From the classroom...

Diversity (and Change…)

After what seems like back to back triathlons the school year is over and I am halfway into another teacher summer. Long evenings, slow mornings, time to reflect and time to prepare… it’s a wonderful thing…

Over the last five years, as I have worked school wide as a Learning Resource teacher, I have had the opportunity each spring to collaborate with our kindergarten teacher when she assesses the incoming classes. This year the amazing group of children was as diverse as always, which prompted a lot of discussion about growth and diversity in general. 

“We must all know that diversity makes for a rich tapestry, and we must understand that all the threads of the tapestry are equal in value no matter what their colour.”

(Maya Angelou)

No matter what their colour, length, thickness, texture, flexibility or durability, all threads in the tapestry are essential to the composition. 

Having begun my teaching career in Kindergarten twenty years ago this fall, I was quickly schooled in the diversity of little people.  When I moved into Grade One several years later and developed my skills as a literacy coach I expected and supported diversity without question – every first grade teacher knows the spectrum of learners can run from emergent to advanced readers, and teaching to that diversity is part of the job. 

Something I have discovered over time, however, is that the diversity in learners, skills and understanding is part of the package at every age and grade. Often I have heard teachers say “well, it all evens out by a certain grade…” or “kids need to be at this level…”  How impossible are those statements? Every child is starting from a unique place on the learning continuum, and every child is moving at a unique pace, so expecting a diverse group of learners to be the same in any way at any time is unreasonable and, really, unfair. 

“Fairness doesn’t mean everyone gets the same thing. Fairness means everyone gets what they need. “

(Richard D. Lavoie, M.A., M.Ed.)

My conversation about the kindergarten students was eye opening in the way that every day epiphanies can be: we realized in that moment that these diverse students are products of diverse parents in diverse homes from diverse backgrounds in diverse circumstances… and that they will follow their own diverse path to learning and adulthood every step along the way. Will they all “even out”? Of course not. Just look around you at the people you know – some are readers, some are gardeners, some are hopeless with numbers. We are as diverse in our understanding and ability in adulthood as ever. Maybe more so. But most of us have learned some hard lessons along the way: about the “social fake”, about finding relatable peers, about sticking with “our own”, or with what we know. We choose situations, jobs and friendships that support our abilities and interests. We may not do it consciously, but we settle into our diversity. And sometimes we do it at the cost of accepting the diversity of others…

How amazing could it be, how much frustration would be avoided, if teachers and parents and students understand and embrace diversity in learners at every age and stage of the learning continuum?  If children are encouraged to discover and develop their own strengths at an early age, if they are supported in understanding and working with their unique challenges at every level, if they are taught to accept the strengths and challenges of others with empathy and acceptance, what would it look like? 

Time for a change. After twenty years of working with young children and most recently in special education I am moving back into a classroom: Grade 5!  I am excited about the opportunity now, more than ever, because the chance to use my experience in literacy development and differentiated learning aligns so well with the redesigned curriculum here in BC – teaching to diversity is at the very heart of it.  

I will still be around here with personal posts now and then but, if you are interested in sharing the teaching journey with me, I invite you to join me on Mrs. Martini’s Grade 5 Jive for classroom learning adventures – I hope you do! If you have thoughts about teaching to diverse children, please share. The only way to move forward is to have all our voices, talents and abilities add to that rich tapestry…

(Amazing art by Grade 6 students…)

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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...

New Year, New Mindset…

Starting fresh is a New Year tradition for many, but it is becoming a new daily reality for us all.  Over the last few years I have increasingly heard the words neurodiversity, neuroplasticity and cognitive flexibility across disciplines and in various contexts; it seems we are all shifting towards  growing evidence that says we need to be able to think differently.  We need to be able to increase, decrease and regulate our cognitive control depending on the demands of any given situation.  (Is it time to create?  Is it time to analyze?  Is it time to discuss?)  We need to be able to open our minds (or close them) quickly and easily as we navigate the demands of learning, working and interacting in our modern world.

Does this seem obvious to you?  As a teacher working with diverse students (as well as their diverse families and support teams) I see firsthand and daily an endless variety of learning styles, skills, challenges and opportunities.  We are beginning to recognize, as educators, that our traditional (for us) methods are not working for all learners.  It is our challenge to be open to new ideas and to have the ability to take action and create change.  We need to support a wide variety of interests and hobbies in students and lifelong learners if we are to create thinkers and do-ers for our future.  Children (and adults) need to drive their own learning, on topics that are interesting to them.  It’s about the process: the ability to explore, connect and reflect across disciplines develops memory, creativity, innovation and purpose.  It is also greater in community.  Our social identity, as well as the encouragement and constructive feedback available within that framework, makes collective learning greater than “the sum of the parts”.  The school years provide an incredible opportunity for inspiring the lifelong educated contribution required by our evolving world – how can we let it pass without making the most of that potential?

Several books I have been encouraged or inspired to read over the past year (The Brain That Changes Itself, Drive, Quiet, You Are Not So Smart…) have challenged me to think about different learning styles in new ways.  I am inspired by their message of change and optimism because the world my children and students are growing, learning and potentially working in is vastly different from the one I knew as a curious child or idealistic teen.  I see change there, and want to feel prepared for preparing them.

  

It won’t surprise you, if you have read this far, to hear that many students in our high schools are not actively engaged in their learning.  Maybe you experienced that yourself at school.  I loved school, which is probably part of why I still show up at one every single day, but I was motivated enough from as young as I can remember to drive my own learning, and independent enough to suffer silently through the boring parts.  (Remembering Professor Summerfield’s English 383: less exciting than cold porridge and only bearable with Dr.Pepper, BBQ chips and a great friend to commiserate with.)  Like many other students I jumped through the hoops of education in order to get to a life that I could create myself.  Foolish me; the real innovators were bypassing the boring and creating a fantastic future without the traditional education system.  Creative thinkers and do-ers (Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos “Innovation is disruption!” and Mark Zuckerberg) turned the world upside down by re-writing the possible and creating the future they wanted to be.  The world I work in today is completely different (both environmentally and technologically) than the one I worked in even fifteen years ago.  So why are we still arguing about doing things differently?

A great New Year’s challenge for educators and students ready to embrace flexible thinking/learning is to help create the balance of conditions that supports the basics we know to be useful foundations for learning, but opens up avenues for exploration, creativity and choice. (“Autonomy”, “mastery” and “purpose” if you are a fellow disciple of Dan Pink’s Drive…)  Flexible schedules, “distributed practice” (over a longer period of time) and “interleaved practice” (mixing new learning with prior concepts) are examples of choices that are having positive results.

  

All of this change in thinking and learning can’t be done in isolation.  The worldwide connections and implications of our actions have long ago erased the idea of individual learners.  What we are seeing instead is individualized learning in community.  We are thinking about the big picture, and working toward learning how to be a part of it in the biggest global sense.  Like Adrienne Gear suggested – as she developed her “Reading Power” process – we are making connections, asking questions, thinking and sharing as we learn.

“Don’t ask kids what they want to be when they grow up, but what problems to they want to solve.  This changes the conversation from who do I want to work for, to what do I need to learn to be able to do that.” (Jaime Casap, Google Global Education Evangelist)

I love this quote because it emphasizes not only what do I want, but how can I serve? We work in community for each other.  This idea is as old as humanity, but more relevant than ever.  It is not about the I, it is about the we and this future of ours.

By embracing the diversity we already see represented in students and educators we may be able to see the patterns of inquiry and action needed to form a new model for moving ahead into the bigger/smaller world community and creating real, effective, positive, impactful change there.

(Art by Gr.6 students. Awesome!)

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From the classroom...

Mixed Colours (Mixed Emotions…)

September can be complicated.

The changing of seasons from summer to the earliest days of fall is exciting for all the colours, flavours and adventures there are in store for us, but some changes are less exciting and more worrisome… During all of our “back to school” preparations this year I was more and more aware of  the challenges the season brings.

My oldest child made a big leap into the “intermediate” grades this year – teachers often say that it is the transition from the “learning to read” years into the “reading to learn” years – she will now begin to build the bank of information and knowledge that she needs to develop her own understanding of the world around her.  As a teacher, I am excited for her growth and learning.  As a parent I am terrified at the anxiety and emotion she is carrying with her into her new classroom.  The last weeks of summer vacation were marked by regular moments of reassurance as she worked to prepare herself for the unknown…  How many other little people are carrying that same mix of apprehension and excitement into the school year?

This is her self-portrait on the eve of back to school:

 I see how beautiful she is in this picture, but I see the reservations she has as well – she has captured the feeling of cautious optimism perfectly…  She is worried that she isn’t smart enough or fast enough for the demands of fourth grade… Her amazing talents are overshadowed by her own self-doubt.

My youngest child will be attending “real school” this year too – another milestone moment.  He is excited about playing with his friends and seeing his big sister on the playground, but less thrilled about getting out of his warm bed every single day and getting into his school uniform again

Instead of drawing himself he drew a picture of his mama and dada to keep with him.  I think it’s a good likeness:

He has captured my mixed emotions about the “back to school” season…

I am looking forward to seeing my friends, colleagues and students, but at the same time I am feeling overwhelmed by the challenges that lay ahead.  I am excited to take on new projects, but sad to leave the long days of summer behind…  Mixed emotions. Double dip feelings.

  How many children and families are feeling the same way?  In our hurry to get back to school and work, how many children are feeling overwhelmed by the pressures of production, performance, perfection that school creates?   In this whirlwind of mixed emotions I am making an extra effort to see the colours of the season.  I am making the effort to see the great promise in the children who are showing up at school every day in spite of the anxiety and adversity in they might feel.  I am trying to let go of the apprehension I have about sending my own children off to school on their own to learn and grow without my constant supervision and support…  In a month or two we will hardly remember these early days of fragile confidence and nervousness.  I know that my little people are in good hands, just as I know that I will do my best for the students who come for help at my own classroom door.  But this season of mixed emotions reminds me, more than ever, to have empathy for the families who are struggling to get all the “pieces in their places” as the “new year” takes its’ shape with all the colours of the season…

“I have always had school sickness, as others have seasickness. I cried when it was time to go back to school long after I was old enough to be ashamed of such behavior.” (Jacques Derrida)

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