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 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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From the desk of...

#CECVAN – Reflections…

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I started this writing/sharing journey a year ago, which coincided with our annual CISVA Educator’s Conference.  I was inspired by what I had learned and excited to continue making connections…

A year later I still feel like I am at the beginning, and it is still such an exciting place to be!  Every day is an opportunity to put it all together or to try something new.  More than ever, I am grateful for the companions on the journey – you are enriching my life in so many ways: by reading, by sharing, by asking great questions and by pushing me to be better!

The CEC is usually inspiring, even if just for the opportunity to see old friends and make new ones.  This year, though, there were two speakers (one on each day) who really cemented some ideas I have been working on myself.  Here are my highlights – let me know if they resonate with you too!

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Dean Shareski

How do we have more moments of (real) engagement?

What is the definition of engagement? Are you fascinated by it?  This is what it should feel like more often.

How do we get real engagement in the classroom as a teacher?

1.  Be interesting.  Use your “unfair” advantage.

2.  Wonder.  What fascinates you?  Read the book The Wondering Brain.  (For me this connected to ideas I have been hearing repeatedly over the last year – “cognitive disinhibition”, “cognitive flexibility” – more on this from me soon…)  Watch this video about the responsibility to awe.

3.  Play.  Play!  Here is a fantastic (and often mis-attributed quote from Neville Scarfe: “All play is associated with intense thought activity and rapid intellectual growth.  The highest form of research is essentially play. Einstein is quoted as saying, “The desire to arrive finally at logically connected concepts is the emotional basis of a vague play with basic ideas. This combinatory or associative play seems to be the essential feature in productive thought.”

4.  Just do it.  (Jump in with purpose and intent.  Don’t be afraid to try and fail!)  “Failure is free, high-quality research, offering direct evidence of what works and what doesn’t.  Cheap failure, valuable as it is on its own, is also a key part of a more complex advantage; the exploration of multiple possibilities.”  Clay Shirley

(Sometimes joy doesn’t have to have a purpose.  Joy is a purpose.)

5.  Gratitude!  Thoughtfully and intentionally multiply gratitude.  What is a tiny thing to you could be a big deal to someone else.  Say thank you!

Look ahead, live in the moment.  Adults need to have fun so children want to grow up.

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Dr. Robert Wicks

There are life-altering things and life-changing things and then there are also the little things.  Remember which are which when putting things into perspective.  It is easier to put on slippers than it is to carpet the world.  When we have respect we are opening a circle of grace.  When people are with you, how do they feel?  What do they experience?

(This reminded me of one of my favourite quotes from Mother Teresa: “Spread love everywhere you go.  Let no one ever come to you without leaving happier.”)

Be honest.  See what you’re believing.  Sometimes we believe stupid things.  Don’t engage with destructive people.  Don’t let others take your joy.  It’s not the amount of darkness in the world – it’s how you stand in the darkness.  In the darkness, we truly deepen.

“Courage comes and goes.  Hold on for the next supply.” (Thomas Merton)

Take two minutes every day to pray and to wrap yourself in gratitude.  We need this to keep perspective.  It will come with accepting, understanding, embracing, living.  Prayer is the portal to perspective.  What good things are you doing in your life?  What quiet walks to you take each day?  What happens in your silence?  What we model is essential.

Friendship is essential.  Each of us needs to have people in our lives who fill these roles:

1.  the prophet – who is guiding us?

2.  the cheerleader – who is celebrating us as we grow, so that in the process we can see our own goodness?

3.  the teaser – who keeps us from taking ourselves too seriously?

4.  the inspiration – who calls us to be all we can be, without embarrassing us for being who we are?

“Education is the ability to listen to almost anything without losing your temper or your self-confidence.”  (Robert Frost)

We must keep a spirit of “unlearning” to teach us about hope.  There are two kinds of suffering.  One is avoidable – avoid it.  The other we must face, but we must do so with hope.  Hope is in community.  You can’t lose hope as long as you are making friends.

Take responsibility.  If you give away the blame, you give away the power to change.  Read scripture like your identity is on the line, so that when you ask what it is saying it asks back ‘who’s asking?’  You can do nothing for others if you are not fully aware that you are deeply loved.  If you sit in darkness in quiet contemplation with humility, add knowledge and you will get wisdom…

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Inspired?  Me too.  If you read my ignite story last week you know these themes have been on my mind a lot lately.  Stay tuned – I am wrapping myself in joy and gratitude, inspired by new ideas, and planning the next adventure…

Sky Photographs – Late Winter Evening, Vancouver

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From the desk of...

Lists…

I am a list person. I like to categorize, organize, sort, stack and label things; this type of thinking requires a very detailed list. And sometimes a list of lists. And for a list person, “every check mark is (truly) a victory!” Every task accomplished, no matter the size or scope involved is another step towards order, structure and the betterment of humankind…

The end of the school year is that kind of a time. I have lists of lists piled on top of other lists, plans and requisitions and files to address…

So much work to be done! And still there is a giant need to plan ahead for the coming year… It becomes overwhelming.

And so I make my lists and check off one item at a time.

“There is nothing that cannot happen today.” (Mark Twain)

One by one each thing will get done, and once we have caught up there will be new and exciting challenges to take the place of the old ones!

The irony of teaching is that we are constantly preparing for the year behind us – no list can help us understand the mysteries of the future. And so we work to structure and control what we can – one check mark at a time.

What’s on your list?

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From the classroom...

Rites of Passage…

This time of year is bittersweet. As teachers we are amazed and overjoyed to see so much growth in the children we have shepherded through the year, but we are exhausted from the storm of energy we have poured into our work. We are happy to see the “graduating” classes filled with dreams and purpose as they charge ahead into bright shiny futures, but we are sad to imagine all the faces we will miss as they move away from the shelter of our classrooms and community…

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Our school has a long standing tradition of our graduating class creating art work inspired by famous paintings – this year the students were outstanding in their attention to detail and layering of colours… I have never seen so many incredible pieces from one class.

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I am sad to see these children leave us, although I am thrilled and excited for them to find their way and make their mark on our new world. They have skills and talents that I didn’t even dream of at the same young age!

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We are all on a journey, and we all have different gifts to help make our way. This is the best reason I can think of for making the journey in community…

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Today I had the opportunity to meet and share with a group of educators who are working to build a community where sharing our gifts and taking risks is celebrated. This marks a subtle change in the way we think and work… As teachers we are starting to see the world as a network of supporters beyond our classroom door…

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I listened today to the personal narrative of a young woman who is battling a chronic illness with grace and humour – her journey intersected with mine for a moment and put my own small struggles into perspective. Her story is a testament to finding the bright side – perspective – and learning to live with changes beyond our control…

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I think of the children who have started out on their learning journeys in our care. Have we given them the skills they need to be resilient in the bigger world? Will they be able to find perspective with that inner compass that guides us all?

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I ended my day thinking about the uniqueness of us all, and the way we navigate the madness if our daily lives in harmony with each other, and I remembered these words of wisdom- often recited to me throughout my childhood by mother – who saw their value many years before I understood them on my own:

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“Desiderata”

“Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence.
As far as possible without surrender be on good terms with all persons.”

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“Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even the dull and ignorant; they too have their story.
Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexations to the spirit.
If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter;
for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.”

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“Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.
Keep interested in your career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.
Exercise caution in your business affairs; for the world is full of trickery.
But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals;
and everywhere life is full of heroism.”

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“Be yourself.
Especially, do not feign affection.
Neither be critical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is as perennial as the grass.”

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“Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with imaginings.
Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness. Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself.”

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“You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.”

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“Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be,
and whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul.
With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be careful. Strive to be happy.”
(Max Ehrmann, 1927)

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So where does that leave us? We have worked all year (and longer) to create a community of learners where all participants are able to risk learning and growing together. Now we part ways in this beautiful world, striving to be happy in the noisy confusion of life…

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These children are ready to leave us and make their own adventures as they move forward into the universe…

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This is the best advice we can give: Be gentle, be genuine, be kind. What could be more meaningful?

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If we have done our jobs as teachers and counselors well, then every step on the new journey for our newest “graduates” will be a testament to the foundations we have built for them… Watching them go may be bitter sweet, but it is a joy to see them set out on their own with so much hope and future – and they mark this rite of passage as they go…

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