From the library...

How To Behave and Why…

It’s been awhile since I wrote about a book, not for lack of books in our world but for overwhelming abundance. The collecting, reading and sharing of books is as essential to life in our house as breathing most days, and sharing all the ones we love would be a full time job!  Sometimes a book comes along, however, that is so important and good and valuable that it must be shared and celebrated. I found this amazing gem during a visit to Citylights bookstore in San Francisco. 

How to Behave and Why” was written by Munro Leaf (most famous for writing “The Story of Ferdinand” – the mild-mannered bull) and published in 1946. 

It’s a deceptively simple looking “children’s book” with a universal message…

Focusing on four essential character traits it explains what the values mean and why they are important in a simple but not pedantic way, so that they are accessible to the very young, the very old and all other ages in between. 

I love that the writing manages to be idealistic and realistic at the same time. If I could buy this book for every child or teacher I know, I would!

We are living in strange and unsettling times, but it is reassuring to know that there are still many good people living fair, honest and kind lives. We need to remind ourselves and each other that these qualities are timeless, and that they can be universal if we keep recognizing their value in ourselves and others. 

A note from the editor of the newly published re-issue:

I hope you read and share it – and tell me what you think! Have you come across any gems at the bookstore lately? 

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From the art room..., From the classroom...

Old And New…

Some time ago I had a last minute idea that involved students making art to decorate the gym for a concert.  Last minute ideas often end up being executed with last minute supplies, and this one stayed true to that rule…

  

I rummaged through the art room cupboards to find, in a dark dusty corner, some old forgotten rolls of mismatched wallpaper samples, ends of gift wrap rolls and some odd shaped scraps no one else could find a use for. What could they become?
  

I had two weeks and over 100 students (ages 6-10) to work with.  Some of them were eager to be artists, and others came at the process with great reluctance. What, and how, could we create?

  

In the end I chose a different theme for each grade, gave them basic instructions for shapes, and let them create their pieces using the materials at hand. 

 

The end results were as creative and diverse as the students themselves. No two were alike, even with the simple repeated constructs, and every  picture captured the personality of the artist. Amazing. 

  

  
None of these materials you see was originally intended for the purpose of “art”. They had all been relegated to the back of the closet as relics of another time, unable to fulfill their design destiny (brown floral wallpaper anyone?), but with a little bit of imagination and the right tools they became not just one but many new things…
       

  

Going in to this activity we didn’t have a picture of what our efforts would produce, but we had curiosity and enthusiasm for sure. The “doing” part was messy. The “engagement” part was awesome. And the end results were as unique as the sticky fingerprints all over my resource room floor. Hmmm. 

  
  

Thinking about the explore-connect-create process in this context reminds me of an artist’s quote that caught my attention at the Vancouver Art Gallery this past summer: 

“The possible does not have to be justified by the known.” (Wolfgang Paalen)

In other words, we might not know where we are going. In fact, we probably don’t. But that shouldn’t stop us from exploring and doing as we discover what possibilities await…

  

  

Looking back at these pictures of the creative and highly individual found-art project, I am seeing them with the eyes of an “old” teacher exploring the “new” curriculum. For me they make an interesting metaphor: familiar materials, imagination, open ended exploration and guided structure to create something new and ultimately more personal. Is that kind of what it looks like to you?

  

  

The teachers here in BC are well into the implementation of the “new” curriculum by now, but we are still really only at the beginning of understanding the shift in thinking, teaching and learning that is required of us as we move towards discoveries in a world that is evolving faster every day. It feels unsettling, to be sure, but we shouldn’t forget that we already have many of the essential tools in our supply cupboard…

    

  

Watching children create is the thing that inspires me most as a teacher. It reminds me of the passion and enthusiasm that set me on this path to a life in education so many years ago. It encourages me, especially on the difficult days, to remember what is really essential in education. 

  

  

Curiosity, creativity, opportunity, affiliation… 

These things we must have, regardless of what the current theme of the curriculum may be. If children love learning and playing and making – if they have the opportunity and the encouragement and the guidance – then they have everything they need to do great things. 
  

Wherever you are, I hope these things are part of your daily life too…

“To see a World in a grain of sand, And Heaven in a wild flower, Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand, And Eternity in an hour.…”

(William Blake, from Auguries of Innocence)


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From the classroom...

Pop! Bang! (Back to School…)

It may be hard to believe but we are back to school already. Summers seem to come and go faster and faster every year, possibly in direct proportion to my excitement and anticipation, or maybe in relation to the lengthy list of chores I hope to accomplish…

This summer was a particularly fast one, with a dismal start (cold, cold rainy days at the outdoor pool) a disorganized middle (were we coming? going? camping? renovating? moving?!) and a then fast finish so frantic that here we are again, in September.  Boom. 

  

Back to school is a time that creates mixed feelings in many people. It’s exciting to reconnect with the friends and colleagues we haven’t seen all summer, and it’s fun to get all new school things (crisp unbroken crayons, shiny sharp pencils, clean white erasers and piles of notebooks – Miss G. is a connoisseur…) but the older I get and the longer I teach the more I become aware of the challenges involved too. 

  

For many children (teachers, parents…) the adrenaline and anxiety wrapped up in anticipation of a new school year add a lot of pressure onto what can already be an emotional time. Sleep schedules are shifting – some people can’t get enough sleep to get through the day, and some can’t stop sleeping in time to adjust to new schedules.  Eating habits are hard to get back into (only eating at the breaks?!) and that’s all before thinking about homework or practice schedules… Full stop to full blast in what feels like an instant
  

Emotions are close to the surface, which makes new routines and responsibilities even more challenging.  Many who normally have no problems with the expectations of daily life are stretched by new environments, new colleagues, new classmates, new programs… What might have been manageable in ideal circumstances now seems just a little bit scary. 

 

Sometimes the adrenaline and anticipation that get us through those first few days vanishes under a pile of books and assignments, draining the reserves of summer quicker than we thought possible, leaving us feeling more than a little bit flat…

 

In these opening moments give yourself creative license to get through the stops and starts of a new season.  Notice the people around you – especially the outliers and the quiet ones – who need just a little more empathy than usual…

“Empathy is strength, and an asset towards surviving and thriving in any environment. It promotes genuine curiosity about others, which facilitates a desire to teach and learn.” (Ugo Uche)

(Art by Gr.5 students…)

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From the desk of...

Yet…

My new favourite word. Three letters, but strong enough to hold the darkest thoughts and feelings back long enough to give a little bit of time to regroup…

  
  
We’ve all been there: a place where frustration or discouragement keeps us from seeing clearly the potential on the other side of a temporary setback.  As adults we (hopefully) have the tools to deal with the emotion and to motivate the action needed to get past that place. As teachers and parents we have the responsibility to model and support children who haven’t (yet) developed those tools for themselves…

  
  
Regularly, in the resource room, I work with children who have been unsuccessful in much of their short lives so far. Often their default phrase is “I don’t get it.” This is my least favourite phrase, and has been jailed in my classroom for many years. I have asked children to replace it with “I need help” or “I don’t understand”, but that was all before I discovered yet.  

  
  
When visiting another school recently I joyfully came across some fantastic “anchor phrases” in an eighth grade science room… The classroom teacher was surprised I didn’t recognize them – they are inspired by Carol Dweck’s “growth mindset” – based on her 2006 book. (I was having Miss G. In 2006  – quite a few things snuck by me that year…) 

This post is for Miss G. She is talented at many things, but not so much at accepting her own (even temporary) limitations. Of course, she’s 9.  When she’s having “one of those” moments I get her to scroll through the pictures and read them out loud – it’s cheesy, and she laughs, but it works. There’s hope for us yet…

  
    
    
    
    
  

I have looked at these pictures over and over again since taking them, and have shared them with friends, colleagues and students alike. The magic word is yet. There isn’t a phrase I can think of that doesn’t improve with the addition of those three letters. 

Today’s bonus: this rubric of assessment language posted in the same room:

 

I had the fortune of hanging out with some students who belonged to this actual classroom – they explained this rubric (in their own words!) for me, emphasizing their understanding of each stage of learning, and how important the growth continuum was.  Each phase, just like in life, was essential before moving on to the next.  We are not born ready to be extending learners. Many of us will spend a great deal of time in the acquiring phase. There is great satisfaction in developing and refining our learning, and in circling back to another round of acquiring… If we are learning we are living and changing and successful – we’re not done yet

  
I can’t help but connect these ideas to some speakers I heard at the FISA conference earlier this month – one on the inspiration for change (learning?):

“How can we make small changes toward bigger change? Attunement: understand perspective and find common ground. Buoyancy: face rejection, setbacks and failures. Clarity: curate information, develop expertise, find and identify problems. Tapping into feelings of why we do what we do increases our effective connection to tasks.” (Daniel Pink)

…another on the diversity required to create a world changing around us:

“Producing only one type of people reduces talent diversity. We need people on the fringes. We are differently talented and differently motivated – this is the beginning of passion. Doing things we are interested in makes us intrinsically motivated and gives us energy. Desire creates opportunity for creativity – human diversity becomes valuable. Successful schools value creativity, entrepreneurship, unique talents, autonomy, voice, exploration. Develop the discipline to sustain creativity and discover strengths. Learning from and for other people creates authentic products.” (Yong Zhao)

…and lastly:

“We have to be hopeful to help humanity adapt to its challenges.” (Charles Fadel)

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From the desk of...

Personal Universal… (#ChrisHadfield and #fisa2016)

“Not only are we in the universe, the universe is in us.  I don’t know of any deeper spiritual feeling than what that brings upon me.” (Neil DeGrasse Tyson)

 

Space is an awe inducing subject – it makes us all feel so small.  No matter how much we know about it, there is always more and further – it prompts the contemplation of infinite.

And wow.

 Infinite, as an adult, is almost unfathomable. For children it is much more reasonable – their combination of cognitive flexibility and open mindedness allows them to accept it without reservation because it just is.  Our ability to learn may not be as infinite as space, but we have barely begun to tap into the potential of our own abilities.  Who knows?  What great wonders are waiting to be discovered? 

  
 I was thinking these thoughts as I waited with 5000 other educators in Vancouver to hear Cmdr. Chris Hadfield talk about his own journey into the infinite; within moments of his arrival on stage it transformed from the unfathomable into the absolute, and ultimately relatable story of a journey to change:

“This is about having a radically different set of circumstances by the time you go to bed.  Change is scary. ” (Cmdr. Chris Hadfield)

Commander Hadfield was speaking about his life-altering (and potentially life ending) journey into space, but he spoke empathetically to a group of educators who face a daily journey to change, and who are about to embark on a large scale journey to learning that is dramatically different from the one we have been used to.  The room was silent; I was riveted.

“Why take a risk? Why change on purpose?  Why increase the perceived danger in your life?  And then what?” (Cmdr. Chris Hadfield)

If you are alive, you are changing.  It is natural and inevitable.  Once we realize this, it is a simple step further to change what we can in a conscious way.  (“The secret of change is to focus all your energy not in fighting the old but in building the new.” -Socrates)  Conscious change can open our minds to new possibilities, and gives us access to tools for communication and collaboration in the process.  

  
For Commander Hadfield the change at hand was “…a tremendous human adventure that would motivate me to bring out the absolute best I could bear on that problem… Change one little thing and suddenly people don’t see what they expect to see – the possibility of invention.”

Where to begin?  Set a goal.  (Chris Hadfield’s goal was to walk on the moon by age 45.  It didn’t happen, but so much else did.)

“The beauty of setting ‘impossible’ goals is it gives you a clear idea of what to do next… Enjoy what you’re doing and let yourself succeed everyday.” (Cmdr. Chris Hadfield)

These thoughts resonated long with me.  Every moment of life is a gift, something that can get overlooked when the more mundane details pile up, and many small things could be celebrated with joy and gratitude! (Martinistyle mantra!) Hot water, fresh air, clean sheets, small kindnesses…

  
  Just a step away from the impossible goal, framed with joy and gratitude for life, is a vastness that can only be filled with wonder:

“Infinity.  Just outside your window.  It’s a huge deepening of respect for our planet and for each other… To be alone in the universe, holding on with one hand and facing the incredible endlessness separate from earth is ‘revelationary’ perspective building.” (Cmdr. Chris Hadfield)

I sat in that audience, spellbound by the images on the big screen of the earth’s horizon covered in a spilled rainbow of light.  There is our home, fragile and beautiful. (“For small creatures such as us, the vastness is bearable only through love.” – Carl Sagan)

“What do you do with an unbelievably beautiful experience?  It’s important to try and share the beauty of being alive.  When we really want to share the experience of being human we use art.” (Cmdr. Chris Hadfield)

My heart was pounding.  How brilliant and beautiful is the mind of a space travelling scientist who knows the benefits of art and music are essential to help us connect and develop and grow?

  

“There is genius everywhere.  We need to create an environment where each young person emerges with opportunity.” (Cmdr. Chris Hadfield)

This opportunity comes from learning.  Learning comes from wonder.  Wonder comes from art and music and science and joy and gratitude and hope…

“The opposite of fear is education – the enabling of human capability and developing global responsibility.  Never be satisfied with your own level of expertise.  The more I learn the more I build the platform under my feet, the further I can see.  Ask yourself, ‘What don’t I know? How can I learn a little bit more so I can stand a little bit higher?’ ” (Cmdr. Chris Hadfield)

We are challenged, as educators, to never stop learning – to grow alongside the students we teach in order to see farther and to work harder for this world of ours together.  We are challenged, as humans, to care for our planet and for each other.  It is a simple and beautiful image, taken “with a very good tripod” from the perspective of space.

 

“There is visualization and preparation and then a magnificent memorable blur.  The first few times around the earth are focused on recalling your own experiences, the next few times on sharing them.  About the thousandth time around you develop an intimate relationship with the world and recognize that we are all together.” (Cmdr. Chris Hadfield)

There is so much beauty in contemplating the universe – it has been the inspiration for many creative and scientific minds. Great works of art and science have been built out of the curiosity, awe and wonder that exist beyond our own planet – the earth is so huge but in space it’s a tiny speck. Humbling, isn’t it?  

   

That thought can help us get perspective when our own lives feel overwhelming…it manages to place our real, earthly, human experience into a galactic context without making any of it trivial.  We are all together, for each other, on the same planet in infinite space.

“Life is the inevitable consequence of the thousands of small things that you chose to do next.” (Cmdr. Chris Hadfield)

What will you choose to do?

 

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From the art room...

Autumn Leaves…

Somehow in the flurry of back-to-school the season has definitely changed. I’m testing out a new route to work this year that takes me through a kilometre or two of two-story trees; watching the leaves change colour is a wonderful way to start each day…

Fall in all its variation has enough drama to distract me from my own daily.

No matter what is happening in the natural world, however, I never really feel like fall has arrived until the school bulletin boards fill up with autumn coloured leafy paintings… This year some of the most beautiful images are fluttering through our school halls.

These first few images are “in process” from a recent afternoon I was privileged to spend with fifty first graders.  In a mad moment I thought it would be fun to paint. Turns out it was fun. And very, very messy.

We started out with muffin tins full of paint, clothes pins, sponges and pastels.


Then, we painted.

And painted… and painted!

 

I was inspired by how excited the children were about paint – it was hard to get pictures because they never stopped moving!  In some cases we had to physically remove paint soaked papers in order to preserve them. Completely messy, completely worth it.

  

It’s a little bit sad to imagine that most children never get the chance to do crazy things like paint all afternoon with reckless abandon…

Some innovative schools have integrated art therapy into their special education programs, but wouldn’t it be amazing if all schools had such amazing art programs that the need for “art therapy” disappeared? Just seeing the wild thick wet crazy paint explosion here is a kind of therapy for me…
  

When the paint trays were completely dry we knew we had truly painted…

I can’t have all the fun though- one of our Grade One classroom teachers made these amazing pictures with small groups of artistes

First they folded the paper in half, and then painted the tree trunks and grass. Then they squished. Next they painted one leaf colour at a time, squishing in between. After the paint was dry they washed only the bottom half in a watery blue, and painted the top half with a regular blue background. So lovely!

“O hushed October morning mild,

Thy leaves have ripened to the fall;

Tomorrow’s wind, if it be wild,

Should waste them all.

The crows above the forest call;

Tomorrow they may form and go.

O hushed October morning mild,

Begin the hours of this day slow.

Make the day seem to us less brief.”

(Robert Frost, from October)

I have to include these autumn leaf prints made by our Grade Five class…

            

…and just a few snapshots from kindergarten to remind us what is just around the corner…

I hope you find a moment in the messy madness to relish the smells and colours and shapes of this wonderful season. Unleash the child inside that wants to paint and pile up leaves…


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Places to Go

Biodiversity…

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Our summer is almost over, but it has been an amazing one.  Now that G.Jr. is growing up we are able to cover a lot of ground in our favourite town, and have really taken family field trips to the next level…  The weather has been wonderful, and we had many days of sun and exploration to take advantage of.  I have written about many of our favourite Vancouver hangouts over the last two years, but this year we ventured even further afield.  New to us this year: the Museum of Biodiversity at the University of British Columbia.  (I owe this one to one of our Kindergarten students last year.  If he hadn’t gone and loved it so much we would never have gone… we’re so glad that we did!)

The museum is right in the middle of the university campus, and the building is built around an amazing blue whale skeleton which is more stunning in real life than these pictures can convey:

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The first thing we did after going in to the museum was watch the movie about the search for, discovery of and excavation of the skeleton – shockingly we were all enthralled for the entire 45 minutes, and my little people are still talking about the amazing adventure the scientists had to get the skeleton across the country and installed in the museum.  Wow!  (Side note: we were stuck in traffic on our way off campus and got passed by the lead scientist from the movie on his bicycle.  The kids wanted me to roll down the windows so they could yell “we loved your movie!”)

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The rest of the museum is even more fun… there are (almost) endless things to look at and so much to play with too.  A little history…

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…a little art…

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…a little craft (we made these origami butterflies to hang up on the museum display – so I guess our work is hanging in a museum!)…

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…and a lot of fooling around:

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For quieter moments there are games to play… (ladybug bingo?)…

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…and scientific pursuits…

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…but the best part is the opening and closing of the specimen drawers, scientifically classified and endlessly entertaining with tiny treasures and curious collections:

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On our way out I paused to admire the little wilderness they have created in the middle of the (seemingly) never ending university expanding construction…

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“We should preserve every scrap of biodiversity as priceless while we learn to use it and come to understand what it means to humanity.” (E.O.Wilson)

Find out more about the UBC Museum of Biodiversity here, and keep fighting for the diversity of life in those tiny wildernesses that are disappearing day by day…  it seems like the littlest things are in need of the greatest champions.

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