Monday, October 26, 2015

The Undervalued Sense

I love to talk about and think about my students and the weird, wacky, and wonderful things that happen on a "typical" day at school. Spending time with the kindergarten classes often generates the most entertaining stories. For instance, there's one sweet little boy in junior kindergarten that has a habit of getting very close to my face, arms, and legs, and smelling me. As he sniffs around me, he announces, "I smell you. I smell you Ms. Molly." I'm pretty used to my personal space being invaded by little people, who touch, grab, and hug me constantly, but this scent examination unnerved me at first. Did I stink? Was I too sweaty? After this happened several times, even after I had made a special effort with my bathing that morning and a liberal application of perfume, I realized that this was just how this particular student interacts with me.

Smell. We spend a lot of time on sight and sound in school, but less on feel and definitely less on smell and taste. Why? The other senses tend to lend themselves to learning in a much more direct manner - such as looking at the words on a page and listening to someone read aloud to comprehend a written text. People also react strongly to smells - an American mother was banned from her child's elementary school due to her smell and workplaces have arranged scent-free policies to be sensitive to employees and visitors with issues, like a school in Barrie, or in Coquitlam. Some individuals, like the ones cited in this article, take matters into their own hands when odors become too much. Is it possible to completely block scents? This article I found from the Canadian Medical Association Journal states that the scientific evidence behind these scent-free policies are complex and blanket restrictions are not always helpful. Then there's the work currently being investigated by a friend of mine, Melanie McBride, who is an inter-sensory researcher at Ryerson University. A lot of Melanie's work is at a level beyond my comprehension, but she is passionate about scents, the cultural associations with some, and natural vs artificial ones. (Forgive me Melanie if I'm oversimplifying some of the aspects of your studies.) Using smell is part of the human experience. What are we missing when we try to delete the sense of smell from school and learning? Smell and memory are closely linked - what if we could help our students remember content more thoroughly through smell? This website claims that certain scents improve retention and this super-brief article mentions the attempt to link subjects to certain smells. Smelling things are one way we try to make sense of our world - students smell the liquid in my mug to see if I'm drinking tea or hot chocolate or hot water with lemon. Smelling is a natural sort of inquiry. One of the kindergarten teachers in my school has cups with holes in them for his students to explore certain scents at their own pace - coffee and chocolate were two examples he used. As long as we are careful with it and culturally respectful about it (e.g. curry may reek to some unexperienced noses but it is not a "foul stench"), we should consider scent - in our poetry, in our science and health units (e.g. natural gas alerts) and elsewhere. Smell should not be a bad word.

P.S. This photo was taken while my dear friend Denise Colby and I were in Newfoundland. While we toured the Newman Wine Vaults in St. John's, we took a sommelier scent test to see if we could categorize the bottled fragrances. Both of us fared quite poorly but the volunteers said that out of the ten bottles, most people can only identify two or three. Denise, do you recall our scores?

Monday, October 19, 2015

Making Mistakes & Mental Health

This incident happened a while ago, but despite the fact that the child involved does not seem to be irrevocably harmed by the experience, it bothered me enough that I have to write about it, to help me process what occurred and what steps I need to take to ensure it doesn't happen again.

The apologetics before the story: I'd like to think that my class environment is a safe and happy place to be. I believe I'm getting better, year by year, at modifying and accommodating my lessons so that students can find success. I also try to watch carefully to ensure that no students fall between the cracks, especially the quiet ones. This school year, I had noticed that a Grade 3 student in one of my classes was not participating during my library lessons. We were doing a task on the interactive white board (IWB) and when I invited her up to try, she shook her head and refused. I offered her the chance to go up with a friend, but she declined. I checked in with my school's ESL teacher to see if the activity was too advanced for this particular student and the ESL teacher said that the job was reasonable and possible for her to understand and do. Her refusal was not because of limited English. The ESL teacher said that if it occurred again, just send the student to the ESL room so that she could talk with the child in her first language to discover what was going on. The next class, the student again refused to try the task. I coaxed. I had another student do the precise action I wanted and then erased it for her to do. Again, she shook her head no. I told her to go see the ESL teacher. The student refused to move. This was getting frustrating and so I did something stupid. Instead of letting it go, I escalated it. I thought she was just being obstinate. I gave her a choice - to go to the ESL teacher, do the job, or go to the office. She didn't move from the carpet. What?! I sent another student to report the act of defiance to the principal. He came down and tried to escort the student out of the library but she wouldn't take his hand. Disobeying the principal? Something told me to stop the lesson and allow them time for book exchange, to end the drama. As the children spread out to search for books, my principal whispered to me something along the lines of "I'm not going to drag her physically to the office. Look at her - she's terrified". He was right. What I initially interpreted as stubbornness was actually an anxiety attack.

I felt horrible and guilty. I should have known better. I have family members who have anxiety disorders and I should have noticed the signs. I apologized to my principal for acting like a new teacher who had no clue about classroom management. He accepted the apology and said that the experience at least put this particular child on our radar. The ESL teacher spoke to the child later on that day and told me that the reason she did not want to go up to the IWB was because she was afraid that her classmates would laugh at her. It may not seem reasonable, but it stressed her out, and this article mentions that behavioral changes such as stubbornness may actually be a reaction to stress. My pushing added to that stress. I think I apologized to the child herself, after the ESL teacher had her apologize to me. I still feel bad and would gladly apologize again, but she's gotten over it - she still says hi to me with a big smile when I see her in the hallway. I think this blog post is another way for me to say sorry for my actions.

Here's the "call to action". Even though I have direct experience with dealing with loved ones who have anxiety, I still didn't recognize the signs in a student. Teachers need to learn more about mental health and wellness. There needs to be more support. Today is the Canadian federal election official voting day. Keeping in mind that all news outlets have their own biases, here is a list of where the four main political parties stand and their policies. Take a look at Social Issues. My voting patterns are all over the map - in the past, I've voted Conservative, Liberal, NDP, Reform, and even the Family Life Coalition. Without revealing whom I voted for, I'll tell you that this time, I voted for the party that has pledged money towards mental health innovation for children and youth and support to community mental health associations. Vote. Make your voice heard.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Treasure Mountain Canada 4 - Return to Small Scale Researching

If Carol Koechlin asks me to do something, I say yes.

Anita & Carol, TMC1, Edmonton 2010
Who is Carol Koechlin, you may ask? If you ask that question, chances are you are new to the teacher-librarian world. Carol is an influential author and workshop leader. As revealed on this virtual wall of honor for library mentors, Carol Koechlin was a big influence on my career. She loves to tell stories of what I was like as a brand-new teacher-librarian, a "little mouse", if you can believe it. (I do remember staying late creating book records on special index cards for the card catalogue - that's how long I've been involved with school libraries!)

I do things when Carol asks, not because she's bossy or demanding. Quite the contrary. When Carol makes a request, the end result benefits the participant and the school library community as a whole.

Recently, Carol asked me to consider writing a research paper for Treasure Mountain Canada 4, and to encourage other teacher-librarians in the province and country to do the same.

What is Treasure Mountain? To quote the history of the event from the TMC website,

Treasure Mountain Canada is visioned as an extension of a research retreat project called Treasure Mountain,in United States, developed  by Dr. David Loertscher and colleagues in 1989. A dozen retreats since then have established this 'meeting of the minds' in school library research as a valuable catalyst for improvement based on analysis of research in the field.
TMC1 print copy of papers, circa 2010

Me? Write a research paper? I'm not an academic! That's probably the first reaction teacher-librarians might have to such a proposition. I'd challenge you to undertake a lesson I used to often do with my elementary school students in the library - ask them (and ask yourself) to draw what a researcher looks like. What do you get? What gender or age do the drawings show? What clothes do the researchers wear? What tools do the researchers use? Why do the pictures look the way they do? What do we mean when we say research? Google the definition of research and you won't find a focus on the person but on the process. Research involves systematic investigation, inquiry with a purpose. Don't we research when we are purchasing a car, to discover which model would best suit our needs? Shouldn't we do a bit of research prior to an election, to learn about the candidates running for office in our region? Even the youngest children conduct research, be it to see how to conquer the last level of Super Mario Brothers, discover how to build a redstone-powered roller coaster on Minecraft, or select the coolest Halloween costume or Christmas gift for themselves. Teacher-librarians are conducting research frequently too, although they may not realize it. We are all researchers.

Treasure Mountain Canada research papers do have suggested themes, but they are not as onerous or intimidating as one might initially think. The topic for TMC4 is on implementing the National Standards for School Librarianship as outlined in Leading Learning. Too wide? TMC4 narrows it down even further, to three possible areas:

Theme: Growing Impact of Leading Learning: Standards of Practice for School Libraries in Canada
  • Co-teaching for Deeper Learning
  • Innovation for Learning
  • Building a Learning Community 
I find conducting research to share with a larger audience exciting. I prepare an Annual Report on my library program to give to my principal and examine my own successes and challenges, but this type of action research is invigorating. Selecting a particular unit or teaching practice or pathway and examining it deeper can lead to new insights, and with more people reading and thinking about the discoveries, the particulars can be honed and polished in the original location, and/or spread to new locations. How powerful is that?

The attendees of TMC1 in 2010
Treasure Mountain Canada is held every two years. The first was in Edmonton; the second in Ottawa; the third in Victoria and the fourth will be in Toronto. (I went to the Edmonton event but haven't been since.) The official call for papers is here on the website. Even if you cannot attend the symposium in Toronto, submitting a paper (or website or video) would help significantly to continue the conversation beyond the borders of our schools and boards. For 2016, I plan on writing two papers, on teacher-librarian mentorship and on using Games Based Learning in the library learning commons. I've got until January to write my papers. Join me. Join us.

P.S. Another benefit to TMC is being with TL friends (like June & Joanie)

P.P.S. Added plus? Touring the host city (e.g. me at West Edmonton Mall)

Monday, October 5, 2015

Clarification (aka Moving Away from Minecraft Part 2)

Is the sun setting on Minecraft?
On August 24, 2015, I wrote a blog post about my reluctance to continue promoting Minecraft now that it was no longer an independent product. According to my blog statistics, that post had 41 page views (which is a respectable number for my small blog) and two comments. I received several comments, retweets and favourites via Twitter (thanks Peter, Tim, Liam, Diana, Zelia, Deborah, Cathy, Teresa, and Joel; I embedded a sample tweet below).
My favourite Ontario EduBlog curator, Doug Peterson, even commented on it in his weekly review.

Thank goodness that Doug not only highlights blog posts, but explains his subsequent thoughts, because it led me to write this follow-up post. I have a hard time disagreeing with Doug - I'm not sure that he even realized that ages ago, as part of the "performance PD" at ECOO, we were supposed to "trash talk" our opponents and I struggled with the task because I just respect the old guy too much. On further reflection, I found that I wasn't disagreeing with him so much as clarifying things.

Doug wrote:
 It’s too late to close the barn door here.  We buy by brand and each of the products has built upon the nature of the previous technology.  It’s not just a mouse, it’s sculpted to fit the hand. The tablet has wrist recognition.  The keyboard is noiseless.  Where would I be without corporate involvement and making things easier, more productive, more ergonomic, and ultimately better for me?
I don't know if I'm the best one to comment on this, as I own an iPhone 4 with no intention of updating my iOS, even if it means missing out on Apple Music (or whatever it's called). I don't object to corporate involvement; my concern is not that corporations are telling us what to use, but in the case of Microsoft and Minecraft, telling us how to use.  I received an email from Microsoft advertising "Free Development Tools and Training from Microsoft". One of the portions of the email read:
Build the Best Games
Whether you are building your first game, porting an existing one, or launching the next big thing, Microsoft makes it easy for you to build innovative and differentiated gaming experiences across multiple devices.
I also saw this tweet promoted:
And for something a bit more recent, there's this tweet:

Microsoft Edu (note the handle) wants to get involved in schools in ways like Google (Google Certified Teachers) and Apple (Apple Distinguished Educators) have already, and Minecraft is their way in. A mystery benefactor sent me a nice present via inter-office mail (a Minecraft magazine) and one of the articles discussed the impact that Microsoft might have on the game. Of course, as luck would have it, I've misplaced the magazine somewhere at school along with my notes on it. If I remember, I'll edit my post to include the salient points.

Back to the clarification. Doug asked three questions that I felt compelled to respond to:
  1. Will it being branded and supported by a corporate entity change the experience?
  2. How much change would affect her abilities as a classroom teacher to get the best from it for her kids?
  3. Is this a fight worth fighting or is it just a natural evolution?

Here are my answers:

  1. Corporate involvement changes the experience for me. It doesn't for the students. It makes me feel like every time I encourage the use of the game, I'm indirectly working for Microsoft. 
  2. I don't know the answer to the second question. I've noticed that Minecraft at my school is slowly being ditched/rejected by the older students - it's not as "cool" anymore. It's the younger students clamoring for the re-institution of Minecraft Club. 
  3. What about option C - yes to both? It may be a losing battle, but it's a Don Quixote windmill fight I still want to have. Natural evolution? - Tim King wrote in a tweet to me that "Berners-Lee gave us the Internet . Torvalds gave us Linux. Altruism in tech is the exception :("

What I'm discovering since my original blog post is that it's harder than I thought to walk away from Minecraft - not for me, but for others when thinking of me. My students still want Minecraft Club (albeit the younger students). Several people have approached the GamingEdus about some small projects and we've accepted them. We aren't adding any new schools on the Multi-School or Professional Play servers. I'm still putting distance between me and Minecraft; it's been over five years, after all and I want some new challenges. Maybe since he's been so influential on my growing understanding that I should end with a tweet from Peter Skillen: