Month: October 2013

Ancient tools for modern times

Every now and then we get forwarded an article that confirms for us why we are doing what we are doing as teachers. I read this article, which is actually a lecture, by Neil Gaiman, about why books are what the 21st Century should be built on.

Neil Gaiman


Yes, he is biased as an author and as an individual who benefits greatly on young people continuing to read stories…but his arguments, I feel, speak beyond his bias and point at the importance of developing a personalized reading program for children. These are the most salient reasons he gives for why reading (and reading fiction in particular) is crucial for developing our future generation of learners:

Reading fiction teaches us that reading is pleasurable. Making this connection inspires us to keep reading. And the best way to teach young people that reading is fun is to allow them to choose their own books (even if they might be considered “less than” in the world of literature).
– All reading is good reading. Students will eventually move “rung by rung, into literacy”.
Fiction builds empathy. This allows us to connect with other people in a profound way (especially in our ever more connected and interdependent world).
It teaches creativity and innovation, by showing children, “The world doesn’t have to be like this. Things can be different.”

I think that it is easy to misread 21st Century Learning as something all about using the latest apps on your iPad or using some snazzy feature on the SmartBoard to help parents feel justified in sending their children to an elite private school. But what purpose do these tools serve us? Are we just using technology to mask a traditional approach to learning? Or are we critically considering what skills we want our students to possess when they graduate to meet the demands of a brave new world? I hope that in my practice, I am leaning more towards the latter. I want to be the kind of teacher that carefully decides how these fantastic tools will be aiding my students’ learning and what larger purpose they serve.

Could it be that one of the most effective tools for preparing students for the future is an basic, old-fashioned book?

And it started today (First F2F Session)!

I was definitely the most excited about this F2F session; I think because I actually knew what to be excited about and I had a general background with all of the “new” tools introduced today (diigo, Twitter, WordPress, and Google Apps) –– in some way it was confirming to know how far I have come in this past year. And it is ridiculously overwhelming…by the time I had my last group come the Twitter session I was running, I could see some wider eyes and overloaded minds. The good news is that this eventually sorts itself out (we can say this, but I think people just have to experience that).

f1e2016238f011e3b46d22000aeb0f16_5And, I mentioned this at the big table, but it’s so important that we put ourselves in situations of cognitive shock, so that we can remember what it is like for our students to learn so much in such a little amount of time. And isn’t this a big part of what 21st Century Learning is all about: allowing the teacher to be a learner as well?

What is the purpose of school?

For the Klingenstein Summer Institute, we had to write our philosophy of education statements before the two-week intensive began. What I wrote for the experience was fine and, I think, accurately captured some of my hopes and challenges as a teacher.

But then I read the philosophy of a slightly older, much wiser teacher friend of mine who teaches at Spence in New York. This friend is also a lead teacher at Klingenstein and is one of those teachers that I might always look up to. Her philosophy inspired me to reconsider how I am approaching my awareness of myself as a teacher. Specifically, she quite meaningfully reflected in her philosophy on what the purpose of school should be.

This is, I believe, the essential question that should be underpinning all of our practices: why do we do what we do? I know on a deep, guttural level that my calling as a teacher has nothing to do with raising standardized test scores, enabling students to perfectly parse a sentence, or persistently plow through a pile of novels. So what then, is the point of school?


And with this question bubbling through my imagination, I watched this animation of a talk Ken Robinson gave (I’m just going to say it, Ken Robinson could give a talk about cereal boxes and I would probably love it and share it with all my friends) and I am struck by the simplicity of the idea that we should be waking up students to the treasures and passions they have within themselves. This should be the purpose of an education: to give us the freedom, structure, supports, mentors, challenges, and encouragement that young people need in order to discover themselves and what their purpose is in this world.

When I float down from these lofty ideals and settle into the day to day reality of my life and existence in the classroom, I have to keep asking myself: how does this manifest in my classroom? I teach Grade 7 English. While I could be teaching my students the skills to write a fantastic short story or how to understand metaphor in a novel, there is something more important that I can be exploring with my students. With my whole heart, I want to know: How can I use the vehicle of Grade 7 English to help my students discover their passions, talents, and purpose in this life? 

Last year, my investigations with Cohort 21 were centred around personalizing the learning process with flipping my classroom: this was awesome and it was so safe. Not to belittle my work (because I am genuinely proud of what I learned), but I can challenge myself to do something more with this research opportunity. This idea, I think, actually runs in tandem with our potential as teachers: we can play it safe, we can do what is expected of us, we can tow the line, and produce the status quo…but what a waste of a beautiful gift?! We have the power and ability to change the world by changing our classrooms; why wouldn’t we engage with that?

I know of no better way to end this but with this excerpt from the Mary Oliver poem, The Summer Day:

Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?