Monday, December 31, 2012

What did I learn in 2012?

I waited until the actual day to write my final blog post of 2012. Stephen Hurley invited Ontario bloggers to submit their favourite blog post. I looked through my posts from this year, and although there were times that I read and thought "wow - I wrote that? It sounds good", there were no posts that I felt warranted a specific-shout-out. Doug Peterson turned to his blog stats to determine which posts garnered the most attention. The biggest page read on my blog for 2012 (my Webinar Reflection in March) drew a grand total of 10 page views, so this system for determining my most insightful post would not work for me.

A lot of people and media outlets are doing the "2012 reflection" and if you click this link, you'll read about what one person learned in 2012. The gentleman in question is Father Edwin Gonsalves, and I am blessed enough to have him as my church's priest. He stressed that family is important, and that "all of us are teachers and students to one another".

I've had so many teachers and students this year, and I've learned so much from reading different books and articles, talking to different people, and experiencing different conferences and situations, that summing it all up in one document is very difficult. (Geez, how do we do it with report cards? We miss a lot of the real and personal learning, I guess.) Let me end 2012 then, not with a list of things I've learned but with a list of gratitude to all my "teachers" and "family members".

Thank you to:

  • my husband James
  • my daughter Mary
  • my son Peter
  • my parents, Fred and Gloria (and my relatives - my extended family)
  • my students and fellow staff members at my school (present and past)
  • my fellow TDSB TLs and Ontario educators, including my colleagues from the OSLA/OLA
  • my pastor / associate pastor and fellow parishioners at my church (my "spiritual family")
  • my Twitter PLN and online learning comrades (my "digital learning family")
  • my friends, acquaintances, and even my "enemies"
I hope 2013 is a great year of learning for you - I hope it will be for me.

Monday, December 24, 2012

They all want to play

I'm writing this post in advance - as you read this, Ontario schools are on their winter holiday time, the one-day strike by my board's union members was last Tuesday, and it's Christmas Eve day, for those who celebrate. I want to tell you about something I noticed in my school library prior to the break.

I've been trying to incorporate aspects of a kindergarten class into my school library setup, and that includes having a "play area". It has bins of costume jewels, toy doctor and construction sets, games, a mini-basketball hoop set, and I'll soon add a beanbag chair or two. During book exchange, it takes some students longer than others to locate that "just right" book to borrow. For those students that choose their reading selection quickly, they are allowed to shoot hoops when they are done, provided they ask beforehand. My junior division boys really like this opportunity to get physical in the library on their own terms.

I haven't been tidying up these play bins much - I have other things that are more demanding of my time - and since they've been lying on tables near the play area, I've noticed that students of ALL ages have been playing with more than just the basketball net. Grade 8s pull the trigger of the toy drill to hear it buzz; Grade 5s sort through the necklaces, Grade 6s turn the knob on that knock-off cheap-o version of Perfection to see it pop.

That suggests to me that kids of all ages and stages need and want to play - to explore, goof around, and touch stuff just because it's there. How often do we give older students "free time"? Maybe I need to "accidentally" leave out some more items to let their playful sides out. I hope everyone that receives presents at this time of the year gets something to play with, no matter what their age.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Integrative Thinking and the Bill 115 Battle

Unlike the rest of the blogosphere, I'm going to refrain from writing about the terrible events in Connecticut. Instead, today's post stems from a Twitter request:

Sheila, Brian, Rodd and Heidi were having a very thought-provoking discussion via Twitter about discussing difficult topics online. Brian rhetorically asked "how transparent we really are prepared to be about educational issues in social media" and I found their conversation related well to a book I just finished reading. Brian recognized the book right away: The Opposable Mind: Winning Through Integrative Thinking by Roger Martin. Now is a great time for me to reflect on the message of the book and how it can apply to our current situation in Ontario education.

I never thought I'd read a business book, but Anita Brooks-Kirkland (@AnitaBK on Twitter) has often encouraged cross-pollination of ideas (like in her article from The Teaching Librarian magazine). I first heard about Roger Martin at the People For Education conference I attended in October (and wrote about extensively here on this blog) and was intrigued enough to purchase his book on the subject of his keynote: integrative thinking. This is Martin's definition of the concept:

The ability to face constructively the tension of opposing ideas and, instead of choosing one at the expense of the other, generate a creative resolution of the tension in the form of a new idea that contains elements of the opposing ideas but is superior to each. (p15)
The typical process of thinking and deciding usually involves four steps:
  1. Salience (What features do I see as important?)
  2. Causality (How do I make sense of what I see?)
  3. Architecture (What tasks will I do in what order?)
  4. Resolution (How will I know when I am done?) (page 29)
Integrative thinkers use these four steps in different ways:
  1. Salience (More features of the problem are considered salient.)
  2. Causality (Multidirectional and non-linear causality are considered.)
  3. Architecture (The whole is visualized while working on individual parts.)
  4. Resolution (Search for creative resolution of tensions.) (page 44) 
The "mental models" we use to construct reality simplifies and filters information. Causality is our subjective interpretation of data based on our favoured mental models. We see our theories as the truth, not as hypotheses or our own created models. (This made me decide to use the drawing game Telestrations with my grade 5 & 6 students, because their inquiry question is "What is truth? How do I know when something is true?" and one person's truth may be interpreted quite differently ["How could you think my word was 'tie'? I drew a banana!'] - although I didn't use the term "mental modes" with them.)

The second half of the book describes how to develop an "opposable mind". The three areas that need developing are:
  1. Stance (Who are you? What do you think about the world?)
  2. Tools (What are your theories, processes, and "rules of thumb"?)
  3. Experiences (Hone you sensitivities and skills.) (paraphrased, page 103)
Integrative thinkers, based on Martin's interviews and research involving some of the biggest names in the business world, have these thought patterns in common:

Regarding Stance
  • existing models do not represent reality
  • leverage opposing models
  • better models exist
  • I can find a better model
  • I wade into complexity
  • I give myself time to create
Regarding Tools
  • Generative reasoning
  • Causal modeling
  • Assertive inquiry
Regarding Experiences
  • Deepen mastery
  • Nurture originality (page 190)
Please forgive the lengthy summary - I'm still processing the ideas myself and found it easier to quote key sections. The book is written in a very accessible format, with plenty of anecdotes to illustrate the points made. I'm not fortunate enough to work at the TDSB school that is working with the Rotman School of Business at U of T on integrative thinking but the book is appealing enough that I thought I'd try to apply some of the ideas in my regular practice, especially that of assertive inquiry. It closely resembled the work on attentive listening that I was taught when I became a Tribes TLC (R) facilitator. Assertive inquiry encourages you to "investigate someone else's mental model" (page 157). Roger Martin actually has his students write "personal cases" of failed interactions for future productive resolutions.

Here's an example of me experimenting with assertive inquiry and integrative thinking: now that we are on official "work-to-rule" regulations, there are certain things that we are prohibited from doing. For instance, we are neither allowed to use student library helpers, nor are we to permit adult library volunteers to shelve books. I found this directive very frustrating. I am a teacher-librarian and I would rather spend my prep time planning lessons, assessing student tasks, or working directly with students and teachers. My job does not usually involve putting books away and adding this to my to-do list would be detrimental. The union representative's response was that books will just have to pile up, a physical reminder of our current battle. I really didn't like this either-or set up (either *I* put away the books or *no one* puts away the books) and I wasn't planning on breaking the union rules (I may complain but I do listen when it's required) so I decided to talk about different options with some of my colleagues in the staff room.

I realize that one of my weakness in developing my own integrative thinking is that I don't give myself time to find the best model - I want things to be fixed now, now, now. That made me push in my conversation to try and find an option I could live with. I described the pickle that I was in with the mountain of books that needed tidying, my prep time gobbled up by my attempt to keep my teaching area clean, and my concerns that the mountain would become a mountain range. (My students are allowed to borrow multiple books at once - 3 for primary students, 5 for junior students, and 7 for intermediate students -  and if they have clean records of return, they can increase that number by becoming a "silver star" member. Multiply 30 students by 5 books or more per person, and that's a lot of books to handle!) My colleagues offered all sorts of suggestions and I had to work hard to turn off the defensive answers that would pop in my mind (like "I can't limit the kids to borrowing just one book? That's not fair to them and they'd lynch me!" or "There's no way I could use the class' library time to make them shelve their own books - I'd have no time to teach anything because some of them already take 20 minutes just to pick their books, nevermind sort them!"). I tried to ask them to elaborate on their idea, so I could, in Martin's words, "recognize additional salient data and perceive more or different causal relationships" (page 166). Our Grade 6 teacher noticed some key salient data I had ignored when I first faced this issue: the borrowing exchange period is two weeks and most students do not complete all their books in one week. Why not allow a regular book exchange time one week (providing the usual twenty minutes of book exchange and twenty minutes of instructional time) and then the following week, have the students shelve books during their usual book exchange time (and no additional time would be lost for the lesson). This training on properly shelving books would also benefit them; they'd learn some valuable lessons on decimals, classification, and responsibility. I want to thank Lorna Chan for coming up with an innovative and creative solution to my problem.

I'm no integrative thinking expert by any means, but if my brief foray into this can already achieve some results, what might be the possibilities if our union and government or school boards employed this in resolving some of their conflicts? What if, like Captain Kirk on Star Trek, there's more than just Option A or Option B to handling a crisis, a third, unconsidered solution that everyone can live with and support? The union sees workers' rights as salient; the government sees economic frugality as salient - there are many more factors that we need to consider (like our students' needs, our parents' desires, and more!). We need leaders to design creative resolutions, not within a too-short time frame (December 31? Many of the school boards have said this deadline is impossible to meet), and by considering the whole as well as all the intricate parts. Roger Martin, are there any students there who can help us find a better model?

In the meantime, we prepare for our one-day strike action. Here are the posters I've designed that I will wear (with a special outfit) while I'm on the picket line. If I devise a creative solution to this mess while I walk the line for three hours, I'll let you know.

Monday, December 10, 2012

PD Interrupted

Last Friday was Federation Day for the Elementary Teachers of Toronto. I wasn't super-keen on going to the Toronto Congress Centre, but my colleagues offered to pick me up and there was some urging/pressure to attend because of the recent provincial labour situation so I planned to go.

Wilbur derailed my plans.

Wilbur was my pet skinny pig. On November 24, we took him (along with my school skinny pig Max and my daughter's rabbit Dolly) to the groomers to have nails trimmed. He was unsteady on his feet but we initially attributed his falls to a sore nail clipped too close. We observed him for a couple of days and realized that something was wrong. This began a series of visits to our veterinarian. Wilbur was put on anti-inflammatory medicine, antibiotics, and ear drops.  Instead of improving, he deteriorated further. Although he ate and drank normally, he lost a lot of weight. His droppings turned abnormal recently and we realized that we couldn't wait to see the vet again. I called my fellow teacher and canceled my ride. We took Wilbur to the vet on Friday morning to see what could be done. Our animal doctor told us that Wilbur was so dehydrated that he would have to be hospitalized for several days and that he would have to undergo blood work, x-rays and further tests to determine the root of his problems. We discussed all our options and realized that even with all these interventions, it was uncertain that Wilbur would pull through. We made the difficult decision to have him euthanized.

This is Wilbur when he was healthy (Orville is on the left)
This is a photo of Wilbur, taken December 2, obviously unwell.

Why am I writing all of this here? I already mentioned it on my family blog, Twitter, and Facebook, but I felt the need to mention it on my professional blog to justify my absence, to explain why I didn't / couldn't attend. I still went through with my afternoon's self-directed PD with another educator off-site, but life has a way of disrupting the best-laid plans. My loss was minor, compared to a wonderful kindergarten teacher that I wrote about here - her sister died suddenly of a brain aneurysm last week - or compared to the Swansea P.S. teacher who was killed while biking to work. School is important and so is professional development, but sometimes there are bigger things to deal with, and comforting my tearful son and daughter as they said goodbye to a family pet took precedence.

Monday, December 3, 2012

ECEs are A+

These two ladies are the Early Childhood Educators at my school. I received permission from both of them (Maria Theresa [Thess] Isidro and Jennifer [Jen] Balido-Cadavez) to post this photo on my blog.

We've had full-day kindergarten at our school for three or four years now. I remember the concerns that swirled around when it was first suggested to have certified teachers partnering with certified ECEs in these classrooms, but any reservations anyone might still have would disappear in a flash if they could see these two ladies in action. I have learned so much from Thess and Jen and I wanted to share some of the unique ways they have made me a better teacher.

Early Childhood Educators are "trained in a program accepted by the College of Early Childhood Educators (College of ECE) and must be a member of the College". ( Their focus on the youngest learners really add a much-needed different perspective that teachers may obtain while earning their Bachelor of Education degree and Ontario College of Teachers qualifications.

As a specialist teacher, I am blessed to have the ECE come with the kindergarten students during library, computers, and media classes. Thess and Jen are solid bridges that can link together the big ideas discussed in the regular classroom with concepts taught in my lessons. They also know what makes some of these kids "tick" and can redirect, individualize instruction, and alert me when one of their charges is a bit "off". They know what strategies work for which child and will often intervene before a situation escalates out of control. We team-teach and discuss what went well in a lesson and what we noticed students doing as they work or talk. Jen and Thess give me descriptive feedback so that I can improve my lessons and help the students learn more effectively. Thess and Jen also make me laugh and we can share the amusing things that happen when you regularly interact with 4- and 5-year-olds.

Let me give you just a few examples so you don't think I'm just being a sycophant. A few years ago at the Ontario Library Superconference, my colleague and dear friend Denise Colby presented on kindergarteners in the library, and she recommended that we make our school libraries similar to kindergarten classes. I thought I'd play with this idea by having centers to explore our latest learning goal: "We are learning to identify the title and author on book covers". Jen and Thess gave me advice about setting up the centers, set up the supplies in a much more organized fashion, set up the rotation groups, monitored the performance of the students as they worked on the center activities, noted difficulties with some of the centers (for instance, one of the centers involved using pages from a vendor's book catalogue and circling the titles - some of the pages we gave had too many book covers on them and it overwhelmed some of the students), and after doing the centers (which were intended as "assessment as learning" and "assessment for learning" [ page 28]) helped me plan for the series of evaluations I wanted to use for my "assessment of learning".  They recommended using four book covers instead of just one, in case some students over-generalize and "mess up" (some of the success criteria they came up with said that most titles are near the top of the cover - this isn't always the case and some kids may automatically circle words near the top). When I showed the different options I was considering, they recommended I place one at the back of the main evaluation page for the students who need greater challenges.

In computer class, we just took a break from our learning goal centered on identifying the program we chose to use during free time and explaining/justifying our choices. I noticed that the students could recite the name of the program while at the carpet but would shrug or say "I don't know" when asked while they were playing/using. The ECEs recommended using actual screen shots from the program in addition to the extra-large hand-drawn icons of the programs we had been using. The ECEs would go around and practice asking and responding with the students and since the children feel extremely comfortable with Mrs. Isidro and Mrs. Cadavez, they would more readily answer the questions and the ECEs could coach them using the learning goal and success criteria charts (which, based on another suggestion of theirs, I made multiple copies and placed in the computer lab as well as their regular classroom). They tied in the math language they were using in the regular class (to justify - although I had a fantastic conversation with Thess' teaching partner about the difference between explain [say why] and justify [say how do you know] and made alterations to the words used on the charts). I'd show them my anecdotal notes I'd take each week and they'd add their own observations and together we'd consider who needed extra talk-time.

I could go on at even greater length about how Thess and Jen have influenced me, but I think you get the picture. I miss them on the rare occasion when they are absent from school and they are a great source of professional development for me. Thank you Jen and Thess for everything you do!