Layering Lenses

Sitting in an empty classroom during the third snow day in a row this week, I feel like I’m finally able to squeeze in some time to go back over countless drafts I’ve written for my blog and polish a couple up. Here’s what I was doing in October…

After a very intense summer of professional learning and experience-building, it’s always a big challenge to not get overzealous in terms of the changes you bring back to your classroom and school. One of the big themes of the Klingenstein Summer Institute (KSI) is that change is a process and not an event and I’ve tried to remind myself of that regularly as I slowly try to make my changes this fall. One of the changes I’ve been working toward in my practice ties into my goal of finding ways to help students individualize their learning as much as possible. Last year, as a member of Cohort 21, I was overwhelmed by the potential and different approaches to this question and it quickly became apparent that I needed to narrow this idea down – not just for me, but for my students as well. Creating choice and possibility for students can be paralysing if students don’t feel equipped to make such or choices.

This is something I’ve seen a lot during my early teaching years in my English classes. Whether giving multiple choices of texts for a novel study, offering a variety of essay topics or assignment options, or trying to welcome differing interpretations of a poem, students have frequently noted that they have a very hard time making these kinds of choices despite wanting the opportunity to have autonomy in their learning.

In trying to find a solution to this problem, I thought back to some of the powerful experiences from KSI. Many of these experiences involved using strict protocols to get people talking in a constructive ways. The lesson that Richard Messina and other lead teachers reiterated was that, despite the sometimes-artificial feeling that strict protocols can induce, trust the structure. Structure, paradoxically, can be very freeing.

Bringing this idea back to my English classes, I’ve been endeavouring to narrow my focus to provide students with structures to help them make meaning of texts as they read through the incorporation of critical literary theory. In teaching more explicitly about reader response, Marxism, feminism, post-colonialism, and other key literary theories, I have seen vast improvement in my students ability to create a personalized understanding of texts.

Let’s take for example Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” a classic short story that is usually pretty engaging for students. We began by learning about reader response literary theory. Students then read through the story looking to create personal connections and meaning from the story. Students talked about the close connection between the story and The Hunger Games, the shift in mood and style as the suspense build, etc. As we shifted toward a feminist reading, students start to ask questions about why a man is running the lottery, why men are drawing for the family, and why it is a woman who speaks up against the lottery and is ultimately its victim. Next, we shift to Marxism and see students starting to consider how things might have been different if all of the townspeople rose up against the lottery and whether this kind of blind perpetuating of a system is exploitative of lower classes.

It’s low-tech, and at times it’s awkward – even ugly – but in the end I hear students richly engaging in texts and when we move on to our next text, I see students layering these critical lenses to create colours all their own with which to see the text. Colours rooted in theory, but with personalized tints.


Why Cohort 21?

As the craziness of back-to-school starts to settle into routine, I often find myself reflecting back on last year – my first at Rosseau Lake College – and think about how this year will hopefully feel less scrambled and more ready for what comes next (if that’s possible in the teaching game). It was also around this time last year that I was approached about Cohort 21 as a potential professional development opportunity. Having taught in Seoul the year before and never having heard of the Cohort, I had no idea what to expect. When I think of how far along in my teaching journey I’ve travelled since my decision to attend Cohort 21, I can’t help but feel immensely grateful for all the ways that Cohort 21 propelled me forward in ways I never could have accomplish on my own. Here are some of the ways I moved through my ongoing professional journey during my time with Cohort 21 (which I’m so happy isn’t finished!). Continue reading Why Cohort 21?

An Exercise in Visible Thinking

As someone who thinks of himself as a fast walker, I’ve noticed a definite slowing of my pace since I arrived at The Lawrenceville School for the Klingenstein Summer Institute. Every conversation, discussion, lecture, or reading has weighed heavily on me between sessions. To acknowledge Dr. Pearl Rock Kane’s opening address, I have been complicated. This sends me on wild spirals of self-doubt and despair, but also brings me great moments of affirmation. Overall, I think it balances out into that much-needed sense of discomfort that propels me to be better.

Continue reading An Exercise in Visible Thinking

What’s Your Story?

As the first full day of the Klingenstein Summer Institute came to a close last night, I was really struggling with what to write. We did so much. We examined our personal philosophies of education aiming to ensure that what we were ultimately focused on is the learned curriculum more than the taught curriculum and how we can assess that our philosophy is being enacted. In my curriculum breakout group we started a list of many of the things we hear from students that act as roadblocks to English instruction with the hopes that we can unpack these for what is really the problem when a student says “I think we’re reading too much into this”. Continue reading What’s Your Story?

A Case for Liking Student Work

As someone relatively new to blog writing, I struggle to feel that my writing is good enough – important enough. I continue seeking positive feedback, looking at my site’s stats and reading online articles to stay motivated.(Click here for a great example). While I wholly believe in my own professional growth that comes about as a result of reflectively blogging, it is amazing how invigorating it is to receive a comment or a like or a share on something I’ve written. I like what I write, but it’s so nice to feel like at least one other person out there likes it too. Especially when I know and respect that reader. It makes me want to be a better writer – a better educational thinker. And this is an important lesson to keep in mind for teachers out there.

Continue reading A Case for Liking Student Work

The Classroom as a ‘Moral World’

In recently considering how to further value, in my classroom, what David Brooks refers to as eulogy virtues – those virtues developed by our internal moral logic – I returned to Dr. Robert Boorstrom’s article “What Makes Teaching A Moral Activity” (1998). Boorstrom recognizes that teachers will unanimously agree that education is a moral activity, but for different reasons. Some will point to professional ethics, others to character education. Some will point to moral dilemmas that teachers face in their day-to-day teaching, while others see the moral aspect in the question of what aim does education fulfill. Some teachers feel that education is needed to help build a strong sense of morality in order to guide students toward becoming contributing members of society.

Continue reading The Classroom as a ‘Moral World’

The Great Balancing Act

New York Times columnist, David Brooks speaks about the dual nature of the self in terms of an external self and an internal self. The external self is driven to build, create, and innovate, while the internal self, driven by a moral logic, seeks to do good and be good. The result is that we end up with two sets of virtues: the résumé virtues and the eulogy virtues.

The résumé virtues are the ones you put on your résumé, which are the skills you bring to the marketplace.The eulogy virtues are the ones that get mentioned in the eulogy, which are deeper: who are you, in your depth, what is the nature of your relationships, are you bold, loving, dependable, consistency?                        David Brooks, TED2014

Continue reading The Great Balancing Act

A Thank You to Teachers


We don’t really have one of these in Canada, but in the US it is National Teacher Appreciation Day and, in the spirit of finding the good and making it your own, I’m helping to bring it north. 

It can be a rather thankless job sometimes – we work with students based on the faith that what we are doing now will remain, or at least become, important to them in the coming years. It’s a job that is tiring and challenging, and can make us run the gamut from joy and pride to disappointment and frustration (sometimes all in one class!).

Continue reading A Thank You to Teachers

Raising the Bar or Removing the Bar?

In his popular TedTalk, Shawn Achor speaks about the need to escape “the cult of the average” through the lens of positive psychology. This is a break from the traditional aim of psychology – to understand and treat mental illness. Rather, positive psychology attempts, in the words of Dr. Martin Seligman, one of the seminal thinkers in the field, to allow humanity to flourish.

Continue reading Raising the Bar or Removing the Bar?