Re-thinking learning for the 21st Century

Month: October 2019

Started at 43, now I am here.

Today’s a big day…not only did one of my favourite couples on my race team get engaged, but some major running events happened today. Some friends had some killer PBs (personal bests), some awesome podium performances and overall, my phone was buzzing with updates from Toronto while I was in Quebec (and I also got updates on how my friends in Quebec were doing despite being there). I ran today, don’t worry, but I only ran 22.5km of the marathon that was supposed to be my goal race. Again, worry not, 22.5km was my plan for today once I re-adjusted my goals for the season. We’ll find out if I hit my run goal for 2019 on Nov. 3. For now, let’s celebrate everyone else who had a great day!  One of my teammates broke the 3 hour marathon barrier and she placed third, another friend ran his first marathon ever, two other friends broke the 3:10 marathon barrier, another friend debuted the half marathon with a time of 1:06! I can go on and on but special thanks goes to my partner who played Uber driver for all us today! GO TEAM!

traffic jam

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Even so, today’s also pretty big emotional day because with all the races and running buzz happening, I can’t help but take a moment to think back on yet another reason why running has shaped my practice. At this point, I probably should have posted about my homework from our last F2F but I SWEAR…it’s coming. We are just running some design labs in science right now and the homework didn’t match the flow–it’s coming, later this week. I promise!

Pic or it didn’t happen!

A big thing I talk about in my classroom is the idea of progression. I think as teachers we all believe in it and talk about it with our students as much as we see fit. When I talk to my students about progression, I think back to my running moments. I wasn’t good at running when I started. My first 5km took me 43 minutes and I thought I was a super speedster. I remember my first half marathon, my goal was to run the entire time without walking (I survived to tell the tale, see left). Let’s just say the time it took me to run my first half marathon is the time it takes me now to run 30km (with hills). That’s cool, eh? Progression. It’s a pretty cool thing. It’s one of my favourite things to talk about in the classroom.

I remember the first time I looked up the Boston qualifying times. At that point, I was probably running 12 or 13km tops at a solid pace of 7 minutes per kilometer. To qualify for Boston in my gender and age category, I am looking to run just under 5:00 mins per km for the entire marathon. I remember reading the times and my jaw dropping. The idea of actually qualifying for Boston seemed so foreign and impossible for me. Not only would I have to run 30km more than my maximum but to shave over 2 mins per km?! Are you kidding me?? That’s impossible!! “I suck at running.” is what I told myself. Four years later, I’ve done Boston. Twice.

I promise I have an education point and this isn’t just about running. I teach the Ontario academic grade 10 science class. We have two streams: pre-IB and Ontario academic science. The start of the year always begins with my students saying: Bitmoji Image

  • “I am in this class because I suck at science”
  • “I am just bad at science, don’t expect much”
  • “I am aiming for my credit”

I don’t get mad or annoyed often, but those comments are the one thing that annoys me in the classroom. My students now know we ban certain words such as “suck”, “fail”, “bad at” because what does it really mean? What does it mean to be “bad at science” anyway? When did we allow out students to develop these preconceptions about a subject?! Okay, maybe it is the mark thing and how students think their abilities are the same as their mark. Science is SO MUCH MORE than labs, tests, academics and studying. Science is so much more than “memory work” and “knowing all the concepts”. Science is about curiousity, asking questions and developing problem-solving skills. Science is approaching challenge not in fear but with an attitude of discovery. SO WHAT IF YOU’RE WRONG?! That’s life. As if any of us went through life making all the right choices (and if you did, well, kudos to you). More importantly, to my fellow teachers out there: how might we measure progression in a way that is meaningful for students?

This is how I science

I tell the students about how I did not do well in science at school; I fell in love with science from doing shows, demonstrations and learning about science communication. I tell them how learning how to run taught me how to be curious, ask questions and challenge myself. Then, without a doubt, I always get the same answer: “But Ms. Lu–you don’t get it. You’re good at running. You don’t know what it’s like to be bad at something.”

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We all start somewhere. I tell them about my first 5km and how it took me a solid 43 minutes. My students always look at me like I am crazy. “There is no way it took you 43 minutes, I am faster than you!” That is my favourite because this is when I can divulge in all the fun things about training, learning about my limits and learning how to live just outside my comfort zone. I tell them about how science might feel uncomfortable right now, but we’re all working together as a team to push our boundaries just a little. Let’s experiment–what can we do when we just push the boundaries a little? If it gets tough, don’t forget you have your teacher, peers and friends to support you in this process! In case there was any doubt, this dance has been done in my classroom by some of my students. Yes, all sections of my grade 10 classes.

This leads into my goals this year. This year I want to look at student perceptions in science and how we might be able to change the way science is seen. I don’t like hearing the words, “I’m not good at science, I am an arts person.” Well, guess what, the two have more in common than we often given them credit. More to be discussed when I talk about the interdisciplinary project I am planning for grade 10 science this year! I am not here to push students to a scientific career–I am happy to support students in whatever path they choose but I don’t want them to give up on something without seeing it from a variety of perspectives. I wasn’t always good at science and I wasn’t always a good runner. I learned science because I enjoyed doing demonstrations and doing science shows–I hated science in school. I was terrible in the classroom but I was great at putting on an awesome show. Funfact: I am a professional bubble blower. Using my two fingers, I can blow a bubble as tall as a five year old.

May the wind by in my favour

To me, science is a curiousity adventure–if that is not their thing, that’s great…but if we dislike science for superficial reasons like, “it’s hard”, “too many labs”, “tests”, “it’s an academic subject”, then my students are in for a hard reality check. I think science is about finding a comfort zone and challenging it. It’s no different than what running has taught me. Everyone walks into my science classroom with a variety of limits, comfort zones and potential. It’s not about who scores the highest on the test, it’s about who is willing to push their comfort zone the most to grow and learn the most. One of the most re-assuring moments I had is when a parent saw me in September and told me, “Student A is SO EXCITED to be in your class again. He spent the week before the timetables were out chanting that he HAD to be in your class. He said that you hold him to a standard that is realistic but gives him a good butt kicking.”

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As a young teacher still figuring out what I am doing in the classroom, that was one of the most reassuring compliments I have ever received. Being told I was “out of this world awesome” helped too but what touched me was that the student trusted me to understand his potential; yet, he felt comfortable to let me push him out of his comfort zone. It’s helpful having students like this already in your class to help develop the culture. I feel as we have now spent about 2 months together, this culture of “pushing our boundaries” is really starting to develop. Granted, not every student buys into it and puts forth the same effort he did, but every student is contributing to this overall classroom dynamic. I am extremely appreciative of this dynamic that has developed in my classroom. I think it’s engaging and a safe space for me to ask my Cohort 21 survey questions (and receive honesty) but that the same feeling is reciprocated. I feel comfortable knowing my students know I just want them to be the best versions of themselves–whatever that looks like.

What’s your spirit animal?

Friday Fun Feature Quotes:

  • Ms. Lu, you’re like a guardian angel–just looking out for all of use and making the right decisions”
  • “Yo Ms. Lu, you know, you actually care about people more than the average–that’s pretty dope”


TIL…It’s Okay to Quit.

As some of you may know, I am an endurance runner. Running is a big part of my life, not because I want to be some sort of speedster but because it taught me a lot about managing my anxiety, taking on challenges, accepting change and being open and accepting to uncertainty. I think running has shaped my practice in many ways. There’s something about the training challenge that drives my want to explore inquiry, try new lessons and embrace creativity. Something about running has developed an innate interest to pursue new things, ask questions and most importantly, “try hard things”. 

“it’s by trying hard things that we learn how tough we really are.”

A little throwback to the first year I ran my own team at the Ontario Science Centre

For many years, I worked at the Ontario Science Centre. It’s there that I met an inspiring mentor/manager/friend who shaped my mentality for teaching. She approached every challenge with the quote above. She looked at every difficult moment as a situation to learn and to grow. She told me that if running was something I wanted to pursue, to not be afraid of it and to welcome every challenging moment with open arms. I didn’t believe I could run. At that point in my life, it took me about 43 painful minutes to run 5km. I honestly didn’t think I could run more, faster or ever run for 1 hour without walking. I remember lying on my basement floor thinking , “is the body even allowed to feel this much pain?!”

Turns out, it all ended up okay. I ended up getting hooked onto this running thing and actually ended up a little competitive in the sport. I found a community, a team and a love for challenging myself season after season. This school year, I’ve had a really hard time adjusting to the school year.  For all of September it drove me nuts trying to figure out why I was constantly tired and struggling to find the excitement and happiness I normally feel with the beginning of the school year. I taught grade 9 science last year and was teaching grade 10 science this year. I knew the students who I was teaching well and we had phenomenal rapports! They even called me the GOAT. I knew it wasn’t my classes nor students tiring me out.

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Funny Story: my grade 9s went on and on about how I was THE GOAT and I was so confused, almost appalled. How could these young teenagers go about calling me an animal!?!?! How rude can they get!!? Turns out, “the GOAT” has a different meaning. My bad folks…my bad.

A little throwback to when I worked at the Ontario Science Centre and was a popsicle stick puzzle master.

Like any scientist, the only appropriate thing to do at this point was to analyze every detail of my day and think of a plausible hypothesis as to what was changing my teaching mood! After talking it through with a couple friends, my partner and my coach, I finally figured it out. I signed up for a marathon that I did not want to do. Most of the time, in these situations, most people will transfer their bib or try to sell it. Well, unfortunately, the race directors of this specific marathon created a policy where no transfers, re-selling of bibs or change in events were at all possible. None at all. Trust me, I tried. I tried desperately to change my bib around in July. No success. I tried to give it away for free, to switch to the half marathon but the race directors were strict and did not allow any changes. It’s a shame to think I couldn’t give my bib away to someone who really would have loved to run.

So here I am, dragging my feet through a grossly hot summer running hard workouts and high mileage training for this marathon that my heart’s not really set on. For anyone who’s run a marathon or for all of you with amazing empathy skills, you know–a marathon is mental, if you’re not feeling it mentally, you’re probably not going to love the marathon. After a long chat with my coach and a long mental battle, I had officially decided to bail on this marathon and change my entire fall running line up.

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For a couple days, I was very hard on myself. I kept thinking about what a bad role model I was to the students, that I was a quitter and that I wasn’t displaying much grit to face challenges. I thought that I was letting my students down by failing to model perseverance.

Then, one day this week, a student asked me when my fall marathon was going to be. I explained to them that I had made the decision not to run a marathon this season but to redirect my focus to running a half marathon later this season in hopes to qualify for another international race. I apologized to the class saying that I felt a bit of guilt for changing my goals because I spend so much time in my classroom talking about the fun in pursuing challenges and here I was giving up on my challenge! Without realizing the cloud I was carrying, my student (quite confused) asked, “Wait Ms. Lu, I don’t get it. Why do you feel bad? How’s what you’re doing different from us? You took feedback from your coach and made a change. That’s like when you mark our graphs and tell us next time not to make the same mistakes, right?” Another student chimes in, “Yaaaa. So you just changed your goals, but your goal is still a goal, right?” Of course a smartie pants in the room had to point out, “Ya but a half is way easier than a marathon!!” Then the SUPER SMARTIE pants of the class had to silence the room with one sentence, “Guys. Let’s be real–this ain’t BABY FOOD.”

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Yes, so turns out, 15 year old slang is weird. Apparently, baby food is the equivalent to our “that was easy” button. Everyone decided to settle on the fact that they were proud of Ms. Lu and excited for whatever runventure was next. I was surprised. I didn’t realize how much students didn’t care what I was doing, but cared simply that I was chasing a goal; that I cared about bettering myself, that I cared about progression. I tell them a lot about how one year in high school isn’t everything and that they’ve got numerous moments and all the time in the world to pursue opportunities to help them grow, change and grow more. It just came to me that, somehow, I had forgotten to apply that to myself.

So being the impromptu teacher we all are, I decided to re-frame my lesson based on this little moment I had. Don’t worry, we still talked refraction in my class and rocked the Optics lesson. However, I decided that we would take a small detour and write a little goal for ourselves for term one…something we want to achieve either in science, school, sports, socially, ANYTHING. Then, we wrote out an Action Plan. Woah. Did I just do a mini-cohort 21 thing in my classroom? Then if we felt comfortable, we shared it with the class, because we’re just all part of Ms. Lu’s dysfunctional science family, right (disclaimer: my students came up with that creative crew name)?

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Then, I realized how much of a load was lifted off my shoulder. I am still running the same mileage, workouts and distance I did in September, but I was coming into my classroom excited, energized and better able to teach! I was inspired, motivated and overall, happier. All this…because I shifted my goals a bit. I felt a lot of guilt at first, but my grade 10s made me realize…I didn’t change my idea of having goals and trying hard things, I didn’t give up on pursuing a challenge–I just changed what my challenge would be. To them, I was modelling exactly what I preached: taking feedback, adjusting, adapting, and most importantly improving. An important lesson for me but surprisingly, a lesson that opened up a conversation in my classroom. Somehow, this learning experience for myself has set up a classroom dynamic where my students actively and regularly check-in about their goals, openly talk about what they want to achieve and most importantly, share with one another how they are adjusting, adapting and improving themselves. Fingers crossed for developing a culture of growth mindset this year in grade 10! If you managed to make it through my long ramble…#thankyou #cohort21 #excitedforthisjourney

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