a dame this line …
[I forget the next few lines but it ends like this]

Words are wind, though you protest
Your vow can’t be put to the test
So woo away, I’ll stay as chaste
And worms can have what you would waste

I remember the little nuggets of wisdom about life and literature that you’d impart.

  • Having a humorous scene in the middle of a tragedy is like eating lemon and chocolate ice cream together. The chocolate makes the lemon so much more tart; the lemon makes the chocolate sweeter.
  • The sounds words make and the feeling they invoke when you say them are significant. That’s why you named your daughter Jessica Sturm – Ursula Sturm would be too heavy on the tongue and in the mouth.
  • Writers must personalize large-scale tragedies. Saying six million people died during the Holocaust shows it is a horrible thing, but hearing about one family’s horrific treatment gives those hollow numbers more of an impact (and you’d tell the story of a pregnant woman bound and thrown into a cold puddle, going into labor and dying as the baby ripped her apart from the inside as her family watched helplessly and the guards at the concentration camp laughed).

 I remember that you were a witty speaker and had a way of lifting one eyebrow. I practiced until I, too, was able to raise a solitary eyebrow on command. You didn’t suffer fools lightly and had high standards and expectations. During our conference on my English Independent Study Project, you remarked, “Guilt, Jansenism and Fifth Business – what an appropriate topic for a good Catholic girl to study”.

I remember that you ran a Writers’ Club, which we called the Quisquiliae Society – quisquiliae being a Latin term that meant garbage. You encouraged us to carry a notebook around to write down ideas as they came to us. You even popped by the yearbook office when we held a surprise birthday party for the assistant editor, Kiran.

I remember what you wrote in my yearbook when I graduated – not the usual platitudes, but this: “Isn’t it wonderful to be unique – to be gifted with ability, compassion, wit, good humor and selfless generosity. It’s a gift and a burden. Be careful. People will be jealous of you and will come gunning for you just because that’s what they’re good at. Use every defensive tactic you ever learned in Phys Ed and use your blessings. You’ll have lots.”

Don’t tell the others, but you were my favourite high school teacher. I’m a teacher myself now. I’ll be entering my sixteenth year in the profession and I’m amused to see how much of an influence you’ve had on me. One of my favourite lessons uses currency with a teacher’s face on it for students to earn (not for participation in this case, but for collaboration while researching) – reminiscent of your Sturmies from long ago. My students tell me that I’m pretty funny and I still use that eyebrow lift to express surprise or disbelief. I run clubs too, and let my students take the lead, like you did long ago with the Writers’ Club. I believe in letting people know when they’ve done something wonderful and sir, when you taught me, you made magic. I appreciated it all and I thank you from the bottom of my heart.


Diana Maliszewski

Monday, August 13, 2012

Furry Findings - Knowing What You Don't Know

Last Friday, Laura the "bunny whisperer" came to my house. Laura is a volunteer with Toronto Animal Services, South Division, and has a great deal of knowledge about rabbits. We invited her to come to our house to help us with our pet rabbit, Dolly. We had our previous bunny, Nibbles, from 2001-2009 and have not shared our house with a rabbit since then (Fudge the school rabbit being the only exception). All the bunny know-how we thought we possessed thanks to Nibbles and Fudge didn't seem to work with Dolly. Unlike the others, Dolly is often a grumpy bunny. She hates being picked up and I was at a loss on how to get her to the groomer's to have her nails trimmed. Laura kindly offered to come to my home to cut her nails and observe her in her natural habitat to offer some advice on how to "friendly her up".

Dolly, our independent little bun-bun!
Thankfully, Dolly's improved quite a bit from when I first emailed Laura asking for help to when we were able to coordinate schedules and get Laura to come. At first, we couldn't even put our hands in the cage to fill her food bowl; now, she lets us open the top and allows us to stroke and pet her. I credit my mother-in-law and her "treat therapy" during the three weeks she stayed with us in the summer for that success.

Laura was absolutely wonderful. She clipped Dolly's nails like a pro and gave lots of valuable tips. Through our conversation over the two hours she spent with us, I heard that Laura gets many emails from rabbit adopters asking questions. Dogs and cats have plenty of vets and experts that can help owners but there aren't that many small animal experts, be they either medical or behavioural. I don't know what I would have done if Laura had not consented to a home visit. Laura has a blog - - and as we drove her home, we discussed the possibility of Laura creating some videos on YouTube to answer some of the most common questions she fields. We both got very excited about the possibilities.

Freedom, sweet freedom!
Now, there are many ways I can bring this blog post back to the topic of education ... how to handle creatures under your care (students / bunnies) that react differently than your usual expectations, the value of personal instruction, the ways technology can help teaching and learning ... but the big "aha" I wanted to reflect upon was about realizing what you don't know and need to know vs discovering what you didn't know you didn't know. Does that make sense? Let me give you some examples. I knew that I needed to learn (or access someone who already knew) how to clip bunny nails. My mom used to do it for me for Nibbles. I realized that I had no clue how to do this but that this was an important thing to know if I was to properly care for a pet bunny. I didn't know that there are significant differences in brands of bunny food and that I need to be choosy when it comes to Dolly's diet. I'm not sure why this didn't dawn on me previously - I knew that my beloved skinny pigs Max and Wilbur need their pellets to have Vitamin C added; I knew that our mischievous chinchillas are supposed to eat only the blandest type of pellets because "gourmet mixes" are bad for their digestive systems. I knew that when rabbits make a funny little twisting jump, they are "binkying" and are very happy. I didn't know that head-butting is a request for personal grooming, that rabbits don't like to be stroked under the chin but that if they rub their chins on people and things, they are marking them using scent glands, or that thumping back at rabbits to show displeasure is a controversial move within rabbit-raising circles.

Chita plays with my camera cord - no greens for her!

Max poses for a brief second - plenty of greens for him!
How do we (and I mean teachers AND students) discover what we don't know? I have a t-shirt my husband gave me long ago that quotes Socrates: "I know nothing except the fact of my own ignorance". If we don't realize we are ignorant of some/many things, we are in trouble. Realizing we don't know is a good first step. Becoming less ignorant is the next step. There are many other steps that follow that, and even though it may feel circular (my grade 12 English teacher used to say that some people got increasingly smarter about decidedly narrower topics until they were experts in something of no use), it's the great paradox of learning. I look forward to learning more about all sorts of things, and vow not to let my ignorance discourage me from seeking more information.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Extrinsic Rewards and Badges without Choice

Did you hear the cursing? I've begun to write my research paper on the impact of readers choice awards on student engagement and motivation. To prepare myself, I reviewed all the notes I took for my literature review. Here were some findings.

The findings of this study suggest that reading incentive programs are widely used and, as they are currently implemented in public school settings, may violate some of the most important principles of motivation theory and literacy engagement.
Fawson, P.C., and Moore, S.A. (1999). Reading incentive programs: beliefs and practices. Reading Psychology. 20 325-340. Retrieved from Taylor & Francis Group.

When adults share books that are personal favourites, it helps students identify with the idea of books as a part of life and not just a part of school, thereby demonstrating the richness and fulfillment that books can bring to their lives.
Whittingham, J. L and Huffman, S. (2009) The effects of book clubs on the reading attitudes of middle school students. Reading Improvement. 46(3) 130-136. Retrieved from ProQuest Education Journals.

Engaged readers have deep-seated motivational goals, which include being committed to the subject matter, wanting to learn the content, believing in one's own ability, and wanting to share understanding for learning.
Guthrie, J. T., Alao, S., and Rinehart, J.M. (1997) Engagement in reading for young adolescents. Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy. 40 (6) 438-446. Retrieved from ProQuest Education Journals.

 My point to these quotes above (and I had many others that were similar) is that well-read educators should know that extrinsic rewards are not as effective as intrinsic rewards and can actually be counterproductive. Why, then, do some educators, especially ones admired and lauded by others, insist on using the same old vehicle with just a new paint job?

Achievements in video games are cool - but they are only cool if players actually WANT them, as part of the whole game experience. My son is a big video game fan. As I recently wrote on my other public blog, these badges and trophies can be both wonderful and annoying. They can also be either an extrinsic reward or an intrinsic reward, based on how they are presented and by whom. If the player has finished the main storyline of the game and is interested personally in unlocking new content or playing further with the game, it can be intrinsically motivating. If my husband or I insisted that the boy get certain trophies in Lego Batman, Mario Kart, and Super Smash Brothers Brawl, and tied things like extra desserts to unlocking these achievements, then this would be an extrinsic motivational tool. Which one do you think my son would respond to best?

In recent weeks, I have become increasingly distressed by a blog that I follow (why do I follow this blog when it stresses me so?). The blog is about gamification and it treats the educators that participate with the same method they advocate for the students. It pushes badges and points to the extreme, even evaluating readers' comments and ranking them, with the "winner" getting a prize. I don't contribute to online discussions so I can "get loot". I don't want to have a conversation about James Paul Gee's book and have my post evaluated. Despite having a "kewl gam3r" format, these educational practices are definitely "old skool" and counter-productive. I don't want to be a part of professional development that involves a "Leader Board". I am a Tribes TLC (c) trainer and there are times when competition is good and healthy, but this is not the case here.

It's at this point that I hear Liam O'Donnell's voice echoing in my head: remember my post from a few weeks ago when I said that instead of debating those who are taking a misguided approach, I should show others a method that respects games, gamers, and education? Well, here's a chance to try games-based learning from an inquiry viewpoint: this is your invitation to attend the Gaming Educators Open House on Tuesday, August 21, 2012 from 7:00 - 9:00 p.m. EST. If you want to learn more about our GamingEdus Minecraft server, check Liam's blog, Feeding Change, and see some awesome videos of the crazy things we've done in the really fun game, Minecraft. Contact Liam, Denise Colby, or me for details on how to join the Minecraft fun and play in the world that Technascribe, Praxismaxis, MissColby, Liragrim, Darkana, Phisagrim, Terragrim, and others inhabit.

GamingEdus Minecraft Open House: August 21, 2012 (7-9 pm)