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Showing posts from April, 2012

Unit Plans as Emergence

This is an article I wrote a while back, in part for my course work, in part to get an idea organized in my head.  Planning is tough for teachers.  How much do we plan up front?  How much do we let the students drive the inquiry?  How student centered is our class?  What Ed Said has recently done a wonderful post with these questions and more.  Who controls the learning?  Great questions that require thoughtful responses.

Here are my thoughtful responses to those questions.

Thanks to those who took the time to proofread and give feedback.  It is nice to have a group to share ideas with.

Unit Planning as Emergence



Instruction versus Discovery

Yesterday evening we had a staff discussion about how to teach writing.  Since we have a high ESL population, we spoke about various aspects of writing; organization, mechanics, etc.  We also talked about whole-class instruction versus personalized instruction.  As for me, I have all the students in class writing about similar topics, but each of us are working on different skills that are necessary for our own personal growth.  One could say that writing instruction in my class is completely personalized, and continuously happening on a daily basis through every subject.  I make sure that every kid knows exactly what our focus will be when we talk about writing; whether it be voice, mechanics, organization.  This got me thinking about a girl in my class, lets call her Oprah.

Oprah is passionate about writing.  From the beginning of the year, I could tell she loved to write.  English is her second language, so she needed a lot of work on the structure and mechanics of her writing.  Her…

What if... (pt. 1)

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**This is part 1 of a series of weekly questions that are meant to act as conversation starters, or thought experiments.  Discussion and debate are encouraged**


Complexity Science and Education

I am currently do an M.Ed in Education with the University of Calgary.  The focus of our studies is Mathematics for Teaching (what math does a teacher need to know in order to be an effective teacher?).  An overriding theme within the course however, is taking the ideas and principles of Complexity Science, Chaos Theory, and Emergence to a classroom and to education as a system.  The paper below is a culminating work for our course on the Knowing, Learning and Teaching.

I would love feedback or to have a discussion via Skype is anybody is interested.  Please contact me.  And please note, that these are just my personal metaphors for education, and reflect how I view the world, teaching, and schooling.  I am not suggesting this is the right way, but rather it is one of a multitude of possible ways.  I celebrate and encourage all styles and sets of metaphors.

It Makes Complete Sense to Us

Schedules that emerge and evolve

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ASIDE: In this post, I am trying to hash out an idea in my head, and explain something that I do that is not exactly very easy to explain.  The explanation is rough, and it is a work in progress.  Please critique and ask any questions is something is not clear.  Like everything that I write, it is my own interpretation.  I am not saying it is the right way, merely it is my way.  I celebrate all ways and all styles of teaching, learning, and knowing.  END ASIDE.

School is loaded with schedules.  Scheduled classes, meetings, toilet breaks, eating times, break times, exercise time, etc etc etc etc.  Everything is scheduled down to the last minute.  Some might say it is organized.  I call it oppressive.  For me.  We are all different, and those differences should be celebrated in a school.  But, how can we celebrate and allow freedom to someone who sees a schedule as a constraint?  In a school!

I hate school schedules.  As soon as you say when something has to happen, you miss other possibi…

Words aren't enough

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I have a boy in my class who hates to write.  He doesn't hate it because it is difficult for him, he is very adept writer, he just doesn't like it.  Over the course of the last few years, he has picked up english incredibly fast.  He is a voracious reader (in english, not so much in his mother tongue) and he will talk your ear off if you let him (I do).  Yet, when you ask him to write his thoughts down, he gives you this wonderful look that says, why?  He has developed these amazing strategies over the last couple of years to limit the amount of writing he does.  He takes the whole sentence and cuts out certain words that would enhance the meaning until he is left with a sentence that only makes sense to him (and increasingly, me).  The problem is this; he is deep, and when I read his work, I am left trying to guess and infer the meanings, and it is like a puzzle.  And you know what, I love it.  It is fun, it is engaging, and it makes you think deeply about not only the answer…

The many ways to inquire

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At the same time I have both a feeling of incredible freedom and creativity, and frustration with the structure of the units I teach.  On the one hand, the frustration comes from the focus of the units central idea, inquiry points, and teacher provocations.  At times, I feel they are too narrow and focused, and provide too many rules for inquiry.  On the other hand, I see how that structure can lead to new and creative ways of thinking about the topic, and can lead to an interesting new interpretation of the units main idea.  All complex systems require rules and structure, and as a result of those rules and structures, new forms may emerge.  A system with too many rules would be mechanical and predictable, while a system with too few rules would be too wide open and chaotic.  Harmony exists somewhere in between (not balance, as that suggests it is in the middle of the two, when in real life, I find it moves along the continuum, changing from one moment to the next).

I am going to ask …

Who is swinging the pendulum?

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[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="368" caption="Pendulum Painting: Tom Shannon"][/caption]

I was recently listening to a Rex Murphy Cross Country Check-up podcast (Canadian show with Canadian content, but I am sure people from other countries are having this exact same conversation) about mathematics education.  The question was; Is there something wrong with the way math is being taught in Canadian Schools?  It was mostly about the old way of doing math (rote, memorization, drills, practice) and the new way of doing (conceptual, big idea, hands on).

I don't want to get into that argument.

At one point in the show, a caller made the following comment (which was echoed by subsequent callers); education is pushing the pendulum into this direction, and parents need to start pushing it back the other way.

I have no doubt that there is indeed a pendulum like feeling in education (not getting into this now, but I think the pendulum is a very p…

Guess the Central Idea

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As I wrote about before, I have tried to hide the central idea to this unit and have the kids reflect on it as we go.  I have been using our 'tuning into the week ahead session' on Monday mornings to have them reflect on this and other aspects of the unit (we are also building our own definitions of poetry).

So far, it has been a very positive experience.  I can see how their thinking has changed over the course of two weeks, and how the most recent ideas are influencing their meta-view of culture.  I am pleased that they are using this activity to look at the topic from a higher plane of thinking.  Here are some of the ideas the kids have come up with;

Culture is something that people make
Culture makes humans 'human'
Culture is world
We can't live without culture
Culture means a lot to humans
Culture is peoples lives
Culture is made by humans, but culture also makes humans
Culture helps the world be like it is

Most of these are, by the way, way better than the actual centr…

Buckminster Fuller and the Wright Brothers: Thinking out Loud

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I am big fan of Buckminster Fuller.  He was an amazing reflector and an incredibly forward thinking individual.  I highly recommend this book to get inside his head and see the world through his eyes.  Toward the end of his life, he gave an extraordinary week long lecture series in which he called 'Everything I know'.  Buckminsters style of speaking was something that he practiced and fostered in his early life while he was still trying to find his way.  He called it thinking out loud, because he would literally just narrate the inside of his head and work out ideas right in front of you.

Many of his colleagues and friends found it annoying, but he did this for one simple reason; by saying his ideas out loud he was inviting a response from another person that may push him to a clearer understanding.  In essence, he was trying to make thinking a collective action.  At the moment I am reading a book about the Wright Brothers, and they would so the same thing with each other (albe…

Teacher as co-inquirer

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We are currently studying culture in G56, so as I always do, I am being an inquirer myself and re-reading an old book from my shelf.  I hope that this re-read will kick off into a new book that I have never read before.  And from there my personal interpretation of culture will grow richer.  I hope it grows richer every time I teach a unit on culture through my career.  I hope to never stop learning and the day that I lose that spark, is the day I should leave this job.

I was thinking about this the other day.  I am inquiring into culture on a completely different level from my students.  They are focused on the tangible aspects of culture and connecting dots into larger ideas, while I am looking at it from an evolutionary and psychological perspective.  We seem to inquiring into very different levels of culture.  Yet, as I blogged about earlier, these levels are nested and implicated in each other.  I continue to push my thinking on the origins of culture and the collective sensibilit…

Spinning round and round...

I am swamped with work; I am starting a new unit, I have several things on the go in my class that demand a great deal of my time, I have a three-year old boy, I am finishing up a course for my M.Ed and have two papers due in the next two weeks, I am trying to plan my summer travels and vacation, etc.

Despite all this, I took an hour our of my schedule to join in the #PYPchat.  It was a wonderful experience and I am glad I did.  I am someone who prefers long conversations, but the quickness of the messages forced me to think much quicker.  It was surprisingly invigorating.  It was great to share ideas with so many other teachers from the comfort of my home and pyjamas.  It was interesting how I could maintain several side conversations while still participating in the whole.  As someone who is interested in and currently researching the role of Collectives in education, this was a powerful experience.

Back to work.......

Mem Fox and Writing

Our elementary school had a Skype with Mem Fox this morning.  She is amazing with kids and we had a great time.  They asked some great questions and she had some even better answers.  She even gave us a preview of her latest work, but swore us to secrecy!

A couple of things she said that I loved:

reading levels are ridiculous things.  You read because you love something and want to find out more about it, and write because you want to tell a story.  I couldn't agree more.  Read what you love, and love what you read


graphic organizers and plans stifle creativity.  It is like putting yourself into a prison.  Let go of them and let the story come out of you, let the ideas emerge from your soul, and get your ideas down on paper


writing is difficult, it is stressful, it is frustrating, and sometimes it is not very fun; you continue through it because you have a story you tell and you are passionate about the story


if you are not a reader, you cannot be a writer

Story and Shapes

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I am obsessed with shapes, but not the shapes normally presented in traditional euclidian geometry. I am interested in the shapes of ideas, learning, teaching, creativity, stories, etc. It is this focus on narration and shape that has me reflecting on the stories we present in the shape of our units and learning experiences. Last unit, my shape was Kath Murdoch's inquiry cycle (science, forces and motions), and before that my central metaphor (story or shape) was a winding river (social studies, ancient civilizations).

Aside: I see very little distinction between the terms metaphor, story, narrative and shape, and use them interchangebly.  End Aside.

Recently, I started a new unit on culture.  I am never at ease with myself before I start a new unit.  I worry about how much I am projecting my view of a topic onto my students.  I worry about how their interpretations will be linked to my interpretations.  I want them to create their own meaning, but at the same time, I want to tell t…